It’s raining on the Reisa River. For the third day in a row.
The water, already marginally high when we arrived, is running a shade of chocolate that I’ve not seen on any river before. There’s an underwater camera in front of the Reisastua Lodge. The current is now running in the opposite direction due to an eddy that formed overnight. The salmon and sea trout holding in front of the lodge are now pointing in the wrong direction.
I can sympathize with the plight of these fish pointing out to distant sea. I’m a bit out of sorts myself, having picked up a nasty cold on one of the four flights that deposited me 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. My Sage X 10150-4, I am reliably informed by SAS, never made it on the plane in Boston. Apparently, the case in which it resides resembles a lethal weapon. It is now safely in the bowels of the TSA storeroom at Logan Airport. Perhaps an airport employee can use the rod off the rocks at the end of Runway #5 for stripers in Boston Harbor.
The Reisa may be the most beautiful salmon river that I have ever seen. With all the rain, every waterfall in the valley is active. Many of these watercourses tumble two thousand or more feet to the valley floor before joining the Reisa as significant tributaries in their own right. Nowhere on the planet is the relationship between topography and a pantheistic worldview more readily apparent. Thor, Odin, and particularly Baldur, the God of summer sun and radiance, permeate the ancient fabric of this interstadial valley. Elves, dwarves, valkyries and land spirits also dwell here. They see you before you see them, but they reveal themselves if you don’t look at them directly.
High water has been following me around this year. Everywhere I go I seem to bring rain—bucket loads of the stuff. I should, perhaps, take my act on the road to areas that could use a little moisture. The mother of all floods visited our week in early June on the Grand Cascapedia. Fully leafed-out trees floated down the watercourse, threatening to obliterate everything in their path. We did not fish for two days. I whiled away the hours with Thomas McGuane’s superb Crow Fair and an in-camp viewing of Russell Crowe taking prisoners and securing prizes in Master and Commander. If that experience does not ready you for a week of salmon fishing, nothing will.
Back on the Reisa, Bill, Ken, Mike, Keith and I rig rods on the deck of the Reisastua Lodge. The rigging session is a delicious moment in the arc of a week on a salmon river. Your time on the river stretches before you. Optimism runs high, and the minor disappointments that are inevitable during a week of anadromous fishing have yet to reveal themselves. Fatigue is not yet a factor. Doubt, the sort that arrives after a dozen consecutive pools without a fish, has yet to fix itself in your consciousness. Your waders have no leaks that you know of, your hooks are sharp, and no salmon can resist the fly at the end of your leader. It’s going to be a good week.
As my rod has not arrived, I help Keith rig up his rod. Bill informs me that Keith’s nickname is “Hoover” due to the prodigious number of fish that he catches on salmon and steelhead rivers. Keith does not seem pleased with this revelation. “Hoover” is an enviable nickname in our sport, superior to, say, “Skunkie” or “Black Cloud.” Bill suggests that I tie a couple of overhand knots in Hoover’s tippet to even the odds for the other anglers. Bill is our group leader and, as it turns out, Hoover’s father-in-law.
Roar Olsen, the proprietor of Reisastua Lodge and our host, has prepared some magnificent fishing for us. The Reisa is organized in a series of numbered sectors with a limited number of anglers assigned to each sector. The system resembles the Controlled Exploitation Zone (ZEC) that I am familiar with in the Province of Quebec. The system works well on the Reisa, although one might need a course in River Management 101 to grasp the intricacies of the program.
The week starts off with a bang as Bill is nearly spooled by a large salmon at a pool just below the lodge. Bill is fishing a 15-foot for a 10-weight rod and knows how to put the mustard to a fish from long experience fishing for both Pacific steelhead and Atlantic salmon. Bill hooked the salmon on a cast of moderate length. The run is impressive. The salmon quickly removes his shooting head, his shooting line and 400 yards of gel-spun backing from his saltwater reel in one sustained run. As the arbor of his reel comes into view, the hook mercifully pulls. Bill spends the next ten minutes winding his backing and line onto his reel.
Hoover is up to his old tricks, hooking fish seemingly at will. I watch Keith carefully. Like many a good angler, he keeps his fly in the water and moves with considerable economy. He covers the short and intermediate lies with precision before moving on to longer casts. Salmon are often closer than you think, which can be a difficult notion to impart to many anglers. In spite of the high water, Keith hooks a solid fish in the head of the run. The reel handle catches on a fold of his wading jacket. The salmon straightens out a double tube hook and is gone.
Ken, who hails from Livingston, Montana, may be the most dedicated Atlantic salmon angler in the Treasure State. He annually fishes in Quebec, Iceland and Norway, with each visit to salmon country punctuated by a return to the spring creeks of Paradise Valley. Like Mike, Bill and Keith, Ken has enough two-handed rods and shooting heads to justify keeping a divorce attorney on speed dial. (My inventory of all of the above exceeds that of Mike, Bill, Keith and Ken, however I headed this little problem off at the pass by never getting married.) These are my kind of guys. Like me, they are convinced that the perfect piece of gear is right around the corner.
Scott Mackenzie is in camp, and he’s quite something to watch with a two-handed rod. He has somehow mastered the ability to pull a fast-sinking shooting head out of the water and execute a single spey, without using a roll cast to get the line out of the water. His line and leader never piles when setting the anchor prior to the forward cast. I’ve not seen the like. There’s a lot of practice there (as one might expect from a former professional gillie) and a healthy dose of natural talent. Scott assures me that his tournament-casting days are over, but I’m not so sure.
The irrepressible and ever jovial Matt Harris is also in camp. Matt is late to the party on the Reisa because he was shooting the new Bentley SUV catalog in Iceland. He has been hanging out with supermodels on glaciers while drinking prosecco and eating Parma ham. Perhaps I exaggerate, but the part about the supermodels is true. I tell Matt that Bentley would sell a lot more SUVs if they put me and Scott Mackenzie in skin-tight neoprene waders on the hood of their new off-pavement vehicle. Would you prefer to buy an SUV with supermodels draped on the hood or would you rather see a couple of live speycasters on the bonnet of the same vehicle? O.K., point taken.
We have been unlucky with the high water. I’m told they received even more rain on the Alta River just to the north of us. The first three weeks of the season have been more or less a blowout. That is salmon fishing. As A.J. McClane said, they don’t hand out crying towels on salmon rivers. Jo and Johnny, who are from East Anglia, bring us another round of gin and tonics. We are not drowning our sorrows as it is likely that we would be drinking the same volume of gin and tonics irrespective of the water levels. Tomorrow we will be fishing the world’s most beautiful salmon river on falling water. SAS delivered my Sage rod late this afternoon, and it’s still in four pieces. And nobody makes a gin and tonic quite like an Englishman.
Topher Browne is a Sage ambassador and the author of Atlantic Salmon Magic (Wild River Press, 2011). Photography by Matt Harris.