Photos by Keith McDonnell and Ciaran O’Kelly
Myself and Ciaran O’Kelly decided on a week long do-it-yourself fishing trip around Iceland hoping to get a better idea of the standard of fishing available. We had both fished Lake Pingvallavatn separately on previous trips and wanted to give the ice age trout another go but we also wanted to travel north to see the country and some other lesser known rivers and lakes. I had spent a number of months researching the ins and outs of trout fishing in Iceland both online and speaking to locals so we had narrowed it down to a number of fisheries Laxa i Laxardalur, Lake Pingvallavatn, Kaldiviskl and finally Villingavatn.
Having acquired a seriously beaten up Suzuki Jimny 4×4 we set off from Rekyavik towards the north to Laxa i Laxardalur. The sat-nav calculated a 5 hour 30 mins journey but actually it took alot longer than that! This was partly due to a lack of faith in our banger (it juddered like a go kart when applying the brakes) and some really filthy weather (which never really stopped). Thankfully I had dropped a pin on the map at a midway point and came up with a lovely guesthouse overlooking Svinavatn Lake. This allowed us stop for the night and break up the journey.
We arrived at Svinavatn at 9:30pm, dropped everything, quickly grabbed rods and ran for the lake. Both of us looked at the squally, foggy weather and big grey waves hitting the shore with some skepticism. The skepticism quickly disappeared with Ciaran hooking a fish almost immediately!
We covered the north shore of the lake in a hurry by leap-frogging and we began to refine the retrieve and fly pattern until we were catching beautiful Icelandic wild brown trout up to 1.75lbs on almost every second cast. After an hour of this, I decided to stop messing with the little guys and see if there were any bigger fish around. I put a large deer hair 5 inch streamer on an intermediate line and after a couple of casts a large trout of 5-6lbs charged the fly right to the bank and hit it viciously. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and the fish swam back to the drop off without hook attached. We ended the evening having caught some beautiful hard fighting trout. We were pleased that the last minute punt to stop and fish Svinavatn had worked out and allowed us to open the Icelandic account. Like a pair of kids we couldn’t help giving the lake a quick run again the following morning before hitting the road to Akureyri.
Next stop was the famous “Big Laxa”. Laxa is a noted trout river, said by many to be the greatest wild brown trout river in the world. That is a big statement and we wanted to find out if it was true. The Laxa is famous because of the size of the trout, their strength and the fact that given any opportunity, the fish will feed on the surface. We were to begin fishing at 4pm that day and barely made it to Raudholar fishing lodge in time to start. If I were to return, I would take an internal flight as the drive is exhausting. We arrived at a lodge in the middle of nowhere complete with Mercedes G-wagon parked outside. We immediately felt out of place..a pair of scruffy fish bums in the rich man’s fishing lodge! Bjarni the lodge manager greeted us and we felt at ease when we realised that everyone there was as fishy as we were!
Many rivers in Iceland have an unusual system whereby if you buy a license for a day it permits you to fish an afternoon session from 4pm -10pm and then the following morning from 8am – 2pm. The weather had deteriorated even further with a cold north wind and heavy rain. We set out to fish beat 3 on Laxardalur choosing to target streamy broken water first. Ciaran was quickly into a fish that took his Game-Changer streamer close to his feet. I left my pool and ran to net and photograph the first Laxa trout. It was a really dark, almost black cock fish that was still getting over the rigors of spawning. Not a bad start!
I quickly fished through the pool I had started in not having any great faith that it was the right water to be fishing for these big trout. I was looking upstream at the tail of the next pool thinking it looked like a perfect place for a good fish; A 100 meter glyde broken up by large shards of Lava rock and sure enough a boil at the surface indicating a fish on the move confirmed my suspicions. I cast to the first lava rock, one strip, and bang! a large fish stopped the fly thrashed for a second but failed to stick. I cast to the next rock and bang another large fish nailed the fly but also got away with his mistake. I was starting to get frustrated when I spotted the nicest part of the glyde where a number of licks of faster water converged and were broken into a poppily patch of water at the top of the glyde. Like before, first strip and bang! Only this time the fish was on. A large angry cock fish leapt from the water showing me his size. The relief to finally be connected to a big Icelandic trout was so much I let a loud cry of pure joy. I was as excited as I could possibly be. I played the strong fish for a few minutes and managed to keep him from running downstream into the faster water and he then began to tire. I had just commented to Ciaran that he was going to stay in the pool when he took a dive at a drop off close to the bank and I felt a grating feeling on the line and POP! 15lbs flurocarbon came back at me. I went from exhilaration to complete despair in that split second. Yep, he really did stay in the pool! Three big trout takes in one pool and not one on the bank. This is a common occurance when streamer fishing. The fish aren’t really juiced up and simply snap at the fly to get it out of the way.
The scene of the lost piggy.
We fished on upstream we both of us turning and hooking a number of really big fish but nothing stuck. At about 9 am Ciaran shouted; I’m in! and I turned to see his rod bouncing as a large trout headed for the tail of the pool. I arrived with the net. I set the camera to record the battle and the fish headed back towards Ciaran and seemingly things were under control until the rod went straight and fly came out of the fish. Exhilaration became despair once again.
Ciaran into a big trout just before the rod went straight.
I walked downstream deflated and made a couple of half-hearted casts into a seam and a double-figure trout charged back at my fly before running out of road and seeing me …he turned away leaving me with that sinking feeling again. I eventually gave up casting to the same spot, took two steps and the water exploded with a big trout who took the streamer like he meant it. I let a roar for Ciaran to help me with the net. The fish was fighting so hard I couldn’t take my hand off the reel or it would have been a much longer run through the rapids chasing this fish. After a number of tense moments, the fish was in the net. 6.5lbs and in prime condition. Mission accomplished! I was a very happy man.
Now that I had the job done I was happy to stop fishing and see if I could scout the water for Ciaran as we only had about 20 minutes of fishing time left at this point. In the very last little corner before the rapids, Ciaran managed a beautiful silver 2lber that looked like one of the guys from Pingvallavatn.
Ciaran wasn’t going to give up and marched back to the top of the pool where he had lost the big trout less than an hour earlier. His fly was coming across what looked like a perfect spot, we were saying “how can there not be a trout there” and Bang! the water exploded as an angry cock fish tried to leave the pool with Ciarans Game-Changer firmly attached to its big mouth. The fish was in the net at 10:04pm and the rule is that you must stop fishing at 10pm.
The most unfortunate thing about this is that the real magic happens in Iceland at dusk and we had to finish fishing just when the trout were starting to take the streamer well.
The following morning the strong north wind persisted but unfortunately, most of the cloud cover was gone so we were stuck with a bright dazzling sun. The only bit of excitement all morning was a 22 inch Arctic char that took the streamer. The fish was not in great condition but it was a first for me and apparently there aren’t many in this system.
Arctic char liked Hugdoo articulated streamer.
One of the other guests got a fish on the nymph. We spent some time nymphing but neither Ciaran or I have any real interest in the method, and so we returned to the lodge for a fabulous lunch before hitting the road for Lake Pingvallavatn.
We both agreed that Laxa is a remarkable trout river and we were sorry to leave without experiencing the famous dry fly fishing. One thing that struck me as very odd is that the belief is that these fish sustain themselves feeding on midge. I had commented on the abundance of small Harlequin ducks. They were almost certainly trying to stay out of trouble by swimming tight to the bank on the river in shallow water. My suspicions were confirmed when Ciaran found a photo in the Lodge pre-catch and release showing a large trout that had been eating ducks!
The Laxa fish have huge mouths, typical of big trout that eat large meals. And their teeth are no joke either. I spent the remainder of the trip with a sore “Fish-Finger” after a Laxa trout tried to eat me!
Trout Finger, it hurts!
After another epic drive through the Icelandic wilderness we arrived at Lake Pingvallavatn. This time our accommodation was a simple guest house on a farm. Our beat for two days was to be Villingavatnsárós (meaning the mouth of river Villingavatnsá) We headed for the Lake and were disappointed to find only a trickle of water coming from the river into the lake and the sun splitting the stones! If you ever fish Pingvallavatn watch out for Arctic Terns, attacking humans is a sport for them! It was a novelty at first and really the birds are protecting their nests but they really enjoy themselves and after a while it gets frustrating.
Arctic Terns are otherwise known as; See you next Tuesdays!
These were very challenging conditions to try and deceive fish and it wasn’t until an hour before sunset that we had some success.
By kneeling on the beach and casting a klinkhammer with a tiny caddis pupa hanging from the bend about 2-rod lengths out, I hooked the first Pingy trout that tore out into the lake taking a lot of my backing with him. Ciaran scooped him in the net and at 5lbs he was just a baby. There aren’t many places in the world where a 5lber doesn’t scratch the itch but Lake Pingvallavatn is one of them.
Ah sure I don’t look that pissed off with my 5lber!
Ciaran was next on strike and his first cast resulted in an explosion on the surface of the lake and his backing disappeared at a ridiculous rate. The fish jumped at a distance of over 100 meters out in the lake. We knew immediately that the fish was double figures. I reminded him that the fly was just a size 14 light wire hook and he winced! In fairness, Ciaran held his nerve and played the fish hard. After about 15 minutes the fish began to slow down. It was still next to impossible to turn its head. I ran up and down the beach with the net looking for an opportunity to get it under the fish. At last the chance came and as the fish was swimming away from me I slid the net under it and lifted. A stunning 13lbs hen trout.
Fat 13lbs Pingvallavatn trout on a dry fly for Ciaran O’Kelly
Ciaran, humble as always commented that it didn’t seem right to be able to just walk up to a fishery and catch a wild double figure trout. I was back in the saddle and my next cast resulted in a 3lber.
Note the deformed maxillary from a previous poor C&R
I rose a further large fish and after that, the fish switched off again and it was all over.
Hoping for another rise but in reality this is the expression of a fellow who knows the game is finished!
The next day saw the weather deteriorate again and the wind changed to southeasterly. I was soaked to the skin twice in the day. Ciaran has a very clever trick to dry a jacket quickly by putting the jacket on the car dash and putting the blower on full. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been fishing again in the evening session. We failed miserably and the arctic terns drove the boot in further by attacking us repeatedly and taking a shite on Ciaran!
The next morning we set off early for the highlands to fish the Kaldakvisl river. This river is being marketed as an Artic char and brown trout fishery. I called the fishery manager for directions on the road and he mentioned that there would be another angler and his guide on the river mouth which is the hotspot on the river for char. When we arrived having driven off-road to get there I was really disappointed to find a guide and his client fishing the best pool.
This is an unfortunate situation as fishing in Iceland is extraordinarily expensive and the general pitch from is that you won’t bump into another angler. A simple solution would have been to split the river into two beats and swap in the afternoon. There is so much water in Iceland that it should never be necessary to fish water that someone else has already fished that day.
As it turned out, arctic char are pretty stupid and easy to catch. We got bored quickly and left to find some trout further upstream. There was a serious caddis hatch and a few trout began to rise. We managed a couple of fish up to 2.5lbs and their strength was incredible.
Our plan for the evening was to get upstream to a waterfall that has a reputation for holding some larger fish. After 2.5 hours of getting lost, driving on gravel and rough stream crossings in our little Jimny, we arrived at the most magnificent waterfall with deep turquoise pools.
A stunning waterfall on the Kaldakvisl river.
Ciaran immediately hooked a nice trout on a game changer in probably the most spectacular location either of us has ever fished. I hit a big trout and it didn’t stick(what’s new?.. I hear you say)
Ciaran, Waterfall, Trout and tan Game-Changer streamer
3lbs meat eater goes back none the worse for wear.
We moved downstream to the next pool and I cast the Hughdoo streamer to the far bank, one bounce of the rod tip and the rod hooped over immediately. The fish felt really heavy and took off downstream at tremendous speed. I mentioned to Ciaran that this was either the largest trout I had ever hooked or it was foul hooked. After a serious fight we netted the fish and sure enough, it wasn’t my biggest and it had come at the fly but got the back hook of the articulated streamer stuck in the base of one of its pectoral fins.
Big guy who got the streamer stuck in his Pectoral fin.
Once again the fish had switched on for a magic hour and switched off again just as quickly. We had a long drive home to bed and he had to stop for a sleep on the way as neither of us were fit to drive. We eventually made it back to the farm in the early hours of the morning and enjoyed a well-deserved rest. It was midday on our final day in Iceland before we got going to fish again.
Our last day fishing in Iceland was on a small lake that is connected to Pingvallavatn and holds some very large trout indeed. Once again we had a filthy wet windy day and we fished our big streamers with the intention of targeting the biggest fish. The fish had other ideas and half-heartedly snapped at the flies. Between the two of us, we had 18 expressions of interest and hookups but none resulted in a single fish on the bank.
We took a break for dinner and when we arrived back at the lake I was straight into a fish of 3lbs As I was netting the fish a huge trout came in to attack my 3lber! what an amazing sight. I’ll keep it to myself as to the size I estimated that fish to be as I don’t think you would believe me.
Ciaran got a 5lbs fish just as the wind began to drop. The lake was in a cycle of going almost flat calm followed by a gust of wind. When the wind would stop I could hear the familiar sound of buzzers flying close to my ear and right on cue a fish rose in front of me. I cursed myself for not bringing my dry fly kit down to the lake. Wind dropped, buzzer buzzed and fish rose. This happened once more and I dropped to my knees so I could pull my bag apart to find a dry fly. I eventually found the remains of a #16 F-fly in my hat and tied it on. My heart was in my mouth, I stood there listening intently to the wind and willing it to drop once more. As it dropped the final time it was a massive relief and sure enough, a fish rose on the other side of the bay. I ran around the bay as quickly as I could and cast the little F-fly in the direction I thought the fish had been traveling. A huge beak came through the surface and sucked in the fly and turned down. A beautiful orange shoulder followed and an adipose fin the diameter of a golf ball. I held my nerve and struck! Nothing! the fly never even touched the fish’s jaw on the way out of his mouth. That was the last cast in Iceland. So now as I reflect on the trip. I think how lucky we were to be able to go and spend a week fishing for wild trout in a place that is unpolluted and where rivers and lakes are mostly as they were since the last ice age. It was a a fantastic week. If the truth be known I was a small bit disappointed not to get a really big Pingvallavatn trout but it turns out Ciaran was wrong, you can’t just walk up and catch double figure trout, even in Iceland!