Another summer season ends and I’m now on the way back to Scotland from the land of fire and ice. For me, and most of my guests, 2023 will be remembered as the season of extremes! Weather and water conditions in Iceland this year have been, well, to say the least, extreme! On my arrival on the 5th July the temperature in the mountains was a mere 3oC, then, 3 days later we had two and a half days baking in 25oC with not a cloud in the sky. In all rivers on the west of Iceland continuous sunshine and low rainfall led to a lack of water. I have said so many times during my salmon fishing life, no matter where we fish, great salmon fishing requires three things - good water, good weather and a good supply of fresh fish. Take any one of those out of the equation and things begin to get difficult. Take two out and it almost becomes tough. Take all three out and well, its nigh on impossible. The main ingredient, however, is always salmon.
Back in 2013, fishing the clear waters of the Bonaventure River in Canada confirmed what years of studying fish on the Spey (Snorkelling pools each summer) had taught me, that was, not a great deal of salmon is required to provide us with good fishing. All that is required are all the 3 ingredients above. The key was managing the recourse, something they do better in both Iceland and Canada.
Unfortunately, in Scotland this spring, in every river, the main ingredient was missing. There were little or no early running salmon, so it mattered none whether we had good, bad, or indifferent conditions; unless you were incredibly lucky, you were not going to catch one anyway.
Historic data clearly shows, poor, or low water flows are followed by poor runs of fish, it is as if the fish know water levels are and will be low! Seldom over my 45 years working on rivers, have I seen good salmon fishing coinciding with low water. In the “natural world” at least, this is just how things work.
Whilst most rivers in Iceland are small and have natural runs of fish, some are supplemented by using hatcheries. This method has been used for many years here now, indeed, some of the most desirable salmon fishing is found on rivers with hatcheries.
The reason for this varies. In the case of the famous Ranga rivers, both east and west, hatcheries are required due to a lack of spawning gravel and available gravel being covered with volcanic ash. Because of this little or no natural spawning takes place. Those rivers rely 100% on the use of hatcheries and because Smolt output is controlled, numbers of returning adults can be predicted with a high level of certainty. This is why the business model works and people like to fish here.
Whilst some refer to those rivers as put and take, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, Smolts leave the river and head to the ocean in the same way as natural fish and as such the number of returning adults is 100% down to marine survival.
Other rivers such as Jokla in the northeast of Iceland, have Smolt programs too, however, this is for a different reason. Like the Beauly in Scotland, this is a hydro river with a dam. The dam completely changed the flow of the river, interestingly, in the case of Jokla, providing it with the potential to be a viable salmon fishery. Before the dam this was a torrent of fast flowing milky glacial water with little or no value as a salmon fishery. As with the Blanda river in the northwest, the building of the dam had a positive effect for the river as a salmon fishery, the lagoon, or lake would act like a big sieve catching all the particles suspended and via the turbines would send clear water down the river. Where Jokla required a hatchery to kick start the river, Blanda already had a good population of salmon so has no hatchery. The Blanda has one of the best runs of Multi Sea Winter fish in Iceland, every season I have been there has seen 20lb + fish come from its pools. But why? Well, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the river reminds me so much of the Alta River in Norway. Both have a Hydro dam followed by a beautiful canyon. This then opens into flat gravel pools, however, in case of the Blanda, around 2km from the sea, it also has a big waterfall which only big fish can ascend. Those features are what make this river special both in a fishing and aesthetical way.
Hatchery Rivers such as Ranga are very much a commercial enterprise with farmers and outfitters relying totally on the success of the salmon fishery for their income. Whilst some look at this as unnatural, those involved see it as a business opportunity, utilising a natural resource in the best way possible. Without the salmon hatchery and Smolt programme, the Ranga rivers would add no net value to Icelands GDP but with fishing open for 90 days of the year and 24 rods sold at an average of £2000+ per day, those rivers are not only the most desirable to the majority of salmon anglers who can afford this, but provide jobs and income for a great many people. For me this is much more important than the negative opinions of a few.
So how have those rivers done in this year of low water and poorer marine survival?
Are all hatchery rivers are bucking the trend? Well, the answer would be no as Marine Survival affects them in the same way. Although not prolific, those rivers did however, still produce more fish to anglers than any other rivers in Iceland.
However, given previous success of those rivers' expectations amongst anglers is high and as the season developed it became clear that, although those rivers have greater output of Smolts, pro rata, the percentage return is much the same so numbers of fish returning were lower.
This year it would be fair to say that a combination of low water flow and poorer marine survival has led to a 20% - 30% drop in returning adults over the season on the west and northwest of Iceland, with some rivers in the East and Northeast bucking the trend and producing more to the rod in 23. However, people should not be put off or dispirited!
I remember going to the amazing Ponoi river in 2017 and caught 30 fantastic salmon to my own rod, an average of 5 per day and was amongst the top rods. The week yielded 333 fish to 16 rods. The following year the same week yielded 888 to the same number of rods. Those fluctuations are natural and marine survival is all about the luck of the draw and weather patterns.
For me, more than anything else, this is an issue about food, and how far those fish need to venture to find it. We have a decline for sure and have many more known pressures on salmon, of that there is no denial. However, fluctuations in overall runs have always been part of the salmon's history, both long and short term those are determined by many factors, most of which we know about and have done for a long time, but for several reasons do not have the will, idea, or plan to properly address...!
Back in the UK, in 2023, the figure for spring salmon will have been nearer 80% down. A very worrying statistic indeed.
However, as bleak as this may look, experience tells me that next year will be better than this. How much better is debatable, but I know it will be better! What makes me so confident?
Almost all salmon's problems at sea come down to either finding food or becoming food themselves. As juveniles we know they shoal, this is a safety mechanism for all small fish in the ocean. The size of this “bait-ball” is a crucial factor to the survival of any species and is the main reason smolts from all rivers in a particular area head to sea at much the same time. Also, it depends what predator species may target that bait-ball. We have all seen Tuna work as a team, how they deal with a Herring bait-ball is clinical. They leave little or nothing. Like wolves of the sea, Seals are also extremely efficient hunters in packs, Dolphins too. Then we have man. Technology means they have become seriously efficient at dealing with a bait-ball, or, for that matter, a shoal of any size. Only regulation ensures we do not now empty the sea.
All this said, salmon are a resilient species, and the bait-ball is not its only defence but that’s an entirely different story.
Having had the honour of opening the river Spey for the 2023 season, a season of poor marine survival across the North Atlantic, leaves me extremely glad to see the end of it. Will it stop me fishing in 2024? Definitely not, as I trust my experience and history tells me it will be a whole lot better.
A final word on this season is for my good old friend, Allan Sinclair [Sinky] whom we lost on the 7th October. Allan will be remembered by so many anglers as the smiling piper who stood on the bridge at Aberlour on the 11th February each year and piped the river open. One of life's great guys who, with his wife and girls, loved the River Spey and Salmon fishing. I will remember him fondly for his rendition of the lovely tune - Music of the Spey, which he played so perfectly each year on the bridge.