A great memory - This story just couldn't wait for the book..
Iceland - Lake Thingvallavatn 2016
My first trip to Iceland, my head is filled with pictures of a land of mountains, ice, hot springs and fly fishing so special, it goes somewhere beyond reality, till this point, a land I have found only in my dreams.
But I'm here, in reality, it's April 17 2016, three days fishing with my pal and fishing partner Andy Majerus at Lake Thingvallavatn lie ahead. The approach in the small turbo prop plane is bouncy to say the least, the stormy day masking an almost lunar landscape, but as the wheels run along the cold wet runaway, my excitement goes up yet another notch.
After meeting Andy and being picked up by our Frontiers guide, Bjarni Jonsson, It's little more than an hours drive to the lake and the first thing I notice about this place is, once away from the busy airport is, there are very few cars, and the further we drive from Reykjavík, the higher into the mountainous area, even less.
The flight and drive wakens my sense of adventure, somewhere new, what will it bring? Further into the mountains and, our first sighting of the lake. Lake! It's a small sea, and the storm is blowing waves up to a couple of meters high, mmm, not sure about the day fly today! However, this is Iceland, not Scotland or anywhere else, this is a land of surprise, a land where, possibly, your dreams may come true!
The road winds on, frequent snow showers flashing over the lake remind me of home on a February day with the most amazing light, almost black when the showers at its peak, but then beautiful sunshine. Trout fishing in this! Can this be for real? As a salmon fisherman with little experience of trout, I'm intrigued. Will Trout really take in such conditions?
The Beach - One of the two very good areas controlled by the Ion Adventure Lodge
Our arrival at one of the two main fishing areas we meet Joey, the main guide from ION, the hotel that runs the fishery. The wind is so strong I hardly hear what he’s saying, and did I hear right! He looks and sounds like an Irishman, all smiles, cheery and even on such a day, very happy to be there and greet us. The next sentence I'm a little closer, of course he's not Irish, what the hell was I thinking, he’s a Icelander, a big character with a smile and greeting exactly as one would expect from a guide of such experience. The people may be very welcoming but the Lake! Well, that's a different thing! Although our two American fishing companions, Doc and Paul, have caught five fish today and we could go and fish the final hour of the day, with waves coming ashore like a Tsunami, the storm is such that Andy and I feel this time will be much better spent putting together a strategy for tomorrow. Planning our attack on this Lake was going to require a strategy and planning the inspiration for which always seems easier when sipping a large Macallan. Clearly no more fish would be caught today so focus turned to Tuesday.
The most Beautiful Fish
Day one –
After a great breakfast with both guides and our friends from the states, it was tackle up and head to the river. My rod of choice was a 7 weight. The other, a 5 weight travel I'd use for dry fly. “Thankfully” however, I'd packed my Greys switch rod, as a predominantly double handed caster, given the extremely windy conditions, this was to be a “godsend”! A switch rod but more importantly, a switch line, are a “must” at this time and in those conditions.
We arrive at the river, a crystal clear tributary meanders through the most beautiful landscape, It's spring, hundreds of wading birds going through mating courtships turn this amazing landscape into a pipe and whistle symphony; nature playing a tune especially for our enjoyment as we fish! Could this actually get any better?
I'm learning that, even more so than that of salmon fishing, “stealth” plays a big part and is important when it comes to those, very different from Salmon in the river, feeding machines. We begin with short lines, fishing close to the beach in shallow water. Although big, if undisturbed, the trout in this lake can be found in literally inches of water, we adopt a pincer move on the part of the lake where the tributary meets the lake, one either side slowly we move forward, each cast landing in a different part of an ark, then a shout, Andy has the first fish on. The lake is so clear, those fish glisten like blue mackerel, the 5lb Trout puts up an amazing fight, so strong. To me they look like Sea Trout, beautifully silver and with markings only god, the creator of this glorious nature, could have dreamt up. A few minutes later and I feel the first pull. A strong fish of around 5 lbs, breaks my PB record for trout by a pound. Those fish seemed to like a white fly but as we were about to find out, amazingly, even in cold conditions, they also like dries! Our guide, Bjarni, explains - Ideally, it would be best if the tributary was a little coloured, he continues, the fish are drawn to this. Our first morning finished with us landing 7 trout, the best around 7 lbs. All were caught on the white ghost. Another thing I'd find out however, for those used to fishing with a double handed rod, a switch with line matched for casting with two hands on the rod was “much” easier to deal with bigger flies in the wind.
We fish this area until lunch, which is served in the comfort of the hotel, meeting up with the other two rods and exchange stories. After a nice leisurely lunch we head back to the river, swapping places with the other team. It's a system that works well, ensuring you fish different parts at different times.
The day, although still blustery and cold, was so much better than the previous, the lake which yesterday looked dark and menacing, was now calm and inviting. Then, without warning and breaking the silence, sploosh/thud, OMG!
Given the fact the lake is so big, both areas of fishing are relatively small, the reason being, those large trout tend to congregate in those small areas and are much more difficult to find in the others. It's not to say there are no trout in other parts of the lake but due to the influence of a warm water spring in this particular area and a sizeable tributary running into the other, those two areas offer by far the best chance of catching and landing good numbers of trout. Typically, Icelandic, the two areas are fished with only two rods, a trait which many others could learn a great deal from when managing a wild angling resource. Both areas offer the two rods a wonderful fishing experience in an extremely unique environment.
Having heard a couple more splashes, our excellent guide, Bjarni, stealthily, takes both Andy and I into position, all the time explaining about the unique nature of the lake, it's fish, flora, fauna and wildlife. A man with a serious passion for his homeland, nature and a great people person, so all the ingredients required to make the perfect morning.
Having stalked around to the point Bjarni felt would provide us with the best chance on dry fly, We were faced with a huge number of trout in a foot or so of water not 20 feet in front of us. Wow, this is so exciting, we move quietly down a small ledge my foot slips into a gin clear pool of water, the cold air is replaced by an unexpected warmth, it's like a bath! The water appears from nowhere and runs into the lake; now I'm beginning to understand why those large trout like this place. Food is plentiful. Speaking of which, the main reason those fish are so big in this lake is - Arctic Char, and juvenile char make a nice meal for brown trout. As with all fish, their abundance and longevity is determined by food, predators and, in those days where they can be so easily caught by man, good management. And guess what, in Iceland there are no pike, so in the lake, the trout is the apex predator!
Having got walked through the warm water, with our backs to a 10 foot high cliff face, we’re now in position and hidden to the trout which are in big numbers and just 20 feet in front of us. Andy makes the first cast with a small black dry on. Size 12. Although the air temperature is a little over 3 oC, Bjorn feels they will come to dries, and he's right, first cast, bang, the line tightens and we’re in. The water explodes with around 30-50 trout of all sizes, spooked by the disturbance. OMG, the sound and appearance of this, if we were in Loch Ness I promise, I'd be getting out of there! They're monsters!
We return to the hotel to find that the other group have had an amazing afternoon where we had fished in the morning, catching 11 fish including two personal bests of 10 and 11lbs respectively. The mood in the camp is extremely upbeat. .
My best on the dry fly
On day two we begin where we finished day one, so back at the beach we now have a better idea of the form. Andy begins on one side of the beach and me on the other. My choice is a dry fly and it's not long before a fish of around 3 lbs is landed. I look up and Andy is playing a fish too. My thoughts are, this is going to be fantastic, however, just as I thought this is getting easy, someone switches them off. An hour passes with little or no action, then, without warning a massive pull on the line signalled something large had taken my Black Ghost, the whole flyline and around 50 meters of backing disappear into the middle of the lake. Experience tells me this is a heavy fish. I'd caught sea trout up to 9.5lbs at home and it feels similar, both in weight and the way it fights. So hard and strong! Ten minutes pass and another PB trout of 8lbs hits the net, elation is not the word! Bjarni heads over to help Andy who is also playing another good fish, which he lands. In I go again, first cast, is straight back to where I'd hooked the last one. From my position on the beach, I'm using a roll cast, which, given the type of line I’m using creates little or no disturbance when repositioning the fly. The part played by being competent with the double handed rod and Spey Casting techniques in targeting the next fish which I see moving around 30 feet to my left and 40 feet from the shore, much closer than the previous take. With my line fishing at right angles to the beach and around 70 feet out, with 5 pulls of the running line, I quickly retrieved the casting head to the rod tip before making a snake roll and replacing the fly over where I saw the fish. Covering the fish would have taken at least 10 seconds more with a conventional single handed rod and line! The fly lands around 10 feet beyond where I saw this big fish, I leave it, letting the black ghost sink a little before beginning my slow retrieve. The movement of the fly proves irresistible to the trout and with a weighty pull, I'm on again, this time I feel a different weight! The fish fights hard and 15 minutes later is in the net. Bjarni sees me playing the fish and comes to net the 10lb, new PB fish. I simply cannot believe how strong those fish are.
A few minutes and cup of coffee pass, before I begin again back down at the rocks at the lower end of the beach. Again the line tightens, and again a heavy fish. In fact, this one I'm worried is going to take all the backing off my reel such is the intensity of the fight, my god those fish are strong. My mind drifts to the best days fishing for salmon with my father, I smile thinking about those good times and only wish I could tell him this story. Andy appears and I'm back in the present, enjoying this amazing experience he has treated me to. The fish pulls hard, both Andy and I know this is another good fish. A few minutes later Bjarni has it in the net. My God, another PB, this time a 12pounder. I cannot believe my luck and good fortune, in both being here and the fishing. Andy finishes the morning with 3 nice trout and myself 4. We head back to lunch to find our fishing partners have struggled a little but the river. Bjarni explains, this beat often fishes better in the afternoon, plus t river is running dirty, but clearing. It will be perfect conditions for us. This is what I like to hear from a guide, being positive and up-beat. As we eat lunch the talk turns to my fantastic fish caught in the morning. At this time I'm not thinking much of the afternoon, such has been the nature of my previous few hours fishing. But, my god, was that about to change!
Andy and Bjarni with one of so many small ones.
We arrive back at the river and the first thing we hear from Bjarni is, the river’s clearing and perfect colour. We use the same tactic, a pincer movement with one on each side of the stream and around 20 yards apart. The wind is proceeding the most squally of snow showers with sunshine in-between. The fishing begins with our flies initially fishing the shallow water and within 5 minutes I see Andy attached to a fish, and a nice one it is too, a fish of around 10lbs comes to the net. Incredible! The wind is blowing hard into my right side and making overhead casting with the single hander both dangerous and impossible off my right shoulder. However, as my father always said, if you want to be successful in fly fishing you “must” learn to cast off both shoulders. How true this is, and how relevant it was about to become! Switching to the switch rod and left shoulder, for me, not only made casting safe and easy, but also made covering a fish that I'd noticed a little further out, easy. Without this rod, line and ability, the next part of the story simply wouldn't exist!
By this time Andy was in a shoal of large trout and catching them with ease, I'd lost count of how many. From his standpoint casting was slightly easier for a right hander so all was perfect, we were both catching fish. With the lake so choppy and the river still milky, presentation and stealth wasn't quite as important. We fished sinking tip and fish were taking as the fly dropped in around 10 feet of water, Andy fishing slightly closer to the shore than I. Suddenly I saw a big head and tail coming from the waves and around 10 yards further out. I lengthened the line and thought, can I reach it? Using the wind to my advantage and with no back cast, I made a snake roll, launching the fly toward where I'd seen the big fish. Perfect, The fly turned over beyond the spot, one, two, three, four, fi BANG, the line tightens and I feel a west I'd never felt before on such a small rod. The first run from this could only be described as if I'd hook a passing speed boat. Incredible, and fortunate for me he decided to stop. The scrap I got from this fish was equalled only by a 30lb salmon I'd caught on the Alta river in Norway. I'd often wondered about catching something really big on a switch rod and now was living the dream. For around half an hour the fish “cruised” around the lake, four times taking me beyond the backing, but slowly getting tired, minute by minute the beast was weakening, the switch rod, with its extra butt providing me with a little more leverage. Then, for the first time, we see a tail, not 40 feet away it appears from the water, silence, we realise this is, “really” big! My heart skips a beat, OMG, I've just seen its back, it's 8 inches across! This is one strong fish but I'm now in charge, closer still, he’s approaching the net, only now do I see his full length, OMG. Expertly, Bjarni slides the net under the beast,,,,we have him, Andy says, my god, he’s 25lbs. Look at the head, it's massive! Bjarni says, “I've never seen such a big fish”, this is so exciting. As it turns out the fish weighed 12 kilos or 27lbs, a fourth PB and PB to top them all that day. Andy and I recreate a picture we had of a 43lb salmon he caught on Alta in June last year, Bjarni and I have pictures take measurements before slipping the fish back to enjoy eating some more Arctic Char and passing the wonderful genes on. The feeling of elation in the group is incredible.
Bjarni with my 27lb Trout. I know I'll never top that one!
The afternoon finishes with 17 Trout including this incredible specimen. Our trip to the Ion fishery on Lake Thingvallavatn finishes back on the beach the following morning. I sit on the lava rocks gazing into the clear pool, steam blows across the surface toward the cold water of the lake, my mood is of contemplation and reflection. How lucky am I? How incredibly kind is my host! How happy are our guides and fishing partners! How I'd have loved to tell my father the story! I look over the lake, a large trout breaks the surface. Thank you, thank you so much to each one of you, for this most fantastic experience and memory.
An Amazing end to the most Memorable trip.
See a ten minute film of the highlights of this trip here - I apologise for the overuse of the "Bleeper" But I know you'll enjoy. https://youtu.be/1lVux0y3xVI