After a slump around the turn of the decade, the waters of the Norwegian Flyfishers Club (NFC) on the famous Gaula river have steadily been on the rise.
Almost 300 salmon we’re caught in 2017. We talked to Daniel Stephan, Fishing Manager at the NFC, about his takeaways from the 2017 season, the outlook on the future and what he thinks needs to be done to support the runs of wild Atlantic salmon on the Gaula.
How did the 2017 season go, Daniel?
2017 was a good year for us. It was not spectacular but definitely a good season. We caught more fish than the year before and looking at the average of the last six years, 2016 and 2017 were above the norm with almost 300 salmon caught in both seasons. August was rather weak this year but that was made up by very good conditions during July which resulted in more catches than usual. So overall we are happy with the way 2017 went.
What are your takeaways from this year’s numbers?
It’s tough to make something of this year’s numbers on their own. We have to put them in perspective. Looking back into the past I must say that catches were really good until 2008 and then declined during the following years. Now, luckily, we can observe that numbers are continually going up again at least here at the Gaula. And also according to the numbers I hear from other rivers in Western Norway. Still it remains very difficult to make predictions.
Photo: Matt Harris
What makes fishing the Gaula and the NFC beats special?
The Gaula is a wild river that is completely unregulated and reacts very sensitively to both rainfall and shortage of water. For the fisherman this requires an ability to adapt to different water levels which is not easy for beginners. For experienced fly fishermen that can be very appealing on the other hand as you can basically learn something new every day. You can then transfer this knowledge to other salmon rivers. That’s why I would say that if you catch well here you will catch fish on any salmon river in the world. If you understand the Gaula you definitely know how to fish for salmon and I think that’s a big part of the Gaula’s appeal.
Plus the size of the fish of course with an average weight of around 11 to 13 lbs across the whole season. And there are very few rivers in the world with better chances of catching a 20+ lbs fish. Other rivers can boast 40+ lbs fish which we don’t have here but chances for a 20+ lbs fish are definitely high and that makes the NFC interesting for a lot of salmon anglers.
Photo: Daniel Goez
How does fishing at the NFC beats change over the course of the season?
The season starts in June and in the beginning we have a classic spring fishery. This usually means high water levels and the use of sinking lines and rather big flies. In July the water levels get more constant and the setup changes towards floating lines, sink tips and medium-sized flies. August sees the fishing get more technical with low water and you can even try a hitch or dry fly. Then again things can quickly change in August when it starts to rain. Then we are basically back to June conditions. So things can be very interesting in August but of course there is the risk of low water.
Photo: Daniel Goez
How does the run evolve throughout the summer?
At the start of the season in June there are fewer fish in the system but big ones. A 15-pounder is considered a small fish at that time of year and the average weight is 20+ lbs. In July we see more medium sized fish but chances to catch a 20+ lbs fish are still good as those fish start moving again when new fish enter the river. The end of July and beginning of August see the arrival of grilse and it gets more difficult to catch the bigger ones as the smaller ones are active and take the flies more willingly. But then again, as I said, if it starts raining in August things can change quickly and often the biggest fish of the season is caught during the last weeks.
What time of year is your personal favourite for fishing the Gaula?
It’s the beginning of the season when the big, blank fish are coming in. The days are long in June and so you can pick your times during the day to go out to the river and have the chance for a really big fish. And these fish are just incredible, so yes, if I had to pick a favourite time it would be mid to end June.
The season at the Gaula only lasts three months. What is the place like the rest of the year?
When the season ends the lodge is open for a few more weeks for special events. But then again autumn comes quickly in Norway and when the tourists leave the region, life slows down significantly in the valley. The river starts freezing quite early and can be covered with ice as early as November as it gets quite cold up there. And it gets quite dark so there is not too much happening there on site.
River Gaula in Winter
Where do you see the NFC going in the next ten years?
I think we laid a very good foundation over the last few years. We have a good mix of beats that we can offer at the Gaula. And the renovation of the lodge ensures that we can offer great packages over the coming years. Of course you can never really predict how the situation of the Atlantic salmon is going to develop. But I am very positive at least for the next five years and afterwards we’ll simply have to see. Ten years are too long a span to predict.
What measures would need to be taken it your eyes to make the future of Atlantic salmon a bit more secure?
The entire commercial fishing industry around the feeding grounds of salmon in Greenland would need to be stopped. Also, we need to take a look at salmon farming. The best solution would be land-based fish farms. However that is unrealistic because it’s going to be too expensive. So the alternative could be closed cages in the sea. This way the commercial salmon industry could co-exist with sport fishing. If we manage to implement closed cages the number of accidents could be lowered. And we need to address the topic of feeding farmed fish. The fish that are fed to farmed salmon, like sardines or herring, are lacking in the food chain of wild salmon.
What could be done on site in Norway?
We need to talk about the amount of fish that are caught and released. At the NFC we have a release rate of about 95% and other fly only beats on the Gaula probably have similar numbers. However, on the lower stretches of the river too many fish are killed in my eyes. Partly because fishing with natural bait is still popular. This makes catch and release difficult (because salmon often swallow natural bait making it difficult to remove the hook). That’s my personal opinion and I am aware that quite a few people in Norway would disagree. But I think we need stricter rules in that regard.