Touching down at Keflavik airport in Iceland is always a somewhat surreal experience. The lunar landscape surrounding Reykjavik’s international airport feels very foreign to the pastoral fields I had left. I barely noticed the 3 hour flight from Stansted as my mind flitted excitedly about what lay before me. The last time I had fished in Iceland had been on the Laxa I Adaldal in the North, and the Laxa í Kjos in the South West, and although I had loved every minute of the contradicting fishing techniques, I had come away feeling I had barely scratched the surface. I hoped this trip might give me much more of an insight into what made 60,000 of the 297,000 population of this country obsessed with salmon fishing.
Haraldur Eiriksson (Halli), my colleague at the Reykjavik Angling Club, met me at the airport and we soon were heading north towards the area of Borgarfjördur and the fabled Nordurá, consistently one of the top three most productive rivers in Iceland. The Reykjavik Angling Club has held the lease here for 60 years, and the 55 km provides plenty of fishing for its 15 rods. It is broken down into two sections, the upper section beginning to fish later in the season.
The drive of 45 minutes wound through incredible scenery of broad glacial valleys and high peaked cliffs, and Halli gave me the history and statistical run down of each river we passed. Approximately five hours after leaving Stansted I was casting a line across Laxafoss, salmon porpoising into the tail of the pool in front of me. Nordurá is a little different to most Icelandic rivers in that it is actually quite broad, although not particularly deep. The rocks strewn bottom can be clearly seen through the gin clear water making the rifling hitch particularly exciting to fish. Often the fish are seen following the fly before they accelerate and pounce. The valley and canyon etched out by some ancient glacier provide a dramatic vista to this clear running river, punctuated in places by clouds of steam from hot springs gushing freely from the ground. A perfect way to warm up cold feet!
The Rjúpnahaed Lodge on Nordurá has to be seen to be believed, and is one of the finest I have stayed at on any salmon river. The lodge is more like a private hotel. The standard of food and attentive service are fantastic, and it is equipped with such luxuries as wireless broadband throughout the building. It is a typically Scandinavian edifice, wooden throughout, comfortable rooms with ensuite bathrooms and gallons of hot water. There are two drying rooms, one in the main building, and one at the end of the annex opposite. Both have hot air blowers to stick waders on which means no more slightly damp socks! The sitting room has the most incredible view of the Laxfoss from its windows.
The following morning we bounced out of the lodge like coiled springs, ready to do battle with those fresh fish that would have run up from the sea overnight. Halli drove us down to the coveted Stokkhylsbrot pool in the canyon, often one of the biggest producers in the early season. As we descended down the walk way the river opened up beneath us, the early morning sun lighting up the entire pool with that beautiful greenish blue colour. Polaroids were donned and the frantic scanning began. I headed down to the river while my companion scrambled further round to gain a better vantage point of the tail. I began to strip line off my reel and loosen the shoulders with a couple of Spey casts higher up the pool until I was alerted by a whistle from Halli, accompanied by frantic gesticulations that I took to mean there was a pod of fish holding in the tail.
After I had received direction from further gestures on high the line sang out across the upper riffle, and the hitched Sunray began its drift making that perfect greasy v-wake. Over the lie it travelled and I tensed up expectantly, eagerly waiting for that bulge and splash…. An ooooooh, closely followed by an aaahhhh and something muttered in Icelandic that I presumed to mean ” Damn!” suggested that the fish had moved to the fly, but not taken. My heart was thumping as I punched out another Spey cast to the same length of line, again waiting as the fly bumbled over the surface and towards the lie. Nothing.. Time to change tactics. I flicked the line up, grabbed the fly and switched to a small Loop Bottle Temple Dog. Time to drift it right past its nose…
Again I punched the line out across the pool, this time with more of a square cast followed by a quick upstream mend to allow it some depth. The fly came screaming round the current and almost on cue as it passed through the lie I was rewarded with a wrench and a weight on the rod. The reel made a satisfying screech and the fish was on! Yells of encouragement came from Halli’s lofty perch, and he began to scramble down the bank to help me land it. After a few good runs and some rather un-nerving head shakes, the steady side ways pressure unbalanced him and I slid him towards the bank before firmly grabbing the wrist and holding him underwater. A beautiful bar of silver, still covered in long tailed sea lice. I immediately put his head back into the current, and he revived rapidly, breaking my grip with a flick of his tail. I watched him glide across the pool in the clear water, no doubt to sulk in some sheltered lie.
The rest of the morning was spent trying to raise fish on a hitched Sunray, and having had a few fantastic silver slashes at the fly which gave us a huge sense of pleasure, nothing further actually hooked up. Rods were fastened to the car and this happy little band sped off in Halli’s comfortable 4×4 to try our luck at Hitará, a mere 30 minutes drive away.
Hitará is a very different river to Nordurá, smaller and more intimate in nature. On arrival we headed inside to have a look at the fish book to see how they were getting on. The sitting room in this lovely little lodge holds one of the largest collections of stuffed birds in Iceland. It also has a magnificent window over looking the pool ten yards below it. As we sat looking at the catch statistics sipping coffee Halli spotted three salmon between six and ten pounds come gliding up through the tail of the pool, directly into the glassy section below us. We watched in awe as they hung there, almost suspended in air in the clarity of the water. A flick of their tails, and they continued on their way towards the falls.
Hitará is much more like a typical Icelandic river, complex currents, clear pools, small flies and technical fishing over its 29 kilometres. The river accommodates six rods on the main salmon section and is ideal for intact parties. A single handed rod or a really light two hander are ideal here, and anglers are rewarded with quite a number of fish over the seven pound mark. I especially enjoyed fishing the upper stretch; it is quite wild, not unlike a Hebredian river bank, and apart from a good number of salmon caught up here towards the end of July there is excellent Arctic char and trout fishing. The char have been caught up six and seven pounds and add a great diversity to the fishing if the salmon fishing is slow.
After a huge amount of fun on Hitará and a quick look at the Skuggafoss falls on Langá its neighbour, once again we saddled up and headed east. Running into the same river system as Nordurá is Glúfurá, one of the most enchanting rivers I have ever seen. Glúfurá is a three rod river, most of which is contracted through a stunning canyon that causes some fantastic pocket water, ideal for hitching small Francis and tubes. Although it is 19 km long, salmon can only navigate 13 km as far as the Klaufhamarsfoss Falls.
This river really made me excited, and is absolutely perfect for reasonably fit fishermen who enjoy stealthy technical fishing. Your first glimpse is of this turquoise clear water flowing through the canyon as you drive over the road bridge near Svignaskard, and immediately has you straining you neck to see behind you. From the edge of the canyon it is possible to peer over the edge straight in the crystal clear water about 50 ft below you. Fishing this river was an absolute joy, and I could have spent an entire week losing myself amongst its rocks, white water pockets and salmon. Stealth is definitely an asset as there is not much room to manoeuvre between the salmon and angler, but what a river for studying salmon behaviour!
The Glúfurá lodge is very new with all modern conveniences including a hot tub. There are four roomy en-suite bedrooms, and even though it comes self catering, the staff at Nordurá can bring food over from the lodge and turn this into a fully catered operation. It would be perfect for a party looking to relax and do some interesting fishing.
Continuing our path east we arrived at Grimsá. Grimsá has fantastic topography with many hard bands of volcanic rock creating some truly striking river features. There are over 70 marked pools along its 42 km length, many with exciting characters all of their own. It is a much coveted river, and has been fished by international clientele for many years…when space has become available! At the bottom of the river is yet another Laxfoss, although this one is somewhat unique. The Lodge, which even makes Nordurá look shabby, sits atop a bluff over looking the Laxafoss. Clients can actually watch salmon leaping the falls through the huge panoramic windows while they have dinner!
Where the main current comes over the falls the river opens out into a form of bay, and it is possible to wade out and fish across the current as if you were on a bonefish flat. It was here among the currents of Thingnesstrengir that I found myself before dinner, casting a large plastic tube fly across the current and stripping it back as fast as I could. This is often an extremely effective method with fresh running fish, and this was no exception. On the third cast a fish exploded onto the fly, and proceeded to scream up and down the pool before tail walking a couple of times. I managed to regain control and bullied him in hard. If I am to release a fish, which I always do unless it is damaged, I like to play them as hard as possible so that they may swim away without being completely exhausted. I use a similar philosophy when it comes to saltwater fishing. After a great fight on a single handed rod my guide tagged and released it to continue on its way up the falls.
By this stage the 24 hour daylight and land of the mid night sun were beginning to take their toll a little and I was beginning to feel less like a coiled spring and more like one that had exceeded its elastic limit! We spent a magical time in the early hours of the morning sitting by the falls watching the salmon throw themselves at the torrent of water. Often the fish hung to the side if the white water with their backs and tails exposed to the air as they gained their breath for the next obstacle. The tail would quicken, and then with a flash of silver would hurl itself at the white water. It was a lovely way to finish our stay.
Once again it was time to head south, this time back to Laxa i Kjos which I looked forward to with great anticipation. The route down took us past another understated salmon river, the Andakílsá. This serene little river has only about 5km of fishing between a couple of rods on the salmon section, but meanders its way through the grassy meadows and has extremely easy access for those who are less mobile. There are separate salmon and trout sections, with the trout section also producing good numbers of sea run arctic char.
As we drove across the road bridge of Laxa í Kjos, we immediately stopped the vehicle and wandered back to peer over the bridge into the pockets below. This is somewhat of a ritual. Having just had the highest spring tide of the month we expected to see a few grey shapes hanging in the current below, but the angle of the sun made it tricky to spot them. I turned to look up the valley to see the river cascading down the delicious looking tiered holes, pockets and rifles. It was here among the rocks and white water that I had learnt the art of hitched flies under the watchful eye of my guide, and at last gained faith in fishing small flies for salmon. Having cut my teeth as a guide for three seasons in Norway and subsequently fished in Russia, I had always thought big was beautiful. On some days we had taken fish on size 16 red and black Francis’, skittered over the quite glides between the white water. I had never believed it until actually experiencing it, and this much lighter approach had been somewhat of a revelation to me, completely changing the way in which I now fished for salmon.
As I scanned the river my eye naturally came to rest on the new lodge nestled in the foreground over looking one of the most productive stretches. I eagerly jumped back into the vehicle and in 3 minutes we were standing in the new hall, admiring the modern design and the vaulted ceilings. To the same standard as the Grimsá lodge, the new Kjos lodge is absolutely superb. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, with all the fittings and facilities you would expect to find in a quality hotel in Reykjavik. The front terrace opens directly onto the river providing the most fantastic view. The progress of the fishermen on the lower section can be easily be followed from the comfort of the leather sofas.
The Laxa í Kjos has about 17km that the salmon can pass before being terminated at the very dramatic falls above the canyon. With over 100 marked pools it is the shear diversity of fishing here that makes it so exciting. The upper stretch has phenomenal rock pools leading down through the canyon, and Pokafoss falls here will enchant you. The River then moves out of the hard band of rock and meanders its way through beautiful gravel pools in the midsection. Stealth is an asset here, and a breeze to riffle the surface helps hugely to prevent detection. The meadows below are exceptionally good for sea trout, before it piles through further larval formations as mentioned before in the lower part.
Two kilometres below Thórufoss the Bugda, a small but very productive tributary runs into the Kjos. Bugda resembles in places an English chalkstream, and is the last place one would expect to catch salmon, but it is perfect to fish with a small 6# and dry fly. I was flabbergasted when I fished it last in taking a 7lbs cock salmon on a size 12 Humpy dry fly. It actually came up and took it like a trout, indeed I thought it was a trout until it jumped and spun off down the pool.
From Kjos we drove cross country, again heading South East and skirting to the North of Reykjavik in the Thingvellir National Park. The only way to describe the scenery is huge. Big sky, big mountains, big lake. The old lava flows covered in cracks and crevasses (that you can walk through if you wish) end abruptly at the waters edge of lake Thingvallavatn, the largest spring fed lake in Iceland at 84 km². Apart from holding enormous trout and four species of char, Thingvallavatn is also the source of the Sog. Although the Sog is not what it used to be due to the Hydro electric plant at its head, but it still has a good population of larger than average salmon.
The main beats are Alvidra, Bíldsfell, Ásgardur and Sydri-Brú. The river is large, wide and deep with some larval fissures clearly outlined in the clear blue water. It does have excellent access over its 20km, a number of comfortable little self catering lodges, and is better suited to those who like to fish with a two handed rod. For those that don’t wish to self cater, there is a good restaurant right on the river bank. Although we fished Sog hard, we failed to move a fish, although I was captivated by the clarity of the water in the lower beats. Any second I was expecting something to rise from the deep fissure and engulf the fly, but alas it was not to be. This river is definitely better fished with a sink tip and heavier flies, as not only is it deep, but it is deceptively fast flowing. The Sog opens on the 14th June and runs through until the 28th of September with the prime being in August. Even though we were there a little too early for optimum fishing, it was a beautiful river to fish.
As well as the Sog there is another river that runs into the Hvítá which should quicken the hearts of any truly adventurous salmon fishermen, and that is the Stóra-Laxá. A little further North East from the Sog this incredible river spends 10km of its length running through a canyon called Laxárgljúfur that is some places is over 150 metres deep. At this stage it is almost exclusively fished by Icelandics, and provides some of the most challenging fishing for big fish that I believe exists. Ten rods fish over four fishing areas with beats one and two being grouped together. These flow through the alluvial plains below the canyon, and are actually where most of the fish are caught (mostly as this is where most people fish). The average catch is 300 fish a year, but quite often fish of over 20lbs are a reality here. Two handed rods and large flies are the way to combat it, and is reminiscent of Norwegian style fishing. Many of the Icelandics have a love hate relationship with this river, but it has almost made me more excited than any other as it is a real challenge!
We turned our heads for home and began the hours drive back to Reykjavik. Even here the game was not completed as we stopped at the fish counter on the Ellidaár. This small river flows through the city, and is often the first experience that many have of salmon fishing there. The Angling Club has father and son days where the knowledge and joy gained over the years can be passed down from one to the other. The numbers were up, and as we watched fishermen from the road bridge we could see fish pushing up through the pool on the evening tide. The time had gone so fast, and even though I had the opportunity to learn a vast amount more about this magnificent country, I still feel like I have barely scratched the surface! I do now know why 60,000 members of the population are obsessive salmon fisherman……
We will be offering rods on all of these rivers for the coming season, and many more.