Tackle consultant, expert angler and seasoned fishing guide Chris Ogborne reports on a special fly fishing trip to Iceland, in search of mythical brown trout of gigantic proportions. Read to find out whether the myths matched the reality!
It’s a sad fact of life that so many fishing trips turn out to be, well, slightly less than your expectations. Travel companies turn on the hype, famous anglers report on the good bits and omit all the downsides, and all too often you’re left with the feeling that it was all slightly over-egged. The reality rarely lives up to the myth….
Not so with Lake Thingvallavatn. I was lucky enough to be invited to fish this fabled place, set in remote countryside in the Thingvellir National Park in Iceland. Surprisingly it’s actually quite easy to get to it – pack your fly fishing tackle, fly to Reykjavik and then either hire a car or guide and its less than a two hour drive from the capital. But in that two hours the contrast could not be more marked for as you leave the urban environment behind you enter the rugged, austere but stunningly beautiful landscape of rural Iceland. In mid May the mountains are still snow-covered and indeed there was lying snow even at low levels, as spring is only just beginning. And then you see the lake, a vast sheet of blue water nestling in a huge rift valley some 12 miles long. As always with a new venue, you get that tingle of anticipation: could the stories of giant trout be true? Can the average size really be around 5lbs? Can the water really be that clear?
On my first day of fishing those questions were answered – all in the affirmative! To be honest, the reality was even better than the stories because Lake Thingvallavatn is truly the most amazing, most spectacular and arguably the most beautiful fly fishing destination I’ve ever seen. Many thousands of years ago it was open to the sea but now it’s landlocked, with a brown trout strain that reaches far back into history.
The stats are daunting at first, and probably best ignored. Yes it’s a vast body of water many miles long and yes the water temperature rarely rises beyond single figures of degrees, even in the short Icelandic summer. But what matters is that there are places, just a few special spots, where the inflow of thermal spring warm water creates a micro climate, providing conditions where huge shoals of small Char congregate. And those small Char provide food for the resident wild Brown trout, who feed on them relentlessly. And gain weight. Lots of weight, and lots of condition. And they reach epic proportions. Read on……….
On my first full day our guide Bjarni took us to his favourite spot where a small river flows in to the lake. The river is fed by thermal springs and it has colour, that milky green colour you get from snow-melt. This colour spreads out along the bank and it was here that Bjarni said we’d find the fish. To be honest, conditions weren’t easy as there was a strong, icy on-shore wind, rain showers, and the temperature was struggling to get to 5 degrees. Hardly conducive to great fly fishing. But after less than five minutes my fishing companion was into a fish. I heard his shout at the same time that I heard the sound of his reel, emptying fly line and then backing at a slightly alarming rate. By the time I’d put my rod down and walked to his side he had lost nearly 200 metres of backing from the reel! We exchanged meaningful glances. Perhaps the stories of giant trout that fought like salmon and looked like sea trout were true? Fifteen minutes later and after a spectacular fight that included getting all the line back on the reel, losing it all again (twice!), and huge bow wave surges, the fish was ready for the net. All eight pounds of it. We took the obligatory photos, admired the beauty of the silver-blue flanks and then released it. Far from being a sluggish swim-away, the trout took off through the shallows as though nothing had happened, fresh and strong. We both high-fived with Bjarni. This was going to be a special trip!
And so it was. We fished a whole mix of flies over the four days, using everything from streamers through nymphs and even dry fly. Some of the beats involve water inflow whilst others are long lava-black gravel beaches. We saw loads of Char that the fish obviously feed on – one fish that we took for dinner had a ten inch Char inside it – and also experienced a sporadic sedge hatch that provoked a casual interest from the fish. I say ‘casual’ because we and the guides are convinced that the fish feed mostly at night, spending the days happily enjoying the warmer water locations where they literally frolic in the shallows. They will obviously chase a fly and will certainly take a dry if presented well, but the reason for their great size and amazing condition and fighting qualities is their staple diet – small Char.
Highlights of the fishing are too many to list. Over four days I caught and released three doubles, the largest of which is a lifetime PB for me at 11lbs 4ozs, probably the biggest wild brown I will ever catch. It went like a train and took nearly twenty minutes to subdue. Whilst it was obviously special I think it was equaled by the stunning 8 pounder that I caught on a dry hopper. We’d seen fish showing interest in a sedge hatch in a wide bay, slashing at the insects within feet of the bank. Bjarni and I sat in the shallows to keep as low a profile as possible as there was no cover at all to hide us, and the fish took the fly with a savage slash. Another highlight, or low light depending on your point of view, was having played a huge double figure fish that took the dry dropper for five minutes and then seeing a fish of four pounds or so take the trailing nymph. Long leaders are essential so that black damsel must have looked so good to a passing fish. Guess which one got away?
Tactically you need to be aware that these are huge, immensely strong and dramatically fighting fish. Leader strength needs to reflect this. Even on dry fly I was using nothing less that 3X Airflo Sight Free Platinum fluoro and for streamers you want 1X if you expect to keep the fish on the line. Single fly is used for everything except dry fly work, and even there I could make a strong case for single dry fly only. The water is literally crystal clear so long leaders are the order of the day and they needed to be well treated to get rid of any shine. I was using the Super Dri Elite line on my 10 foot 7 weight most of the time. The rod is the Airflo Elite kit rod, fantastic value and a perfectly balanced outfit that’s ideal for travel fishing, being a 4 section with a custom case which also takes your reel. Long casting is not usually needed as the fish hold close the shoreline, but accuracy and presentation are vital. So too is good watercraft, as the fish will spook very easily in the gin clear water . If you have the luxury of rocky outcrops then use them for cover, but if not you’ll need to get down as low as possible as any form of skylining is treated with scorn. Remember that these are truly wild fish and they don’t grow to this size without learning a thing or two.
I’d also have to say that I was massively impressed by my Airflo clothing. The low temperatures and biting winds meant multiple layers were needed, and all too often this results is restriction of movement. But the Airtex jacket was perfect, very comfortable and with no feeling of bulk at all in spite of three underlayers. I stayed warm and dry even in the face of a near blizzard of hail and rain, whilst others in our party were getting wet in far more expensive gear. The new Airweld fishing waders also performed supremely well, even putting up with the obligatory knee-walking on gravel beaches. You need to stay comfortable and dry in conditions like this if you’re going to fish effectively, and that’s exactly what happened.
It would be wrong to pretend that this is easily reachable or affordable fishing, because it’s not. I was privileged to be invited by a great friend of mine to join his party, but otherwise it needs to be said that these trips are not cheap. Most are custom packages created by the specialist travel company Frontiers, who will sort out the whole thing for you from flights through to hotels and top class guides . They can be found on www.frontierstrvl.co.uk and I can totally endorse their service.
As a final note, it has to be said that Iceland is one of the top destinations in the World for the serious fisher. I’ve been three times now, and every trip is special. The rivers have some of the best salmon and char fishing, the seas are full of all kinds of sporting species, and the lakes are just superb. And for me, Lake Thingvallavatn tops them all. If its not there already, it should go on your bucket list. I’ve been around the World a bit and there’s nothing in my experience that comes close. Not even remotely close! The largest trout this year (so far) is over 20lbs and the record for the lake is, incredibly, over 30lbs With every cast you make there is the very real chance of a fish of a lifetime. This is the stuff of myth, magic and dreams. Iceland, land of ice and fire, is truly one of fishing’s ultimate destinations.