Eight soakers in a hot pool in northern Iceland. I’m one of them. We’re all drinking Icelandic brew, but none of us are native. I’m the Idahoan. The guide from Wales brought the wagonload of beer we’re enjoying. There’s a couple from D.C., two Frenchmen, a photographer from Colorado, and a fly fishing guide from Florida. We’re all deflating.
“You can tell when people, I call it, ‘deflate,’” says Griff Griffiths, Eleven Experience head guide. “They take the rod out of their butt and relax. They’re in a heated pool with not a care in the world.”
The fly fishing guide from Florida who is soaking with us is Paul Ray; he works with Griffiths. Tarpon are Ray’s priority for Eleven Experience . . . at least they were until the adventure travel company opened Deplar Farm in northern Iceland. Now he’s my guide, and he’s the superstitious type.
“Superstitions keep me sane when I’m fishing,” Ray says. “Don’t show the river the net. That’s bad luck.”
Ray has an ease about him that comes from working in warmer climates focused on tarpon, but our day isn’t warm, and the fishing isn’t familiar. Ray is here to learn about sea trout and Atlantic salmon just like I am. He’s shadowing my other guide, Icelandic native Höddi Birgir.
“I think sea trout are much more fun than salmon,” Birgir tells Ray. “We know we have loads of sea trout, but they don’t always take. When you find the right fly, it can be really fun.”
Ray plans to learn the right fly from Birgir so he can guide Iceland, too, because the demand for fishing guides is outpacing supply.
“We need more guides,” Birgir says. “I’m not going to do this my whole life.”
Birgir is a puddle-jump plane ride and two-hour drive north of Reykjavík, the capital city. Thousands of wool-worthy sheep have free reign in the Northern Region, so it isn’t booming with buildings, but the tourists are here anyway. Deplar Farm, a sheep farm turned luxury lodge, opened in 2016 for good reason—it caters to tourists wanting to watch whales and the northern lights. Guests are also here to heli-ski winters and fly fish summers.
“You need to fish here,” Birgir says. “Maybe I’m not the best guide in the world, but nobody knows this river like me and my brothers.”
In Iceland, you need a guide to fish rivers running through private farms. Birgir is one of those guides, and Ray hopes to be. Birgir and his brothers pay 40 farmers for access to 12 miles of the Húsey River. The river is divided into four beats. One rod per beat. Up to 20 pools in each beat. Farmers are paid for every fish pulled out of a beat on their property.
“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.”
Birgir started a catch-and-release program for Atlantic salmon on the Húsey River 15 years ago. Before that it was catch-and-keep harvesting, down to 17 salmon the year release started. The change was hard to swallow at first because locals don’t fish for sport, just for food. When beats started making money for farmers, though, release started making sense. Birgir counted 370 salmon on the Húsey River in 2016, and word of Iceland’s recreational fishing potential is getting out.
“I tell people to teach their kids to fish,” Birgir says. “There’s an opportunity to make a living with this now.”
According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, the number of tourists in Iceland rose 39 percent from 2015 to 2016—nearly two million extra people. Over the incoming mob hovers the long necks of several construction cranes in Reykjavík. Costco opened this year; Marriott next year. An alternative newspaper printed in English fills its columns with growing pains, but what I hear doesn’t match what I read.
“When you look at the number of people coming in, we have to import people to help serve those people,” says Thor Thorbjornsson, a private taxi driver. “But tourists have helped us a lot, no doubt. I think we should be thankful for them.”
That includes anglers with their eagerness to chuck flies at whatever swims by as long as an access-granted guide is at their side. The trick now will be getting enough guides at their side on an island that’s about the size of Kentucky.
Kris Millgate is an outdoor journalist based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. See more of her work at tightlinemedia.com.
Lead image: Fly fishing guide Höddi Birgir started a catch-and-release program for Atlantic salmon on the Húsey River 15 years ago. Before that it was catch-and-keep harvesting, down to 17 salmon the year release started. Birgir counted 370 salmon on the Húsey River in 2016.