Iceland 2014 – Part III – Fishing on the Moon – Trout and Char Fishing in the Highlands…

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

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[tab title=”June 15 – 17″]

Fishing on the Moon: Tungnaa Char and Trout

Tarquin: We headed east from Thvera, through part of Reykjavik and back on the E6 towards Selfoss where we stocked up on snacks and Skyr (superb yoghurt – http://siggisdairy.com/faq/skyr) for the fishing days to come. Then inland to the highlands, through the lowland meadow Icelandic pony farms and then, with time, vegetation grew thinner until it was only really grass and the glowing Icelandic moss hugging the banks of rivers. Other than this, it was all rock and spectacular lava fields. In keeping with the landscape the weather drew in, now grey and foggy with some light rain from time to time. This was clearly a key area for power with dams, power stations and then electric pylons towering over us like soldiers in a Transformers movie. We arrived at the Highland Hotel. It was exactly how I imagine an expedition station in the Arctic. Everyone was wearing outdoor clothes and walking boots. There were long walkways with almost cabin-like bedrooms in rows in a sort of H-Block. The dining area was headquarters and it was like a cafeteria but the food was superb for where we were and the staff very friendly. When we arrived we felt it maybe a budget hotel but our rooms were some of the new ones and excellent, and when it came to leave we were full of praise for our headquarters for our few days.

Kristjan wanted us to head out tonight to see the Tungnaa River. This was once a much larger glacial river but due to the dam and diversion of water, it is a shadow of its former self. It is now crystal clear, still has the superb fish and still runs into the lake below, and therefore plenty of char and trout can run the river as they have always done. When we arrived, we were pretty surprised because he took us to the top of the river, just below the new dam where there are still barracks for workers and enormous trucks and bulldozers dotted around. He assured us that this would all disappear by the 2015 season. We had a toast to the river with some of Kristjan’s prized whisky and donned our waders. Do not misunderstand me, this is still an extraordinary, barren place and there is no luscious grass along the river and it still looks to be a shadow of its former self, but start to cast a fly into it and it immediately gets your attention. Evan was the first to hook up, first cast in the foggy, dank night but the char were a really good size (3 lbs to 5 lbs and bigger) and they are very strong even on a 7 weight, which some of us had to use because we left our trout rods at Thvera. The key was to find a deep inflow into a pool, shallow did not cut it. If you found the right water it was possible to pick off one char after the other in their feeding territories plus the odd very good-sized trout. Evan and I picked up about a 4-5 lbs trout and seven char from 3 lbs to 5 lbs in a good piece of water we found that was perhaps 100 metres long.

Last night was another late one but great fun. We were fishing streamers but Kristjan wanted us to see the canyon of the Tungnaa, which we did in the afternoon. It is not a deep, hard walking canyon that you are clambering up and down in and out of. Instead one walks along the top of it and can look down and see fish in the river sometimes five metres below. Sight fishing is certainly possible in the gin-clear water and we spotted some char and caught them on nymphs. Evan worked the water just above the entry into the canyon and caught some great fish up to 6 lbs, all on a small nymph and indicators.

As the spring enters summer, the Tungnaa just gets better with more and more fish entering the river. It is not the kind of river you come to for a week and it certainly is not the most scenic of rivers flowing through what does, to our eye, look like the moon, but it is pretty cool fishing for a day or two half days linked into sightseeing or fishing elsewhere. It is a strong option as part of Kristjan’s “come trout and char fishing and see Iceland” programme, and there is no doubt that such amazing fishing where there is barely any vegetation (but clearly tons of caddis etc) is quite an experience and very much part of an Icelandic experience.

Moon Lake and Volcano Trout

Moon Lake

Ben: The drive to the lake is about as spectacular as I have seen in Iceland. We were growing used to our rocky, volcanic surroundings, but with each corner, the landscape grew more and more crazy until we really were on the moon, or at least it felt like it. The lakes we passed could have been full of some mysterious liquid but miraculously they were full of fresh clean water and stunning wild brown trout. The vast blackness of ash fields with distant black mountains from the eruptions of a million years ago, with almost neon green vegetation smeared upon them, are not only imposing but also awe-inspiring. Many times our journey was halted by a mandatory stop for photos and video. This is an absolutely amazing journey, an extraordinary place.

I stood on the shore of a lake devoid of life around it. There were no trees, plants, grasses or even the thick green moss that covered the tops of the canyons that I had lain upon while looking down on the Nordura days before.

Lake Tintavatn is devoid of structure, obviously because there is none present in the area, the last great pyroclastic eruption took care of that forever, so the trout swim over the same black-packed ash that I am standing on. From what I can see, their food source is midges and there were millions today lifting off the lake. At my feet are masses of little black corpses with white wisps of splayed wings. The entire shoreline is ringed with them six inches wide.

We had used most of our fishing time stopping, looking and photographing. The fish had plenty of natural food so no need for our brash imitations, and we had no success, but Kristjan has regularly caught brown trout here over 5 lbs. Just three days ago, two guys had caught 35 fish.

Volcano Trout

It was 10 p.m. Kristjan and I drove across the moon in his 4×4 – miles of volcanic lava that looked like black sand dunes with the occasional jagged black rocks tossed into the middle of them. Tarquin and Angus followed in the War Wagon. We crested a hill and below and to our right was a lake that we would later refer to as “Char Lake” when we fished it. It was flanked on three sides by barren rock hills – one of which Kristjan told me was “troll rock” as the particular outcropping was in the shape of a troll’s face that according to lore was turned to stone when the troll was caught in the sunlight.

Kristjan said that we were going to fish two lakes this evening. But I only saw one. “The other is up there,” he said, pointing to a nearby mountain peak. “You are going to fish inside a volcano”.

Now, that concept really made me sit up and take notice. I looked at the peak a little closer and sure enough I could see the outline of the caldera. We continued on over a rough road that in one patch still had the remains of the winter snows. We climbed up the side of the volcano, through some deep snow on the track, until we reached the top and my excitement was really at a high. There in front of us was Lake Ljotpollur (which means ’ugly pit’ which could not be further from the truth), the rounded caldera and below was the water where the trout lived. We were all stunned. The blood red scoria rock blanketed the back side of the crater and the sheer drop of the sides and jagged outcroppings added a sense of awe and anticipation to what we were about to experience. There was a clear thick crust which, if broken, looked like we would fall to the center of the earth.

We looked down on the water and a tiny ring appeared. Then another and another—there really were fish living in the crater—and they were rising for dry flies! I do not think that waders could have been put on any faster. We followed the black ash path into the crater and with each step I am sure that my colleagues and I were pinching ourselves to make sure that this was not a dream. We waded into the lake’s ash shingle bottom and I went toward the rising fish. Tarquin and Angus were quickly into fish on streamers, but I wanted to see what they were rising for. I saw my first caddis bouncing on the water and I tied on a #16 Elk hair dry fly. I found a ring where a trout had just risen and cast to the spot. Nothing. I tried again and nothing happened. Finally, I cast toward the rings and slightly twitched the dry fly and a brown nose broke the water and sucked it down. I struck and landed a nice 16 inch hard-fighting brown trout… in a volcano!

I stopped fishing just to drink in my surroundings. I looked at this group of fishermen throwing tight loops of fly line, hooking fish, and except for the occasional holler and excitement of another “fish on”, I enjoyed the absolute stillness of the surroundings and the incredible feeling of being small in the midst of such a massive setting. I could not get over how calm and peaceful the feeling was down there inside this earthen bowl. The trout were not huge but the occasion and the setting surely was and I will never forget it.

After a quick dabble for char on Lake Frostastadavatn at past midnight, Kristjan pulled us out of the lake to give us one more experience. We drove ten minutes through more extraordinary landscape, across a steaming river and then arrived at what looked like an oasis with a couple of small buildings and a few cars. It was a small hot spring, and Angus and Kristjan were quick to de-wader and go in. I was pre-occupied looking for my camera, which we never found despite going back to all the places we had been and turning over the cars etc. Tarquin was the photographer. We both regret not jumping in too, because it looked warm and welcoming and had we not had more to see and do in a few hours time, it would have been tempting to relax for much longer. Bed was still a 3 a.m. affair and we were off again early. Somehow, one did not mind because each day was a huge surprise and more fascinating than the last.

The Kaldakvisl

Ben: We thought we had seen it all until Kaldakvisl. We drove across a barren track made by some 4×4 long ago. It was obvious that no one has been on the road for quite some time. The War Wagon made slow progress on the track as I stared at the rock strewn plains around me. If the rocks were trees then I would be in the midst of a deep forest but instead I was looking at the remnants of a glacial upheaval that carved this land and all the wonderful waterfalls and rivers.

We turned to the right and the Kaldakvisl river (pronounced kalda-krist) appeared and things got interesting.

We parked and viewed a small waterfall that came in and dumped into the right bank of the river. Kristjan told us that we were going to work the lowest part of the river before it emptied into a deep green lake. Strike indicators and nymphs were the method today and lake char running the river was what we were going after.

I walked down the rocky bank and waded into a stretch of river behind a large boulder that formed a nice run. This is how I fish back home when trout are not rising so I was comfortable from the start. I cast the weighted red and black nymphs that Kristjan gave me and got a take on the first cast. What is amazing is the strength of the char. I fought the first fish and had to take him back to the bank to land him. After a couple of photos I waded back out. I took fish on the next cast and the one after. With the fourth fish I knew I had a special char on. This old fish was strong and smart. He ripped me into my backing, hid in rocks, and made for an incredible fight and when we landed him he was easily 6 lbs according to Kristjan. Evan then beat my best straight after. These char run into and out of the nearby lake and were in a pod and feeding when we encountered them. Before we left, Tarquin was almost cleaned out by a fish on a 7-weight, they were truly impressive. It was an amazing morning on the river. But the afternoon was something entirely different.

After lunch Kristjan said that if we liked what we had seen so far we “had not seen anything yet”. He certainly spoke the truth because after 30 minutes of driving we reached our next destination. I can honestly say that I have never seen or experienced anything like the upper Kaldakvisl river. I felt that I was in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel where Hobbits, Golum and other characters might roam. The river is stunningly beautiful above and below the water; I had a hard time registering what I was seeing or even focusing on fishing. The upper part of the river flows in a tight canyon about 80-100 feet below the rocky plains above. Columns of basalt in perfect squared or rounded shapes added geometric forms that catch your eye in the rocky walls. Small caves in the hillsides provided me some dry spots to rig up my fly rod from the misty rain that was falling. The river was deceptively deep in spots, which made me pay attention to my wading. The gin clear water would allow you to see three to four meters down, but when the river turned a clear but darker green I knew that I was looking at depths much greater than I wanted to contend with. Nevertheless, I was dry in my Patagonia Rio Gallegos waders and jacket and sure-footed with my stream cleats on so I did not worry about falling or getting wet.

Tarquin and I searched for fish in a deeper run that felt fishy. Indeed we spotted a nice char midstream and cast toward him. After repeated attempts he simply swam away. The river looked too good to hold only one fish, so I worked up further with a nymph and saw two fish shoot out from under my feet and move across to the far bank. That is when I realized that the river had worn through the rock banks and created undercut areas where trout and char would hold and come out to feed. I spotted and cast to a lighter colored fish that I identified as a brown trout and after a couple of drifts he took. It was a very strong fish and ran over the pool several times and fought much larger than its 18-inch size. Beautiful amber hued and spotted, I posed for a few photos with the fish and returned him into the river. Angus arrived and I shared the rod with him. While he fished I explored the winding river. Each turn opened to another breathtaking pool and geological formation that had to be fished and photographed. The green moss that grows on the rocks here has hints of chartreuse to it and it almost glows. My chartreuse Patagonia puff jacket glowed right beside the Kryptonite-colored moss. All too soon it was time to go and I was more than disappointed to have to leave. Kristjan says that there are miles of this river to fish and explore and I know that I will be back to do just that.

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[tab title=”June 18″]

The famous ‘Minni’ and West Ranga Trout and Salmon

Ben: As we headed out of the highlands we stopped at the ‘Minni’ or Minnivallalaekur, one of Iceland’s most iconic trout rivers. It is 7kms of water fished by four rods from a nice lodge, catered or self-catered, most self-cater. The ‘Minni’ is famous for the size of its brown trout (many in the 5lbs to 7lbs range with bigger) and the skill and focus required to catch them on midge dry flies in the prime summer season. It is a very attractive piece of water hence very popular but Throstur Ellidason is always willing to help us get space when we need it. We dropped Evan off at the ‘Minni’ and said goodbye. He was hitching a lift to the airport with someone. This was the first step of the team heading home. Our journey was reaching its conclusion; one felt part sadness and part relief due to the intensity of our journey.

The trout and variety of the landscape on the upper Ranga was a revelation. Outside the town of Selfoss, we drove to the lodge overlooking the West Ranga river. We were greeted by Johannes and Karl, whose operate the salmon and the trout fishing on the river. The West Ranga is formed from the clear and cold waters originating from Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Although the river is consistent in terms of water flow – it rarely gets off color – the cold water made it difficult for salmon to naturally reproduce and therefore the West Ranga is a ‘hatchery-assisted’ river, which makes it reliable.

The West Ranga is rather wide and flat, and staring at it from the back of the very comfortable lodge I was impressed with the holding water that I saw. The river is definitely for those who like to fish with double-handed rods, which will cover the long and wide pools. It averages about two meters deep and the bottom consists of volcanic sand, which makes for easy wading.

Karl drove Angus and me around the river and we stopped at various spots to look at the water that we could only wish to fish as the season was presently closed. However, I could see why the river has produced over 56,000 fish in the last seven years.

Karl then took us on a journey to see his trout operation located on the upper portion of the river. This part has had the salmon ladders closed allowing for the resident brown trout to thrive. The river was at least half the size of the salmon beats and meandered through the grassy hillsides and farmland. Once again, the river was easily waded and the prime holding water could be covered with a decent cast.

Karl told us that opening up the trout fishing is a new project and they are learning how best to fish it, and finding the productive places. West Ranga is a cold water river with a steady temperature, which varies little. The same applies to flow fluctuations. This has its advantages but consequently dry-fly fishing is confined to the warmest time in mid-June and July. The most common methods used for the rest of the season are upstream nymph searching the runs and pockets and streamers to cover even more water. This is not a numbers fishery but the fish are big with 5 to 7 lbs fish common sizes caught with double-figure fish a real possibility. May is certainly streamer time but can be fished with Lake Thingvallavatn for a great combination. In June, water levels settle and hatches begin mid-month with the use of size 14-16 black caddis and midge patterns. Streamers remain effective. In July, caddis is the main fly life but streamers are again effective in size 6 olive, white and black as well as black ghost patterns. Favored nymphs are 12-14 pheasant tails and cased caddis with floating line most common but versi-tips useful. The upper water reminds me of the Big Laxa trout water in shape and beauty but it is not the same temperature and does not have the same hatches. It is a different game here and there is more power to the flow in most of the sections. To catch such fish in powerful water is very tempting and worth the required time and effort.

We moved to the upper beat of his water, which was narrow and perfect for those who like to stalk trout. Karl put his waders on and grabbed a rod to show us how the fishing can be. On this particular section, the river turned and dropped, disappearing under the ground for several feet, only to reappear and open into a narrow pool surrounded by high banks. From here with our polarized glasses we spotted several very large browns holding in different parts of the pool. We guessed at them being at least 7 lbs or better and Karl was determined to catch one for us. The trout were not on the take but the sight of them left my companions and me wanting to take a shot at them the next time we return to Iceland.

Karl also mentioned that he had several kilometers of a spring creek, Galtalaekur that holds large browns in it – although we did not have time to see it, we did see some photos of the water and of some of the trout caught from it.

I was left feeling that the West Ranga is an exciting and untapped trout experience where you can wade into a pretty river and catch a great brown trout in a terrific setting. Who would not like that?

Tarquin: If it is reliable salmon fishing you seek then the West Ranga is a great option. This river, along with its sister river the East Ranga (they meet close to the estuary) were not really salmon rivers because they have colder water. Throstur Ellidason devised a well-known smolt release programme, which has lead to superb, reliable salmon fishing. The salmon do not spawn successfully because of the water temperatures but the salmon fishers are very successful. The techniques used are not the normal small fly/skated fly/floating line techniques typical of Iceland, but instead a double-handed rod, sink-tip line and a tube of varying sizes, which sure works well with West Ranga producing 4,230 to 14,315 fish a season over the last eight seasons.

The lodge is a typical Icelandic lodge set up based on ‘fish a rod/have a room’, ‘share a rod/share a room’ and there are plans for major upgrades for the 2015 season by the new proprietors. If, for some reason a lodge set up does not appeal there is the Hotel Ranga ten minutes away. West Ranga might be very well combined with its trout fishing (three days on each) or another Icelandic salmon river more typical of Iceland to have a contrasting experience and be almost sure of catching some fish.

The new proprietor, Karl Karlsson and his river manager, Johannes Henriksson, hosted us. They spent the day and evening with us showing us both the salmon and trout water and discussing their plans for the future.

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[tab title=”June 19″]

Breakfast with Ingo, Homeward Bound

Tarquin: We spent our last night in Iceland up late again chatting with the owners of West Ranga and admiring the river and views from the lodge. The late night got later because we were preparing to head home and there was a great deal of packing and final downloading of photographs to be done. We hit bed at 1.30 p.m. but sleep was a luxury because we had to head to Keflavik airport to meet up with Ingo Asgeirsson, the key man in charge of the Thvera/Kjarra and Vididalsa. We therefore woke up at 4 a.m. pretty bleary-eyed.

I have known Ingo for close on 25 years. He is one of life’s great enthusiasts, especially when it comes to salmon fishing in Iceland. He used to fish Nordura with his father every year and that is where I met him. At the time he was also one of Iceland’s top guides and I used to fight for my clients to have Ingo. In the 1990s he was a pilot in-waiting hoping for his big break but in the meantime he was a fishing DJ, calling in to the radio station each morning to report on the fishing etc. Only in Iceland can one have a radio station for fly fishing! He also ran a fishing school with his father and his best friend the Toti the Dentist, also a top salmon fisher with 20,000 salmon to his name. Ingo is immensely charming and enthusiastic, but really knows his onions and every trick in the book when it comes to salmon fishing in Iceland.

It has always been Ingo’s dream to run a salmon river and in 2012, that dream came true when he and his two partners won the bid to lease the famous Thvera/Kjarra which is one of Iceland’s best and was simply not available to the unconnected for thirty years. The 2013 season was a huge success, in part because Ingo listens to advice and suggestions, and proactively follows up to get things done. Of course, this makes clients feel valued and at home when the lodges are set up the way they like them, often at their suggestion. Soon the opportunity for the Vididalsa came up, this is a big fish river in the north-west and also highly regarded, and complements the Thvera/Kjarra well for a ‘three days at each’ combination if there is the space to do so. Vididalsa also has superb char fishing, the best in Iceland they say. Again, Ingo and his partners have done up the lodge superbly and their first season is starting as I write this. I wanted Ben and Angus to meet Ingo, and after Ben had headed back to the USA, Angus and I spent the day with him. Ingo is now a 747 pilot but takes his summers off to look after his fishing lodges and their clients. I think the best compliment I can pay Ingo is to relate the brief story of linking Ingo and a client headed to Thvera this summer up in Baku, Azerbaijan, where they both happened to be for different reasons. After dinner with Ingo the client called us to book for 2015 because he so enjoyed his company – months before his 2014 fishing in Iceland had even begun!

We headed home exhausted with 500 GB of video and 300 GB of photographs and a vastly greater knowledge of Iceland even after 30 years of advising clients on this incredible country. It is a land of such contrasts; from beautiful meadows and wild flowers to the harshest, most barren landscapes I have ever seen. It is a place of serenity and yet one cannot help but feel a huge sense of adventure and excitement being there. The weather can be some of the worst I have experienced and yet when the good weather comes it brings such beauty to the land, one cannot help but fall in love with the place. Icelander’s are a highly literate and poetic people and of course very friendly, and they positively bubble with excitement about their fishing. It truly is a magical place.

Ben: I admit that I have never read the works of Homer, but I feel that I have a new appreciation for his epic tales and I have found a kindred spirit in the character Odysseus on his long journey home from Troy. This journey to Iceland became my personal Odyssey—my epic tale of adventure, of meeting new people, fishing new rivers and seeing such contrasting and grand scenery that could be used as a setting for any action movie or adventure novel. My memory is scarred like the jagged rocks and cliffs that I saw on the Highland ’moon’ with my thoughts of Iceland; and like Homer, I will have to try to describe a place to those who have not yet made the trip with words that may not seem quite adequate for what has to be seen to be believed. This land of fire and ice will be on my mind until I return.

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