Salmon Fishing on the River Laerdal, Norway
Just across the
road from the fish market in Bergen is a statue
of Ludvig Holberg, the 18th century Norwegian
satirist. One of his best known works was a play,
Jeppe of the Hill, about a man with a drink problem.
Jeppe was driven
to drink by his henpecking wife. Behind the drinking,
there is always a reason, wrote Holberg.
unshaven young man who sat next to me as we cruised
up the Sogne-fjord was called Norman, not Jeppe,
although he shared Jeppe's affliction. Norman
had been drinking and "looking for girls"
all that day in Bergen. Now he was returning to
his tiny village at the top of the fjord.
was as scenic as scenery can get. He hated it.
He said he was a cowboy and his favourite singer
was Waylon Jennings. Norman's medley of Waylon
Jennings' greatest hits was only interrupted when
the ferry pulled in to the side of the fjord and
he tottered off into the scenery.
with many Norwegian men is that they are being
overtaken by women in society. Women are beginning
to run things. It has left the men unsure of themselves,"
explained Ragnhild Schibsted, another ferry companion.
Schibsted, a handsome and tactile woman with a
firm handshake, was leading a party of French
nuclear engineers on a tour of Scandinavia.
I'm taking a group from the US Lighthouse Society
around Norwegian lighthouses," she said.
Somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic there
was an American lighthouse enthusiast leaning
back on his pillow dreaming expectantly of all
the Norwegian lighthouses he was going to see.
Mine was a different fetish, shared with two companions.
Our fishing flies were strewn across a table on
the ferry. The towering mountains and dramatic
waterfalls could not possibly compete with a few
little hooks dressed in feathers and hair. If
you want scenery, get a biscuit tin.
We leaned back
in our seats, dreaming expectantly of all the
fish we would catch. We had come to fish the River
Laerdal over the summer solstice. The river looked
inviting and clean. Fast flowing, cold and crystal
clear, the Laerdal is famous for its big spring
known for their fishing prowess so it was with
some surprise that the first fishermen I encountered
fixed me with the same glazed look I had seen
in Norman only hours earlier.
I stood back as
one of them prepared to cast. Heaving his rod
behind his head, he looked every bit the complete
angler - until he toppled backwards and collapsed
on the floor. His companion was seated, his spinning
lure anchored to the river bed, neither spinning
nor luring. Their eyes were vacant. An empty Smirnoff
vodka bottle told only part of the story.
They were not
alone. Across the river a man was fly- fishing
. His casting seemed serviceable enough until
his reel fell off into the water. He floundered
in the shallows, trying to retrieve it.
I thought of Jeppe. There had to be a reason behind
this collective inebriation. Slowly it dawned.
Finn Krogh, manager
of the newly opened Norwegian Wild Salmon Centre
in Laerdal village, blamed the cold spring. The
snow had taken longer than usual to melt and the
fish will not come up-river to spawn until the
water temperature has risen sufficiently. It was
three weeks into the season and the run had hardly
got going. Just 20 salmon had fallen to the rod
along the full 40km length of the river.
Only four days
earlier King Harald had fished the very spot where
his crestfallen subjects were drinking to forget
their river rents. He hadn't caught anything either.
The king had been
opening the salmon centre. Even kings need their
excuses to go fishing . The centre, however, is
much more than a distraction with its 60ft-long
glass-sided fish tank, fed by the river. Salmon
are netted and exhibited in the tank for a few
days before they are released to continue their
migration. Newly netted fish then replace them.
Krogh is hopeful of enticing fish to spawn in
Staring into the
jaws of three 20lb salmon only increased our fishing
lust. The symptoms of withdrawal were palpable.
We needed the river like a drug addict needs a
fix. But would there be fish?
fishing has been through some hard times in recent
years. The country has a proud fishing history
that goes back to the 1820s when British salmon
fishers first came to try their luck and discovered
rivers packed with giant specimens. Fish weighing
more than 40lb were not uncommon.
Alarmed by dwindling
fish stocks caused by increasing acidification,
the Norwegian government put a blanket ban on
salmon fishing in August 1988. It was lifted a
year later, subject to certain restrictions. No
fishing is allowed, for example, between the hours
of 2pm and 6pm.
appears to have levelled off in many areas, some
rivers, such as the Vosso, have had to be closed
again. A liming programme has been introduced
in an attempt to return all the rivers to health.
In the meantime gene banks have been established
for some of the most threatened stocks.
Salmon have disappeared
from 41 of Norway's 629 salmon rivers. Stocks
are under threat of extinction in 50 rivers and
"vulnerable" in 141. But these are lean
times everywhere for those who fish the spring
runs of Atlantic salmon.
It was not always
so. Our wooden cabin was bedecked with the paraphernalia
of fishing days gone by. Photographs of its veteran
owner adorned the walls. Pictures of great fish
bore witness to the halcyon days of Norwegian
salmon fishing . Will they ever return?
We had a picture-book
stretch of water. We fished a local fly called
the Blue Charm; we fished Hairy Marys, Jock Scotts,
Willie Gunns, Thunder and Lightnings and Waddingtons.
We fished tube flies, wet flies and dry flies.
We fished Scottish patterns and Norwegian patterns.
We would have fished knitting patterns had we
We fished with
sinking line, floating line and were tempted to
use the washing line. We span with spinners and
lured with lures. Tobies followed Devons which
followed flies. The salmon were presented with
an a'la carte menu of gastronomic proportions
. . . if they were there. It may have been a full
waiter service to an empty table. We would never
can call time on the river and it never became
so dark that you could not fish. In the end we
plundered our duty-free malts which had been sitting,
like emergency provisions, at the bottom of our
bags. Slowly we succumbed to the combined effects
of alcohol and exhaustion. We tipped our glasses
and toasted Jeppe. Holberg would have understood.