January 10th, 2012
Iceland may be the land time overlooked, but for Atlantic salmon anglers, it’s a place they will never forget.
On my last day fishing with Aaron in Iceland, our guide, the wonderful and uber competent Steffen, dropped us off at the head of a stretch on the Svarta River known simply as “the canyon.” Our Viking friend was visibly not happy about this because he didn’t feel it was in our best interest. Steffen wanted us to fish closer to where the Svarta meets the Blanda. We had success there yesterday, and our guide wanted to give us the highest chance of hooking salmon.
Chance is probably the wrong word to describe salmon angling in Iceland. Lady Luck has very little to do with catching a shiny missile on this North Atlantic salar oasis. Each summer, fish congregate to the volcano-dimpled, glacier-topped, river streaked island.
It is, after all, the closest major spawning habitat to the ocean predator’s main feeding grounds off Greenland. Imagine a map of the global range of Salmo salar as a giant dartboard; almost perfectly in the bull’s-eye position is Iceland.
Even so, the regularity of huge runs and catches in Iceland is remarkable, especially when you consider the inconsistent numbers elsewhere. The Blanda is Iceland’s longest river, and its strong flows produce powerful fighting salmon, not unlike the Moisie on Quebec’s North Shore. It has been known to offer up 250 fish in one day, from one pool! Even the new limits, which have been imposed to keep catches at a more conservative
60 salmon, seem surreal. These kinds of numbers bring knowledgeable salmon anglers. Which is why, too, this recreational fishery continues to be a valuable commodity in this island nation, even though the rest of the economy is undergoing hard times.
The financial analysis was courtesy of Leo, a friendly banker, who had fished the canyon earlier and although he had seen no fish, had confirmed what Arni Baldersson from the Lax-Á Angling Club had already told me. It is one of the most dramatic pieces of salmon real estate anywhere, with the river alternately twisting and tumbling between towering cliffs, then swirling to almost a halt in several deep pools. Even Blue Planet cameraman Rick Rosenthal was interested in getting some footage. Oh excuse me, am I name-dropping? Of course I am, because our party includes the film crew for the upcoming documentary “Lost At Sea,” including its Emmy Award-winning underwater photographer (see Lost at Sea: The Documentary, page 12).
Arni, our host—Iceland’s answer to Crocodile Dundee and a Larry Bird look-a-like—was off to yet another of his “secret” stashes. There, if all went well, he would hook and release a salmon so Rick could get some underwater footage of the star of Lost at Sea, which was supposedly the salmon, but I was beginning to think it was Arni.
Okay, so let’s regroup. We are in Iceland, fishing with Leo, who is generous with his excellent Russian vodka. And of course the film crew which includes world-famous Rick who, as much as he likes swimming with the fishes, would rather be fishing for them.
There are salmon to be had, yet I am determined to go to the one place the fish haven’t arrived, the Canyon. One thing is certain, Steffen wants us over salmon, perhaps because Arni has given him the Icelandic equivalent of “or else.” Another theory is that Icelandic guides naturally derive great happiness in seeing someone hook an Atlantic salmon. Support for this hypothesis came earlier in the week on the West Ranga. Rene Gerken, our guide, would clap in sheer glee every time our rods bent, which was often, as Ranga catches range into the ridiculous, upwards of 14,000 salmon in 2008. Rene, a Dane, had attended “Guide School” in Sweden. His knowledge, professionalism and dedication were typical of all the Lax-Á staff we met in what I began to refer to as “Niceland.”
So whether it was for professional (read his boss ordered him) or personal satisfaction like Rene, Steffen was absolutely adamant that the canyon wasn’t our best bet. Also, I got the feeling he didn’t want to leave us on our own. Perhaps my reputation as the “Inspector Clouseau” of salmon anglers had preceded me, or more likely it was my lack of any kind of gear. I had brought a box of flies, but lost it back on the Vididalsa, a river we nicknamed “Stream of Surprises” because every corner seemed to hide a tiny waterfall feeding a deep, rocky pool.
Still, I wanted the canyon because for me, after all these years in pursuit of the King of Fish, it’s no longer about hooking a salmon, it’s about catching or not catching them in the wildest, most spectacular and interesting places possible. Oh and yes, you could fish this section without waders, which I didn’t have, and I was getting just a teeny-weeny bit tired of following Aaron across waist-deep, glacier fed streams in my Dockers. It was my last few hours in Iceland, and I dearly wanted to stay dry to make the flight home a little more comfortable or out of pride, or both.
“How could you not have waders?” Leo had asked me incredulously the night he arrived and was rifling through his suitcases of flies. I’ve always taken a very Luddite approach to sports. If golfing, biking or skiing, for instance, is fun with the latest in ultralight carbon fibred gear, then they must be doubly so on ancient clubs, one-geared steel coasters or laced leather boots and cable bindings. It’s probably a mistake for the editor of a salmon magazine to admit this, but I’m not a gear guy and like to give the fish every advantage possible.
Enough of my salmon angling philosophy. Leo was happy to take dibs on the prime pools, while we spent our last morning hiking the canyon in vain.
“Don’t bother with this first stretch,” Steffen shouted as he walked back to the Jeep. “If anything, hike further down around the first bend.”
His advice was wasted on Aaron, however. The 27-year-old fishing fanatic and recently addicted salmon angler goes by his own philosophy, mainly if it’s liquid, fish it until you have caught your limit or you are physically dragged from the river, preferably the latter.
“Do you need any flies?” Steffen called out before he left. Although our pitifully meager supply was somewhere on the banks of the Vididalsa, I’d grown tired of begging. Luckily at that moment, a flash of red caught my eye. Someone, perhaps years ago, had dropped a fly in the grass. It was weathered, but still bright red. I scooped it up and waved Steffen off.
“How about this?” I called.
“A Red Frances,” Steffen nodded, then turned and walked away, either feeling that was all we needed (it is Iceland’s #1 fly) or that these two Canadians were beyond help. When I turned back to the river, Aaron was already wading exactly where Steffen felt it would be hopeless.
Iceland was well suited for Aaron and vice-versa. From the very beginning, I couldn’t help but notice the tall, flaxen-haired, blue-eyed women noticing my young photographer. He was exceptionally well-suited to the Viking summer lifestyle, which pretty much eliminated any meaningful sleep. Our initial experience with the Icelandic clock was in Reykjavik, the night of our arrival. Around midnight, we found a quiet bar for a night cap. By the time we left for our hotel at around 1 a.m., the downtown had begun to fill up under the midnight sun.
Residents of the capital apparently start late on a Friday or Saturday, and the bars don’t close until 5 or 6 a.m. When we arrived and every club was empty I began to think Icelanders were lame, but as we headed home, I realized I was the lightweight.
The zombie hours also extended to fishing, and Aaron thrived. Whether we stayed in one of Lax-A’s fully catered lodges or in a comfortable cabin on our own devices, the schedule was the same. Fishing on the river began at 7 a.m., so it meant a 5:30 a.m. wake up, an hour that suspiciously coincided with bar closings. Things wound down for lunch at 1, and then it was out on the river from 4 until 10 p.m.
Aaron was patient during the first couple of days when the spotlight was on the film crew. Although Lost at Sea will focus on what happens to salmon in the open ocean, it will also cover their freshwater stage. Much of this will illustrate how salmon have suffered from dams, pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction. The producer, Deirdre, explained how they wanted to contrast this with images of what salmon runs might have looked like before man played his heavy hand. Iceland, Deirdre felt, could serve as the “before” part of salar’s story.
And it is an ideal choice. We tagged along with the crew, helping to tote camera equipment to some of Iceland’s remotest places. We saw the Earth as it must have been in the beginning. Sweeping rivers tumbling over broad waterfalls, giant chasms swallowing enormous outflows from ancient glaciers. Steaming thermal pools and exploding geysers suddenly appeared along the roadside, while everywhere ominous dark pyramid mountains sat poised on the horizon—volcanoes which, locals seemed only too eager to tell us, were overdue for an eruption.
We also visited some excellent fishing spots where Rick plunged in to get underwater shots. Of course, at times we had to physically restrain Aaron from casting while the cameraman was swimming. In other places, Arni would try to hook a salmon for the camera. In one spot on the Stora Laxa, a mid-sized stream that has cut a steep swath between basalt columns, which were formed by cooling lava millions of years ago, salmon and scenery came together.
It was a beautiful day, an azure sky dotted with cotton ball clouds. We had hiked high along a ridge as the river flowed below us, framed between sweeping cliffs. No one spoke. At times you don’t need a tour guide, the land almost speaks for itself. The water was crystal clear, and from 100 feet above the river, the rounded stones seemed magnified. Believe it or not Aaron, always tuned into fish, spotted a couple of salmon way below us in a pool.
Arni clambered down the cliff and as Rick filmed, Aaron directed his casts from above. At one point Rick called out for Arni to wait until the sun peeked out from behind a cloud. I had to relay this to Aaron at the cliff’s edge, who shouted down to Arni. The game of telephone continued for around half an hour. The sun was warm and the soft, flowery bed of wild pansy, thyme and arctic poppies felt softer and smelled sweeter than the cleanest linens. I lay back and took in the towering black cliffs on the opposite bank. With such an elevated observation post and perfectly clear water, it was extreme sight casting—a most unique fishing experience. Rick got some good footage, but the fish, probably early arrivals that had been in the river a while, couldn’t be enticed to the fly.
Yes, Deirdre had chosen well, as Iceland does look like the beginning of time, but the fishing is also of another age. On the West Ranga with Rene, it was hard to believe the sheer numbers of fish we saw and caught. At first, I thought the lengthy fishing hours might be an indication of how long it takes to hook a salmon. But in the middle of a school of incoming fish, as we were one afternoon near the Ranga’s mouth, we needed every last second of our 12-hour stint to land and release the 14 or so fish we hooked that day on this delightful river. By the time the sand in our Iceland-visit hourglass had run out, 12 days, like the 12-hour fishing period, seemed no where near enough time.
But we did have that last morning in the canyon. From the moment we dropped in, it was just the river and us. No noise, roads, houses, people or even those Iceland ponies, which float across the landscape like ghosts. And no guide. There is something special about stumbling onto an unknown (to us) wild place, alone. Every step on this, our last day, would be an adventure. Who cares if the fish hadn’t arrived?
But one had. We tied on the Red Francis and Aaron stepped back into the first set of rapids. Heeding Steffen’s advice, I wandered off ahead exploring deeper into the canyon. Sharp turns and precipitous drops punctuated by deep churning pools. It was so beautiful, it was almost painful. A shout from behind me. Fish on! I raced back to help Aaron. Along the steep bank there was no obvious place to release it, so I ended up in the water, gently removing the found Francis and cradling our treasure before watching it streak back into Svarta’s rapids. Suddenly, staying dry and warm didn’t seem so important anymore.
Martin Silverstone is editor of the Atlantic Salmon Journal. Aaron Graham is a freelance photographer based in Île Perrot, Quebec.
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