A Land of Ice, Fire, and a few Brown Trout

All fly fishermen dream of that trip. Bugs hatch endlessly. Fish rise to dries or crush streamers
without a second thought. The summer sun warms the water, making waders obsolete. Grip-
and-grin photos with the trophies start to mount. This was not that trip.

While my Icelandic fishing trip was not the slayfest I envisioned, it was definitely an amazing
trophy-hunting adventure. During mid-May of this year, my dad and I spent five days looking for
that trophy on Lake Thingvallavatn in Iceland. The brown trout in Lake Thingvallavatn grow to
mammoth sizes on a stunningly regular basis. Known as “ice age brown trout,” the strain of
brown trout in Thingvallavatn became isolated from its searun brethren thousands of years ago.
Multiple factors contribute to their gargantuan growth. The most important factor is probably a
robust food supply. The lake is full of four varieties of arctic char, which provide substantial
forage for the brown trout. The browns key in on a particular species called Murta, which is a
plant-eating arctic char that only grows to about 20 cm in length. Additionally, the geothermal
features within the lake provide refuges of relatively warm water, where the trout go to quickly
metabolize their meals. This allows for more frequent feeding, and therefore faster growth. The
ice age browns also exhibit a peculiar habit when it comes to spawning. Many of the browns
appear to skip the spawning ritual for several years at a time, thereby reducing the wear and
tear on their bodies. These factors allow for 30 inch browns on the regular, with fish over 20
pounds caught every year.

Fishing in Iceland mostly follows the beat system common throughout Europe. As far as I know,
three options exist when fishing Thingvallavatn. A public fishing license for Iceland costs about
90 US dollars. This includes access to the northeastern part of the lake, which is part of
Thingvellir National Park. This area is not known to be a productive area for browns. However,
many of the locals catch ice age browns in the national park. I met multiple Icelanders who fish
this area with some success, particularly at night. Fish Partner is an outfitter and travel agency
that owns the rights to some good beats around the lake. We used Fish Partner for our trip, and
they arranged access to five beats on Thingvallavatn along with two days on rivers in the
Icelandic highlands. These beats gained recent notoriety through several well-done films,
including “The Hidden” by InTents Media and “One Day in Iceland” by Marc Crapo. Finally, a
company called ION controls the most famous beats on Thingvallavatn. These exclusive beats
are expensive and difficult to access. The remainder of this article will detail my experiences on
the Fish Partner beats.

We met two groups of anglers on our first day, and it became clear that our experience would
not mirror those portrayed in the films mentioned above. We met six frustrated British
fishermen, who toiled for six days without a single fish to show for their efforts. We also met
four amicable Coloradans, who scored only a couple decent fish between them during their
week at the lake. Encounters with the ice age browns were rare and to a degree, random. The
monotony of the fishing provides a significant mental challenge. Most of the beats possess
between one and four prime spots, which forces the angler to make similar casts repeatedly for
hours on end. My 8 weight Scott Meridian was a perfect rod for the occasion, especially when
the wind kicked up. For the deeper beats especially, my 280 grain Airflo Streamer Max fly line
allowed me to make long, effortless casts. Generally, brown trout fishing on Thingvallvatn peaks
between April 15 and June 15, depending on the weather. This year, Iceland experienced a warm,                                                                                                                                                              relatively calm spring. It seems like fishing peaked in April, which made our job that much more difficult.

On the first day, we fished the Karastadir beat. In my opinion, Karastadir is the crown jewel of
the Fish Partner lineup. Located on the northwest corner of the lake, this beat is situated
directly on the fissure between the North American and European continental tectonic plates.
These fissures begin literally inches from shore. The abyss seems endlessly deep, but I was
told that the fissures reach a depth of about 100 feet. The ice age brown trout swim through
these fissures while searching for an easy meal. We relentlessly casted our small streamers in
to the void, hoping for an encounter with a trophy. While fishing Karastadir, I landed the largest
brown trout of my life! This was undeniably the highlight of the entire trip. The fish struck during
the worst weather we experienced during the entire week; this was unlikely a coincidence. As
the water started to form whitecaps in the driving wind, dark clouds overhead produced a
melancholy mood, and raindrops began to fall. The fish struck violently, and it was all I could do
to hold on to the line, let alone strip set. My line peeled out to the backing within seconds. The
initial run occurred straight down in to one of the fissures, highlighting the depth of these
amazing geologic features. Eventually, I landed the 28 inch trout, an average fish for
Thingvallavatn but a verifiable beast for nearly any other body of brown trout water. I had one
other hook-up that evening but sadly came unbuttoned after a few seconds. Later, my dad
targeted and landed a slab of an arctic char, providing another highlight. We called it a night at
about 11 PM. In retrospect, I wish we had stayed at this premier beat even later, as these ice
age browns appear to feed most heavily when the arctic sun is low or behind the horizon. But
on this evening, jet lag and sleep deprivation were hurdles too big for us to stay out any later.

The next day, we were assigned to beat 3A, or Villingavatnsaros, on the southern end of the
lake. This beat is also known as the “river mouth,” as a small stream enters the lake here.
Brown trout flock to this site to feed on the insects pumped in to the lake by the river. Unlike
most other locales on Thingvallavatn, anglers usually use nymphs under an indicator on this
beat. Popular patterns include pheasant tails, squirmy wormies, and a variety of traditional
Icelandic designs. We were shut out on this beat, and it definitely seems to be hit or miss here.
I met Greg Biggiani while staying at our guest house, and he fished Villingavatnsaros the day
after we did. During his evening session on the beat, a large school of browns moved in to the
area. Catching them proved difficult, but he was able to corral a massive 32 inch beast. If I fish
this beat again, I will bring some beer and a good book. I will check the water for a school every
few minutes, and spend as many hours as possible waiting for the fish to arrive. On this beat, it
seems nearly pointless to cast when no fish are there, and potentially epic if a school moves in.

In my mind, days three and five were very similar. We fished the Black Cliffs and the
Kaldarhofdi beats respectively. At the Black Cliffs, the angler wades out about 100 yards in to
chest-deep water and casts toward a drop off. We saw a pair of char here, but no sign of the
browns. We could only tolerate the freezing water for so long before we called it a day and went
sight-seeing. Kaldarhofdi holds some interesting water, but we did not have any luck here
either. Located on the southeast end of the lake, it encompasses the outlet of Thingvallvatn and
the inlet of Lake Ulfjotsvatn just downstream. I heard that Kaldarhofdi is a good arctic char
fishery later during the summer.

We fished a small lake called Villingavatn on our remaining day. Located just south of
Thingvallavatn, Villingavatn contains the same large ice age browns as its bigger neighbor. The
fish in this lake feed on tiny sticklebacks. Damselfly nymphs and similar patterns imitate the
sticklebacks well. This lake provides a fascinating experience, with opportunities for sight
fishing and the requirement of extreme stealth. The fish in Villingavatn often feed just inches                                                                                                                                                                  from the shore, and I spent most of my day casting from my knees from about 20 feet inland of
the shoreline. Sometimes, the browns produced frantic wakes as they decimated the
sticklebacks against the shoreline. We landed some smaller browns, and a very large fish
broke me off. In my opinion, this was the most interesting beat aside from Karastadir.

During our final two days, we fished two rivers in the Icelandic highlands controlled by Fish
Partner: Kaldakvisl and Tungnaa. Kaldakvisl produced unbelievable fishing for arctic char at the
“Oasis.” The Oasis is the last few hundred yards of river before Kaldakvisl enters Lake
Sultartangalon. Here, the char congregate in massive numbers, and fishing was fast and easy
on a variety of nymphs. While we were there, the roads to the upper portion of Kaldakvisl were
closed or washed out, and access to the upper river was impossible without a high-clearance
vehicle. We enjoyed a beautiful hike to about four miles up from the river mouth, but we saw
only a couple char after leaving the oasis. The fishery on Tungnaa began in about 2013 after a
hydroelectric project diverted the glacial component of this river. Tungnaa provided fascinating
streamer fishing for both browns and char. We found fish hiding under rocky ledges, and they
would emerge to smash streamers when given the opportunity. We only had the opportunity to
hit Tungnaa for one evening before the dam managers allowed silted glacial water in to the river,
which essentially shut down the bite. I definitely recommend the highlands experience to
augment a trip to Thingvallavatn when booking through Fish Partner.

This article is already long enough, but it seems like I am omitting plenty of detail. Please feel
free to contact me through my Instagram account @chadagy for more information about
Thingvallavatn, the Icelandic highlands fishing, or my thoughts in general about Icelandic travel.