About the same time North American waterfowl leave their Alaskan and Canadian breeding grounds to head south for winter, an annual migration from Greenland and Iceland brings hundreds of thousands of waterfowl across the North Atlantic to Europe.
In September and October, many of these ducks and geese use Iceland as a major staging area before the long crossing.
Iceland is to Europe what Canada is to the United States in terms of waterfowl production. Among the breeding ducks are mallards, greater scaup, tufted ducks, black scoters, long-tailed ducks, Eurasian wigeon, Barrow’s goldeneye and harlequin. Only Barrow’s goldeneyes and harlequin ducks migrate west to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Graylag and pink-footed geese nest in Iceland, while black brant, white-fronted geese and barnacle geese stop during migration.
Europeans have enjoyed hunting waterfowl in Iceland for decades, but Americans have only recently discovered it. Trips begin and end in the capital of Reykjavik, a bustling city with 90,000 people, brightly colored houses, attractive shops and excellent restaurants. From there, it’s a several-hour drive by vehicle or a short domestic flight to the hunting areas.
Our hunt took place during the first days of October, at the peak of the migration. Early the first morning, we headed to the barley fields, set out six-dozen shell decoys and then settled into the pits and waited for the action to begin. As the predawn darkness gave way to a gray sky, we heard geese before we could see them. Soon a distant flock of birds materialized on the horizon.
Our guide, Helgi, imitated the birds on his call as they approached. I peeked over the top of the pit to see a dozen geese committed to our setup. When Helgi said, "Now," we stood up, each of us picking the nearest goose. My hunting buddy, Vince Bruccolieri, and I each killed a bird. Helgi bagged a bird with his opening volley, then a second as the flock scrambled for altitude.
Almost instantly, Helgi was out of the pit and headed for the nearest goose. Just as he gathered up the last of the four birds, Bruccolieri yelled, "Another flock heading in!" Helgi sprinted back, tossed the birds next to the pit and jumped in like an infantryman diving for cover. Captivated by the decoys, the geese banked wide and sailed in. Helgi shot a bird and I gathered a second.
After the early morning volley, we settled into a classic field goose hunt, one that a waterfowler might experience in the wheat fields of Saskatchewan or the rice fields of Texas. However, we had traveled more than 5,000 miles and instead of our North American geese, we were here to pursue graylag and pink-footed geese. The action continued, and we finished the morning with 24 graylags.
There are two nesting and three migrant species of geese in Iceland. Graylags nest in the low-lying areas, while pink-footed geese inhabit the central highlands. Graylags are a large, bulky goose with a heavy head, orange bill and pink feet. Large males can weigh up to 8 pounds. Pink-footed geese, by comparison, are smaller, slender birds with dark bills and pink feet about the size of our white-fronted geese. Pinkfoots tip the scales at 5 to 6 pounds. Both species winter in the United Kingdom, with graylags widespread, while most pink-footed geese are found in Scotland and northern England.
White-fronted geese are rare fall visitors, but are fairly common in the spring en route to their breeding grounds in Greenland. Iceland also is a staging area for barnacle geese and black brant that breed in Greenland and winter in the British Isles, Denmark and the Netherlands.
We hunted mostly graylags, as virtually all the pink-footed geese had already moved out of the area by the time we arrived. The graylags responded well to calling, and they sounded similar to a Canada goose. They also behaved much like Canada geese, moving in small to medium flocks. They were heavily tied to the barley fields to build energy reserves for Atlantic Ocean crossing. Graylags are the European counterpart of our Canada geese, and fill the same ecological niche. While we saw only a few pinkfoots, they behave more like whitefronts. I only heard them once, and while they did not sound the same as whitefronts, their call was high-pitched and included double and triple notes.
While there are some visiting hunters, most shooting is by Icelanders who hunt for both sport and the market. Iceland is one of the few countries in the world where market hunting is still legal. The going price is about $11 per goose, less for ducks. This activity has been going on for decades, without any apparent harm to the waterfowl population. Luckily, the harvest is small, the number of hunters is low and the birds are present for only a few weeks in any given area.
Despite the fact that commercial hunting takes place and there are no bag limits, Iceland has a waterfowl season: It runs Aug. 20 to March 20. The outfitter for our trip, Lax-á, offers waterfowl hunts from Aug. 20 to Nov. 1.
Wingshooting in Iceland takes a back seat to general tourism and fishing. However, for the waterfowl hunter with a sense of adventure and curiosity, Iceland offers a unique experience that can be matched in only a few other locations in the world.
Gary Kramer is the author of Wingshooting the World, a 300-page coffee table book that includes 625 color photos. To order postpaid, author-signed copies, send $91.95 to Gary Kramer, P.O. Box 903, Willows, CA 95988.