The two Rangá's

Published Dec 29th 2007

I have for a long time wanted to catch an Icelandic salmon, and late this summer I got the chance in the form of a trip to Southern Iceland with fishing in the two most productive salmon rivers on the island.


Impressions from East and West Rangá

I have been to Iceland before, but back then the targets were every fish that swims - salmon, sea trout, Arctic char and brown trout. This time my friend Nils and I were going for Atlantic salmon as the prime goal. We did book some brown trout fishing, but the mainstay of our fishing was three day's salmon fishing on the East Rangá (Eystri Rangá). During our stay we also got a chance to wet a fly on the West Rangá (Ytri Rangá), and that was a very welcome addition. Our brown trout fishing did, on the other hand, fail miserably due to bad weather.

The two Rangá's
The East and the West Rangá are probably the two most productive salmon rivers in Iceland. They have had an increasingly good fishing during the last ten years, and keep breaking records year after year. These are not large rivers, and cannot compare to such waterways as the Skeena or the Fraiser in BC. These are much smaller and shorter runs. But thanks to a well controlled but very generous stocking program maintained by River Keepers Einar Lúđvíksson (Ludviksson) on the East and Jóhannes Hinriksson on the west, they have a huge number of salmon returning every year.

The fishing is equally well controlled, and only very few rods are allowed on each river at the same time. The East Rangá is fished by 18 rods per day - two on each of nine beats - and the West has an equally low number, albeit high season opens for four rods on the most productive beats. That gives a low number of rod days on the rivers during their short season, and compared to the number of fish caught, this is one of the few places in the world, where you are almost guaranteed to catch a salmon. Watching some of the anglers on these rivers, their technique and their behavior, you would swear that they would never be able to catch a fish, but none the less almost every single of them caught not only one but several.

In 2005 East Rangá produced 4,222 registered salmon. With a season of 90 days and 18 rods, that is a stunning 2,6 salmon per rod day and the river has been the number one producer in Iceland both 2006 and 2007. West Rangá, which is a close second, was good for 4,230 salmon in 2006 and the 2007 season closed with over 6,300 salmon caught. And please notice that the number of rods is very limited.

As a result anglers flock to buy rod days on these rivers, and the two rivers are usually fully booked from very early in the season - sometimes even from the year before.

Scenes from Fiská

Muddy! Windy! Rainy!
The rivers usually run clear. The upper part of Ytri rarely muds up, but Eystri is a bit more sensitive to rain or heat in the mountains and the runoff that follows. When we arrived both rivers had had perfect conditions for weeks and ran almost as clear as they can. Of course it started raining the day we arrived, abd we had several days of heavy rain. The beats we fished on Ytri were almost unaffected and Galtalćkur (Galtaleykur), which we had booked for some brown trout fishing was also OK. But Eystri was just getting dirtier and dirtier by the hour!

We enjoyed Ytri Rangá - although we fished some of the lower and more boring beats - and took off for our planned brown trout trip in drouges of rain and howling winds. The fishing was completely rouined by the conditions, and we didn't get much fishing in. The water was fine but due to wind and lack of light we didn't see a single fish. I ran a nymph through some potential holding spots, but to no avail. We gave it a couple of hours, but then caved in and drove home.

Lots of water, lots of mud calls for large, heavy, colorful flies

Underhand casting
I am no seasoned salmon angler. My fishing friends will attest to that. I do in spite of that enjoy swinging a two hand rod for salmon whenever I get the chance to do so. I usually say that the moves for two hand fishing are easy to learn but difficult to master. I use the underhand cast -- also referred to as the Scandinavian Spey cast -- when I fish two-handed, This cast is put together by a short, almost roll cast like backswing (not a backcast) followed by a quick forward snap that propels the line and the fly out over the water, It's the perfect cast for this type of fishing, where a backcast in a traditional overhand cast is often impossible due to steep banks and limited space. Some places there is plenty space, but even there I perform my underhand casts. I just like them better. It's an effortless cast, which requires very little energy. That's something you learn to appreciate when you are hauling a large fly on a heavy line on a long rod.

Lots of water

Salmon fishing

Salmon fishing
Fishing for salmon in rivers like these is also a blessing. They are so chuck full of fish that even a sorry excuse for a salmon angler like myself can get a fly to pass close enough by a fish for it to bite.

The salmon fishing is traditionally done with a downstream swing. You cast your fly out across the current, mend once or twice upstream and let the fly drift in an arc into a possible lie. This might seem like a dumb way of fishing, but decades have shown that it can be highly effective. The whole point is that you have to select the places that you drift you fly -- either by seeing the fish or by "reading the water" and planning the way your fly is going to move. I have never liked the term "reading the water" much, but never the less that's what you need to do: look at the water, the currents, the banks, the boulders and other structures and deduct (or guess in my case) where the fish will be. With the number of fish present in these two rivers you have another advantage: the odd jumping fish, which will tell you where fish are most likely fighting for space.

Gear and flies
I fished several setups during my stay: a 12'6" rod for an 8-9 weight line with a full floating line, a 14' rod for a 9-10 weight with a floating shooting head and the same rod with a full Rio line with a sinking head - much like the Teeny T-lines. I brought a selection of polyleaders from slow sinking to ultra fast sinking and the tippet was 0.40 millimeters or some 0.015 inches. The flies were the usual bunch of tube flies: Sun Ray's, Snelda's and a selection of hair winged flies in different colors and weights. I liked the black, red and orange most, but blue is a very popular color in Iceland.

I certainly preferred fishing the lighter gear whenever possible, but it was the 14-footer with a floating line and a sinking leader that did it for me in clear water, and the sinking line that did the trick in the muddy water. I fished trebles, doubles and singles. The trebles made a mess (and foul hooked a couple of fish in the muddy water), the singles failed hooking fish on several occasions while the doubles seemed to work quite well.

C&R or C&K

The cast, the flow, the bite
Fishing for salmon is an exiting game -- especially when you know there are plenty fish in the water. The feeling of the effortless two-hand cast and the smooth swing of the fly across the current. The sense of the fly gaining speed as it enters the "zone" and the heavy tug when a salmon finally takes. In most cases it required no further action from me than holding on to the rod and waiting for the line to tighten. Lift the rod and you're on.

Sounds simple, eh? I know people who have chased salmon for ages in Sweden and Norway and still haven't landed one. I was lucky in spite of the bad conditions and managed to land salmon on almost all the beats we fished.

C&R or C&K
Fishing in Iceland generally means seeing a lot of dead fish. The far majority of fish caught in the Icelandic salmon rivers are killed for food. I personally have no problems with killing fish -- I kill and eat -- but seeing the amount of fish that are killed, bagged and frozen on an Icelandic fishing day on one of these extremely productive rivers does take some getting used to.

Nils and I released almost all fish we caught, and several times the other anglers at the lodge would wonder why we hadn't caught anything. An angler who doesn't bring home dead fish is interpreted as an angler who hasn't caught anything. On more than one occasion we had to show pictures as an evidence of catching fish.

As I said: I don't oppose to killing, but I certainly had no intention of killing all the fish I caught during my few fishing days in Iceland. That would have left me with more salmon than I needed. Nils killed a couple of fish -- one that we ate during our stay and one to bring to the family of his Icelandic girlfriend. The first one was delicious, the second one was stolen from one of the dozen large freezers at the lodge. As if people didn't have enough in their own fish...

Lodging, transport, food
We were lucky enough to have lodging along with our fishing days on the East Rangá. It's pure luxury with great accomodation and exquisite food. The rest of the time we staid in the Fosshotel Mosfell in Hella, which was neither inexpensive nor very good -- but it was a bed and some breakfast and that's fine enough for me.

Fishing also call for wheels on Iceland, and a four wheel drive is nice -- albeit not a must. Most places can be reached in an ordinary car, but once you get the urge, crossing a river here and there can be quite nice. Car rental is expensive as everything else on Iceland.

Wheels and deals

User comments
From: Jan Konigsberg · jkberg·at·  Link
Submitted April 2nd 2008

I wholeheartedly agree with palmi; in Alaska where I live, more than 30 % of the salmon harvested in the commercial fisheries are produced in one of the 27 industrial-grade hatcheries in the state. These are marketed as wild fish, when they are in fact spawned with rubber gloves in plastic buckets and hatched in concrete raceways. The ecologic and biologic impacts to truly wild stocks have been inadequately assessed because the State of Alaska has refused to do so. The real tragedy is that we humans seem to be having an increasingly difficult time discerning the real from the artificial. We like to fool the fish with artificials, but we are the bigger fools for accepting artificial fish in place of wild ones..

From: Pálmi Gunnarsson · palmi·at·  Link
Submitted February 28th 2008

Hi guys ... My name is Pálmi Gunnarsson an Icelandic musician and an entusiast flyfisherman. I've fished almost all Icelandic rivers during my many years as a fly fisherman, guide and TV producer of several series on flyfishing in Iceland and Greenland. The Rangá river system is a Wannabe salmon river based on the releasing of hundreds of thousands of salmon pars of unknown origin, every year. Its one of the most horrific acts against mother nature that I can think of. To call them amongst the best salmon rivers in Iceland is as false as can be. The Rangä river system were once one of the best sea trout fishery you could think of. Eruption in mount Hekla damaged the stock which eventually rose again as was to be expected. But then came the gold diggers with this outrageous idea of a salmon program. I used to fish the rivers many times,every year for big fantastic sea trout. Since they started releasing salmon pars into the system I go elsewhere. I wouldn't offer my worst enemy a day on these rivers. And do bear in mind, these fish will never produce anything but fat wallets. One thing is for sure - they never spawned in the Rangä river system.

From: Anonymous  Link
Submitted February 26th 2008

Gentlemen as an icelander and a fisherman rivers like the west ranga have allmost no natural stock for it is very cold and with a gravel bottom with sandy flows in it so salmon has problems spawning in it.. I have fished the west river many a time and most of what I catch I kill for food and if somone wanted me to stop killing and buy farm raised fish I say to him have you tasted the differance in those 2 fish.. It is so differrent that I would never swap wild for farmfish...

From: R. Emmett Johnson · EJohnson·at·  Link
Submitted January 18th 2008


You are correct that one of the contributing factors of salmon size is specific to the river that they smolt and how long they stay in those rivers before they go out to sea, but with proper management the run size and fish size will increase as well. Take the Main S.W. Miramichi in New Brunswick, CA for example and according to Vince Swazey, Jerry Doak and others, the river used to produce smaller runs and smaller fish before they instituted C&R and bought out the commercial fishermen. Most fish caught back then were grilse (similar to Iceland) and now the river boasts more salmon over 40" than all the rivers in the Gaspe combined! Your fish will get larger if you catch and release...

From: Jesper Vang Mřller · jespermoller74·at·  Link
Submitted January 18th 2008

Mr. R. Emmett Johnson:

A lot of the salmon in the Icelandic rivers produced in hatcheries and released just before or after they become smolts, so they are not "truly" wild fish even though their "parents" might have been.

And I am pretty sure you are wrong in assuming that that the icelandic salmon are small in size because they are all killed when the are young/first time spawners. I think it is more along the lines of genetics that you will find the answer to the size difference - if you look at Norway you will find rivers that historically "never" produced big fish and rivers that always have produced big fish. The size and shape of anadromous fish are dictated by the conditions in the rivers they spawn in.

From: R. Emmett Johnson · EJohnson·at·  Link
Submitted January 16th 2008

I enjoyed the article but I'll never get used to seeing photos of dead S. Salar. The Atlantic salmon is becoming a scarce resource and should be considered an endangered species. Buy farm raised fish in the store and release your catch to ensure that your grandchildren will be able to experience it too. I fish for salmon twice a year in Canada and will go to Gaspe in the summer (York, St. Jean and Dartmouth Rivers) and the Miramichi in the fall. The Town of Gaspe Rivers in Quebec allows a kill season and it is no surprise that the runs are relatively small (under 1,500 fish), while the Miramichi in New Brunswick has annual returns of over 50,000 because the salmon are protected and it is illegal to kill one. They do allow you to tag and keep a grilse (salmon under 26" in length) for consumption but most of the camps frown upon it. As a fly tyer and fisherman, the thrill of the sport is in the chase and catch...not the kill. Additionally, the salmon in Iceland are very small because most of them are killed before they come back the next year larger.

From: Alexei Zavgorodniy · AZavgorodniy·at·  Link
Submitted December 29th 2007

Great article. It's like Russian salmon fishing except of good roads.

Comment to an image
From: Brian · brian_elward·at·  Link
Submitted March 11th 2008

Great photo Martin! The perfect moment to capture the atmosphere.

Comment to an image
From: Vanuz · vanuz·at·  Link
Submitted December 29th 2007

What a shot!!!

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