After reading about fly fishing in Iceland, it did not take me long to decide it was a place I must fish. After presenting the idea to a few of my friends, I quickly realized this would be a solo trip and in June of 2019, I bought plane tickets to Reykjavik. I threw together a backpack with a tent, sleeping bag, and a 6wt fly rod, and flew to Iceland a few weeks later. One of the most expensive parts of my trip was the rental car which cost roughly $200 more than my plane ticket. I picked up some groceries at a local store, which included some dried soup, deli meat, and crackers. After I picked up some supplies, I began driving north, toward Lake Thingvellir. The landscape seemed almost familiar to me, resembling the tundra in Alaska. Just a few hours’ drive and I could see similar topography, but there was one thing I could do in Iceland, that I could not do in Alaska, which was my goal, to catch a giant brown trout.
I stood on the bank, unsure how I would begin to tackle this massive body of water. So, I started from ground zero and tied on a stickle-back imitation, then waded out as far as I could onto the volcanic rock shelves. I cast and cast, but aside from the occasional ring created by a rising fish, far from my reach, the lake seemed uninhabited. My entire first day was spent casting and taking in the sights, breathing in the cool arctic air, which was not so different from my home. I knew there were fish there, and it was just a matter of figuring out how to catch one. The next morning I crawled out of my tent around 4 am and the sun was already peeking over the mountains. I ate some deli meat, which I folded neatly on some crackers, as I hiked along the shoreline toward some darker water, which meant depth. As I walked, I began to notice deep pockets in the lava rock. I would stop and drag my streamer through them but, still, nothing, no signs of life. Nothing but a few snags I had to wade out to and retrieve. As I fished, I remember reading about still-water nymphing on Pyramid lake. How fisherman would put a nymph on under an indicator and send long casts out to the edge of rock ledges for giant Lahotan Cutthroat trout. I figured it would work about as well as my streamer tactics, so I tied on a nymph of my own design. The body was light olive with a purple dubbing collar, weighted by a gold bead, something I had whipped up for eager and opportunistic grayling in Alaska. I was not expecting to use an indicator, therefore, did not have any plastic bubble style floats. All I had was a few wool indicators that I used for grayling fishing rivers and creeks. I retied the butt section of my leader, adding a few feet, making my leader roughly 12 feet long followed by a small ball of wool.
Then I selected a deep pocket and sent a cast as far out as I could but as soon as my fly sank to the bottom, it snagged on a rock and I broke off. I tied on another fly and moved my indicator down to shorten my leader then cast again and watched my indicator floating along with the waves. Up and down it went, disappearing and reappearing as it rolled over the waves, inching closer to the shoreline. Then, as I was about to recast, the indicator did not reappear on the crest of an incoming wave. I figured I had waited too long and had snagged another rock, but I set the hook anyway. I pulled the line tight and it felt rigid, so I pulled a little harder, but this time it pulled back. The fish began to pull line and it felt very heavy. It pulled the line so quickly from my reel that the handle spun around and whacked my knuckles, splitting them open. That abrupt stop was enough to break off my fly and whatever that fish was, it was gone. Feeling frustrated, but excited that I had hooked a fish, I tied on another nymph and continued picking through the pockets along the shoreline. Even though I kept coming up empty-handed, I continued to cast until my fingertips became raw from stripping my splitting fly line through them.
As the light began to fade on the second day, I looked out over the water. The wind was picking up and a storm was blowing toward me. I just stood and watched the clouds roll over the distant mountains, but then something caught my eye. In a deep pocket just below me, a bright orange-bellied fish cruised along the bottom, paused to pick something from in between the rocks, then continued on. I knew there was no chance to get a slow sinking nymph 12 feet down, fast enough to catch this particular fish, so I just watched as it fed, then disappeared into the abyss. At least I was on the right track fishing nymphs.
I figured I had time for a few more casts before I had to retreat to my tent, to escape the storm. It began to rain as I hiked out to a short peninsula, protruding into the lake with deep ledges on either side. I cast as far as I could, which happened to be directly into the wind. The waves grew larger, and the wind made fishing difficult, but I managed to get my fly out far enough to fish. My indicator floated along in the waves, the wind trying to blow it straight back at me, but just as I began to think about recasting, it slunk under a wave. This time, as I set the hook, I made sure to keep my fingers clear of the reel handle, as the fish took line. The fish put up an unexpected fight, giving my 6wt a run for its money. As the fish became fatigued, I pulled it closer and I could see the fiery orange belly of a char. I was absolutely astounded when I got to lay a hand on my first fish in Iceland. One fish, no matter how big or small makes an entire trip worthwhile. The fish was not particularly big, but its beauty was unmatched.
As my trip wore on, I met a few friends, a couple of guides mentioned springtime was the best time of year for big brown trout. Another fisherman I met, watched as I stepped up to the lake, presented a cast, and caught a char within a few minutes. Apparently, he decided that was enough to come over to talk to me. He asked what I was using and when I showed him my monstrosity of a fly, he scoffed and said, “I would have never let that fly touch the water”. Sheepishly, I bit off the very fly I had just caught a fish with and handed it to him. He eyeballed it, and said, “Well, I just watched you catch a fish with it, so it must be good for something.”
For the following 10 days, I continued to fish, exploring more lakes, and even paid to fish a few beats on a small creek for trout and char. One morning, I even took a break from fishing to go hiking, which turned into an unexpected 20-mile trek that meandered along a river that cut a deep canyon through the rolling hills. I expect to visit again in the coming years, as my trip to Iceland has been one of my favorites so far and I never did end up catching my giant Icelandic brown trout. I find that I rarely visit a place twice, but I think that Iceland will be the exception.