Fly fishing in Greenland is centred on the Arctic char, not the Atlantic salmon

Our plane from Iceland to South Greenland is a twin propeller forty-seater. I notice that not one of the passengers wears a suit or lipstick: they’re all outdoors people – hikers, kayakers, sailors, hunters and fellow fly fishers. We’ve spent the last half-hour flying over vast icefields littered with exposed rocky peaks, and everyone is still stretching left and right to maintain the best possible view. Below us now, at the head of iceberg-strewn Tunulliarfik fjord, is Narsarsuaq, population 160, home of South Greenland’s only international airport. Established by the US during the Second World War as a staging post to the battlefields of Europe, it now ekes out an existence on tourism. The plane lands, and minutes later we stroll across the tarmac to the tiny airport, pick up our backpacks from the quaint conveyor and walk towards Hotel Narsarsuaq, a hundred metres distant. Some of our fellow travellers have opted for hostel accommodation and, since there’s no private ownership of land, others will camp pretty much wherever they like. Close up, modern-day Narsarsuaq seems semi-deserted. More than anything, I’m reminded of Tasmania’s Bronte Park, though there’s much less traffic, just the odd van, tractor and quad bike. That’s no surprise: transport in Greenland is mostly by air and sea. We check in and have dinner. By the time we finish it’s 9.30 p.m. and the sun has set. Mind you it’s still light and will remain so most of the night. The sun scribes such a small, low circle that at 5.30 a.m. we’ll be able to watch the sunrise through this very same window. Before bed we walk to the foreshore of the fjord. Three Inuit locals are spin fishing. They land some Arctic char, and we polaroid other char busting up baitfish. We have arrived. Arctic char Fly fishing in Greenland is centred on the Arctic char, not the Atlantic salmon. (Atlantic salmon from both Europe and North America feed along Greenland’s southern coast, and some even enter the fjords, but only the Kapisillit river near Nuuk hosts a spawning run.) The Greenlandic Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus erythrinus) – also found in high arctic regions of Siberia and North America – is the largest form of Arctic char, though because of the extreme cold it grows slowly. Fish are four to eight years old before they first run to sea and ten years old before they reach maturity. The normal maximum age is around 20 years, though rare specimens exceed 30 years. In freshwater habitats in the cold Arctic, there’s so little food that many char lose weight over winter. So in early summer (June), as the sea ice is breaking up, smolts and mature fish migrate from lakes and rivers to the fjords, where they stay relatively close to the coast and feed heavily on baitfish. Then, after just four to nine weeks, they move back upstream, always entering their home river on a full tide. Each year, generally speaking, less than one third of the sea-run char will spawn, and even then they won’t do so until September at the earliest, often not until November, so the fish caught during the summertime migrations are always sleek and super-strong. Blue Ice In the morning we head to the Blue Ice Café, first building down the road from the airport. Blue Ice is run by Jacky Simoud, a boat operator of European heritage who Ipiutaq Guest Farm has engaged for our trips across Tunulliarfik. His business has become the lifeblood of the town. Major businesses like Blue Ice and Hotel Narsarsuaq accept credit cards, euros, US dollars and British pounds, but outside of town we’ll need Danish kroner. As there are no banks or ATMs in Narsarsuaq, we made sure we changed our currency before leaving Europe. We buy hiking maps, fuel for our camp stove, and several stubbies of local Qajaq beer, though it’s hard to choose between the labels: narwhal, walrus and musk ox. For groceries we have to go to the general store at the other end of town. It opens only from 10 to 3 on weekdays, 10 to 12 Saturdays. The staples are lamb and scant vegetables, though there’s also whale meat, musk ox, reindeer, cod, char and shrimp. Lake-resident char After securing provisions, and despite some heavy rain, we take an easy stroll up the Kuusuaq valley to the Kiattuut Sermiat glacier. The first 5 km, via a worn-out road, leads to the head of a small clearwater lake, unnamed on our map. The next 5 km, via a crude walking trail, takes us across the aptly named Flower Valley to the glacier’s terminal lake. Along the way we see ravens, white-tailed eagles, ptarmigans and wheatears. Much more numerous, though, are the mosquitoes and sand-flies, and Frances retreats into her ever-reliable head net. The weather has abated by the time we return to the lake and, quite unexpectedly, countless char begin rising to chironomids. They like our generic dry flies too. Most fish are old residents, the biggest weighing 0.5 kg. I suppose the outflow is too small to permit mass migration to the fjord. Ipiutaq Guest Farm The next day, at 3.00 p.m., a Blue Ice van comes to the hotel and transports us to the dock. Here we meet fellow anglers Hans and Peter, our coxswain Angu, and board the large fibreglass powerboat, the Siku, that will take us 30 km down Tunulliarfik to Ipiutaq. At a rocky point which doubles as a dock, we are met by the owners of the guest farm – Agathe Devisme and Kalista Poulsen – along with their ten-year-old daughter Ina, their trainee agronomist Coline, and Jim the sheepdog. Kalista places our packs in the front bucket of his backhoe, and the rest of us walk the hundred metres or so to our lovingly restored cottage. Frances and I have a room with a double bed; the other bedroom is equipped with a couple of bunks. The cosy lounge, dining area and bathroom are communal. Agathe is originally from France and she fills with passion the meals she prepares for her guests, a la Babette’s Feast or Chocolat. While enjoying the food, we learn how she met and fell in love with Kalista, a multi-talented native Greenlander from Nanortalik several fjords to the east. We also hear about how they developed their sheep farm: an inspirational story of living well despite hardship and isolation. Ilua After dinner, we fly fishers go back to the dock and catch some sizable char and Atlantic cod on streamers. But we are soon talking of the main attraction, the Ilua river. Ipiutaq Guest Farm manages the river and lake under a concession from the Government of Greenland. The river lies in the adjacent valley, less than 3 km and one hour’s stroll away, and we’ve timed our stay to coincide with the peak runs of char, which occur from mid-July to mid-August. The Ilua is small. From the barrier falls at the head of the concession, it flows 3 km into a 2.5 km-long lake then just 200 m to the fjord. The water is crystal clear and all but the deepest pools are wadeable. Tomorrow, Hans and Peter would like to fish the pools immediately below the falls, so we agree to start our fishing at the lower end of the river. After breakfast, we follow a track most of the way to the lake, then go cross-country over the moors. We spot a huge white hare and a small black fox. Occasionally a polar bear or two will float in on an errant – usually only in spring — but not this year. We spot fish immediately, in unbelievable numbers, but it takes time to work out how to catch them. Forget the foam poppers and weighted nymphs, these char want red-and-black streamers. Over the next six days we get to fish the entire length of the river and catch literally hundreds of 1–2 kg char. One day we take Ina fishing, and on another she takes us gathering: blueberries, blackcurrants, angelica, sorrel and thyme. By the end of the week our hosts have become dear friends, and leaving will be hard. The only consolation is that Angu has promised a detour into Qooroq, the main ice fjord. Qinngua The day after we return to Narsarsuaq, Jacky picks up Frances and me in the Siku and drives us 12 km to the mouth of the Qinngua, a milky-blue braided river at the head of Tunulliarfik. In rivers without instream lakes the char feed longer in the fjord, which accounts for the Qinngua run starting two weeks later than the Ilua run. Jacky reckons we’ll encounter lots of fish from 1.5–3 kg and others up to 5 kg or more. I suppose the extra body mass must be an advantage when swimming big distances against super-strong current. It’s flat-calm, the sky is blue, and the temperature is an unseasonably warm 23°C. We arrive on an incoming high tide and immediately see char milling in the rip, but even before Jacky has motored out of sight, we’ve come to accept that these fish are nigh-on impossible to catch. Upstream, the first likely run is occupied by three Polish anglers, all Czech nymphing. “There’s char everywhere,” they offer enthusiastically. “Just go upstream and find a pool with slack water on at least one side of the inflowing current. Fish the seam.” We soon find a suitable spot, and my first fish races 150 metres down-current, crossing several braids as it goes. Then, ‘ping’. At least I didn’t lose my fly line. Maybe I should have come armed with something bigger than a 6-weight. I upgrade to 10 lb tippet, and a few casts later I’m into another char. This time I’m resolved to apply dangerous amounts of side strain, and it’s no real surprise when the rod butt explodes. What is surprising is that I still manage to land the beast. It measures 740 mm and must surely weigh 4.5 kg. Woo hoo! I spend the rest of the day photographing Frances as she hooks one large char after another. Then, at 4.00 p.m., it’s time to head back to the fjord to rendezvous with Jacky, and belatedly I take stock of our surrounds. I’m surprised to see nine fly fishers nearby, all fishing their own pools and braids. Kuusuaq It’s 9.00 a.m. in Narsarsuaq and I’m sitting with Frances on the town side of the very dirty Kuusuaq river, making crude repairs to my fly rod. I sand the lacquer from the broken part of the butt, and then sand some graphite as well. Finally I manage to force it into the ferrule. Jacky reckons the best fishing is on the far side, in a tiny clearwater tributary, and we are waiting for a local sheep farmer to take us across the raging rapids in his tractor. Eskild arrives soon enough, puts our packs in the front bucket, then gets us to sit on an old bus seat he’s strapped to the back forks. “Fasten seatbelts,” he winks. “Lifejackets under the seat.” This year the run of char is unusually late. Still, we spot a few dozen fish of 0.5–1.3 kg, and land a fair percentage of them. There are lots of tiny resident fish too, most of which readily accept nymphs and dries. Last day Our plane doesn’t leave until 7.00 p.m. so we decide to visit Qassiarsuk, a rural settlement across the fjord on what is probably the site of Erik the Red’s original farm. If we had more time we’d have hired sea kayaks from Blue Ice, but we settle for Angu’s boat. Everywhere, the locals are still spinning from the shore, still catching char. I’m not ready to leave Greenland. Next time, maybe, I’ll head to Tasermiut near Nanortalik where, according to Kalista, there’s enough hiking and fishing to satisfy a lifetime of dreams.

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