Today, when people talk about fishing wild salmon, they’re talking about fly fishing: standing in the river, flicking your line over the water, hoping the salmon will take the bait. It often involves catch-and-release, which is all well and good but it’s not the same thing as harvesting the resources of the land. It’s a sport. Net-fishing, however, is an old technique: the farmers way of fishing.
In Iceland, traditional net-fishing is dying out. It has been banned from most of our rivers because land-owners find more profit in renting their rivers to sport-fishermen. Even though a net may take in more fish per haul, many rivers still suffer from overfishing at the hands of the sport-fishing business; leaving their salmon populations meagre and struggling. Salmon populations are also affected by hydroelectric-dams, which make it harder for the salmon to move through river systems when they travel upstream to lay their eggs. Furthermore, the salmon farming industry—which breeds imported salmon spawn in closed pens—poses a great threat to the domestic Icelandic salmon breed. Entire schools of fish are prone to escape and blend with the wild Icelandic salmon. Naturally, opinions differ. Even though I tend to my nets daily, I can’t pretend to be an expert in these matters. However, I will say that I think nature should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to such matters. Her ecosystems should not be placed in undue risk.
Þjórsá is one of the few remaining rivers in Iceland where net-fishing is still practiced. Of the over 400 places where farmers once tended to their nets, only 18 remain. I would not be surprised if Traustholtshólmi will eventually become the last place in Iceland where this traditional method of fishing is still practiced. Sport-fishing is on the rise. It won’t be long until the farmers have to give up their nets.
Þjórsá is also the longest river in Iceland and it forms the country’s largest water system. You’ve heard about how goldfish grow according to the size of their tank? Well, Þjórsá is a big river, and so is its salmon population. The biggest salmons in Iceland—possibly in Northern-Europe—come from Þjórsá. Net-fishing is a sustainable way of harvesting the salmon, and it has been closely monitored by ecologists for decades.
Today, most nets are made from nylon fiber. Their bottom lines are weighted down with lead to keep the net stable, and their top lines are threaded with floats that bob on the current. You need to find a place in the water where the upstream and downstream currents swell together, forming an eddy. Set on the border of two such streams, the net will stay open and your trap is set. The salmon uses upstream currents to preserve strength while travelling upriver, and will find itself caught in your net.
It’s best to leave your net in the water all day long, checking on it two or three times a day to haul in your catch. Ideally, you want to have at least two nets of the same size and shape for your spot. Nets sift dirt and debris out of the water and they can tear easily. They have to be cleaned regularly and checked for any holes that need to be patched and mended.