Last summer I was unexpectedly invited to fish for a week on a prestigious salmon river in Iceland. A friend had paid for the trip in advance, but an unusual business opportunity made it impossible for him to go and he asked if I would replace him. Free. I packed my gear, and roughly 18 hours after his call I was 30,000 feet over the North Atlantic headed for Reykjavik with four other men in a private jet belonging to one of them, an airplane that costs more to operate for one hour than the average American makes in a month.
My four companions had two things in common: they were wealthy and they were avid sportsmen who hunted and fished all over the world. None of them was optimistic about the future of Atlantic salmon fishing. Salmon spend most of their lives at sea, and historically they were harvested only when they returned from the ocean to spawn. Then, in the late 1950s, schools of salmon were discovered feeding off the southwest coast of Greenland. Since the fish were in international waters, they were vulnerable to the fishing fleets of all nations. Trawlers equipped with sonar and drift nets caught a large number of salmon year-round before restrictions were instituted by an international commission.
Several countries also took steps to protect salmon. During the last decade the Norwegian government has encouraged the establishment of domestic salmon "farms." In 1979 they produced 5,000 metric tons of hatchery-raised salmon for the restaurant trade. Britain carefully regulates its sport and commercial harvests and supports the restocking of hatchery-bred salmon in its rivers. Some Canadian provinces have temporarily banned commercial fishing for salmon and have subsidized commercial fishermen. Yet, despite these measures, the number of fish is declining. The man who owned the jet I was riding in—let's call him John—referred to Atlantic salmon as an endangered species, although the Environmental Protection Agency has not so labeled it. But John had been involved in various save-the-Atlantic-salmon efforts. He despised commercial fishermen and poachers who illegally take salmon from rivers. Commercial fishermen, John implied, would net salmon until there were none left to kill; and the day when there would be no salmon in the Atlantic Ocean was fast approaching. John was quick with figures to support his arguments. He spoke with conviction.
When smoked salmon was served as an appetizer for lunch. I couldn't believe it. John explained that the fish on our plates was from a 22-pound salmon he had taken two weeks earlier from Canada's Restigouche River. I nearly choked. I had never heard such castigation of river-fishing for salmon as I had in the last hour; yet here was John, a self-proclaimed conservationist, boasting of killing a creature that 10 minutes before he had identified as an endangered species. I wasn't surprised that John had caught the fish, but considering that this fish had evaded the "evil" trawlers in the Greenland Straits, cir cumvented the "cruel" gill nets at the mouth of the Restigouche, eluded the "foul" poachers who use dynamite, pitchforks and poison—a fish capable of transferring its wily genes to thousands of progeny—I sure was surprised that he would kill it.
Fly-fishing as it is practiced today need not be a blood sport. Fish will survive being caught on a hook if you handle them carefully and let them go. I told John that I had assumed from listening to him that an endangered species like a salmon would deserve being returned to the river alive. John's answer to this was a question.
"Well," he said, "don't you like to eat it?"
"Salmon is delicious," I answered, "but why don't you eat the fish that are caught commercially and allow the ones that make it up the rivers to spawn?"
"That would be pretty expensive," John said, winking shrewdly, "sort of like throwing away $100 bills." Meanwhile, the engines of John's jet were burning fuel at the rate of a dollar every five seconds.
When we arrived at the lodge we learned that the river was low because of a lack of rain, and the few salmon that were in the river were concentrated in two pools. The river was divided into five beats, one for each of us, and we drew slips of paper from a hat for our assignments. The drill was to fish each beat for half a day. then move upstream. This rotation ensured each of us equal time on the best water.
Only three salmon had been taken all season in the first pool I drew, but I fished hard all morning, casting, mending the line, casting again. While my gillie slept on the bank, I hiked downstream until, in a narrow side channel, I saw a salmon roll and caught it. This was my first Atlantic salmon, and catching it had provided more pleasure than I had ever derived from eating anything. After admiring the fish on the bank, I removed the fly from its jaw and returned it to the river alive. Then I woke my gillie, and we returned to the lodge.