This story originally appeared in the June-July 2016 issue and was titled “Trolls, Elves & Salmon: Mythical creatures that actually do exist in Iceland.”
Oli and I stood on the cliff top and scanned the beryl flow of a pool named Dimmihylur. At the top, a calf-deep gravel bar touched both banks and choked the river with a funnel shaped like an inverted V. At the apex there was a single chute of deep, powerful water with a plume of effervescent white bubbles tracing down toward the volcanic basalt outcrop that gave us our commanding view.
Directly below us, the bubbles fizzled out, and the water turned inky dark and too slow and deep to swing a fly. Dimmihylur means "darkpool" in English, and the spot was likely named for this foreboding black hole at the gut of the run. But downstream of the darkness, the shallows rose gently into the sunlight, forming a symmetrical and glassy tailout, leading into tortuous rapids below.
It's the kind of pool a trout fisher would think little of, but the stuff of dreams for restless anadromous junkies. The steep cliff on our side of the river made it impossible to even reach the head of the pool but it looked too "seamy" to be good swing water anyway. The fly would likely rip through the fast water and then die in the slot. You'd wear your arm out mending.
The tailout was a different story, with a gentle rise to a sunlit, cobbled bottom that animated the river to a healthy walking speed. One cast. One mend. Let it swim.
Salmon come to this river from their North Atlantic feeding grounds off Greenland and the Faroe Islands. They pass the mud flats of the estuary, power over the falls at Foss Pool, negotiate belly-scraping shallows, rapids, and then ease into this tailout where they can nose up behind grapefruit-size rocks and hold steady for a day . . . or a month. There are plenty of other places salmon will pause in a river, but not many other places where a salmon is more likely to bite. Salmon in these types of tailouts are notoriously reactive, and in water as clear as this, you can often see them.
Just a few days before, heavy rain flooded the river so badly that a historic footbridge at the lodge was destroyed, and the road washed away in several spots where it veered too close to the river. The jump from 10 cubic meters per second (m2/s) to 162 m2/s churned the river into such a filthy mess that we fished the Big Laxa for two extra days, but now just three days later, the Sela River was transparent as far as the sun could penetrate. Even the tiny rivulets cascading down the green hillsides were postcard clean.
We cupped our hands around our visors and rolled our eyes up and down the tailout, mentally straining to see salmon, but didn't recognize anything in the rippled shadows and rapidly moving windows of light.
"They are here," Oli stubbornly predicted. "This is a good pool."
Downriver, we zigzagged into the canyon, and then clambered upriver past two cliffs I thought were impassable.
The beat system of Atlantic salmon fishing has a civilized reputation, and you'd be right to think that on some pools there is a boardwalk suitable for handicapped access. Not so in the canyons of the upper Sela River, where we traversed riverside cliff faces on rocky ledges the size of a ruler, holding on to nubbins that made me wonder whether I was rock climbing or on a fishing trip.
On most of Iceland's salmon rivers you can fish from 0700 hours to 1300 and from 1600 to 2200 only, with a rest period between sessions. The fishing time is both limited and precious, so Oli walked fast to Dimmihylur, dropped his net and pack in the grass, and had his fly box out before I could catch up. He tied on his own creation called a Blámi–a small aluminum tube wrapped in silver mylar tinsel, with the slightest wing of blue and black dyed Arctic fox fur.
"Don't wade too deep," he said when he handed me the rod. "Just get your feet wet and start by casting the head only."
Most of Iceland's best salmon rivers are fishable with single-handed rods, and that was how most of the fly fishing here was originally pioneered. Spey fishing was first developed in Scotland to deal with difficult wading conditions and casting hampered by the trees and shrubs lining the shore of the River Spey.
In Iceland there are few trees, and the wading is generally easy, but two-handed rods are still the most popular tool among salmon fishers, simply because of the beauty of the casts, efficiency of motion (no false casting), and the ease with which you can cover the water.
The tailout of Dimmihylur starts with your back against a steep cliff, so a two-handed rod equipped with an American-style Skagit setup was perfect. Mine was a 7/8 13-foot Sage Mod with a 525-grain Skagit Max Short, and with that setup I'm prone to enjoy the casting just a little too much.
But with Oli's warning, instead of shooting, I kept the fat Skagit line pinched against the cork, and flicked out a roll cast just over 20 feet. Iceland fly fishers use their line hand to twitch the fly erratically as it swims across-stream on a tight line, but with a cast and swing this short, I didn't bother. Roll the dice. Let it ride.
I measured out one more yard of line, thinking it would be a long while before I reached my casting limit, and could finally begin stepping down through the best water. I scanned the shallows where my MOW tip faded from view. "There aren't any fish this close," I thought as my fly made a second pass. "I can see every stone on the bottom."
Midthought, the line came tight, and a salmon the length of my arm materialized with an arching head shake that violently yanked my rod tip into the water. For a split second, my brain refused to believe there had been a fish there all along, but when the salmon shattered the glassy surface and I heard Ólafur MárGunnlaugsson (Oli) booming yow! I knew it was real. As real as it gets.
The human race has managed to eradicate Atlantic salmon across much of the industrialized world with hydroelectric dams, overharvest, and ecological abuses like negligent logging and pollution. Beyond the shameful degradation of our natural world, the losses are particularly stinging to fly fishers because Atlantic salmon are deeply tied into our history, our traditions, and our psyche.
Fly tying (as we know it today) would not exist if it weren't for salmon fishing. Many of our techniques, tackle, and ideals came from legendary salmon fishers like Lee Wulff who considered them the greatest gamefish on earth and first promoted the idea of catch-and-release, and from Roderick Haig-Brown who was the first to adapt Atlantic salmon techniques to catch West Coast steelhead (and write about it). If you've ever pursued any fish "on the swing"; cast a two-handed rod; or added peacock, partridge, or ring-necked pheasant to a hook, you've inherited the soul of an Atlantic salmon fisherman. The problem is, in the U.S. we've nearly wiped them out.
But there is an entire nation island that is physically and spiritually divorced from these problems: In Iceland, the salmon and the clear, free-flowing rivers that support them are valued, carefully managed, and protected resources. The result is spectacular fishing in pristine watersheds like the Sela and many others. Oli taped the salmon I caught on Dimmihylur Pool at 94 centimeters (that's a little over 37 inches and just under 20 pounds), which is a good salmon but not out of the ordinary for the Sela or for Iceland in general. While there are healthy numbers of grilse–salmon that return to fresh water after only one season in the ocean–the majority of the fish spend two years in the ocean and weigh 10 to 15 pounds. To raise eyebrows among Iceland regulars you need to break 100 centimeters.
Two-handed rods with American-style Skagit lines are appreciated by Icelandic guides, and you should have a complete set of sinking tips for different pools and different water conditions. While I caught salmon on the Big Laxa using large Intruder-style flies like the Pick 'Yer Pocket, it was overcast, raining, and the water was slightly turbid. In those conditions a large Collie Dog or Sun Ray Shadow would be more traditional choices.
On other rivers with fresh salmon and bright, sunny conditions, salmon shunned big flies and the guides used small #10 and #12 sparsely dressed flies. Oli's Blámi was the smallest tube fly I'd ever seen, and carried a #14 treble hook. It's nothing like West Coast winter steelheading where you have to slowly swim a large fly right in the fish's face to get a strike.
Salmon have sharp eyesight, they can pick out small objects at a distance, and if the mood strikes them, they will hunt down and crush the fly.
On the Fljótaá, American guide Ian Havlick was on the high bank of the opposite shore spotting salmon for me. I started at the head of Fitjahylur pool and started working my way downriver. When I was about halfway down, Havlick called out that a salmon had moved through the tailout, and was now holding behind a deflection, just inches from the bank on his side of the river.
I continued casting, swinging, and stepping, thinking I would move in smaller increments when my fly was closer to the salmon. I was measuring my casts so the fly landed as close to the bank as possible, but my fly landed a full rod length upstream of the fish when Havlick shouted "He's after it!"
The salmon saw my fly at a distance, chased it all the way across the river, and took it nearly at the end of the swing. Atlantics can be incredibly aggressive when they are fresh and unmolested. And when you've got a salmon pool in Iceland all to yourself, that's often the case.
By law, landowners in Iceland also own the rivers that run through their property. That's how it's always been, and frankly it's turned out well for both salmon and fly fishers.
The landowners are most often sheep farmers, and they see salmon fishing as just another resource that adds value to their property. Collectively, property owners can work together and assign all their fishing rights to an agency that handles all the booking and rod fees for the entire river. The landowners aren't getting rich through these arrangements, but they do get some revenue, the resource is managed so it's sustainable, and the quality of the experience goes up for everyone. You won't see a scrap of trash or any other fishermen.
On the Fljótaá, for instance, there are four beats along the length of the short river, and each allows one rod per day. If you want to share the beat with your fishing buddy, you take turns.
When you buy rod days you'll also need a guide who doesn't just show you the pools and offer helpful advice. The guide is a proxy for a fish & game officer. He cares for the salmon like a protective father, ensuring only one rod fishes at a time, fish are released effectively, that barbs are clamped down, and that the fishing hours are strictly enforced. You might think the afternoon "rest period" is for you to have lunch and a nap. It's not. The rest period is for the salmon so they are not harassed from sunup to sundown.
This type of Icelandic care and thoughtfulness is symbolic of all the efforts that have safeguarded the fishing thus far. As much as we North Americans might pride ourselves on public lands and public fishing for all, that noble principle is hollow when Atlantic salmon are gone from our rivers.
Because of Iceland, at least we know there is an oasis of wild salmon out there in the North Atlantic. In Iceland, these great fish have a shot at persisting, and if you've got the time and the money, they are there for you, waiting with sharp eyes in clear, cold rivers.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.