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Catching large salmon in River Mandal - a river better known for its grilse - in the Southern part of Norway.
My friend Ole's voice sounded sincere and I certainly took his question seriously.
I knew he was serious because he is the editor-in-chief of the largest Danish fishing magazine, and occasionally gets offered such trips. I knew he hated asking me, because he on the other hand knew that I had planned a two week long fishing trip to Colorado a few weeks later.
Of course I immediately confirmed that I was on! I just had to make sure it is OK with my family and that I could keep the calendar clear of meetings that particular week.
Things worked out, and within hours we had agreed on a trip together to the Norwegian river Mandalseleven.
The deal was that I made my way to Ole's hometown, which is a few hours by train and that we paid for our own meals. The rest was taken care of by the Norwegian tourist office, who wanted to promote this easily accessible river to fishers as well as other tourists.
It was late summer, and not the traditional time to go salmon fishing, but a few late season grilse would not be bad. Mandal I known to be a small salmon river with an average weight of less than two kilos or four pounds, which is small when we are talking salmon. On the other hand the number of fish caught is large. Thousands, actually, every season of the last few years, where the fishing has been excellent.
Flies and gear
Before the trip my only salmon rod was a 14' 10 weight two hand salmon rod and an accompanying Bringsen anti reverse reel. A swell combination that has brought me through salmon fishing before. But for lighter fishing as we could expect it on the Mandal, I'd prefer a shorter and lighter rod. A 11-12' 8 weight would be perfect.
I used to have one.
I actually still do, but a friend of a friend unfortunately turned a perfect 3-piece rod into a useless 4-piece when he borrowed it on the Swedish river Mörrum. It was a cheap rod that I had bought used, and I never got around to ask him to replace it.
Under all circumstances: I needed a lighter rod.
I checked friends and connections for a good offer, but found none.
I referred to the web, soared through a couple of web sites with used stuff, and stumbled over a Daiwa Whisker 12' for sale for less than 100 US$.
One phone call, a bicycle trip to a neighborhood close by and I was a light salmon rod wealthier. Like most of you I have lines to serve an army and reels to hold them too, so within long I was ready.
I tied up a bunch of small salmon flies on double hooks, and added a few light tube flies tied on my favorite Bidoz tubes. I packed boxes with what else I had that would look good in the jaw of a 5 kilo salmon.
I really was ready.
We decided to have me take a late train and sleep over at Ole's place in order for me not to have an extremely early day. The two of us headed off in Ole's car the next morning after having shopped to feed about 5-6 grown men.
We rode to the northern part of Denmark, caught a ferry, which would take us to Kristianssand in southern Norway.
PS: Never see large production movies such as "Star Wars episode I" on mediocre large screen systems on ferries.
We arrived in the afternoon, and immediately headed for the town Mandal at the river mouth. From there we rode upstream towards the town Øyslebø where we were supposed to stay the first couple of nights in Høgtun kultursenter, a large center for culture and art, which also has rooms to rent for about 10 people.
We made contact with a lady from the local tourist office, who let us into the house and told us a bit about the area.
The house was great, located about five minutes from the river, and as soon as we had picked each a room and eaten a bit, we decided to go night fishing for sea trout.
When it darkens in places like this, it really darkens. This time of year there is no stripe of light on the horizon, and wading in an unknown river can feel somewhat exciting.
We spotted a nice stretch from a bridge, parked the car and rigged our rods. As we approached the water we had only the last light to navigate by, and as we entered the darkness swept around us.
Fishing in the night like this has always been a great pleasure to me. I feel much more concentrated and you learn how to cast by feeling the rod rather than by watching and thinking.
My light two hand rod acted like a dream. Easy and effortless casting, nice reach even though I rarely shoot much line when fishing at night.
The water was shallow with a deeper run close to the shore. I found a gravel bar to walk on, and started fishing my way downstream with a small orange tube fly on the tippet. I snagged a couple of times, but found the edge of the deeper water and started fishing concentrated.
My first fish...
Nothing really happened. It was getting darker, so changed to a muddler tied on a tube to get some more profile - and just for the fun of it. I had contact within two casts.
But... it was no salmon. A small half pound brown trout had taken the large fly with vigor, and splashed helplessly at the end of my line. Ole yelled to hear what I had, but I had to disappoint him. No salmon or sea trout this time.
The brownies appeared to like my muddler, because I landed a couple more had several fruitless strikes.
A 3 or 4 weight and a small lightweight muddler had been a better weapon this night.
We gave up after a couple of hours, tired from travel and new impressions.
The next morning we had arranged with a local guide to give us a trip along the river. We rode his old car upstream, and stopped to inspect each of the interesting spots on the stream. Mandal is divided into four zones.
Zone 1 downstream closest to the sea is wide, slowly flowing and deep. This pool is fished from boat, and was not particularly interesting to us. The most remarkable thing we saw there was a big net of the kind that swings across and almost closes off the river. More on that later.
Zone 2 is a very interesting and varying stretch. It is divided into dozens of small beats, that can be fished by 2-6 people each day. This is the most expensive part of the river.
Zone 3 and 4 are open stretches with much variation and no division into beats. These zones are fairly inexpensive and large enough to hold dozens of people. A long stretch in the middle of these zones is closed for fishing due to the fact that most of the water here is taken and used for hydroelectricity. Between the intake and outflow the river runs very low. The fish only pass this stretch during a so called lokkeflom - a rise in the water that runs through the natural river to entice the fish to travel further upstream. The river is heavily influenced by the use of water for hydroelectricity and regulated and marred in many places.
Other stretches are beautiful, naturally floating sections where most people would find the ambience and type of landscape they would expect from a nice Norwegian river.
When we left our guide we were about as ready to fish as you get! We had only four fishing days and the first one was half gone.
We decided to acquire licenses for zone 3 and 4 the first two days and try to get a zone 2 beat for the third day. The licenses are good for 24 hours and the guard on the zone 2 beats shifts at 6 o'clock in the afternoon. So the last evening would be zone 3 again - a good decision it would turn out.
How great it was to be swinging the two hand rod again! This is a type of fishing I do all too rarely. The ryhtm, the calm, the wading and concentrated feeling of really fishing is unique. It is too bad that waters for this type of fishing lie so far away from where I live.
A second thing about salmon fishing is the fact that salmon show themselves. We saw fish many times during our stay. All small grilse leaping on their way upstream. Every time you see such a fish you get the feeling that the next cast will be the one that gets you a fish.
The first real fish
Now it might be so that we saw small fish, but we - or rather Ole - caught big ones. The average size of the fish in Mandal is about 1.5 to 2 kilos or 3-4 lbs. this time of year. When we are talking salmon that is small fish. We could see from the reports that fish were caught, but not many.
Late on our second day we were fishing a particularly nice looking stretch of zone 3. The neck of a fairly complex pool where the water entered through a rough fall and left after having passed a smooth, fast stretch. I had just left Ole to fish a bit downstream, and had passed a small hill and lost visual contact with him.
I heard the intensity.
I was already running, and right enough: Ole was posed on the bank, rod deeply bent and his eyes very concentrated on the spot where his line disappeared into the water.
We both estimated the fish to be more than decent, and Ole handled the situation with the respect that is required when connection with a decent fish is so rare.
I personally scooted around and clicked off dozens of photos of him.
The fish gave a fair fight and was not in a mood to give up easily, but reluctantly wound up in a calm back eddy. It gave up a couple of last efforts to reenter the faster water, and soon Ole could grab its tail and land it.
It was a large male. And by large I mean really large. 7 kilos or about 14 lbs., which is a giant in these waters.
The fish and fisher were suitably photographed in numerous different postures and the moment was savored by both of us. There were fish in the river after all.
We of course proceeded to fish the same stretch again, and kept on doing so for a while, but to no avail.
When darkness came a little later we went upstream to Fuglestveit camping to weigh, clean and register the catch. It is customary to do so in order to keep track of catches, and it has a nice touch to it to hang a large fish from the hook in the scale by the small roofed message board where the register is kept.
We returned home a slept well that night.
The next day we had ample time to enjoy the landscape and play tourists before we were destined to fish on a beat in zone 2. We drove along the Kongeveien (King's Road), which is a picturesque gravel road that goes along the right river bank when facing downstream. This brought us by some very scenic and appetizing parts of the river and by the large fall Haugefossen in the northern part of zone 2. The fall is known to be very productive, and the pool just below the fall is the most expensive on the whole river with a price tag of NKK 1500.- or about 200 US$. This includes a primitive cabin and the right to fish two anglers on the beat 24 hours from 6 PM to 6 PM the next day. The stretch is mostly fished with sinkers and worms and is not really suited for flyfishing.
Many other zone 2 beats have ideal flyfishing stretches. That was the case with the beat we had access to. Hauge B is located just downstream from the large pool below the Haugefoss. Where the river exits the lake like pool, it forms a fast and very inviting stretch after which it widens into a broad, shallow and slow mass of water.
We fished our beat shortly in the evening before dark and the whole next day until our licenses ran out at 6 PM, but even though we saw many smaller fish moving upstream, we did not feel a single one attempting at our flies.
In the evening of our last Mandal day we decided to visit Zone 3 again. This would reveal itself to be a wise choice. We scooted a bit up and down the stream and found different stretches to fish. All were very inviting indeed except perhaps the stone walled stretch just below the outlet from the power turbines.
We settled down on a stretch with shallow and slow water on one side and faster deeper water close to the opposite bank. A bit downstream the river ran over a ledge and formed a wide rapid while the upstream stretch was more narrow and deep.
I concentrated on the deeper water under the opposite bank and Ole followed the current downstream. As darkness quietly settled over the river, I saw many small salmon moving upstream, but the most profound sign of life was hundreds of rings from brown trout or grayling rising over the weedy, shallow part.
I truly missed my small 4 weight split cane rod and a bunch of caddis flies, which would have given me a lot more action than I saw on my two hand rod and my salmon flies.
I was resting up a tree in the darkness when Ole returned.
"Any luck?" He asked.
All I could do was tell him no.
"How about yourself?", I replied.
That was when the smirky smile broke on his lips and he turned and dropped a fish on the ground.
If not he had caught another one in the same size! A shiny female, probably somewhere between six and seven kilos or upwards towards fourteen punds!
So much for River Mandal… the grilse and small salmon river in the Southern Norway.
Some of the patterns
Ole caught his first salmon on a small red salmon fly on a double hook and the second one on a classic Lady Amherst. The flies in my box - which caught me nothing but brownies - were a selection of flies tied for light summer fishing in low water.
This heavy muddler brought me fish, but not salmon. Diving deep and being a very goo minnow imitation, it is able to bring trout out of the depths. Read more details and see how to tie the fly step-by-step in this article.
B & B
Black and blue was the original fly in a series that can be expanded endlessly, and lent its name from a Joni Mitchell album. Not surprising it is also the colors of the fly.
B & O
Another fly in the B & series. With no relation to a well known Danish manufacturer of home electronics, this fly is simply named from its colors black and orange.
This pattern is tied as a common wet fly for brown trout, but has here been adapted for salmon.
A fly that is based on the heavy orange Bidoz brass tube. These painted tubes makes it real easy to tie a colorful fly literally in seconds. The only disadvantage is that the paint will be nicked off after too many contacts with a rocky bottom.
Cone heads will work well on most salmon tube flies tied on plastic tubes. This particular cone is from André Bidoz, whose selection features several colors and sizes.
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