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Hidden in plain sight

By Neil Patterson

Neil Patterson’s trip to Iceland’s top big-fish salmon lodge reveals a new line of thinking


Neil tries to stop his salmon leaving the pool.
Neil tries to stop his salmon leaving the pool.

I­n an over-the-fence-type parley with a neighbour, I told her that I was off to Iceland to get a salmon. She told me salmon were on offer. But not at Iceland, at Tesco.

Having caught many salmon in many places – Scotland, Norway, Alaska, Russia and thrice before in Iceland (the country, that is) – it occurred that of all the salmon and grilse, Atlantic, Pacific, sockeye and silver that I have caught, I have yet to kill a single one of them. Shop-bought ones I’ve eaten, yes. Clobbered a wild one, no, not never ever.

This got me to thinking. 

Flicking through the more famous books of salmon fishing in Iceland – in particular, Major General Stewart’s definitive book The Rivers of Iceland and Mike Savage’s authoritative tome, Fishing in Iceland – the country that seems to have fought the hardest and campaigned the most ardently against the industrial slaughter of salmon, by net or by other means, appears to have double standards.

The people that perhaps benefit most from the preservation of salmon stocks – us, the sports fishermen – don’t appear to have the same regard for conservation. Hardly a page in the above-mentioned books can be turned without revealing yet another picture of an angler holding a dead salmon held up on the end of a digit, or standing behind a row of them lying out dead in the grass.

I’d heard things might have changed.

PARADISE

The Laxá í Dölum joins a group of four other rivers north of the Snǽfellsnes peninsular at Hvammsfjördur in south-west Iceland. It’s a three-hour drive from Reykjavik. Twisting south west through gentle green farmland, the Dölum is unusual in that it’s perhaps the only salmon river in Iceland that you can pronounce without rearranging your tonsils. And because they’re also numbered, you don’t even have to reel off the names of the 33 pools in the ten miles of river that runs from foss to the sea, past the Veiŏihús, the lodge, strategically situated in the middle of the fishings.

When astronaut and angler Neil Armstrong went fishing at Dölum, he said he may have been the first man to land on the moon, but not the first to land a salmon in paradise. A big fish river, Dölum is up there with the best when it comes to selecting a lodge to fish out of in Iceland. 

Once leased by the Chairman of PepsiCo (remarkably, his guests included his opposite number from Pepsi’s Enemy No.1, the Coca Cola Company), Laxá í Dölum is now in the expert hands of Jon Thor Juliusson and Halli Eiriksson through the Hreggnasi Angling Club, founded by Jon Thor and his father, Julius Jonsson.

Gretar and Neil with the largest salmon of the season.

Halli is recognised as being Iceland’s top guide. I had fished with him in the past when he guided Orri Vigfússon, the late Jack Hemingway, and top UK guide, John Hotchkiss – who arranged my trip to Dölum – and myself out of Laxá í Kjós.
To date, Hreggnasi leases nine rivers and streams, including blue ribbon waters such as the Grímsá, Laxá in Kjós, Svalbardsá, and Laxá í Adaldal. But here’s the good news: The club’s mission is to preserve the Atlantic salmon through catch-and-release practices (Halleluiah!) They are the pioneers of this movement. In 2004 they were the first to release big fish. Now all salmon above 69cm are released. For environmental reasons, but more so, for fishing reasons.

“By making this our focus,” Jon Thor says, “we keep more stock in the river to spawn. A big fish has more eggs. On average 16,000”. 60% of the fish caught at the lodge are released resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of larger salmon landed.

More importantly, fishing with worm has been outlawed. John Thor calculated that over a thousand fish a season were being killed by ‘wormers’. A lodge of wormers could take out 250 fish in three days. Now, from fifteen fish-a-day, fly fishers are limited to just one. “This saves 800 fish out of every 1000 caught,” Jon Thor has calculated.

The average catch over the last five years is 967 caught. In 2010, 1,762. That’s 1000 salmon caught per season on average, with six rods fishing. 

Yes, things had changed. At Dölum, at least. But not everything falls in line. At least, not when it comes to lines.

Halli took us fishing. It was an exciting moment. He wanted to change my mind about things. And so did Gretar Thorgeirsson, our guide who accompanied us.

With Gretar, it was the flies I was using (“There’s more to life than the Sunray”). A ray of sunlight shone out at me when he opened up one of his fly boxes, chock-a-block full of psychedelic flies of all shapes and sizes. He started picking out the flies I should be using during my stay – the second week in August.

The season at Dölum runs from July 1 to September 25. Mid-July being the prime time when the whole length of the river is limited to only four rods a day until late July, giving an enormous choice of water. But any time’s a good time to catch an even bigger fish than in the prime time, as I was going to find out.

David Profumo ‘hitching’ a Hauger fly.

Local favourites were selected such as the electric blue-hackled Hauger fly. But there were also other ‘hitch’ flies: a 3/4 inch Blue Vulture, Green Butt, Collie Dog and Langa Fancy. The Portman Hitch, better known these days as the ‘riffle hitch’, was first introduced to Iceland by Americans. At Dölum, this style accounts for the majority of the salmon taken in the summer. Interestingly, American fly fishers used to represent 60% of the visitors. Now it’s only 10%. 70% from the UK, the rest Scandinavians, Swiss and Germans.

TACKLE

In his box was the Red & Black Frances tied on gold trebles, a microscopic black Madeline – and one-inch black and copper tubes, such as the Snaelda, with killer Crinkleflash. Also, bottle tubes. The Silver Sheep and Monkey Fly (in yellow).
Gretar kept his favourite fly to last. It was one he tied using a lock of his son’s hair and had no name. I suggested he might like to call it after his son? What a good idea!

Gretar’s fly tied with his son’s hair.

Leaning up against Gretar’s grizzly, 4X4 Sherman tank, Halli was more interested in something else. My floating line that he was twisting through his fingers, disapprovingly. What he said about it was so obvious I almost kicked myself off the cliff when he said it.

“Why fish a line that salmon can see?”
He passed me his rod. His reel was charged with a seven-weight intermediate line. A clear line. A ‘slime line’, now the generic term for such intermediate lines.

“Why don’t more people use them?” was my question. Halli’s shrug was his answer. But I was still unconvinced. You see, in Halli’s expert hands, tackle doesn’t matter. He can catch salmon on a broomstick and a piece of string.

It was only later, when fishing the Höfðafljót beat – a long, slow, shallow stretch – that I got a chance to try it out in the last ten minutes before the lunch-bells all over Iceland ring, telling fishermen that the first of their two six-hour sessions had come to an end.

Gretar’s Red Frances.

This knee-high, featureless flat, concealing deep troughs in the middle and under the far bank, had been fished through carefully and comprehensively by two others before me, and produced nothing. I put no hope in catching anything, with anything (and I was ready for lunch).

But just as I was about to step out of the water, a salmon that I had seen rolling just up from a tussock on the far bank the day before – and had showed me no interest – took my fly with all the confidence I was lacking. A fresh-run fish of ten pounds.
“See the sense in lines salmon can’t see?” Halli joked, taking back his rod.

HIDING

I find it strange that one of the biggest runs of some of the largest salmon in Iceland should choose to keep coming back to a river where there’s really very little cover. In the rain shadow of the Snǽfellsnes peninsular, the river is shielded from prevailing rain-bearing winds, meaning that the watershed is small, the rivers slim, the depth of the pools none too deep. Travelling and resting salmon are hidden – in plain sight.

But today was an exception.

Perched on a cliff-edge, eagle-eyed, I looked down on Pool No.10 like a god from on high. Gretar told us that normally you can count every silvery scale on the backs of the salmon lying there. But that evening all I could see was, not what flowed below us, but what hung above us; a steely-blue sky still splattered with puffy clouds.

Water gushing into it between two huge boulders, Mjóhylur, the ‘narrow pool’, was as black as a motorway. Deep, slow-moving – and just marginally longer than the distance from the toe-line to a dart board – it shelved off quickly into thin water where summer-bleached rocks with their tops off had spent the day sunning themselves on a long stretch of wide shallows.

I could get two, perhaps three throws into the pool before the black-winged bodied Sunray with a white underwing that Gretar had carefully selected for me started mingling with the beach crowd. I felt this Sunray might be too big for the pool. As did David, my companion, busy down-sizing, so he let me have first chuck.

The Dölum is as much a trout as a salmon fisher’s river. A ten foot single-handed, seven-weight rod gets your fly into every corner. Crouched behind a boulder, one foot in a foaming channel of white water – poised to throw my first dart – a four-weight would have got me to where I wanted my fly to get to. But what about afterwards?

It was one of those rare moments which you feel you are already experiencing as a memory, even as it occurs.

My first cast swept out, swung round, hung about a little like a hooker trying to look natural. Unsolicited, I stripped it back, strip-tease style.

My second cast I shot out to the deepest part of the run where the flow swirled round a rock jutting out. It loitered a while, too, but was soon whipped away in the flow, like it had been arrested by the police. I had one cast more before I was fishing amongst the topless beach beauties, and running the risk of spooking any fish that might be more interested in David’s smaller, less up-front, Hauger fly, both heading my way.

My third cast caught the rocks. A rock on the shallows. But it wasn’t a rock. It moved. A bit back, a bit forward – then a lot up in the air announcing the fact I was connected – to enormity.

Neil tries to stop his salmon leaving the pool.

JUGGERNAUT

In an instant, quotidian normality turned to desperate panic.

A yelp, like that of a sleeping dog that had just been trodden on, arose from David’s quarters cutting through the sound of thrashing and splashing. I felt like a boxer about to start twelve rounds in an undersized ring. Darts, boxing. Now I know why fly fishing is called a sport.

The first blow for my opponent – too big to turn graciously in the, aptly-named, narrow pool – was that there was no easy way to jump the ropes and get out of the ring. On realising this, he pretty much changed into the Incredible Hulk, leaping up and down, turning mid-air, flashing super-charged shoulders skywards. This he did several times, getting him nowhere.

The line went slack, and I heard a sniffle coming from behind me. (I think David had once told me that the sight of people trying to maintain dignity in the face of adversity made him cry. Now was such a moment.)
I thought contact was lost. But the fish turned again, pulling me, my rod and my line from one end of the pool to the other. Finally, he somersaulted out of the water, flinging enough anger at me to halt a juggernaut.
20 minutes later, having explored every escape route, the monster reversed out of the pool and over the shelf, sliding in amongst the sun-bathers, scraping my leader up against every rough edge he passed. I was glad I’d ignored the clear water/light tippet advice and had stuck to my 15lb “sisal marine rope”. 

Throughout all this, my only consolation was that Gretar was there waiting for me and my cargo with a net large enough to land a school bus. He could have landed both of us.
Not perhaps as fresh as I was to the pool, my salmon scored 95cm on the tape and was estimated to weigh 20lb, the largest salmon taken so far that season.

In a well-rehearsed revival process, Gretar held my salmon head-first into a flow that spat momentarily between two of the bleached beach-belles; his back out of the water, in no better than a kettle-full of water. With a single swipe of his tail, the water boiled and my salmon was caught and released, Dölum now, on average, 16,000 salmon better off.

Yes, things were changing in Iceland – for the better.


Neil Patterson has fished all over the world and is credited with the development of many innovative fly patterns. He is the author of Chalkstream Chronicles and wrote the script for the TV fishing series, The Take.

Factfile


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