Before reading on, I must warn that no matter how much research and reading you may do before a trip to Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland, absolutely nothing can prepare you for the journey you will take to this amazing fishery. Before I headed out to Thingvallavatn I read Tarquin Millington-Drake’s blogs on this destination numerous times, more out of sheer excitement rather than anything else. After reading each blog I was left thinking, can a brown trout really take that line? Can they really grow to that size? The answer is yes, they absolutely can take all your line and they absolutely can get that big. But, this is not something, I believe, you’ll ever be fully convinced of unless you see it with your own eyes.
My journey to Iceland began in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire – in Tarquin’s garden. We sat outside on a sunny Saturday afternoon due to fly out the next morning. I was told we needed to check our backing. As requested, I assembled all the reels onto a deck chair and began to pace out the backing. As I got to the end of the line (a long way down the field) Tarquin shouted, “stay there while I get the range finder”. We ranged the first length of backing at 204 yards, “this is seriously pushing it” is exactly the sort of thing you want to hear before heading out on a trout fishing trip. 204 yards of backing on your reel is pushing it and might not be enough….
The Journey Out
A one o’clock departure from Heathrow landed us briskly in Keflavik International at ten past three, then an hour’s drive to the Ion hotel and we had arrived. The Ion is something to behold in itself. Set in the side of a mountain with a very James Bond feel to it, its comfort and hospitality is excellent, and it offers some very dramatic volcanic views.
After a quick check-in to the hotel, a quick team meeting – on who would be fishing where, and a burger to keep the energy levels up, we were off to the beat.
The Lake itself has an area of 84 km2 and a maximum depth of 114 m (374 ft); to give you an idea Loch Ness has an area of 56.3 km2. This is not a small piece of water. You would think chancing across a brown trout in all this water would be unlikely, even if it is 30lbs, and so it would be, if it wasn’t for an amazing set of coincidences.
As the legend goes, these trout were originally sea trout until the volcano of Thingvillir erupted for a fifth time 2000 years ago. This land locked the trout and formed the amazing fishery that we know today. After years of netting on Lake Thingvallavatn the trout were pushed to the brink of extinction before scientists managed to intervene just in time. Without the nets and with the extensive practice of catch and release, the trout numbers have bounced back.
These fish do not give a fly fisherman much of an opportunity to strike – they spend their days feeding at approximately 9 m on arctic char. This is of course one of the reasons they grow to such enormous sizes. However, after feeding each of the trout cruise to two spots on the lake’s shoreline to warmer water. We believe they congregate in these two spots to increase their body temperature allowing their metabolic process to speed up, before feeding again. It is at this point, we as fly fishermen can stage an ambush.
There are two spots on the lake that produce a warm inflow of water: a river and a hot spring. More commonly known to us as Beat 1 and 2. The Ion hotel and its beats accommodate for four fishers, one pair on each beat. The rotation is simple, a morning at Beat 1 and the afternoon at Beat 2 and so on… After three days you will have fished each beat three times. This is ample opportunity to catch numerous fish and have a very good chance of a big one.
The first evening, Tarquin and I arrived at Beat 1 (the River Beat). Quite a sharp north-west wind blew straight into the beat, this is good and bad. Bad in that it’s head-on and cold. Good in that it blows the warm water coming from the river back into the bay, therefore keeping the fish nice and close. After no more than 15 minutes I was into my first Thingvallavatn trout. It took in knee-deep water, close to the bay and almost on the beach. I had waded out about 15 ft from the shoreline to try and get closer to the fish that I could see head and tailing in the surf, and to find a better angle on the wind. This was the moment I realised everything I had been told was true. The fish zipped out into the lake at high speed. My 204 yards of backing was at serious risk of being lost. There’s a certain feeling of helplessness when playing a decent-sized Ion trout. You have a light leader, and of course you cannot run after the fish when it heads directly out to deeper water. You cannot put any more pressure on the fish or you’ll just break the line. All you can do is hold on and hope it eventually stops and comes back. Thankfully, after a couple of close calls my fish started to turn and come back. It must have been a good 10 minutes before I felt the relief of winding the fly line back onto the reel. After a couple more bursts from the fish, Joey, the guide, scooped it into the net and I had my first Icelandic trout and my first wild 10lbs brown trout. A magical moment. As luck would have it I managed to hook another fish about three casts later and produced an 11lb fish. This fish took about 6 ft from the bank, right at the mouth of the river. It repeated the same escapade in running me deep across the lake a couple of times. It was time for a sit down, my fingers were absolutely frozen.
As Joey, told me “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland then just wait five minutes” – after our second day of fishing I was beginning to see exactly what he meant. We had it all in terms of weather: it was a very temperamental spring. Sun, rain, snow, hail, wind, calm, you name it…
Day two, we spent the morning on Beat 2 (the Beach). This is, I think, my favourite of the two beats. Most people I have spoken to seem to prefer the River Beat but I can’t say I fully agree. This beat is a small bay hidden away in a little corner of the lake, with a handful of little hot springs amidst the bay. The fishing here is very exciting, often sight casting to fish sitting high in the water. Although the lake is quite deep here (approx. 2-3 m) the hot water separates from the cold and is layered on the top 30 cm of the lake. The trout sit high up in this hot water. You can often, on a still day, see the dorsal fins all sticking out. Tactics here are far stealthier than the River Beat. Small dry flies and nymphs is what I had the majority of success on. My observation on these fish is they are not in the bay to feed, they are there to relax in the giant hot tub. So, they will not come far or work hard to take a fly. You need to almost feed it to them. Long leaders and small dry flies that must be presented well and put right on their noses. It’s much easier than it sounds; there are huge pods of fish and often very close in. Another point of advice – I found after casting numerous times at the fish in the hot water they begin to slowly edge away from you as you thrash the water harder and harder. There is huge benefit in resting the pods of fish every 30 minutes or so. After they have drifted away from you, sit down, have a cup of tea and let the fish settle a little closer again. But look for the steam, as mentioned earlier there is more than one hot spring on the beat, the steam is the giveaway. Some of the springs really are tiny, but no matter how small they will have at least one fish – as we as fishermen know very well, it only takes one to complete the mission in hand.
After three days of fun, laughs and excellent fishing I was told by the guide, who is a good friend, that I didn’t actually do very well, and I didn’t even catch a big one. At this, I was shocked. No matter, in my own eyes I did extremely well, and I caught plenty of big fish. I finished up with 16 fish, lost many others, an average of three per session. Largest fish for me was 11.5lbs and largest of the group was 14lbs. For three days of wild trout fishing I considered this a success.
After returning home I was still in total awe of this magnificent place so continued to research the lake. I found an old dusty book at home written by Major-General R.N Stewart. After the war the Major-General decided to travel and fish, I don’t blame him! After discovering Lake Thingvallavatn and fishing it a few times he set himself the challenge of finding out how big these fish really got. To this he devoted one whole season. His method was to trawl in the deep water with bigger and yet bigger baits, sinking them deeper and deeper. In the end he was using baits 10 inches long, sunk to 30 fathoms (180 feet) with 20lb of lead to get them down. The result of his season’s work was only five fish: 12lbs, 27lbs, 29lbs, 39lbs and 42lbs. There are no pictures or evidence to prove this tale is true, I tell it to you as it was written in the book, but I have no reason to doubt the Major-General for one second. Even if the weights of the fish have been exaggerated, they were still very big. I might add it is impossible for salmon to enter the lake so there is no chance of any mistake in species identification. Yet another story that will keep me dreaming of how one day, I too will catch a real monster.