ICE­LAND SOJURN

A FA­THER AND SON NET FISH AND MORE ON A CAP­TI­VAT­ING AT­LANTIC SALMON RIVER IN ICE­LAND

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - Story and Art by Al­berto Rey

A fa­ther and son are for­ever con­nected by a trip to Ice­land, where they pur­sued At­lantic salmon against a back­drop of snow-cov­ered moun­tains. By AL­BERTO REY

Un­like my wife and daugh­ter, my son and I are con­tent to drive for hours with­out say­ing more than a sen­tence or two. It was a pleas­ant sur­prise when, dur­ing one of our long trips to a fa­vorite stream in Penn­syl­va­nia, Diego said, “Papi, that was a nice trip we had in Ice­land.”

It had been a few months since our re­turn. As I ma­neu­vered the truck through the wind­ing roads of Al­legheny Na­tional For­est, my 14-year-old re­counted his ad­ven­tures from the land near the Arc­tic Cir­cle. Amid the sound of rat­tling metal fly rod tubes in the back seat, he de­scribed his feet slip­ping on the rocks as he walked across a swift glacial stream in an at­tempt to reach what looked like a pro­duc­tive eddy. He chron­i­cled his casts, the sud­den stop of the swing­ing fly and how he landed his first At­lantic salmon on a large black zonker streamer he’d tied at our din­ing room ta­ble.

As a par­ent, one can only hope that trips like ours to the Jškla River and its trib­u­taries will

be­come last­ing memories, the kind that con­nect a fam­ily for life. Ap­par­ently, this one was des­tined to be­come part of our his­tory.

The Jškla has its own his­tory, too. Dur­ing past cen­turies it flowed high, wild and muddy, fed by thou­sands of years of ac­cu­mu­lated sed­i­ment from Ice­land’s largest melt­ing glacier. The only op­por­tu­nity the farm­ers and landown­ers had to catch an At­lantic salmon was if one of the few re­turn­ing fish man­aged to swim through the murky river into one of the crys­tal-clear trib­u­taries that cut through the coun­try­side. In 2006 ev­ery­thing changed when Ice­land’s na­tional power com­pany com­pleted a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sial dams at the river’s head­wa­ters, de­stroy­ing parts of the Cen­tral High­lands, one of Europe’s largest pris­tine wilder­ness ar­eas. The $1.3 bil­lion project was sup­posed to bring eco­nomic re­lief to the ru­ral area, but its pri­mary pur­pose was to pro­vide cheap power to Al­coa’s new alu­minum smelter 75 miles away, ac­cord­ing to crit­ics. The project re­mains con­tro­ver­sial. The dams di­verted most of the muddy glacial melt into sub­ter­ranean tun­nels that moved the wa­ter 25 miles away from the Jškla River to an un­der­ground tur­bine. The un­planned con­se­quence was a more re­strained, gin-clear river fed pri­mar­ily by the trib­u­taries. The con­di­tions were now more fa­vor­able for anadro­mous fish. In 2007 Thros­tur El­l­i­da­son, founder of Angling Ser­vice Stren­gir, worked with lo­cal farm­ers and landown­ers to im­prove the Jškla’s salmon runs and turn the river into a world-class salmon and char fishery. In re­turn for a tra­di­tional out­fit­ting lease, he fi­nanced the in­tro­duc­tion of 50,000 to 60,000 2-year-old smolts each year into the river and trib­u­taries. The eggs har­vested from the river’s re­turn­ing salmon were raised in small pools in the head­wa­ters of the river’s trib­u­taries. The av­er­age re­turn rates have in­creased steadily since 2007.

The Jškla is now con­sid­ered an av­er­age Ice­landic salmon river in catch rates, but it is one of the high­est-ranked in size and weight of fish caught. The catch rates are a bit de­ceiv­ing be­cause few an­glers are fish­ing the river, com­pared with other salmon fish­eries in Ice­land, but the numbers are steadily in­creas­ing. Last year’s catch rate was on track to reach a record high with 600 to 700 salmon caught, most re­leased. If pro­jec­tions are cor­rect, the Jškla could be­come one of the best salmon rivers in Europe.

Angling Ser­vice Stren­gir man­ages the 75mile stretch of the Jökla be­low the low­est dam to the ocean. The river is di­vided into three beats, or sec­tions: The lower 31-mile sec­tion closer to the mouth is called the Jökla I, the mid­dle 16-mile sec­tion is the Jökla II, and the top 28-mile sec­tion is the Jökla III. Jökla I and II are reg­u­larly fished, but the guides don’t know Jökla III as well, so it is fished less. The vir­gin sec­tion is so un­fa­mil­iar that dozens of pools have yet to be named.

To keep the pools and fish fresh and un­pres­sured, the out­fit­ter has a limit of six to eight rods per beat. That means Jökla I can have a max­i­mum of eight rods fish­ing at one time. The rod fees de­crease as the beats move up­stream be­cause all of the salmon need to move through lower sec­tions to reach the up­per sec­tions. The Jökla I rod fee is about $450 per day, Jökla II costs $200, and Jökla III is $100. (Prices in­crease sig­nif­i­cantly when lodg­ing, food and guides are added, but still, rod fees on other At­lantic salmon rivers in Ice­land can be three to four times more ex­pen­sive.) Smolts have been re­leased in all of the sec­tions, and there are no ob­struc­tions be­tween the fish and the dam. The up­per sec­tions are best fished late in the sea­son, usu­ally dur­ing the last weeks in Au­gust.

When we ar­rived, the salmon runs were a few weeks late be­cause of un­com­monly low river tem­per­a­tures from a se­vere win­ter. De­spite this, my son, a fish­ing com­pan­ion and I shared a rod on most pools, and we landed 15 salmon in a week, with many oth­ers hooked. We also met a young ac­coun­tant from Port­land, Ore­gon, who re­turns an­nu­ally. He landed 21 salmon in less than a week. I have fished Ice­land twice be­fore with much dif­fer­ent re­sults. The key is get­ting to the river dur­ing the peak runs — usu­ally be­tween late July and late Au­gust — and hir­ing a guide.

In prepa­ra­tion for the trip, my son and I spent part of the win­ter ty­ing our own ver­sions of the pop­u­lar sun­ray shadow and shrimp pat­terns. Ours in­cluded rabbit strips, marabou, ar­tic­u­lated shanks, rub­ber legs, flashabou and sin­gle hooks, none of which are tra­di­tional Ice­landic fly-ty­ing ma­te­ri­als. We met three guides who po­litely ques­tioned our com­mon sense, and an­other who looked at our fly boxes and walked away af­ter say­ing, “Those are not flies.” The fourth guide, Matthías Hákonar­son, looked at our pis­ca­to­rial con­trap­tions and said, “Sure, I don’t see why those flies won’t work.” He pro­ceeded to tell us which ones he would rec­om­mend for the next day.

We hired him for the last three days of our trip, and his di­rec­tion brought a new sense of con­fi­dence to our time on the wa­ter. He also pro­vided wel­come fod­der for some good-hearted trash talk­ing. My son and I caught most of our fish on the flies we had tied, and my buddy Matt, who works much harder than I do and had no time to tie flies, ended up us­ing Hákonar­son’s. They se­duced fish, as well.

All of the beats con­sisted of beau­ti­ful and dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent ter­rain. As with most fish­ing trips, some days the fish came eas­ily to the fly, and we felt like the world’s best an­glers. On other days we ques­tioned ev­ery­thing: the wa­ter we fished, our flies, the guide’s flies and whether there were any fish in the river at all.

A mem­o­rable mo­ment oc­curred along one of the 60- to 100-foot gorges of vol­canic cliffs, where I could see char and salmon mov­ing up­stream through the deep, clear, blue-tinted pools. I hooked a 3-foot At­lantic salmon on

a rub­ber-legged rabbit strip shrimp. Sec­onds af­ter the fly hit the op­po­site bank and started its swing, I felt the tug and saw the flash. It was a large fish. I felt the in­tox­i­cat­ing mix of adren­a­line and eupho­ria.

A few min­utes af­ter the fish sank to the bot­tom of the pool, it tried to rub against the sharp vol­canic rocks along the edges and then headed down­stream to­ward the roil­ing white­wa­ter. I ran down­stream along the eroded bank in hopes of get­ting be­low him so he would feel the pull from be­low and move back up­stream. A few steps into my sprint, I tripped and landed face-down on the rocks. I in­stinc­tively tossed my rod to keep from land­ing on it, an in­di­ca­tion of how of­ten I am this clumsy.

While prone, I reached for the rod, but it moved down­stream with the fish. I chased the rod as the guide yelled to run faster so we could force the fish into the eddy just up­stream from the white­wa­ter. The eddy rep­re­sented our only chance to net the fish. I caught up to the rod and started reel­ing as I ran down to the river’s edge. At the eddy I pow­ered the fish in with my two-handed rod. The guide had only one chance to fully ex­tend his body and reach out with the net, as the fish stalled for a split sec­ond be­fore hit­ting the fast wa­ter.

H‡konar­son lunged, and the net slipped un­der the fish’s head and torso — but the other third of the fish flopped around. The guide lost his foot­ing and landed on his knees as he fell for­ward, se­cur­ing the fish in the net. I threw my hands over­head and yelled in ju­bi­la­tion. And I felt the sharp pain in my swollen shin, where I had slammed into a rock. The pain dulled but re­mained for the next few weeks, a re­minder of my tus­sle in the Hšlaflud pool that late af­ter­noon in Ice­land.

Although the ex­pe­ri­ence was just as mem­o­rable for me as all of my son’s memories had been for him, each day brought at least one ad­ven­ture or a spir­i­tual mo­ment that made me re­al­ize how for­tu­nate I was, not only to be there, but also to be shar­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence with him. Ev­ery morn­ing I left the cabin and gazed at the snow-cov­ered moun­tains as the fast-mov­ing line of clouds de­scended from the Arc­tic Cir­cle. I thought about the beau­ti­ful wa­ters we were go­ing to fish and the life­long memories and bonds I was about to cre­ate. It was ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful.

A stun­ning sec­tion of the up­per Jškla River. Look closely and you’ll see an an­gler wad­ing by the large rock for­ma­tion in the back­ground.

The au­thor sketches a beat on the Jškla dur­ing a visit in July.

The mouth of Jškla, which the au­thor says has the po­ten­tial to be­come a top Euro­pean salmon river.

The au­thor and artist re­mem­bers one salmon that caused him to throw up his arms in ju­bi­la­tion.

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