Nice Bandits: Poaching in the Alta River during the 1970s and 1980s

By Merete Camilla Ødegaard

Osvald Møllenes on duty in Sautso. Photo unknown. Alta Museum’s collections.

Part 1 – Salmon Fever                                     

A few years ago, I wrote a master thesis in social anthropology on the boatmen, the local flyfishing-guides, in the Alta river. (I samme båt. Stakere, fluefiskere og maskulinitet i laksefisket i Alta. 2013) Given my job at the Alta Museum, I had become very fascinated by the salmon fishing community and all its trappings, so the subject matter came easily to me, and the boatmen were intriguing! I was well received by everybody, and Hans the boatman was among the first I talked to. He sported a wide smile and a jaunty demeanor, and his candor and devotion to the river soon made him one of my most important informants. But being a budding social anthropologist venturing into a new field full of unknown people, relations, as well as an uncharted social and geographic landscape, you soon discover that everything may not be as it seems. What can be best described at “What the ...”-experiences happen all the time. When I had been doing fieldwork a few weeks, one of the other boatmen, as the fishing guides are known locally, mumbled to me that “

“Hans had been one of the biggest poachers in the whole river, my reaction was “What the ...” Could that even be true? Poachers were lowlifes and bandits, right? Quite the contrary, it seemed. Poaching induced status.

The boatmen and anglers depart from the fishing camp at Stengelsen. Photo: Merete C. Ødegaard.

— Hans had been one of the biggest poachers in the whole river, my reaction was “What the ...” Could that even be true? Poachers were lowlifes and bandits, right?

When I was done with my thesis on the boatmen, I felt like doing some more digging into poaching. I reconnected with Hans. He has loved the river ever since he was a boy, and what he doesn’t know about it simply isn’t worth knowing. He was among the most active poachers in the decades before hydro-electric development commenced in the river, but all the while he was also one of the best regarded boatmen here. In the 1970s, he was one of the reasons the Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap was forced to hire police officers with German shepherds to tackle the poacher problem. Somewhat later, ALI employed him as an angling guide for wealthy foreigners. Nobody seemed to mind such a career turn. Quite the contrary: In no way was he the only one with such a background. I had also learned an old saying, “The best boatmen were the best poachers,” which was uttered with a laugh, but probably very true at that! Old school poachers seemed to elicit a certain admiration and respect in the Alta community. I was starting to wonder: Why did they poach? And is there really no way to reconcile a history of poaching with a boatmanship?

Hans grew up in the vicinity of the Alta river. He had many siblings, but Hans was the only one who was interested in fishing. From an early age, he was catching trout with lures, and as a teenager he caught his first salmon. But, during the sixties and seventies, the river was rented out to foreigners from Midsummer, starting at St John's Day, way into August, so people from Alta had little time to fish legally. In Hans’ own words:

“Sure, I started fishing before St John's Day. Back then, it was happy days. Not a lot of folks were fishing. We used to go to Forbygninga, which was the most popular spot, just like today. The Øver Alta [Upper Alta] bridge wasn’t there yet. There was just five, six maybe up to ten who went fishing there, right, when it was really crowded. So we caught ourselves lots of fish before St John's Day too. So you got bitten by the bug after a while. But then Midsummer came rolling in, and summer was over. We were all done with salmon fishing. In those days, each interessent, that is a member of the Interessentskap, who wanted to fish had to apply for one 24 hour card, a kudøgn, way out in August. But you wanted to do a bit more of the fishing, see? So there was a bit of poaching around.”

— "But you wanted to do a bit more of the fishing, see? So there was a bit of poaching around."

Since 1725 the Alta river has been managed by the Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap. Its members, called interessenter, interested parties, are local farmers. This collective approach to handling the fishing rights has made it possible to rent out all of the river since sports angling was introduced here by the Duke of Roxburghe around 1860. In that way it differs from other rivers, where the individual proprietors have authority over the stretches adjoining their land. Except for the two world wars, the river has been rented continually for the better part of the fishing season. Starting in the 1980’s, the for rent period has gradually become shorter, and more permits are now issued to local inhabitants. The story I’m about to tell about Hans begins in the seventies, and during that time use of the river was granted almost exclusively to renters and their companions.

Obviously, it was advantageous for the renters that the entire river was for rent, so they could have it for themselves in the best migration period from Midsummer’s Eve until mid-August, the so-called salmon run. It was a boost for ALI as well, since it dealt the organization a good hand in rental negotiations, so the revenues were good, and the interested parties received their share in shape of “river money”. The ones who drew the short straw were Alta’s inhabitants. They didn’t just lose the possibility to fish, and that may not even have been the worst of it, since very few were actually interested in the fishing itself, as Hans recalls it. More importantly, they lost access to the salmon itself. As autumn approaches and the fish have been in the river for a while, they undergo physiological changes, and as their skin darkens, it’s meat quality declines to the point where it’s hardly fit for human consumption. This is what Hans means when he says that being relegated to catch “the dark salmon in August” left much to be desired. The first and obvious reason to poach is to gather foodstuffs. In Finnmark, the northernmost Norwegian county, there is a long tradition for living off natural resources, and supplementing one’s diet by hunting or fishing is common still today. “The Americans” didn’t fish here to put food on the table, they did it for the sport.

In addition to providing food, poaching was a form of rebellion against the rent regime. Poaching was commonly recognized among Alta’s inhabitants, and it was met with unspoken acceptance. Without stretching it too far, one might say there was a certain likeness between Robin Hood in the Sherwood Forest and the poachers’ motivation.

— There was a certain likeness between Robin Hood in the Sherwood Forest and the poachers’ motivation.

“Well, it started in the old days when the Alta people guarded the river. Didn’t really matter much back then. I used to keep myself in good shape. I’m fond of saying all it took was a pair of stockings, some soot and being well-trained. You’d get away with mostly anything that way. Me, I was just over twenty or something. You know, it was all really pretty fun and exciting! So you didn’t think, I mean, I ain’t never stolen nothing, to put it like that. An honest bloke in every way. Folks accepted that at least somebody had the guts to oppose the system. And just like I said, we started out with soot in the face and them nylon stockings over the head, of course. And all that stuff. Green garbs and camouflage as best vi could. Our spot, that kinda was from Sorrisniva and way up to Kista, in between there. On the Dala side. The bridge wasn’t built yet. Back then, we knew them guards had a tent on the Nerskjæra bank of the river and kept close watch. But they had to get some sleep, and every once in a while, they’d be heading home. We hunkered down in the forest and waited, then we bolted down and started fishing. Catching salmon was real easy in those days.”

If angling was a sport for the foreigners, poaching it was nearly one for the locals as well. It was a suspenseful game between cat and mouse where you had to avoid being seen by the anglers and caught by the guards. Poaching wasn’t just about hauling a salmon out of the water, but just as much standing tall for your right to use the river, despite that it was rented.

“We used to have another rule. We never poached when Agnar Johnsen worked the river, he was a local, after all. We only demonstrated when the Americans were here.”

This “game” turned more serious as a salmon catch didn’t just amount to food anymore, but started to have monetary value as well.

— We never poached when Agnar Johnsen worked the river, he was a local, after all. We only demonstrated when the Americans were here.

Jim Pearman is petting one of the police dogs. Jan Ekman fished as a member of the Pearman-party in the 1970-80s. Photo: Jan Ekman. Alta Museum´s collections.

“The Americans were fly-fishing, and we used shrimp as bait and a good lure as well, and mostly we’d catch a fish on the first cast, and the second, and the third. So that made it all real good fun. But, it grew bigger. I gotta admit it and say that it probably wasn’t all above board. When we started to sell fish, I mean. In the book [I storlaksens rike] it says the price was around 40 kroner for a kilo [2.2 pounds] in the sixties and seventies, but we got more like 60 kroner for salmon. I mean, that was just a crazy price! At home we always had to work and earn money the hard way. There was so much more to be made here. It was easy money, and it was fun. So it turned into a kind of sport. That way, maybe you have some regrets, the way it turned out. And it was pretty hard to stop. So every summer it was like an illness, one you were always longing for, to put it that way. We tried our best – and we always thought of that as a sport – not to be seen by the anglers. That was part of the training, ‘cause that would have been a provocation in every way. But the folks at home, in a way they knew we were demonstrating. No, we didn’t let’em see us, we never did, so we cheated in our own way, but everyone knew what we were doing. After all, it was the traders from Alta, the purchasers, who bought our salmon.”

Before farmed salmon made a noticeable impact on the menu in the late eighties, there was a vast market for wild salmon. Whether it was fished legally or illegally, local purchasers paid good money for wild salmon and resold it to hotels, restaurants and fishmongers in Southern Norway. 60 kroner a kilo amounts to 450 kroner in current value, so they would net 4,500 kroner for an average salmon from Alta. The income was important for some, but several people I spoke to went to great lengths to explain that poaching was not a full-time activity for them. The job came first, while poaching was a leisure activity!

As money became a more dominant part of poaching and the number of illegal anglers grew, so did the problems for Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap. The poachers were starting to meddle in its business. The leverage during negotiations about new rent contracts worsened, since the exclusivity was being torn away at the fringes. Hans recounts that it was a sport in itself to remain unnoticed by the legitimate anglers, but it certainly was no secret to them that the poachers were nearby. In his book “Seven nights on the Alta” from 1983/2013 Jan Ekman writes that “the short periods when non-residents like us fish are golden days for poachers.” In addition, ALI lost money directly due to the poachers, as the legally fished salmon was sold to the purchasers as well, and that income went to the organization.

On April 4, 1973, the board passed a resolution that was to herald a new phase in the poaching in the Alta river:

Point 14. Guard system 1973. By unanimous decision: It was decided to hire 4 police officers with 4 dogs to start on continuous guard duty. (4 personnel in two periods = 8 persons) (Meeting minutiae for Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap 05-18-1963 to 05-25-1974)

Hans goes on:

“But everything got worse now. When the police dogs arrived, it all got worse. At that point, lots of people quit fishing, cause they thought this got too spooky. Man, I have lots of stories about that, how the older quit the game, and us who didn’t scare quite so easily and weren’t scared of the dogs and all that, we kept on going. But we were fewer now. I reckon most everybody has poached some when there was no police and no dogs. Maybe you went to get yourself a salmon and whatnot once a season or so, but I don’t think many people kept going the way we did.”

— Lots of people quit fishing, cause they thought this got too spooky.

Hans caught his first salmon when he was in his teens, and that changed his life – from now on, nothing mattered but salmon fishing. Poaching was a thrill for young men, and certainly nothing for amateurs! It was important to know the river, the angling spots, “water levels” and the salmon itself, even more so than in ordinary fishing or guiding for foreigners. Since poaching has to be exceptionally effective, it’s best to hook a salmon at the first try and play it with a hard hand. There’s a lot at stake. If caught, one will be fined, the equipment will be impounded, and in the worst case one may be banned for life from fishing. This story begins as an example of the extraordinary know-how and proficiency at salmon fishing Hans and his buddies wielded, and it ends as a cops-and-robbers story where the local poacher outsmarts authority, first the police and its dogs, and later Ole Mosesen, who represented the river’s proprietors.

“I mean, it was kinda funny, the story that happened when Brattstrømmen was still one of the best fishing spots in Alta. Brattstrømmen was long. There’d been a giant fire, right, so it was really wide open, there was no forest left at all. When the water level was just right, Brattstrømmen was just the best. I’ve had four casts get me four salmon there. Yeah. I was there with a buddy of mine, and we couldn’t go on fishing, ‘cause we weren’t able to carry no more, to put it that way. So at some water levels it was just fantastic.

— Yeah. I was there with a buddy of mine, and we couldn’t go on fishing, ‘cause we weren’t able to carry no more ...

Alright, so me and this buddy, we were going there. And we caught two salmon immediately. 

The next day we were supposed to go back there, but I just couldn’t get him to wake up. I went to his house and knocked on the windows and all. He lived on the first floor at his parents’ house. That’s back when we were young. I couldn’t get him awake, so I thought I’d go on my own. Anyway, before that two other pals of mine reckoned they’d do the same, but when they got to Brattstrømmen and saw how it was wide open, they got too scared. So they figured they’d move to the upper side, that is to the Øverstengelsen, as it was called, just outside of Agnar Johnsen’s, below the outcrop and the water mark.

So what they told me afterwards was they’d witnessed all of it. They saw this moron who just strolled up and had the gall to fish all alone down in the Brattstrømmen, and that moron was me, of course. The moment I’d cast the lure out, I hooked a salmon. And in the same moment the police and the dogs and the boat with Ole Mosesen came down from Stengelsen. They saw me at once. That’s how open it was. Well, well. But I thought there was no hurry. No, I had to land that salmon. So I had to play it a bit, but I was really heavy-handed with it, that goes without saying. And I’d been smart enough to only bring a plastic bag. I didn't want to take the chance to bring a backpack, since I knew I’d have to make a quick run for it, and a backpack would just get in the way. Yeah. I play it while the boat is getting closer and closer. I can picture the dogs standing in the front seats and looking out. The boat is moving. Two policemen sitting there in the middle of the boat and the dogs are staring. I’m thinking: Hell, I’m gonna outrun them! What happened was I hauled the salmon in. They had another hundred yards or so to go. It’s hard for me to say for sure, but they certainly were close now, too close. And this is what these two buddies of mine tell me two or three years later. That they’d seen it. What kind of a moron is this who doesn’t just cut the salmon loose and starts running? But I thought there was no way I was gonna let that salmon go. When I got it ashore, I’d just whack it on the head and stuff it in the bag. And that was my mistake, I gotta tell you I’ve thought of that many a time later on. ‘Cause it was only half dead. And you know, running in loose sand, up that slope with a half dead salmon in a plastic bag… but I made good time up and away with my fishing rod in the other hand.

— What kind of a moron is this who doesn’t just cut the salmon loose and starts running?

When I got topside, they were really very close, they were gaining on me since they hung on to the dogs, the dogs helped the cops up the slope. So, I figured: That’s alternative two, I gotta fool’em. I was up to good speed when as I made it to the top, and I caught a glimpse of an overgrown tree stump, so I chucked the rod and the salmon there. Then I took off. I ran as fast as I could straight to the left where there was a small forest, and I leaped down. So, I came rolling down that long hill at the end there. And that’s where I saw Ole Mosesen. And Ole Mosesen was in really good shape back then. He was into sports and all that. But I knew I was as well. So, he headed straight for me. But I pulled the nylon stocking over my face and took off again. Well, we made it all the way to Skiferberget in Pæska. The distance between us got bigger and bigger, slowly but still. So, I reckoned I’d just follow the road, ‘cause that made for good running. So, I ran towards Pæska. And when we got close to Pæska, he gave in. ‘Course he did, he could see I was outrunning him.

And that’s how I got away…”

— "And that’s how I got away…"

Back to my original question: Is there really an inconsistency between being a well-known poacher and a respected boatman? My answer is no, there isn’t. Both things hail from a love for and vast knowledge of both the river and its salmon, and both are a result of salmon fever, that unquenchable desire to work the river during salmon season. The precondition to become an efficient poacher is the same as that for a good boatman, and both in their own way are connected to the rent business.

“It was a protest, it all started as a demonstration, but it turned into a small sickness, to phrase it that way. That salmon fever, it was cruel and hard to stop.

But, when the Americans were here, that’s when we demonstrated. When we weren’t allowed to take part in the license drawing. Later on you got to be able to buy more license cards, of course, so most people quit poaching and some went on. The way the system works today, I figure most 99% have quit poaching. As for me, I haven’t done any of it for the last thirty years, to put it that way.

I didn’t feel as if I did anything wrong during them years, but later I’d think, well, you were kind of a bandit, but I used to say ‘a nice bandit.’”

In addition to providing food, poaching was a way to claim ones right to the river and its salmon. Poaching was also a protest against the fact that Alta inhabitants were denied access to the river. In the beginning, there was also a market for selling salmon, and its value lay in the dead fish. From the mid-1990s “catch and release” was introduced in the Alta river. At first glance poaching and guiding, where the catch is set free, may seem like exact opposites, but are they really? Both for poaching and guiding the salmon and the hunt are the main objectives. The difference lies in transferring the value of the salmon from dead to living fish. As I talked to the boatmen during work on my Master thesis, most of them answered that the motivation that keeps them working as boatmen is to make use of their knowledge of the river and the fish to enable others to catch salmon. For them the profit resides in living salmon. That’s what makes up the lasting appeal of Alta as an attractive river and entices the guests to return year after year. In that way the boatmen get to spend more time on the river than their licenses permit – and they get paid for it as well.

— Well, you were kind of a bandit, but I used to say ‘a nice bandit.'

The team of local guards in front of their cabin in Gønges. Osvald Møllenes, head of the guards and later chairman of ALI, in white shirt. Photo unknown. Alta Museum’s collections.

Both poaching and guiding is all about living by and with the river and to catch salmon.

There’s not a whole lot of poaching left today, except for a few repeat offenders and a random spattering of youngsters who may try it for the thrill. But the police and the dogs are gone. Nowadays guard duty has become a popular summer job for young people who thrive in the great outdoors. They check fishing licenses and keep an eye out for poachers, but they mostly just make sure that everybody fishes in a pleasant and calm environment. These days, Hans has no doubts about his attitude towards poaching:

“I’ve got a few buddies who I know have been giving it a try. What I say to them is ‘you ain’t allowed to poach! Y’all gotta quit that. We don’t need it anymore!’”

Part 2 – Salmon Fever

The term “poacher” doesn’t immediately sound nice. It obviously alludes to an activity that’s illegal, but many will also think of it as courageous, stealthy and exciting.

In the first part of “Nice Bandits” I intended to find an explanation of what motives were behind the poaching during the 1970s and 80s. As well as providing extra food on the family dinner table, it was a source of income. Salmon was high-priced, an average 10 kilos [22 pound] fish would net 4,500 kroner in today’s money. The buyers would send the salmon south to hotels and restaurants. But poaching was also a rebellion and protest against the fact that the river was being rented out to foreigners during the best fishing period. Most poachers were essentially fishing enthusiasts – and it was hard to be cut off from the river when you were haunted by salmon fever.

— Most poachers were essentially fishing enthusiasts – and it was hard to be cut off from the river when you were haunted by salmon fever.

As the 1970s progressed, the situation escalated. The growing number of poachers left Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap, which managed the river, both with a problem of keeping order and it had a negative impact on rent price negotiations. So, ALI started hiring police officers and their dogs from Southern Norway instead of locals to guard the river. There were many who ceased poaching when the police arrived, but those who went on organized in teams and became even more proficient in the art of outsmarting the guards. This led to a acrider climate, and there was more at stake if one was caught. Hans, my informer who was a legendary poacher in the 1970s and is now a respected boatman and fly-fishing guide, tells it this way:

“That was something we talked a lot about. It was a demonstration, it all started as a demonstration, but it turned into a small sickness, to phrase it that way. That salmon fever, it was cruel and hard to get rid of. But it made for many a thrilling story. Lots of thrilling stories. You know, people hardly believe me, they think I’m just imagining stuff when I tell’em all those things that happened. But it’s all true. That’s what it was like all the time. Lots of excitement. It was a form of sport as well. I was in good shape. I’d had enough training in getting away, and I knew how the dogs worked and all that. And I wasn’t afraid of them dogs. Today, I’d never have the guts to do nearly as much as I did back then.”

Poaching stories come in all forms and variations. In this part I’ll let Hans tell it in his own words; about how the poachers organized, about the man who just had to go poaching one last time, and finally the story of a foray that turned out to be particularly nerve-wrecking since he went all alone…

— About the man who just had to go poaching one last time, and finally the story of a foray that turned out to be particularly nerve-wrecking since he went all alone…

Policemen and dogs in front of the cabin in Gønges ready for action. Photo unknown. Alta Museum’s collections.

“The first years the police and their dogs came, there were fourteen cops and seven dogs from Gønges down to Forbygninga. They may have been a little farther down as well, but we rarely fished on that side back then. At least that’s the way it was in my gang. Fourteen men, each with a dog, and some of them had two. So that was a kinda strange situation. It changed your life a little. You got a little more nervous and scared. But it was good training as well, so we went on. When Midsummer came, we knew the police and the dogs had arrived. They used to stay at the camping ground in Øver-Alta. The poachers always did recon the first four or five days after St John's Day. We had to be well prepared before we got on with it.

We were well organized at the time. The angler was Number one and the guy next to him, close to the one who was actually fishing, was Number two. And then we always had a few sentries hanging ‘round. Mind you, both the guards and the company [ALI] knew where the “water level“ was at. [The “water level” being the optimal spot to fish.] At Nærskjæra, for instance. And they knew that we knew. And that we’d go fishing where the prey was easiest. And then we had a radio station that warned us if the guards were on their way up to us.

The garb was green uniforms and nylon silk stockings, a green hat and sneakers. A lot quit poaching when the police started guarding, but that salmon fever – it’s hard to shake off…

There were a lot of times when older folks, who’d quit poaching, they used to come to me and I had to tell’em how it turned out lately, since they wanted to get their kicks. I can still remember one day when a buddy of mine came over. He used to come by the job and say:

‘Well, Hans, spit it out. What gives?” Sure, I had a few stories to tell. But then I say to him 

‘Why don’t you come along? You don’t have to sit near the river. You can be sentry Number three, four. Why don’t you just join. Just come along!’

‘Are you crazy,’ he said, ‘I’m too scared for that.’ So, I come to work one morning, and he’s sitting on the front stairs. He’d been out there. He sat there and was coy, he just sat there and waited to tell the story.

‘Hans,’ he said, ‘I gotta tell you. I’ve been out.’ He’d gone to Bollo. And Bollo, that’s where the people from Tverrelvdalen used to go. ‘So, I sat there for an hour or so, two hours, for three hours. I was so scared,’ he said. ‘So scared, I had to go take a leak all the time. And you know, finally I got the balls to cast. It locked at once!’ “That was his way of saying he’d caught one.

‘I played that salmon as fast as I could. And then I ran, and here I am!’ And he’d only been out there this one time. But he just had to go again when the dogs came, and that gave him some satisfaction. After that, he was done. Yeah, he was, you see, I talked to him lots of times after that. No, he never did go again. But that one time, that was important. There was such a pull from the river.”

Hans was known to keep in good shape. That benefited others as well!

“Sure, most folks knew what I was doing. One Saturday morning I went to the grocery store at Bossekop. A guy my age came running over to me, and he says:

‘Hans, you saved me last night.’

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I was out poaching, I was fishing at Rikardholla,’ he said. ‘As I stood there playing a salmon, the boat comes down, the boatmen, right? And they were heading straight for me, and I got that fish ashore. So, I just whacked it a bit on the head and figured I ain’t got a chance at running. So, after fifty yards I just drop to the ground. And the guard keeps getting closer, stopping right beside me, but he can’t see me. But I heard’em saying ‘That was Hans, no way we’re gonna catch up with him!’’

Erika Bohr (sitting on the ground) was head of the guards, and had a good view of the river from the Raipas mountain. Photo unknown. Alta Museum’s collections.

— That was Hans, no way we’re gonna catch up with him!

And that’s how he got saved, ‘cause they reckoned that was me running away with a salmon. So, he thanked me for that.”

For the sake of safety and overview, the poacher gangs organized. The team might be made up of Number one, who did the actual fishing, Number two, who stood nearby with the gaff, Number three who stood sentry partway up the hill and Number four, who stood on the crest of the hill and had an outlook for miles. If someone was approaching, he would warn the others by walkie-talkie. Poaching on one’s own was unusual, but not unheard of.

“Going poaching on one’s own was the worst. Once I drove the motorbike up to Detsika. It was early morning, and I was all alone.

I knew the police used to lie low behind the fences in Sorrisniva. They used to lie there and wait and keep guard. So, I come sneaking down, I’m really quiet as a mouse. First, I stash the rod and the bag, then I come out to take a look. A car was parked on the other side, I almost said the parking lot, where the bridge is today. And it was just the same kinda car that Lyon owned, and Lyon, he was the boss at Interessentskapet [ALI]. So that’s that, and on this side, there’s a boat close to land. It was an empty boat. Back then, we knew all the boats, of course. So, I say to myself ‘Heck, what are they doing here?’ It made me real uneasy. Not just that I was on my own, that was scary enough by itself, but that I didn’t have any inkling to what that boat and that car were doing there. I went down the hill and prowled around them fences and had a look. I had to go real slow, keeping tabs on the wind direction all the time, right, ‘cause they had a dog, and he’d smell me. They were pros in that way. So I made a wide round there and went back the same way, and there were no people at all. I waited a while, but nobody came. I bucked up, telling myself they’d probably gone for a long hike somewhere. Maybe they’d gone up along the river to Skjæra or wherever, so I started fishing. ‘Cause I thought if I had the guts to fish here, I’d catch myself a salmon on the first try. The water level was just right, and it was all smooth sailing. 

So, what happens now is I go get the rod and all my stuff. Hook it all up and hide the bag a little way to the back. And then I come out. I take a good look around. And part of the story is that Ulrik Wisløff, he’s a dairy farmer, and every day at six fortyfive he crosses the river to put out the milk pail for the milk wagon to fetch. Ulrik always chased after poachers, so I couldn’t let him see me. And now the time was, say six fifteen, or something like that, give or take. So, I think to myself I’ll only give it one cast. There’s plenty time to hook a salmon and get it ashore. So, yeah, I go down there. But first I take a good look from above, for the moment I come down from the road I lose sight of what’s behind me. It’s five or six meters above. I take a good look around and sit down behind some trees before I come out to fish. I know I’ll get a salmon on the first try. So, I cast the line, and nothing is taking the bait. I try a second time. A third time. Five times. I’m too scared to continue, so I walk up the slope again. And I was really shocked that I didn’t catch any salmon. ‘Cause the water level was a dream. Everything was just right. We knew all about this. Yeah, I went into the forest and thought ‘damnit, I’m not leaving here without my salmon.’ I go down there again. Same way down, threw the line, and that salmon bit on the first try. And what a salmon it was! And I turn it around and it’s heavy as a boulder. This was a cast lure, right, not a fly, line gauge sixty. I turn it upstream to get as far as I can, ‘cause I can see the clock is almost six forty five. I’m pretty sure it was well past six thirty. I never knew the exact moment Ulrik would turn up with his milk bucket. I play the salmon and get it a good way upstream. It’s called Mørkengamma, that narrow river course further up. I wasn’t in it, but just at the edge, see? I drew the salmon upstream; I had to get as far away as possible. I sat down behind some shrubbery and there I sat and played it. But then the salmon started. I had to reel out, felt the rod quivering. If I hold on any longer, the line’s gonna tear! And so, it started going downstream again. And I ran. I ran so hard the stones beneath my soles were squeaking. Fat round rocks, if you know the kind. And then the salmon comes to a dead stop. And it pulls me down behind a low stand of birches that barely kept me hidden. And down there by the bridge, well, the bridge wasn’t there yet, but anyways, down that way, right? So, I sit down back here to play the fish, so I’m about fifteen yards upstream from the boat that was there. And suddenly, as I sit there playing that salmon, I hear footsteps from the boat. Thump, thump, thump, in the boat. Heck. I felt it begin… Pulled down the silk stocking, we practiced in front of the mirror, how taut it had to be to make you look ugly. So, I peeked out, and it’s just a young lad. Thank heaven, I thought to myself. I wasn’t afraid of nothing back then. I outran them all, I could get away from anything. 

So, I asked myself: ‘Do I cut the line? Nope, I’m not gonna cut it. I don’t care about the boy. I just show myself and play that salmon. He won’t know who I am, silk stocking and all.’ But then I hear him talk to somebody. Damnit, he wasn't alone at all! So, I take another glance out from the birch grove. Yeah, there was a cop in uniform there as well! Oh Lord, I thought. What do I do now? 

— Yeah, there was a cop in uniform there as well! Oh Lord, I thought. What do I do now?

I’m gonna cut now, that’s for sure. Then I hear him talking again. And the first thing that comes to my mind is that they don’t have a dog. Good. I’ll get away. No problem. Yeah, I was so cocky about the shape I was in that this was no problem. But then he started talking again, and I heard the two Easterners talk amongst themselves. I peek out, and they have a dog. Two cops and a young boy. And they push the boat out. They’re fifteen yards away now. I went later back and measured, so that’s how I know they were fifteen yards away. That’s when I tread on the line like this. I was good at biting off line. I wouldn’t be able to bite through a sixty-gauge line today. I bit it off. So, I grabbed the end of the line and thought ‘heck, am I just gonna let that salmon go?’ Just as the thought had struck me, the salmon leaped into the air just by the riverside. The very same salmon I had on a line. And it startles them, since they were about halfway out on the river. And the salmon was right behind them. ‘That was a big one,’ I hear them saying, right? Yeah. And I held on to it close by the shore, and I think ‘I’m not gonna let go. I’ll tie it down right here by the river.’ I just made some sort of knot with no system to it at all. I lashed loop after loop. I sat there with my foot on the line. Do you know what happened then?”

Merete: “No?”

“They started coming towards me. They had a dog along, didn’t they? And the dog catches wind of me at once. They’re coming closer and closer until they were about seven or eight yards away, then they start rowing out, just nine feet from land. ‘Cause they want the dog to swim. Believe it or not, they keep rowing upstream, past me. I just have to keep still. And mind you, the dog was real close! The dog was so preoccupied with the men in the boat who are standing up the whole time. ‘Come on now!’ They want it to swim, and it didn’t wanna swim. ‘Good Lord!’ I keep saying to myself, ‘Get out there, doggie! Swim, damnit!’ So, they’re in the boat fifteen feet away from me, but all they worry about is the dog. And I clamp down my foot on the line. And after a lot of to and fro, it felt like half an hour, but five, maybe seven minutes, they row over the river. And the dog follows.

— Good Lord!’ I keep saying to myself, ‘Get out there, doggie! Swim, damnit!

Merete: “Good Lord!”

“So, they cross the river, and it turns out it’s not their car at all. It was another car. I just had to wait it out. Waiting and waiting, wondering if the salmon was still there. I didn’t so much as twitch a finger. They messed around on the other shore for a long time. You know, hoisting the boat ashore, and it was fifteen minutes, twenty maybe, before they disappeared into the forest. So, what do I do now? I clutch the rope again and clamp down and start pulling. And the salmon is still there! And just to show you how nerve-wrecking that was. When I got that sixteen kilos [35 pound] salmon ashore, I kill it with a blow to the head and collapse the rod. My backpack was ten yards behind me, hidden among some trees. I stuffed the salmon into it, and then I started running. At first the ground is pretty level, but then it starts sloping real steep. So, I keep running through the woods. But sure, everybody gets exhausted. Suddenly I was completely beat, and then it dawned on me: ‘Are you bonkers? What are you running from?’ They’d left, hadn’t they? There was nothing to get away from. That’s just to show how exciting it was. That’s how it went down.

I got topside, where my motorbike was, and I thought to myself ‘I’ll just pop down and get me another one! Wasn’t no problem. A ten kilo [22 pound] salmon. After all, I was sure they’d gone away. But that car was still there. It belonged to Lyon. I never did ask him why it was there. But that was the worst, to be on your own. It was a special feeling.”

— I’ll just pop down and get me another one!

Poaching was a dietary supplement, it was a protest against the way the river was managed, there was money to be made, and it was a thrill. There’s hardly any poaching anymore, but the stories still live a vivid life among all of Alta’s inhabitants as a tribute to their close kinship with the best salmon river in the world.