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A Wee Heavy Orkney Odyssey
Clive Gammon
December 02, 1968
A lingering fog, a frustrating fishing festival and a little redheaded woman were enough to drive strong men to drink—especially the occupants of Rooms 5 and 6
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December 02, 1968

A Wee Heavy Orkney Odyssey

A lingering fog, a frustrating fishing festival and a little redheaded woman were enough to drive strong men to drink—especially the occupants of Rooms 5 and 6

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"We are here for the Sea Angling Festival," said Mike Leith-Smith grandly, heaving his tackle box into the trunk of the airport bus. He had no idea in the world of what he was going to encounter, but he had brought along his sailfish gear and a 12/0 reel in case of emergencies (which he had vigorously insisted was legitimate hand baggage all the way from Nairobi). I'd met him on the flight up from London and heard the full story of how he'd been sitting at his managerial desk in a Kenyan import-export agency when he had received a cable from a friend, an Orcnophile who had spent 14 successive annual leaves from East Africa catching trout on the islands, DROP EVERYTHING AND COME UP FOR THE SEA FISHING, it said. There must have been somebody in Nairobi to catch everything when it dropped, and import-export must have been going pretty well, because Leith-Smith, pausing only to snatch up his big-game gear, left at once.

Now the awful truth, which had not yet been vouchsafed to Leith-Smith (who was born in Cairo and spent all his life in Africa), is that there are no big game fish in the part of the Atlantic that flows around Northern Europe. Big bluefin tuna were taken off the east coast of England in the 1930s by sport fishermen, but the commercial boats finished them off long ago. Nowadays, to be frank, it's mostly cod, cod, cod. I wasn't going to be the one to tell Leith-Smith, though. The situation would have to sort of emerge. Then I would try to get him interested in what I was after.

There might not be big game fish around the Orkneys, but there were big fish. Rays and skates, to begin with. In the last couple of months a good number had been taken weighing up to more than 200 pounds. Bigger ones had been lost at the boatside or more likely had been cut away when it was realized there was no means of bringing them aboard. Catching a skate has justifiably been likened to hauling up an animated tombstone, but at least they were big. There were also porbeagle shark up to 400 pounds. And finally there were halibut.

I wanted a halibut, which was why I had come to Orkney. I had wanted a halibut for years, and my last halibut trip had been to Kristiansund Nord, on the west coast of Norway. The harbor there is the center of the Norwegian halibut longlining industry, so I went confidently down to the quay to discover the best place to try. "Off the Orkneys," they told me dourly.

The halibut of the Arctic is a flatfish, an enormous, predatory, muscular flatfish that grows to a fabled weight of 1,000 pounds and a proved weight of 700. Because European waters represent the extreme southern fringe of the halibut's range, rod-and-line captures are not frequent. The heaviest so far is one of 408 pounds off Iceland.

Not only the word at Kristiansund Nord had drawn me to Orkney. A month previously someone had caught a 168-pounder out of Stromness Harbour there, and the commercial lines had been getting them consistently, though not in great plenty. The great problem, I'd been told, was boats. The small craft there were concerned with lobster fishing mostly. The only chance was to charter one for a few hours of evening fishing after the important work was done.

That was under normal circumstances. But recently the Orcadians have begun to realize that the prospect of big fish will draw idiots from as far afield as Wales and Kenya, their spending money in their pockets. So now, twice a year, they organize a Sea Angling Festival on a competitive basis, and this means you can fish all day. This would give me at least a chance to meet a halibut. It wasn't a sure thing—but at least I wasn't expecting sailfish.

The sun still shone as we rode the airport bus into town. But then the gray softness closed in, and the delicate northern light brought out the gray and green of the island. Orkney is a hundred shades of gray, and the little port of Stromness is a gray town of ancient stone houses with gables that teeter out over the Atlantic. The narrow streets are paved with massive stone slabs, and alleys run up the hillside to fishermen's cottages. Gray water licks the gray harbor walls and, outside, long skerries of rocks are yellowed with lichen. Black cormorants stretch out their wings to dry, like heraldic birds on an ancient flag in the wind.

September and already it was cold. Inside the Fishermen's Co-operative, red-handed women in boots and rubber aprons and head scarves expertly ripped the guts from crabs, dozens to the minute. Stacked to one side were the saltwater delicacies of the islands, smoked cod and haddock, scallops and kippered herrings.

Mike and I had gone in to look at the 168-pound halibut that was in deepfreeze there. A man with the improbable name of Bunt Knight had caught it, we were told. He was provost of Stromness, as well as a coal merchant. "How would you like to catch one of those?" I asked Mike. He didn't reply, for he was too busy asking the women where the best place was to buy himself a suit-length of Orkney tweed. "You can see about all that when the festival is over," I told him impatiently.

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