With guaranteed fish, Iceland and Norway are hugely popular sea angling destinations, and right about now droves of anglers from all over Europe will be organising their tackle in anticipation of fantastic summer cod action in particular. To tickle your fishing taste-buds, Steve Souter reveals what can be expected in the West Fjords region of Iceland.
Flying for me is something to be endured rather than enjoyed… a necessary evil that’s only good when it’s over. Big planes make me nervous, while small ones are the stuff of aero-phobic nightmares. Imagine then, the look on my face and the glee on those of my two twisted fishing companions as we faced the horrible little twin propeller puddle-jumper that was to whisk us from the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik to the landing strip at Isafjordur near to our base at Sudavik.
We would be fishing the cod-stuffed West Fjords, which are irregularly spaced between a series of clawing peninsulas and cut deep inland. Sudavik is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, one-horse-town, chosen not least because it would potentially give us access to no less than 13 separate fjords branching from the Isafjardardjup channel, which is the main tract of water going approximately 12 miles broad at the mouth to the North Atlantic Ocean, by some 37 miles long.
Economically sustainable fishing is at the root of everything here, and small pockets of civilisation flourish around this core industry. Modest-sized, but very modern long-line boats and fish processing factories provide almost all of the employment. Despite being acknowledged as Iceland’s most sparsely populated region, the West Fjords are also recognised as one of the most financially prosperous. The road infrastructure is excellent, but a downside, given the mountainous nature of the place, is the ever-present risk of being squashed by a rock-fall! Giant boulders the size of double-decker buses litter the roadside as a constant reminder of the very real dangers.
Stuart Cresswell, Les McBride and I had travelled over at the invitation of Steve Mason who operates ‘Icelandic Fishing Adventures’. Steve and his business partner Peter Thain are based in Iceland full-time, and run guided fishing holidays of a quality and standard that just can’t be compared to anything back in the UK. Shore expeditions form the bulk of Steve’s business, but endless enquiries and obvious growing interest in Iceland’s fabulous boat fishing has seen the company moving to meet the more specific needs of travelling boat anglers too.
I expected late October in the north west of Iceland to be absolutely perishing, but was pleasantly surprised to find temperatures no worse than back home. Our self-catering villa overlooked the pontoon, which was only a two-minute stroll away. Roomy and immaculate, the accommodation included a drying room for tackle and wet gear, and a large chest freezer that Steve had duly filled with the local long-liners’ bait of choice – Saury, or Bluey as it is known in the UK.
If granted one additional wish that didn’t involve big cod or halibut, then access to SKY SPORTS, or maybe a DVD player would have been very welcome indeed. I say this because a couple of nights spent staring blankly at the solitary television channel, which only ever showed events in the Icelandic parliament, gave watching paint dry real appeal!
We had the pick of a superb mini fleet of locally built Somi 6.94 metre self-drive boats that very comfortably fish four. Fitted with a 130 hp Volvo Penta inboard engine and a 230 litre diesel tank, the Icelandic built Somi’s are solid, seaworthy boats that can trek along at a steady 16 knots or more when fully laden in decent sea conditions. All boats are equipped with plotter/fish finder, radio and compass. Lifejackets, first aid box and fire extinguishers are stowed in the fully enclosed cabin area, while self-inflating life rafts are fitted to the stern of all the Sudavik based Somis. Safety is taken very seriously indeed in Iceland, as such the coastguard must be informed when boats put to sea, and on their subsequent return to port. All boats are fitted with a GPS positional transmitter that relays the boat’s exact position to the coastguard, who stringently monitor all boat movements and know exactly where you are at any given time.
Cod fishing, but not as we know it
We were about to discover that our cod fishing is one thing, but Iceland’s codding is on a different planet. Imagine the easiest mackerel fishing you have ever encountered, and then imagine those suicidal mackerel as cod! For five solid days this is exactly the sort of fishing we encountered mere yards from the end of the pontoon, 20 miles out into the Isafjardardjup, and just about everywhere in between. None of us have ever experienced cod fishing like it.
While the suggestion might be that Iceland is more about a sheer volume of fish rather than enormous specimens, a look at long-line landings confirmed there are indeed some giants to be caught. The wonderful problem lies in getting through the masses of smaller cod that are simply wall-to-wall in these waters. I took a day out to a nose around nearby Isafjordur harbour, and saw several 30 lb plus cod, impressive numbers of catfish, large halibut and stacks of big plaice landed.
Pirks, shads, traditional Norwegian eels, muppets and Red Gills all murdered fish. To begin with, all three of us opted to fish pirks with fliers tied in heavy mono above. If you fished one additional hook above the pirk, you generally caught two fish a drop. And if you fished a string of three hooks above, more often than not, you clobbered four fish at a time. Speed jigs rigged with a large treble on the bottom and a single assist hook at the top regularly top-and-tailed two good cod at a time.
Cod seemed to fall into distinct weight bands. A very general picture would be a gazillion fish between 3 and 5 lb, particularly in the shallower waters; loads of 5 – 8 pounders across the board; good numbers of cod from 8 lb to low double figures; and odd bigger ones. Because the area is not well known or heavily fished it’s difficult to build an accurate picture of how the fishing might shape up at different times of the year. German anglers have however been enjoying the tremendous cod fishing out from Sudavik for many years, and their exploits are documented in various guest journals at the accommodation. Entries clearly recount regular 30 and 40 lb early season cod, namely May and June. This would suggest that similar to what we know of Norway, the bigger cod move into the area at that time to spawn. Conversations with the local commercials confirmed this, and also identified late spring/early summer as a good time for large halibut.
Ringing the changes
Les switched to an enormous shad fished on 8 ft of mono off a French boom. This change brought good numbers of double figure cod despite relentless pecking from eager smaller ones that failed to find the big hook in 9 inches of wobbly rubber. This is not an area renowned for big coalfish but we could catch small ones in the shallower water, which, with a bit of effort, were kept alive hopefully to tempt big fish. Stuart eventually got his big fish head on and started fishing a small live coalfish mounted on twin 8/0 trebles on the end of his pirk. This worked well from the word go, but as yet we had no 20 pounders to speak of. I tried fishing a basic two hook paternoster rig crudely baited with chunks of bluey, and caught cod and haddock non-stop.
Towards the end of the second day we spotted some furious sea bird activity about a mile distant. Gunning the boat, Stuart motored over to investigate. The sounder revealed a solid green mass of fish from top to bottom in the water column. We assumed these to be coalies and sent our pirks down in the hope of finding some better cod below.
The tackle never got anywhere near the bottom as good cod hammered into every available hook. Double figure cod came up on all rods… it wasn’t coalies under the boat! With the speed of the drift, we would lose the birds and the big fish in a matter of a few minutes. Motoring up into the midst of the bird madness would instantly put us back among the bigger cod.
The 300g green/silver Lead Knife I had a liking for was sent back down towing a couple of red Gummi-makk fliers above. As expected fish slammed into the lures a little over halfway down, bowing the rod right over and dragging line clear of the reel. I allowed the drag to surrender line on demand, and held on knowing this to be more than one fish and the most weight I‘d attached to so far.
The fast drift had carried the boat a long way from the bird activity as I struggled to draw the fish to the boat. Stuart grabbed the gaff as what can only be described as a lump of fish topped. What surfaced was a 10 lb cod on the top, an 8 lb fish on the middle hook and a proper Lulu of 24 lb on the jig!
Not to be outdone Stuart later followed with a 20 lb cod of his own on the coalfish baited pirk rig. I tried and failed to catch a halibut every day. I persevered with a large elongated pirk that I’d purposely fashioned for ‘buts… and caught cod. Then I tried a whole bluey… and caught cod. Next, I turned to Stuart’s Norway wonder method of dangling a live coalfish… and caught cod. And as a last resort I even tried live baiting with a cod… and still caught bloody cod!
The most productive cod depths swung between 30 and 60 metres. Venturing into much deeper water turned up a few small redfish. Haddock were thick on the ground in some areas, and strings of lures were all that was needed to fill up on prime eating fish. Needless to say we ate a lot of haddock that week.
Thar she blows!
The only way to truly appreciate the enormity and elemental magnificence of this northern wilderness is to drink it in with your own eyes. With steep-sided snow-capped mountains, deep glacier-cut fjords and bird life galore, words like ‘wild’ and ‘spectacular’ don’t come close to justifying the incredible scenery on all sides. It was during one of these more contemplative moments that several thousand pounds worth of camera nearly ended up in the drink.
The noise of spouting water being blown skywards drew our attention to the incredible spectacle of a pod of killer whales. Les was driving the Somi, and like two goggle-eyed children, Cresswell and I yelled at him to take the boat towards as many as six animals topping roughly 100 metres off the starboard side. We didn’t get too close, and I shot just a couple of pictures before the whales vanished from sight.
On my knees, camera braced against the side of the boat, I held my breath and waited for the Orcas to show again. Just when I thought they had gone for good, an enormous beast burst through the surface no more than 5 metres from the side of the boat! Cresswell howled like a big girl, while I flew backwards in fright, missing the shot of a lifetime, and only just hanging on to the camera as it tried to vault over the side. Words to the effect of “Get us the hell out of here!” simultaneously erupted from both of us, and a panicked Les duly obliged. Both frightening and fantastic, it is part of an Icelandic experience that none of us will ever forget.
If there is any negative at all to emerge from this fantastic trip, then it’s the understanding of how truly awful home cod fishing is. And worse than that, the realisation of what might have been had a short-sighted and long dead British government not cheaply surrendered home rights to our own once excellent cod waters.
You can’t rely on buying sea tackle in Iceland. What there is tends to be extortionate. You don’t need or want loads of heavy pirks and fancy end-tackle. The ground is more or less snag-free, and you do not lose much. All three of us took far too much gear on this trip.
Pirks in the 150 – 500g range, depending on the depth, are integral to the simple cod fishing. I lost one pirk for the whole trip and cannot see any need to carry more than 8 or 10 pirks. Colours did not make any difference as fish nailed anything dangled in front of them. Fast-drop pirks and speed jigs hit fish in the blink of an eye. The slow sinking three-sided Norwegian Jigger was arguably the poorest pirk in the bag.
Some large shads, Red Gills and Gummi-makks are always useful and don’t take up space or add much weight. A minimal selection of strong hooks, swivels, booms, a couple of large lead-heads and some heavy trace line, all of which will fit in a rig wallet, completes the filler tackle.
A 20/30 lb class travel rod covered me for the whole week, but a 30/50 lb rod was carried to perhaps cope with bigger fish and deeper water situations. Reel-wise, I used a Daiwa Saltist STT30TH and STT40 both filled with 30lb braid. If you are serious about halibut then it is worth knowing that there are fish to more than 400 lb swimming in these waters. To that end it makes sense to pack some proper halibut kit in the shape of a 50/80 lb class rod, large reel fully spooled with 80 lb braid, a butt pad and harness. Large porbeagle sharks are also known to patrol these waters in good numbers.
Getting to Iceland is easy and takes just over an hour from Glasgow. Icelandair fly to Keflavik/Reykjavik from London Heathrow, Manchester, Glasgow and airports in Ireland. A typical week-long self-drive boat angling package, including flights and accommodation, prices at around £750 per person based on a group of four people.