By David N. McIlvaney
“This is your day. Fish or don’t fish.”
We were standing in a petrol station under the roof covering the pumps, trying to stay out of the pouring rain. The river I passed on the way to the meet was rising, off color and moving fast.
I’d come a long way and had to ask. “Will we see fish?”
My guide took a slow drink from his coffee in that way guides do when they know something you don’t. “This is Iceland … there are always fish.”
“This is Iceland” would be the mantra for the trip.
There are four prime destinations for a fly angler: New Zealand, Alaska, Patagonia and Iceland. A thousand others, of course, but wet a line in those four and you can say you’ve fished the world.
From where I am in New York City, New Zealand is stupid far, Patagonia pretty damn far, Alaska kind of far, and Iceland, well, it’s only five hours by plane. I’ve driven longer to wade an Adirondack river for a day or two.
So, Iceland it was. For the weekend.
What I didn’t realize was how truly far Iceland was in my mind. And how quickly I would find myself like Valentine Michael Smith, dropping down to Earth from Mars in Heinlein’s famous book. I was a stranger in a strange land.
After an easy night flight, a midnight car rental and a few hours of sleep in Reykjavik, my wife, Elizabeth, and I woke up eager to hit the road. Reykjavik is a lovely city filled with polite handsome people in sweaters, but I wasn’t here for them. I wanted something new. Unexpected. And I wanted to catch my first sea trout.
Out of town in minutes, we drove to our meetup with the guide along a highway carved out of volcanic rock, toward distant green-black spotted hills. There are no trees, billboards, few buildings or even power lines along the road, so I began to lose my road-trip frame of reference. This was a Rorschach landscape that collapsed into a flat plane as if there were no para or peripheral vision. That is, everything in the environment was fully presented at the same time and demanded equal attention. And any attempt to assign subjective meaning was rendered useless.
I will admit to a mild case of green apophenia where I see method and pattern in the woods which may not, in reality, exist. It has never failed to give me context and direction, or at least provide me with a language I could use. But I couldn’t describe this rock. Or sky. Or hill. Not only did scale and distance cease to exist, my reality took a left turn somewhere. I glanced over at the hills and thought that if a giant stepped over that knoll, I wouldn’t think twice.
Less than six hours in Iceland and I was already believing in giants.
We passed a new full-sized campervan on the road. Not driving. Tipped on its side in the middle of the road. In the middle of nowhere. As we would later find out, the wind blew it over—a common occurrence. What kind of wind blows over a huge truck?
This is Iceland.
We decided to fish.
Within the first 15 minutes on the river, we were soaked. A wading jacket and waders have no defense against a driving rain that comes at you from all sides.
Our guide, Heimir Bjarnason from Go Fishing Iceland, handed me a sparse red stickleback streamer and instructed me to cast into the rough water and swing it to the side seams as he took my wife to a gravel bar on a lower section. I no sooner had my fly in the water when I heard her telltale “whoop!” which meant that she, once again, caught the first fish.
Forty minutes, twenty-three casts and two whoops later, I sent my fly across the river to a slow eddy and let it swing into a seam. A silver rocket exploded from the water to chase it and I was on.
A six-weight rod is fine for most anadromous brown trout. A six weight with a steeled-up and pissed-off sea trout in a raging river is another matter. This fish and I were in for a fight. There were three spills in the river just below me and I thought he would break off if he went over, so I had to keep him close.
Needing to get the rod out and over to apply some side pressure, I stepped into the river. The force of the water swept my feet out from under me and knocked me backwards to smash my ass on the sharp volcanic rock. Water filled my now torn waders as I struggled to keep the rod high and watched the fish go over the first drop. I crabbed to my feet and sloshed my way along the bank, frantically lessening the drag. Stupid move, as he took off over the second drop.
By the time I made over to him, I saw the fish resting in a small eddy below the third drop. Tightening the drag slightly, but not knowing how much the rough rock had weakened the leader, I didn’t feel I could crank him in, so, we waited. He and I. Connected but apart. Both exhausted, fighting with the current and each other.
This is Iceland, after all, where giants step over hills, the wind tosses trucks around like Tonka toys and the Department of Roads will divert construction around a rock if it’s shown to be the home of the huldufólk, or hidden people.
This trout and I were frozen in the moment. We became an Icelandic inkblot and as I looked at the image, I saw angler-line-trout-trout-line-angler. I finally grokked to this place and the comedy of the tragedy of trying to catch a fish in an alien land. I laughed liked Valentine Smith at the zoo. The trout took notice.
So, I thought I’d chance a different approach … an Icelandic approach. I asked the fish to come to me. In Icelandic. I don’t speak Icelandic.
He stared for a moment, possibly confused that I suddenly spoke his native tongue, then I felt the line slack as he slowly swam into my net. Maybe he knew that I would release him with as little harm as possible or that he would have a good story to tell his grandfry. Either way, my first sea trout.
Heimir came over to congratulate me as I eased the hook out. He asked if I wanted a picture. I never take grip-and-grins as I don’t see the point and was about to slip the net when the fish looked up and winked. Of course, he did. The picture was taken but I insisted Heimir hold the trout, then I released the fish back into the water.
I continued to fish in the pouring rain on the top of the world in an alien landscape that I suddenly understood on a river with winking trout. Honestly, I may have been hallucinating by this point since I took off my wading jacket with the thought that I would be less wet. In the pouring rain. I wasn’t.
My wife decamped for warmth, so I fished with Heimir for a bit until I cut him free. I had a sense of the river now and prefer to fish alone. Interesting side note – when I settled up, he refused a tip. Heimir explained that he makes a good living and is paid a fair wage, so a tip is a little insulting.
This is Iceland.
The Varmá is a small river about 45 minutes from Reykjavik that fishes easily and is one of the few rivers that holds all the Icelandic game fish: brown trout, sea trout, arctic char and salmon. It is also a “hot river” with various thermal springs throughout the upper reaches. Hike far enough upstream and you will come to a thermal bath area with a beautiful boardwalk and changing booths.
Like all Icelandic rivers, the Varmá is private and the rights to fish are purchased from the landowner or are held by a fishing outfitter or club. There are six rods allowed on the Varma per day and in the afternoon, I met the other four rods held by a group from Scotland. At that point, I had eight fish to hand. The Scottish lads had none. Little brag.
I fished until the cold and wet were just too much to take, and the allure of a warm sweater and hot chocolate were too strong to resist.
In the morning, we drove up the side of a mountain with the hope of standing at the top of a glacier. No go as the road was closed near the top. I really had to pee, so I pulled over along the gravel road and followed a barely worn path for some privacy where I stumbled across the mouth of a cave.
Flipping my flashlight on, I entered to find a cavern about the size of a double garage. Near the entrance were signs of graffiti and tags in paint, but as I pushed in further, the style of the letters and writing changed. Paint became scratches, then chisel marks, and curves were straightened. I saw names from 2000s, 1970s, 1940s, 1900s, 1800s. And then in the back corner, a rune was carved into the wall with a date … 1715.
Some 300 years ago, a guy walked up the side of the glacier and carved his name in the wall of this cave. What was he doing here? I like to think he needed to pee as well.
Back on the road, I picked up a fishing card or Veiðikortið at a petrol station, which gave me the rights to fish any of 34 lakes around the country. As we drove to our rental in the west, I spent a lazy day fishing every lake I had access to. Most were alongside the highway and easily fished. I’d list them, but not sure Hraunsfjarðarvatn and Sauðlauksdalsvatn would be that helpful.
Didn’t see a thing, but I didn’t try to see a thing as this was less about catching fish and more about standing on rock that bubbled up from the centre of the world. I sometimes think that is the point of fishing: it provides a socially acceptable reason for standing in the middle of the beautiful nowhere silently screaming, “Holy shit! Look at where I am!”
Our accommodations for the night had a small private lake beside it so after we arrived, I grabbed my rod and did some blind casting with a wooly bugger. Two small brown trout came to hand. They didn’t know the sea trout I caught the day before. I asked.
We had five hours to kill before the afternoon flight and after catching another trout in the lake, we decided to try a “hot pot” we were told about. A small thermal bath with enough room for two.
The directions were very Icelandic: drive a few kilometers down this road until you see a sign that may or may not have fallen over. Turn right and drive for a while. Park. In the distance, you’ll see a small stream. Cross it and keep walking until you see a pile of small rocks. The hot pot will be behind the rocks.
About four feet across and deep enough to sit in, this perfect little hole of Iceland warmly accepted us. I had a bottle of whisky with me and though it was 11:00 am., that hardly matters in a land where the sun doesn’t set. We drank and soaked, and I left the bottle at the side of the pot for the next person as we drove to the airport. I like to think it was found by a guy from 1715 who had come a long way to soak his bones.
And I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him walking across the stone field as we were leaving.
After all … Það var Ísland.
—David N McIlvaney (@the_real_dnm) has a terrible tailing loop yet manages to catch fish all over the world. He has no idea how. This story originally ran in issue 13.1 of The Flyfish Journal.