Published Apr 14. 2023 - 12 months ago
Updated or edited Sep 11. 2023

Salmon fishing in Iceland, where to start

Iceland with its fascinating extremes and great runs of salmon is a dream destination for many anglers. Here’s where to start.

Scouting a pool
A bend in the river
Covering a pool
Icelandic rivers
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

The Atlantic salmon is one of the most highly sought after gamefish in the world. Iceland is - with its fascinating extremes and great runs of salmon - the dream destination for most anglers chasing freshwater silver. After many requests about salmon fishing in Iceland, here’s a guide which aims to better prepare you for an great fishing trip to the land of fire and ice.

Cutting through Icelands jagged, glacial and volcanic landscape are a great variation of superb first class salmon rivers. World famous for gin clear water, great numbers of wild salmon and visual fishing, but also known for mainly grilse/small salmon inhabiting the rivers.
I have also been faced with people claiming that Iceland is only Put & Take salmon fishing. There is truth and myths here, but let's brake it down and see what to consider before booking your fishing.

Nils with a bright female salmon
Large and bright
A good size salmon
Large lightly colored male
A kyped male salmon
Nils and the salmon
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
Sight fishing!
Sight fishing!
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

Yes, we most definitely have some of the finest salmon rivers in the world, which can offer that intense delicate sight fishing we picture behind our eyes.
On the other hand, our best river statistically is a massive glacial river with a water visibility around 5-10 cm. The numbers of wild salmon running here is impressive and it’s only getting better after the local farmers’ nets have been taken out thanks to the outfitter.
But if you have been drawn to Iceland by the visual fishing and jaw dropping fantasy land pictures floating on the good old interweb, this river is not where you want to go. You will need a worm forced to the bottom by three sinkers (lead!) if you want a chance to catch here.
If you, however, are just into numbers this is perhaps a perfect solution for you.

Points to take into consideration

1 Size of the river

Do you prefer a small, medium or large sized river? Single- or double hand rods? A combo, maybe?
We do have rivers with enough variation for both fish single- and double hand rods. But the majority in Iceland are best fished with single hand rods and floating lines.

Breathtaking views
Clear and calm
Large and small
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
A bend in the river
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
Clear water
Another clear and deep pool
Clear!
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

2 Gin clear, picture perfect water?

Not all rivers are gin clear but the majority is. Generally the Icelandic rivers are outstanding fly fishing waters with great variation, and mostly best fished with small flies on floating lines.
If God was a fly angler, Iceland would be his masterpiece. Fast flowing stretches, beautiful waterfalls, long pools, basically anything you can dream off.
But to avoid winding up disappointed upon arrival at you destination. Is your dream see the salmon chase your fly before finally breaking the surface for "that pull" the makes to world stand still for a moment?
Many anglers enjoy "the classic swing", blind fishing and being dragged out of wonderland by "that pull" breaking the peace.
We have it all in Iceland, just make sure you are dialed in on what you are saying yes to.
You need to consider the above to avoid a possible disappointment coming to a low visibility glacier river with your size 18 flies expecting visual fishing.

Lots of walking
Cut deep
Not so clear
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

3 Fly, lure or bait?

Most salmon rivers in Iceland are "fly only". Several of the high-end rivers have even banned the use of big weighted tubes and sink tips.
I am not going into the discussion of this, but just be aware when narrowing in your options and selecting a river.
I will however say that from own experience, big tubes spook the living daylights out of the salmon in the smaller rivers. You will have a better chance sticking to more delicate fishing with small flies or micro tubes. I personally also think that it is courtesy to the angler coming to fish the pool after you not having "bombed" the fish.
There are still a few rivers offering fishing with lures and worms. One of the statistically best rivers is Leirvogsá just outside Reykjavik. They allow worm fishing, but not lures.

The box is open
Small hitch tube
Rods and flies ready
Small flies
Flies
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
Perfect condition
Happy camper
Sizes vary, the joy is the same
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

4 Size of fish

As mentioned, Iceland is mostly known for grilse/small salmon. Small salmon being up to 65 cm of length. Especially the western rivers are known as small fish rivers. An 85 cm salmon is a good fish everywhere in the country, but in the small fish river it is a really big fish.
When one says big salmon, it of course depends on the context of the river. Most rivers produce fish up to just over 90 cm and quite a few over 100 cm.
Finally, we have what is know as THE big fish river Laxá í Aðaldal/Big Laxa, which normally produces both the biggest fish and the highest average size in the country.
This river is said to have salmon up to 120 cm. With that said, the river is challenging. It usually goes hand in hand. Small fish river equals many fish. Big fish river equals fewer fish.
So, are you a big fish hunter? Or more into quantity? Something in between? Does it matter to you?

Below the waterfall
Majestic
Majestic
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

5 Catch numbers, what to expect

Every salmon caught in Iceland is registered in a national register. The catch statistics has public access, and is followed with big interest through the season by us salmon fishing addicts.
The statistics are gathered on the website www.angling.is and updated every Thursday during the season, which lasts June til October.
When booking your fishing, the statistics can help get an idea of what to expect catch number wise. Of course this is fishing and there are many parameters, but an average catch is still useful to know.

Note that the river taking the top spot in the official catch list on www.angling.is is not necessarily the best river!
It does not take into account number of rods fishing the river or days the river is open for fishing.
In order to get the best river with regards to catch numbers, it is necessary to calculate number of salmon caught per rod over how long the season is on a given river.
Some rivers only have two rods fishing, some have 18. Another important factor is that natural/wild salmon rivers are only allowed to be fished for up to 90 days while the few artificial rivers can be fished 120 days.
That of course affects the total catch number.

Laxá
Resting at the sign
Different river, different numbers
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

The Rangá is for example seen sold as the top river in Iceland. Almost always at the top of the overall catch per season. But the river(s) are fished with over 20 rods for 120 days.
Rivers like Miðfjarðará, Haffjarðará and Laxá á Ásum are in fact producing much more fish per rod.
Laxá á Ásum was until recently only fished with two rods, and once produced 1,800 wild salmon in one season! As far as I know, this is the best salmon river in the world if you count salmon per rod.

Below is an example with the top three natural/wild and fly only salmon rivers in Iceland from 2021 (Source: MBL/Sporðaköst). This was a slow season on Iceland, but it illustrates my point.

River Number of salmon Rods Salmon per rod Salmon per day
Miðfjarðará 1,796 10 180 2.00
Laxá í Döl­um 1,021 6 170 1.89
Haffjarðará 914 6 152 1.70
Luxury
Lodge ambiance
Luxurious lodging
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

6 Lodging

On most rivers, you are obligated to take full board lodging along with the fishing license. Iceland is not exactly famous for being the least expensive place to get a warm bed, so this adds to the cost.
There are however still a few self-catering lodges for the people preferring privacy lower expenses. But unfortunately it is not looking good for these anglers. The outfitters are focusing more on full service lodging.
No salmon river in Iceland offer people to camp as far as I am aware.

Selecting flies
Selecting flies
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
A helping hand
Celebrating with a jump!
Somebody to watch over me
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

7 Fishing guide

Do you want to challenge your hunting skills on your own or have a guide helping getting you into some action?
Having a guide has at least two advantages.

1. Local knowhow, experience under different circumstances and the right technique can be crucial.
2. The guide has a car saving you money for a rental car, which is very expensive in Iceland.
2b. It is a convenient luxury having a chauffeur after celebrating a landed fish with a single malt.

Be aware! If you choose to invest in a guide, make sure that the guide has lots of own fishing and guiding experience from the location you're going to fish! Ask how many years the guide has been fishing and guided on the river you're going to fish.
I have unfortunately experienced quite a few anglers going home disappointed from their fishing trip, partly because of their guide had no fishing experience on the visited river. It takes many years to learn how a river works under different water levels, temperatures, weather pressure, season and of course what triggers the bite.
You are paying a lot of money for local experience and assistance, so feel free to pry. I don't think it is too much.
We have plenty of great guides with many years of hard earned local experience who are highly motivated to give you a trip of a lifetime.
Note, some rivers have made it required to have a guide in recent years.

Getting the boat out
A rare sight
Rods in the boat
Boats are sometimes used
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
Solitude
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
Releasing
The beauty on its way back
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

8 Natural/wild salmon?

A sensitive subject. Today’s focus on environmental issues has left a growing awareness among anglers towards protecting our wildlife, which for us foremost is where our passion lays when fishing.
In Iceland, we have had strict policies and rules protected our unique countries sensitive wild life up until recently.
Salmon farmers have successfully spread out over our coastal lines with these scary open cage sea pegs. They are breeding salmon from Norway, a foreign strain, which is not forbidden, and used extensively by this industry.
No need to go into the devastating consequences of that now.

The concern also goes for releasing foreign fish into our rivers.
Scientific proof is available proving that releasing smolt (baby salmon) from other salmon stocks than the river’s own can be a disaster.
In Canada and the US, it started as genuine attempt to give a helping hand to restore rivers where the fish farming industry destroyed the wild salmon stocks. But releasing smolt turned out not to be the solution, but only making matters worse.
Today, many scientists and anglers believe in keeping the salmon rivers wild, and keeping out species or strains of fish that don’t belong there.

Caveman
Close quarters
below the rocks
The boat waiting
Pristine rivers
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

The reason I bring this up, is that we have a few artificial rivers in Iceland with salmon strains from all over the place.
Famous are the two Rangá rivers, which have an intense smolt release program going into ponds along the rivers before they eventually are released into the river itself.
The rivers are very productive but to many, this is Put & Take fishing and not wild salmon.
Fish taken from other rivers and grown artificially under human housing for their first years of their lives, is a bit too much for people devoted for wild salmon.
And that fact that there is no natural salmon stock also raise a huge question sign on why this is at all allowed in Iceland.

Fishing wise, some anglers might not find it very charming the that majority of the fish are caught just outside the release ponds on the river. Even though it does of course give a lot of action.
So, some anglers will definitely not have the best fishing trip of their lives if being dropped off at an artificial river.
I have come across the debates both on and offline, so just to avoid a possible conflict between client and outfitter, have this in your consideration when selecting a river.

Getting a run for your money
Img 5431
Rapid after rapid
Covering the pool
Icelandic rivers
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
A quick selfie before release
A quick selfie before release
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

For your information, the majority of the Icelandic salmon rivers are natural. Some have had a little help, eggs taken from the female salmon, fertilizing them before burying them in the river bed - on location.
The Icelandic salmon rivers are also generally well managed. The biggest threat to our salmon stocks are at the moment new intruders from the open cage salmon farming industry.

9 C&R?

Some rivers have full Ctch & Release, while most allow you to take one small salmon - being fish under 70 cm - per day. Some very productive rivers allow even more without it being a threat to the stock of course.
Note that most salmon rivers also have trout and arctic char and in most cases no C&R on them. Sea run arctic char is considered the best fish to eat in Iceland.

Not the right place to fish!
Not the right place to fish!
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
Convenience
Convenience
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

10 Location

You can be on the river bank just one hour after walking out of the Keflavik International Airport. It can also take 8-9 hours to drive from the airport to the east of Iceland - which can of course be saved via domestic flights.
If it matters to you, it is worth taking transport time into consideration.

11 When

The first rivers open early June with majority around June 20th. Prime time is mid July to early August.
Most rivers close mid to late September.
As mentioned earlier, the rivers with wild salmon stock are only allowed open for up to 90 days, while the stocked rivers are open 120 days, giving rivers like the two Rangá’s fishing until October 20th.

Summer fishing
Summer fishing
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

I hope these pointers can bring you closer to a good fishing trip without disappointments.
Just remember that we can't control the weather and the fish ...

Tight lines
Nils Folmer Jørgensen

Ram and glasses
Ready for the sun!
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
Jumping salmon
Typical Icelandic river
A small gorge
Turbulence
In a calm pool
One handed rods
Icelandic impressions
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
When the sun is setting
Nils Folmer Jørgensen
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