In some ways arriving at Alta is the absolute best bit. It is when all the anticipation is at its greatest and it is a chance to simply enjoy the town of Alta, the place, the atmosphere, the characters that I fish with as well as those I have grown to know over 22 years. That in itself is crazy. This was my 22nd year and yet I am still the youngest in my group. I started to get to Alta a day early a few years ago and it is a real pleasure. There is no doubt that one has time to appreciate the place and settle in and start to relax rather than a very early start from the Cotswolds, travelling all day and then getting ready for the river and hitting it in a rush. You never stop. There is a serene peace up there and I like to drink it in.
The early arrival has built up and has almost become a tradition now among the group. Most everyone gets there early and we all have dinner together. It is pretty amusing. Many larger than life characters all used to running their own show, all with very definite opinions. Somehow they all get along. They have for over 20 years and they all know each other’s little likes and dislikes and habits so well: the teasing is relentless. Using all the hot water can cost you a decade of abuse! There is a pecking order of respect even among them, mostly related to age, sometimes to status and a little to achievements on the river. The most fun people to chat with are the guys coming to Alta as guests for the first time. So excited and yet almost disbelieving that what has, and is, discussed is possible. I remember my first time. I was keen as mustard and yet there was all that sitting about. The fish that people were talking about was like listening to bankers talking telephone number amounts of money. It just did not seem real at the time. I remember wondering if this was what it was like waiting for the Wimbledon final. Waiting to go out on to the greatest stage of them all in terms of tennis or for me, salmon fishing. There simply is no greater stage. Yet, over the years, though I admit I have seen almost everything in salmon fishing terms, I have grown to learn that the value really lies in the people and the privilege of being part of this historical place. If you fish here just once, you are part of fishing history. I work extremely hard and life is pretty hectic but nights on Alta bring a magical peace which I appreciate more and more each year.
The morning before is spent preparing, especially if one is headed up river. Simple for some, a relaxed change of clothes and a wash bag. Complex for me who takes all sorts of camera gear, video etc. I try and travel light but I don’t! It all gets organised into waterproof bags to run the river and survive it. Then I load up with my fishing pal Pete and we head to the supermarket to stock up on goodies to add to the fine sausages he has brought from London for our midnight lunches or ‘coffee’ as it is called. Then on to the lower lodge Stengelsen where we decant and prepare further. Stengelsen at this time reminds me of how Olympians are sometimes portrayed, lots of athletes all pulling and stretching etc. Except we are all lining up rod rings, examining lines and tips and knots and, of course, the key ingredient, the choice of fly. We all end up putting on what we took off last year unless the water is a very different height! Some rarely change flies all week, especially if the water is pretty stable. I don’t a great deal but I do reduce size for slower pools and adjust for the light etc. For me, much of it remains about fly speed or angle but most importantly consistency.
Meeting the boys is always the real start of the week. They keep me posted through the ‘pre-season’ when they are fishing with their family and through the week before when Frontiers guests are fishing. It is nice to know what the water height is and what fish are about, it is usually a good indicator of the type of year it will be but not always. They are very kind, they lend me a car to drive north to fish Lakselv for a couple of days and to use during the week. It is funny, that car used to be Bjorn’s main vehicle in the old days, now it is the spare compared to the spanky 4×4 Volvo he has. We have all grown very close over the years. Per was one of my boatmen in 1991, since then he has graduated into running his own boat with his brother Bjorn. There is actually no captain or we are all captains. The boat is the epitomy of team work. It all comes naturally and always has. Per and Bjorn are just a bit younger than me. Per now works in Oslo in the telecommunications business and Bjorn owns the local fitness centre and is the Headmaster of a specialist school as well. Over 20 years we have been through a great deal together, things that deeply impacted an individual’s life. It is not discussed in detail but enough that we all know about it and then we get on with enjoying our time together. There are times when someone is going through issues that week, they are allowed the space and yet we all carry on and the years go by. Everyone’s opinion is valued and respected and plans are well debated and we usually go with what someone really wants to try. The foundation to the team effort in the boat is fun and the relentless teasing that goes on. Pete is probably the most quick witted but Per and Bjorn are very sharp too and more than hold their own. We are by far the youngest boat in our group. We have grown aware of what is possible for us; 40 or maybe 50 years of fishing together on Alta. We have grown determined to keep fishing together for as long as we can. Per and Bjorn are very proud traditional Alta boatmen from a family that has has been on the river for 150 years. This is not a living for them. It is something they love to do and look forward to doing each year and they take holidays to do it. We all love the tradition and the history and are aware that we are playing our role in it with each year that passes.
The boys were proud to have been the top boat the week before. They were fishing with someone new which they are not used to and don’t really like doing because in that week they come to spend time with Jim and have done for quite a few years. The new guy was a nice guy and good fisher so things worked out. We all know that being top boat is pure luck, as are the size of fish you happen to hook and hold on to, but there is a bit of friendly rivalry especially with their uncle who is a boatman to the Duke of Roxburghe the following week. One year, we were having a pretty tough week but on the last night we landed nine fish and the boys were texting their uncle furiously as the night unfolded. The uncle thought we were winding him him up but it was real. I think that night we went from bottom boat to top in a matter of hours! We had an hour and a half to get the tenth but it was not to be. We have had some amazing last nights, Pete’s 47lbs fish in 2009 hooked five minutes before the end of the week, my 52lbs in 2010 was also a last night fish. The boys delight on all three of those occasions was fantastic and Bjorn is like a little kid anytime we hook a fish, he starts giggling and waving his arms about. He did insist we try something a couple of times this year and they both worked and he was overjoyed. He was so proud and they were great moments.
I am flattered to have been asked to contribute to a book which was written about Alta by Jan Ekman who fished Alta for many years before the current generation. It is being coordinated by his son Harald and Orri Vigfusson and will be sold to support NASF. I asked Harald for a list of the boatmen that his Dad knew and fished with over the years. Some are dead now but some of the legends are still alive and we asked them if they would mind coming to be photographed. Family names such as Hansen, Wisloff, Romsdal and Paulsen really get the attention of anyone who knows Alta or has spent the time looking at the photos on the walls of the lodges or reading up. The best story was told to me by Aage Romsdal, whose son boats now. He hooked a fish close to the top of the river and played it for four or five hours before the hook came out. They never saw it. Later that season, poachers caught the fish (this was many moons ago) and one fillet of the mighty fish weight 18 kg or 40lbs! The fish that these men have seen over the years defies belief.
Of course there have been blank nights and cold nights and even multiple blanks. There have also been a decent share of poor years when luck is with others. Generally Alta has been very kind to me. The water is so beautiful and it draws the fly around with such a solid and even pull, there is no water like it and one cannot help but expect a fish every single cast. I like to think that my belief in the river helps my success. I finish a pool and am really pretty shocked and disappointed not to have had a magical Alta take. When things are slow, I remind myself of where I am and continue to lay down every cast as carefully and deliberately as I can ensuring, to the best of my ability, that I stretch the leader and consequently the fly fishes immediately it lands. What is the best moment when fishing? Raising a fish. The commotion a fish makes when it comes to the fly just raises the tempo in the boat. It is quite extraordinary and then we are all up on our feet hoping it will come again. To watch an Alta salmon take is awe-inspiring, it is like a tuna coming out of the water and down onto and pounding the bait fish. That is basically what they are doing. You sometimes have to wait so long for the commotion and spray to settle before you feel a pull. It is like a lifetime, there is sometimes time to comment to others in the boat before the pull comes. Worst moment is a take when a connection is made but there is no hook-up. There is almost mourning in the boat! A very, very special experience missed by a whisker.
Every year, every night is the greatest privilege.