Fishin’ Impossible

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Gazing out across the still, silent North Sea from the raised timber decking of “Å”, an abruptly-named sea camp of in northern Norway, is quite an experience. It’s hard to believe you’re looking over the same patch of sea that Edgar Allen Poe, that master of the macabre, once described in Descent into the Maelstrom, his tale of shipwrecked horror.

That calm bay – flat as glass, reflecting the purples, reds and golds of the Arctic dawn sky – is a smiling assassin. On the surface, its betrays little of the savagery of its darker moods.

Å is set on the Southern tip of the Lofoten Archipelago, some 100 miles North of Iceland. Even this far above the Arctic Circle, the gulf stream takes the claws out of the weather, making it a breathtakingly lovely place to hike through untouched seams of nature or to kayak along vertical-sided fjords, killer whales watching from the troughs of the waves.

Outside the winter months, the area is rich in things to do and see. As a result, there’s a surprising number of hardy folk seeking a Scandinavianly-organised mini-adventure, all in a place where the history is just as rugged as the geography.

These Magic Islands are home to the world’s northernmost and most haunting surfing beaches. It was here – at Unstad beach – that the makers of E2K, that 1999 cult surf epic, found the perfect backdrop. Since then, it has been home to a growing and thriving surfer community.

It’s a paradise with jagged edges, however, and no less beautiful for that. In high summer, you can go scuba diving at midnight, while being screamed at by eagles and skuas. In the winter, guided off-piste skiing plunges you from the summit to sea level via one of the most dramatic powder-snow runs on the planet.

Back in 1941, its sheltered bays obscured the landing of British Commandos who – with the help of 52 men from the Norwegian Royal Navy – sank 18,000 tonnes of German shipping. They also captured an Enigma code machine with its cypher books, greatly abbreviating WW2.

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The thing most people come here for, though, has been the backbone of the archipelago’s economy for the last 1000 years – fishing. These rich waters – from here to the breeding grounds in the Barents Sea -are stuffed with huge cod, halibut, coalfish and the fish further down the food chain that they, in turn, prey upon.

Travel here is not, however, package-hol straightforward. From Oslo, you may have to take a couple of jumps, the planes getting smaller and smaller the farther North you travel. SAS will take you as far as the sparse Northern football town of Bodø – make time here to take in a simple, but hugely enjoyable seafood supper in one of the harbourside restaurants – before then making your way back to Bodø airport and the final skip. Courtesy of Widerøe Airlines, this takes you across to Leknes, the main hub for the islands.

Bodø has just one check-in and a carousel not much longer than a supermarket checkout. At certain times of day, you may have the place to yourself, aside from the occasional visit of a surly staff member. Inevitably, he will check you in, bark instructions as to where you should wait for your plane and then disappear again.

Widerøe pilots, it seems, are made of sterner stuff than your average skybus driver. They all have the taut, lean, but careworn carriage and steely 1000-metre stare that comes from steering a 30-year-old De Havilland twin-prop through brooding, battleship-coloured murk to airports where nobody accepts “the weather” as an excuse for lateness. Outside the very busiest times, once you’ve climbed the steps, you’ll probably find you have all 37 seats to yourself for the 40 minute it will take you to reach Leknes.

Taxis queue for people here, rather than vice-versa. So, minutes after landing, you’ll find yourself burbling around the winding coastal roads – all roads are coastal here, apart from the short roads between the coasts. An hour or so later, you’re on the raised terraces of the camp in the aforementioned abruptly-named fishing village of Å.

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The entire camp consists of two rows of ruddy-coloured wooden huts built on stilts over the sea, a short hike from the nearest village. This is actually a straight drag made up of a couple of stores, a smattering of fish and steak restaurants, some knitwear shops and a few bars. The very air of the place is frontierland-macho. Which, of course, it has to be in a place where the winter hits hard. In the fishing season, though, the temperature can be a mild(ish) four degrees, with the weak Arctic sun tempting a smattering of tiny flowers out of the bleak earth.

The landscape around the camp is of the lunar kind. The huts face out across a sheltered bay, while a ladder staircase gives you access to the jetties where six shiny, 23ft aluminium launches bob in readiness.

Most people travel here with groups of friends. If you don’t mind mucking in, though, the atmosphere is very welcoming for solo travellers. Shared food, whisky and the prospect of catching lots of big fish over the following few days brings out the bonhomie in most men. Before the end of the first vodka, you’ll find yourself joined to new multinational friends with hoops of steel.

Accommodation is of the “rough-luxe” type. Those seeking room service and a chocolate on the pillow need not apply. Each cabin has a simple, wooden kitchen and a seating area with a glass-covered map of the fishing grounds on the coffee table. There’s also a bathroom that’s slightly smaller than the average Norwegian man and two bedrooms, each with two wooden bunks.

It’s perfectly judged. You can’t help but smile as you sling your bag onto the top bunk, feeling like one of the Heroes of Telemark. Then, because you don’t know which huge, polar-necked neo-Viking you’ll be sharing your cabin with, you consider moving it to the bottom bunk before the next taxi arrives.

The fishing here is run by Nordic Sea Angling, and you’re in very good hands. You have a choice of either piloting your own boat, or hiring a guide – Nordic Sea Fishing’s giant and genial owner, Jimmy Andersson, or one of his team (who may be half your age, but will have the knowledge of generations on their shoulders) to skipper your boat and help you connect with the fish.

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In both cases, you’ll be very well provided for. For unguided trips, the best fishing grounds are pre-plotted into the satnavs. All fishing and safety equipment is provided and the boats come fully fuelled.

There’s also a third option. Here you and your chums can take your own boat, but follow the guide boat to the best spots. Whether you follow them or fish with them, the young guides are worth every penny. Fresh-faced they may be, but they have seawater in their veins. They have travelled these waters for years and have a fistful of cod and halibut records between them to boot. If anyone can put you over the fish of a lifetime, they can.

When the first morning breaks – after man-sized sausage butties, and a visit to the quartermaster’s hut to be fitted into your matching red waterproof suits – you’ll be bounding across the ocean in one of a squadron of powerful aluminium motor launches. You can’t help but feel impossibly cool as you watch the engine shooting the wake out behind you, while the other boats fan-out on either side.

As for the fishing – if you’re looking to catch the fish of your life, Jimmy and his team will use their Scandinavian fish-whisperer instincts sense and their technology to help make your dream come true. Do as Jimmy tells you and you will catch big fish. And plenty of them.

In my case, Jimmy handed me a rod with a shocking pink rubber fish on the end of a line that was only slightly smaller than a fish I would be happy to catch back home. He lowered it into the water and mimed raising and lowering it as the method for attracting coalfish, a tumescently streamlined member of the cod family.

Seconds later, the rod tip touched the ocean and I found myself engaged in a wrestling match with the biggest fish I had ever hooked. Jimmy coaxed me through it. Heave the rod up, lower and wind. Keep winching, because if you stop, it’ll dive for the bottom and you have to start all over again. Half an hour later, I was releasing a 25lb coalfish back to its friends deep below, complete with the kind of smile you find on a teen boy walking home after becoming a man for the first time.

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While you could spend the rest of the week doing this, but a day really takes it out of you. After hauling in thirty fish of a lifetime, you feel like you’ve been in a bar brawl.

Thankfully, well aware of this, Jimmy cleverly changes the game. The next day, you might fish for cod – brawny, beefy-lipped bruisers that fight like gypsies and swagger nonchalantly off as soon as the hook is removed.

Another day, you might hunt halibut. Fewer and further between, but even more rewarding. When you hook one, it feels something like pushing a car off a multi-storey car park and trying to reel it in. Tellingly, catching a 30-stone, two metre halibut is not at all uncommon.

When you’re too whacked to take on another big fish, they’ll take you for a gentler day of plaice fishing in a sheltered bay. They’ll still be the biggest plaice you’ve ever caught mind.

By the end of the week, you’ll be more tired than you’ve ever been, but very satisfied. Jimmy’s guides will help you fillet your fish into a hamper-sized polystyrene box and heave it into the camp’s walk-in freezer (the Norwegian government allows you to take 25kg of fish home with you).

When you get it home, the fish will still be the best you have ever tasted. Perhaps it’s because the fish we eat in most countries aren’t as big. Or maybe not as fresh. The cod and halibut you catch by rod and line in the North Sea, though, have a snow-white fillet steak texture.

Inevitably, you’ll shed a tear when you lift the last portion from the freezer, mentally pledging to yourself that you’ll be back in one of Nordic Sea Fishing’s camps as soon as you possibly can.

Nordic Sea Angling (www.nordic-sea-angling.se) runs deep sea fishing trips from four destinations in Norway – Havøysund, Nappstraumen and  Å – and from one warm water base in Panama.

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