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Editor Note: Reader Eric Arborgast recently returned from an expedition to Greenland in search of Arctic char and unspoiled landscapes, a combination that only a few places in the world can offer anglers. As this is not his first trip to Greenland, he produces a well-informed report that paints a picture of the kind of ambiance and adventure one can expect from a visit to The Lady of Snow.
Relatively new on the radar of the global fly fishing community, save for our Scandinavian friends, for whom the destination has been something of a well-kept secret, Greenland has some of the most unspoiled landscapes anywhere. Its rivers run clean and free, particularly in the southern and southwestern portion of the island, where just about every river and stream seems to support a sustainable population of sea-run arctic char. In some of the rivers, fish runs impress in both numbers and average size. These rivers are the ones targeted by anglers in early summer through August, and sometimes into early September.
Greenland is truly a journey back in time, as human impact is minimal. There is no pollution, no destruction of habitat, and no large-scale netting. The result is hundreds of thousands of char ascending the rivers on their annual spawning migration. Since the Arctic Ocean is teeming with food, the char are in prime condition; silvery, fat and bull strong—a product of natural selection. They never fail to impress me, both because of their athletic abilities and their sheer numbers in the rivers and lakes.
There are but a few built lodges in Greenland, fishing is mostly done from organized tent camps, usually located near estuaries to facilitate logistics. This is fine in my book, as it allows you to genuinely experience the country. We set out to Camp Erfalik in early August 2017, a trip operated by GetAway/Sirius. Camp Erfalik is one of three operations there, and it offers decent comfort, since you bring your own quality sleeping bag and camping equipment. The camp will provide one two-person expedition-style tent per angler, a thick sleeping mat, a cabin where meals are taken, and an outhouse. The camp is run by a camp manager, as well as a trained chef who, in our case, fed us very well. We also brought plenty of drinks, mainly beer, to keep spirits up while in camp.
Anglers traveling to the area usually fly to the town of Sisimiut, either from Kangerlussuaq—the airport with the country’s longest civilian runway—or possibly from Nuuk, the country’s capital, depending on where you hail from. From Sisimiut, you take a boat to camp. It took us a bit over two hours to reach the estuary of the Erfalik. It can take longer, however, if seas are rough, but the boat is very seaworthy and its crew experienced. The boat trip is the only way to reach the camp. There are no roads, and helicopter flights are quite cost prohibitive. After the group arrives, it will take just a short time to unload the vessel. The camp manager then has tents assigned for the week, and once anglers have moved into their new homes, everyone sits down inside the cabin for a briefing.
Camp Erfalik is conveniently located right at the river mouth and has room for about 12 anglers. The camp is split into smaller groups by mutual agreement, and the camp manager then explains the different areas to be fished. The groups can then decide where they want to go and how to rotate over the coming days. This worked exceptionally well during our stay. There are more than enough fishing venues for everyone.
The Erfalik River system consists of the clear-running river itself as well as a series of lakes in the lower reaches. A two-hour walk over barren tundra will lead to a smaller but very beautiful river that also has a strong run of fish in the season. When fishing at Camp Erfalik, please note that you will do a lot of walking. First of all, the river is quite long, and the terrain can be rough. Later in the season, chances are that many of the bigger fish will have run upstream already, quite a ways from camp. In order to find the fish, anglers need to hike upriver to find new water, all the while discovering new areas in this beautiful valley. Good physical condition is therefore required. However, I have to mention: the landscape is pristine and extremely beautiful. We found ourselves quite a few times just sitting or standing there taking in the vista and the calm. Cell phones are useless other than to take snapshots. Even better!
The river feeds two lakes in its lower reaches, right before entering the sea. Those lakes usually harbor a solid amount of fish as well, and anglers can target them where the river feeds and drains the lakes. At times, those areas can be congested with fish; on other days, the schools have dispersed in the lakes and only a handful of char can be found. This keeps things interesting for anglers who choose to stay closer to camp on any given day. The camp uses one aluminum boat to haul the anglers across the lake to the rendezvous spot, where they will be picked back up in the evening. This saves precious time, as the camp is about a half hour on foot over a rocky ridge from that same spot.
Fishing for char is quite straightforward at Erfalik, and guiding is not necessary. A quality 6-weight rod in lengths of 9 to 10 feet with a floating line is perfectly adequate. On some days and in some areas you might get by with a 5-weight, and on some windier days a 7-weight rod might be a better choice; in any case, bring at least one spare! The use of polyleaders in several densities will allow you stay flexible to fish deeper water, but it is not necessary. We all did fine with floating lines. In some areas, the use of a lightweight switch rod can be great fun if you like to swing flies. You will have to bring all of your fishing equipment and terminal tackle; there is no shop around to stock up on equipment!
The average char will usually be in the two- to six-pound range with (much) bigger fish always available. We were visiting camp Erfalik in early August, and due to the time of year, we did experience some low-water conditions in the lower reaches of the river as well as in the lakes, so most of the fish we caught were a bit on the smaller side, between two and four pounds. Despite less-than-perfect water conditions, everyone in the group either hooked into much bigger fish or was able to land several nice char over six pounds. The best fish of the week went to our Swedish chef, Josef, and it bested the 11-pound mark.
In the lower reaches of the rivers, the fish are usually still fresh and silvery to silvery gray, but by the time they have ascended to the middle and upper sections of the river, their robes will gradually pick up into those pretty orange and red hues spawning char are so famous and popular for.
Records indicate that the bigger fish run the river earlier in the season, and friends who have stayed in camp in July can attest to that. Even so, I was able to spot a fish from a high cut bank in the lower section of the lower Erfalik that easily went 15 pounds. It took my fly, but it came unstuck from his jaws; unfortunately, the angle had just been too steep for a good hook set.
There are some real char whoppers to be caught in Greenland. I did experience some leader breakage on hard-running fish, both in the Erfalik lakes as well as on the Savssanguit River, where I had a handful of memorable fish grab my fly and run for cover, to the dismay of my fly reel singing its song. The fish are not at all leader shy, and, because the rivers are teeming with rocks, I was using high-quality 15-pound fluorocarbon tippet. Some fish still managed to break this setup, so you can do the math on how strong some of them really are!
Once, while fishing the lake for fresh-run fish, I tied on some new tippet, and seconds later, a strong bite came on and the fish popped my leader in an instant—I never even got to strip in my line in the first place! All in all, I believe that anadromous arctic char, pound for pound, are the strongest of all the salmonids.
Fly-wise, many patterns will work on Greenlandic rivers. Pink is a great color, and so are patterns in red, purple, orange, and plain white. We found our streamer patterns (tied on hook sizes 4 to 8) to be a bit on the large side, but since we had big boxes full of flies, we were able to adjust them by reducing their size. Weighted scud patterns also worked very well, and shrimp flies like the ones used to fish for sea trout in the Baltic (Pattegrisen-type) were also very effective.
After our British companion Ed told us he had brought along some of his tying gear, inspiration got the better of us and we came up with a very heavily weighted shrimp pattern aptly dubbed the “Erfalik Shrimp.” That pattern turned out to be a real killer and got torn up by the hundreds of fish we managed to catch on it. We were able to salvage the still effective, shredded remains of the flies after just one day on the water, and remodel them on the vise during the next session!
The absolute mindblower was the surface fishing for char. Some returning anglers never bother with weighted patterns anymore and all they bring are the now famous “Surface Flies.” This kind of lipless Gurgler, fished waking on top between the big rocks in the calmer areas of the rivers, results in strikes that are heart stopping and at times, spectacular. We all got to sample some of that fishing. If we would have had a little more water in the river, and likely more fish hanging out in the lies among the rocks, it would have been really intoxicating. Anglers visiting in July will probably find perfect conditions for this technique; I envy them already!
One bonus when staying at camp Erfalik is the possibility of fishing the sea pool in the estuary. At low tide it becomes a wide, crystal-clear river where you can target running char from high above the bank or swing flies at them from water level. At very high tide, and somewhat around the bend into the bay, you can fish for Greenlandic cod—with the odd arctic char on steroids thrown in as well. When conditions permit, and you can see fish nearby move on the surface, it is possible to target them with fly tackle, even with Surface Flies! Unfortunately, this was not the case during our stay. Nevertheless, we did come prepared with travel spin rods, just for that purpose, and thus were able to cover the bay with our spoons and to connect with some of the cod as well as some crazy-strong char in their prime condition. The perfectly sized, four- to about eight-pound cod we managed to catch landed in Josef’s able hands to be turned into another delicious meal the next evening; they do not come any fresher than that!
To facilitate logistics, the stay at Camp Erfalik is sold as a package with two nights at a hotel in Sisimiut—one night before heading out to the camp, and one night upon return. Arriving in Sisimiut from the airport, visitors can do some (grocery) shopping in town to get ready for camp life before settling down for a night, and, on the way back, a warm shower will be more than welcome after several days in the wilderness. A farewell banquet with local specialties is usually organized that night, and the newfound friends can then socialize a bit before the next day’s flight takes them back to Kangerlussuaq and their final destination.
The logistics overall were excellent. Before our departure to Greenland, we were met by Josef at the Air Greenland counter at Copenhagen Airport. He verified that the group was complete, and then we traveled on a direct flight to Kangerlussuaq with a connecting flight to Sisimiut. Kudos to Air Greenland—their service is excellent! At Sisimiut airport, we were welcomed by our camp manager, Henry, who had us transported by van to our hotel in a matter of minutes. Hotel Sisimiut is a great place to stay. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the staff is very friendly—just as most Greenlanders generally are. Communication is no problem; English is spoken pretty much everywhere. Greenland is not the cheapest place on Earth to grocery shop, but we found prices to be reasonable. Alcoholic beverages with a lower content (beer, wine) are certainly expensive, but still affordable. Spirits, however, are best purchased at tax-free stores at the airports.
All in all, our Greenlandic experience was a great one. Everything was well organized and the fishing really good—as was the catching! The climate in August is quite stable. Expect some very good weather and very little rain. In our case, cooler days would alternate with sunnier, warmer ones. Remember, you have to hike with your wading gear. You either do so with waders and boots on (bring good ones!), or you carry your wading gear in your backpack. In any case, you will work up a good sweat, so you are required to bring adequate clothing and layering. Your best friend, however, will be a good head net to keep the zillions of bugs, mostly little non-biting flies off you. Biting insects are also present, but I felt less molested by them than in places like, say, Alaska. Bug spray will help as well, but nothing will soothe your nerves better than your head net. Choose wisely; fine mesh in a very dark color is the best choice, as the insects are most active when the sun is shining.—Eric Arborgast
Postscript: Further information about trips to Camp Erfalik/Greenland can be obtained via Olivier Lauzanne from Planet Fly Fishing at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can view photos from Eric’s trip at anglingreport.com.