Sometimes, to the fisherman, it seems inevitable that wild salmon will go the way of the aurochs and become extinct – 2014 was such a moment. The number of fish returning to rivers on both sides of the Atlantic was so low it appeared to confirm what anglers have long suspected, that extinction in the wild is an inescapable consequence of domestication. And yet, while famous rivers appeared to have little to report, the fish counter at Kattilakoski was turning at full tilt as some 104,000 salmon entered the Torne river.
Guide Lars Munk sits back to let the figures sink in. “And the fish counter only counts fish over 70cm,” says my fishing companion Håkan Stenlund, from the Swedish Lapland Visitors Board. The three of us are sitting over a bottle of whisky in the Lapland Incentive Guesthouse in Kangos, planning our fishing for the next day. The hotel is a collection of rescued traditional wooden houses and sheds – painted red with white trim – that glow in the setting sun. Except the sun hasn’t yet set and it’s half past midnight. We will be up again at 5am. On the bridge across the Lainio an old boy is fishing with a large silver spinner. He wears orange ear protectors with a built-in radio. He hasn’t caught anything but he is happy. “They are coming!” he calls.
For Stenlund and me, Kangos, some 120km north of the Arctic Circle, is the starting point of a five-day salmon-fishing road trip through Swedish Lapland. We follow Munk onto forestry roads along the Lainio, a tributary of the Torne. It is early in the season, the week before midsummer. Stenlund reckons this will be the most difficult place on our itinerary to land a fish, but Munk knows a pool that’s a good bet on a sunny morning. He points out the sweet spot, the dimples on the surface, but before the fly gets there the line goes tight and is pulled off the reel. There’s no question that it’s a salmon, and just as all doubt vanishes, so does the fish. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or encouraged. The positive – I’ve had a good bite in the place expected to be the most difficult. The negative – the negative has to wait, because another salmon has taken the fly and jumped clean out of the water.
There’s a light frost on the car at 3am the next day when we set off for Pajala. We rejoin Munk and cross the Torne on the road to Finland. The river looks serene, but 5km downstream it turns into a rabid animal in the rapids at Kengis. When Munk shows me where to start fishing, I think he is joking, but just below the first vicious cataract there is a rocky point that shelters a pot of upwelling water. It’s an ideal place for a salmon to rest. Munk gives me detailed instructions on what to do when I hook a fish. “If it gets its nose into the current, it’s gone,” he says. I’m not sure I want to hook one here, but I do. It’s a big fish; it flashes at the surface. Munk says it’s around the 10kg mark. I’m trying to keep it out of the white water, but as I battle for control, my line goes slack. The combined weight of fish and water has straightened the hook.
On the road to our next river, the Kalix, we talk about what sets the Baltic fish apart from other populations of Atlantic salmon, not just in terms of numbers, but also size. “The real difference is that these salmon stay in the Baltic getting fat on herring,” says Stenlund. “They don’t go out into the Atlantic and behave almost like landlocked fish. So the deals that have been done with local commercial fishermen over seasons and quotas have led to local increases in numbers.”
Nonetheless, it seems counterintuitive that salmon can thrive in a body of water as contaminated as the Baltic, but the pollution actually works in their favour. It means the Baltic is not suitable for salmon farming and the wild salmon have levels of dioxins considered unsafe for children and pregnant women to eat more than twice a year. Yet however many fish there are and however big, it is hard to see how they get past Jockfall.
The road has been following a placid stretch of the Kalix, but as we round a corner we come to a bridge and see the waterfall, the whole river squeezed together and extruded through a rocky gap with a force that is mesmerising. Downstream of the bridge is one of Sweden’s best-known salmon pools, a huge cauldron where fish hold while waiting to swim up the falls. (There is also a fish pass, but many salmon still choose the direct route.) Both shores are lined with fishermen, one side fly, the other spin. “They change sides at midnight,” says Ronny Landin. The Landin family has been running the roadhouse next to the falls since the 1970s. Ronny, the youngest son, is a world fly-casting champion.
Landin takes us to a tributary of the Kalix, the Ängesån, a dreamy piece of fly water, but inevitably, in front of the champ, my casting deteriorates. Stenlund turns to his smartphone for fishing reports. “They’ve had four fish from this stretch over the past two days with an average weight of 16kg,” he relays. It takes a moment to do the conversion: that’s 35lb. “The best was over 18. There may not be many, but they are all big.” There are 40lb salmon in this river right now, and I’m casting like a dork. When I finish the pool, Landin steps up with his 17ft competition rod and casts almost to the other side.
We are up early again and go a couple of kilometres downstream from Jockfall to fish the Kalix itself. I catch a beautiful sea trout of 6lb, but it is not what I am after. In the afternoon, we return to the Ängesån and while Stenlund goes back to the car to get his phone, I have the pool to myself. The cloud of the morning is clearing away and the water becomes translucent amber. My casting has recovered and tips from Landin mean I am shooting line further than before. It’s debatable whether I am still fishing or just casting when something takes my fly. It’s not a violent take. There is a clunk, a weight, and as I lift my rod, a swirl at the surface. I’m expecting the fish to take off downstream now it has felt the hook, but it is swimming towards me and I am reeling in line frantically. It’s still there, I can feel it turn and then I can’t feel it any more. Stenlund comes back with news that someone upstream just landed a salmon over 50lb.
Fishing is as much about loss as capture. This loss hurt me, but it is to salve wounds like these that fishermen keep on fishing and looking for places where the fishing will be better. So it was on a fishing trip abroad that Kent Lindvall spoke to his companions about the dream he and his wife Britta had to build a magical treehouse. Three of them were architects; together they built the Treehotel. Britta welcomes us to the hotel with stories and a reindeer stew, but secretly I just want to shut myself away in the Mirrorcube where no one can see me grieve.
The Byske river is our next destination and we meet ex-guide Ted Logardt at Fällfors, a set of rapids some 30km from the sea. With improving returns of good-sized fish, the Byske has been a key player in the Baltic revival. That morning we fish pockets in the rapids and a couple more pools below, to no avail. We stop for lunch at the Byske Gästgivargård, the dining room full of men in waders, their studs clicking on the laminate floor. We fish hard in the afternoon too, but without a touch. We fish till after midnight, grab some sleep at the inn and go out again at 5am. We see fish moving – big fish. We hear of fish being caught, fish over the metre mark. But we flog the water without success.
We break out of the feverish Byske valley and head to Skellefteå to regroup over dinner at the stylish Bryggargatan. (We take our waders off in the street outside.) There is only one session left. Over a starter of bleak roe, Logardt suggests going to the Åby, a little north of the Byske – smaller, charming. It is indeed beautiful water and we fish it well, but still we catch nothing. We arrive at the final pool. In five days Stenlund and I have covered more than 2,000km and fished seven rivers, but now it has come to this: tying on a large Sunray Shadow, a fly of last resort, and fishing down the pool one more time. It is after 1am on midsummer’s eve. The sun is both setting and rising. Stenlund says it only takes one cast to turn failure into triumph. Maybe this is the cast that will change everything. Or this one. Or this.