Icelandic Treasure

Biting bugs and strong winds are all part of a long -- very long -- day's fishing here, but it's the wild brown trout that make the trip.

Field & Stream Online Editors

It wasn't the Dixie Chicks, but it was definitely country music coming through the truck radio from a local station at Skagastrond on Iceland's northwest coast. To a visiting fisherman used to hearing the more somber sounds of Bach or Mozart on the airwaves of this remote volcanic island rising out of the cold North Atlantic just 30 miles below the Arctic Circle, good ole American country sound was a revelation.

But far more surprising was the world-class brown trout fishing I found in Iceland, a sporting destination best known for its top-notch but pricey Atlantic salmon angling. Ranking brown trout water is a very subjective exercise, even for a well-traveled trout nut. But large -- sometimes very large -- wild brown trout, excellent river management, hauntingly beautiful scenery, and Iceland's fiercely independent but genuinely friendly citizens make the little-known Laxa one of the world's most productive and rewarding trout waters for flyfishermen.

The Laxa flows fast and cold out of Lake M'yvatn in the north of Iceland and runs for some 50 miles to the sea, encompassing hundreds of islands where curlews, godwits, whimbrels, and other exotic species of shorebirds and waterfowl nest. The rugged landscape is essentially treeless -- the Vikings wielded mean axes -- but the vistas are long and strikingly green during the summer trout season. Icelandic horses and sheep graze on rich grass growing in lava fields, dwarfed by towering volcanos and eerie lava formations known locally as "black castles." Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts trained in this lunarlike landscape before their moon shot. It is big, open country with the sky full of greylag and pink-foot geese flying between low pasturelands and the blueberry thickets on windblown hilltops.

Lake M'yvatn and its fertile tributary, which is split into sections -- Laxa i M'yvatnssveit and Laxa i Laxardal -- and stretches for 25 miles as the raven flies to a hydro dam at Laxarvirkjun, grow a bumper crop of brown trout that average 2 to 3 pounds but get much larger. Fish from 4 to 7 pounds are commonplace, and every year, double-digit browns are taken by a few lucky flyfishermen, one of whom caught a 13-pounder measuring 29.2 inches in 1997. Members of the landowners' syndicate, which leases the flyfishing-only rights on the Laxa, believe that these brown trout were here before the Vikings arrived in Iceland in the ninth century, and they insist that there has never been any stocking or enhancement.

"Fishermen who come here from other countries can't believe that this river can produce so many big wild trout," says Holmfridur Jonsdottir, a schoolteacher who has managed the Laxa trout fishing for 20 years. "They think we must put in some big fish every year. I tell them, 'Only nature is at work here.'"

Whether or not these brown trout interbred in time past with the anadromous sea trout that move in and out of the lower Laxa is lost in history. Laxa browns of all sizes do come in two distinct color phases -- classic deep olive/copper with black spots tinged with red; and bright silver with distinct black spots, a sea trout look-alike. But the Laxa landowners have records showing that the sea trout, and the large salmon for which the lower Laxa is famous, never ascended the river above the hydro dam and never used the fish ladder installed at the dam in the mid-1950s. So it would appear that the Laxa browns are a distinct landlocked species -- and an Icelandic treasure.

If fussy fishing with tiny flies, gossamer tippets, and 2-weight rods is your thing, forget about the Laxa. First, there is the weather, which is more often than not allhvasst (very windy). Then, there's the heavy, often brawling nature of this nutrient-rich but clear river (the porous lava rock filters out sediment from Lake M'yvatn). Swarming hatches of black midges (pronounced "me" in Icelandic and spelled m'y as in M'yvatn), plus the juvile browns that are cannibalized by the adult fish, sustain a strain of hard-bodied brown trout that literally smack a fly and then make long, leaping runs before they are brought to hand.

"It's an amazing fishery," says Bob Cohen, a New Jersey angler who has fished the Laxa several times. "How many other places can you go and expect to catch really big and wild landlocked browns that are shaped like footballs and jump like rainbow trout? I have photos of three fish that several of us killed one day for smoking. They look like logs lying there on the grassy bank."

Like Iceland's carefully managed salmon rivers, the Laxa operates on the "beat" system, with a daily maximum of 24 rods assigned two to a beat. The beats are rested on a rotating basis and encompass so much water (there are some 200 major named pools) and such a variety of fishing challenges that two anglers would literally have to run from pool to riffle, and from cut bank to boulder-studded pocket water to long glide, in order to "fish out" their beat during the daily fishing hours, which run from from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., and then again from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The fishing can be so good that even after 12 long hours on the water, it is difficult to call it quits for the day, especially when the midnight sun is still shining brightly at 10 p.m. Dinnertime at the Laxa's two comfortable lodges is at 11 p.m., and the telling of fish stories can go on into the wee hours -- which is why fishermen quickly learn to take a nap on the riverbank. They also learn, usually the hard way, not to stretch out near nesting shorebirds, which will dive-bomb prostrate fishermen until they move.

If you fish by the numbers, the Laxa's are impressive. According to Holmfidur Jonsdottir's carefully kept books, fishermen caught and recorded 7,947 brown trout between June 1 and the end of August in 1998; in 1999 a spate of unusually harsh weather in June pulled the season catch total down to 5,923 browns. The keeper limit is a whopping 10 trout of 14 inches or larger a day (Icelanders like to eat trout), yet the fishery certainly seems healthy. So far, the Laxa landowners have not bought into a slot limit that would protect big fish and save them for sport and for spawning.

I fished the Laxa last year during the first week in September with longtime friend Siggi Fjeldsted, a fourth-generation Icelandic salmon guide who works for Angling Club Lax-A, a fishing and hunting booking/outfitting agency based in Reykjavik. Siggi, who like most Icelanders speaks fluent English as well as his native "tongue of the Vikings," had been telling me for years about Iceland's "unknown" trout. We shared an island beat on the river with prime trout water on both sides, allowing us to fish around the wind, which in turn kept the m'y at bay. "Only one kind of m'y bites," Siggi said, "but as the British say, they are 'bloody biters.' So keep your headnet handy."

Green seemed to be the fly color of choice, so I used a short-bodied Olive Woolly Bugger tied on a size 12 hook, and Siggi selected one of his own green salmon flies tied on a size 14 double hook. Working downriver with floating lines, we took fish after fish, ranging from 14 to 20 inches. All of them were jumpers. We finally walked away from a junction pool at a small downstream island because it was too easy -- we were taking browns on almost every cast.

In a small, classic tailout below a long pool, Siggi cast, mended his line to slow the swing of the fly, and was fast to a male fish that jumped wildly several times, then took him 30 yards downriver, leaping all the way, before I could get the long-handled net under the trout.

"Five, maybe 6 pounds," Siggi said, as he slid the big brown back into the river. "Now you try the pool. And mend." I did and immediately hooked a hen fish that took me into the backing and weighed 4-plus pounds. Two casts, two browns weighing almost 10 pounds, from the same piece of water. As we stood there savoring our good fortune, a much bigger trout with a clearly visible hook jaw leaped in the middle of the river. We worked him over with Siggi's 121¿¿2-foot, two-handed rod and a dozen or so fly patterns but never hooked up.

The ever changing nature of the Laxa from one bend to the next is part of its charm. There are no mayfly or caddis hatches, but the always-present m'y hatch all summer long, often producing swarming clouds of insects and occasionally making it possible to bring browns up to the surface with traditional dark dry flies like the Adams and the Black Gnat, during spells when the persistent wind diminishes to a mere breeze. Icelandic anglers favor small, dark wet flies like Peter Ross, Teal & Black, Connemara Black, and Peacock Spider, and everyone relies at one time or another on streamers -- Black Ghosts and Mickey Finns are favorites -- plus assorted Woolly Buggers, Zonkers, and Matukas. Beadhead nymphs fished with split shot and an indicator can also be productive. Fishermen who carry floating, sink-tip, and full-sinking lines, or a selection of shooting heads, and religiously change their lines to match the speed and the depth of the river, usually outfish everyone else on this extraordinary brown trout water. weighing almost 10 pounds, from the same piece of water. As we stood there savoring our good fortune, a much bigger trout with a clearly visible hook jaw leaped in the middle of the river. We worked him over with Siggi's 121¿¿2-foot, two-handed rod and a dozen or so fly patterns but never hooked up.

The ever changing nature of the Laxa from one bend to the next is part of its charm. There are no mayfly or caddis hatches, but the always-present m'y hatch all summer long, often producing swarming clouds of insects and occasionally making it possible to bring browns up to the surface with traditional dark dry flies like the Adams and the Black Gnat, during spells when the persistent wind diminishes to a mere breeze. Icelandic anglers favor small, dark wet flies like Peter Ross, Teal & Black, Connemara Black, and Peacock Spider, and everyone relies at one time or another on streamers -- Black Ghosts and Mickey Finns are favorites -- plus assorted Woolly Buggers, Zonkers, and Matukas. Beadhead nymphs fished with split shot and an indicator can also be productive. Fishermen who carry floating, sink-tip, and full-sinking lines, or a selection of shooting heads, and religiously change their lines to match the speed and the depth of the river, usually outfish everyone else on this extraordinary brown trout water.