Text & images by Kieran Conlon – Guideline PowerTeam Ireland.
I’ve spent over 20 years fishing for Atlantic Salmon, becoming totally addicted from my first experience when I caught three Grilse one evening on Trout gear. Since that day I have caught many Salmon both home and abroad and have captured many great memories. However this June saw me spending a week in northern Sweden fishing a few of the large powerful rivers native to this region in pursuit of my first Baltic Salmon. It’s fair to say that all previous experiences have paled somewhat after this trip and it has left me with a deep desire to return.
Crossing into the article circle you get the sense that things are about to get truly wild. A sparsely populated region with spectacular landscapes where the locals are welcoming and friendly. Reindeer roam the streets of small towns in the region and life here seems to have a slower pace despite the sense of urgency apparent in nature trying to make the most of the short summer months. This was a trip that had been playing in my mind for while due to a friend’s previous experiences and his tales of large unstoppable Baltic Salmon. I had been warned many times that Baltic Salmon were as brutal as the rivers they migrate to, getting them to take the fly could be at times far more difficult than with Atlantics. Even if you were lucky enough to get a hook-up, often as not on the large powerful rivers we were to be fishing the odds were generally considered to be in the Salmon’s favour. These fish fight long hard and dirty and were accredited tackle busters. The more I heard of how difficult it would be the more the idea appealed to me.
Armed with plenty of great advice from a good friend and the guys at Guideline the trip was planned, gear sorted and expectations checked. This was not going to be a week about numbers which it never should be but with perhaps favourable conditions there was the possibility of a chance or two to tangle with one of these infamous Baltic Salmon. This is fly-fishing at the extreme end of the scale and its worth looking at the gear I took with me. It’s not just the Salmon that are powerful but also the environment in which your fishing takes no prisoners. Big rivers carved out of the bedrock with powerful glides interspersed with daunting rapids all of which a hooked fish will take advantage off. For me the choice of rods was easy. Two powerful LXi T-Pacs in 13’9 #9/10 and 14’9 10/11 both casting machines but easy to fish with fish with for long periods and well able to deal with any of the Triple density sinkers I was taking with me. Not having to check in any oversize luggage was a bonus. A 10/12 Quadra and the new VOSSO 911 reel to match the rods were perfect. Both spooled up with 400 meters of Guideline Extreme PE backing. I figured that if I was lucky enough to the see the backing going out through the rod rings I didn’t want to be unlucky enough to see and they call this low water…………the end of it. 50lbs Compline and a couple of spools of 0.52 Egor Fluorocarbon tippet along with size 4 & 6 extra strong tube doubles saw me kitted out and ready for battle. Great gear that I’d trust with the fish of a lifetime.
Arriving late in the evening I got my first sight of one of these magnificent rivers. Having been told levels were low due to early snow melt. I guess it’s all relevant as all I saw was an enormous river with large amounts of white water with half kilometre long rapids. All this left me wondering wether my Triple Density S3/S5/S7 going to be enough. Still upon closer inspection you start to pick out the softer water along the edges of the rapids where running fish would surely pull in to briefly rest and put them in reach of the fly. The long smoother glides at the end of the rapids and tail outs all looked very inviting too. The first morning on the river saw me fishing a lovely long even paced run at the end of some hard white water. Mind you this run still needed a S1/S3/S5 to get the fly to the required depth. The lower water levels also meant the fish were not hugging the edges requiring large amounts of 50lbs compline to follow the shooting head out across the water. I loved it already as here was an environment that required me to get the most out the gear and my casting. Not something I come across back home very often. It was challenging and it was great. Next order of business was to get the presentation right, which in a word meant “FAST”. Long casts just shy of ninety degrees, hold the rod out & high for a second or two to allow the head to dig in and then bring the rod back around and down to about 30 degrees from the bank bringing a taught shooting line in contact with the water. This gives you not just a fast fly but an accelerating fly presented broadside without the slack or slight downstream angle associated with the initial part of the drift with a standard 90 degree cast and letting the line swing. Only bringing the rod around to 30 degrees means you can repeat the process as the fly starts to lose pace in the later stages of the swing. Concentration was key here as it wasn’t just a case of getting it out there and letting it swing you had to have an awareness of what the fly was doing throughout the swing, Ensuring tension was maintained though-out, feeling the line and therefore the fly accelerate during the swing and being mindful of any tapering off of the flies speed and correcting when necessary through repositioning of the rod’s angle.
Seeing the odd fish moving through as I worked my way down the run only helped heighten the anticipation, would it happen? Again remembering those words of warning as to how difficult Baltic’s could be to tempt at times. Having fished my way down that run for about twenty minutes all of a sudden the loop of line I had been holding was just gone, no warning no bump prior to the draw, just gone. My Quadra screamed into life with the rod taking on a particularly flat angle as the fish took off on the first of quite a few runs. At one point I saw a fish cartwheel two hundred meters out from the bank only to realise it was the fish to which I was attached. The run was so hard and fast that the angle the line was going into the water at bore no relation to where the fish actually was. At these distances with such powerful flows between you and the fish keeping the rod high doesn’t really do a lot. You just have to trust your tackle, knots and hooks and hold on. When he wants to run let him and gain line when you can. Some fish you can bully but with these I think the harder you try to stop them the more line they take. Ten minutes later after several more runs and cartwheels along with some heart stopping minutes under the rod tip I was finally able to get the fish into shallow water where my friend was able to tail and hold it. I don’t think I was ever so grateful not be fishing on my own. It was somewhat of a surreal moment, a few photos quickly taken, a quick release and my first Baltic Salmon was back on its way. I remember thinking “did that really just happen”.
The following days saw day time temps well into the twenties and water temps climb into the high teens. It’s amazing how fast such big rivers can drop when the sun only barely dips below the horizon for a couple of hours every night. Fishing became real tough at this point and while there where fish present they difficult to tempt. In these circumstances you start to experiment in the hope of provoking a reaction from big Sunrays to small doubles, floaters to the fastest sinker in the bag. We were meeting fish on the small flies but the takes were only half-hearted plucks and I suspect from resident fish that had been in for a while. When fishing gets tough and chances are few and far between it’s vital to be able to make the most of any chance that does come your way. It here that I feel I definitely made a mistake. At this time of year in these northern climes there is the possibility to fish on through the night is real temptation. Yes it can be the best time when conditions are tough but lack of good sleep leads to mistakes due to poor concentration levels. This occurred twice with two good takes that I should have taken advantage of. I was too quick on the uptake which just led to a few good head shakes and gone. You have to give these fish lots of time and then some more time. Fish late if you have to but take a break in the middle and get back on the water early. After a few days of fishing silly hours resulting in two lost chances more sensible heads prevailed and we decided to get some proper night time sleep rather than a few hours during the middle of the day.
As is often the case with such trips it was the last few days when I started to get a feel for the river. You begin to get a sense of the rhythm and habits of these Baltics. When they were most active, which types of water to concentrate my efforts on, what flies were getting the better reactions and the presentations that provoked the best responses. In other words I was becoming more confident in what I was doing. The last day saw us on the water bright and early. Rain and cooler temperatures had taken hold and fresh fish were running. The first run down the pool yielded no results but there was fish present and it felt right. Instead of joining the guys around the fire I went back to the start of the run again and worked my way through once more. Working my way through I could see fish coming into the bottom of the run though they were out a bit. Running fish for sure but just maybe.. Pulling another few yards of compline of the reel I covered the line the fish were running. Cast, hold and let it swing fast. A couple of meters into the swing saw the fly meet with a violent take followed by immediately by a long run downstream. Not where I wanted him to go, the only choice was to turn and walk upstream in the hope he’d follow which thankfully he did. What followed was a tug of war. I’d walk him up only for the fish to turn and head back down each time. Each run finished with spectacular cartwheels which seems to be a signature of these Baltic Salmon. All the while I was hoping he didn’t land on the leader. Probably ten minutes later though it seemed much longer, one of the most perfect Salmon I had ever seen came into the shallows and was duly landed. A fresh Baltic Salmon in pristine condition. The shape of these fish is just incredible, powerfully built with an almost green back and chromed flanks. Built by Nature. I felt and still do feel privileged to have caught that fish. I don’t think anyone has the right to catch these, you have to earn it and even then all your earning is a chance. It couldn’t have been a better end to a spectacular trip and yes the fish are awesome but its more than that , a chance to disconnect from the day to day life and briefly touch upon another. To share great experiences with like minded friends or just to spend a few hours in solitude. It changes your perspective almost like a reset button. A person could loose a lot of time in places like this and if you go there and accept to for what it is you might be even get to land a fish or two and who knows maybe that fish of a lifetime………
Text & images by Kieran Conlon – Guideline PowerTeam Ireland.