Fishing above the Arctic Circle
By T Dietz
Coming off of a crisscross tour of Switzerland we boarded a flight from Zurich to Ivalo, Finland via Helsinki, on a reasonably warm late June day. Ivalo is located at 68 degrees 39’N/027 degrees 33’ E, within the Arctic Circle – a geography that encapsulates all of earth north of 66 degrees 33’47” N latitude, although it is not fixed as it depends on the earth’s fluctuating axial tilt.
Our destination was the Kakslauttanen Arctic resort in Saariselko. The resort lies approximately 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle and a 30 minute drive south from Ivalo Airport, Finland’s northernmost airport.
I had never been this far north and just to make my stepping out of the plane above the Arctic Circle and into the midnight sun more memorable, a pair of reindeer were walking across the tarmac. Another pair met us just outside the terminal as we waited for our bus to take us to Kakslauttanen. The Arctic Circle by definition is the southern-most latitude in the Northern Hemisphere that for at least one full 24-hour day a year, the sun remains continuously above or below the horizon. On those exact days, the Antarctic Circle is defined in the Southern Hemisphere.
Finland has had an interesting history with records of first habitation about 9,000BC and it belonging at various times to Sweden and the Russian Empire. The country declared independence in 1918.
Upon arrival and check in at Kakslauttanen we were driven a short distance into the forest to our 2 bedroom cabin. In just a few moments we were introduced to one of our primary nemeses, the mosquito – the other one being the midnight sun. The mosquitoes were horrendous. Swarms of them were everywhere and we not only soaked ourselves in DEET but covered up from head to toe despite it being summer, thankfully the temperatures were in the low 60’s F. The abundance of standing water in the spring and summer acts as exceptional mosquito breeding sites and the large reindeer and other mammal populations offer plenty to feed upon.
After one of several difficult nights sleeping, due to the effects of the midnight sun and the random mosquito that managed to invade our defenses, we met our fishing guide for a day on the river. We climbed into a well-kept van for the drive west to the Hammastunturi Wilderness Area which lies between Urho Kekkonen National Park and Lemmenjoki National Park. Our destination was the Sotajoki river. Our drive was dominated by widely spaced and uniform trees planted as part of a forest harvest management program. With the wide spacing and small canopies, a green forest carpet flourished everywhere we could see. Several reindeer crossed our path on our hour drive on poorly maintained government dirt roads. The drive was through the gold panning region that experienced a similar gold rush to California’s and about the same time, 1870’s. Many folks still summer in the area panning for gold with some exhibiting an almost industrial approach to the effort. It was interesting to learn that in Finland almost all of the land is available to anyone. You can camp most places but permission is required to hunt and fish on private land.
The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, C.H. Smith, 1827) are the same species as the America caribou and are all owned by the Sami people. The Sami are the only peoples allowed to herd reindeer in Finland. Reindeer are divided by where they reside be it in tundra or woodlands. The name reindeer comes from the norse word for horned animal while the name caribou is derived from French meaning snow shoveler. Besides their uniqueness to the mythological Santa Claus, they are the only known mammal capable of seeing in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum (up to 320 nm) an adaption thought to allow for better food sourcing in the snow. Reindeer also have some unique physiological adaptations. Their nose structure is designed to warm the cold air prior to it entering the lungs and for mucous membranes hydration. Like some other mammals, their fur can trap air to provide insulation from the cold temperatures but also to assist in buoyancy while crossing deep rivers. During the summer months, their hooves will soften to allow for better soft ground traction while hardening in the winter allowing a rim to form at the edge and enhancing traction on snow and ice. Tagged reindeer are let free all winter, then in June and July they are herded up and divided by owner tags – any new reindeer are kept with their tagged mothers and tagged themselves.
Along our drive we stopped in Kultala, along the river Ivalojoki, a main river that flows into the Arctic Sea via Lake Inarijarvi and the Paatsjoki River. We entered an old log cabin, decorated with planter boxes filled with colorful flowers, for fishing licenses. With our guide interpreting, we acquired our licenses and some snacks. The building housed an assortment of gold panning and fishing products, and several older gentlemen that were clearly socializing before we walked in. Our guide explained that these Sami folk were not unlike the inuits and native American peoples in that alcoholism runs rampant as a result of losing their way of life.
Once at the trail head we loaded two approximately 40 pound packs and hiked flat to downhill grades for a mile or so until we reached the Sotajoki River. At the river we set up our base camp for the day at a nice lean to and fire pit. With wood stored for all to use, our guide quickly had a fire burning to generate a mosquito smoke screen while we prepped the rods for fishing. Around our temporary camp site were several different species of ants with one over an inch long. I noticed a distinct lack of birds despite the nice forest all around us. Our guide informed us that the birds don’t like the summer temperatures, even 70F. But in the early morning and late day as temps are cooler they briefly appear. The bird population in winter reduces to 30% of the summer and with the other 70% migrating to the African continent.
The Satojoki River was fairly shallow at about 1-2 feet in some areas and pools looking about 4 feet deep or so, the river widths ranged from about 20 – 100 feet across. The crystal clear water moved fast at the narrow areas and formed nice pools at the widest ones. The river water is pure enough to drink from and it was cold and delicious -a risk I would not take in many other parts of the world. So far from civilization there was only the sound of the river flowing and the rustling of leaves in the slight breeze – tree talk is good and it’s not often you can completely escape all sounds of man. The area was a prime example of a boreal forest. The swampy nature of this forest during the summer was in full effect. We were at the far reaches of this type of forest which lies just south of the tundra region. Only the northern hemisphere has boreal forests. The geography is fairly flat and one immediately notices that the trees, spruce and pine, are short with max growth in the 25-30 foot range. The long winters and partial year darkness play significantly to the region’s flora growth characteristics.
While my son Connor and wife Leslie fished by the lean to, I began the miles trek south to pristine fishing grounds. I had wanted to head where few go due to the hike in. An hour up river I began sight casting about at brown trout (Salmo trutta, Linnaeous, 1758) that were incredibly wary. Spin casting was the order of the day and a fast reel in was required at the far reaches of the opposite bank to avoid snagging underwater ferns that were ubiquitous along the river’s edge. My spot of choice was just below a fast moving area that had pooling around several large boulders. The pools in front of the boulders were dark but perfect spots for the trout. The first hit was a tease followed by several more and then my first brown took the jig w a treble hook, she (later revealed by a lot of roe) jumped out up past her belly and swam hard up stream when back in her element. With a good bend in the rod and drag set just right I started bringing her slowly but surely towards me, with intermittent burst of impressive strength while running the line back out and back and forth. Holding the rod back behind me (yup, forgot the net), I kneeled down and grabbed her through the gills. As she exited the water her colors flared. I reached for the phone camera snap a picture. Not knowing how the remainder of the fishing would be and wanting to bring back lunch I set to cleaning her. I ripped off some fishing line and tied the gutted brown up along the river’s edge to keep her fresh. An hour plus later I had caught and released 5 more beautiful browns and felt like I could set up camp and fish for days.
With my one prepped fish, I started the long trek back to the camp. About 10 minutes out I figured I’d cast a few more times. I brought another nice brown in and the guide spotted me so he was able to take a fish photo with my whole body mosquito protection coverings. At the camp I found Leslie and Connor enjoying hot tea and sausages cooked on the fire. I took to the river’s edge and gutted the second keeper while the guide put the first one on the grill for a tasty late lunch. I presented the guide with the other fish which he readily accepted for his evening’s dinner. Most of the trout I caught were by estimate in the 2-4 pound range, 18-24 inches and caught on 4 lb test.