A FATHER AND SON NET FISH AND MORE ON A CAPTIVATING ATLANTIC SALMON RIVER IN ICELAND
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.
The mouth of Jškla, which the author says has the potential to become a top European salmon river.
The author sketches a beat on the Jškla during a visit in July.
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 and artist remembers one salmon that caused him to throw up his arms in jubilation.