Return of the Danish Atlantic Salmon

Despite having been totally wiped out, Danish Atlantic salmon are now making their way back up their native rivers!

Denmark is a small and flat lowland country bordered on all sides by the sea. While the surrounding sea is by no means the ocean (being very shallow with depths seldom exceeding 20 metres), its coastal waters are extremely productive when it comes to food for fishes. The often brackish water abounds in shrimps and forage fish which provide the basis for the very fast growth of native Danish sea trout.


Despite its tiny size, Denmark today produces the world’s largest sea run brown trout. In 1991 a new record sea trout weighing a whopping 16.7 kilos (36 lbs. plus!) was caught in Jutland’s River Karup! That is today. Earlier on Danish rivers also produced some of the world’s largest Atlantic salmon with specimens of up to 32 kilos (71 lbs. plus!) being recorded in historic papers.

If the above sounds like something close to Paradise, please let me correct you. Being a flat lowland (its highest point in fact only 173 metres above the sea), Denmark has a tradition for farming going back several hundred years. And mind you, Danish farmers areextremely good at what they are doing. In fact they are so efficient, that today they pose by far the greatest threat to the Danish environment.

Artificial fertilizers and pesticides are slowly leaking into our treasured clean ground water, thus polluting it and creating the need for very expensive cleaning procedures. As a matter of fact it has been calculated that, all in all, Danish farmers – despite agricultural export of almost gigantic proportions – are a financial burden to the Danish society! Basically due to the environmental harm that they do.

Though Danish rivers today look very little like they did in them good old days – before the turn of the century – they still provide anglers with great opportunities to catch large sea trout, stationary brown trout, rainbows (escapees from the abundant fish farms in both river and sea) and (in some rivers) European grayling. Now again, they also boast salmon fishing of good quality.

Originally, all Danish rivers meandered their way through forest clad landscapes. Not so any more. Today most forests have been cut down giving way to extensive grain fields, and most meandering rivers have been channelized to provide farmers with an efficient way of getting rid of drain water from the fields.

Most of the harm was done beginning in 1864 after the Danish-German war and escallating up through the first half of this century. The primary purpose was to reclaim new land for farming.

Today, the Danish government is very much aware that the times they are achanging, and that rivers should be left to meander as they once did. Projects are now being undertaken to put the bends back in some of the major rivers!

Despite all of this hardship, Denmark keeps on providing the world’s largest sea run brown trout. Each year a number of fish exceeding 10 kilos (22 lbs.) are caught. Most of these giants are caught in the rivers of Jutland (the continental part of Denmark where all the major river systems are located, the rest of the country being islands of smaller size).

But today’s saltwater boat fishermen, using downriggers and sophisticated electronic equipment, now catch an increasing share of the really big ones. Thus the new Danish sportfishing record, a fish of 15,15 kilos (33 lbs. plus) caught only last year, in 1992, was taken by trolling in the sea. The previous record, a fish of 14.4 kilos (31 lbs. plus) was caught spinning in the River Karup way back in 1939. The current Danish record sea trout on fly weighed 13,85 kilos (30 lbs. plus) and was caught in the River Gels in 1985.

Originally, a number of Danish west coast rivers also had an excellent stock of Atlantic salmon running very big indeed. Thus the Danish sportfishing record was a magnificent mint bright salmon weighing no less than 26,5 kilos (almost 60 lbs.) caught spinning in the River Skjern in 1956. Unfortunately most Danish stocks have been totally wiped out since then (again due primarily to the requirements of the farming industry) so that today we have only one natural stock left – that of the River Skjern.

But increasing efforts are now being made to restore the once magnificent runs of huge Atlantic salmon in the nine major river systems of Jutland. And just this spring we experienced a number of fresh run salmon in the 20-25 lbs. class being caught as a result of these efforts.

Two salmon restoration projects deserve special mentioning, namely that of the eastward bound River Guden and that of the westward bound River Skjern.


The River Guden

The River Guden (though short by American standards, being only 150 km long) is the longest Danish river system. It has been calculated that way back in time, before the beginning of deforestation and dam building in the 12th century, some 100.000 adult salmon ascended this widely branched river system each year to spawn! A number which ranks the River Guden high among the most productive European rivers.

The original Atlantic salmon stock of the River Guden was totally wiped out in 1920 by the building of Tange-værket – a local hydroelectric power station of fairly small scale but of enormous environmental impact. A fish ladder was built but was never functional since its flow was ridiculously low. A new ladder was built in 1980 but never got enough water to work either. The major effect of Tange-værket though, was and still is the elimination of the most important spawning grounds of the River Guden salmon. These spawning grounds now lie buried under mud and several feet of water in the resulting 10 km long Lake Tange…

After a lot of debate, massive restoration efforts have been undertaken. Extensive restocking programmes were begun in 1989 – with impressive results: Last year, in 1992, an estimated 5.000 mature salmon returned to this once very prolific lowland salmon river! This season has seen just as many salmon return to their new river, the two biggest weighing in at impressive 12 and 14,8 kilos – 26 and 33 lbs. respectively! A yearly release of up to 250.000 smolts is planned.

But so far the result is but a large scale Put & Take fishery based on a massive release of artificially reared salmon smolts. Some of the Danish environmental groups frown upon this saying that the salmon restoration programme has been undertaken solely with anglers in mind. And that the new salmon should be allowed to spawn and thus reproduce naturally. They certainly have a point there!

Unfortunately, this is not possible with Tange-værket still being in business supplying the local community with electricity. If the newly established Atlantic salmon of the River Guden is ever to become selfreproducing, Lake Tange has to vanish from the map leaving the important spawning grounds open to ascending salmon.

Of course this is a matter of great political interest. Local citizens are fond of the lake and use it for recreational purposes. They are willing to fight for its continued existence. On the other hand, in 1982 the Danish government signed the socalled “Bern Convention” thereby committing itself to the re-introduction of extinct species such as the Atlantic salmon in the 8 major Danish river systems from which it has vanished. And to do that, the lake simply has to be removed. Biologists from the Ministry of Fisheries state that very clearly.

At this moment, a political dog fight is going on in the DanishFolketinget – a battle versus opponents and supporters of the CO2-free hydroelectric power in this country. To quote the title of the latest Deep Purple CD: “The battle rages on”!

In the meantime, the returning Atlantic salmon stack up under the turbines of Tange-værket. – desperately looking for a place to spawn…

The River Skjern

In the western part of Jutland, along the banks of the largest and most famous Danish salmon river of them all, the River Skjern, another battle rages on. Here there are no hydroelectric power stations to fight. Instead the River Skjern has suffered tremendously from the last large scale land reclamation project carried out in Denmark. It was undertaken as late as in the early 1960’s.

This project transformed about 4.000 hectares of wetland into productive agricultural land. It also cut out all of the natural bends in the river making for a very fast run-off in spring and autumn where heavy rainfalls occur. Unfortunately, the lowering of the ground water exposed layers of soil containing iron-sulphur compounds. These compounds were then washed out by the rain – as sulphuric acid – and ended up in the river as ochre deposits doing irreversible harm to the environment. Fish and insect life were laid waste, adding to the already detrimental effect of the channelization alone.

All of this left the native River Skjern salmon with but one local spawning site – the lowermost 500 metres of a small tributary stream called the River Karstoft. Finally – in the 1980’s – it was realized that the only remaining Danish stock of Atlantic salmon was at the very edge of extinction. Projects were undertaken – funded first by local anglers and later supported by provincial administration – to secure the remaining spawning grounds. But it was not until this year, in 1993, that a masterplan to save this valuable stock of Atlantic salmon and to restock the other 8 rivers was decided upon by government authorities.

Long before that the Danish Folketinget decided to put back the bends in the River Skjern. – Out of sheer love for the environment? Definitely not! The decision was taken to hold back a substantial part of the enormous load of nutrients being carried into the local fiord where it did and still does great damage to the natural environment. Eutrofication on a very large scale.

In 1989 – after massive fish kills in the sea – Folketinget decided on a masterplan to save the seas surrounding Denmark from oxygen deficit and subsequent fish kills. Part of this plan was to cut down on the nutrient load from the River Skjern which drains an area close to one tenth of Denmark. An area infested with polluting fish farms and intensive agricultural activity. By putting the bends back in the river and thus holding back the water for some time, the original lowland areas along the River Skjern will again be flooded each spring and autumn. During these floods huge amounts of nutrients will again be deposited on the fields instead of being carried all the way into the sea.

So far about 40 billion Danish crowns have been spent buying the land necessary for this huge project. The EEC has supported the project by sponsoring 15 billion Danish crowns – a fact very much appreciated by even the fiercest opponents of the EEC! Of which there are quite a few here in Denmark…

The River Skjern restoration project is to be carried out in two years time. In the meantime, Danish salmon anglers and environmentalists in general await in great anticipation! This project will be a milestone in Danish environmental history. If it works out the way it is intended, similar projects will see the light on other major river systems in Denmark – to the benefit of the Atlantic salmon we all love so much.

As both a fisheries biologist and keen pursuer of the Atlantic salmon with fly rod in hand, I am again daring to tell my foreign colleagues that, in fact, I am Danish! So far I have not been very proud to be one of those marauding Vikings plundering the threatened salmon stocks of other countries on the high seas…

In this respect I am indebted to friend and fellow fisherman Orri Vigfusson from Iceland, who has carried out a substantial part of the negotiations leading to first the Faroe and then the Greenland salmon fishing buy-out. With these deals in mind, salmon in great numbers should again be running the once very prolific Danish rivers – to spawn succesfully and to please environmentally oriented salmon anglers!

Travel information

Whether you are a business man passing by or simply a tourist, your port of entrance to the Scandinavian countries will be Kastrup airport just outside of Copenhagen. This is where most international flights leave and land.

From there it is easy to proceed to the other Scandinavian capital cities – and even easier to depart for other cities in Denmark. Domestic flights will take you to Jutland (where all the major salmon and trout rivers are located) in less than half an hour.

Connecting flights can easily be booked from abroad as they are all closely linked with SAS, Scandinavian Airlines System. Count on paying US$100-180 for your domestic round trip ticket.

If you would like additional information on when to go where and how to book the best fishing, feel free to contact me on the numbers and address below:

Phone int. + 45 23 32 89 88 or e-mail:

Serious inquiries only.

Steen Ulnits



Sadly, the above was written in 1993. Today, in 1998, nothing has been changed. Farm country has been bought up for the project, yes. But no other action has taken place.

It seems that the local farmers once again want more. Now, more than ten years after the unanimous decision to put the bends back in the River Skjern, it is again debated whether it should be done – or not…

Fortunately, the River Guden still receives some 5.000 mature salmon each year – 1.000 of them being caught by visiting anglers in the river.