I remember the first time I heard about Baltic salmon. Juan Salgado, my fishing buddy, was immersed in one of his erratic loops after watching a fishing short film. It was around 2016, one of the greatest salmon runs since there are records in the Torne River, with more than 100,000 salmon going up this immense river basin that separates Sweden from Finland. Unprecedented numbers linked to fishing restrictions in the Baltic Sea and the areas surrounding the mouth of the Baltic rivers, which led to an almost exponential growth in Baltic salmon populations. That film perfectly reflected two key ingredients that made two young salmon fishermen jump off the couch: adventure and huge salmon.
Of course, at that time we did not know anything else about this destination, but we would soon find out. The articles we found spoke about wild, immense, and powerful rivers. One of the largest and most powerful salmon on the earth, hypertrophied by a diet rich in the herring of the Baltic Sea, where they migrate and where they were isolated from their Atlantic brothers after the last ice age. Anglers told stories about lost battles, hundreds of meters of backing spewed out at full speed, and hooks bent like clay. They also told of their peculiar character, shyer and more apathetic than their peers on the other side of the Skagerrak strait. And above all, those articles were a source of inspiration to get lost in a land without borders, where there are kilometers of unfished rivers. Of course, three years later, Juan and I packed our bags.
There we were, with a filming project in our minds and ready to hit the Baltic rivers. The conditions were favorable and Sanna was waiting for us on a small local grocery store to get what we needed for 24 hours of “non-stop” fishing. An hour later by the gravel track between pines and reindeers, we reached the chosen spot.
From the top of a sheer cliff, the view was overwhelming. The river, defiant and powerful, had sculpted the wall on which we found ourselves and under which dark waters like peat, surely housed one of the precious Baltics we dreamed of. While we assembled our equipment and lit a small fire, a cocktail of sandflies and mosquitoes played with us. Soon, the sound of a first jump told us that we were right: the Baltics were there.
Sanna rowed with the forcefulness and security of a person used to such a task. While we were crossing the river with that generously leaking boat, we put her under a good interrogatory. Sanna had been fishing for salmon in Lapland for almost a month and the first of the season was still resisting her. She was in one of those crises where success eludes you. She told us about battles lost, hooks bent, broken tippets, sleepless nights with no sign of a fish, and others where the run was intense but, for some reason, the fish didn’t want to cooperate.
“Believe me, Baltic salmon are different from Atlantic salmon. You’ll end up proving me right.”
Barely half an hour later, that same disheartening voice was bursting with excitement as she tried to control a fish that ran downstream. Minutes later, Juan and I were contemplating one of the greatest explosions of happiness we had ever experienced. After all, it was not for less. All that effort, all those repressed feelings, finally released by having that fish in her hands.
As it could not be otherwise and according to tradition, it had to be celebrated. The night was young, but it was already beginning to cool down. A good fire, sausages, beer, and the occasional shot of whiskey to take the chill off and enjoy the moment.
The fire was still crackling and that feeling of success and camaraderie ran through us, but my ears couldn’t stop listening to the salmon jumping. In the pool, behind us, the fish seemed jealous of our little celebration. I apologized to Juan and Sanna, who were still enjoying their last drink, and I went down the hill to try my luck. Minutes later, they both were running down the hill to help me. Juan did me the honors and masterfully tailed a beautiful 103cm female that inaugurated a magical night to remember.
Two other salmon would follow her and with the whole group with a salmon on the market, we decided to end the day in one of those Lapland sunrises in which the fog covers the river and the activity ceases completely. It was time to let them rest.
That night, when it was still hard for us to fall asleep in the tent due to the adrenaline and the cold that seeped into the sleeping bags, we could not imagine that the next day, the sun would wake us up and it would not leave us for the rest of our trip. The day after, the water already reached temperatures close to 20 degrees celsius. Game Over.
Although it may seem strange, in recent years, this kind of episode has occurred in these latitudes with some frequency, perhaps showing that something is changing on our planet. In Lapland, these heat waves have a strong impact on the rivers. The sun shines for almost 24 hours and it does not take long until the temperatures make fishing non-viable, both for the chances of success and for the well-being and recovery of the possible catches.
Despite everything, a year later, Juan and I returned to finish what had been started. We still didn’t completely agree with Sanna about the fact that the Baltics were special and we blamed the last year’s result on the weather. So, lesson learned, we waited for the ideal weather forecast and jumped on a last-minute flight to Luleå.
There we were again, ready to explore the immensity of the boreal forest and its rivers in search of the elusive Baltic salmon. Ten days and nine nights later, after giving the best of us, exhausted, with little sleep and countless mosquito bites, we returned home with our tails between our legs. What had happened? We didn’t understand it. Everything seemed favorable and we had even found some areas with quite a few fish, but we had hardly gotten any reaction and when we did, we lost them in the fight. Was Sanna right?
Back in Lapland, this time in prime time for a project for Guideline in the early stages of the season. Cold water, high levels, but some of the largest salmon you can imagine running the Baltic rivers. Crazy dreams take crazy effort and, of course, I was willing to find it out.
After three days with hardly any sleep, with hundreds of miles on those dirt and muddy tracks through endless forests, and more casts than I can count, I had a revelation. In the form of a Baltic salmon, of course.
In the middle of a perfect “V” tail, a slow-motion head and tail made me turn off the stove where I was preparing a coffee to get ready for another night of work. A sight like that always makes you shiver. If the salmon is one of the largest you have ever seen, the fight with yourself to be able to make a proper cast is a tough one. I knew that my line setup could cover the pool well, but I needed a very long cast, almost at the limit of my casting range. What half an hour before came out fluently, became a maddening exercise.
The fish made an appearance once again. It might be there for a couple more minutes. Or maybe not. No one knows anything for sure about these fish. I focused on my goal and finally, the cast came out. The swing was wonderful and the fly danced across every inch of the tail. When my fly reached the center of the tail, the fish showed itself again. Perhaps excited by my Phatagorva? I repeated the cast and it happened again. So did five times more. Five. Five heart attacks.
The sixth was an impact. One shock and then chaos. A fish headed straight for where it came from: the Baltic Sea. Before even being able to take the first step to find the shore, the fish was already in the backing. Five hundred meters below and after fifteen minutes chasing it, I finally got the pulse of the fight back. I finally saw my shooting head, I finally saw him. Majestic and solid, blurring all its silver in the reddish waters of the stream. A vision that might be worth a lifetime after it.
I remember it perfectly, as the things that could have been and were not are perfectly remembered. A few seconds later, the hook just came off. And along with it, another five fish in the following week. Five. None so big, none so special, but each and every one of them beat me in hand-to-hand combat. Each one with a particular story, but certainty was beginning to take shape in my head: “Sanna was right.”
I have always thought that in fishing and in life, everything is about being at the right time at the right place. Work hard to achieve those magical moments when everything matches and learn in the process. This time, in the back end of the last season, it seemed we had them all. Lapland and Baltic salmon were finally favorable to us again, as on that magical welcome night with Juan and Sanna, but this time with a farewell flavor. A magical week, together with my friend David Fernández Miguélez, with numbers closer to the imaginary than to the reality of the Baltic rivers.
It was as if these rivers wanted to give us back all the hours, all the effort and energy that we have invested trying to understand them. As if they knew that my three seasons after the Baltic salmon had come to an end and in the process, Lapland and its salmon had changed me forever.
That morning, soaked to the bone, holding that fish, I felt the same as three years ago when I caught my first Baltic salmon, only this time I understood the value of what had just happened. SKITT FISKE!
Check out the full BALTICS movie below:
Article by Álvaro G. Santillán For more of Alvaro’s killer photo content and stories of fly fishing around Europe you can give him a follow at @focusontheflymedia. or check out his website http://www.focusonthefly.com/.