By Sanna Koljonen, Guideline Power Team Finland
Last autumn I participated in a Finnish research project conducted by the University of Eastern Finland, the aim and purpose of which were, inter alia, from a tourism development standpoint, to identify and analyse what elements make a fishing experience memorable for an individual. As I was answering the questions one by one, I realised that I’ve never really thought about fly-fishing in such an analytical way: What are my motives to fish? What makes a fishing experience a success? What drives me to try a new place or return to an old one? What do I do out of habit and which things do I actually have the highest regards for? And finally: What are the elements of a fantastic fishing trip?
Prior to this, without any deeper thoughts attached, some of the fishing trips just seemed to be better than others. During the interview, as I tried to analyze what are the elements of a fantastic fishing trip, one particular trip I made last season kept surfacing to my mind time after time: the one I did to Greenland last September. It had all the three main elements that I during the interview realized to me form the essential parts of an excellent fishing experience: pristine waters in the wilderness, big and beautiful fish and good company.
Pristine waters in the wilderness
Greenland is the definition of remote. Besides the airports, there is barely any infrastructure on this world’s largest island. This means access to rivers requires hours of travelling by plane and by boat, which of course, in the end, is worth all the travelling. Once you reach your destination, the only living beings beside you are the Arctic chars, reindeers and eagles. To me, like for many other of today’s fly-fishers, fly-fishing at its best includes turning off your phone and laptop and changing city lights to northern lights – a wilderness experience that has become a luxury for most of the people. Being bound to the metropolitan life most of the time, I never understood urban fly-fishing. To the contrary, for me the wilderness experience has always been an essential part of fly-fishing: I want to let go of all the hustle and bustle, disconnect from the inane city life and connect with nature – and myself. The experience is both liberating and empowering.
The jewel of Greenland that was my destination in September, Kangia River, is located on the Southwestern coast of Greenland. The fishable part of the river is as much as eight kilometers, all the way from the river mouth and onwards to a waterfall that forms a natural stop for the spawners. This means that if you fancy testing new waters, you can hike along the river through new stunning and scenic fishing spots every day. And believe me, making your first cast in a pool full of fish that no one has fished before, only to see a curious Arctic char grabbing your fly and charging downstream like a cruiser definitely gives you a rush to remember.
Kangia is perfectly suited for fly-fishing: it is relatively shallow, easy to read and no super long casting is required. The bottom is gravel, the water is crystal clear, and you can easily spot the fish, which despite the clearness of the water, are not that easily spooked. My favourite pool was a pool the guides had named BC. In that pool, you would cast from one side to the other side where there was a deeper channel and where the big four to five kilos fish dominated the area. The trick was to try to reach all the way to the other bank and try to make your big colourful intruder sink as quickly as you could. If the take would come within the first one third of the swing, it was likely to be a big one. If it was within the second third of the swing the fish would be medium size. After the two third of the swing, it was better to take the fly in because small, often female, fish were standing right at your feet and would gladly take the fly if you let it swim all the way to the bank.
Big and beautiful fish
When it comes to catching fish, I must admit I’m very simple: I want big fish. As I’ve sometimes said in my most modest moments that I rather catch one 120 cm salmon than a hundred grilse describes my attitude well. In Greenland this meant that I rather targeted catching one of those 4–5 kg chars than catching a hundred medium size fish.
For me, however, it is not just the size but also the look that counts. As I release all the salmonids I catch on a fly, I do not care about the taste. And even though it’s a commonly known fact that the fresh chromers are even tougher fighters, my heart still pounds in a different way when I see a coloured one. Spending the last week of the season in Kangia meant that most of the fish had already been in the river for a while and lost some of their sea strength but gained in colours instead. This meant that the river was just a flood of rioting colours, of thousand shades of orange and green. I’ll never forget the colours of my first big coloured Greenlandic char in Kangia River – it was the most beautiful mix of emerald green and mandarin orange I’ve ever seen in my life.
The transformation from steelhead-like muscular chromes to more oval-shaped, slightly thinner, colourful creatures is incredible. Their dinosaur-resembling look reminded me of how ancient these species are and how long they have existed before us. There is still so much that we don’t know about sea run Arctic chars. Unlike their cousins, the Arctic chars in Greenland do not die after spawning but return back to the ocean. That means they must stay in the river for a shorter time and cannot cope without food as long as salmons because it would atrophy their intestines. To me it seemed logic that this would also be part of the reason why a char would be way more eager than a salmon to take a colourful fly placed in front of it. Despite the fact that the spawning time was definitely drawing closer and the activity of the fish slowing down, we had shamelessly good fishing and incredible moments throughout the whole week.
The abundance of char is also something that is hard to put in words. Let’s put it like this: Think of as much fish in the river as you can imagine, then triple it and we’re getting closer. The guides estimated that the eight kilometer of the river that was accessible to the fish held around 100 000 Arctic chars. That is as much as Europe’s longest free-flowing salmon river, the 520-kilometer-long Torne River, held during its record year 2014.
While observing that army of char swimming in Kangia, I made two conclusive observations: In Kangia, there was probably more fish than water in the river, and
in all the human impacted rivers we have in Europe it is total bullshit to claim that river ecosystems could not naturally take more fish. I once debated with a friend about what it is that makes you develop as a fly fisher. I persistently contended that hard conditions make you step out of your comfort zone, think different, try new things and push you further, developing you in your attempt to crack the code. My friend insisted it was the opposite. He said hard conditions don’t teach you shit, but rather it is the good conditions which allow you to develop as a fly-fisher as being frequently in contact with the fish allows you to actually observe the behavior of the fish and see what works. After a lousy salmon season in Scandinavia, followed by insane autumn fishing in Greenland, I have to admit my friend was right: Whereas lousy salmon season only taught me how to overcome bitterness time after time and the true value of friends in hardship, one week surrounded by thousands of chars gave me countless opportunities to research their behaviour and see which things are connected as well as get better at hooking into a fish, fighting and releasing a fish. So not only does Greenland give you horizon-breaching experiences, it also gives you countless teachings and trains you to become a better fly-fisher.
Good fishing company
Wanting to flee the city life and the masses doesn’t mean I don’t want to have anyone around me. I just want to be able to choose the people I spend my time with by the river. Fly-fishing is seldom easy, and you seldom catch fish all the time – this I’ve learned by heart as a salmon fisher. My rule of thumb, based on experience, is: the less fish you catch, the more the importance of the company you fish in matters. Fishing, at least salmon fishing, is also a good test of friendship. This is because salmon fishing is so intense and nerve-racking that if you can handle each other when salmon fishing, you will definitely be able to handle each other off-fishing. My advice is: choose the people who will comfort you when you lose a big fish, who will make you food when you’re all exhausted, who will borrow you a sleeping bag when yours is too light and who will put a smile on your sun burn and mosquito spray-tasting lips after a yet another all-nighter you got skunked. Without friends, fishing wouldn’t be the same.
In Kangia, I had the pleasure to fish with guys from a Finnish TV show called Arctic Waters – guys with whom I fished a lot last season and who had become good friends of mine. Besides the TV crew, there was a bunch of enthusiastic and definitely slightly crazy Finnish fly-fishers. I’m used to be among the craziest when it comes to fishing, but these guys took it to the next level. Many of the guys would hit the waters before I even had brushed my teeth and fish nonstop until it got dark, on the best days landing approximately 50 fish a day, and never getting tired of it – definitely my type of fly-fishers!
We also had great guides with us. As a self-appreciating and slightly stubborn fisher, having guides around isn’t always a pleasure. Being a woman, it also sometimes means guides wanting to do everything for me, like literally everything. Lawson Jones and Tomas Biott were quite the opposite. They allowed clients to fish and make their own mistakes but were always there when you wanted to ask for guidance. Lawson thought me a lot about Greenlandic chars and told interesting stories of things he had seen during his guiding years. He also probably saved me from breaking my dear LPXe rod by giving me casting tips when I was losing my nerves. The local staff was also very friendly and although they were clueless about what vegans eat, they did their very best.
The brightest star of the camp was undeniably the owner of Solid Adventures, perhaps most known as the founder and former owner of Loop Tackle Design, Christer Sjöberg. Christer’s hospitality was overwhelming and his passion for fishing so genuine it was inspiring to just be around him. Add to that the late evenings spent at the lodge bar, listening to incredible fly-fishing stories from the exploratory days of the Kola Peninsula or salt water trips from the early 90’s – stories that got carved in our minds as some of the best moments of our stay. I also learned that a guiding principal for Christer during his most adventurous life had been that we all get old, but you can decide whether you are going to be the one listening to or telling the stories – and he definitely seemed to live according to it.
The future of our rivers
The research I participated in affirmed to me that big fish, pristine waters in the wilderness and good company to me are the elements of a fantastic fishing trip. Another realisation I made was that places like Kangia River are a rarity today. As the use of natural resources is getting more and more fierce, river systems and fish stocks have been exposed to numerous forms of exploitation that has left an imprint on nature that we as humans cannot be proud of. For us to be able to find rivers like Kangia nearer than in Greenland – or at all – in the future, a revolutionary shift in the management of natural resources has to take place and the value of pristine waters and healthy fish stocks has to be understood before the last piece of pristine waters and healthy fish stocks are destroyed. And here is what brings together the research of the University of Eastern Finland and the sustainable business-approach of Solid Adventures: they are both contributors of evidence to the widespread benefits and potential of pristine waters – evidence that helps us challenge the old, destructive ways of using natural resources.
Photograpy credits: Henri Hellsten, Sampsa Köykkä, Lawson Jones & Solid Adventures.
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