Fishing in the Land of Fire and Ice

Fishing in the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is famous for its glaciers, waterfalls, and majestic mountain views. What people may not know is that the land of fire and ice is a fly fisherman’s paradise. Anglers can expect to see giant brown trout, arctic char, and sea-run salmon. The island is full of large glacial lakes and never-ending rivers. As someone who was lucky enough to spend 6 days camping across the coastal region, it’s safe to say I couldn't go 5 minutes without crossing pristine-looking water. Although I wanted to stop and fish every body of water, Iceland has a comprehensive fisheries management system. The fishery operates on a beat system in which portions of a river or lake are rented out over specific periods of time. A fisherman or outfitter can purchase a lease for a season or even twenty years. While this may raise issues regarding public accessibility, it helps regulate the fishery and take pressure off the fish which allows fish to grow stress-free in a stable habitat. Although this may sound like a pain for the everyday fisherman, many outfitters and landowners sell passes to a wide array of beats across the island. Anglers can indulge in a day pass or even a season pass to some really fishy waters. It’s certainly different from what I’m used to seeing, however, it works because there’s no shortage of big fish!

With an impending visit to the island, I made it my mission to catch an arctic char. Lucky for me, Iceland has an amazing outfitter called Fishpartner which has access to a ton of different beats across the island. Because I made it known I was in full Char mode they set me up for a day out on the Holaa river and a nearby glacial lake by the name of. When my guide Kristopher picked me up in the city of Reyjavik, he could tell I was ready to go. The drive to the Holaa river was filled with waterfalls and grazing sheep. As we pulled off the road into a dirt parking area I could see the freestone river in the distance. 

As I looked out at the river I pieced my 9-foot Outlaw 6 weight together and slapped my reel on the rod. Next, Kristopher rigged me with a dry dropper. While I wasn’t familiar with the flies he explained that they were local favorites. When I finally stepped into the river, it looked beyond fishy. The river was roughly 20 feet wide at the smallest section and 50 feet at the widest. Not going to lie, I was a bit overwhelmed by the new scenery however I made a few casts and eased into it. Not even 5 minutes later I was shocked to hear the distinct slurp of a fish. When I turned around to look I noticed a large boil and surface commotion. Next, Kristopher and I slowly walked 20 feet upstream when we saw a waving tail, white pectoral tips, and a bright orange belly in just 2 feet of water. As I watched the fish sit in place I could see it snacking on nymphs along the bottom. After a few casts, I finally had the fish eat the dropper however I wasn’t able to pin the char. Unfortunately, the fish spooked.

As I lamented my failure I slowly walked upstream blind casting when we suddenly noticed four or five fish rise for a midge. I knew this was my shot, once we were in the 20-foot range I made a long backhand double haul about 6 feet up from the rising fish. As the fly entered the sweet spot, I watched as a fish inhaled my fly. With a high rod tip, I whipped my outlaw rod back and watched as the blank flexed over. The moderate action of the rod did all the work in tiring the char out, once the fish was ready it came to hand and revealed it’s beautiful colors… an orange belly, white pectorals, and grayish silver body with dots. Mission accomplished.

After a few quick photos, I casted back into the rising fish when I immediately hooked into a feisty little brown trout. Two fish in five minutes is not bad!

Once the brown was caught the fish wised up and moved on so we trudged up the river to another backwater eddie where there were a bunch of fish were sipping dries. Although I made a ton of casts, the fish kept refusing my fly so we eventually moved on. As lunch rapidly approached we made the decision to streamer fish our way back to the car. Kristopher picked out a small white fly and instructed me to cast across the bank and retrieve it with some pace. I expected the fly to get crushed at any moment, unfortunately, the fish were not in the mood for a streamer.

For lunch, we feasted on ham sandwiches and cinnamon buns from an awesome local baker. I inhaled my lunch within 5 minutes of opening it, as I usually do on any fishing trip. Next, Kris made the executive decision to try a new beat in a nearby glacial lake. After a 20-minute drive, we arrived at around 2 PM, Kris had told me that the average char in the lake was much larger than the river. Most fish are in the twenty-inch range and can even reach giant proportions of 10 plus pounds. The fish in the lake mostly snack on bugs and snails across the bottom. Kris even pointed out that you could tell which fish had been snacking on snails vs nymphs. The fish-eating snails have a distinct facial feature, a pointed nose. The crazy thing about the lake is that it has steep drop-offs filled with small canyons and vertical pole-like rocks. This makes playing in fish a bit tricky. Egged on by fables of big char I was eager to start fishing. 

Kris equipped me with a rig I had never seen before. A 9-foot section of straight 6x tied to a tungsten nymph, I wish I remembered the name, he explained that it was a classic char fly. He instructed me to strip with one hand in a continuous motion by grabbing the hand with my pointer finger and thumb and transferring it to my pinky and palm. The technique may sound weird however it produces the perfect cadence to fish the gradual drop-off. 

Although my hand cramped up stripping my fly in, I stayed persistent and eventually felt my rod double over. Unfortunately, I hit the fish with too much pressure and broke it off. Dejected, I went back to the bank and retired. I knew I had to be more adept since I was fishing 6x, after all, I am used to setting the hook on big bass which requires a heavy strip set. Anyways, I eventually felt the distinct thud again and hooked up to find out it was a small brown that put on a show flying through the air. 

Once the fish was unhooked we moved onto a “honey hole” just down the road where Kris felt that there would be a fish. The spot once again featured a canyon-like appearance with a dropoff. I began launching long double haul casts into the abyss, as 4 o'clock hit I began to feel hopeless when I felt my line stop. As I lifted my rod tip I felt big headshakes and knew it was the fish I was after. At first, the fish stayed deep shaking for about 20 seconds when it then realized it was hooked and took off screaming. 

As I watched the reel rotate over and over I looked at Kris who smiled and stated, that seems like a char! About 30 seconds later the fish finally stopped running. With the flex of the outlaw 6 weight, I let the fish tire itself out before it made another 20-second run even further into my backing. At this point, the line must have been 60 yards away. Next, the fish double back and swam directly at me for a while. At first, I struggled to keep up but then I put my rod tip low to the water and rapidly cranked the handle until I caught up with the fish. Finally, the fish was back into my fly line. The last minute of the battle it stayed deep, eventually the moderate action of the rod tired itself out and the fish came into the net. Much like my first char it was beautiful, except 4 times as thick around, I could barely wrap my hand around the fish. Both Kris and I were ecstatic, as I inspected the fish smiling from cheek to cheek I noticed the distinct pointed nose. When Kris noticed he stated, “Ahh yes, a snail eater!”. After a few pictures, we reset and kept fishing.

While I felt satiated I knew I had another shot at potentially hooking another char. Just ten minutes late on the drop off, I felt my rod come tight. This time the fish immediately took drag, albeit not as much as the first fish but certainly a hard run. Next, the fish stopped and began violently headshaking. I could feel it on the tip of my outlaw rod, I was secretly praying the fish would shake the fly out. Once the headshakes stopped, a screaming run of epic proportion ensued. At one point the fish was running so hard that my hand got tired of holding the rod and I had to switch hands. Eventually, the fish began to show a sign of weakness and slowly came up to the surface. About twenty feet away we could see it thrash on the surface. As I maintained a high rod tip I applied a bit more pressure until the fish entered the net.

I was shocked to see the fish was even larger than the previous one. It sported another large pointed nose, white tips, and a darker belly. It must have weighed about 5 pounds. While it wasn’t the longest fish, you could tell it had been eating well. After a few awesome shots, it swam back home. To say the least, the trip was made! 

As we packed up the car and drove back to Reykjavik I was grateful to experience the beauty of the Icelandic fishery. I know I’ll soon return to chase another large char!

Written by:

Jack Lariz