Catching salmon – without a hitch
The rivers might be low – the prime time been and gone – but Neil Patterson doesn't let this get in the way of an opportunity to catch a salmon of a lifetime.
I bumped into an American friend the other day. He'd just got back from Africa. He'd been on the tigerfish trail, floating the Zambezi. Had it been fun? Yes, but “hippos are attracted to boats and love overturning them.” And “if the crocodiles got me – and anything was left over – tigerfish would have the rest.”
Apparently, leave a baby too close to the river and a croc sweeps it into the water with its tail, seizes it by the middle and the tigerfish swim up and bite off the baby's feet.
“So bank fishing's not an option?” I asked. “Not advisable – because of the snakes. But you guys in the UK have it worse.” I was intrigued. “You have the British weather to contend with.” I told him my next fishing trip was in search of salmon – in paradise. I was going to Iceland.
It's a three-hour drive north from Keflavik International Airport to the lodge. Out of the window of the minicab, the skies were blue, the sun high – and the rivers horrifyingly low. The July weather had been considerate. Inconsiderate for salmon fishing. In fact, thoroughly un-British. Buckets of nasty Brit weather was required.
The Laxá í Dölum joins a group of four other rivers north of the Snæfellsnes peninsula at Hvammsfjördur in southwest Iceland. Flowing westwards over a rocky bed with alternate pools and runs – and snaking through green farmland that rolls out at you on all sides – the Dölum is one of only a handful of salmon rivers in Iceland that you can pronounce, no tracheotomy required. And no need to be referred to an otolaryngologist to reel off the names of the 31 pools in the 15 miles of river that runs from Foss to the sea, past the lodge situated in the middle of the fishings. They're all numbered.
My stalwart chums, David Profumo and top guide John Hotchkiss – who had arranged three days fishing at Dölum – and myself soon learnt that any anxiety about water levels was understandable, but shouldn't be allowed to dampen our enthusiasm. With one of the biggest runs of some of the largest salmon in Iceland, low water at Dölum is more a characteristic than an inconvenience.
Standing in the rain shadow of the Snæfellsnes peninsular, the river is shielded from prevailing rain-bearing winds, meaning that the watershed is, by nature, small, the rivers slim and the depth of the pools none too deep. Salmon enter the system as undercover agents; experts at remaining hidden in plain sight.
Mid-July is the prime time at Dölum when there are fish on every tide and the river is limited to four rods a day until the end of the month. We were fishing the second week in August. But, again, no excuses. There was no reason why we shouldn't catch the biggest salmon of the season – as I was to find out.
One thing was for sure. If you believe everything you read, there were few better places on the island to be, if you are a salmon fisherman. Neither Major General Stewart, in his definitive book The Rivers of Iceland, nor Mike Savage in his authoritative Fishing in Iceland leave you in any doubt that you are fishing at the top of the heap, the cream of the crop.
These days, Laxá í Dölum is now in the expert hands of Jon Thor Juliusson and Halli Eiriksson – acknowledged as being Iceland's top guide – through the Hreggnasi Angling Club. Founded in 2000 by Jon Thor and his father, Julius Jonsson, the club's roster includes the Grímsá, Laxá in Kjós, Svalbardsá and Laxá í Adaldal.
The Hreggnasi has a mission statement: to preserve the Atlantic salmon and promote catch-and-release practices. 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 and fishing reasons.
“By making this our focus, we keep more stock in the river to spawn,” explains Jon Thor. Big fish have more eggs – on average, 16,000 – so with 60 per cent of the fish caught released, the result has been a dramatic increase in the number of larger salmon caught and landed.
But over 1,000 fish a season were being killed by worm fishermen. A lodge full of them could take out 250 fish in three days. For this reason, worm fishing at Dölum is forbidden. And from 15 fish a day, fly fishers are now limited to killing one. This saves 800 fish out of every 1,000 caught, Jon Thor has calculated. The average catch over the last five years is 967 for six rods.
So, no worm, what fly? Surely a hitched fly, so deadly in the right hands in Iceland?
The Portland Hitch, better known these days as the ‘Riffle Hitch', was first introduced to Iceland by Americans. Lee Wulff brought the ‘Riffling Hitch' to everyone's attention almost 60 years ago. It was called the Portland Hitch because it was in Newfoundland where the tactic was developed. By mistake. To extend the life of their flies tied on gut-eyed hooks, Newfoundland fly fishermen would tie them on as normal, but they would then half-hitch the leader behind the fly's head so that the line was sitting right-angled to the hook.
It soon became apparent that it not only made their flies last longer, it also made them more effective. It caused them to plane up headfirst and swim across the surface trailing a ‘V'in the surface film. Allowing the fly to simply swim around in tune with the stream's flow and current had salmon rising for their flies when they wouldn't look at anything else. The Newfoundland fly fishermen were dumbfounded.
But the question still remains. Does the salmon take the fly, or the ‘V' created by a properly presented fly riffled to hold in the current and not drag across it? Gretar Thorgeirsson, our guide, didn't have the answer. Knotting his eyebrows, he snapped shut his box of hitch flies with names such as the Blue Vulture, the Green Butt, the Collie Dog and Langa Fancy to calm our excitement. Even though the riffle accounts for the majority of the salmon taken in the summer, today was not the day for it.
Instead, Gretar was placing his bets on flies fished downstream and just below, rather than on the surface. Local favourites such as the electric blue-hackled Hauger, Red and Black Frances tied on #16 gold trebles, and microscopic Madelines. But it was the sight of the Sunray Shadow with a black hair wing and silver body he handed me that brought the smile back on his face. He did, however, have to answer to where we were to start: “At the top, where else?” Certainly not downward, as we were to discover.
At the Foss, the river cuts into the rock forming a deep, dark crack – a foaming freeway between two cliff faces where salmon sprint the last few hundred yards of their journey. Shinning down to cast to those congregated there isn't an option.
From his heavenly position, David poked his head over the cliff edge to study these salmon swimming around seductively below and decided to loop on one of his Snaelda tubes and ‘love bomb' the largest of the salmon in the circling crowd.
Gretar and I watched his fly drop down, down, down, as if in slow-mo. It seemed to take ages getting there. Plopping on arrival, the targeted salmon turned and threw all of its 10 pounds at it, leaving David with a question requiring an immediate answer. How to land it from his lofty position? Heaven only knows.
It was on our second day that David noticed it. Rock-hopping, I must have stood on my floating line with my studded soles and stripped off an inch of the plastic coating. My line was only being held together by the cord at the core and David was anxious that I check this out at the first opportunity. But this was the last I thought about it.
To cover pool 10 thoroughly takes only half a dozen casts. Here the river squeezes between two boulders, spilling into Mjóhylur – the ‘skinny pool' – a flick of a cast long, with unfathomable depths running along the side of a rock face on the far bank before shelving off into shallows you could wade in carpet slippers.
Changing flies, David gave me first chuck. I kept on the Sunray that Gretar had selected for me earlier.
On my fifth and last cast, my fly caught a rock. A rock that started moving forward in my direction. Leaping sky-high, there being very little room in the pool for it to move anywhere else, the salmon exhibited its massive dimensions, shrinking me and my tackle into inadequacy.
Having surveyed every possible escape route in cartwheel leaps and bounds, the monster backed onto the shelf, dragging me with it, finally deciding to head for the jagged rocks below where, thankfully, Gretar was waiting with a net large enough to land both of us.
Not perhaps as fresh as I was to the pool but, with tape measure out, it was 93cm, an estimated weight of 20lb and the largest salmon taken so far that season.
“That should have been my fish,” David huffed, jokingly.
“Well, you did ask me to check my line,” I replied repentantly, another hitch averted.
Before leaving, all tackle must be disinfected and certified by a vet. Telephone the Tackle Disinfection Service on +44 (0)203 301 2699 for further information.
Season: At Dölum, the season starts on July 1 and ends on September 25. Only four to six rods are fished in the prime weeks. You fish a total of 12 hours a day with two regulated six-hour sessions.
Tackle: Fly fishing only. 10 – 10.5ft rods in 7 or 8wt matched with floating, weight-forward fly lines are ideal. A 12.5ft – 13ft double-hander matched with a 7/8 weight Spey line is useful. The preferred leader material is (clear) Maxima in 10lb, 12lb and 15lb strength. Most of the time you'll be using 12lb. Seaguar is also good in 13.6lbs and 15.4lbs.
Flies: Favoured flies include hitched tubes, Blue Charm, Collie Dog and Silver Sheep. www.fishingflies.is
Guides: Experienced, English-speaking guides are provided. One for every two rods - all with 4WD vehicles.
Accommodation: Accommodation is full service with a comfortable refurbished lodge featuring eight double rooms. There is a sauna and a comfortable dining and sitting area.
Tel. +35 4577 2230