John Parsons recounts the story of a memorable trip to Iceland in search of sea trout – and of the Sportfish rod that saved the trip!
One year ago Yury and I chased Icelandic sea trout in the second week of April. One year later Yury, Sergei and I did the same, but in the first week of April. ‘Why?’ you might reasonably ask. Well last year we were told that the first week is often dramatically better than the second and Yury had cleverly taken appropriate action – booking almost as soon as we arrived home last year. This year, therefore, we had the opening week of the Icelandic sea trout season to enjoy.
And this is the story of how we got on.
We arrived on April 1st – three fool fishers, on All Fools Day. Stjani Ben (our preternaturally patient and long suffering guide) collected us from Keflavik Airport. After a few hours’ drive through wind and snow, we parked up a stone’s throw from the Tungufljot River; central southern Iceland. There we had the use of the lodge and some twenty minutes of remaining day light available in which to catch an April fool sea trout.
We rapidly ‘wadered up’ with various thermal layers and headed down to the river. Peering through the gloom, a small patch of H2O in liquid form was identified amongst the ice sheets. A handful of delicate casts into a blistering head wind and face stinging sleet resulted in a predictable opening blank. I confess to disappointment. An April fool’s sea trout would have been great.
Deflated, we dumped our tackle in the lodge and drove half an hour to Kirkjubæjarklaustur (points for correct pronunciation). There we checked into the Hotel Klauster: Our comfortable home for the next six nights.
April 2nd dawned, on the south coast of Iceland at least, with an air temperature of minus 7 degrees – this before taking into account the piercing wind chill. And in the broad light of almost lunchtime (no hurry – eh?) it was apparent that most of the river was frozen over. Tungufljot doesn’t benefit from any geothermal activity as such and so in April (and late September) you do have to gamble on the weather and there can be ice from bank to bank.
For some minutes we drove up and down and back and forth along Tungufljot’s snowy shores and eventually ascertained that we had just two places in which to attempt casting a fly on flowing water. The best of these consisted of a few hundred metres of open water that could be reached by walking over the ice and climbing (falling?) into the river where the ice stopped. The water at this point was knee to thigh deep and with practice, entry could be accomplished with (some) dignity. The only trouble was that here the wind was blowing into our faces, from the right, and reverse casting Jim Teeny 200 and 300g lines was all we could manage.
The only other ‘spot’ to try was over the bridge on the opposite bank. Here there was ‘a hole’ just sufficient for Yury and Sergei to squeeze in whilst I watched; sipping Glenfiddich in the warmth of Stjani’s Land Rover. It was from this vantage that I saw Yury’s rod double over and battle commenced with our first fish of the trip – a well-conditioned kelt of 62cm. Shortly afterwards Sergei (a relative beginner with a fly rod) landed his first arctic char. An honest one and a half kilos of reds, greens and a sprinkling of gold; piped edges in cream and white.
After lunch we again tried to battle the headwind and this time it was my turn for glory. I landed a warrior kelt of 70cm (see photo) and two absolutely fresh run, maiden fish of around 45 – 50cm. For a brief moment, John was the champion! Russians seem to be able to make a rhyme out of the words ‘John’ and ‘Champion’ along with some other words that decency prevents me from translating and repeating.
April 3rd proved slightly kinder weather-wise. Tracts of ice cracked off and floated away giving us a few more places to cast a line. Yury (with Stjani’s expert assistance) found a pocket of fish and landed six in short order, whilst Sergey managed two from the wind friendly ‘hole’ of the opposite bank. These were an equal mix of kelts and maidens. I managed to fish the whole day without a pull.
Fishing can be like that. Champions just accept it, get up, get out and try, try again!
April 4th was ‘handover Saturday’. We had the morning on Tungufljot and the afternoon on a new fishing spot located just a few minutes’ drive from our hotel: The world famous Tungulaekur River.
“I have to admit to a certain amount of satisfaction in battling the elements and still catching a few fish in such crazy conditions.”
Please don’t press for details about our final session at Tungufljot. Suffice to say we caught just one trout between us while a huge amount of ice broke away and headed for the North Atlantic Ocean. We later heard that the group that took over from us that afternoon landed seventeen that afternoon. The river was finally opening, just as we walked away. Such is the lottery of Icelandic spring sea trout fishing. But if I am honest, I have to admit to a certain amount of satisfaction in battling the elements and still catching a few fish in such crazy conditions.
But after lunch we were on Tungulaekur – which a casual visitor from space might easily imagine as belonging to a different universe from Tungufljot’s. Tungulaekur is ice free – geo thermal issues apparently. Since you can access either bank, there is generally somewhere you can cast. The whole river from natal waterfall to the sea pool was open, ice free and now ours to fish.
That first afternoon resulted in a combined catch of twenty six sea trout to our team of three. I only contributed four to this total but that Saturday was to prove one of the most memorable and exciting fishing sessions of my life.
My ‘big adventure’ took place at the bottom beat (or sea pool) where Tungulaekur empties out into ‘the big river’. This is the Skafta estuary, just a couple of kilometres from the open ocean. It started with a splash. This I happened to notice in my peripheral vision: A small, single splash – way out there, beyond the sea pool; where the outflowing Tungulaekur merges with Ocean bound Skafta. These are powerful flows and there is a visible crease where the two rivers press together. And it was the first cast to this ‘seam’ that resulted in a vicious take from a bright silver sea trout. It leapt and ran and cartwheeled for a few minutes before I could climb down the rocks to release it: a fine 55cm fish. That one safely returned, I cast again and had a bang which was missed. Next cast there was a ‘bow wave’ follow, but no connection. And so it was, on the cast after this, that I hooked the monster…
It took about fifteen minutes to tire out the biggest sea trout I had ever seen – let alone caught. The small single hook (size 12), relatively light leader (12lb fluorocarbon) and powerful flow combined to give little reason to be optimistic about landing her. Every mighty head shake threatened a premature escape and I was genuinely amazed when eventually I was able to climb down to meet her. Being alone, precariously poised and in no position to take a sensible photo, I quickly measured the fish against the rod and released her. Seconds later Stjani turned up and we were both able to watch the mighty fish sulking before swimming slowly away. It was a hen fish that had spawned the previous year but re conditioned over the winter on a rich estuary diet. When fresh she would easily have weighed more than twenty pounds (we English rods still like to think of our captures in pounds and ounces). Her length was 90cm.
April 5th was Easter Sunday in much of Europe on our visit; including Iceland. It was also our first full day on Tungulaekur. The river is just five minutes’ drive from the Klauster Hotel which was a great help. It meant we could fish hard all morning and then allow the river to ‘rest’ from our attentions for the middle part of the day.
We ate in the Klauster’s comfortable, well stocked restaurant (chocolate Easter eggs for dessert) but took a packed evening meal with us for the ‘second half’. This meant we could fish into deep darkness without worrying about closing time at the restaurant. After lunch we were also able to ‘lose’ an hour by fishing a tributary next to the lodge; further extending the main river’s ‘rest period’. Here several quality char and one or two bonus sea trout were captured.
By the end of Easter Sunday, we had landed forty two sea trout between us with respectable totals all round. I again had the day’s biggest at 79cm but most were in the 50 to 65cm range. And most were tide fresh, maiden fish – between four and eight pounds (as in my aging British mind all such fish should be assessed).
April 6th, Easter Monday, turned out to be our last fishing day. It was also an absolute bonanza with three rods landing sixty two sea trout and a handful of char. Yury was top rod with an incredible thirty eight fish. Most of the sea trout were fresh, all were a good size and there were a few whoppers between 78 and 83cm. Ten to fourteen pounds. Incredible fishing!
April 7th: We were supposed to fish in the morning, but the weather shut us down. Blizzard conditions, poor visibility and extreme cold meant that we had to give our last session back to the river. After the previous day’s generosity, this felt somehow appropriate. But at least on our free day, during brief moments between storms, we saw some of Iceland’s finest waterfalls and geysers.
Fishing tackle? Most of the fish we caught were taken on Teeny shooting heads – 200 and 300g. I took along a couple of seven weight rods for casting these – which was just as well. My expensive, one week old rod (no names) broke on its first outing. My reserve rod was actually a new offering from Sportfish – a four piece, seven weight, nine foot six job. It proved absolutely perfect for hammering out heavy Teenys in high, gusting winds. And it was three times less expensive than my broken rod. Sometimes you can buy quality for ‘an arm’ – as a chum of mine sometimes says: ‘An arm’ being a deal less expensive than ‘an arm and a leg’ as the self-same chum is known to point out when in his cups.
Despite the cold and fast sinking lines, Yury also did well with a floating line and light plastic tubes. He also caught several ‘off the top’ on hitched flies. So it pays to bring along a selection of lines and a willingness to adapt.
Flies? Yury believes that pattern is important. Stjani and I disagree. We think the size of fly and overall colour can sometimes be an issue but the main thing is to locate the fish. But of course none of us really knows. Fishing involves some mystery without which, most likely, we wouldn’t do it. But our four most successful patterns are in the photograph below.
Another real benefit for fishing Iceland in April is having ‘flexible’ wading boots. These are helpful when on any one day you can find yourself creeping out over sheet ice or striding out over soft volcanic sand; wading over hazardous, algae strewn boulders or hacking through frost covered bog. I used Korkers for this trip. Swapping boot soles in a second for a more secure grip really is a trick worth learning.
By 7th April the formula had been proved; at least for us: Second week good, first week better. We caught over twice as many fish this year as last.
We have been told that the third week of April can also be good but the numbers are generally dwindling by then. By the fourth week, the sea trout for the most part will have left the lower rivers, estuaries and shores for the deep ocean. Generally they do not return in great numbers until August.
As mentioned before, the season begins on April 1st and the spring sea trout window of opportunity is small. But if for one reason or another you can’t get there for opening week, you can of course catch spectacular brown trout and fabulous char right through the season. Not to mention salmon coming into play from mid-June onwards.
I said not to mention the salmon!
So are you tempted? The cost for fishing two top rivers, accommodation for four, twelve meals (four times three) a day and Stjani’s services totalled up somewhere around €17,000. Don’t forget the weather risks involved and whatever else you do, please make sure you arrive with effective cold weather clothing. Make sure to include a lined buff and some top quality gloves. Hands and head suffer most in a blizzard.
Stjani Ben: [email protected] Tel + 354 867 5200
Klauster Hotel: [email protected]