Coarse fishing in Scandinavia

There’s a short story below the fold that I think I might flog somewhere but everything I write looks like crap to me at the moment, as if my heart had turned to pumice stone.

The best fishing is not found in manicured streams, among manicured fly fishermen, even if they have paid thousands of pounds to come to a place where the trout are wild and have to be released. Fishing like that is only a game. I look for places where all the fishermen have filthy fingernails and there are of irregular rings of blackened rock on the shore and glistening spatters of scales where fish have been gutted for a meal washed down with water from the river: the kind of rivers that are still wild and unmanaged enough for the locals to fish for food, using any means they like.

Near Trysil, on the borders of Sweden and Norway, there is a stretch of the huge Trysil river that’s dedicated to catch and release fly fishing for grayling: it may be the only place so sophisticated in the whole of Norway. But what I remember best was a lake twenty miles from there, where I was driven in a fairly new Mercedes estate car that smelled of worms.

The driver, Tor, was a farmer and timber merchant in his fifties, who had been too busy to fish for the last few days, since he’d put the worms in; he didn’t believe you could catch perch on a fly and I had promised to try for him. The sky, at eight in the evening, was the colour of bleached calico; the clouds against the horizon seemed painted on. There was no wind at all. We left a plume of dust behind us above the gravel road. “Can you smell the worms?” said Tor, happily, as we barrelled along.

We turned from the fire road down a track even slower or twistier that wound through the forest to his elk-hunting shack by a lake so still that every detail of the surrounding forests seem to have been painted on it as if it were lacquered: not just the inexhaustibly jagged skyline of conifers, but the paler patches of birch foliage. The birch trees themselves were bleached from silver to white in the evening light.

Tor rowed us quietly out to the mouth of a wide bay in the rushes that lined our bank, and we waited, talking quietly, while the lake composed itself again to lacquered stillness. Faint delicate rises could be seen, a long way off but the water was almost tepid at the surface and it seemed impossible that anything should be feeding on this quiet evening. Still, I tackled up with some sort of streamer, and cast in towards the rushed were the predators might wait; Tor had a tapering fibreglass pole, no reel, and a worm hanging on thick, stiff nylon beneath a plastic float. This is how perch are traditionally caught by children in Scandinavia summers; and if it worked when you’re a child, why change as an adult?

For a while, we sat in delicious silence, without a trace of a bite for either of us. The water dripped unhurriedly from my line as I retrieved. Tor’s float seemed welded into the surface of the lake. Suddenly the welding gave way, the float quivered and dipped, and he was able to swing a fat roach into the boat. One nil to old technology, though the roach was put back at once. A new, and slightly less smelly worm was impaled on his hook, and we started again.

Apart from the worms, the evening smelled lovely.

Then Tor’s float started to move again. He struck, and as he drew another, smaller roach through the water, there was an eruption beside it. Water splashed wildly upwards, and I glimpsed a speckled green back like a sawn-off python. Tor’s pole was dragged down a few moments, then straightened. The wounded roach came in to the boat, still hooked on the worms, and without hesitation, Tor swung it out again where the pike had struck. “He’ll come again”, he said. We watched the float. The lake grew still again.

Tor swung the rod gently to drag the float along, and the pike seized the roach again, dragging his rod down harder. This time the pike stayed on. He played it round the boat for about ten minutes, unable to give line, but strong enough to resist the pike’s thrashing lunges. We could see it was as big as the first violent rush had promised: about three feet long, and thick enough to look stubby.

I found a net with a round metal rim in the bottom of the boat into which the pike would almost fit, and managed to net it from behind; as I swung it over the side, it spat out the dead, chewed roach, and clamped its teeth on the rim of the net so Tor could hold it down while I bashed its head with a priest. It was quick and ugly, and rather frightening. This really wasn’t a fish you’d want to share a boat with while it was alive and after it was dead there were pale glistening grey patches on its head where I had whacked it as hard as I could and Tor and I were breathing noisily even after we had stopped laughing.

Gradually we returned to the stillness of the evening. There didn’t seem any point in fishing any more, but the tranquillity held us and I made a few more casts out towards the reeds. Nothing happened. Slowly, Tor rowed us in to shore, where there was a table dusted with fragments of scale and skin. “Here’s where we gut the pike in spring” he said. He and his wife laid nets in the lake then to get a store of fish in for the freezer; it was one f the ways they marked the end of winter, and the thaw. They had caught nearly a hundred this year.

We should have gutted his pike there but the dusk was at last coming and we wanted to get home. You must keep it in your freezer, I said. No no, he said, the freezer’s full: you must have it.

But there’s only three of us, I said. My daughter won’t eat fish at all.

We drove back through the forest, and reached the farm in the thin blue-grey light of evening. My daughter came running to meet us, and we showed her the fish, but as it slithered from the plastic carrier bag into which we had folded it, the jaws gave one last convulsive shudder and she was convinced it had tried to bite her. I laid the thing down on the grass, which there grew wild, about six inches high, and smelled intoxicating in the mornings. With my sharp filleting knife I sawed off the head to convince her that it was really dead. The skull was almost a handspan wide, the pike’s six rows of curving, pointed teeth distinct, as were the teeth that cover the upper surface of its tongue like barbs.

The flesh was pale grey in the thin light and the stomach had a harsh, rank smell. Everything rots quickly in a northern August. Later that night, when the dark finally came, Tor threw the corpse into the undergrowth for foxes to eat but by that time we were safe in the arm, lit cabin, eating rice pudding and I was lecturing my daughter on pike’s teeth. “You can’t believe how savage those creatures are:” I said. “They can’t help killing. It’s what they’re made to do.”

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