Fly Fishing in the Island of Fire and Ice

Fred Fraikor & Judy Jones-Fraikor

 “There are no mosquitoes in Iceland” explained our guide Heimir Bjarnason, just as I was pulling my Alaskan hood over my head. “There are no ants, no grasshoppers, no dragonflies, and no damsel flies” he continued. “Well, there go our terrestrial patterns” joked my wife Judy, pointing to the fly boxes on our lanyards. 

“We have a few caddis and mayflies but mainly there are midges…..millions, billions, of midges, sometimes so thick you can’t help but eat them” replied Heimer opening his fly box to rows of size 20 black bodied midge patterns. They might have had Icelandic names but the small bead head flies were no different than midge patterns we use back in Colorado.

It was August and we were standing on the bank of the River Holaa at the outlet of Lake Laugarvatn looking down into the crystal clear water as it rippled out of the small lake. You could see Arctic char darting sideways between seams of green aquatic weeds to grab morsels swept out of the lake. Heimer put a split shot above two midge patterns on the tippet and stuck a red indicator above the nymph system. The fishing procedure was a familiar one….- cast slightly upstream, mend, drift and watch the indicator.

Now I’m guilty of reacting slowly to subtle movements of indicators but on the second drift downstream the red thingie sank like a cannonball, my fly line straightened like a stretched rubber band and half of the seven pieces on my 6 wt. travel rod bent while Heimir cautioned me to let it run.  A minute later he deftly netted the 18 inch char, grayish with light yellow spots, orange belly and white border on the fins. No sooner did we release it then Heimir had to dash downstream to Judy who had hooked into a fighting char, the first of a dozen or so. We did see larger char; over 25 inches feeding near the outlet but couldn’t entice them into a hookup as the afternoon faded into evening.

Back at his SUV, Heimir noted that the island had just been through of what was considered a severe drought for weeks before and that some of the headwaters of these rivers had completely dried affecting the migration of the native Atlantic salmon and sea run trout and char. We replied we would be adhering to catch and release anyway on all of our fishing as we finished up a wonderful day on the River Holaa.

But it was only the first of three days of fishing I had arranged with Heimir’s guide company, GOFISHING Iceland. Judy had set up an additional Road Scholar tour of the island for the following twelve days to learn more of the Island’s history, culture and geology so we were in no hurry.

The second day we had a young college student, Chris, drive us to the River Varma which we learned means “warm water” in Icelandic because it blends with geothermal flows. (99% of Iceland’s power is generated by hydro and geothermal plants).

Chris drove us to a small bridge with a little dam beneath it and pointed to a pod of sea run brown trout visible down in the whirlpool below at one edge. He positioned Judy on one side of the clockwise flow and me on the other side with two small midge nymph patterns. Luck was on my side with a couple of browns facing the back flow of the pool grabbing my nymphs and immediately diving for the white froth and deep water. Those two broke off the tippet but I was able the keep the next two in shallow water around my feet. These were light colored 15 to 20 inch browns perhaps wisely keeping away from the larger monsters on the other side. Those fish refused everything Chris and Judy tried and appeared not to be interested in feeding, maybe just resting for another assault on the dam. After a couple ofhours we moved downstream into riffles and runs but in spite of a few visible rises none seem interested so we drove on surrounded by scenic farms and ranches to the next section of the Varma.

The second stop in the geothermal country town of Hveragerdi included lunch in a lovely picnic garden park overlooking the river. As we walked past the ruins of an old woolen mill down to a delightful waterfall Chris suddenly yelled “Salmon” just as one jumped three feet up from the pool in a vain attempt to climb that cliff of water. Wow! But our guide quickly popped our excitement balloon explaining that this wasn’t a massive migration, perhaps an isolated fish or two trapped by the extremely low water flow and our chances of hooking one were slim. But he knew we were bound to try, so off came the midge patterns replaced by pink and yellow tube streamers. The routine was same as in Alaska, cast to the base of the waterfall, strip, strip, and cast again. But guides are almost always right. There wasn’t a smashing slam and no salmon landed but you couldn’t ask for a more serene, stunning spot to cast a fly. Chris gave us the Nordic equivalent of “If at first you don’t succeed… find another spot.”

And what a spot. We drove on to the largest and most historic lake in Iceland, Thingvallavatn. (Say that a few times and you’ll get a feel for the ancient Icelandic language). The world’s first democratic parliament was convened on its banks in 930 AD.  On the way Chris explained the lake was unusual in that there were no inlet rivers or streams into the lake and all the water flowed from seven deep geothermal springs.

As we drove down the road between a steep, dark basalt ravine, we realized we were in the middle of the Atlantic Rift where Iceland is being torn apart an inch a year by the opposing movements of the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate while at the same time being renewed with molten lava from the numerous volcanoes. Chris even pointed out some scuba divers preparing for a popular dive down into a section of the lake to be photographed underwater while touching both walls of a narrow tectonic crack.

By now, the sky had clouded over and a light drizzle meant it was time for some rain gear while casting from a small peninsula on the lake. We could see some rises between the rain drops while the indicator and the nymphs beneath rose with the action of small waves as the wind came up. When the strike came it was a gentle multiple nibble that ended with a flash of orange and gold a minute later as Chris stretched to put the fish into his net. Wetting his hand and pointing to the snub nose on the fish he said it was “a snail eating variety of char”, one of four distinct variations of char found only in this unique lake. ( I later found a research article on the web  that explained that over 10,000 years after the last ice age, Lake Thingvallavatn was isolated and developed four unusual morphs of Salvelinus alpinus: a dwarf benthic (DB), large benthic,(LB), planktivorous (PL) and piscivorous.(PI). Mine turned out to be the large benthic (bottom feeder).

No sooner had Chris released the unique char back into then the sound of thunder came rolling from the distant clouds on the horizon. Chris was clearly startled at the sound and quickly added that thunderstorms were uncommon on the island and he had never seen lightning storms of the type we are so familiar with in the States. While it was a distant rumbling to us where there is thunder there has to be lightning so that brought an end to the day’s fishing on the historic lake. But we vowed to come back someday for more char and especially the huge brown trout known to thrive in the lake.  

By the third day Judy was naming all of the guides “Thor” as we hiked to the River Galtalaekur. Our guide, Art, was every bit the image of a blonde Viking. He pointed out snow-capped Mt. Hekla nearby, a famous active volcano as he led us down an old lava flow gulch to a deep crystal pool at the base of a steep waterfall. Another perfect setting and on the third cast to the edge of the froth a brown trout grabbed the top nymph and bolted for the end of the pool which would have been a disaster as the water there dropped over another precipice carved in the black basalt. But the tippet held and the brown turned back with another dash against the current and right into “Thor’s” ready net. With the 20 inch brown landed, he led Judy down the hill to the second pool below.  She came back up a couple of hours later with gleeful descriptions of landing a dozen browns…and photos to prove it. 

In our short three days we didn’t land a trophy char or huge brown trout or land a big Atlantic salmon. But they are there. The week before Rock Star Eric Clapton landed a 25 lb. salmon in a river in the north portion of the island and Lake Thingvallavatn has regularly produced brown trout in the 12 to 15 lb. range with a few giants reaching 20 to 30 lbs. (You can purchase an Icelandic Fishing Card which enables you to fish in 38 lakes around the island).

But if you are planning a fishing trip to Iceland, it is worthwhile to contact a guide service especially since most of the best streams are private. By Icelandic law, landowners own the water flowing through his or her property and some land owners collectively contract with guide agencies to handle rod fees and regulate beats. In addition Iceland has strict laws to protect their native fish. Waders and boots must be disinfected and certified by a veterinarian from the country of origin or done at customs at arrival for a fee. We were fortunate to have the guide company provide waders and boots for us at no charge. (For details about fishing the streams and lakes in Iceland see the GOFISHING ICELAND web site). 

With a direct flight on Icelandair from major cities in the U.S. to Reykjavik, it’s an adventure waiting for American anglers.  

Copyright F.J. Fraikor Oct.  2016