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Fly Fishing the Land of Fire and Ice

A new catch-and-release ethic is improving sea-run trout fishing in Iceland.

Fly Fishing the Land of Fire and Ice

(Photography by Ben Carmichael, Jerome Saunders, & Mats Ole Herz)

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We had already waded a quarter-mile out from shore, and yet out in front of us, another huge swath of gray-green river awaited: more of the mighty Vatnamót, in southern Iceland, where my friend Ben and I were stomping through volcanic sand in search of sea-run brown trout.

The river braided around sandbars at various crazy diagonals, and the horizon stretched in all four directions. To the north were snowy peaks. To the south lay what looked like the sea, but was actually just more of the widening Vatnamót, with several miles to go until the North Atlantic.

When the water got knee-high, we lost sight of the bottom and stepped forward cautiously. The wind was blowing against the current, making the river even more illegible. There were no landmarks to help us navigate, and no fish showing. Where in the world to cast? It felt like the blindest of blind fishing.

Luckily, Kristjan Pall Rafnsson revels in conditions like these, and our only task for now was to follow him. This wasn’t easy, either. Ben and I struggled to keep up with Rafnsson (who was, at 44, a few years older than both of us) as he charged into waist-high water, casting his streamer here and there and looking for the surface chop and subtle color changes that indicated deeper, potentially fish-holding channels below. His preexisting knowledge of the underwater topography only helped so much, he told us. Recent rains had shaken the river up like an Etch A Sketch.

After about an hour of fast-paced prospecting, Rafnsson yelled back at us and waved. He’d had a tug, and by the time we caught up to him, at a confluence where glacial water from the Skafta River poured into the clearer mainstream, he had a fish on.

They were biting for 80 or 90 minutes. We’d come tight to a sea trout, back up onto a black sandbar, beach the thrashing fish, and release it. We landed nine of them between the three of us while the action was hot. They were black, slinky browns, on their way out to sea after spawning in the upper river system, and they were not too picky. They attacked a tinselly sand eel imitation and a black Dyrbitur, a Woolly Bugger-ish Icelandic fly, with equal vigor. The largest of them measured 27 inches (68 cm) long and weighed around eight pounds.

A vertical photo of a large brown trout held by two hands in the water.
(Photography by Ben Carmichael, Jerome Saunders, & Mats Ole Herz)

The fast action was typical of the spring run in this part of Iceland, when hungry trout return to the sea after spawning in the upper rivers. But Rafnsson’s exclusive waters contain many bigger fish than these, and over the next three rain-soaked days we’d catch a few of them—something it would have been virtually impossible for a foreigner to do until a few years ago.




That’s because local farmers have traditionally leased their water to Icelandic fishing clubs, and the club members kill almost every sea trout they catch. (Unlike other parts of Iceland, this system’s salmon run is insignificant.) Since 2020, though, Rafnsson has been persuading more and more landowners to sign fishing rights over to Fish Partner, his catch-and-release fly-fishing outfitter.

In the last two years he has added two additional rivers, the Geirlandsá and the Fossálar, to his growing territory in southern Iceland. Rafnsson now has around 18 miles of exclusive beats, and private access to all three rivers in the Vatnamót system.

The dispossessed local clubs aren’t happy about it, he admits. “I’ve made a lot of enemies, but more friends,” he says. Among these are the farmers who are now getting paid more for their leases. Many of them stubbornly refuse to believe that released fish survive, but Rafnsson’s early tagging efforts have proved otherwise, which almost certainly means that more of the sea trout will mature into 20-pounders. The improvements to the fishery are already visible. Rafnsson points out that on one Icelandic river that was converted to catch-and-release seven years ago, the average weight has gone from 6 to 8 pounds.

Recommended


Wild Weather

It rained—a lot—after our eye-opening first afternoon on the Vatnamót. The emerald fairy pools we’d admired on the drive in turned into mud holes; the rivers raged and became unfishable. On the second morning, before things washed out completely, I hooked a 36-inch sea trout on the Geirlandsá in the sort of wind that whips the snot right out of your nose. As the fish was nearing the net, I lost it—“like tears in rain,” as the line from Blade Runner goes. Two hours later, with the rain still coming down, the run it had been holding in had disappeared and the river had become a lake.

A fly angler Spey casting into the distance.
(Photography by Ben Carmichael, Jerome Saunders, & Mats Ole Herz)

Southern Iceland, then, is not for fair-weather anglers. But neither is southern Patagonia, that other haven of sea-run brown trout, and Rafnsson claims that his territory is every bit as good. (Nor does all of it require the serious wading we did on day one.) A weeklong guest can reasonably expect to land a fish of 36 to 38 inches. Double hookups happen often when the feed is on, and I saw photos of a recent quadruple. The guide who showed it to me said that he could have easily made it a quintuple, but “someone needed to hold the camera.”

Waiting for the rivers to come down on day three, we took in the otherworldly scenery. We didn’t have far to go: Battle Hill Lodge, Fish Partner’s six-bedroom converted farmhouse, abuts a UNESCO-designated lava field, and other stunning examples of Iceland’s dark, blistered, waterfall-rinsed landscape were a short drive away. Some parts had the shaggy, heathery look of the Scottish Highlands; other areas looked like the moon.

Things never really dried out during the four days that we were on the southern coast, but the water levels dropped enough for us to get results using disco-fabulous tube flies on the lower Geirlandsá. I cast out from a three-foot bank and swung my fly back into the juicy-looking channel just off the shore. The trick, at this particular time and place, was not to strip at all. Unlike the larger fish I’d lost two days before, these ones were kind enough to enter the net.

The conditions and the fishing improved over the next two days. Naturally, we had already flown home. Our French and German companions at Battle Hill Lodge—where Fish Partner accommodates eight anglers per week during the spring run—finished out the week like proper vacationers and were rewarded for it. How do I know what we barely missed out on? I began following their guides on Instagram the day we left. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The sea trout of the Vatnamót system depart in June and July, when Rafnsson moves his base of operations elsewhere and shifts the focus to resident brown trout and char. His three-season fishing program also includes a beginner-friendly shore beat on Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake, and home to Iceland's biggest resident brown trout.

Collage of images of fly fishing in Iceland
(Photography by Ben Carmichael, Jerome Saunders, & Mats Ole Herz)

Prime time for the sea-run browns is September and October, when the fish are brighter, fatter, and spunkier, if a bit less hungry than they are in the spring. Nymphs are as effective as streamers this time of year; during the early run in August, the fish even take the occasional dry fly.

They aren’t the only thing rising: Fish Partner’s weekly rates can run as high as $9,500 per angler in the fall. This sounds like a lot—it is a lot—but it would only get you two or three days at a high-end Icelandic salmon lodge. The expanded fishable range lets Rafnsson take on 12 anglers in the fall, and two months out, he told me that he still had openings. In a wild fishery that appears to be getting better every year, it’s hard to imagine that kind of availability lasting much longer.

Recommended Gear

Sea trout run in the spring and the fall when the weather is  extremely variable in the North Atlantic, so bring outerwear to deal with any conditions. Most people tackle these rivers with two-handed rods, and while Icelanders and other Europeans most often prefer Scandi-style setups, most Americans use the more familiar Skagit lines and tips they are comfortable with at home.

A large chunk of ice on the rocky shores of a large lake on a cloudy day.
(Photography by Ben Carmichael, Jerome Saunders, & Mats Ole Herz)

Book Your Destination

The Vatnamót is on the south coast about 177 miles (285 km) from Reykjavik. There are five rods per day allowed during a season that runs April 1 to October 20. Guests may rent an entire six-bed cabin in Hörgsland or stay at the full-service Battle Hill Lodge.

fishpartner.com


Darrell Hartman is a freelance writer based in the Catskills region of New York. His articles about fly fishing and travel have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Conde Nast Traveler, and elsewhere.

A wader-clad fly angler kneeling and holding a large brown trout, smiling at the camera.
Get your copy of Destinations 2023 here. (Zach Heath photo)

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