The Salmon Foxtrot: The Wisdom of Fishermen

Håkan Stenlund  /  6 Min Read  /  Fly Fishing

Photo: Håkan Stenlund

Back in Tokyo, for a break. Just in need of a change, you know, “to get away from things.” Having worked hard all summer long, there couldn’t be more of a contrast between reeling in salmon on a river in Swedish Lapland and heading to Tokyo. For me, working hard means fishing hard and playing hard. And yes, I have a very good job, I must say.

I’m walking down Chuo Dori street in Tokyo’s Ginza district heading for a restaurant. I still have my dog’s “poop bag” in my left pocket. I was thinking about throwing it away, but then I changed my mind. I never had much stuff in life. Couldn’t afford to. And you never know when a dog’s poop bag might come in handy. But more so, the bag reminds me of a good friend: Rubens, the dog, my soulmate for the last nine years. Rubens, still home in Swedish Lapland, is probably wondering where his boss has gone, or more so, where the pig ears his boss gives him at night have gone.

Memories are more valuable than things. A dog’s poop bag can be all you need to get homesick. That’s probably why I spend so much money on good stuff that lasts than the cheap shit that just ends up in the trash. I want my stuff to collect memories.

Photo: Håkan Stenlund

Photo: Håkan Stenlund

At the restaurant I’ll meet Sensei Sugai, a man known for being slightly obsessed with fly fishing as well. We met in Russia more than 15 years ago when the salmon of the Kola Peninsula were all the buzz. This year, Sensei Sugai and I met in Swedish Lapland, seeing rivers like Torneå, Råneå, Lainio, Kalix, Ängesån and more—none of which you’ve probably heard of. But some 100,000 salmon ran the Torneå this year making it one of the world’s most prolific salmon rivers.

At the restaurant we’ll say stuff like, “Yeah, you know, it’s as likely that you’ll catch a fish on your first cast as it is on your last.”

“You never get anything without a fly in the water,” and so forth.

Salmon fisherman have a habit of throwing that kind of wisdom around. I don’t know why. It’s like we are looking for a way to keep our spirits up, or a way of telling ourselves to stay focused. It’s not philosophy—for sure. Sometimes we say things like that just to fill in the blanks, when the river and the companions have gone silent.

If you fish salmon properly for a full day, you probably make around two to four casts a minute, in a rhythm of one cast, then two steps downstream. Another cast, then two more steps. Cast again and again and … again. Meaning some 200 casts an hour or 1,600 casts in a day. On your fourth day, nearing 7,000 casts, you start to wonder about things. Like that old saying Einstein gets credit for: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So you change the fly or line or the angle of your back cast just to feel a bit less stupid at times. One cast, two steps, following the music of the river itself. A foxtrot, just like the last dance at the high school prom. A perfect rhythm, though different results.

Photo: Håkan Stenlund

Photo: Håkan Stenlund

Besides Sensei Sugai, I fished a bit with Calle this summer. If you go to the river, it’s likely you will meet him. He is kind of always there, by the river. It’s his second home or maybe even his first? I haven’t dared to ask. I know he has a girlfriend. Calle sleeps in a hammock close by the river when he fishes. I don’t think he sleeps very well, but I also think that is on purpose. You never get a fish if you are sleeping. Calle drives an old car. He has told me he is going to change the car numerous times, but I still see him driving that small Toyota back and forth. In season, he doesn’t have much time for dealing with cars. And in the off season he doesn’t have much need for the car anyway. So the Toyota stays.

I know most of you have never heard about salmon fishing in Swedish Lapland. I guess it’s because it’s mostly public waters—anyone can fish next to you almost everywhere—so it’s never been exploited as a fishing destination. The exclusivity is kind of lost when it’s open for everyone. Have car, will fish. Truth is, it wasn’t really good in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, pretty much up until now. But in 2010, the European Union made a decision to regulate commercial fishing in the Baltic Sea and great stuff happened.

Runs on the Torneå went from 25,000 salmon before the regulations—on a good year—to some 104,000 salmon in 2014. This season, 2016, almost 100,000 salmon passed the fish counter in Matkakoski. On the best day in June, more than 6,000 salmon passed that same fish counter. And, just for perspective, a famous river like the Cascapédia in Canada has a run of about 3,000 salmon every season. At the fish counter in Matkakoski, about 3,000 fish passed every day for more than 14 days this summer. Having the whole run of Cascapédia every day for more than two weeks is pretty cool.

So if you want to know what happens when you stop overfishing in the ocean, the salmon return! And a car, a rod, some flies, a cheap fishing license and a willingness to sleep in a hammock is pretty much all you need to catch ’em.

Photo: Håkan Stenlund

Photo: Håkan Stenlund

In modern times, we have altered the weather and broken (somewhat) the wheel of seasons. The great migrations that used to define the year—the bison or the reindeer, the pigeons or the salmon—are all interrupted by what we call civilization or a modern world. Twenty-five years ago, when I started writing about this kind of thing—fishing, the outdoors, the environment—Swedish scientists used to say that a run of 50,000 salmon in the Torne river would be great. They also said that 500,000 smolts was about the limit for what the same river could produce. After the overfishing stopped, an estimated two million smolts returned to the Bay of Bothnia last year. Everything is up, like four times, from what scientists claimed would be utopia.

That doesn’t mean Baltic salmon are easy targets. Fishing is always fishing. Sometimes the fish just don’t bite, no matter what. At the beginning of the season, it is easier to handle the sour smell of being skunked because you still believe it will change and time is on your side. At the end of the season, it is not as easy. You feel like you are getting old. It’s harder to get up at four o’clock in the morning, and an eight-hour day at the end of the season is as tiring as a 16-hour day was in the beginning. There’s a season for everything.

But keeping a fly in the water, doing the salmon foxtrot for days in a row, will sooner or later be rewarding. It is as easy to get one on the first cast as it is on the last. So just forget about Einstein and cast again. Take two steps, then repeat.

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