Text & Photos: Helge Dahlen, Guideline Power Team Norway.
Previously published in Chasing Silver Magazine.
The night before salmon season opener on the 1st of June is like Christmas Eve to Norwegian anglers. We impatiently wait by the riverside for the clock to strike midnight, so we can wet our flies for the first time in the new season. But, unlike Christmas Eve, it’s just a few who get what they wished for. High and cold water, big rods, sinking lines, large flies, and plenty of water to cover makes early season fishing hard work, but the rewards of big, bright fish make it worth the effort.
It’s almost a rule set in stone that spring fishing means heavy sinking lines with big and often colourful tube flies at the end of a short and thick leader. But should that always be the case, even if the river is running full and cold? I have my thoughts on that approach, and some suggestions for you to try that will help you have the fight of a lifetime with a big Norwegian chromer. Understanding how salmon behave in these conditions will help you to put your fly in the right places and make you a more effective angler. Because no matter how you twist and turn, early season fishing is hard work, so try to be as effective as possible and fish where the salmon are. The dream of the big chromer It had been a hard spring. Cold, strong winds with rain caused the river to rise and colour and severely limited my time on the water. These are the days that we forget about in the off-season — perhaps because the days that follow are some of the best you can imagine. Those magical days are when the sun’s rays hint through the clouds and the ground starts to dry up, when you see the wet marks on the stones showing that the river was higher just 30 minutes ago and now dropping, when you start to see your feet in knee-deep water, and when everyone knows this is the time it’s going to happen. Now’s your best chance! I’m in the right place at the right time.
I’m fishing in Stjørdalselva in the central Norway. At the Hembre beat, and now I have one of the best pools, Trekanten, to myself. I’m halfway down the pool, wading nicely, and fishing with an intermediate/S2/ S4 shooting head, which isn’t too heavy on a pool like this under these conditions. I can easily fish all the way into knee-deep water without snagging the bottom, because of the height and flow. At the end of my leader is self tied black and orange tube fly with 8-cm (3 inch) wing, which was nameless. But after today, it was christened the “Hembrebamsen.” The grab comes just before swing has finished — and it’s brutal! The hit almost takes the rod out of my hands, and the reel starts screaming insanely. Pretty often it’s hard to guess the size of these early run fish in the middle of the fight. A 20-pounder can beat your ass, big time. But after 10 to 15 minutes of a hard fight, I start to feel more confident that this isn’t “just a basic 20-pounder.”
I call Aksel Hembre, owner of the beat, who isn’t far away, and a few minutes later he arrives to give me a helping hand. But the fish isn’t showing any signs of fatigue, and after several long runs and slow pulls, I start to wonder if I’m the one who going to tire first. But this is my day, and, in the end, the fish starts to show its wide side in the coloured water. The feeling when you have a 35-pound fish in front of you, and you are the winner of this brutal fight is just something that can’t be explained — you have to experience it.
The easy way.
When the rivers are in spring flood and have average June temperature, between 5 and 8 Celsius, salmon will follow the easiest path up the river, especially if there is some colour to the water. That means the softer flows, which are generally closer to shore. I still see fishermen wade far out and try to cover the heaviest and deepest currents of the river, even though these are the prime parts of the river that you should be focusing on later in the season when the rivers have dropped, cleared, and temperature have risen. By doing this, these anglers often end up wading where the fish are laying. No, at this time of the season you will have much better chance of success in the shallower and calmer parts of the river. In these locations you also have a much better opportunity to present your fly in the right way. Of course there are always local river anomalies that provide a soft channel in the middle of the river, or a boulder field where fish can disperse and traverse a run, but as a general rule, early fish in high water run the insides.
In these water temperatures, salmon won’t readily rise to take a fly, so you have to get your fly closer to them. This is a lot easier in the shallower parts of the river — something anglers should remember. Focus to the shallower resting places, the running places, and where you have the change to offer your fly in best way. The neck of the pool and the tail of the pool are most often where you can find salmon that are willing to play. For sure there are also salmon in the bucket of the middle of the pool, but ask yourself how fast and deep is it there and how well will you be able to present your fly to fish? Just a couple of metres deep, then go ahead with a heavy line. But when it’s more than a few meters deep and a heavy current, it’s better to let the fish stay there and focus on the ones that are in more reachable locations.
It’s not the fly.
Some anglers change flies between every pool rotation to find the right one that would do the trick — the magic bullet. They believed that even the smallest change of fly could be the key of success. If we were talking about midand late-summer fishing, I would agree that this approach is worth experimentation, but not in early June. Don’t get me wrong; you still need to put a fly at the end of the leader, hee hee. But size and pattern variations that might serve you well later in the summer are not needed in early spring. As long as it’s big, with a little flashy, and has a black wing, you can’t go wrong. Water clarity and sun and cloud conditions are the determining factors in fly preference and changes for me in June. If it’s nice and sunny, I go with yellow and blue flies, and in overcast conditions, I prefer darker colours and patterns. I try to keep fly selection very simple. If I’m in need of something a little different, I go to a pattern with orange, which works with black or even by itself. Well-known patterns that you should have are: Mikkeli Blue, Green Highlander, Gary Glitter, Phatakorva, Flomflugan and, of course, variations of the legendary Sunray Shadow. The best fly selection tip I can provide an early season angler is that as long as it has a black wing, you won’t go wrong.
Some anglers seems to rush the pool as fast as possible, fishing it only once and then run on to the next believing that covering as many pools as possible during the day is the best way to catch salmon. I did that in my early days as well, but as I have become more experienced, I understood that this isn’t the best way to increase my odds. June salmon are travellers. None of them have yet found their spawning grounds, and that’s why they’re on the move. If your pool’s been rested, there’s a chance that some of the fish have found the best holding water in the shallows. Because of this, I suggest that you first fish the pool with a sink tip or a slow sinker, a line that fishes the fly below the surface, but not too deep that it grabs the bottom before the swing is over. Be very careful wading, not going more than ankle deep on your first go through. On your second pass, wade a bit farther out with a heavier line to cover the next section of water. After this, if there’s still more resting water you think you can effectively cover, put on the heavy stuff. My preferred method to cover deep water with a good presentation is called “high sticking.” It’s a technique I still don’t see many anglers implementing. And believe me, it’s really effective — read carefully. High sticking means that after the cast you mend your line upstream, lift your rod, and point the tip to the sky over the river. This will slow the swing and also hold the swing farther out in the river. If you are fishing from the deep side of the river (Picture of Leif Stavmo), or fishing close to the drop-off and really want to get down, this is a technique that is close to perfect. It also helps you not hang-up on the bottom as easily as with normal swing because your rod tip is high up and fly is hanging in current.
Is early season night fishing worth it? That is the question many anglers ask themselves. Some don’t have any faith in June fishing after dark, while others have success as their brethren are sleeping. By my experience if there isn’t too much colour to the water, night fishing is definitely worth of trying. Several times I’ve been rewarded with good fish. But the commonality of every successful outing was clear water. Also, if you are fishing public or day-card water, the night bite is something you should think about. The chance that you will get a pool to yourself is a lot greater after dark.
Line selection With the jungle of sinking lines on the market from all of the various manufacturers, it’s not easy to know which ones to buy if you are new in the game. Of course, your casting ability and the specific rivers and conditions you fish will play a big part in the proper selection. And a line that’s a heavy sinker on one river can almost be a floater on another.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of online resources for river information, be it social media, blogs, or forms. And local tackle shops usually have good equipment advice for rivers nearby. If you’re going to fish in central Norway, like Surna, Driva, Eira, Orkla, Gaula, and Stjørdalselva, you should have at least four to five sinking lines in different densities — from slow sink to the stone diggers. Pool variations and water level fluctuations require you to pack line density options, which can be your most important piece of gear. My recommendation on a medium sinking line, like intermediate/S1/S2, a leader from 1.1 m (3 ½ feet) to 1.5 m (5 feet); On heavy lines, like sink S3/S5/S7, a leader from .6 m (2 feet) to .8 m (2 ½ feet). Leaders should be thick fluorocarbon, which means .40 to .50 mm (25 to 35 pounds). The early season salmons are not leader shy, but for sure they are leader breakers!
Norwegian rivers worth visiting in June.
What should be obvious is that returns to the rivers in northern part of Norway are later than rivers in central or south Norway. For example, in the most northern county, Finnmark, some rivers are still covered by ice in the start of June, if winter has been rough. But every year, some really large salmon are caught from these northern rivers even if conditions are really tough. But in general, northern rivers are worth fishing after June 15th. Northern Norway options:
In central and southern Norway, the list of rivers is almost as long as the coast, and even some of the smaller rivers can have a massive salmon run by June 1st. Keep in mind that smaller rivers can be more unpredictable for water conditions too. My list includes some medium and big rivers, which in the right conditions are safest places to find big June salmon:
Text & Photos: Helge Dahlen, Guideline Power Team Norway