Laxá í Mývatnssveit. Sigurbrandur Dagbjartsson, urriðaveiði.

Becoming a Master Angler – Marginal gains and Sibbi

Introduction

I fish with my friend Sibbi, whenever we can team up. He is about 20 years younger than I, and it is quite common that a fishing pair are of different ages. We have some things in common — we just love being outdoors and taking it all in. We suffer fools badly (remember, false modesty is no virtue), and are very old school, both of us. We first met at a lake in Iceland (Vífilsstaðavatn). This is a shallow lake that warms fast in the so called Icelandic spring. This is where the trout start to move the earliest in the Reykjavik area, and naturally that’s where you would find us. I was just starting out on this fishing journey of mine, and I really was a terrible caster and a worse catcher. At that time I was an attending surgeon at the City Hospital, and was working on my thesis. I guess my ego was at least extra-large and all that. We were fishing the Vífilstaðavatn one evening, and I was on call at the hospital. We were fishing with an old crusty trouter, Jón Petersen (the type who wades until water pours into his waders, then he is happy), my cellphone kept chiming, and I was barking orders. At that time Jón and I did not did not know each other, and he turns to me and says, “what is going on, either you are selling moonshine or delivering pizzas.” That cracked up this kid whom I had noticed there fishing. This led to our friendship. He laid out his line like a god (ok, let´s award a him demigod status at this juncture). He was catching char after char and the rest of us were – well, not. However, he was in a foul mood and cursing out his line. “This worthless piece of shit etc. etc.” “Well, Sibbi what is wrong with your line?” He replies “It is too effing short” (at 80 feet!). He was well into his backing at fourteen! The way I roll, I have no problem realizing that someone is way better at something than I am. However, I also know that if somebody can do something manually, chances are that I can copy it and master it. Just imagine the situation — the kid teaching the surgeon with an outsized ego. The kid, however, was willing to teach me in his own way. And to my credit I buckled down, swallowed my pride, observed and took his guidance. He did not teach by talking. I had to observe and figure out what was going on. Let´s assume it could be A or B. I then asked, “do you yada yada A?” He then looked at me with a touch of irritation, and then I knew it was B! He is not the kind that has found the Holy Grail and wants everyone to know about it. Little by little my fortunes improved, and I started catching, and my casting improved, too.

Laxá í Mývatnssveit. Sigurbrandur Dagbjartsson, urriðaveiði.

Laxá í Mývatnssveit. Sigurbrandur Dagbjartsson.

The Problem

Sibbi is a marvelous angler (out fishes everyone all the time), and therefore his contemporaries just can’t stomach it. I suspect there is a healthy dose of testosterone poisoning and self-image problems in this situation, but I digress. I have no problem fishing with him because I turn it into a learning experience. By observing and “copy & paste,” I have turned into a decent angler, I like to believe, but I am still learning. In his teens and twenties, Sibbi was a Ghillie (guide) in our top rivers. Sometimes the merriment of anglers at the lodges went on into the morning with resultant late or non-starts. Imagine being a teenager with a whole blue ribbon salmon river for yourself to experiment with.

Once we guided together in a brown trout heaven called Laxá í Mývatnssveit (see my books). The group we guided there for a week there was headed by Mel Krieger and his fishing buddies from California. It was great fun, and in the kitchen we had one of our well known chefs, who incidentally was fond of pot, and his specialty was fish. He was a big bruiser who liked to cooke in shorts. It was very nice to visit the kitchen, and take in the aroma. It turned out that Mel did not eat fish at all. It was all sorted out though. Some of these Californian anglers were very good casters, and it irked them that the kid cast farther than they could. They brought out the shooting heads and special lines to no avail. It was a custom of Americans, at that time, to leave the their gear as an extra gratuity for their Ghillies, instead of lugging it all back home. I was not tipped since I was a surgeon and in their view did not need the money (although I did). However, I was awarded a brand new two piece GLX 9´eight-weight rod. I still have that rod, and fish with it often, and it is still every bit as good as the new rods being touted today. It has lasted much longer than money would have!

Salmon and Red Frances

Salmon and Red Frances

Self-deception

We have fished lots of lakes and rivers together, and sometimes we do not catch anything. However, we never grumble or get into a foul mood because of that. I have been in the company of countless anglers that become very upset when the going is tough, and I can not stand that attitude. The unpleasant truth is that we sometimes do not have the skills needed for a certain situation. Assume we are in a river, and the first day we catch nothing, and nobody else does either. “There are no fish here” …….. and on and on they go. The day after the fish start hitting and god is in his heaven. Do they think that the fish went somewhere on vacation – to Tenerife maybe? To return 24 hours later? The fish are always there, because they live there – if you do not catch them it is because your skills are lacking in that situation.

I often hear anglers around us comment something like this about Sibbi “He just has some thunder-stick rod.” “He is just so diligent.” “He is just lucky.” “Lady fortune has just touched him” – and on and on. All of it is utter fish crap. I have reflected on this self-deception, which it essentially is, and I think anglers just can not admit that their skills are lacking. Thus, we are back to the testosterone and frail self-image speculation (we sorely need more female anglers). If you can not judge your abilities correctly, chances are that you will have trouble improving.

Sheepshead and Sibbi (they almost never take a fly)

Sheepshead and Sibbi (they almost never take a fly)

The marginal gains

This has been a lengthy rumination to get me to the marginal gains and the way Sibbi does it.

 The fly

A familiar sight

A familiar sight

Let´s start with the fly. Certain fisheries seem to favor certain types of flies. By talking to other anglers and based on one’s own experience, the “right” type of fly is tied on from the beginning. There are thousands of flies but only a limited number of types of flies. We do not carry a lot of flies, we just cover the types. Furthermore, Sibbi gets that fly to the depth where we think the fish are.

 The leader

At Ægissíðufossar - Hekla looms in background

At Ægissíðufossar – Hekla looms in background

The leader Sibbi uses is the thinnest he can get away with, for instance, 10-pound or even 5-pound for salmon. Leader to fly-line connection is the least bulky for a nail knot connection. Tapered leaders are expensive (especially in Iceland), so he goes with a straight level tippet. Dry fly opportunities seldom present themselves in Iceland so he uses stiff tippet material. This results in the leader landing straight (fly line too), and the fly is fishing from the moment it is in the water. He also uses longer leaders than customary. When your casting improves, you can turn over longer leaders.

 The line

In Hrútafjarðará

In Hrútafjarðará

Sibbi never over-lines his rods, rather he under-lines them. Good casters do this frequently – the head might be a tad light but by carrying more running line (more overhang) the rods load well. Floaters are his preferred lines but he sometimes uses floaters with a clear intermediate section if he wants the fly deeper. He uses fly lines with “normal” weight distribution (the head has the same diameter throughout), but opts for the longer heads. The backing is totally immaterial.

 The rod

Searching for an angle

Searching for an angle

Now for the rod. Typically he uses lighter rods than the average angler, but often favors ten feet rods. Thus, he can cast a bit farther, hence stand farther away from the pools, which is important. He is into the so called fast action rods, but prefers rods that will bend in the middle. Fast, but no broomsticks. Most of his rods are old Loomis rods. His casting is superb, both length and accuracy, because he has practiced, and taken the time to develop such a cast. There is no or absolutely minimal false casting. The fly is placed with laser loops at the spot he thinks is the right one, then it swings across. One back cast and the fly is where it is supposed to be again, and everything is straight and fishing from the start. Basically, his fly is in the water (that´s where the fish they are) as much as possible. He can do this with any decent fly rod but he just likes the “feel” of certain rods. All good casters can use any rod, but they choose their rods based on “feel,” which is purely subjective.

 The reel

Did a salmon just jump?

Did a salmon just jump?

Its importance has been vastly overblown. For most trout and grilse fishing you do not need an expensive reel. Any trout reel will do, and most trouters never see their backing. I have seen him catch countless salmon with a five-weight rod and a simple trout fly reel. However, if you connect with a 20 pound plus salmon in a foul mood (you very rarely do), you need something better. Last trip he connected with a salmon in that class, and the reel was a simple trout reel. It is no more, because it spun so fast that the lubricant overheated and it seized up – goodbye salmon.

Réttarstrengur in Hrútafjarðará

Réttarstrengur in Hrútafjarðará

 Reading the water

I have dealt with that subject for lakes fishing

http://everyjonahhasawhale.com/?page_id=1567

and here is the link to stream fishing

http://everyjonahhasawhale.com/?page_id=1570

 Addition

When all of this is added together it becomes crystal clear why he is so successful at angling. He gains an advantage at every link in the system and when all is added up, it translates into a huge advantage in the end. Most anglers are too lazy or complacent to analyze themselves and do not hone their casting. And thus they are doomed to mediocrity.

What is the single most important item? – The cast

If I were to pick just one component of all these, I would absolutely pick the casting. The other ones are really rather simple, but good casting only comes from practice. It kills me when I see anglers in costly salmon rivers, and they have no cast or just terrible casts. This is also the case here where I live, most fly slingers can not handle the wind when fishing the salt.

Laxá í Mývatnssveit. Sigurbrandur Dagbjartsson, urriðaveiði.

Laxá í Mývatnssveit. Sigurbrandur Dagbjartsson

 The truth

“You can observe a lot just by watching” – Yogi Berra

 

Blanda IV

Blanda –

is a long glacial river running north that has been dammed for hydroelectric power. That turned the river into a major salmon river. The resident salmon is very compact, and has a big tail. I like to smoke the few salmon I harvest. The gentleman running the smoking business can easily peg the salmon from Blanda because of those characteristics. The dam was constructed, and the river was directed into a new channel to the intake of the power plant. This picture explains it neatly.

Blanda IV and how it became gin clear

Blanda IV and how it became gin clear

The dam was built in a good area for a reservoir. The Blanda Reservoir has a live storage capacity of 412 Gl and is the third-largest lake in Iceland. The water is diverted through diversion canals and lakes on a 25 km long route to the station’s intake reservoir. From the intake reservoir, water runs through a 1300 m long canal to the station’s intake, where it is diverted to the turbines in the powerhouse. The drop to the turbines from the harnessed head is 287 m. From the turbines, the water is lead through a 1700 m tailrace tunnel back into the river channel.

Where the glacial and clear water meet

Where the glacial and clear water meet

During summer, when water is stored in the reservoir (the silt accumulates there), the glacial part of Blanda became  much clearer and fishable, and thus becomes a major addition to our to our salmon river menu. Blanda IV now is a clear water river that forms as rivulet fed stream. The surrounding landscape is igneous rock and volcanic soil. Water just disappears into the ground when it rains, and reappears as rivulets that that little by little form the river, which is clear as gin. I think this type of a river in Scotland is called a spate river,  which has no fixed flow. Rain will make it grow, and then the surface falls again. And during long periods of drought the surface is very low. Now you will have big deep pools here and there, and the water just trickles between them. If you see the river like that it is hard to understand how the big fish got into the pools. However, when the water fills the reservoir, glacial water will make fishing impossible in all the Blanda beats.

Blanda IV fishing map

Blanda IV fishing map

Just a glance of the map will tell you that this is going to be a river in a deep V valley. This cannot be a river in an U-shaped valley. The giveaway is its relative straight course, where it has cut a gorge into the rock formations.

Blanda IV gorge

Blanda IV gorge

A lady at the center of previous picture

A lady at the center of previous picture. She is trying to spot salmon in the pool below.

These two pictures give a good idea how steep and deep the gorge is. These next pictures tell the story.

To get to truck you cross a river

To get to the truck you cross a river

The crossing

The crossing

On my way

On my way

Beer earned?

Beer earned?

No son, you go down there

No son, you go down there

 

However, this is a very majestic place. The pools are exquisite in the rugged barren landscape.

 

The pool Krókur high on the mountain

The pool Krókur high on the mountain

The pool Breiðan

The pool Breiðan

The lowest pools are easily accessible but for the rest of the river one needs to be in shape. Probably the best/most enjoyable way to fish this river is to drop the angler/anglers at the very top pool Rugludalshylur. From the road to this pool there is a half an hour walk. Then it is possible to hike down river and fish the various pools en route to civilization.

The friends Skúli and Rossi enjoying a break

My friends Skúli and Rossi enjoying a break

Skúli and Rossi opted for the lowest pools only and enjoyed their time with the beer. The cars you need are definitely of the SUV persuasion.

A glorified tackle box

A glorified tackle box

This one is great for the job. It is built like a tank and can get you anywhere. The only thing that does not currently work is the air conditioning. Do not worry the country is air conditioned. Notice how we transport the rods. Suction cups fasten the rod holders securely to the car.

Now for the fishing – it was great. The pools are small, and the river is clear. Stay away from the water´s edge and lengthen your cast instead. We like to stay 15-20 feet from the pool edges. Of course our lines will sometimes be on the ground, but we counteract that by using a bit longer rods. Sibbi was using a ten footer #7, and I was using a eleven footer #5 that can double as a two handed rod. Anything big has no place in this part of Blanda. We start by using the small flies and

#14 - #16 Salmon flies that work

#14 – #16 Salmon flies that work

if that does not elicit a response we might try small light tubes. When all else fails, out comes the Sunray Shadow tube, and as a rule it will get the salmon moving. Only once did I throw a slightly weighted tube. Be advised  – the rocks in this river are treacherously slippery. I had my wading boots fitted out with metal studs and I slipped at least 3 times. I have no idea why the stones are so damn slippery but trust me they are. For the usual fishing porn – see below.

https://vimeo.com/233997651

https://vimeo.com/234058516

A beautiful vista

Eystri Rangá

My fishing buddy Sibbi and I fished three different salmon rivers this summer. This post is about the first one, Eystri Rangá (Eastern Rangá (á = river). There are two Rangás, of which the eastern is smaller, with a steady flow of 30 cubic meters per second. It is mainly a spring-fed river. It holds salmon for about 22 km. Average early catch is around 4600 salmon with a generous portion of big fish. There are 9 beats with two rods, and you spend six hours on each beat. Anglers stay at a full-service lodge overlooking the river. There are 18 en-suite rooms. Guide service is provided and there is one guide per two rods on each beat.

http://www.ranga.is/veidisvaedi/eystri-ranga/upplysingar/

http://www.angling.is/en/waters/6369/

The East Rangá is about a one and a half hours drive from Reykjavik. It is a medium-size river flowing on the alluvial plain of Suðurland (South).  The upper river is 15 to 25 m wide, broadening to 30 to 45 m on the lower beats. The beats are easily accessible by car (SUVs are better but no monster trucks are needed), and no strenuous hiking is necessary. There are no major rapids or waterfalls along it´s course, but the flow is quite swift and begs for swinging the fly. The bottom is good, sand or earth, with a few rocky areas. However, wading above knee level made me quite aware of the swift current.

The river at the top is flanked by a range of low, grassy hills. The river meanders over Beats 7 and 6 on the alluvial plain. Lower down on Beats 4 and 3 there are similarities to Tierra del Fuego, because of the grassland and winds!

This river is best suited to two-handed rods from (13 to 15´), with an intermediate or sink-tip # 8 to 10. Big flies and tubes seem to work best here. The fish are often deep, and the river is cold.

http://www.lax-a.net/iceland/salmon-fishing/salmon-full-service/east-ranga-river/

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

It was not a “natural” salmon habitat because of the cold water in it. The salmon were not able to spawn there in any numbers. There were at one time some Seatrout around (anadromous brown trout), but now they are mostly gone. The river was turned into a salmon river by growing salmon to the smolt stage. Then the smolt are released into the river. They will migrate to the estuary, and then into the ocean to reach sexual maturity, and return a year or two later to spawn.

Rangárvað (#84)

Rangárvað (#84 refers to the # on the fishing chart) – cast to the other bank.

On a good day the vistas are great with the infamous volcano Hekla, and the ill reputed Eyjafjalla glacier, of flight delay fame, the main points.

Hofteigsbreiða efri (#57, Hekla the volcano at center)

Hofteigsbreiða efri (#57, Hekla the volcano at center)

Big and broad (the glacier at right edge is Eyjafjallajökull)

Big and broad (the glacier at the right edge is Eyjafjallajökull)

The current is rather heav,y and I wade up to my knees if I have to, but not more. By and large anglers wade far too much, and get  too close to the fish. Practicing casting before the trip, especially with an instructor, will increase your catch rate much more than wading.  This river is best fished with a two hander. The long two handed rods are known in Iceland, but mostly for overhead casts by the natives (well, the backcast is usually not a problem). Then they were used for steering earthworms into the gullets of salmon. I know it sounds terrible. but it is true. However, foreigners have always used the traditional Spey techniques with their two handers. It is a bit curious how the Spey casts faded from memory in Iceland because farmers (for instance in Aðaldalur in North Iceland) in the early 19oos  were using long two handed rods with Spey technique.  I hope Icelandic anglers are again catching on and will start using the two handed rod and maximize their advantage. Spey techniques can not be beat in close cramped situations with limited or no back cast available.

I have taken some two handed rod lessons here in Florida from the only certified two handed instructor in the whole state, Leslie Holmes ( http://leslieholmesflyfishing.com ), and have made some progress I think. At any rate I was rewarded with a beautiful salmon on Rangárvað (#84). I was fishing river left, and the fly was on the dangle.  Then snap T placing the anchor upstream of me, and the subsequent roll casts to the opposite bank. The casts were working, and during a swing of a Snaelda everything just stopped, and it was on. First salmon I catch Spey casting. By convention you face downstream, and if the river is on your right you are on river left and vice versa. “Fly is on the dangle”  means the fly is directly downstream of you close to your bank.

Salmon from Rangárvaði

Salmon from Rangárvað

The look on my face holding the salmon is rather constipated (was not), but I can assure you I was very happy, as this picture proves.

Full of high hopes

Happy

There are some places where the back cast is limited. Those are, of course, best worked using the traditional Spey casts. A case in point is the dark steep hill in the picture below. It begs for roll casts.

Dýjanesstrengur og -breiða (#65,64)

Dýjanesstrengur og -breiða (#65,64)

Langhylur (#80)

Langhylur (#80) The bank is a problem for overhead casting but no problem with a roll cast.

There are some very deep pools there, and in some places a sinking tip is good to have. Below I tried a Skagit set-up, and down it went, but the salmon were not interested.

Dýjanesbreiða (#64)

Dýjanesbreiða (#64)

 

We fished beat seven, six, five and four. To fish all the beats you would spend nine days there. These beats had some very varied flow patterns, calling for different approches.  We mostly fished these beats by the time honored tradition of swinging our flies. This means that one casts over to the opposite bank (or the opposite edge of a productive channel) and then the current grabs and swings the fly line and fly across to our bank. Sometimes we strip the fly a bit and experiment with the retrieve. We do not use microflies (#14-#16) here. This seems to be the river for tubes, and big is good. This was my first time fishing Eystri Rangá, so this should be read with that in mind. I will definitely return to this river given an opportunity. The days we were there the fishing was below average, but we managed to raise or catch salmon in every other pool we tried.

 

Rangá - Hekla looming in the background

Salmon fishing and ragtime snoring

My plan was to write about my recent salmon fishing trip in Iceland, but I got stuck on salmon trivia. I also feel that I should first explain briefly how this industry is set up in Iceland. I need to get that off my chest first, as a prequel to the fishing trips.

The Atlantic salmon is a truly magnificent creature. Now that is a boring sentence! – But to me it really is so.  Just to remind the reader of their life cycle I will undertake to summarize the main points.

Salmon before release - Eystri Rangá

Salmon before release – Eystri Rangá

To reach the river, in which it was born to spawn, the salmon faces long odds indeed. The life cycle is from a fertilized egg to the Alevin stage where the fish consume the nutrients of their yolk sac. Then they grow into a form called Parr (those small fish will take small flies). When the time comes for them to venture into the ocean (at 2-8 years) they enter the Smolt stage. The Smolt adapt to the saline environment of the ocean in the estuaries.

http://www.unm.edu/~toolson/salmon_osmoregulation.html

The salt excretion from the seawater poses a new problem for them, which they solve by excreting the salt load through their gills. When the fish returns to sweet water the process must be reversed.  Now they can venture into the ocean to grow and reach reproductive size. They are eaten by other predators at all levels of their stages, and very few will ever reach sexual maturity and return to their river of origin. Now the great miracle unfolds. They will unfailingly return to that river. Either after one year in the ocean (these fish are called grilse in the UK) or after 2 years (those are the salmon). As a rule of thumb, the one-year fish will be less than ten pounds and the two-year fish will be more. The salmon must now adapt to fresh water physiology in the estuaries, and still they face being devoured by seals, for instance, lurking at river mouths. The seals in the estuaries earn the wrath of the river owners who will take appropriate measures. After the salmon are in the river they will not eat at all and would vacuum up all their young ones if they did, and now are fueled by the fat they accumulated in the ocean. Those who survive will travel up the river and take up residence in some pool or run that they like. Freshly run salmon are silvery and will have some sea lice attached, but those will fall off after 24 hours in the river. Then their colors become darker as they wait for the fall and spawning. Every year there will be an influx of grilse (one year in salt) and salmon (two year in salt) to spawn. This is probably natures hedge to ensure against catastrophes. Nature is sneaky, and some males will not go to sea, but remain and reach sexual maturity. Females need more energy to produce the roe, I suppose. The big males and females will go at it in the fall. The dwarf males wait behind a rock, and will snatch any opportunity at fertilization.

Mountain pool

Mountain pool

It is a testament to the cynical nature of sapiens that now is the time we fish choose tofor them. Why do I do it? For me the thrill is in the “takes” or “strikes.” To swing a small fly near the surface and see the salmon chasing it and finally turn on it in an explosion of power and speed with water splashing is just breathtaking. I really cannot describe this moment or do it justice but it is an incredible moment and it is addictive. The general rule in Iceland is to release all salmon, but keeping a few grilse is allowed. The zeitgeist is moving towards releasing all salmon, and anglers as naturalists and conservationists will not be taken seriously if they keep killing the fish they love. It certainly makes no sense economically to fish for them to obtain food. Homo Islandicus is a peculiar beast, and the subject of catch and release causes more heated exchanges than any other subject on the fishing blogs, some of which are deplorable. I am convinced that in time all salmon caught in Iceland should and must be released.

Eystri Rangá

Eystri Rangá

On top of the takes the salmon rivers are beautiful and some of their pools one would never see if not through the angling. The surrounding scenery can be a bonus, and these rivers are in varied locations and come in different sizes.

Pool at the headwaters

Pool at the headwaters

Icelandic rivers are the property of the farms through which they run. The farmers form a syndicate around a river. Then the river banks are divided into “beats” to which a rod is assigned. The number of rods varies depending on the size of the river and on its productivity. One needs to buy a rod license for the rivers well ahead of time. If you do not possess a rod license, then it is ” no cigar.”  Below is an example of a “beat” map (svæði). Salmon angling in estuaries is illegal so there is no public access to salmon waters anywhere in Iceland.

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

The salmon culture in Iceland was probably influenced the most by upper crust Brits fishing the rivers starting late eighteen hundred and up to the second world war. After the second world war the anglers came from all over the world. The season is 90 days for each river with different starting days. The best rivers are run with “hotels,” but some are self-catered – understandably the meager ones. The hotels are best described as luxury fishing camps. Each rod gets a private room with two beds and a bathroom. It is customary for two fellow anglers to share a rod. The daily cycle when salmon fishing runs like this: The morning starts with breakfast, and continental it is not. You need your fat and protein to battle the fish. Now we start fishing at 7 AM and fish for solid six hours. At midday, there will be a two-hour break during which there is a shut eye and lunch because now we are getting hungry. At 3 PM we go at it again and fish for another six hours or until 9 PM. At 10pm there will be a three-course dinner with aperitifs and digestives. When we finally fall into our beds after midnight we are just whipped, yet are slated to be up again at 5-6 AM. The average salmon angler is usually big with thick torso and resonant chest. You might think that we sleep soundly after such an ordeal. We do not! Now it is time for the international ensemble of snoring virtuosos. You despair – you must sleep some – but alas, no quarter is given. There is the Austrian going strong, quite melodious, kinsman to Mozart. The Germans go with resounding tones, think Beethoven. Then there is the skirl of the Scots. You get the picture. It is a cacophony of immense quality. Earplugs are an absolute must.

When my fishing buddy shakes me awake next morning, he greets me with – “my god – you snore like a Brazilian saw mill”.

It truly takes a strong constitution to be a salmon angler.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_salmon