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1996, Salmon Fishing on the River Laerdal, Norway

Fishing 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.

The wild-eyed 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.

Norman's village 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.

"The problem 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.

"Next week 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.

I understood. 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 salmon.

Norwegians are 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. No fish.

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 the tank.

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?

Norwegian salmon 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.

Although acidity 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 had them.

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 know.

Only darkness 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.

© Financial Times

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