‘Such armaments were often found wanting on the Aaroy steeplechase, like the parade of defeated anglers that had fished its Platforms of Despair. The outbuildings behind the fishing house concealed an elephant’s graveyard of smashed rods and broken tackle.’
Ernest Schwiebert – ‘Extract from Platforms of Despair’ in the book Death of a Riverkeeper.
I had read these words and those of the internationally-known hotelier Charles Ritz as a young salmon fisherman. Both writers were icons for me and remain so. It has been my privilege to fish the Alta since 1991, as a result of purely lucky happenstance. I have fished the Laerdal, Namsen, Gaula, Reisa and Lakselv too but the one that most likely sits equal to the Alta, the Aaroy and its Platforms of Despair, seemed like a dream too far. Nobody talked of it a great deal, the impression was that it had sadly faded but the reality was that between two tenants the river had been closed to anyone but a very inside few for nearly 100 years.
First from 1921 to 1965 the Russian exile Nicolas Denisoff had the lease on the river and during that time massive fish were caught in the 50 and 60 lbs range with the biggest fly-caught we know of, a 68lbs, fish that he himself caught on a Dusty Miller in the Sea Pool in 1923. He had also caught a 76lbs fish on a prawn from the Tender Pool in 1921. Denissof’s long-time lover was the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel. She also had a relationship with the then Duke of Westminster who fished Aaroy and Alta and proposed to Coco. It is said he was turned down on the basis that there will be other Duchesses of Westminster but only ever one Coco Chanel. During this period from 1934 to 1936 L. R. Hardy, the owner of the tackle manufacturer of rods and reels, fished Aaroy and filmed an advertisement on the river, parts of which can be seen in the film The Lost World of Mr Hardy downloadable through Amazon Prime. Then, having fished with Denisoff from 1955 Jacques Bemberg took over the lease from 1970 after a brief tenure by a Norwegian, Finn de Lange from 1965 to 1970. For a further 42 years he fished it only with his very closest friends among which were de Ganay, de Vicuna and Berne.
Only very recently in 2012 did Knut Munthe Olsen (husband of Nina Munthe of the original owning family since 1746), the sole rightful owners of the entire river, re-take the river in hand and run it themselves. Slowly, the cognoscenti have come to know that Aaroy is back and now, if you are very lucky, there might be the opportunity to walk on its famous ‘platforms of despair’ as christened by Charles Ritz in his book A Flyfisher’s Life. When my friend Richard (aka Lord Aaroy) invited me to join him to fish the Aaroy this June 2017, I could scarcely believe my eyes and of course I jumped at the chance.
Closer to departure I was instructed to speak with his friend Douglas who, I was told, was to be one of our fellow rods and knew everything we needed to take. I called Douglas with thoughts of the elephant’s graveyard in the forefront of my mind and he proceeded to make me feel utterly inadequate when it came to being equipped for our adventure. The next call was to Tom Leslie of Fin and Game who himself was gallivanting through Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan but he still managed to muster all the rods, lines etc that it seemed I needed in time for my departure. We gathered in Oslo and made our way via the Wideroe puddle jumper that rumbled its way to Sogndal. The airport sits atop a mountain because there is not enough flat ground to be had in the valleys thus affording the most stunning views of the Sognafjord as one heads down to the valley. Just a 30-minute drive and we were suddenly on a tiny lane and then crossing a small bridge across a roaring river. Turning right, a couple of hundred yards and we were at Knut’s Aaroy Lodge welcomed by a blue mural of a huge salmon on the wall beside the front door with the old Norwegian words roughly reading… Let St Peter’s master be with you all, who love the virtue and dare to trust being able to take something without apprehension when you fish. As with Alta, suddenly history was all around us.
Knut told us the story of how he and his wife, Nina, decided to take the river back in hand. He is a designer and artist by trade and this shows in all he does from the maps of the river he had drawn to the way in which he cooks and plates the wonderful food he served us during our stay. He was never a fisherman but owning the river made him inquisitive and he began to chat with his guests and tenants during his time at the river during the summers. Slowly he grew curious and soon he began to enjoy the whole essence of the fishing and take more and more interest in his asset until he and Nina elected to move to Aaroy where they built a new house and run the river themselves. Knut’s interest has culminated in his personal best fish at 12 kilo just this season. Their ownership of the river had been very hard earned by the Munthe family in years gone by with challenges going all the way to the High Court until finally it was confirmed that they were the sole and rightful owners of the entire river.
Sadly, little is left of the Denisoff era because when he lost the lease at the age of 95 he took down the angler’s villa the ‘English House’, burned much of it and removed or gave a lot away. Some incredible photographs remain particularly one of Christopher Munthe, owner of Aaroy and Nina’s great grandfather, sitting in front of the fishing house with drawings of some of the great Aaroy fish, including Wilfred Kennedy’s (an Englishman and the first person to have a long-term lease) 68lbs taken on a 20ft cane steel-centre Hardy rod in 1894. Some of the fishing house has been salvaged with two 30+lbs fish on the door now hanging in the dining room.
The mural of the Kennedy fish, also cut from the building itself hangs in the sunroom with a cast of the actual fish hanging in the dining room. Records from the Bemberg years of 1968 and 1969 hang large on the walls too and a wonderful photograph of ghillie Lasse Tenden (left) and the 5th Earl of Lisburne (right) along with many other great fish. One cannot help but be in awe of the surroundings but the best thing about it all is the river lives on; we are not just enjoying the history because just a few steps away, as is the case with Alta, the seemingly impossible is attainable; the river is still great, history can yet be made and we could be part of it. The simple fact is that so few people visit Aaroy, just being here makes us part of the history of this great river. Pools such as Johan’s, Tender, Sunshine, Stone, Prawn and Seat all remain as do the platforms with a little maintenance of course.
As is so often the case under the midnight sun, the question of fishing hours is a point of discussion. Knut has elected to tell guests the mealtimes; breakfast 0900, lunch 1430 (main meal) and supper at 2100. These are fixed except when high tide is over these hours and relevant to the fishing which it was for us. Beyond that, there are very few rules other than necessary safety matters. Our co-hosts were Scot and Sherrilee de Bruyn and their young son Reef from South Africa. They are no temporary employees, they are equally and wonderfully as wedded to the river as Knut himself. Scot came to Aaroy five seasons ago knowing nothing about Atlantic salmon but has learned this unique river and now knows it better than anyone. His real forte are the flats of Alphonse and Cosmoledo and that fishing instinct has served him well here. Sherrilee joined him a couple of seasons later and together they are dedicated and adore this place as much as anyone. Scot does the guiding, Knut the cooking and Sherrilee runs the house.
The Aaroy rises from the Hafslo Lake and now comes through two dams before its final 1.5 km to the sea of which just 1200 metres are fishable. 900 metres forms the top section with numerous pools and platforms. The lower section is a further 300 metres influenced by the tides and though very fast is less furious than the upper water. The balance is what Charles Ritz called ‘the great rapids’ which split the river in two and are impossible to fish. This is a torrent of water which must be a grade 5 or 6 rapid and is undoubtedly a temperature barrier for the fish. The last pool above it is the Blumenfeldt Pool, the first pool below it is Teddy’s behind a sloegard (a wooden croy or sluice-type structure built into the river to create lies many years ago) followed by White Stone. The only place there are not platforms to fish from is White Stone, a lovely wade round the inside-bend of the river and an excellent spot for new fish that have entered the river on the tide. The platforms themselves were designed by Major W.J. Smith who visited the river before the 1914-18 war. His work was carried out in 1919. Knut does his maintenance on the platforms and sloegards at the end of the season when the water flow is minimised by the dam and allows safe entry into the water. Even the pools, especially on the upper part of the river are torrential water and for the most part, one has to get the fly under the torrent to ensure the fish see the fly. This river averages 80 to 100 cubics per second and the power of the water should not be underestimated. As I learned, a fish running up river is a serious problem because the flyline does not follow willingly at all.
We rigged three different set ups. An on-the-heavier-side standard sink-tip, a floater for skated sunrays and a much deeper sink-tip. For me, and I believe for others too, the standard sink-tip was far and away the most successful but we fished the upper water very little because essentially the fish were not going through the great rapids yet due to the water temperature. The water below is more of a traditional fly swing whereas up river is far more technical on presentation and fly control. It was sad that the fish were not up there and it cramped the fishing a little with all four rods focused on the lower water though we all did try the upper water from time to time because we wanted the ultimate Aaroy experience of hooking a fish in the maelstrom from a platform. Equally, it shows the value of a private party of four rods (five in our case with one shared rod) where everyone mucks in, gets along and works it out. One cannot have it all!
I rather missed the plot on the first morning in terms of the high tide being at 0600. I think I was so in awe of and enjoying the place I did not take in the significance of the tide that morning but Niall, Peter and Douglas did to Niall’s benefit with the first fish of our three days at 20lbs. He was utterly delighted to catch his first fish in Norway and a great fish too. I did fish the evening before at White Stone and had a take just behind the white water created at low tide just below the small fishing hut. It was a lip hook-up and with a few headshakes the fish was off. I also had two nice rises mid-morning the next day at the Seat Pool above the great rapids, I slowed the fly down on the third cast and had a nice slow take but again, it lasted seconds. A tiny bit frustrating. Peter was the next to strike and it was White Stone again and a lovely 18lbs mint fresh fish. Lord Aaroy, who had slept a lot and was the consummate host in sending his guests out before him, stepped up on the first afternoon and landed a fish at Teddy’s with little effort. At the end of Day One we had caught the average three fish and lost a couple.
On the second day, it was clear the tide was to be taken seriously and Lord Aaroy despatched me to White Stone for the high tide where I was lucky to take two fish, a truly mint bright fish at 21lbs and another at 15 or 16lbs. The first was quite a tussel because there was no easy place to land the fish. I could not risk pulling it in to the long, flooded grass for fear of the line getting tangled and the fish breaking away so the only option was the rocks but they were very slippery to move on fast so each time I beached the fish I could not get to it quickly enough across the rocks to tail it. A huge pat on the back to Douglas for making the effort to come round to help from the far bank. Lesser men would not have bothered especially while suffering poor luck. That afternoon Peter caught his personal best at White Stone again at 24lbs. I suffered another loss at Teddy’s while Lord Aaroy hooked a fish at Blumenfeldt and being just above the great rapids rightfully laid into it but it too came off.
That evening, Knut invited us up to his personal brewery next to the upper part of the river where we enjoyed barbecued local sausages and tasted his wide assortment of beers while fooling with an old German World War II helmet. This was a very special evening and drowned any sorrows of lost fish!
On the third morning Douglas and I found ourselves at White Stone for the high tide with Peter and Niall opposite us at Teddy’s. Douglas was suffering from being in a place where as Atlantic salmon fishers we have all been, time on the naughty step. Try as one might when it is your turn to suffer bad luck one just has to endure it with a smile until it passes as it always does. I had Douglas fish down ahead of me but given his situation it was almost inevitable that I hooked a good fish around the 30s. As I settled in to do battle Niall hooked a fish on the other bank too. That seemed to be the way, there were magic half hours when things would happen, seeing fish and having takes. I was progressing nicely with my fish and had endured some good runs and was getting him back close and suddenly the hook popped. Nothing to be done. Niall battled on with his fish running down beyond the last platform but he held his ground and kept enticing the fish back to him. In the end it was despair for him too and the hook pulled. Douglas made his way down again and I followed and again I got a lovely take with the fish just breaking the surface. This fish was not so steady, in a flash the reel was fizzing and I was into the backing. I thought it was headed down but the truth soon revealed itself. The mighty fish had been going up the extremely powerful current at huge speed and had buried my entire flyline in the rocks under the main current. Try as we might to free it, the power of the water is simply too great and the result was only about a quarter of the flyline was retrieved! I had been well and truly Aaroy’d! Yes, despite the lack of a platform at White Stone, there was despair at the loss of a second great Aaroy salmon.
Except for Peter on the last afternoon, that was to be it for our team. Peter landed a nice 18lbs fish again at White Stone. We had landed seven fish and lost seven, about two short of what might be an expected tally for that time of year. I felt I should have landed more but one was bad luck, three were the fault of the double hooks which I think were too small for the mouths of these great fish and the last one…well I was simply defeated.
What really mattered to us all was to catch just one fish on this famous river, just one. To go home having walked the Platforms of Despair and to have caught a fish. Like Alta, any fisherman that tells you that when fishing Aaroy and getting a take the first thing that enters their head is ‘how big and what am I dealing with?’ is either lying or not a true salmon fisher! That is the essence of Aaroy, the joy of Aaroy and for me, to be there, to have been so well looked after in such a classic relaxed Norwegian style with Michelin-star food was a true privilege and a HUGE thank you to my host.
‘There is no point in relating in detail all the incidents for the next few days. It suffices to say that, during this first stay on the Aaroy, I was subject to the greatest and most splendid emotions that an angler can hope for. I knew great hopes, mad excitements and bitter disappointments!’
Charles Ritz – A Flyfisher’s Life