Iceland 2014 – Part II – Some of the Western Salmon Rivers. Two Visits to the North.

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This is the second 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 one and three.

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[tab title=”June 8 – 9″]

Nordura – One of Iceland’s Best Salmon Rivers…

Ben: As we drove home from Black Rocks we decided to complete the circle around the lake and took the west road, which took us past the ION Hotel and the scene of our great night at the river mouth but it also took us past the little church on the mound we had all admired. It was 2 a.m. and another stunning, still, clear night and the pink reflections on the lake behind the church were too great to resist. We all piled out, camera and videos in hand and spent half an hour photographing the scene before us and simply drinking it in. It was a very special moment. For all you photographers reading this, in Iceland you can almost wake at 6 p.m. and go to bed at 9 a.m. The nights are a very special time and the light can be spectacular.

We left the area around Lake Thingvallavatn and drove north on Route 48 down the road that paralleled the River Kjos. We stopped at the Thorofoss waterfall where the white water plummets down to the salmon river below. Thorofoss is where the salmon reach the end of their journey. The Laxa in Kjos is run by our friends Jon Thor Juliasson and Halli Eriksson. When they took it over from Frontiers they built a fine new lodge and have continued great work in looking after the river. The Kjos was the first river that Tarquin ever visited way back and is still a favourite of his. It has almost endless, very pretty pools at the top before settling into the meadow section famous for gathering the river’s iconic sea trout that run up to 10-12 lbs with the average more in the 4 lbs class. Kjos is almost unique to have salmon and sea trout of this quality running at the same time. They can be caught with salmon flies, drifted nymphs and dries and are very strong. When the water is high the meadows are also superb for salmon, which gather in the pools in equal numbers. From the meadows the river re-enters a rocky section where the attractive Bugda tributary comes in and begins its last fall to the sea providing lots of micro-pools and pots which become full of salmon when the run begins in earnest. The season had not opened yet but we stood at the main falls less than a mile from the sea, looking down into the glassy windows, we scanned the water for incoming salmon and were rewarded with the sight of a couple of fish arriving and a good fish on the other side of about 15 lbs. Kjos was a river ready to open its season.

After leaving the Kjos, we pressed on and drove along the Hvalfjordur to the Hvalfjordur tunnel, which has reduced anxious journeys for many a salmon angler over the past decade since it opened. We continued past Borganes and stopped to visit Jon Thor and Halli’s other river, the Grimsa. Jon Thor gave us a refresher tour of the lodge, which has wonderful views of the river. One can literally enjoy the salmon jumping from the breakfast table. Grimsa is an 8-rod river, catching about 1,300 salmon per year in the past few years. It was Jon Thor’s first project and has been a great success and remains popular with guests from the USA and UK for its numbers of fish, proximity to Reykjavik and Jon Thor’s hospitality. We did not drive the river because we had to push on and grab a bite to eat at Borganes before arriving and preparing for fishing at Nordura.

Tarquin: The Nordura lodge sits on a bluff high atop the Nordura River. The river produced well last season with 3,200 fish caught between 12 lodge fishermen and the 3 mountain rods for the 90-day season. Each river in Iceland is allocated by law the number of rods allowed to fish and can have a 90-day season. They can decide when they start and close but it is only ever 90 days. One final core rule is that they are only allowed to fish 12 hours a day. Again, they can decide which hours. The season began only a few days earlier and it got off to a good start but the water was warm so the fish were shooting through what are traditionally the good early season beats making them difficult to catch.

We drew Laxfoss down to below the lodge on the north bank for our first afternoon. Laxfoss is the wonderful falls pool, which the lodge looks up to. I have happy memories of Laxfoss from 1992 when I hooked a 17 lbs fish on a single-hooked hitch fly and was towed all the way back to the lodge with it, landing it just before the next major set of rapids. Angus almost had the same experience: he hooked a really nice fish, which played him for 20 minutes before coming off. Ben, then also hooked a fish, which also came off. This was disappointing but encouraging for early season. The fish are big (over 10lbs) at this time but not plentiful. It is amazing to think that in just a month from now the Nordura will be in prime time and full of salmon and grilse. Guests will be catching 20 fish or more in three days of fishing.

The fishing programme allows a designated number of rods on a river per day. If you choose to have your own rod, you pay one price. If you choose to share a rod, then you and your fishing partner share a room and a rod and pay a rod share fee, about £500. You can choose to share the rod how you wish, but only one of you will be fishing at a time. So you can decide to change every hour or by fish caught. It’s up to you to work that out. We were four between two rods, but with copious amounts of camera gear and video equipment so we were busy all the time whether fishing or not. Normally, in prime time, the rod-sharer, if not fishing, can clamber up high and see the salmon his partner is fishing to. Wild flowers and birds are all along the river too.

My old friend Einar Sigfusson, whom I have known for twenty years, runs the river and its lodge. Einar is wonderfully reliable and does an excellent job. He tells me there are plans afoot for a new lodge in a couple of years’ time. At present the lodge’s common areas overlook the canyon and falls, and the sleeping cabins, each with ensuite shower room, are behind the main building. On Nordura they fish from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then 4 to 10 p.m. Everyone has a quick lunch having come back from fishing in the morning before a good nap before fishing again. Without the nap, it is a long and tiring day. You do not have to fish those hours and many lodges are more relaxed but allow their guests the flexibility to do what they wish. Some guests simply don’t go out so early or go out promptly at 4 p.m. Other lodges go out at 3 p.m. with the idea of getting to bed earlier. As a guest you can keep whatever hours you wish if you agree with the person sharing your guide or have your own guide.

We spent the next day doing some fishing but mostly looking around the river and taking photographs of the different beats. On the last morning of our brief stay at Nordura we were back on Laxfoss but the south bank this time. Angus was fishing the pots right beneath the falls and hooked a good strong fish. He had to pick his way back to the bank while being careful to ensure the fish came with him as opposed to going down the rapids on the far side. This he did successfully and we landed an early season fish on Nordura. The runs will build every day from now until about 20 July when the river will be full of fish. Nordura is one of the great Icelandic rivers with huge variety of very attractive pools and an ever-changing landscape from deep canyons to waterfalls, meadows, freestone sections that change with each spring flood. To be on Nordura in the prime of the season is superb fishing, and all the techniques that make Icelandic salmon fishing so intriguing work well on Nordura. We left for the north fully reminded of what a great river it is.

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[tab title=”June 10″]

Through the Valleys of Fire and Ice

Ben: We left Nordura and drove north on Highway 1 headed to ‘Big Laxa’ or Laxa in Adaldal, the mecca for many Icelandic’s due to the size of the fish. This journey was supposed to be about a six-hour drive, but turned out to be much longer due to the many stops to take photos and to document the stunning scenery. Driving past the town of Bifrost, the Nordura River continues to wind along the right side of your car, never leaving you, joining the journey for a period. The volcano peaks to your left are almost perfect cone shapes as they cut the horizon. Lava fields topped with a vibrant green moss stretch for a long way from the cone shapes allowing you to imagine how the eruption must have been when it was going on. I took the opportunity to lie down on moss as comfortable as a mattress, while spotting fish from a high cliff. I watched the pattern of clouds in the blue sky change and soon the pull of a good nap was too much to fight.

We went ‘over the top’ from the Nordura valley cutting north crossing the river valleys of some of the country’s most famous rivers, which we know well and many of our clients will be enjoying this July: Hrutafjardara, a smaller three-rod salmon river that can be prolific (600 fish last year); the Midfjardara, Iceland’s best river in 2013; the Vididalsa, known for producing 20 lbs salmon; its neighbor the Vatnsdalsa, also with big fish; and then the famous Laxa in Asum, just before the town of Blondous, a wonderful small two-rod river which produces 1000 salmon or more a season. Two friends (four if sharing but each with single rooms) can enjoy the privacy of a small lodge and this wonderful little river where ‘the hitch’ is king. Two rods might catch 80 fish in three days.

The road turns to the east and follows the large Blanda river valley for miles. The journey really becomes exciting and stunning from here with high mountains on either side forming a giant glacial ‘U’ shape. We were in awe of the scenery and it is truly a drive that we would recommend to anyone visiting Iceland. You will see wide open farming valleys with red-roofed farmhouses and barns dotted on the lower slopes with the river bed snaking its way along the bottom. The white-capped mountain peaks were releasing torrents of water down their sides due to the summer weather that was now taking hold. The water had carved deep furrows into the mountain flanks and made waterfalls of varying sizes plunging down the troughs. It is hard to focus on what to look at next.

Towards the end of the journey, we arrived into Akureyri, Iceland’s northernmost city. It sits at the end of an inlet to the sea, and the cruise ships take advantage of its port to stop and disembark their passengers to explore the surroundings. The shopping is great with all the top Icelandic brands available and some good hotels. We had dinner at Rub 23, (http://www.rub23.is/en/akureyri) which was superb. It offers sushi, as well as Icelandic staples like lobster tails, lamb and we also tried the Minke whale! For those who are interested in knowing what Minke whale tastes like, it closely resembles a beef filet! It was now 11 p.m. so we pressed on to the Big Laxa valley, a drive of about another hour and 20 minutes. There we were greeted by Petur Hilmarsson, one of the owners of the Ness Beat at Big Laxa. We had coffee with Petur, and a quick midnight tour of the home beat before retiring to bed.

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[tab title=”June 11″]

Trout Heaven and the Spirit of Greatness

Tarquin: Before looking at the salmon beats, we headed up river, past the canyon and waterfall and beyond where the salmon can run. Tucked up in the middle of nowhere with no cell-phone reception, we came to Laxardalur Lodge, the home of trout fishing in Iceland. There is tons of great trout fishing in Iceland but Laxardalur, or upper Big Laxa, from a traveller’s perspective at least, is where it all began. Frontiers’ groups have enjoyed the Laxardalur Lodge for a few years now. Though cosy with very friendly atmosphere, the lodge is in need of an upgrade because the rooms are small and they do not have ensuite bathrooms. Bjarni and his wife manage the lodge and fishing and do a superb job. Bjarni is a truly charming host and knows his trout fishing very well.

Laxardalur fishes 14 km of water between a possible 12 rods but they prefer to fish 10 rods. This is not like salmon fishing where the bank matters, because much of the water is wadeable and one can literally wander around the river looking for rising fish. There is a huge amount of space. This is not a numbers game, the fish are big with 4 pounders common and 7 pounders caught regularly but as Bjarni says, they are hooked far more often than they are landed! Double figure fish are known. Early season fishing is with streamers but by mid-June nymph and dries in the form of midge imitations are more the norm. This is about as classic a trout stream as can exist, rich in food and a very healthy, an under-fished stock of totally wild trout. The scenery is equally beautiful with the river winding its way through channels and islands, and through almost lake-like sections. With the exception of the odd farm building with their traditionally colourful roof, little blemishes the landscape.

We also visited the Arbot section of the Big Laxa, an intriguing beat because it is used for trout fishing for two rods but it has salmon as well. It is run by our friend Kristjan Rafnsson. Guests stay in a small Summer House cabin all to themselves, but are fully catered and have a guide. The trout are the same size at Laxardalur but guests have privacy and a relaxed pace dictated by themselves. If they want to try for a salmon from July on, they can. The fishing is slightly different in that it is salmon water but there are many flats and soft edges where the trout like to feed and this is where the trout fishers look for rising fish. This is a great option for the travelling angler for a couple of days.

Ben: When I pulled up to the lodge at Big Laxa, I knew that it does not have the catch rate of other rivers, but that the fish it produces are large. This is a famous lodge on a fabled river where some of the luminaries of fly fishing have come to search for large salmon in a beautiful setting. The high banks that mark most of the right side of the river brace it and provide the barrier that steers it toward the ocean. The near bank has a slight rise and allows you to walk down the meadows while searching for rolling and rising salmon. There are several small islands that create channels and offer different currents where the salmon can take refuge – and in some ways, that is what draws fishermen to the river. Yes, the fishing is the most important part of the allure of Big Laxa, but the physical appearance of where you are fishing has to be another factor. It’s peaceful here. The trees, the rustle of the grass in the wind and the calm movement of the water make it easier to keep the rhythm of a two-handed snap-t cast into the next pool. And maybe this is why the late Mike Fitzgerald Sr., founder of Frontiers, came back to visit here so often. I can see similarities between the Big Laxa and ‘Big Mike’, as some affectionately knew him.

Inside the lodge I felt a strong connection to Michael, as I referred to him. I spoke with Petur, whose family has been guiding this river for six generations, about Michael and he showed me his photo on the wall in the hallway. Michael’s smile was genuine and as infectious then as it remains in my memory now. Petur spoke of Michael’s gentle demeanor and subtle humor in a warm tone that belied a reverence for the man who made everyone feel special no matter what walk of life you were in. We felt honored to spend the night in such a place and it is fitting that after a short break our clients will once again enjoy Nes and the Big Laxa.

As Petur drove along the valley road, we noticed the large lava fields and the giant undulations of lava bubbles that popped up in the middle. He asked if we wanted to go inside one. Go inside one? Absolutely! He turned off the main road and down a dirt track where he stopped by a large dome. We walked up to it and I saw a hole and looked inside. It was hollow and you could park a VW Beetle inside of it. Two thousand years ago an eruption spewed lava about 50 km down the river valley and as it cooled it started to harden into a thick honey-like mass. When this mass encountered a cool spot like a spring of water, then the lava would react and expand and would rise like bread. The bubble would cool and harden leaving a hollow cavity inside. According to Petur, the workers who made the first road in the area were looking for a shelter from the ever-changing Icelandic weather and took sledgehammers to the bubble and opened it up. They opened a hole in the top so that they could light a fire and cook food while they relaxed. This would never be allowed today because the lava fields are protected.

Petur was passionate about the Big Laxa and showed us his upper beats that run through the flat meadows and down to his lowest beat as we parked on top of a bridge. His pride about his family being a part of the history of this great river was palpable and infectious.

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[tab title=”June 12″]

Opening of the Season at Thvera

Tarquin: We left Big Laxa following true hospitality from Petur and his family. The journey home was uneventful except Angus took too much of a risk with the drone, which we have been using to video parts of our expedition. We were flying a beautiful white-capped valley and Angus kept the drone flying for too long. It indicates loss of power through reduced control and it did this over a large glacial river. Angus was able to steer it to land (just) to the river bank about two metres from the water. The problem was, it was on the other side of the river from us! He knew he had made a mistake and stepped up to the plate in offering to wade across. Another problem; our waders were at Nordura waiting for us to pick them up on our way past to Thvera. The only solution was to wade wet, which he did, admirably! The river was a freezing cold, milky glacial river but Angus was its match and waded across twice. Once to retrieve the drone and a second time to collect its box to ensure bringing it back safely and dry. Just another Icelandic adventure!

We arrived at Thvera just in time for the pre-season dinner with David Masson and Halldor Haffsteinsson, two of the three leaseholders on the Thvera/Kjarra, the third being my old friend, Ingo. They had their friends for the opening days including the owner of the much-praised airline Wow, Skuli Mogensen, which flies to Iceland from London Gatwick, Paris, Milan and many other European cities. I so enjoy the Icelanders enthusiasm for the opening of the season. They have been starved of fishing for many months so when the opening comes, it is a big deal. A big dinner is in order and then at 6.59 a.m. the next day they are standing on the river bank with flyline in the air waiting for 7a.m. to drop their line on the water.

Because the season is so short, the opening days can often be an indicator of the season to come so there is much excitement for that reason too. We were privileged to be a part of the first few days but to read more about Thvera and Kjarra visit my post here and the upper part of the Thvera/Kjarra here. Thvera/Kjarra is constantly one of Iceland’s top five rivers and 2013 was no exception at number 2. Many Frontiers’ guests enjoy them both: the Kjarra section for its rugged, wilderness beauty for the more agile, and the Thvera for the easier physical nature of the river.

For us the highlight was Evan getting a great fish from the Church pool. It was a very aggressive take after three previous rises and the fish shot off down the river well into the backing before Evan calmly and slowly subdued it. It was likely about 14 lbs and we managed to fly the drone as it was being landed. On one day, Ben and Angus headed north to see the Breidalsa and Jokla.

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[tab title=”June 13″]

North-East Salmon Heaven

Ben: Our journey began with an alarm at 4 a.m. The sound pierced my eardrums and my brain shook into a hazy consciousness. It felt like I just went to bed minutes ago, but two hours had passed since I turned out the light and dozed off. I looked at my Scottish colleague Angus who was still asleep and likely dreaming of the crystal clear pools and riffles of the Thvera River that he had just fished earlier in the day.

In a zombie-like stupor we made our way to the War Wagon, aka the Mitsubishi Pajero, our intrepid rental vehicle now caked with mud and volcanic ash and filled with water bottles, Skyr yogurt containers, Icelandic road food bought at the Olis gas stations, and a piece of the car that fell off somewhere in our travels.

It was a quiet and still morning, as we crept like church mice through Thvera Lodge and chewed down left over lukewarm coffee from last night’s dinner.   Reykjavik was 1.5 hours away and we were to be there in time to board a flight to Egilsstadir and the high-octane Colombian brew would ensure that we would make it. The road was ours and we drove through the morning sun, which looked like the afternoon sun and the evening sun when it’s light 24 hours a day. And during the mindless, sleep-deprived conversations that Angus and I were having it almost went unnoticed when we passed a metallic box on a pole that suddenly flashed two red orbs at us. Later, we were to learn that we were caught for speeding, but in Iceland you have a better chance of being stopped by a sheep on the road than a policeman so we were oblivious to our error.

Flying internally in Iceland is a breeze. Angus and I walked up and gave the gate attendant our passports and they verified that we were on the plane and printed out a lottery ticket type receipt and we boarded the turbo prop and away we went. I awoke when we landed in Egilsstadir. We were met by Boggi, a fishing guide for the Breidalsa and Jokla Lodges that we were to visit on this trip.

Egilsstadir is located in eastern Iceland and is the largest town in the region. Though it was established in 1947, the area was first mentioned in written form in the 15th century.   We arrived to sunny weather and stopped to grab another coffee in a nearby gas station restaurant. We drove south on Route 1, which circles Iceland, on a road that winds its way through forested mountains until we turned left and went up a graded dirt road to a mountain pass. At the top of the pass, we made Boggi stop the truck as the Breidalsa Valley opened up in front of us. It is here that you see the beginning of the Breidalsa river as it snakes through the valley floor from its source in mountains above. The road in front wound its way switch-back style down the mountain until straightening out on the valley floor.

On our right was a small river. Boggi said that the salmon did not come up that far but that there were trout in it. We saw a rise in a side channel near the road and Boggi stopped. “Want to take a shot at catching one?” he asked. “Sure.” We hopped out and grabbed the two rigged up rods that he had in the rod carriers on the front of the vehicle. Angus and I cast a couple of wooly buggers into the water, but we did not find any agreeable fish.

We continued on down the valley, which was dotted with a few farms. The Breidalsa gained volume and we stopped at several places to look where the salmon would hold in particular beats. The river had a canyon making some beautiful pools. A visit to a waterfall in the valley below some impressive peaks that flanked it made me envious of the fishermen that were coming to fish here in a few weeks.

Breidalsa Lodge is a beautiful building, and an even finer fishing lodge. The rooms are large compared to typical Icelandic lodge standards and warmly decorated. A lot of attention has been put into making this a destination where a couple could come and enjoy the accommodations nearly as much as the fishing.

After lunch Boggi drove us around the fjords where small towns were nestled between the ocean and the high peaks around it. In one there was a giant aluminum factory that clearly provided most of the town’s jobs. The town was like most Icelandic towns: clean with mainly modern buildings and homes. There were some older buildings possibly built when the ocean provided the main source of income, but they were nearly all phased out by the changing modern life.

But it was the terrain and the clear blue sea that caught my eye. It is amazing that the ocean this far north would be as clear blue as some of the places that I had been in the Caribbean.

The drive north from the fjords back to Egilsstadir was taken on a different road that was equally as beautiful as the one that we were on hours earlier. We stopped once more at the gas station restaurant were we had the first of many coffees in this part of Iceland. We then drove on toward the Jokla.

The Jokla was once a glacial river that was dammed and the water diverted into a lake. The result was that the river became clear and Throstur decided to supplement the river with salmon much the same way he did in developing the Ranga fishery. The river is wide at its mouth and becomes filled with many channels and smaller braids. Boggi drove us down the river so that we could see where the salmon would come in and take their holding spots when the season began. We drove for miles down the river talking about fishing, hunting and life with our new friend.

Jokla Lodge has four individual cabins each with two rooms with private ensuite bathrooms. The rooms were comfortable and pretty standard when it comes to the typical Icelandic fishing lodge – meaning that they are perfect for the serious angler who wants to retire from a day on the river.

The main lodge is a short walk away and is done up very well. The living room invites comfortable conversation and relaxation after a day on the water and I felt myself sinking in on the leather couch ready for a discussion of this eastern river that holds so much promise for a salmon fisherman.

After meeting the staff there and exploring the area Boggi left us at Egilsstadir and Angus and I flew back to Reykjavik to begin the drive home to Thvera where we started this whirlwind tour only 12 hours before.

Before we headed east again we spent the day visiting our friend Ari’s rivers, the famous Langa and its smaller cousin nearby theHítará. Langa is a very attractive rocky river and very popular with English rods who have visited since the late 1800s. The ‘long river in the wetlands’ drains an area of 262 km2, with fishing over 26 km and 100 pools. The upper reaches flow through lava fields, over falls, with small and plentiful pools. The middle section enters in a small canyon with perfect pools, before it opens out in the lower part into open grassland of wonderful easy-access pools. Its final reaches are about as dramatic and pretty as one can hope for with the river literally dropping into the sea after the famous Crocodile pool. The river has a small dam at the top at Lake Langvatn, which allows river management to control the height at times of high or low water. Langa has a fine lodge overlooking some fine mid-river pools. We enjoyed watching fish ascend the fish ladders on the lower water before moving on to Hítará.

Hítará is one of the gems of Icelandic salmon fishing, an average-sized river that drains an area of 318 km2. It has a long and remarkable history, dating back to when British gentry started fishing here. This is a typical Icelandic river, with complex currents, clear pools, small flies and technical fishing over its 29 km. The lodge, built by Jóhannes of Hotel Borg fame, is on the rocky banks of the Brúarfoss overlooking Breidin, one of the most notable pools. Its magical setting is unmatched, and it has a unique atmosphere, and houses a famous collection of mounted wildfowl. The nearness of the pools to the lodge offers a unique atmosphere for a close-knit group of four or six.

Both rivers are just past Borganes going west rather than turning north towards Nordura and Midfjardara etc. If you want a fun place to have lunch try Eddu Verold, it is the small café next to the museum. If you happen to need a hotel or a good dinner in Borganes we recommend the Hotel Hamar, a gold hotel with fine views run by Icelandair.

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