Trophy browns won’t turn a head on Iceland’s biggest lake

Photos by Tarquin Millington-Drake

I clicked on the link the biologist sent me from his cabin in Iceland. A column of trout swam past a counter he had set up to record the spawning fish: for the most part, huge males, with fierce kypes and red spots the size of dimes.

Fish gather in large numbers where the rivers meet the lake. 

Fish gather in large numbers where the rivers meet the lake. 

If you find yourself dreaming about big trout — very big trout — and you want a shot at a hook-jawed brown that’ll take you way down into your backing, then Iceland’s Lake Thingvallavatn belongs on your bucket list. It is the fly-fishing equivalent of pulling to an inside straight, coming up with a royal flush and then doing both again.

Thingvallavatn is this small country’s biggest lake. It sits on the exact spot where a widening rift between North America and Eurasia rips through the moonlike landscape, drawing the heat of Earth’s molten core to the surface. That heat powers Iceland’s towering volcanoes and smoking geysers, and accounts for the near certainty of engaging in combat with a huge trout — in wind and cold, sunlight and shadow, rain, sleet and snow. The fish are always there and almost always catchable.

This tale of trout starts way before there were people on this hunk of rock in the North Atlantic. It was a time when glaciers covered much of the Northern Hemisphere. As they retreated, a race of giant, seagoing brown trout swam up to new spawning habitats in the rivers and lakes born of the melting ice. The trout that came to Thingvallavatn are cousins to the big sea-run trout of Scotland. Around 11,000 years ago, a waterfall downstream blocked their route to the sea. Normally, this kind of event leads to animals adapting to their new environment by getting smaller. Not here.

There is no shortage of sizeable brown trout on Lake Thingvallavatn.

There is no shortage of sizeable brown trout on Lake Thingvallavatn.

I headquartered in the ION hotel, a sleek, modern building jutting out over lava fields with a view of a river running through a vista as wide as any in the Colorado Rockies. In the distance was a chain of snaggle-toothed mountains connected by a long glacier.

A short drive brought us to the lake shore. There were three of us: my fishing partner, Gert-Jan Borghuis (an amiable Dutchman), and our guide, Johann “Jo” Hafnfjord.

“Try by that rock,” Jo said, pointing to a smallish boulder jutting above the surface about 15 feet from shore. “There’s usually a trout hanging out there.”

How in the name of all that’s holy does he know that? I wondered. My experience of trout in lakes is that locating them is a hit-or-miss thing. More out of courtesy than faith, I followed his orders and cast a nondescript nymph to the vicinity of the rock. Two strips later, a fish tugged, and I felt my rod arch. After a brief but spirited fight, a 4-pound brown came to hand. On most any trip on any water, a trophy trout, but, Jo assured me, just a warm-up act on Thingvallavatn.

The glaciation that shaped the landscape is part of the story behind the lake’s large brown trout.

The glaciation that shaped the landscape is part of the story behind the lake’s large brown trout.

Jo drove us to the inflow of a small stream, four-wheeling past a stand of trees that seemed more like tall bushes, but that Jo confirmed were, in fact, trees that made up what passes for a forest in Iceland. In this wild and rocky terrain, there are few big trees. We parked and walked a quarter mile, following the course of the stream. Snaking away from the shore, it sets up a subtle current. You fish it quarter casting down and across, and dead drifting at the end.

We waded in, me with a 6-weight, Gert with an 8. “The water stays knee-high for 15 or 20 yards,” Jo said. “After that, it drops off, and that’s where the fish are.”

The fishy water is not very deep, so a floating line with a weighted nymph or streamer will put a fly in the zone. The lake was calm, the weather dry and the air temperature not particularly cold — a combination that counts as semitropical weather in Iceland’s late-arriving spring or even high summer, for that matter.

I started with my global go-to fly: a Bead Head Prince Nymph. The current was so sinuous that I had to fiddle with my casting and fuss with my mending to get the right action. The line swept across the current and out over the drop-off.

“When it’s straight downstream, start feeding line,” Jo said. “Just match the drift with the speed of the current. They’ll still take.”

On cue, I felt a bona fide jerk — not a tentative nymphy swipe. I struck, and within 30 seconds the offended trout made a beeline for the ever-receding vanishing point where line met water. Jo directed me to work my way to the shore. The rod thumped, and I leaned into the fish, pointing the butt at him, pumping and recovering line before the trout took off on another run. A loon let fly its giggling call. I can’t tell you why that struck me, but in the heat of battle, you are in a heightened state of awareness, and the damndest things stick in your memory.

A bracing outing: Catching trophy trout during a snow squall.

A bracing outing: Catching trophy trout during a snow squall.

Jo netted the fish. “Four kilos,” he announced (about 9 pounds). It wasn’t so much the size of the fish that impressed me — although big trout always do — but the quality of the fight. On the other side of the current, Gert let out a telltale “Ha!” as he reprised my catch. We hung a few more fish in the 4- to 6-pound class before calling it quits. Normally, I’d say that we finished right after sundown, but in May in Iceland, daylight never runs out. A ghostly twilight lasts all night.

The next day was bright and warm. Pleasant for the angler but, surprisingly, of little consequence to the trout. According to fisheries biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson (who wears his silver-gray hair Allman Brothers long), the feeding habits of the Thingvallavatn trout are remarkable. Eons ago, when the fish were stranded in the lake, they were marooned with a group of Arctic char. Where the trout adapted by remaining relatively few in numbers (because of limited spawning opportunity), the char evolved to fill every niche in Thingvallavatn. Some specialized in feeding on forage fish, while others evolved on a diet almost exclusively of lake-bottom snails, and still others on plankton. Darwin in action, and an abundance of food for the trout.

Thingvallavatn is cold, around 35 F, except for a few areas near the shore where warm water from volcanic hot springs seeps into the lake. Once trout have had their fill of char, they seek out these hot zones, where they rest and digest their food. Even so, a well-placed fly will often summon a strike. Best as I can tell, the trout have no need of more food at that point, so perhaps they strike out of pure instinct, or orneriness. Whatever the weather, if you cast your fly into these warmer areas, you have a chance of hooking trout.

One hot spot is a stretch of lakefront where the shore hooks around, diverting the warm current against a boulder-strewn spit of land. I worked my way to it, where a pod of big fish milled about, showing their fins, just enough to tantalize. Although the comparison may seem surprising, the black fins razoring through the calm surface looked just like a school of bluefish over shallow white sands that I once encountered while wading the shoreline of Staten Island, New York. The sight of these graceful big trout was so seductive that I almost held back from casting. Almost.

04-ION Beats - Iceland TMD-64

My fly, a number 16 black gnat, landed 3 yards short of the trout. With 12 feet of leader between the dry fly and the line, the fishable water was undisturbed. I fed line by wiggling the rod slightly. The current carried the fly slowly and gently to the trout posse. The water was silvery gray, reflecting the color of the basalt boulders of the narrow peninsula. The fly’s dark gray hackle and duck quill wings stood out clearly, brazenly daring a trout to have a go at it.

Tick tick tick … I held my breath. The breeze nudged the fly toward the sweet spot in the school. Time crawled. And then, a pause and a wrinkle in the flat water shattered by the concussion of a big trout rocketing away from shore. I felt the disc drag exerting smooth, steady pressure on the fish — one of the most satisfying sensations in angling. With no underwater booby traps to snag your line, there are few break-offs on these trout, and when there are, you can always mark it down to angler error. After three or four good runs, a 10-pounder came to Jo’s net, beautifully spotted with the expansive and supple sides of a trout that had never missed a meal.

At the other end of the beat, about two football fields away, Gert also was into a fish. Jo, net in hand, closed the distance quickly. From the whooping laughter, I could tell that Gert’s luck matched my own.

Over lunch — flaky fillets of snow-white cod, greenhouse salad and cold Icelandic beer — we swapped tales of the morning’s fishing with another pair other anglers with whom we’d alternated beats. They were two Russian businessmen who lived in London and Houston. Bjarni Jonson completed our group: a legendary guide and fly tyer with a thoughtful, almost philosophical regard for trout. After lunch, I quickly fell into the habit of relaxing in a geothermally heated pool overlooking the lava field. Cotton-ball billows of venting steam filled the valley.

The days slipped by. The unseasonably warm weather spread a blush of slowly deepening green across the landscape. Just outside the wader room, the buds on a dozen cyclamens swelled. “Easter lilies,” Jo said. If the weather kept up, perhaps we’d see them in full flower, yellow as sunshine.

On a flat, calm morning, Gert and I stationed ourselves on either side of the inlet, casting into the current. The tendency of all anglers in such conditions is to throw as much line as you can. “You don’t need to cast that far,” Jo said. “They always hang by the drop-off.”

I shortened my line and cast again — a green Wooly Bugger.

“How’s that, Jo?”

“Perfect,” he said. It struck me then that Jo offers this verdict about most casts. They can’t all be perfect, I thought. Mark this up, in part, to Jo’s natural good nature. Equally, though, experience has taught him that as long as you hit the zone, any cast often gives you a chance.

The author‘s largest brown weighed 15 pounds.

The author‘s largest brown weighed 15 pounds.

Case in point: I had fallen into a casting trance as I looked at the mountains, listened to the bird calls and lapped up the sunshine. A roundhouse jolt roused me. The trout hit with authority and sprinted away, shaking its head in classic brown-trout style, reversing course and then making a sharp right parallel to the shore. If I just stood my ground and fought him, I knew he would spool me, so I backed out to dry land and followed along at a brisk walking pace, punctuated with short sprints. The fight could have lasted 10 minutes, or 15, or much more: I was too absorbed in the moment to note the passage of time. All I could do was hang on, reel for dear life when he rushed me and pump the rod when I came tight. This would send him on another dash for freedom.

Jo tried to coach me. I barely registered his voice, which fell on my ears like a side conversation half-heard in a dream. I was too locked in to pay him — or anything other than the rod, the line and the fish — much attention. The battle turned as I began to recover more line than the fish took. I backed away farther from the water, keeping a healthy bend in the rod. Jo waded in with his landing net. After a few whiffs of the long-handled net (reminding me of a home-run hitter lunging at a wicked slider) he connected.

“Seven kilos,” he said (about 15½ pounds) as he measured the fish.

“Let me revive him,” I said and knelt in the water, holding the big trout gently and moving him back and forth to force water through his gills. I could feel him regaining strength until I took my hands away from his flanks and he swam off at a lazy pace. His form became a shadow before melting into the lake ahead of a last, short-lived, wake.

AJ fish rule

Plan a Trip

You can arrange your trip through Tarquin Millington-Drake (tmd@frontierstrvl.co.uk) or Ben Hoffman (bhoffman@frontierstravel.com) of Frontiers Travel (800-245-1950). Although these are big trout in a big lake, tackle ranging from trout to bonefish (5 weight to 8 weight) will serve you well. I recommend four days on the ION beats. You will catch your fill of big trout and still have time to visit the extraordinary sights of this gorgeous country. You can drive around it in 16 hours. If you do tour the country, Icelandair Hotels are affordable and quite nice, but do yourself a favor and book ahead: Iceland is experiencing a surge in tourism. The scenery is as spectacular as any on Earth (and nearby planets).

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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