I first fished in Iceland in 2007. We were to fish a small river on the Northern coastline called the Fljota, which, common to almost all Icelandic Rivers, flows with water that is incredibly clear. This would necessitate the use of flies far smaller than one would normally expect to use whilst salmon fishing in almost any other country. We were fishing in late July when the conditions were said to be near there best and our expectations were high.
First appearances on seeing the river was that the water flow was almost impossibly strong with white water at almost every bump and bend in the river. True to expectations the water flowed crystal clear and so armed with our size 14 flies or smaller flies we set to work. There were a few successes but the going was undeniably tough. That evening a call was made to our absent host, Orri Vigfusson, to seek his advice. We stressed that the water looked high and fast however he assured us that we must fish small and conditions should be close to perfect. The following day our results were similar - unspectacular! Another call to Orri and he reaffirmed what he told us the day before. Stubborn in the knowledge that we had received the best advice available and ignoring our natural instincts we persevered with the same micro-flies as before. It was not until the afternoon of our 3rd day that we bumped into a local Icelander who was staring somewhat morosely at the surging white water with a frown on his face. “The highest I have ever seen this river for the time of year”, he pronounced!
To say we were totally surprised would be wrong because we suspected and thought that the river looked fast but armed with the advice we had received, the small flies that we had been told would be perfect for the job and the undeniable clarity of the water we let our better judgement be swayed. Following his advice small flies were switched to sinking lines and large Snaeldas and almost immediately our fortunes changed.
I raise this story to illustrate that fishing in any new location, whether it be from river to river or from country to country will often necessitate a re-think on your accustomed fishing methods. Iceland is no exception to this rule although in the case of our trip to the Flotta we let the advice given, which would have been sound in all but exceptional circumstances, override gut instincts and our own river-craft. If nothing else it proved that when tackling a new river the benefits of a local guide, even if just for one day, should be considered invaluable. With that in mind the following observations, tips and advice will hopefully help explain and interpret the various nuances that one might expect to encounter whilst salmon fishing in Iceland.
Seasonal Variations: The Icelandic Salmon season for all rivers is approximately 90 days long. The season start date on individual rivers will depend on the river in question however most open in or around late June and will go on to late September. The runs of fish will vary from river to river however by way of a rough guide the peak fishing weeks for West coast rivers are early-mid July, East coast rivers from mid-late July and those in the North around early-mid August.
Fishing Rods & Lines: Most Icelandic Rivers are not large and with a few exceptions a single-handed 7 or 8 wt rod will be ideal to cover most rivers. Double–handed rods will have there place on some rivers such as the Big Laxa, Hofsa and Breidalsa. Exceptions would be during the very early season when the rivers will be large and heavier flies are required although even then anything much bigger than a 13ft rod would be too heavy. Floating lines are almost exclusively used with a heavier tube flies being employed if you need to get a bit of depth.
Rod-Sharing & Fishing Hours: Strict regulations are written into law in Iceland to prevent rivers being over-fished. (During the summer months there is virtually 24hr light). This means that fishing hours are regulated to 12 hrs each day and although timings may vary typically the hours are from 07.00 -13.00 and then following a lunch and siesta break from 16.00 -22.00pm. (The afternoon schedule may change in late August as the days get shorter to 15.00-21.00). Although it is of course not necessary to fish all available hours it does mean that it is common for salmon fishermen to share a rod in Iceland. This not only keeps the cost down but can also be great fun when stalking salmon as described below. BUT by way of warning - Do remember that if you think you might get agitated waiting for your turn to cast a fly this option may not be best suited to you!
Stalking Icelandic Salmon: The clarity of the water in Iceland means that in a good number of pools and certainly any with high banks or cliffs you will be able to spot the salmon in their lies. To the untrained eye this is not as easy as it sounds however with patient examination of the pool a brief flash will declare the presence of a fish as it exposes a flank. Look carefully and you will start to make out the grey shadows of individual or pods of fish. Stand up against the skyline and you will reveal all, as on all but the cloudiest of days the fish will spook immediately. The benefits of being able to spot fish are self-explanatory but the downside is that they will spot you just as easily if you are not cautious. Having your fishing partner or guide spot fish and guide you cast by cast so that your fly covers the exact spot where the fish are lying is very exciting; when a fish moves to take the fly try not to let his ecstasy or wild gesticulations fool you into lifting into the salmon too early!
Weather Conditions: Quite apart from the fact that weather patterns worldwide appear to be increasingly unpredictable one needs to approach fishing in Iceland with a degree of caution. Like any location on the edge of the Arctic Circle weather patterns are varied. When the sun is shining as you might expect it to do in mid July & August it can get very hot very quickly and have you stripping off the layers with equal rapidity. At the same time snow or sleet can be just around the corner so come prepared for ALL conditions. Weather patterns can be very localised so do not take conditions on arrival in Reykjavik as an indicator of what to expect on the river.
Icelandic Salmon Flies & Fishing Methods: There are two significant attributes to Icelandic Rivers. The first which we have already covered is the very clear water. Again with a few exceptions where fine volcanic sand can cloud the water most rivers are spectacularly clear. The tannins that stain most rivers are all but absent and consequently what would be considered a small fly whilst fishing in the likes of Scotland or Russia would be considered over-sized in Iceland. With low-water conditions you can expect to use size 14 salmon doubles down to size 18 micro trebles or micro-coneheads. The second characteristic lies in the rock formations. Many rivers have numerous shelves, pots and deep runs where the river has cut its way over volcanic rock formations. Although a willing salmon will rise almost any height to take a fly sometimes the only way to get a fish to take is to get a fly down to it and for this small and compact heavy bodied flies are the key to do this.
Standard Salmon Flies-Treble Hooks: Iceland is an exception to the growing trend towards the use of salmon flies tied on double hooks. The primary reason for this is the size of Icelandic Salmon flies. With most summer salmon flies being size 14 and below the concerns over damage to released fish are not significant and with such small flies having a strong hook hold becomes increasingly important
Riffle Hitch Flies: Icelandic Salmon will readily rise to a fly fished on the surface and the small wake resulting from a hitched fly on occasion proves to be almost totally irresistible to Salmon. Either using a plastic tube with a hole pierced in the side or by simply tying a half-hitch knot around a standard fly or tube the drag imparted by the current causes the fly to wiggle its way across the surface leaving a seductive V wake. It is particularly effective on glassy pools or tails however the technique need not be confined to smooth water. It is common to strip the fly quite rapidly when fishing in this manner although if the water is calm and ‘quiet’ the action imparted by the current is normally sufficient. Watch out for the gentlest rise as a salmon sips the fly from the surface and if on the first occasion he does not take the fly give the fish a short break to return to its lie and try again. Failing that have a go with a standard wet fly as once risen a fish is much more likely to have another go. This technique is very productive and very exciting as you will see each and every fish as it comes to take the fly.
Snaeldas/Tungsten Coneheads & Tubes: Although a rather large category of flies all of the above share a similar characteristic in that the solid shape or proportionately heavy conehead/tube allow the fly to be fished at a reasonable depth without compromising on the size of the fly or the need to use a sinking line. When approaching a pool for the first time fishing it with a hitch or a standard fly would be a sensible option however failing any reaction and especially if the pool is deep or has a fast current using a heavily weighted fly to put the fly in front of a fishes nose is a good second option.
Sunray’s and Collie Dogs: Love them or hate them these flies are extremely effective- deadly even! It is also an example of where the rules determining the size of the fly can be put to one side. The size of the fly or the length of the wing might be quite a bit larger than you would normally use. In normal summer conditions a hitched sunray or collie with a 1/2 inch tube would be normal but body lengths from 3/4- 1 1/4 inches lengths can be usefully employed. Again these flies can be hitched, fished normally or stripped quickly back across the pool. When fished fast they will very often elicit an angry reaction from a salmon and although it may not always take the fly they are excellent fish finders! Some anglers and guides consider their use to cause such a reaction amongst salmon in a pool that this technique should be used with caution or as a last resort. Whether you are or are not an advocate of this line of thought having tried other means as a last ditch technique it can certainly deliver results.
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The early reports were not encouraging. The West of Iceland had been suffering the worst early season drought that most river managers could remember. There had been no rain for 4 weeks, unheard of over late May and June in Iceland. Some rivers, without the benefit of a steady supply from large upland lakes ...