Updated
2010-
08-09
Swedish version
   

The best salmon river in Europe?

Andrew Graham-Stewart experience the remarkable River Gaula and detects sign of a sea-change Norwegian attitudes to salmon management and conservation.


Tilseth pool, a Norwegian Flyfishers Club water on the middle Gaula.

  Any Salmon Angler venturing to one of the great rivers of Norway for the first time must surely be aware of following a well-trodden hypothetical path, steeped in history. Of course it was the British who, almost two centuries ago, first developed angling for salmon in Norway. From the 1820s many of the titled, the great and the good made annual pilgrimages across the North Sea in pursuit of a class of salmon that few home rivers could match. Such was the vogue for these Norwegian adventures, the leading British tackle manufacturers were soon offering all manner of equipment and flies and lures specifically designed for "heavy Norwegian angling".

  My destination was the Gaula, the most prolific river in the Trondheim district. With a length of 90 miles (migratory fish have access to some 60 miles until their progress is blocked by the Eggafall), the Gaula drains 1,412 square miles (by way of reference this compares to the Spey's catchment of 1,097 square miles). A critical feature of the river is the Gaulfossen, which separates the lower river from the middle reaches. This temperature barrier is half a mile of virtually unbroken raging white water - an awesome sight even in lowish conditions. Salmon do not generally ascend this major obstacle until the second half of May when the concentration of snowmelt starts to dissipate. When one sees the Gaulfossen, one soon appreciates just how powerful Gaula fish must be to negotiate it.

  British expeditions to the Gaula began in 1825. These either involved a bone-shaking 200-mile journey via horse-drawn carriage over the Dovre mountain range from Oslo or (the less arduous route) a voyage by boat direct to Trondheim and then on to the Gaula valley. Steadily the river's reputation for angling excellence – disseminated by sportsmen such as Mr. Andrews in the Stören area in the 1830s and Messr Rogers and Hunt (who one year caught 266 salmon in 26 days) in the 1840s – grew and soon the influx of Britons, with their vast entourage, became a major annual summer pilgrimage, leasing fishings and properties up and down the valley.

  Jones’s Guide to Norway and Salmon Fisher’s Companion, published in 1848 extolled the virtues of the Gaula: “It is not only renowned in Norway, but its fame has spread far and wide, and it is held by all who have visited it, to be one of the noblest streams in which the salmon fishers ever wetted a line. Wondrous has been the sport met with by our countrymen: and, to this day, the Gaula [sic] is remembered by them with feelings that none but a real lover of the Art can enter into or appreciate. “Jones celebrates a Mr. Hornden, who had once killed “three hundred weight of fish on the Guul in two days” and had been known to swim to the opposite bank to land a salmon of 30 lb.

  Later in the 19th century the railway further increased the ease of access to practically the whole fishable length of the river. The benign summer invasion from the other side of North Sea continued until the start of World War I, resuming in the 1920s and 1930s up to the advent of World War II. The latter, of course, took its toll and in the aftermath of 1945 few foreign anglers returned- Local angling association soon exploited the vacuum, reaching agreement with the riparian owners to tie up much of the Gaula or the benefit of their members. Since then there have been few privately fished beats.


Manfred Raguse into a fish on the River Gaula’s Renna pool.

  As one who takes a close interest in salmon exploitation levels and conservation issue, especially in the contex of declining marine survival over the last 40 years. I have long viewed the failure by the Norwegian authorities to take appropriate action to reduce substantially the number of fish killed as inexcusable. I have to say that, following my visit to the Gaula, such criticism may now be misplaced – at least as regards the Trondheim district and the Gaula in particular. Perhaps the authorities now realise that salmon are no longer an inexhaustible resource and the precautionary principle should now prevail.

  Back in the 1970s it was not unusual for an angler fishing the lower Gaula to be obliged to leave a pool in order to make way for net being hauled by a boat, tractor or horse. Such indignities ceased when in-river netting was stopped in 1979. Thereafter the main threat was the vast off-shoe drift net fishery. The government finally acted to outlaw the drift-nets in 1988: in their last year they had been responsible for 50 percent of all salmon killed. Rod catches in the Gaula increased significanty – until the Trondheim Fjord bag-nets intensified their activities (1995 was their “record season”) and, with an average annual (2000-2004) take of 53 tons, they were soon accounting for 50 percent of the declared catch.


Oliver Plasseraud returns a 38 lb
Gaula fish caught on June 4 this year.

  In 2005 the association of Trondheim Fjord river owners concluded a true milestone, and NASF-inspired buy-out agreement with the great majority of the bagnetters. Five-year contracts were signed by these netsmen (whose operations were responsible for more than 80 percent of the catch), whereby they are paid not to exercise their rights; the const to the river owners is some 350,000 per annum. Then, early this year the Norwegian Government acted decisively and unilaterally, in the interests of conservation, to curtail the impact of the remaining bag-nets by delaying the start of the netting season until June 22 in the inner Trondheim Fjord district and July 7 in the outer district. These additional restrictions are of great benefit to the large early-running salmon; by all accounts these heavy fish were far more numerous in the river during the 2008 season than has been the case for decades.

  With netting effort reduces to a pale shadow of its former self, it was inevitable that much focus of attention would switch to exploitation levels by rods. There is no tradition of releasing fish in Norway and indeed some of the authorities are firmly opposed to this practise; however attitudes are changing with the influential Institute for Nature Research and local river authorities now in favour. Manfred Raguse (chairman of the Norwegian Flyfishers Club) has been a redoubtable champion of salmon conservation over the last two decades. He is acutely aware that scenario of greater numbers of fish having free passage into the Gaula only to be killed by rods would amount to a huge political own goal, given the strong lobby for the netsmen. He has been a strong advocate of catch-and-release- not only on the NFC’s Gaula beats (where 39 percent of salmon were released in2007 and 60,5 percent in 2008) but also further afield through the national media. In 2007, 4,5 percent of the total Gaula rod catch were released. This has jumped dramatically in 2008 to 22 percent (a provisional figure). Representing a seismic shift in attitudes by anglers.


The white-water, white-knuckle
ride that is the Gaulfossen.

  In parallel, the Gaula has introduced a pragmatic bag limit of tem salmon and five sea-trout per season. The bag limit per day is one salmon or sea-trout; once a fish has been killed (for whatever reason), the angler must stop fishing until midnight.

  Of course one of the main attractions of the Gaula (and other Norwegian rivers) is the size of its salmon. The Gaula has indeed produced its fail share of leviathans although to date no-one ahs collated all the details. Curiously Fred Buller’s Domesday book of salmon over 50lb fails to include any Gaula fish. Yet in researching his forthcoming book Record Atlantic Salmon Ronald S Swanson has unearthed five rod-caught fish in this class: 1955 Unknown tourist, Bridge pool, spinner, 59lb; Einar Tilseth, Near Stören, harled spoon, 55lb; 1950 Even Wollan, above Gaulfossen, spoon 55lb; 1907 J Mellish, Station pool, Langlete Durham Ranger, 51lb; 1947 Einar Tilseth, 50lb.

  On the Gaula, the nature of the pools and the fact that they are generally fished from the bank ensures that it offers a better chance than most rivers of a genuine fly- or spoon-caught leviathan. The heavy fish are still much evidence. In July 2007 the Swiss underwater photographer Michael Roggo was filming a small shoal of a Gaula salmon in the 20 lb to 25 lb class when suddenly a massive fish three times as large cruised into the pool. The average weight of the top ten salmon caught on the Gaula in June 2008 was 40 lb (the smallest was 37 lb). According to the 2002 figures, fish spending three or more winters at sea constituted 34 percent of the total number caught on the Gaula; two sea-winter fish amounted to 43 percent and grilse just 23 percent. In 2008 the share of three sea-winter fish was astonishing 43 percent. It is worth noting that apart from the pool immediately below the Gaulfossen, there is very little harling on the Gaula.

  The Gaula is a remarkably natural river – with no impoundment and no hydro dams (mining activity in the upper river at Röros ceased 50 years ago). There are very few fish farms in the Trondheim Fjord (in contrast to may other important wild fish areas, which are overwhelmed by farms) to the benefit of outgoing smolts. The river was previously stocked but now probably only five percent of Gaula fish are descendants of the hatchery programme. Given the wonderful natural spawning and juvenile habitat in the middle and upper reaches, enlightened current thinking is that hatchery would serve no useful purpose and would probably be counter-productive.

The Gaula’s rod catch can now amount to more than 11,000 fish. This is achieved in a short three-month season. Given these numbers, one could certainly argue it is currently the best angling river in Europe. Of course, one Scottish river might challenge this n the basis of numbers but it has a ten-month season…

  For further information on the Norwegian Flyfishers Club, visit www.nfc-online.com. The fishing season 2009 runs from June 1 to August 31. The Gaula is free of Gyrodactylos salaris (Gs) but it is vital that anyone fishing in Norway ensures that all tackle and waders are disinfected before they are used again in any UK water.


Black & white photo: Einar Tilseth’s 55-pounder, caught in 1950.
Top color photo: Manfred Raguse about to return a fish in Renna pool.
Bottom color photo: Chris Henshaw with a 20-pounder.

 

  Recent history of the Gaula’s in river catch

Year Total Gaula
Catch in lb
Total rod
catch in lb

Percent

 
1973 37,287 27,965 75  
1974 34,535 29,009 84  
1975 33,437 24,074 72  
1976 34,563 31,798 92  
1977 35,077 31,920 91  
1978 33,600 29,904 89  
1979 36,241 33,342 92 Final year of in-river nets
1980 45,039 45,039 100  
1981 57,129 57,129 100  
1982 47,665 47,665 100  
1983 53,906 53,906 100  
1984 60,481 60,481 100  
1985 67,085 67,085 100 Rod catch double that of 1979
1986 53,418 53,418 100 Top river catch in Norway, 2005 and 2006
1987 53,317 53,317 100  
1988 34,045 34,045 100 Final year of offshore drift-netting
1989 60,940 60,940 100  
1990 60,013 60,013 100 Recovery of rod catch
1991 57,138 57,138 100  
1992 45,427 45,427 100  
1993 40,949 40,949 100  
1994 51,610 51,610 100  
1995 50,056 50,056 100  
1996 42,706 42,706 100  
1997 16,350 16,350 100  
1998 42,508 42,508 100  
1999 39,549 39,549 100  
2000 85,292 85,292 100  
2001 107,165 107,165 100  
2002 72,342 72,342 100  
2003 85,098 85,098 100  
2004 59980 59980 100  
2005 75,191 75,191 100 80 percent of local bag-nets bought out
2006 98,484 98,484 100  

 

  Running the Gauntlet

  I visited the Gaula as a guest of the Norwegian Flyfishers' Club (NFC). Established 20 years ago, it offers private access to some of the best waters on the river. NFC founder and chairman Manfred Raguse has invested a tremendous amount of energy in negotiating leases with different riparian owners (ownership of fishing rights cannot be legally severed from ownership of riparian land). By consolidating these short sections he has created some ten miles of first-class fly water, divided into beats, on the middle Gaula (centred on Stören).

  The NFC water is well organised with highly proficient gillies available as required. A high percentage of the fishings is taken by the same anglers year after year; but the clientele is very much international.

  The NFC water now tops the league table for catches on the Gaula; this has been achieved on a fly-only basis - most of the river's other fisheries are all-method.

  The beats are fished on a rotational basis (two rods per beat); the rotation includes some water downstream of the Gaulfossen. In addition all NFC rods have access at anytime to several "free for all" beats. There is certainly no shortage of fishing -particularly given that most pools are more than 200 yards long. The rotation moves on every six hours and operates round the clock. There is much night fishing (it hardly gets dark in June and July) and one’s sleep pattern tends to be governed by the prospects of the available beat (inevitably some are more productive than others), rather than the hour.

  I fished for five days in late June - the tail end of the Norwegian equivalent of our spring fishing. The water was crystal-clear snowmelt. There had been heatwave two weeks earlier but during my visit the weather was unusually cold (more akin to northern Scotland in March) and frequently the air temperature was lower (dropping to zero one night) than that of the water; consequently fish were not as free-taking as they can be.

  June on the Gaula is really sunk-line fishing and I found that, with my usual double-taper full-length Wet CeI II line, I was very much under-gunned. Fortunately, I was lent a balanced shooting-head outfit. I found this a revelation - not only is much greater distance achieved with consummate ease but also with a fast-sinking head one's fly is fishing at depth within moments of hitting the water.

  Inevitably with a big fish river, many of the NFC pools are the stuff of legend - none more so than the Bridge. This great holding pool lies just above 300 yards of hurtling white water. If a hooked fish elects to leave the pool, then the angler has little choice but to follow. This sounds simple until one learns that the tortuous route necessitates clambering at a sprint up and down over buffalo-sized boulders, all the while praying that one's backing does not run out. At the end of the white water there is a fleeting opportunity to land a fish. By all accounts, successfully "running the gauntlet" (as it is now known) has become something of a rite of passage on the NFC waters.

  And how did I get on? Sadly I never had to run the gauntlet. My only success was a 16 lb salmon in Renna pool -a mere tiddler by Gaula standards (June fish average more than 20 lb). Few rivers offer such excellent odds for the fish of a lifetime. I spent my last evening on the Tilseth pool – with a salmon in the 40 lb class showing every few minutes…I shall be back.

  The total catch for the 2008 season for the NFC’s Gaula beats was almost 488 salmon and grilse with an average weight of more than 12lb The release rate was 60,5 percent (43 percent in June, 63 percent in July and 70 percent in August).

By Andrew Graham-Stewart 2008

 

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