Halibut on Fly

Rasmus Ovesen dreams of hooking an Atlantic halibut – the Queen of the Sea

Some fishing plans are more stupid than others — on paper at least. To fly fish for halibut, clearly, is one of the more dubious ones. How on earth are you going to catch a fish that has perfected the art of ambush-attacking prey along the ocean floor, in the abysmal depths of powerful tidal currents and along craggy drop-offs out to sea? I have hatched many terrible and half-witted fishing plans throughout my life. Most of them have never been realised. Very few have been even moderately successful, but I remember them with the greatest of enthusiasm and joy. For what is more legendary than achieving (some form of) success despite all odds? AN IDEA IS BORN In June 2021, I am fly fishing for seatrout in a handful of different fjords in Northern Norway. During my time there, I’m made aware of random catches of smaller halibut from relatively shallow areas, and big specimens longline-fished from shore. In the past I have heard of people attempting to fly fish for halibut — with oversized equipment, express-sink fly lines and heavily weighted flies — and with minimal success. But, if halibut happen to show up in shallow areas close to shore at certain times of the year, it must be possible to effectively target them with a fly rod? In between sporadic catches of sea-trout, my thoughts wander, and I see these imaginary halibut rise from the sandy bottom and abruptly inhale my fly. The images are still etched upon my mind as I return from my journey – and it doesn’t take long before I start researching on the Internet. PLAYGROUND OF FOOLS The Internet is a dangerous place for those looking to amplify their existing beliefs (or delusions) — or for those looking for evidence in favour of dubious causes. Consequently, it doesn’t take me long to find a video from 2013 by a crew of Norwegian radicals that catch halibut on fly rods. The Norwegian title of the video roughly translates into ‘when the impossible becomes possible’ and the people in it would strike most outsiders as either eccentric or half-crazy. And even though they’re clearly blind-fishing in 10–20 metres of water, with sparse and arduously earned results, I’m convinced that they’re on to something. One of the people in the film is Tommy Josefsen, who’s a friend of mine. However, when I tell him that I’m secretly plotting to go fly fish for halibut, I’m met with very little encouragement. There are, as he carefully stresses, good reasons why he hasn’t fly fished for halibut since the YouTube-film was made. And they’re too many and too profound for him to list. THE BIG BREAKTHROUGH I belong to the growing number of illiterates who aren’t needlessly affected by other people’s experiences or empirics. Instead, I leave my destiny in the hands of the Internet. Disturbingly, there is just that one relevant, on-topic film to find online. But then an interesting guide service pops up in my search feed. An eccentric British expatriate has clearly found a protected little fjord far north where it’s supposedly possible to locate and catch halibut in shallow water. The fact that he offers guided fly fishing for halibut can only mean one of two things — that he has, somehow, cracked the code, or (more likely) is attempting to lure money out of the pockets of naïve and dreamy fly fishers like myself. After firing away the first email, things suddenly accelerate. A few email exchanges later I’m on the phone with a Jonny Stephenson, who (to my surprise) seems neither raving mad nor maliciously shrewd or conniving. On the contrary, he sweeps me off my feet with his British charm and with promises of a visually striking and periodically hectic halibut fishery in shallow water — if (and only if) the weather conditions are favourable. A few weeks later, by the end of August, I find myself onboard a small airplane east of Tromsø. Immediately below me a mighty snow-clad mountain range reaches upwards and at its foot, a glistening azure blue fjord reflects the cloudless sky as if it was a big, vibrant mirror. It seems as if, for once, the weather gods have finally sided with me, and — not surprisingly — it’s a particularly expectant and ecstatic Jonny that greets me at the airport upon arrival. FINALLY ON THE WATER Later that day, I’m on the water with Jonny, a guy that proves to be a knowledgeable, experienced and pleasant boat partner. Also in the boat is Jonny’s sweet girlfriend Stina, who is as mad about fishing as she is about hunting. After a short boat-ride, we’re now sedately drifting a tidal channel and casting flies along a depth curve close to shore, where abraded rocks, bladderwracks and sea lace are relieved by pure sand that gradually fades into the mysterious depths. Even with the 12-weight, casting my prototype halibut fly is an arduous task. It reminds me more of a party wig than a fly, and the sizeable Wiggle Tail and treacherous stinger hook make the fly produce a coarse hissing sound when cast across the fjord’s twinkling water masses — not unlike the sound a flag makes when pointed out the window of a speeding car. WHERE ARE THE FISH? We fish a rising tide for a few hours with no results. The only hits we’re getting are from sluggish cod and coalfish. The by-catches sharpen our concentration and make the pulse peak momentarily. Disappointment, however, follows every time. Jonny soon realises that his client needs a boost of confidence and motivation. He launches into vividly dramatic stories of halibut catches from the area and doggedly maintains that it’s only a question of time. But even though I’m dying to believe him, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to keep the faith. I know from experience that when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I can’t abstract from the fact that there’s an infinity of water to cover — and so many unknown factors to overcome. And what are the odds, realistically, that a scarce, bottom-dwelling giant of a predator should rise several metres to an insignificant fly? Another few hours later we’re back at our starting point. We’ve returned to the tidal channel, and the water is now dropping. We cast like maniacs into 3–4 metres of water, but nothing happens — and soon the day is over. The sun is already dropping behind the craggy mountains to the west under a vaguely flaring violet-blue sky. Then another bloody cod hits my fly. Frustrated, I haul it in as fast as I can. As it appears in the water below me, and I prepare to unhook it, chills suddenly run down my spine. Below the cod, a massive brown shadow manifests itself and the cod disappears into the jaws of its ghostly prowler. The water explodes and my fly rod bends to the cork while lengths of line disappear into the depths. Five minutes later, after several lightning-quick runs, we bring the halibut to the boat. It’s neither 30, 40 nor 50 kilos, which I would probably have sworn if it had somehow disappeared forever into the depths. It’s probably more in the vicinity of 10 kilos, but what a formidable, muscular and explosive 10 kilos! A few snap shots later, we release the fish. It obviously doesn’t count as a fly-caught fish, but it provides me with a sorely needed saline injection and renewed hope and faith. There are clearly fish in the area, they’re actively feeding, and tomorrow I’m going to cast until I collapse in order to get one. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED During our second day, we catch several smaller halibut between 3 and 6 kilos — in shallow bays and near estuaries and islands. Most of them hit the flies at the surface, right along the boat side, after having followed the flies, as if hypnotised, over a long distance. It’s incredibly visual and exciting, and I am now in a state of euphoria and relief. My newfound belief now seems to shape reality, and — suddenly — we are seeing ominous, table-sized creatures under the boat randomly appearing and disappearing like ghosts. We even see a giant halibut smash a sizeable coalfish to smithereens on the surface using its shovel-sized tail as a deadly club. (Suddenly, Jonny’s speculation that it might be possible to catch halibut on poppers seems far from crazy). My mission is accomplished, but the climax still awaits. Later, in the evening, we’re back at the familiar tidal channel, drifting outwards with the falling tide and casting our flies into 3–5 metres of water. Then, at one point, Jonny’s fly rod arcs and I turn around to see what’s going on. ‘Cod,’ he growls laconically in response to the lazy headshakes, and as if it were some sort of command, I turn around to make another cast. In that very instant, the water explodes beneath me and the fly line is almost ripped out of my hands. An enormous crater-like whirl crashes against the boat, and through its veil I see a big shadow rapidly disappearing into the depths. All slack line comes tight and suddenly the tormented snarl of the fly reel fills the air. AUDIENCE WITH THE QUEEN An exhausting fight ensues. Time and again we’re close to landing the powerful fish but it somehow evades the tail gaff, flaps its tail and heads irresistibly into the depths. One time it heads right under the boat, resulting in an unnaturally concave angle in my fly- rod. A sharp rifle-like ‘boom’ rips the air, and — to my great horror — the fish is now taut directly to the fly reel. My fly rod has broken in two, right above the handle. During the rest of the fight I feel more like a local longline fisherman than a fly fishing globetrotter. I’m bursting at the seams with nerves a few minutes later as I pull the fish to the surface one last time. This time it’s make or break! Miraculously, in an eruption of water and sea foam, Jonny manages to tail gaff the fish. And with it firmly secured along the boat we break out in loud cheers, hugs and high fives! We gently tow the fish a short distance to shore, measure it at 134 cm (an estimated 32 kilos) and shoot a couple of quick pictures. The fly is barely clinging on to a leathery flap of skin in the halibut’s enormous, craggy mouth, and I can’t help but think that, if I hadn’t looked away when the fish attacked, I might have pulled the fly right out of its mouth from pure startlement and shock. I hold the halibut by its tail, then loosen my grip as the fish starts to show signs of wanting to swim away. In no time at all the halibut has changed its colouration and camouflaged itself against the shallow bottom. When it kicks off and heads for deeper water it disappears almost disturbingly fast, like a fading dream that refuses to be captured. One thing, however, is unequivocally obvious. My crazy dream has come true. And even though I missed that fateful moment when the Queen of the Sea decided to inhale my fly, I can just close my eyes and vividly imagine what it looked like. I’m a dreamer after all — and a dreamer’s powers of imagination are great!

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