Sunday 30 July 2017

Gaula 2017 - Far too much of a good thing

You may recall that last year's trip to the Gaula was blighted by an abject lack of water.  A warm spring and early thaw was followed by unprecedented drought and high temperatures.  As a result we had little chance of catching in a pool looking like this.

Flaekken 2016
(@ MSL -1 metre)

Now come forward 12 months.

Flaekken 2017
(on our last afternoon, @MSL +0.85 having fallen 1 metre from peak)

Tuesday 18th July 2017
The critical factor on the Gaula is the ability of salmon to pass up the Gaulfossen rapids, which comprise a 450 metre long torrent.  Directly below my feet the channel is no more than 6 metres wide.  The accepted thresholds for the salmon are <180 cum/sec and >8C.  This photo, taken during our week, shows them flowing at 140 cum/sec at 10C.  Make no mistake, the water is flowing extremely quickly.  I won't hazard a guess, but elsewhere that week I measured a flow with a stopwatch at 9.7kph.  Furthermore, apart from the far end, the sides and bottom are quite smooth, making it hard for a fish to pick a quiet way.  So even when the flow does fall below 180, not all fish will immediately choose to run the gauntlet.  It's not a simple 'on/off' switch and the salmon's behaviour doesn't appear wholly predictable.  Or put another way, you know when they won't run; and when they can; but not when they will.

iPhone screen shot
1200 19 July

This graph shows an overview of the flow rate for the first half of our week (we started on the 15th).  Understandably we arrived in high spirits with the river falling nicely towards a perfect fishing height.  Of course the effect wouldn't be immediate because the bottom of our fishing at Rognes is 25 km above the Gaulfossen, and the top at Singsas is 45 km.  In ideal conditions the lag is perhaps 36-48 hours, so hoped fish might start arriving with us in numbers on the Monday afternoon.

First evening
We started right at the top of the beats in big water at 9.0 C, which scored 11 on the MCX System and called for a Sink 3 head with a very fast sinking polyleader and big tube fly.  We didn't see any fish on the Saturday and formed the view that there probably weren't many about.


Next morning the 6-hour beat rotation took us to the bottom where the river was falling quite quickly.  We were probably still ahead of the fish at this stage although we did see a couple of grilse show during our session.  Jaerdaholen is a very long pool that changes character and depth half way down, which requires either re-rigging or a change of rod.  In any event I was very glad of the rest in obedience to doctor's and wife's instructions.

Stadion top half
Sunday afternoon

At lunchtime we moved up into Stadion, a very good pool, with a strong flow in the top half and a massive deep back eddy below.  At this height I could cover the upper section with the 13' MAG, very fast polyleader and a weighted tube.  We still weren't seeing any fish.  We could see from the Laksborsen on-line catch return system that our fellow anglers were catching the occasional grilse, but otherwise all was quiet.  And then the rain came: it poured down. So at the end of 12 hours' almost non-stop fishing with 2 uninspiring pools in prospect, we called it a day.

Monday afternoon
During the night the river rose back above the 180 cum/sec threshold, cutting off the supply of fish.  The next morning it started to fall and the conditions looked promising.  We started on Flekken (the photo at the top of the post) before moving at lunchtime to Sverre.  This is an immensely long sweeping run - mostly shallow - which has suffered a lot of flood induced infill.  Although shallow, the force of the water flow was such that wading above calf depth was extremely tiring.  Although we weren't seeing any fish, Jonas the roving ghillie announced that a German angler in our team of 22 had taken fish of 27.5 and 23 lbs that morning in Stadion, about 4-5 miles downstream (lucky chap).  Again, after 12 hours' casting sinking lines and large flies we took the evening off and opted for an early bed.

Tuesday 0300
Pouring rain
Reveille was at 0145 to fish the lovely Saeter pool until 0600.  Unfortunately the rain had started again during the night and we deployed in a downpour with a rapidly rising river.  The recipe was unchanged: Sink 3 head on the Cult for the top and a Sink 1 on the MAG for the tail, both with fast polyleaders and tubes.  To be brutally frank, I hate fishing with the hood up.  Apart from being an interfering nuisance, it closes your world and diminishes your situational awareness.

We went back for a quick breakfast and shave, before going out to Bridge in the pouring rain at 6C.  There's no photo of this very productive pool (last year an angler lost a 40 at the net here) because the conditions were so ghastly that the thought of photography never crossed my mind.  Survival was uppermost.  Fishing left hand up into deep water and in a gusty wind I dropped my hood to check on my casting anchor.  This was essential because on Bridge the lies are down the 30 yard line and beyond.  Your cast has to work well, but anchor 'stick' can be a real pain when you're fishing with a heavy front end and trying too hard on account of the distance required.  When 3 casts later I put it up again, the accumulated rain went straight down my neck and back: utter misery, and there's no hut on this pool either for coffee.   Just before noon my morale bombed and I cracked.  My kit's superb: I was dry and warm (apart from the hood incident).  But 5 hours of the relentless cycle of rolling the line up to the surface, Snap-T and mend, repeated every 45 seconds in vile conditions, finally got to me.  Fishing should be enjoyable and you can't see much of beautiful Norway when the rain's hitting your polaroids like birdshot.  

Jonas the ghillie advised that in the conditions our next pool wasn't worth fishing, so we went in for lunch.  At Norwegian prices (£6.75) it may have been the most expensive packet of tomato soup outside the Ritz, but it was worth every kronor.  I took the afternoon off to visit a party of Irish anglers from Cork who were fishing on one of the beats below the Gaulfossen.  We met as they came off the river from their morning session having caught 6 of the salmon held up below the rapids, and correspondingly keen to get back amongst them.  After a bit of banter and a welcome coffee I let them at their sport.  I did, however, take 10 minutes to look over their fishery, which is wider and shallower than upstream, and set in much more open country.

Tuesday 2000
By supper time the rain had eased so we set out for Main at the top of the water at Singsas.  The river was rising rapidly - the shingle bank in the foreground disappeared whilst we were fishing - before peaking around 10 pm.  This is another very long pool with a very fast head and an immense holding area in front of the red and white house on the far bank.  Unfortunately the run-in line nearer the far bank was completely unreachable in these conditions.

The challenges of fishing the head of Main are illustrated in this video clip.  The full weight of the Gaula is compressed into an entry less than 10 metres wide and then falls over small lip that imparts further acceleration.  We were so impressed by the speed of the water that we resolved to measure it accurately.  I set out a distance of 100 feet; Patrick stood at the other end with the stop watch on his phone at the ready; and we were ready for Turbo Pooh-Sticks.  The answer came out at a remarkable 6.8 mph, which translates as 10 kph.  Getting a fly down and steady in this maelstrom was impossible.  We didn't get a salmon's opinion as, alas, we didn't see any to ask.

Anyway, we determinedly fished the remainder, in hope but not great expectation.  Our evening was interrupted but lightened by the arrival of a man, accompanied by a young lady dressed as a pirate complete with tricorn hat, coming down the rapids in a child's beach inflatable boat.  The hurtled past us, completely out of control, with only one small paddle and nary a lifejacket between them.  I doubt that the salmon - if any were present - noticed their passing.  Unfortunately we were both so taken aback and agog at the spectacle that we failed to photograph the event.  This must be a very Norwegian way of going out to a fancy dress party!

It wasn't worth fishing Creek, the next pool up (photo above) in such high water at midnight. The risk assessment of slipping on the wet rocks featured highly in our decision: at this water height it was one slip and you're a gonner.  With The Bend, a premier pool, allocated after 0600 we headed in for supper and early bed in preparation for a more moderate 0530 reveille and breakfast, before sallying forth.

The Bend
Wednesday 0700
We arrived onto Bend to view and immense expanse of fast-moving water.  To put this in context, last year I elicited a rise from a salmon with a hitched Sunray, just in front of the left hand bush by the railway wall.  I was using a single handed 10' #7 at a range of barely 15 metres.  This year I was using the Cult #9, sinking head and full whack.  After 5 hours of full-on effort we'd had enough, picked up lunch and drove the 8 miles down to Jaerdaholen to re-start the cycle.

Wednesday 1200

High water

We reached Jaerdaholen slightly early, but just in time to witness Michael the German (one of the most exquisite Spey casters I've ever witnessed) catching a silver grilse in the last 5 minutes of his allocation, in the shallow water to the left (it was to be his only fish of the week).  If you compare this photo to the one above of our first visit on Sunday, you may gain some impression of the volume of water in this huge pool: all of the pebbles have disappeared and I'm wading knee deep.  We did, however, see a couple of fish in addition to a repetitive mechanical grilse at the head.  

Undeterred, we fished with our customary intensity and differing styles - Patrick frequently changing flies and rigs, and MCX just doggedly sticking to something broadly sensible.  As neither of us had so much as a touch, neither strategy worked, but I'm unaware of a third option.  After 6 hours of full-distance casting interspersed with closer range work down towards the tail we were ready for a break and the move up to Stadion at 6pm.

Stadion (head)
Wednesday evening
Stadion had just peaked but was still running hard and heavy.  The entry was twice the width it had been the previous Sunday.  Everything looked fabulous and promising: better still, the sun came out and the clouds lifted.  It really is an intensely 'fishy' pool and good for one's motivation.  Jonas duly turned up and advised us on how to fish the massive back eddy - "leave it to the fish to do the work".  I'd never previously experienced working a line describing a 270 degree arc with its tip probably 15-20 feet deep - bizarre and sadly unsuccessful.

Gaulfossen flow
(iPhone screen shot)
On Wednesday night we reckoned that the two lifts in the river since our arrival had limited and fragmented the run.  We were seeing indications of the occasional passage of pods of small grilse (tiny compared to their Yorkshire cousins), but unless you fluked putting a fly on their nose, catching seemed very unlikely.  Our sightings of bigger fish were few and far between: in these conditions they'd be either running slowly; or hunkered down waiting for a respite.  Either way, we weren't seeing or catching them.  However, the forecast predicted clear warm weather for the rest of the week, which sustained our hopes.

Rognes Bridge Pool
Thursday 1100
Note the water clarity
Having completed another 12 hours day we had a leisurely start on the Thursday, rising in brilliant sunshine.  We paid a brief visit to Rognes Bridge - massively deep on the far side and very difficult to fish well - before moving up to Flaekken at midday.  There we encountered 3 problems: the water had dropped like a stone; it was as clear as gin; and the searing sunshine was coming straight down the pool.  We rated our chances as close to zero; fished the deeper sections twice and went home to prepare to entertain two Norwegian friends to supper.

In retrospect I regret the failure to photograph my efforts as a chef - Poule Brettonne  with 3 vegetables prepared on the apartment's hob with just 2 saucepans.  Certainly it was much more successful than my fishing had been to that point.  Our guests were charmingly diverse in every respect: one was due to fish the Orkla the next day, whereas the other was incapacitated, having ricked his back reaching down too suddenly to unhook a lively 20 pounder.  They were in turns optimistic and realistic in their assessment of our chances with just 36 hours' fishing remaining.

in the rising sun
Friday 0630
We headed out to Saeter after an early breakfast.  It looked absolutely perfect: the water had fallen about a metre from the peak and was still going down; and the sunshine was oblique.  At this level and with the water at 11.5C we were using floating heads, slow sinking tips and conventional doubles.  Yet despite the combination of perception and our unrelenting efforts, we didn't touch a fish.  Indeed, we didn't even see one.  We were becoming increasingly desperate.

Friday 1215
Note the water clarity
The jackpot lies are about 15 metres above the bridge tight against
the far side, and 10 metres below the bridge in the middle
Lunchtime took us back to Bridge in bright sunshine, rising temperatures and falling water. Fishing in a polo shirt and waders was a far cry from the 3-layer solution at the start of the week, with the temperature now some 16C higher.  Surely the fish would start to arrive after their passage of the Gaulfossen?  Around 1pm a small pod of grilse splashed its way up the pool, wholly untroubled by my attentions, while a couple of 10 pounders announced their arrival below the bridge.  Keep trying, stay alert and cast smoothly. Change the fly from green to grey to allow for the light - nothing.  Change again to grey and gold - nothing.  There are fish moving: keep going and you'll get one, that's what my father always told me, and generally it worked.  The 300th cast: "please, I've earned one", no joy.  After almost 11 hours relentless casting and fishing I hit the wall.  I was out of Coca Cola, dehydrated and worn out: I'd had enough and slumped down onto a most uncomfortable rock to rest.  Whatever my memories of my heroic fitness of younger years, I have to accept that there is now a very finite limit to my endurance, even without a duff back and a gut full of ameliorating drugs.  All I wanted was sugar and plenty of it: a couple of big cans of very cold Tuborg from the apartment fridge would be perfect.  Patrick came up the bank in exactly the same state of mind.  The fish were starting to come but were completely uninterested in taking a fly.

Last day 0400
Note the re-appeared pebble bank to the right
After enjoying the perfect beers and a monster supper we took and early bed in preparation for hitting Main some time after 0200.  The formula was easy: fast sink tips and bigger darker flies in the head and, slow and smaller in the tail.  At about 0400 salmon of all sizes started to run through in Main in large numbers.  Lots of strong 2SW fish showed in that typical 'dolphin' move as they ploughed determinedly upstream.  There were grilse everywhere.  From where the photo was taken the running width is only 20 metres, so as the fish approach the head they became increasingly concentrated.  I tried every trick in the book to ambush a fish, something at which I've previously thought myself pretty good.  Twice I put a fly within a foot of the noses of good fish to no avail, not even a flicker, let alone a touch.  A grilse jumped and landed on my line.  It could only have been worse if in unison they'd stuck their heads out and jeered.  But as far as I could tell, after 10 days' interruption of their already overdue running schedule, these Gaula salmon had only one thing on their mind, and it certainly wasn't us or our flies.

I fished on until the second hand came up to precisely 0600.  It was over.  Yet again, after a year's anticipation and a week's relentless fishing, I'd blanked.  I was dejected beyond description and physically exhausted.  In my desperation to catch I'd crossed the threshold into the zone where it was no longer pleasurable.  This was self-inflicted wounding born of a burning desire to have a successful week, exacerbated by the discipline of the 6-hourly rotation.  Yet the beautiful Gaula is a capricious mistress, who promises much, gives little and breaks you thereby.  Occasionally she makes glorious silver concessions to her favoured lovers, but clearly I am not one.

That night I slept for 11 hours - not easily done at my age.  Since then the fatigue has washed out of my system and I've spent a little time reflecting on the week.  Reflection is a wonderful gift of age: if you are unable to do, reflect, it's much less tiring.  I'm no longer up to or up for flat out relentless combat fishing.  Catching salmon is exhilarating, but there's much more to life than catching.  Patrick was a wonderful, calm, tolerant and easy companion throughout a disagreement-free week, but we together fell into the same trap of our determination.  It has to be balanced, and that balance is most easily secured in an environment where fishing is not the sole focus.  The diversity and diversions of wives and families, friends, social interactions, convivial dinners, dogs and alternative activities is where the real pleasures of a week's salmon fishing are found.

We're going back to Tomatin House in September, where this blog began, for Just One Week.  I can hardly wait, and furthermore, I won't care if I don't catch (really?).


  1. I think it was Falkus who recommended "fishing like a hero" and eventually all would come good. You certainly did that and I salute your efforts. Will be hoping Tomatin works out well. In salmon fishing its all about playing the long game these days.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. Fear not, I've also got quite a few days on the Ure yet to come.

  3. Great read, as ever . Thanks for taking the time.

  4. I enjoyed reading this blog more than any other because you really captured the angler's compulsion. Well done.

    1. Thank you: I'd not really considered that aspect when I was writing; it just came out sub-consciously.