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March 30, 2010

North Sea Halibut

Discovered: A trophy release fishery for Atlantic halibut in Norway's shallow coastal waters

With big fish in mind, we worked Jonasson's big gold swimbaits that morning. Given a slow pace, the guide himself grabbed a rig and demonstrated his luck or (more likely) prowess since it wasn't long before we were all cranking in to give him space to duke it out with a fish as the little Accurate 197 reluctantly gave up heavy braid. The big, strapping skipper had pushed the drag to its absolute max - enough drag to pin the powerful Jonasson against the rail more than once. Seeing a reel the size of a freshwater baitcaster take such abuse offered a convincing testament to the quality of modern high-end lever-drags.

Everything held together, and the big halibut taped out at just about 200 pounds - a trophy by any measure.

Wild Wolffish
If, despite the excitement of fishing for Atlantic halibut, you're jonesing for some variety, Jonasson will pursue other game fish. Unlike Alaska, Norway doesn't offer lingcod (which, in fact, are unique to the North Pacific), yelloweye rockfish or cabezon. But we did spend much of one day pursuing three significant "other" species - coalfish (as pollock are called here - fast, tough, schooling midwater predators), Atlantic cod and wolffish. We caught them all, but we never did get into any 20- to 30-pound coalies like we had hoped. Wolffish, as Jonasson says, fight like a wet towel; nevertheless, they're impressive beasts with a malicious disposition and a body (very tasty, by the way) that seems to be one very large, very powerful muscle. And you definitely do not want to let any part of your body you value get anywhere near a wolffish's mouth.

Fishing for Pacific halibut in the grandeur of the wild coast of Alaska or British Columbia offers an unforgettable experience. I think anglers who've been there/done that would particularly enjoy a halibut trip in the other direction (and not much farther than Alaska for those along the U.S. Atlantic Coast). The Pacific and Atlantic versions of the giant flounder look the same, but the two locations and fisheries are surprisingly different - and what better excuse for a trip to northern Norway's fabulous Arctic coast?

Planning the Trip

WHERE: Tromsö, Norway (population 65,000), is located about 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, about a two-hour flight from Oslo.

HOW: Many major U.S. and international air carriers offer regular flights into Oslo. Try to schedule some days in Oslo and see other parts of Norway (take advantage of its nifty trains), but do be aware that (1) it's a pricey city and (2) if you don't fly directly to Tromsö from the States but stay a night or more in Oslo, you lose your international (economy-class) allowance for two 50-pound checked bags: SAS will allow you just 44 pounds on domestic flights and charge you a bundle for every kilogram you're over. Once in Tromsö, Jonasson will meet you at the airport and drive you to the house where you'll stay. We stayed at a lovely new guesthouse right on the water, but that location meant an hour or so run to the fishing grounds; Jonasson is looking this season for a house where he and his guests can stay that will be within minutes of the best fishing area.

WHEN: You could catch halibut around Tromsö just about any month of the year; however, if you want to fish the Norwegian Sea in the dark, freezing days of the Arctic winter, you're more gung-ho than I. In fact, July and August offer the best chances of clear, calm days - with highs in the 60s and even warmer at times. June is iffier but has been an outstanding month for big fish. (And the guide notes that weather seldom shuts him down, with so many protected/lee shores to fish.) Jonasson begins fishing halibut in May and continues through September.

WHAT TO BRING: All the usual stuff, certainly including a good camera. Also, you might want a sleep mask; midnight in July is as bright as late afternoon back home. As for tackle, more than many operations I've fished, I can honestly say you don't need to bring much because Jonasson's gear is top-notch and kept in great shape. He fishes new Accurate reels with 50-pound Tuf-Line and has plenty of proven swimbaits (that he's helped design). That said, any lures you like for halibut in the Pacific Northwest may be worth packing, just for fun. But keep in mind that you'll mostly be fishing in just 20 to 60 feet of water. Jonasson provides $300 "dry suits" to fit most guests, large or small; these are relatively warm and absolutely waterproof - and include deck boots, so you can leave those heavy clunkers at home. Still, a warm jacket and layers aplenty are always advisable.

WHO: Capt. Per Jonasson, a certified Norwegian Deck Officer Class VII, is a full-time fishing guide. His 23-foot center-console shows Jonasson to be a great believer in redundancy: Besides radar, the boat carries two VHF radios, two GPS plotters, two mobile phones and two depth sounders. It's also powered by twin Honda 90s.

Though he's fly-fished from Australia to Alaska, Jonasson has spent the past 15 years fishing Norway, managing to take (mostly return) clients out 240 days a year. His specialty and obsession are, of course, trophy halibut.

CONTACT INFORMATION: Per Jonasson - www.fish4u.se. You can also get information on Jonasson's operation and other Norway saltwater sport fishing at www.nordic-sea-angling.se. Jonasson arranges accommodations; on our trip, we stayed in a new and fully equipped two-story house, courtesy of www.arctic-sea-mountain.com. You can find general information on visiting Norway at www.visitnorway.com.