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Vannoya is Halibut Heaven

In September 2008 I was mopping about feeling thoroughly sorry for myself because I had been forced to cancel a meticulously planned marlin fishing holiday out in Kenya due to unforeseen circumstances. Depressed, I received a call from a sympathetic friend asking if I fancied a trip to the island of Vannoya, approximately 400km north of the Arctic Circle, and the widely proclaimed halibut capital of Norway? We would have a house with a room for each of the travelling party and an Arvor 215AS boat at our disposal 24 hours a day. Needless to say, I immediately snapped out of my malaise and it took all of 10 seconds for me to commit to the unexpected opportunity.

Nine months later the four-man party of Martin, Cammy, Jason and I stood in the queue at Edinburgh airport waiting to check in to fly on the first leg of the trip to Oslo. 24 hours on, and several planes, taxis and ferries later after over-nighting in the Scanic Airport Hotel in Tromso, we hid behind a shed at the ferry terminal, sheltering from some vicious squalls on Vannoya.

a giant Vannoya halibut a massive Vannoya halibut

Next stop was Buroysund at the top of the island but there was no sign of our transport. Martin had managed to lose our host Jan’s phone number, and had to beg assistance from some local workmen. Fortunately one of the guys knows Jan, and phones him for us. After freezing our butts off for an hour-and-a-half Jan arrives and whisks us off to our chalet via a stop at the only shop on the island to collect some supplies.

Our man Jan

After dropping our gear at the digs Jan took us the short journey to the boat, a brand new Arvor 215AS. She’s only a week old and is equipped with all the mod cons of a 21st century angling boat: Lowrance plotter/sounder, compass, plenty rod holders and a rather nifty deck wash system.

Jan was understandably nervous about unleashing four strangers on his expensive new baby and went to great lengths to explain all the ins and outs of the boat’s equipment. Being experienced small boat anglers we politely nodded in all the right places while admiring the boat.

We all came wanting to score a big halibut off our wish lists, but we had other individual targets too. I was looking for my first 30lb cod and my first catfish, while Cammy sights on the same. Jason had a big haddock in mind and Martin sought a big red-spotted plaice.

a Arvor self-drive boat

The fishing began almost straight away, after the usual fighting for the bedroom furthest away from the loudest snorer (that would be me!) we were heading down the sound into a bumpy sea, looking for the first fish of the trip. I provided this in the shape of a small tusk on a Volker Sea Waver lure, with the rest following suit with small codling in the 2-4lb bracket – typically Scottish sized codling as fate would have it.

Sheltering under the cliffs of the island of Buroy we struggled to catch anything at all. I kept heading up to try a mark I had found on the charts at home but the sea beyond the island was too rough so we cut back to where it was just bearable. We were catching better cod in the 8 – 12lb range when Cammy hooked something better on a pirk. Minutes later he boated a 12.5lb halibut, not a monster by any means but something we thought would have taken longer to achieve…we’d only been fishing for about 1 hour!

Sadly this mark became un-fishable when the tide turned against the wind, so we headed back to the shelter of the island cliffs on a mark Jan had told us some Lithuanian anglers had a 40kg halibut two days previously.

an agler concentrats on his rod

The cod were smaller here and there were less of them but we caught a further two small halibuts on pirks. Jan called us to come back in to the dock for about 9pm. We wanted to stay out longer as the sea was dropping along with the wind, but he seemed concerned for us (or more likely his boat), so we complied in the knowledge that we still had a further 6 days fishing ahead of us.

Tuesday metaphorically dawned – it’s 24-hour daylight at this time of year – wet and windy. After a few hours running around the day before I felt I had a handle on the boat’s capabilities and headed for a mark about seven miles offshore, where we hoped some big cod would be lurking.

There were more and bigger fish here but not the 20-30lb lunker cod we had hoped for. Mainly low double-figure fish with the odd one pushing of 16-17lb, and some haddock. And Martin got the first halibut of his campaign.

a cod from Vannoya

The sea was rough with a big swell. Cammy soon started to feel ill, and asked to be dropped off back at the dock. I didn’t feel much better and couldn’t take my eyes off the land, fearing the increasingly snotty sea, tiredness and dehydration would soon have me loudly honking over the side.

Cat-tastic

After depositing a decidedly green looking Cammy we headed away from the open sea to try some deeper marks inside the fjord. Instead of fishing 30-50 metre marks, we fished 70-80 metres. This again provided loads of cod into double figures along with several catfish or wolf fish as they are better known outside Scotland. The mark was duly christened ‘Catfish Hole’ on the plotter for future reference.

a wolffish from Norway the mouth of a wolffish

The first ‘cat’ was something of a personal triumph for me, as I have been trying unsuccessfully to catch one in home waters for three decades or more…perhaps now the relentless abuse I have suffered for that failure will cease…fat chance!

a quality cat fish or wolffish from Norway

A move further east to a mark close to a small island showing a distinct tidal rent yet again brought an abundance of 8-12lb cod. We were hoping there would be small coalies in the obvious tide to use as bait, but if there were they were, ravenous cod beat them to the hooks every time.

By teatime the sea had flattened right off. We had a go on a patch of ground in 150m of water near the island of Fugloy hoping for redfish, but only very small codling were encountered in this deep water. A decision was made to go back to the halibut hotspot to give it a really good go in the flat sea and what a good decision it proved…

Super Sea Waver jig heads

Fishing with the large sea waver jig heads dressed with coalfish-coloured shads, we picked up a couple of butts to about 30lb. These were our best so far… and what hard fighters.

a large Vannoya HalibutJust as we were winding up to head for another drift Jason was hit in mid-water by a much bigger fish. His rod remained bent to the maximum for nearly an hour, in what was a real blood, sweat and tears battle with a sure halibut of substantial proportions. Slowly, slowly up it came, a large dark shadow, only to plough the 60 metres straight back to the bottom as soon as it saw the boat. Before the trip, Martin jokingly asked if we could all chip in for a harpoon? I brashly said I would land any butt with a chin gaff and a tail rope! Well, here was my chance to prove myself.

Once more the fish was drawn close. Just as soon as it breached in went the little hand gaff and all hell broke loose with me hanging on for dear life! Once it settled, I tried to pull the brute alongside. The sheer weight of the thing took me by surprise. I had to stop to regroup and get a foot on the gunwale, and really put my back into it with Jason shouting “Get it in, get it in!” And I did…but only just.

A couple of solid whacks on the head stopped it slamming the deck to splinters with its massive tail. Martin and I were jumping around the boat doing high fives while a rather wiped out and emotional Jason just sat looking at his fish with a smile on his face. We phoned Cammy to break the news but his phone was switched off. As it was almost midnight, we assumed he was sleeping.

A quick call to Jan saw him rushing to the dock with his van. It took 3 of us to drag the fish to the vehicle and wrestle it inside. We followed Jan in our car over to the angling centre at Torsvag on the other side of the island were the halibut was weighed and photographed. At 79kg or 174lb and a new Buroysund record, it caused quite a stir.

Wednesday came and went in a similar fashion, chasing big cod well out to sea which was by now flat calm, but only finding them to 19lb, with some redfish off a deeper mark and a solitary coalfish of 8.5lb.

a cod from Vannoya a Norwegian cod

Big on butts

We headed back to the halibut marks, which by now had names entered on the plotter, and by Thursday morning we had tallied 23 halibut between us, which was amazing as we had it on good authority from Jan maybe 10 king flatfish in a week from one boat was a fantastic result.

Most of Thursday was spent at a mark 20 miles south of Buroysund, just off the south east corner of the island of Arnoy on a mark where Martin had caught cod to 50lb on a previous trip. Here we bumped into club mates of ours who were fishing out from Skjervoy; they were catching small coalies from a peak inshore and heading out to a bank to fish for cod.

a Vannoya halibut in the boat Les with a good Vannoya halibut
a Sea Weaver jig head lure the mouth of a Vannoya halibut

They had already to them 45lb, so being good friends they let us tack onto their drift. It turned out to be a snaggy mark and losing pirks costing £15-a-pop was enough to make you cry. Relieved of several lovely pirks, we abandoned the tackle graveyard for similar ground close by. Only ubiquitous tusk were interested in our baits, so yet again we moved to spend the last couple of hours or so on the halibut marks.

After a while I snagged the bottom. I was dropping slack line and waving the rod around trying to free my pirk from the bottom to no early avail. We were on the point of motoring the boat back up the drift to free it when the ‘snag’ took off…it was another halibut, and what felt like a big one at that.

an angler's rod take a serious bend with a halibut

After 45 minutes of killer strain with my Daiwa Kenzaki 30/50lb class rod at full load, we saw it…the second biggest halibut of the week. Jason got the chin gaff in and again uproar ensued. The fish soon settled however, and was brought aboard. The scales we had only went to 100lb and were no use for this fish. We didn’t want to kill another big fish so I was happy to accept a general consensus on the weight of around 50kg plus before releasing it.

28 halibut and counting…

By Saturday morning the halibut count was 28. We told Jan that we were aiming to have 40 halibut by close of play on Sunday, to which he said that Sunday May 17th was Norwegian National Day, and it would be something special if we could do it.

a pirk caught Vannoya halibut on the surface a Norwegian halibut on the scales

We had the feeling that we weren’t going to get the hoped for big 20kg cod and 15kg coalfish. We threw ourselves into the halibut fishing big time, trying a couple of new marks and picking up several fish in the 40-60lb class. By Saturday night we had caught another 12 butts along with silly numbers of cod to 19.5lb. We also lost least another five decent halibut that powered away shedding the hooks.

Sunday was to be a short day: back at the dock for 9pm instead of the usual 1am so that Jan could inspect the boat and we could settle the fuel bill etc. We again focused on the halibut, with the added incentive of a side bet on the ‘flattie grand slam’…that’s halibut, plaice and dab. I had a 3lb 3oz plaice on a pirk the night before, and we had some small dabs fishing in the sound between the islands while catching whiting to use as dead baits for cod.

a plaice from Vannoya
Les McBride with a plaice from Norway a Norwegian plaice

Right on cue, the butts came out to play again. But between times some big catfish nailed our lures, Martin managed a 5lb 9oz plaice on a pirk, and Jason took another 3lb on a flowing trace baited with sandeel that cod had coughed up.

It was almost time to go and we had landed 49 halibut. I was winching my pirk up to change over to a sea waver and shad for the last drift when I was clobbered in mid-water. A quiet prayer later and several bruising minutes later a beautifully marked halibut of around 25lb topped, and an incredible halibut half century was complete.

Reflections

We booked our trip through the Din Tur Company, but taxis and hotel accommodation were booked independently. Norwegian Airlines gave us a very generous baggage allowance of two check-in bags of 20kg each plus 10kg hand baggage, so we managed to take some microwave rice and dried stuff like Super Noodles etc. Food and booze is very expensive in Norway. Fuel for the boat costs about the same as in the UK.

Our digs were supposed to have Sky TV but the receiver was broken and after a rummage around the only DVD we could find that was in English was ‘Barb Wire’ and after the 4th time of watching even the hypnotic charms of Pamela Anderson’s heaving bosom began to fade, so it might be an idea to take a few DVDs with you.

a rod bends under the strain from a halibut

We were very lucky with the weather, and to get five flat calm days in a row is unusual at these latitudes. Fishing from Buroysund is out in the open sea rather than inside the fjords. As such it is very open to the elements and lost fishing days should be expected here.

On reflection, I think our halibut success was down to the fact that there were no huge cod for us to chase. We hit huge packs of cod, the sounder was black with them at some points, but they were ‘modest’ 4-12lb fish, so when we drifted into a shoal we simply moved away to more cod-less ground, giving the butts first go at our lures.

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