Iceland for anglers: The guide's guide

Translating the island's fly fishing formula
Iceland atlantic salmon  river
Photo: Kris Millgate

There's 15 hours of sunlight daily while I'm in Iceland. I plan to drive two of that. Eat for one and fish for 12. I'm so serious about fly fishing Iceland that when the staff at Deplar Farm, where I spend the dark hours, calls to pick me up early, I decline. They've spotted 30 whales and commandeered an ocean vessel for viewing. They're sure I don't want to miss it. I'm sure I do.

My fly fishing guide relays my eye roll, but something must be lost in translation even though he's fluent in Icelandic and English like most locals are. He asks me again. I say no again. I hear the caller holler, "30 whales!" Again, I say no. My guide approves of my stubbornness and hangs up. I've seen whales. I've never seen Atlantic salmon or sea trout. I'm not getting out of this river until the sun stops showing it to me.

"Maybe I'm not the best guide in the world," says Höddi Birgir, fly fishing guide. "But nobody knows this river like me and my brothers."

Birgir's home water is the Húsey River, but not in the way I call my water home. I own my home water just like every other public landowner in America does. Forty farmers own Birgir's home water. They own the banks shaping it and the fish swimming it. Hot pools are public. So are waterfalls. But if you have a rod in your hand in Iceland, you better be with a guide who is paying a farmer rent.

"We didn't pay much for the first years while we built it up," Birgir says. "When counts went up, we paid more rent. Now beats sell out."

Beats are sections of river. There are four beats on 12 miles of the Húsey where Birgir and his brothers guide. Only one rod per beat. You can't move beats so you better hope the 15 to 20 pools within your beat are holding fin. The farmer getting paid for that beat hopes so too.

Fly fishing guide Hoddi Birgir
Fly fishing guide Hoddi Birgir pays 40 farmers rent so he can put his angling customers on the Husey River. Rent rate (into the thousands annually) varies based on pool productivity (photo: Kris Millgate).

"Almost every farmer goes to our meeting because they want to know what's going on with their river," Birgir says. "It was giving them nothing and now it's giving them something."

Think of it as a co-op. Farm co-ops are common in the U.S. Only in Iceland's case, sheep farmers are also cashing in on the fish that happen to swim through their field of woolen grazers. Fish like the sea trout I catch after 10 hours of casting. Sea trout are ocean versions of brown trout. At well over 20 inches, they fight. I want a net. There isn't one laying in the bog cotton closest to me. In fact, there isn't a net in sight.

"Never show the river the net," says Paul Ray, Eleven Experience guide.

Ray is a tarpon guide from Florida. He's here to learn fly Nordic style from Birgir, because there aren't enough local guides to go around among Iceland's tourism boom. Ray also chews, but his brown buzz is at risk. Chewing tobacco isn't sold at the gas station. Condoms are a c-store rarity too, but elf hills are everywhere. Never move an elf hill. Even if it's in the way. It's bad luck. Elves are smaller than trolls, but trolls are meaner.

"If an elf does something naughty to you, they like you," says Griff Griffiths, Eleven Experience head guide. "If a troll does something naughty to you, you're dead."

bog cotton - iceland
Bog cotton, with its Dr. Seuss similarities, grows among Iceland's grasslands. The oily tuft is great tinder. Too bad timber to burn is sparse on the island (photo: Kris Millgate).

Birgir doubted the lore until his grandma asked him to take her to a specific mound so she could talk to the elves before she died.

"Some people find it weird, but when you really look at someone who believes, you want to believe," he says. "It's fun."

Catching sea trout is fun too. Birgir tells me they fight harder than Atlantic salmon. My sore forearms scream in agreement, but I still don't regret giving up 30 whales for one sea trout and 12 hours of fishing.