Scandinavians airline flight number 1530 banked sharply to the right, descended swiftly through the fluffy white clouds, on its final approach into Stockholm airport. Sitting alongside me, long time angling pal and mentor, Keith Elliot, author, journalist and angling correspondent for The Independent on Sunday. Keith’s sense of humour never fails to amuse me. In a loud voice, turning to look at me with a furrowed brow, “do you think we will walk away from this one Andy”!!!?? The suited and booted nearby, looked decidedly anxious and un-easy, if not a little sweaty around their neat ties and ironed collars. Entering into the spirit I joked,!! “ not looking good Ehhhh”.
Needless to say, it was an inch perfect smooth landing, and we giggled like little boys, as the plane glided to a halt as we received “one is not amused”! looks, from the businessmen. This long-standing joke had emanated from one of our countless angling adventures around the globe we have shared over the years.
Many moons ago now, we were flying from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur to the small island of Tiomen, in an ageing twin prop FOCA Friendship a 50,s style plane, with cargo netting for the hand luggage. The cabin suddenly filled with smoke, seemingly just missed the mountain, dropped like a stone, slewed all over the sky. Hit the deck hard, bounced across the tarmac like a bucking bronco and juddered to a halt, to a chorus of screaming frightened passengers.
I have been on some pretty hairy flights over the years in un-airworthy crafts, but on this occasion, I was preparing to meet my angling Gods beyond. As Keith, myself and Clive Gammon thankfully walked into the bright blue Asian sky, Clive looked at me and said” well dear boy we walked away from that one”!!!?? Then we went fishing. Ever since, after each successfully completed flight, those immortal words are spoken.
Keith and I had departed on the crack of silly hour flight from Heathrow, our mission, that we enthusiastically accepted was to meet up with John Steele, owner and operator of Reelax Fishing Charters. Specialising in fishing for Sea Trout, Salmon and Pike, not only in the Baltic ocean, but also in various locations around Sweden. A mouth watering and tempting offer, as a die-hard Sea Trout angler, just could not resist.
I had spoken with John on several occasions and corresponded many times over the e-mail, but had never met, this was my first visit to Sweden. He was not difficult to spot as we exited customs. Man Mountain came to mind, already in his angling garb, hearty greetings exchanged and we were quickly en-route to a delightful lake north of Stockholm.
I was delighted to see rods were already assembled in the boot of his people carrier, normally when Keith and I go fishing into the un-known; our luggage resembles a large delivery to a tackle shop. On this occasion we were travelling relatively light. As John has promised to provide all the tackle we could possibly need, he was true to his word. However when Keith opened his luggage, more exotic lures than you could use in a life time spilt out, plus the normal superfluous angling paraphernalia, that some how escaped his dear wife’s scrutiny. Would never tell him, but often these bits and pieces have saved the day so many times!
After we had left the main road north, leaving Stockholm, the scenery dramatically changed, as we wended our way along the forest lined single tack lanes. It reminded me of the deep south of America, dotted along the roads hidden in the woods and copses. A wonderful array of gaily-painted wooden clad, little house with decking and balconies, all smallholdings. You could almost see the ole timer, on his rocking chair, puffing at his clay pipe and strumming away on a battered guitar, with a mangy mutt at his feet.
John was on a mission and wasting no time, he had only five days to convince us, that the fishing and service he proudly provides and advertises on his ultra professional web site, was worth the trip. Within two hours of touching down, we were slipping the mooring ropes in our own little rowing boat and heading out into a stunning lake. In search of Rainbow, Brown and Brook Trout, along with Char and possibly the chance of a Pike.
ing was a wild natural mountain lake, with islands and rocky shoreline, very pretty. However it was a managed and stocked day ticket water, but nothing like the muddy hole syndrome trout fisheries in the Uk. Where the farmer digs a hole in his field and chucks a bucket full of ripped finned trout in, for the conned angler to try and catch and un-like the Uk, spinning, bait along with fly fishing was allowed.
Glassy calm and hot conditions conspired against us; the net result of our combined efforts for the day was one lost trout by yours truly. However what a blissfully peaceful day, interspersed by a most magnificent barbeque prepared on a lakeside rocky outcrop by our genial host. This was a little appetiser and gentle introduction to Swedish fishing and to follow, the main course of fishing in the Baltic Sea.
Time to head south and check into our hotel, after an hour and a half, we arrived in Dalaro, a stunning harbour village nestling on the Baltic. In an area called they call the Archipelago, what a stunning region, looking out to sea, was a sight to behold. John explained, that in this region there are some 24,000 islands to explore and fish around, quite breathtaking. Somehow I just had a feeling we would not manage to explore all of these islands in the time allotted!!
Our home for the week, the Strand Hotel right, alongside the Harbour, my room with its own balcony, had spectacular views, of the islands and all the brightly painted timber clad homes that dotted the landscape. And of course the multitude of varying crafts that either glided past or moored up in the harbour. The timber-clad hotel, looked like a throw back from a British colony, immaculately clean, with amazing hospitality, serving wonderful traditional Swedish food.
That evening after a scrumptious dinner, exploring the harbour and delightful waterside village. I retired to my balcony, with glass of wine, to watch the sun set over the Archipelago and its countless islands. Impossible not to feel the tingling anticipation of what lay ahead of us in the Baltic beyond. This for me was blissful Utopia, combining my love of the ocean, boats, angling and the possibility of a mighty Sea Trout.
A 30mt walk to the Jetty, from the hotel, found John preparing his fine craft for the day and what a state of the art boat it is, a new 5.8mt Shark, capable of doing 35 knots. As a fully qualified Charter Boat Skipper, with over 30 years experience under my ole sea legs, captaining many craft around the globe, call sign, “been there and done it” I have learnt to be cautious, when fishing from boats I do not know.
It takes a great deal or something quite special to impress me. Johns boat and his attention to detail, could not fail to impress even the most stringent of critics On board, all the safety equipment, over and above requirements, VHF, fish finder/plotter, depth sounder, a must when fishing the Baltic in this region. All the latest tackle and lures meticulously prepared and stowed neatly in the boat.
John’s desire not only in ensuring his clients safety and comfort is admirable and impressive, along with his ultra safe boat handling. And his insistence that every client, while underway wore a floatation suit, Ohhh and soft drinks, fantastic coffee and snacks on tap, John left nothing to chance.
Keith and I over the week began to understand where John’s safety conscious and meticulous nature had come from. He was a top-notch retired navy diver and until recently a security guard in Baghdad, doing three-month stints. The encounters he regaled were enough to make your toes curl!! And patently very lucky, along with his obvious professionalism, to survive. Now married with two small twin boys and his long held dream of running a charted boat angling business, had given him the incentive to draw a line and close this adventurous chapter on his life.
For Keith and I this was a very welcome change from many of the trips we have undertaken around the world. Often risking life and limb, fishing un-charted waters, exploring un-know regions, dodging pirates in the China sea and bobbing around in leaking crafts that you would seriously not risk on the local canal!! Then reporting back to governments and tourism authorities on the angling potential, their particular country had to offer, along with natural resources. Always lugging our excessive and precious tackle around, never really knowing what we were likely to encounter.
Even though John knew the waters well, he had for our trip, enlisted the help of his long term angling pal Ulf Olsson Biskops and his boat. Ulf has fished these waters all his life; long before fish finders and chart plotters had been invented. Veritable expert, incredibly knowledgeable and wonderfully eccentric chap and knew the waters like the back of his hand. John had obviously been taken under Ulf’s wing, his protégé and student, teaching him over the years all he had learnt, the safety aspects and the complex nature and intricacies of fishing The Archipelago.
The idea was to split our recourses, fish in different locations, keep in constant contact and if one boat encountered good fishing, the other boat could join and to compare notes. A good professional ploy in maximising our time there and doubling the chances. Again the measure of Johns unique approach, leaving nothing to chance and making sure we got the most out our time in Sweden, as he does with all his clients.
Before we embarked on our first day, Ulf disappeared into the harbour shop and came back with Ice Creams for all, apparently a longstanding tradition, between the intrepid pair. Who ever caught the biggest or the most on the previous fishing trip, had to buy the ice creams. Not quite the thing I wanted to scoff on a cold Baltic morning, especially after a hearty breakfast. By the end of the week, we both looked forward to our pre-fishing ice-cold snack and since my return, recently met up with Keith for a spot of Shad fishing on the Wye. A friendly argument took place as to whose turn it was to buy the ice creams, what have those two back in Sweden started?, You never know this Swedish way, of starting a fishing session might catch on here in the UK!!??
Time to fire the powerful outboards up, and head for the fishing grounds. Keith to join Ulf on his boat and my self with John, then alternate the following day. Ulf was a sight to behold, his dear wife had made him promise, that each time his boat was underway he would not only wear his floatation suit, to keep him safe and warm, but don the leather flying helmet, “serca second world war” and also the goggles to match, she had lovingly purchased for him. After a week of thundering around the Baltic at 40mph, I came to understand why he wore this garb, what a sight he looked, magnificent.! A true angling eccentric, his character lived up to his looks.
Our journey that first day, to the chosen fishing grounds was fascinating. Past so many gorgeous islands, many with settlements and wooden houses on, several designated nature reserves. This is boat city; the entire community is sea based and totally relies on ships and boats of all sizes and types, building, fuel, delivery and all manner of service crafts. The many residents and holiday homeowners, rely totally on their own boats for transport enabling them to return to the main land, a completely different unique way of life, utterly charming.
I normally pride myself on my sense of direction, knowing where the home harbour is at all times and if needs must, being able to find my way home using knowledge of currants, tides and the position of the sun. Over the years has stood me in good stead, however even with the detailed charts on board, would have after 20 minutes found it impossible to find the harbour again. Past so many islands, through many narrow channels, connecting one island to another, this is a complicated labyrinth that requires in-depth knowledge. Not only the navigation routes, but the many sub-surface rocks lurking, waiting to take out the bottom of the boat and wreck a propeller.
I was completely engrossed, reading John’s fish finder and chart plotter, enabling him at any point to turn the boat around and follow exactly where he had travelled, to enable safe passage home. John further explained as we sped past all these stunning landmarks, that at this time of the year, temperature and depth was critical in seeking out the sea trout. This was April and at this time of the year, the sea trout were to be found close to the shore, in shallow water and when the water warms, they head for deeper and cooler water. Again the chart plotter invaluable in revealing these once hidden secrets.
It was fascinating chatting to John about, the history and life in and around the Baltic In the winter months the sea completely freezes over, and many anglers enjoy the sport of ice fishing. Drilling small holes in the ice and using jigging rods to catch the sea trout, cod, perch and other species. Even having the traditional barbeques on the ice, such a different way of life, however possibly, just a little bit too cold for me.
Many years ago John explained, that the Polish, would try and escape from Poland, by walking across the ice to reach Mainland Sweden. To put this into context, it is a two week boat trip!, between the two countries and many perished in their bid for freedom, if they were un-lucky to follow an Icebreaker. However a few did survive, this incredible feat and journey, it is hard to imagine what hardship they endured.
We were to employ two methods the first day, one was to gently glide into bays and drift along shorelines. Casting our specialist, brightly coloured laminated Swedish lures, using 9ft light spinning rods, across the bays and into the shore, where the sea trout lurk. The other to pull up on the shore and walk these pretty islands casting out to sea and towards rocky outcrops as we explored all these incredibly fishy spots.
It was a joy, delight and a privilege to be out on the water, in one of the most stunning settings I had seen. To catch a fish would have been a pure bonus, we explored and fished several different areas and islands, and all of them just screamed fish. As yet no takes and after discussions took place between John and Ulf. We headed for a beautiful inlet, which was more like an inland lake, disappearing deep into one of the larger islands, but obviously connected to the sea, a chance to moor up and try our luck casting from the shore.
John explained that not only sea trout have been caught in this area, but Pike too, “what in salt water”!? And was not long before Keith was into one. Not a big-un but a welcome start to our mission, over the next few hours we caught several pike to 9lb plus. Great sport on light rods and line, we caught on fly, lures and plugs. Seemed so strange to be beaching these freshwater fish amongst the seaweed and shells!!
The Baltic has no tide, semi saline and rises and falls, dependant on rain fall and at our time of fishing there, un-precedented little rain fall had occurred. The Baltic lower than had been for many a year, still took a little getting used to catching pike in the sea. Somehow over the years these incredible fish had adapted to this salty environment, in search of rich pickings and different seafood sources, defiantly a unique first for Keith and I.!
We lingered quite a while on this idyllic island, not a soul in sight. Searching, casting and exploring, even on foot, would have been easy to have got lost. Keith and I completely engrossed in this new way of fishing, even saw, the elusive sea trout jumping and moving in the bays. Difficult to tear yourself away, but our stomachs got the better of us, especially after seeing a plume of smoke rising, indicating one of Johns legendary lunchtime barbeque feasts was being prepared.
What a banquet it was and over the week enjoyed so much, Johns amazing culinary expertise, cooked over open fires, in settings, locations, straight out of, a must be here, tourist brochure. Scrumptious loins of pork, fantastic sausages, beef, with baked potatoes, cooked on the fire in tin foil, dripping in butter, washed down with proper coffee and soft drinks. We so enjoyed, eating and being treated like Kings, just adding enormously, to this incredible amazing angling journey of discovery, in the Baltic.
John a tadge frustrated, as these were good sea trout conditions and as yet none caught. The afternoon was to be a concentrated effort towards catching a bar of silver, only after lunch had been duly digested and another cup of real coffee sank.
Ulf once again donned the biggles helmet and goggles, we squeezed into our suits, again we were flying across the Baltic. Weaving our way effortlessly through rocky outcrops, islands and bays, stopping briefly to cast our lures, then swiftly moving on to the next chosen hot spot.
It always happens when you least expect it; my mind was wandering, evaluating the situation, drinking in the experience, admiring the views and on auto cast mode. Just another cast into a delightful bay, as the boat drifted aimlessly in the late afternoon sun, warming our backs. The take completely out of the blue, unsophisticated and un-compromising. Basically nearly took the rod out of my hand, I was into my first Archipelago sea trout, the ensuing scrap was frantic, after deft netting by John the fish tipped the scales at 5lb, a cracker for one very chuffed angler.
A bright silvery fish, automatically I looked for sea lice, John told me,
they don’t exist in the Baltic and this one was a wild fish, with an intact adipose fin. He went on to explain, that the fisheries dept, have an active conservation minded wild fish stocking policy and for all those stocked, the adipose fins are clipped, the size limit around a big 3lb, mine was a taker.
The stocked fish are not believed to run the rivers to spawn, preferring to stay and feed in the rich waters and grow big! Un-like the wild ones, destined for famous rivers like the Emm, however I do question this theory. Until an extensive tagging system is put in place, this for me is an un-known factor. As here in the Uk, it is commonly known that escaped farmed Salmon, run the rivers and spawn with wild indigenous stocks of Salmon, I do like a fascinating mystery.
It was one of those days, you just did not want to come to a close, but all good things come to an end. Our mini flotilla headed triumphantly back to the harbour. Carrying my prize into the Hotel, I duly asked if I could have the fish frozen, enabling me to return home with my prize. Was politely told that it would have to be gutted and steaked for them to place in the freezer.
With no one on hand to take on this task, no outside taps to perform this ritual. I ended up gutting and steaking the fish in my shower!, another first for me, and new experience. Fortunately Keith had, as per normal brought over a filleting knife. For the rest of the week I had essence of sea trout lingering in my shower room. Gawd only knows what the room maid thought of this?, Mad English, angling man comes to town!! No doubt.
As Keith and I, each day wandered past the harbour, en-route to board Johns boat. We noticed a great shoal of fish, under the jetty and informed they were herring fry! Thinking they would make great baits for Pike and sea trout and would be a bit of fun to try and catch them. We could resist no longer, raiding Keith’s extensive tackle bag, found small hooks and bought bread from the harbour store. Even after a full day on the ole ogin, determined to try our luck before dinner.
Keith is a veritable expert, when it comes to small fish catching, being a Brighton Pier champion an all!!. Was not long before the first one came to hand, low and behold, these were not herring fry, but Bleak!!, yes Bleak!! A freshwater fish. This was the biggest shoal of bleak I had ever seen, more like a fish ball you see in the David Attenborough wild life films. We caught several, along with roach and skimmer bream and saw a couple of mirror carp, cruising past. I had to remind myself that this is the Baltic Sea, during the mid summer months the locals also catch great Perch, in the same places as they catch Cod and Herring, fish food for thought Ehhhh!!!
During that blissful week of angling exploration, in the Baltic and the Archipelago, we caught several more Pike, around many fascinating islands and pretty locations, but just one more sea trout. That particular day was my turn to join Ulf on his boat, John and Keith, a couple of miles away trying another bay. Ulf switched to what resembled a small double jointed Pike plug, it did the trick, another fierce take and a big angry sea trout was cart wheeling out of the water.
I had the privilege of netting this magnificent fish, weighing in at just over 9lbs, on this occasion a well-seasoned stoked fish, apart from missing the adipose fin, a perfect silvery specimen. For Ulf, nothing exceptional, the sea trout in this region grew rapidly and are often caught to 25 lb plus. In fact the record is just over 33lbs, Ulf, John and his clients have caught many exceptional sea trout, along with very big Pike.
On our final day, only a few nautical miles from the harbour, we indeed encountered one of these amazing beasts. Fishing in a bay that could either produce a pike or sea trout. Keith had a follow to his lure, a big blue torpedo shape, un-mistakenly a sea trout, tantalisingly just missed the bait, only yards from the boat. A second cast again this monster followed right to the boat, veering away at the last moment, never to be seen again. Almost as though he was teasing us, saying look what is to be caught. An invitation, “if we needed one” to come back again and try and catch him, he was nearer to 20lb than he was to 15lb, a fish of a lifetime in anyone’s book.
I still have dreams and images, embedded in my mind of this elusive mighty sea trout that came within touching distance. Hopefully one day I will have the privilege of returning, to this incredible angling paradise and playground that holds so many angling secrets.
A true angler seeks new ways and innovations in his or hers quest to learn more of their quarry and its environment and how to catch them, John is no different, we constantly discussed different approaches, John often asking many questions and drawing down on what experience I had on sea trout fishing.
I have spent many years fishing for sea trout, in countless location, rivers and especially Lochs, where stealth is paramount, as sea trout are very nervous creatures and easily scared, by getting too close. We all felt, that maybe the boat with large engines could frighten the fish, lessening the chance of catching that trophy fish.
The problem easily solved by utilising an electric outboard, enabling manoeuvrability in stealth mode, easing un-heard into the bays. Very much like the Bass Pro boats do, fishing the mighty Lakes in the States. John took this on board and began his search for the appropriate electric outboard, to match his fine craft. Very much the measure of this angling Pro guide, continually striving to provide the very best for his clients.
Keith and I, really only scratched the surface of this angling utopia, in the time allotted. However so easy to see the massive potential, the Baltic has to offer. So impressed, with Johns Reelax charter boat services. His incredible and meticulous approach, desire to ensure his clients safety and comfort, all of his attention to detail, in providing his clients with the latest tackle and a unique angling experience.
His hospitality faultless, nothing was too much trouble, the lunchtime barbeques, frankly to die for. Am still on a diet, since my return!! A trip like this should not be judged or gauged by the amount and size of fish caught. It is the whole experience that matters, the enjoyment derived, we did catch lots of Pike and a couple of quality sea trout, even bleak, roach and bream in salt water!!
The pike during our trip decided to spawn, lessening our chances, since our return John has recorded great catches of big pike, some on the fly!! Along with more sea tro
ut, into double figures. This has to go down as one of my most enjoyable and successful angling jaunts, I have had the pleasure to go on. So pleasing, that during our weeks fishing, not one piece of litter did we see, Sweden, unlike the UK is virtually litter free, we here can learn a great deal from the Swedes and their ethos.
Can I put my hand on heart and recommend this angling holiday,? NO, NO, I don’t want to!!, for once I want to keep this angling wonderland a secret, just for myself!! However my un-selfish nature and being my job, I am reluctantly obliged to reveal all. If you want an angling experience of a life time, in one of the most stunning settings I have encountered, I strongly urge you to contact John, before I change my mind.!!
John is a Gem of an angling professional guide, a rare breed, and fishing on a Gem of a boat in the Jewel of the angling crown, in this spectacular area of the Baltic. A word of advice, before teaming up with John, buy a leather Biggles style flying helmet with requisite Goggles to match, “mine already on order” and OHHH take some small change with you to buy the early mourning Ice Cream snacks, John will ensure, your turn next!!???
Andy Nicholson 2008
Visit http://www.reelaxcharters.co.uk/ for more details