For anyone with more than a smidgen of poetry in their soul, there can be few better places to arrive than Norway’s Lofoten Islands on a sharp winter’s day.
The propeller aircraft from the mainland makes the short crossing of the giant billiard table of brushed blue that is the Westfjord, creased by the occasional V of a toy-sized fishing boat putt-puttering for home. As you draw closer, the distant cushions bordering the velvet harden into a chiselled line of aristocratic mountains rising straight out of the sea. You find yourself wondering where, in all that welter of rock up ahead, the pilot will be able to find a comfortable pocket in which to put his aircraft down.
There’s a glimpse of sand, a short skid on snow-blown tarmac, and you’ve arrived. A welcoming blast of icy wind reminds you that you’re north of the Arctic Circle – and that it’s a strange place to come at this time of year.
On the map, the Lofotens look like Jurassic vertebrae. The five main lumps of land are so closely interlaced (tunnels and bridges plug the gaps) that it is often hard to work out which of the five entities you are on, and even harder to know which one you are looking at. Ferries and fishing boats dance a slow waltz in and out of the island chain, and although it can be raw in winter, from mid-May the ground bursts forth with wild flowers and berries, the skies are filled with cuckoos, curlews and eagles, and the water is so pristine that you can watch starfish grazing 30ft down.
But we’re too early for cloudberries and reindeer moss, and those getting off the aircraft don’t have the right gear to be hikers or photographers either. There’s a strange selection of physiognomies, and an odd assortment of outsized luggage that certainly isn’t for skiing; I only know what it is because I’m in on the secret too.
For these passengers-with-baggage are fishing enthusiasts, and from January to April, when cod shaped like rugby front-row forwards – all head and neck – come rampaging up the Westfjord, the Lofotens become a trophy-hunters’ Valhalla. The annual cod run from the Barents Sea is a massive migration, the marine equivalent of wildebeest charging across the African savannah, and its steady increase represents a rare good-news fish-stock story that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Enthusiasts, and curious tourists, come throughout the cod run, and are taken out to sea by local fishermen, with trips arranged via hotels and the local tourist board. However, the climax of the season – which I’ve come to witness – is the Cod Fishing World Championships, a weekend event that, despite its official-sounding name, is open to all and is particularly popular with tourists from Germany, Denmark, Russia and the Netherlands.
Their arrival here continues a long tradition of far-flung fishermen coming to these islands at this time of year – albeit for fun rather than food these days. Go back a century or more and there would be 10,000 fisherman from all over northern Europe making their way here in these difficult months, many of them in open rowing boats, and most sharing bunks in rudimentary fishermen’s cabins (rorbu) provided by the dynastic Lofoten fisheries.
In medieval times, cod represented 80 per cent of Norway’s exports, as we learn in the Lofoten museum at Storvagan, which was once the capital. The key elements haven’t changed much since the peak years (1700-1950) of the fishing industry. These days there are engines on the boats but the main focus is still on the January to April bonanza and the making of stockfish, where the cod are cleaned and hung out to dry on huge racks, creating what look like giant fish-tiled cathedrals. When they’re ready, they’re sorted, packed up and exported to Italy, Spain and Portugal, where they are welcomed respectively as baccalà, bacalao, and bacalhau.
As for the rorbu, they are still very much in evidence, although not quite as primitive as the one we visit in the Storvagan museum, which used to accommodate 12. Today’s cabins are still in waterside locations but they’ve got kitchens, sitting rooms and bedrooms. The beds are no longer too short (back then, fishermen believed that if they stretched out while asleep their soul would depart). The cabins are still painted blood red, formerly with a mixture of fish blood and cod liver oil, and they look stunning against the pure white snow.
I’m staying (with a group of fishing writers from northern Europe) at the Nyvagar, a collection of rorbu grouped together as a hotel, which sits in its own still-water inlet at Kabelvag, complete with jetty and pier, just as the fisheries used to be. It is easy to imagine how a boatload of fishermen might have rowed out of the midwinter gloom in days of old, and their sensation of relief at seeing the rows of cabins. We try to imagine the feeling as we sit in the hotel’s hot tub under the stars, emerging occasionally to do the Scandinavian thing and roll around giggling in the snow. Even the Northern Lights put in a timely appearance, glowing green, pulsating and extending soft fingers to brush the cheeks of the stars.
From Storvagan we make a trip down the coast to Henningsvaer, Lofoten’s most important fishing port, where red wooden houses cluster tightly around the harbour, and a strong local fishery still works in the traditional way.
And then it is our turn to fish. On the morning of the championship, some 75 boats carrying 600 fishermen come charging out of the port of Svolvaer, the Lofotens’ main town. We’ve been given deck-space on the Elltor, a trawler based at Nusfjord, further down the island chain, captained by Jan, and with Jim and Svein as deckhands. We’re distributed along the rail, and I have to confess to Jim that I’m a comparative novice, so he kindly fits me up with gear and tells me what to do.
Ten minutes out, Jan does the sailor’s equivalent of a handbrake turn, leans out of the bridge and bellows, “There’s plenty of fish!” He tells us the depth they’re at, according to his fish-finding sonar. Silence descends on the deck, and then the first quiet exclamations, and the rods begin to bend.
In the space of five fishing hours we catch … plenty. Probably around 250kg of cod, and even I manage five fish, all of which are far bigger than anything I’ve caught before. However, the others on board profess themselves disappointed because the fish are spawning, not feeding – last year four fishermen on the Elltor caught a massive 1,600kg between them. But who can be disappointed out in that scenery, surrounded by snow-covered mountains on a shifting sea of mercury stitched with skerries of rocks. On the way back, Jim prepares cod sushi, as fresh as it ever could be.
Afterwards, in the weighing room, where the winning fish tops 27kg, I can’t help but notice a group with UAE emblazoned on their all-in-ones, so I sidle up to their leader, the ebullient Finn Martin Nielsen, to ask whether they’ve really come all the way from the Middle East.
They have. Nielsen turns out to be a Lofoten Islander based in Dubai, and he introduces me to another of the group, an Emirati fisherman more used to catching tuna in his T-shirt than snaring cod in below-zero temperatures. But fishing is fishing, he shrugs, and it’s all been good clean fun. Did he do well? “Well enough,” he says, modestly, “no world records.” But there was, of course, the one that got away.
Andrew Eames was a guest of the Norwegian Tourist Board. For more information on northern Norway, see www.northernnorway.com. Flights from London to Bodo with SAS cost from £302 return; the short hop from Bodo to Svolvaer with Wideroe costs from £46 return. Doubles at the Nyvagar Rorbuhotel costs from NKr1,500 (£171) per night; another popular fishing option is the Nusfjord; fishing trips are also arranged by the guide Nigel Hearn.
For details of the World Championship weekend in March, see www.vmiskreifiske.no