Greenland and the travel bug

Until Greenland, I’d never been on an international trip ostensibly just for fishing. Sure, I’d read the magazines with the spectacular pictures of spectacular fish in exotic locations, and maybe dreamed a little, but I’d never really considered I’d be doing it.

I suppose for many of us, life rolls along and finances are focussed on families, cars, houses, etc. Dropping some serious money on an international fishing trip just isn’t in the thinking mix – well not realistically anyway.

I don’t know what the catalyst was. Maybe it me realising I was getting older, that some of my friends had sudden health issues which impacted on both mobility and travel, and that my passport was languishing in a dark dusty draw and hadn’t seen the light of day for several years… but I started to think more seriously about extending my fishing horizons.

I heard Aussie Fly Fisher was planning a trip to Greenland to check out Kangia River Lodge and the Arctic char fishing it offers. The seeds were planted. Talking about it with friends, the seeds germinated. “It’s GREENLAND! Why wouldn’t you go?” As I didn’t have a credible answer, I rang Josh and got aboard the trip.

I knew nothing about Greenland apart from the fact it was a long way north – and that on a map, it was (ironically) the white one while Iceland was the green one. And of course there were polar bears, whales and Northern Lights. My thinking was, ‘If you’re going to begin your international fishing jaunts, Greenland is a good place to start!’

Travelling to Greenland from Melbourne is a bit of babushka doll travel. You start in a very large aircraft, then each of four flights via Qatar, Copenhagen, Kangerlussaq and Maniistoq are in progressively smaller planes. Then there’s a boat trip, and finally a small inflatable to get you to shore at the lodge. You’re also accompanied by progressively fewer people, until it’s just you, the lodge guests (maximum 12) the two guides and three staff. These are the only people you see for a week.

Northern Lights above the lodge.

The Kangia River Lodge is perched on a rocky outcrop commanding views of the nearby fjord and the huge cliffs that enclose the glacier-carved river valley. The river, meandering along the valley floor, was extremely low due to a hotter than usual summer and a lack of rain.

The target species for this trip is Arctic char. Arctic char are a cold water salmonid and have a variable life history. While they can be found in places from alpine lakes to Arctic and subarctic coastal waters, the Kangia River char are anadromous and enter the stream to spawn at the end of the Arctic summer. Char are typically the only freshwater fish found this far north.

The short angling season occurs pre spawning, when the char return to the river from the sea. Like many salmonids, the fish undergo a change and dress up in special spawning attire. It must be said that Arctic char go all out in this regard and transform from silver ocean fish into a stunning brightly-coloured spawning look; often complete with red lipstick and red noses.

All dressed up.

The actual fishing at Kangia is off the charts. Thousands of char enter freshwater to progress to spawning areas and the fish fill the river. Theoretically, the adult char aren’t feeding once they leave the sea; however they will react to flies put in front of them… sometimes. Overall, despite the number of fish, it isn’t always easy angling. The fish seem to have active periods when they readily react to flies, and other times when they shut down. This makes for interesting angling, as the fly that worked the day before can be ignored the next day. Even the fly that worked 10 minutes ago suddenly can’t raise a scale and a change is called for. But finding ‘THE’ pattern may take a few changes.

The angling is mainly swinging wet flies, but poppers are way too much fun to pass up and an exciting way to fish. Watching several char chasing down your quickly-stripped surface fly is very addictive. When your arms tired of stripping and fighting fish, another approach was to pick out individual char (the biggest if possible!) from among the masses. This was fascinating, as casts and drifts needed to place the fly right in front of the fish—but still with no guarantee of a hook-up.

Another Arctic char colour scheme.

The flies we used were barbless and having some weight was often important to get them down to the bottom: the char wouldn’t move far to take a fly (poppers excluded!). Most patterns incorporated tungsten beads, and often had rubber legs attached, but I also used heavy lead-eyed flies or added weight to the leader. Effective fly colours varied from olives and natural colours through to whites and even chartreuse. If I had to pick a favourite fly, it was a simple, lightly-dressed chartreuse and white Clouser.

Arctic char fight very hard and the guides revealed that they account for several rod breakages over a season. Char have a very quick turn of speed that can surprise you and they never give up. Six weight outfits are about right, although I used a 5 weight,  over-lined so I could easily turn over heavy flies.

Overall the Kangia River is a stunning fishery and Greenland is a stunning place. You cannot escape the fact that even while the fishing is so good, you are in Greenland. The scale and country is hard to portray with words and pictures, and it’s such a land of contrasts.

The rocks are heavy, strong and stoic – standing up to centuries of harsh temperatures, snow and grinding ice. Yet the valley is delicate and easily impacted; the walking track to the fishing areas was well-trodden and several inches deep in places.

The scale of the valleys and mountains is huge, rising and falling hundreds of steep metres. But the plants are tiny: the biggest tree reaching just to head height, and most vegetation is less than a foot tall.

The rocks seem timeless, but the warm seasons are short. I watched autumn appear over the week of my visit as the low plants turned red and then yellow with the approaching colder months. The fishing season is only 8 weeks.

And while the island is huge, the entire Greenland population would only half fill the stands at the MCG.

A Greenland town during its brief break from winter.

So the trip was great. Well organised by Aussie Fly Fisher and with no niggles. And now that I’m back and in reflection mode, I’m wondering why I haven’t done this type of fishing trip before. I’m already thinking of where the next one will be…

Travel is a good thing. Obviously, I went for the fishing but came away with so much more. Apart from the euphoria and fantastic experiences of the trip, I did also leave with a sense of sadness, brought on by the impacts of climate change which are being felt hard in Greenland. I wondered how long the pristine nature of this amazing fishery will remain, given the recurring low flows and warming Arctic temperatures.

I didn’t expect to be personally affected by a fishing trip as much as I was. But that’s the power of travel; it opens your eyes and your mind.