We fly over the molten glow of an active volcano, regale ourselves with Reykjavik’s fabulous fish soup and local lager, sleep, rise and head east toward Iceland’s great rift valley and Lake Thingvallavatn. My friend Eugene and I are celebrating Father’s Day and my birthday with a guided trip.
“Yes, days to mark,” Björn Pétursson smiles behind the wheel of his cluttered hatchback. “For me,” our guide adds, “it was December 16, 2019. I had two heart attacks, got divorced and gave up drugs.” We nod our support.
Pétursson proudly states his direct descendancy from the legendary Viking warrior Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and I tease him about becoming Björn Eyes-on-the-Road as he digs for his cigarettes, the car drifting over the center line though a serpentine pass. The 34-year-old guide is tall, bearded, bright-eyed and heavily tattooed with Norse runes, trees, fish and an image of his famous Devil Fly.
“Fly-fishing destroyed my marriage but saved my life,” he says. “It’s my passion.” He asks if he can join us in today’s casting. What can we say?
Iceland is full of fish, but you have to cut through the wind to reach them. Leaning into a cold westerly of 25 knots, we wade brown pebbly shallows and around a lush island blooming in yellow buttercups. A nearby nesting loon lets out a shrill warning. Pétursson splashes into the water and casts; we follow. In a few minutes Eugene feels an icy-cold sensation in his right boot.
Pétursson is apologetic, offering dry socks and his “best new waders, so be careful.” He thinks it might be too cold for this spot — even for arctic char, the northernmost of all freshwater fish — so we pack up the car and jounce down a deeply rutted track. I notice wood chips holding up the car windows and duct tape in interesting places. Then there’s a bone-jarring blow to the undercarriage, and we step out to find the entire exhaust system eviscerated. Pétursson grabs the tailpipe and burns his hand. We let things cool off, free the mangled exhaust from the car and stash it behind some rocks. Pétursson has a smoke and asks if we think the car is safe to drive. “It’s fine,” Eugene says as he sniffs for fumes and tries to be positive. “Now it sounds like a Porsche.”
Somewhere on the east side of Lake Thingvallavatn, we wade and cast into a heavy cross wind, slowly stripping small red and black bead-headed nymphs. Pétursson reports that his own waders are now leaking. Undaunted, he turns his back to the gale, deploys an effective cross-body cast and is soon into a nice Arctic char. He plays it up and down the gravelly bank, and I land it, admiring the orange belly, the eel-gray dorsal sprinkled in gold dust, and small, pale spots. “My beauties,” Pétursson exclaims before letting the fish go. His passion for fish and angling, and his warmth toward us, is obvious, but Eugene and I have not yet hooked a fish. And after a few snags on the rocky bottom, we worry about the depleted box of shared flies.
Pétursson takes a break from fishing and sits glumly on a mossy hump above the lake. When I ask if he’s OK, he looks at me and shakes his head. Maybe it’s the damaged car, another pair of leaky waders, his empty pack of Winston Black cigarettes or other problems suddenly rising in his mind. “You’re a good fisherman — you’ll get through this,” I say, not sure of the connection. He stares out at the lake through round sunglasses with leather side shields, like someone unwilling to consider peripheral distractions. When Eugene hooks a feisty char, the Viking’s smile returns.
The rod bucks, and the reel pays line as the fish races through the clear water. Pétursson lands the char and puts his hands over its eyes. “Like a horse. It calms them,” he says. When Eugene deftly grabs the tail wrist, Pétursson says, “You are like Thor. That’s how the salmon got the shape of its tail. Thor grabbed him there.”
The air warms slightly, the wind eases, white clouds drift through a blue sky above ashy mountains, Arctic terns dip-feed on emerging caddis, and I cast and cast, finally feeling that fantastic energy of a wild fish. We all catch a few more char and lose a big brown trout. “Where exactly are we?” I ask when my wife calls from the rental car to hone in on our location.
Pétursson chuckles. “Drop her a pin,” he says, referring to using Google Maps on a smartphone to pinpoint a location. “We’re in paradise.”