Iceland for anglers: Virgin fish

How changing traditions change a fishery
husey river iceland
The Husey River has four beats. Laxhylur is one of them (photo: Kris Millgate).

I'm situated on a bump of grass rooting its way into the Fljótaá River. My earthen perch is barely bigger than my boots so my balance is precarious. Despite wobbling, I'm content concentrating on the current in front of me. I don't have to worry about snags on my back cast because there are no trees in Iceland. No shade either, but it's the island's first cold snap so I welcome the sun seeping over the top of surrounding ridges dusted white overnight after the northern lights went to bed.

"I think this is the most beautiful river in the whole world," says Gunnlaugur Gudleifsson, fly fishing guide.

I almost agree. Replace the sheep with cows and this could almost pass for some of my favorite fishing holes in Idaho. You'd have to swap fish too. Sea trout for browns and Atlantic salmon for Pacific. I've never caught a salmon. Ten minutes into my river rhythm, that changes.

"Wait for it. Let it run," Gudleifsson says. "It will roll over and quit when it's done."

I nearly nosedive off my small, grassy null when an Atlantic salmon runs with my fly in its jaw. The set is solid. I stay upright. We stay connected. The feel of my first salmon is remarkable.

Most of the salmon species are so rare where I live, you can't catch them let alone keep them. When I explain the significance of the moment to Gudleifsson he immediately understands and hollers, "Mariu Lax!" The Mary salmon, or virgin fish.

By Icelandic tradition, you kill your first salmon and eat its adipose fin with a shot of Brennivín, an island alcohol that tastes like a cross between vodka and Jäger.

"I would prefer the shot," Gudleifsson says. "The fin is just jelly. It doesn't really taste like anything."

The fin eating part of the tradition is falling to the wayside, but not because it lacks taste. Tradition is changing because the fishery's caretakers are changing.

"Iceland people are opening their eyes to nature," says Höddi Birgir, fly fishing guide. "And I'm one of the guys building up the river."

Fljotaa river iceland
Fly fishing guide Gunnlaugur Gudleifsson rests on the grassy banks of the Fljotaa, the most beautiful river in the whole world according to him.

Birgir started practicing catch and release 15 years ago on the Northern Region's Húsey River. At first, the farmers he rents river from couldn't swallow the idea of catching something they couldn't eat. In Iceland, fish are for supper not for sport. It's eaten multiple times daily. You don't put perfectly edible fish back in the water. Birgir didn't either until the year he counted only 17 Atlantic salmon in the Húsey.

"Past days of 17 is ridiculous. It's almost nothing," he says. "My brothers and I probably hooked 10 of those 17. That was the year I knew we needed to make a change."

The change is significant, but still foreign to natives. When Birgir and I walk into a local café wearing waders, the waiter thinks we're rafters. Rafting in waders is suicide. Trying to explain that to people who would rather sit in hot pools than stand in cold water is frustrating. Figuring out Iceland's fly fishing formula is just as frustrating.

Iceland september snow
Snow starts in early September in Iceland, but there's still 15 hours of daylight for fishing (photo: Kris Millgate).

Public fishing is not the norm in Iceland like it is in the U.S. Birgir pays farmers for access to beats, sections of river. Farmers own the fish swimming in current crossing their fields. Birgir keeps track of how many fish his angling customers catch and release in every farmer's beat. Birgir counted 370 salmon in the Húsey in 2016. Catch rates go up as release rates gain favor. Release rates gain favor because farmers are paid more for productive pools. Thousands more.

"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."

It's giving me something too. I caught a sea trout on the Húsey and now, an Atlantic salmon on the Fljótaá. The salmon is chrome bright ocean wild and it leaves my hand just as fast as it took my fly.

iceland atlantic salmon fly fishing
The author's first Atlantic salmon (photo: Kris Millgate).

"There's a bigger one underneath that one," Gudleifsson says. "I try to catch him, but he just pushes the fly out of the way."

I'll be back for that one some other year. I'll also check on Birgir's salmon counts. If release continues to catch on, more fish will be looking up.