1 October 2019

Norway's Second Queen

by Steve Symons

It was April and the all-too-familiar "ping" of modern life resonated as another email entered my inbox. This did not raise much interest at first but on reading the title it was immediately opened with a sense of intrigue. It simply read "Laerdal" and was delivered from Bjorn Torre Lokkebo.

Fly Culture Cover Autumn 2019

Bjorn is affectionately known as ‘The Machine’, due to his unwavering riverside determination, along with his habitual knack of enticing large salmon to his fly. When appraised, these two attributes are in no way coincidental. He is a member of the Norwegian Driology team along with Frank Rennestraum, Simen Maren Stende and Lasse Lokkebo. Bjorn had kindly reached out with an opportunity to fish two rods of six during a four-day stint on the river Laerdal, a river in Norway that has been on my ‘dream to fish’ list for many years.

I ran the invitation past my Cornish fishing compatriot, Gerald Spiers, who replicated my response with a simple: “I’m in.”

The Laerdal is crowned “Queen of Rivers” possibly by its association to King Harald V of Norway, who refers to the river as his second queen. The King is still a regular fisherman on the very beat we had so fortunately been offered during the four days in July, it was esteemed company indeed.

Steeped in salmon folklore the river came to prominence in the early 1800s when pioneering English gentry discovered the incredible salmon, both in numbers and size, that entered the clear flowing waters each season.

The river has yielded a number of very big salmon to the fly, and still holds sizeable fish. Sadly, it has suffered with disease, closing for a number of years in attempts to eradicate the Gyrodactylus Salaris infestation, eventually re-opening in 2013. I must also note with slight ‘doom and gloom’ the adverse effects of hydro power and more so, salmon farming, which have taken their toll on the once- prolific runs. Scientific reports suggest 70% of Laerdal smolt are killed due to the massive escalation in the sea lice population attributed to the industry. Although a critically important matter to address, particularly as 2019 is the international year of the salmon, discussing such detriment is for another time and not one I wish to dwell on here. I would much rather focus on the positives of a river which bestows such majesty and still holds such great acclaim amongst salmon fly anglers worldwide.

The team arranged to meet at the Laerdal centre for disinfection, manned by Mons Frydenlund who cheerfully submerged waders, boots, rods and reels in a sterilising solution. This is a strict legal requirement and not to be overlooked. All kit is disinfected both before and after fishing, with anglers facing a ban if not undertaken. Mons is also a good source of fishing information and told us
that 60 fish had been caught this season. There had been some difficult conditions contributing to very few fish being landed in the three weeks prior to our arrival, although we were heartened to hear a couple of fish had been caught on our beat just twenty-four hours earlier and the river levels were deemed as okay.

With cleansing complete, we headed to the handsome wooden lodge that was built in 1860 and would be our base for the following four days. Conveniently situated, the lodge is no more than a ten-minute stroll from the beat. Once unpacked we wasted no further time in the drawing of straws which determined the paired fishing rotation of the three long pools. Fishing commences at midday, although the concerted fishing effort generally falls between the hours of 9pm – 5am, unless of course, conditions dictate otherwise.

The river looked incredible. A green-tinged watercourse with remarkable clarity, we were a little in awe of the Laerdal. It was so different to the river Gerald and I fish back home.

We were told the river level is measured in metres cubed per second. It was currently 28.01m3/s with the ideal being suggested as between 35 – 90m3/s.

Gerald and I were to fish Bruholen (Bridge Pool), Bjorn and Andre, Blaaflat (Blue Flat) with Lasse and Frank on Nedre Lysne (Lower Light). Drawing the short straw on this beat did not conform to traditional meaning of the term as all three sections were a dream to fish. Simen, the team’s fishing cameraman, would set up with Bjorn and Andre as this was considered the most likely run to connect with a fish. With handshakes, well wishes and anticipation we headed off to our respective waters.

Gerald and I discussed tactics, both wanting to fish alternative set-ups so that we offered our flies in differing ways. We opted for 13’–14’ rods loaded with shooting heads in varied sinking densities, 24lb+ tippets, mainly due to the hefty rocks in the river and the potentially big fish. These set-ups, in theory, should ensure deeper drifts during the afternoon and early evening sessions. The remaining rods held floating or intermediate tips for late evening and early morning when fly silhouette is important and the fish are more likely to be running or higher in the water column.

The go-to fly on the Laerdal is the Sunray Shadow, a fly invented by Ray Brookes for this very river. I followed the loose Laerdal rules to start with, opting for a long-winged fly in black over yellow; not a Sunray exactly but with similar characteristics.

I made my way to the head of Bruholen and threw my fly into the water. The dream was now real, I was actually fishing the Laerdal.

We fished methodically, every cast holding the promise of a take. The scheduled re-group was set for 6pm at the Blaaflat beat hut, where Bjorn conjured up grilled ribeye steaks over the fire pit and the camaraderie got in full swing over a river- chilled beer. There were no fish reported at dinner, although one was spotted right in front of the hut. The sighting of salmon always brings great encouragement, especially in the knowledge that Gerald and I were up next on this stretch.

There was more good news, the river levels had now risen to 30.70m3/s, a good sign, and the skies became overcast with light rain. These were the conditions we had all hoped for. Gerald kindly gave me the first run through after dinner.

It was around 8pm, still a little early admittedly, but with conditions improving and my first day enthusiasm still intact, I started my inaugural run down the famous Blaaflat pool. I was also fishing a fly I had the utmost confidence in, my version of a Junction Shrimp tube, 1.5” in length and tied orange over white, jungle cock cheeks and an orange tungsten conehead.

Having earlier studied the stretch from both banks I planned to cast square, mend upstream, pay line out and let the fly get down, then, as the fly reached a deeper zone on the far side of the flow, the line, as it tightened, would raise up through the water column ultimately fishing two to four feet under the surface on the second half of the swing, almost following a semi-circular arc.

It is a method that has worked on many occasions in the UK and as I fished my way down the pool closer to the known lies, my next swing was met by a sudden stop followed by a violent thud as an angry salmon shook its head. “Fish, FISH,” I shouted as I lifted and made my way back to the bank.

It felt like a good fish, holding resolutely in the strong current for a few minutes with very little give. Gerald, on net duty, uttered, “It doesn’t know it’s hooked.” The fish then turned and took off downstream crashing the surface at quite some distance from the onlooking team who had excitedly assembled on the bank.

The planning, the travelling, the river, the conditions, the expectations and the hope all manifested into this one moment. The fish drew ever nearer to the net and I backed up the bank. After a few rather alarming head shakes the fish eventually slid into the net. The relief was audible in the form of a “GET IN”.

The salmon was measured at 102 cm with an impressive 49cm girth and what a tail! An absolutely magnificent Laerdal fish and a new personal best for me. The team offered their congratulations, we were up and running and the ‘unmentioned’ pressure was off. It was time for a first celebratory single malt.

As the light softened and a shadowy darkness drew in, the now-flaming campfire brought a calming respite. In front of the warm glow we concluded that this place was truly magical. A place one really feels honoured to experience, with good friends brought together purely by a passion for fly fishing and an experience that in turn, would be lost if we were not fly anglers.

As time drifted past 2am we headed back to the lodge for a few hours of sleep ahead of an early start the next day, although Bjorn and Andre decided to fish through. My sleep was broken as I heard Bjorn return at 5.30am. “No fish, just finished at Nedre, I’d recommend you fish Blaaflat,” which of course, I was more than happy to follow.

With the remaining team still asleep and in the knowledge that Sven, the photographer, could only join us for the first 24hrs, I politely declined Bjorn’s ‘breakfast beer’ offer opting instead for a quick coffee before I headed back to the river.

“Only you Steve? We have nice light now,” Sven said. “I will have to do Sven, the others won’t be far behind though.” The latest river level updates were showing it had once again lifted, reading 39.8m3/s – positive news. Sven wanted some drone shots so went to set up as I fished down the pool.

I went with the same line and fly that I’d used just a few hours before.

I covered the same spot I’d had my fish previously without anything happening but fished on by a few meters and just as my fly swung out of the current, the line pulled away. I lifted and the fish was on.

Sven and his colleague arrived with cameras. It was another good fight, the fish was strong and as it was close to being ready to be landed I asked Sven to net it for me. He kindly obliged but I sensed a slight trepidation caused, no doubt,
by thoughts of potential failure. As I backed up the bank he headed into the bracing water without waders before making an accomplished job of landing the fish, a solid fresh-run hen measuring 85cm. 

The river continued its gradual rise, peaking at 42.9m3/s.

I sat and watched Gerald fish Blaaflat. It was late afternoon with decent cloud cover. He worked his way from top to bottom of the long pool covering the water with great precision. As he neared the run out my friend lifted into
a good fish, I was delighted but then my heart sank as
his rod straightened as quickly as it doubled, the fish was gone. He signalled with three porpoising arm movements that I knew meant he was seeing running fish.

Later on, close to midnight, we got a call that Simen, after a brief interlude in filming, had just landed a 94cm fish. It had eaten his Sunray, smashing the surface with a ferocious take followed by a strong battle that I heard was an incredible sight to witness.

The final two days were a story of a dropping river and intense sunshine from 6am through to early evening. The fishing slowed as a result. We eased off during the day, preferring to head out for late evening to early morning sessions. Other than Gerald’s hook lodging in my backside, two small sea trout and a second salmon escaping Gerald’s fly in Nedre Lysne, we had frustratingly bad luck. There was no further action with rods retiring at 3am, except Bjorn and Andre of course, who remained unwavering throughout. We awoke at 6.30am on the final morning to a returning Bjorn bearing great news. After a fourth sleepless night he had been rewarded with a fantastic 102cm beast at Nedre Lysne. The fish was caught at 5.30am on his penultimate cast and served as a fitting end to a truly wonderful experience.

Delighted with the last gasp outcome, the Norwegian boys jovially pointed out that the scores were now level, Norway 2, England 2, but surely, we won on the away goals rule?


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