Mike is just back from experiencing nyheteus behag (the pleasure of new things) north of the Arctic Circle.
Lapland, Europe’s Arctic wilderness, has always intrigued me. The more I read about fishing there, the more excited I got: the world’s biggest grayling smashing dry flies 24/7 under the midnight sun, gigantic pike chasing poppers on endless lakes, and a chance to catch the truly stunning Arctic char between snow-capped mountains. It was a place I had to fish one day.
So, when my mother asked me to attend her 80th birthday in The Netherlands this July, of course I was going to be the good son and travel to Europe mid-summer – but with a detour to Swedish Lapland already firming in my mind as a travel extension! The question was, how to combine guided fishing with DIY hiking and fishing in this vast, remote area? And were mosquitoes going to suck the fun out of the trip?
To get the fishing adrenaline out of my system, I decided to make the first part of the Lapland trip guided. I went ahead and booked a few days on the Kaitum River with the Swedish outfitter ‘Fish Your Dream’.
After that, I would retrace my steps north, meet up with my wife, and hike a part of the famous Kungsleden trail (a 440km walk through Swedish Lapland), and fish as the opportunity arose.
During long road trips, my fishing friends and I sometimes ponder what makes an ideal fishery. Elements always include a large lake that’s linked to river systems to guarantee angling options, food for the fish, and a base from which big fish can populate the rivers.
I subsequently discovered that Lapland adds further layers to the concept of ‘ideal’. Due to its Arctic location, the season here only lasts 6 to 8 weeks, and every insect, every fish and every plant has to use that time for a burst of frenzied growth. Secondly, in summer the sun never sets, meaning you can truly fish 24/7! Finally, the lakes of Lapland are vast (think Queenstown’s Wakatipu) but the food of those entire systems is often channelled through a few narrow streams on its way to the sea. This is one reason why the Kaitum River is on the world list of top rivers to flyfish. It was time to hook some grayling!
Before we got too excited about the fishing though, there was the matter of mozzies. Were these blood sucking vampires going to swarm on me and ruin the experience? When I arrived at the Kaitum River, I was still dressed in shorts and T-shirt. The sandfly and mozzie repellent I had with me from NZ (if it failed, there was nuclear-charged DEET as a back-up) was somewhere stuck deep inside my backpack. That was a mistake. As I looked down, about a dozen mozzies landed on my legs simultaneously. Ouch!
However, after covering up with waders, a buff and liberally-applied repellent, I kept the mozzies off. Sometimes the Arctic wind would pick up, which also put the mozzies down.
Whilst being a minor nuisance on some parts of the trip, with the right precautions the mozzies never affected me as much as I feared. The supercharged (nasty) DEET was not required. And mozzie bites can serve a noble purpose. A book I was reading about life in the Arctic, explained that the larva make up such a big part of the diet of fish and birds. If you are being bitten, the mosquito can lay more eggs, which helps to increase the food supply. This idea was at least a consolation!
If grayling worked in corporate life, they would be legal counsel. They study and ponder and scrutinise your fly for so long, by the time they finally make a decision (i.e. to eat the fly) you are seriously contemplating life, the universe and everything. Grayling tend to sit in deeper water but are prepared to rise freely for the dry. When they see the fly coming from a distance, they let themselves float up gracefully, with the strong current pushing them back. They then intercept the fly and dive straight down to the bottom to retake their position. It’s this splash as they turn that makes for truly spectacular takes.
This feeding behaviour means grayling get a good, long look at your fly, so any micro-drag sees them abort mission. It also means that when you see a grayling rise, you have to cast further above it than you would for a trout.
So, casting to grayling goes like this: cast about 45 degrees upstream with a reach mend or a curve, immediately followed by one large and one small mend. Then follow the fly down with the rod.
Were the grayling feeding on specific hatches? The funny thing was, if a good long drift did not produce a take, the guide would ask me to change to one of my other flies and the same cast would often produce a fish. I asked why and the guide shrugged his shoulders. “Nyheteus behag”, he replied. So we rotated through three types of dry (mayfly, sedge and caddis emergers) and caught fish consistently.
If nothing showed, I took out my Czech nymph rod. Not many people fish nymphs here, as the dry fly fishing is so good. But I like catching fish and often the same number of grayling could be hooked from a lie that seemed fished out, proving again how effective the Czech technique is.
The release of a grayling required a bit of care. You needed to hold the fish gently in the wake downstream of your leg so it could recover. Then, the grayling would signal it was ready to go and kick out of your hand with a flip of the tail. Something to try at home on trout; I’m sure they will appreciate the service!
Most grayling I caught in Lapland were 40cm plus, with 50cm or more considered trophy size. They are great looking fish!
There were a few remote location challenges. For instance, on my first day on the Kaitum, I broke the tip of my 6 weight whilst playing a good-sized brown trout. This meant I had no dry fly rod for the next part of my trip. And I desperately wanted to have a dry fly rod with me. So after the Kaitum, I asked the bus driver to drop me off at the only local hunting store in Kiruna (a remote mining town used as the setting for the broody crime series ‘Midnight Sun’). I went in and with only 30 minutes before the shop closed, I asked to see the 6 weights they had, looked at both models (luckily both were fairly cheap), held them in my hand briefly and chose the one in the nicest colour! This was for sure my quickest rod purchase ever; and I now had an extra rod tube to carry with a new Vision Vapa on my back.
The Kungsleden Trail
Having caught grayling, pike and brown trout whilst guided on the Kaitum River, the second part of the trip was DIY hiking the Kungsleden Trail. My wife and I started from a place called Nikkaluokta. From there, the trail took us under Sweden’s highest mountain, the Kebenekaise, to a railway station called Vakkotavare, some 70km south. We averaged 16km a day along an uneven, rocky path that typically rose and fell about 100 to 500m. The huts along the way are provided by the Swedish tourist organisation (STF) and they had water, gas and bunk beds.
Long hikes in mountain areas like this mean packing clothes for any weather. With our packs full of layers of hi-tech warm and waterproof gear, of course Murphy’s Law saw temperatures soar in Europe during the exact week we hiked the trail. It reached 30C in Lapland; unusually hot. So instead of trying to stay warm, we had to resort to ‘Aussie-style’ cooling tactics in the Arctic Circle!
The weight of your pack and your fitness are two keys to a successful hike. Nick Taransky’s article Fishing Fit in FlyStream details this very well. A self-catered trip like the Kungsleden hike requires you to be organised and in good shape!
Given the time and energy spent walking each day, I also had to be ready to drop the pack and immediately start fishing to maximise any window of opportunity. This meant keeping gear to a minimum. I had a reel and a lanyard with flies and tippet ready to go, and I could pull the rod from its tube quicker than John Wayne could draw a gun! I also left my waders behind on the hike, although the glacial water meant that, even in the warmth of the Arctic summer, I couldn’t really wet-wade. I had to adapt my fishing accordingly and constantly look for suitable bank access. It required me to think through specific fishing problems that come with a minimalist outfit.
One such challenge arose along a particularly deep and fast section that I could access via some big boulders. However, I could see at once that both dries and nymphs were flying over the heads of the fish too fast for them to respond. After giving this some thought, I did the unusual thing of tying a double tungsten to the top dropper, and a tungsten Magoo on the point some two feet behind it.
I presented the new system up and across the current, and on the downstream swing and mend it produced a very nice brown trout. On another occasion, I had to fish a double nymph rig without indicator along a lake with massive waves blowing hard onto boulders the size of small family cars. Fishing that system with a mixture of ‘down and across’ and Czech-style produced some great Arctic char.
How good it was to fish in this Lapland wonderland of snow-capped mountains, beautiful lakes and rivers, and where the evening rise lasts the whole night. While my tired legs, cooking the evening meal and so on meant that in practice I could often only fish for an hour or two upon arriving at each hut, at least the endless evening meant there was no rush to avoid missing the action.
On top of that, most days ended with a splendid sauna which the Swedes prepare at each hut, followed by a jump in the lake to cool down. The sauna culture is one you quickly get used to and it truly invigorates your body. It also offered unexpected opportunities to chat with the mainly Swedish trekkers and flyfishers I met along the way. Some were very experienced individuals, each with their own stories to tell. So even in a place where the sun does not set there’s never enough time to fish and talk fish!
Guided or DIY, Lapland is a fantastic flyfishing destination. Perhaps we flyfishers find pleasure in new fisheries to expand our minds, strengthen our bodies and lift our spirits and our fly rods. Nyheteus behag – it’s certainly a worthy flyfishing motto.