Iceland 2014 – Part 1 – Huge Trout of Lake Thingvallavatn and Char of the Bruar River…

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This is the first part of our three part series about Ben Hoffman and Tarquin Millington-Drake’s visit to Iceland in June 2014. Click here to read parts two and three.

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Frontiers has had Iceland at its heart since 1972 when we began to advise clients about the incredible Atlantic salmon fishing there. In June, a small team was put together to head to Iceland again to link up with old salmon fishing friends and to explore new and wild trout and char fishing options. The technical equipment was a far cry from that used in 1972, and we were determined to show Iceland in its dramatic, extraordinary and magnificent splendour. We are proud to work with many of Iceland’s top salmon rivers, but as the fishing world fully discovers the magic of Iceland, interest is broadening to the fabulous trout and char fishing, as well as to the non-sporting options – what we call ‘Elegant Journeys’, which for Iceland are perhaps better described as ‘Dramatic Journeys’.

Our team consisted of some veteran Frontiers’ staff in the form of Tarquin Millington-Drake from our UK Office, 21 years with Frontiers and his 25th season in Iceland; Ben Hoffman from our US office, 10 years a specialist in South America fishing; Angus Walton, soon to join our UK office with two Tweed seasons, two Ponoi seasons on Russia’s Kola Peninsula and a New Zealand season under his belt; and to keep the USA/UK balance, Evan McGlinn, friend of Frontiers and journalist for Departures and Forbes magazines among others and professional photographer for the New York Times and Boston Post. Evan has travelled with Frontiers to the Ponoi, New Zealand, Scotland and now Iceland.

In this blog post, we will take you through the first five days of our journey from both Ben’s and Tarquin’s perspectives. And make sure to stay tuned for parts two and three of this amazing trip.

This blog series is written by Ben Hoffman and Tarquin Millington-Drake.

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June 3 and 4: Arrival in the Land of Fire, Ice and Sushi…

Tarquin: It is good to be back. The lack of people, the open roads and the dramatic scenery: one cannot help but breathe in a sense of adventure as the plane lands. Keflavik is the main international airport, built by the USA in a trade for an air force base, and works very well.

Our first stop was the Radisson 1919 to meet up with some of Iceland’s iconic fishing figures. Orri Vigfusson is the father of Atlantic salmon conservation. He is the glue that keeps us all together both sides of the Atlantic. It is he that decided that the netting of salmon on their Greenland and Faroe Island feeding grounds had to stop if the species was to survive. In the early 1990s the North Atlantic Salmon Fund was born to raise funds to pay the Greenlanders and Faroe Islanders to leave their nets on the racks and help them find alternative work. This fund still strives to see that this is done today. It is a fundamental part of Atlantic salmon conservation and has gone on to address netting issues elsewhere in Scotland, Norway, France, Spain etc. To read more visit NASF Worldwide. Jon is one of the leading travel specialists in Iceland and a key man for looking after our clients who want to do more than fish. Jon has looked after many famous visitors to Iceland and can arrange some of the most amazing experiences of anyone’s life. Throstur Ellidasson, known as the nicest guy in the salmon fishing business in Iceland, was also responsible for the creation of the smolt release programmes in the cold water rivers of the East and West Ranga (now run by our friend Karl Karlsson). These rivers now catch thousands of salmon a year and, for catching salmon, are amongst the most reliable in Iceland. Throstur now runs his home river the Breidalsa and has another project, the Jokla, which may turn out to be Iceland’s longest and most productive salmon river in years to come. It was a pleasure getting together with these great friends of Frontiers for a pre-expedition drink.

From drinks with Orri and Co, we moved on to Sushi Samba, Reykjavik’s most exciting Sushi restaurant owned by our friend and keen salmon fisher Nuno Servo. You can enjoy basic sushi and sashimi but Sushi Samba offers a great deal more and we recommend it highly for a more lively evening. There we met two of Iceland’s younger salmon enthusiasts, but they command no less respect. Jon Thor Juliusson and Halli Eriksson operate some of Iceland’s top rivers. The famous Laxa in Kjos, which Frontiers used to lease and operate, and the Grimsa, a favourite among US anglers in the old days with its famous modern-looking lodge designed by Ernie Schwiebert to ensure that guests had darkness in the midnight hours to sleep, and stunning views of the river in the day. Both rivers are an easy drive from Reykjavik. The city, believe it or not, does have two salmon rivers running through it, which produce hundreds of salmon a season, but the Kjos is perhaps Iceland’s closest top ten river, about an hour away from Reykjavik. It is the one river that is a dead cert in terms of being able to fly in and out, and managing to fish on those same days. We put the salmon world to rights long into the night with Orri joining us for coffee.

It was time for bed. We had decided to stay at Halldor and David’s (we’ll come to them later) Backpackers Bed and Breakfast is very comfortable, a little noisy, but breakfast was great and very relaxed. If you have children wanting to visit Iceland, this is an organization they need to be aware of. There is another one in Iceland’s northern city of Akuyreri.

In the morning, we had more meetings and then visited Reykjavik’s two top tackle shops, Veidihornid and Veidifluger. Between these shops, you should be able to buy everything. The former is a Simms and Sage specialist, the latter is a Loop, Guideline and Patagonia specialist. You can pre-order flies from either and they will be waiting at your hotel.

These were our last visits before heading out of town. We were not due to return to Reykjavik for 16 days. Our car was a grey Mitsubishi Pajero, registration KB E94, adopted as the name for our expedition.

We drove due east from Reykjavik to link up with one of our trout fishing partners in Iceland, Kristjan Rafnsson. He was due to meet us at the Summer House, which was to be our home for the next few days. Many Icelanders have weekend cottages, very like the small wooden Norwegian cabins. They drive out of Reykjavik on the weekends to get away from town and enjoy the countryside, the scenery and relax. They are very relaxing places especially in the almost de rigueur hot tub which is operational all year round. We were delighted with our new home and Kristjan was there waiting to take us to the iconic Lake Thingvallavatn, the home of perhaps the largest brown trout in the world. Best fish for 2014 that we know of for sure is 30 lbs, caught on a small nymph.

It seems that these fish were originally sea trout trapped in the lake by a previous ice age. They are absolutely stunning fat fish and the sky seems to be the limit when it comes to size. A decade ago, due to netting, this amazing sub-species were almost extinct, but the netting was stopped, catch and release was encouraged, and soon the fish were bouncing back strongly. They do not make themselves available to fly fishers for long. They generally appear in April and disappear back into the depths of the lake by mid- to late June. May to early June is the prime time to catch them either on nymphs, dries or streamers. The rest of the year, char are their staple diet. As they disappear so the char appear and make for great summer fishing on the lake. We headed out for our first night of trying for a Lake Thingvallavatn monster. It was not the best of weather.

Ben: It is now within the glow of the midnight sun that I can stop to reflect on my adventures so far. It is still light out in the early minutes of June 4 and people are still moving around in Reykjavik. My flight from Boston was as effortless and as stress free as they come. No sooner had I settled into a good book than it appeared that my journey came to an abrupt end.

Iceland greeted me with clouds and misty rain. Such is life on an island but within an hour the cloud broke and the sun came out. I took a cab into the small town of Keflavik where I had a day room for a few hours at the Keflavik Hotel, which we recommend for our clients if they have an early morning departure.

I was met by Jon who was to spend the day showing me some of the local sights including the famous Blue Lagoon, located about 15 minutes outside Keflavik. The iridescent blue water caused by the minerals and algae, and warmed by the magma heating the mixture of sea and fresh water, was something to behold. Icelanders and foreigners bathed and soaked and caked the mineral rich mud on their faces in order to rejuvenate themselves.

However, sharing this experience was not on my list and Jon had other plans. He drove me past the Blue Lagoon down a desolate road, and stopped next to a large metallic pump that was open on one side and emitting steam under great pressure from deep within the earth. “This is where it all began,” said Jon. “This is the origin of the Blue Lagoon and the source of the geothermal energy that powers the country.”

I walked by the steam rising from the ground and put my hand down toward the hot vapor. It burned. I walked up the steep crater side and peered down, but I saw no magma, only the scars and fractures of the earth that were left from this tectonic upheaval. For miles I saw lava fields twisted and jagged, although in parts it was covered with a green, pool-table-like moss. Purple lupins, so typical of Iceland, grew on the edges of these massive fields.

Reykjavik surprised me in many ways. First, I was taken by how the planners have kept the buildings from punching the skyline. There are no buildings higher than 12 stories. The result is uniformity in the feel of the city. The homes are set in rather perfect rows and are modestly decorated. What stands out is the different roof colors. Jon told me that the Government felt that Icelanders need the color to combat the effect of seasonal mood disorder that can grip segments of the population during the long and dark winters.

Reykjavik is extremely clean. Again, foresight by the Government established that the youth of Iceland aged 13 to 15 can work for pay to clean the country in order to appreciate it while keeping Iceland beautiful.

I rode into the city and visited several fine hotels and was impressed with Ingolfstorg Square where the current parliament is located. The area around it is filled with great restaurants of all ethnic varieties. I particularly enjoyed walking around the area on Laugavegur Street that had quite a selection of shops to visit and to buy unique items from Iceland: famous brands like 66 Degrees, Geysir and Farmers Market, I only wished I could have spent more time there. Next time.

It’s 9 p.m. on June 4, and I am rigging up for my first fishing session. I am very excited for two reasons. One, I am in Iceland, a place of incredible beauty; and two, I am fishing Lake Thingvallavatn, an ice-cold lake where some true monster browns live.

Having fished in Tierra del Fuego and caught sea-run browns of 15-20 lbs, I was rather excited to be fishing for the same sized trout in Iceland on a single-handed rod. The fishing in the lake for these monsters has been great this season according to Kristjan who related that some browns of 20+ lbs and even one of 30 were caught in May.

On this evening I would be throwing a floating line with a weighted streamer into the shallows for pods of cruising brown trout.   Along the shore were summer cottages that all faced the lake. A line of boulders made up of volcanic rock lined the shore. I walked down the lake and fished from small points and bays. A strong left to right wind made it tough for me – a lefty caster – to get good distance, so I ended up turning around and using the wind and back casting in order to get the line out.

I cast and stripped the fly but did not get a hit. Kristjan said that it was a bit too windy but he also pressed on. Standing a few yards from me, I heard him shout. Fish on. I put my rod down and ran toward him filming his battle. The line peeled off at an alarming speed as his reel sang. The fish ripped into his backing twice as he gained ground and eventually tired out the monster.

After 10 minutes the fish was landed and I got to see its size for the first time. Kristjan weighed it in his net and it was a 10 pounder. “Ah, it’s just an average fish,” he said. Average! Well, I do not know of anyone who would call that average. But then again, this is a lake that gives up 15, 20, and even 30 lbs trout every season. Although he was happy, I could see that he was a bit dejected that he did not get one bigger to show us. The fish was amazing. It was bright like a sea trout, almost silver in color with the spots on the flanks in great numbers. What a beautiful fish. We slipped it into the water and I looked at my watch. It was 12.15 a.m. and still light enough that you could read a newspaper.

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June 5: A night of a lifetime…

Ben: The wind was blowing from right to left – perfect for me today. And I must say that it was nice to have the ‘righties’ in the group have a little of the medicine that I had to take the previous night.

We were taken to a little bay near the dramatic ION Hotel where we were to fish a beat for cruising browns. The first technique that we were to employ was to fish nymphs. I cast out a weighted Pheasant Tail and let it sink, slowly stripping it in waiting for a tug. The wind was perfect for me and I cast while standing in ankle-deep water. I noticed that the sandy beach consisted of black volcanic dust. It felt different than sand under my feet.

The key to this bay was the spring of 35-40 degree water coming into it from hot springs. It was extraordinary. 50 yards away was almost ice-cold water and I could have a good relaxing hot bath in the same body of water! The fish are drawn here and feed on nymphs that flourish in the warmer water. An hour or so of trying different nymphs, I switched to a white matuka-style streamer as recommended by our guide.

I cast along the shore and worked the areas systematically. I saw some sort of nervous water off to my side at 11 o’ clock. I shot a cast about 50 feet and started stripping. I imagined that my white rabbit tail was swimming through the water column and doing its magic. All of a sudden a big bump was on my line and the next couple of minutes were a blur. I fought the fish that was so strong I thought I had my dream monster. I landed it and it weighed 5 lbs! Stunning silver, just like a sea trout. Their ability to take line in still water was truly impressive. After a couple of photos away it went back into the cold depths of the lake.

Later Thorstynn took us to the ‘river mouth’ where he felt that the fishing would be productive. The river was more like a stream that emptied into the lake. We parked and walked about 250 yards down the side of the creek until the beach opened up to the lake shore. We waded in and cast into the depths around the river drop-off and worked our flies with varying retrieves.

After about an hour or more we saw some rises in the middle of the channel. This was where it was most shallow and where the fish were obviously holding. Now to figure them out. What were they rising for? No visible hatch could be seen, no bugs on the water. What then? I improvised. They were feeding on something for certain. The splashes were rather frantic, so I put on a #16 La Fontaine emerger pattern and hoped that caddis were what they were focused on. I made a couple of casts and slowly stripped them in when I felt a tug. Fish on.

For the next few hours there was constant action. Action like I had not experienced trout fishing in many years. What was amazing was that 5 lbs trout were taking me way into the backing. The 6-7 lbs trout was taking me deep into the backing and one fish had me a few wraps from the very end of the line.

These fish are incredibly strong and nearly every one of them tore into my backing with torrid screaming runs across the lake. Chrome bright brown trout that were every bit as beautiful, if not more so, than the ones that I have caught in Tierra del Fuego. They were also very thick and were well fed from eating large amounts of char that live in the lake.

This was one of the best fishing days in terms of numbers and average size that I have ever had…anywhere.

Tarquin: I am a believer in fishing days or experiences evolving through allowing time and good observation and this evening was truly magical but it did not start that way. Before we headed to the water, a return to the Summer House was needed for lunch and quick nap to recharge batteries and our personal batteries. We then went to the ION Hotel and had a tour of the rooms and facilities. We were all impressed with the modern design and eco-conscious luxury. There was no doubt that the ION could deliver a comfortable and ‘different’ experience with its views out over the lake from the spa and bar, as well as the billowing steam from the Nesjavellir geothermal power station behind. Do not be mistaken, this is not the horror we all think of: it is an almost Bond-like setting made more so by the steam coming off the stream that runs away from the power station itself. Not pollution but natural heat. The whole set-up was utterly cool and radically different.

From the ION it was a ten-minute drive across the steaming stream and along another. We parked and walked along the river where Angus spotted some smaller trout in one of the lower pools that he could not resist. They kicked his proverbial I was pleased to see. Hooked six and lost five of them!!

When we arrived at the drop off, the wind was up a little and conditions were good but as the wind began to drop away, so the fish began to really rise. The intensity grew as the wind dropped. The takes looked aggressive but they were clearly not taking baitfish because our steamers remained untouched. I tried a dry, not for long enough as it turned out, but Ben cracked it coming right down in size. Angus and I followed coming all the way down to small black buzzers and our success increased. The real realization was that the flies had to be presented as if they were bounty delivered by the stream. Strip them slowly out of the stream and takes were very few. Fished very slow in the stream and takes became an expectation. As events evolved, so the weather grew more beautiful and the light more and more stunning. We were experiencing a very special moment in all our fishing careers – magical fishing in stunning surroundings. It basically went on as long as our stamina, which, in our case, was to 2 p.m. with about 24 stunning fat trout up to 8+ lbs. Thorstynn could not resist nipping back after we left and caught three drifting a dry.

Just look at the photos – they tell the story much better.

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June 6: Battle at Black Rocks

Tarquin: The weather could not be better. Kristjan said that the clear blue skies and 20-degree Celsius temperature made this the first real day of summer. We had woken bleary eyed and had headed to the Bruar to fish for char. We spotted some nice ones but the heat and cloudless sky kept them deep and the fishing was tough.

We decided to go and see two of the three great sites of the ‘Golden Circle’. The first is across Lake Thingvallavatn, the fissure of two tectonic plates, plus the site of the first Norwegian Parliament in AD874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingolfur Arnarson settled on the island; the second is Gullfoss, the great waterfall (a two-tiered 32 metre drop); and the third the geyser hurling boiling water up to 70 metres in to the air. All these are within a day’s drive of Reykjavik, all are truly spectacular and worth seeing together with the scenery along the journey. Go to see the falls above the old bridge across the Bruar, also stunning.

Kristjan said that we would go once more to Lake Thingvallavatn in the evening for trophy trout. We accessed the northern shore through a private farm that Kristjan knew. This was Black Rocks, a famous place for big trout. We waded the shore around a point and started to walk out into the lake on the southern side of a large bay. It felt like wading for bonefish. The goal was to wade out to a spot and begin casting to a drop off where the brown trout were cruising. Streamers were on the menu with floating line as the way to get them out in the deep. I began to cast watching, Ben as I did. There was clearly a violent pull on his rod he was not ready for. You could see the shock on his face. He gathered himself and began to strip again and the rod was almost pulled from his hands. He grabbed it and held on and it began to buck violently testing his set-up to the max. We rallied around him as he calmly commented that he could see the spigot on his reel, he was down to the last few turns.

Ben: I was told that sometimes the big trout do not take the fly down deep but are cruising around the upper water column and will hit it there. We walked further and further away from the shore. All the while stepping on a relatively flat rocky bottom. I estimated that we were about 150 yards off the shore when I rigged up my line.

I put on a #6 black streamer that I tied with little red rubber legs in it. I cast it out twice and stripped it with different retrieves. I cast a third time and let it sink and stripped twice when I stopped and let it sink, then I pulled once more. The wrench on the end of the line was sudden and violent. I stripped again and the second take was equally violent. I lifted and drove the Mustad home. All hell broke loose. A sudden thrashing and a magnificent game of tug-o-war began. This powerful fish made several determined runs toward the center of the lake. I was so deep into my backing that I saw the black part of the spool showing through. How big was this monster? It was not coming up and certainly not jumping like the other fish that I caught in the lake. It pulled like a locomotive: deliberate, determined and strong. I gave that fish everything that the Sage rod had to give. It bent at a crazy angle; my backing was as tight as a bowstring.

I learned a new tip from Angus who told me that when fighting a large fish put your tip into the water and continue to reel in. It is a pressure thing he said. When you keep your rod high and fight a large fish it feels the pressure from the rod angle and continues to go crazy. By lowering the tip into the water the fighting angle has changed and the fish tends to calm down making the fight more manageable. He was right. The monster from the cold depths came closer and closer. You can see in the pictures how low the rod was.

Over about 15 minutes I walked the fish into the shallows in order to beach it. It was tiring, and I was tired too! Close to the net, I saw that this monster was an incredibly beautiful and giant (to my eyes) brown trout. The spots and silvery sides gleamed in the midnight sunlight. Angus finally netted the fish and we all cried out with joy and frankly relief! The scale built into the net said 15.4 lbs. I was over the moon. I had never caught a brown trout that large before. After a few photos I released it back to the monster lake of Iceland. Yet another extraordinary experience – a word we were to use almost every day.

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June 7: A day of learning…

Tarquin: The late nights were taking their toll but it was another beautiful day – a day for learning about the char fishing in Lake Thingvallavatn. It was the very start of the season but the char were beginning to emerge from the deep to enjoy the bounty that summer brings. We went to a stunning part of the lake not far from the ION Hotel and enjoyed a morning fishing the lake with some success. We saw some really good char but the best ones were still shy of coming close to the shore and still a little deep.

In the afternoon, we visited other char fishing areas, which will come into their own in July. In the evening we headed to a smaller lake nearby, Geldingartjorn, which was very wild and beautiful, and caught trout from 2 to 4 lbs into the evening before heading home to prepare to continue our journey the next day.

What we had experienced was just one area of Kristjan’s portfolio of trout and char fishing. We were on the late side for the trout in the big lake but had some incredible fishing; we were early for the char but got a feel for the beauty of the fish and how they fish for them. We loved the small wild lake to finish up with, not forgetting the stunning Bruar river, also yet to come into its prime. It is possible to enjoy all that we have done in one day or by the half day. It really depends on what you are interested in and wish to focus on. That is the strength to what Kristjan does: he can take you on a very focused mission for a particular species or type of fishing, or he can take you travelling through Iceland using fishing as an excuse. We will meet up with Kristjan again in the north and then again in the highlands.

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