Whenever an angler crosses a bridge or drives along an edge of water they cannot help but glance, wondering what fish lays waiting for that next cast. Whilst driving around Iceland I have crossed over numerous rivers, but one small river caught my attention. Its clear waters run a deep shade of blue and are lined by grassland, the river tumbles through rocks and boulders with plenty of likely holding spots for fish; both trout and salmon. An enticing river that was certainly tugging at my angling senses.
When the chance came to go to the Laxá Í Ásum with a group of friends I leapt at the opportunity. Yes it was an early space but this was a chance to discover a new water. After several months of preparation and building excitement the group and I boarded our flights and headed to the land of fire and Ice.
Our aim was to target an Icelandic Grand Slam of sorts, salmon, brown trout and sea run Arctic char. This was going to be tough, not only did we have early space for the salmon runs (last week of June) but Iceland had also experienced a long cold winter. Needless to say we headed north open minded and hoping for the best.
After a brief overnight in Reykjavik and a chance to experience some of the wonderful cuisine found in Iceland, we were met by our guide Arnar and his truck, the Polar Bear! Whenever someone rocks up in a vehicle called the Polar Bear you know they mean business, so after a quick greeting we loaded up and headed out.
The drive north along the Icelandic west coast is spectacular, crossing fjords, shadowed by mountains, near glaciers and passing many notable salmon rivers. After two and half hours you reach the small deep blue waters of Ásum and the town of Blondoús. Just a short journey from the town sits the lodge, looking out over the glacial cut plains and the winding river.
On arrival at the lodge we rushed to string up several set ups to hit the river for the afternoon session. Over the duration of our four days fishing (two half days and three full day) we were to rotate between the trout section (Fremri Ásum), the salmon beats and the estuary beats. For the opening session I drew the trout section. Located between two lakes, it tumbles through boulders and lava formations. One minute you are fishing rock pockets and the next you are wading long placid pools. There were fish to be found throughout the river and after catching several on nymphs and streamers the group soon settled into fishing dry fly only.
Whilst the trout were not large in Icelandic terms, mostly between 1 – 2 lbs, they certainly made up for it in aggression and strength. The trout were not afraid to chase dry flies away from their lie and even the smaller fish did not hesitate at taking large streamers. Most of the fishing we did with searching patterns but the flatter areas offered some challenging and enjoyable midge fishing. I also witnessed the odd caddis hatching along the river and I can only assume the caddis hatches build through the season.
Throughout our fishing period the weather became better and better, topping out at about 18°C, really quite warm for Iceland. These conditions were perfect for the midge hatches which kept the fish active throughout our time on the river. The final morning session the conditions were perfect, Glenn Weisner (Glenn River Fly Co.) and Toby Merigan (owner of Funky Flytying) found a lovely slow pool where they fished technical midge patterns to selective trout.
After the session it was back to the lodge to relive the highlights of the first evening on the water, this included hearing about the first salmon landed and more seen and missed on the riffle hitch. An amazing start highlighting the fact that a good run of fish had arrived early. The next morning would be my chance to experience the salmon beats first hand.
The morning arrived and I readied myself with an 11ft #6 with a floating line and a 1 ½ inch sunray. The rod seemed the perfect size to control the fly with ease through most pools. The Icelandic rod of choice is however a 9ft #6 or 7 on the Ásum.
The salmon beats stretch from the second lake all the way to the tidal waters; this is not a great distance allowing fresh fish to spread out throughout the river system quickly. The stretch has pools scattered all the way along as well as several waterfalls. Due to the nature of the river there are small pockets that will hold fish at different water levels. As I am primarily a trout angler I found this type of water brilliant, it was similar to trout fishing, just for salmon.
Arnar dropped Toby and myself a few kilometres up from the lodge. He stated that we would be fishing the walk, whilst sounding slightly ominous this section of the river holds some of the best pools in the river. So with some last minute advice Toby and I began our hike towards the lodge. We were sharing a rod, a common way to fish for salmon in Iceland, and we alternated pools and holes.
As we walked down the river we covered some beautiful looking runs and pools. Aside from a couple of trout attacking the riffle hitch we were yet to experience that flash of silver. After a couple of kilometres we reached a small pocket, hardly something that could be described as a pool, some 20 ft wide and 35 ft long but it looked good. I covered the water meticulously, the sunray zigging and zagging through the run. We were both holding our breath as each swing came round.
As the fly began to skim the large rock at the tail of the pocket our thoughts turned to the next pool. The sunray paused for a second longer in the slack water by the bank until there was an almighty take. The rod was almost ripped from my hand. In shock I pulled back into a heavy weight. One roll of silver and the fish decided to disappear downstream. For the next 400 metres the river was shallow with rocks protruding from the turbulent water, the chase was on! The leader was pinging off rocks, the fish would roll explosively on the surface before shooting off once more. About 300 metres through the downstream dash there was a small shallow bay, I steered the broad shouldered fish into the shallows. The salmon showed a couple of last dives for freedom before the first glimpse of weakness and at this point Toby took his opportunity and grabbed the fish by the wrist. The fish was secure and the adrenalin mixed with relief. The rich glossy silver shone back at me as a strong 74 cm salmon sat calmly in my hands. If this was my last fish of the trip I would have been more than happy. After a couple of quick photos the fish was held in the current and released to continue its path up the river.
We fished our way down to the lodge without much more interruption apart from the odd swooping Arctic tern. Returning to the lodge we were greeted by smiles all around. Tom and Malcolm had found plenty of trout upstream and Rob Thomas (from Robjents in Stockbridge) had moved four or five salmon in the lower part of the river.
On returning to the salmon beats later in the week I stuck to fishing a riffle hitch. When in Iceland this is the ultimate way to catch a salmon. The fly skids and skates across the surface before the perfect drift is interrupted by the snout of a salmon breaking the surface, much like a trout taking a midge. This style of fish requires nerves of steel, waiting for the fish to turn on the fly before setting the hook.
Needless to say, my riffle hitch opportunity did not take long. I watched the red dot of my fly skate across a very slow tail out. As the fly slowed the big unmistakeable shoulders of a multi-sea-wintered salmon broke the surface and rolled on my fly. My nerves of steel failed me and I struck, two turns of the impressive fish and my fly came flying back at me! After a quick curse and a word with myself, I shrugged it off and left the pool happy to have witnessed one of the most exhilarating takes a salmon angler can experience. Everybody in the group had their chance to watch a salmon take a fly from the surface and whilst we did not land everything we hooked into 20 fish in four days to just two rods. The biggest of which was 87 cm landed by Tom, with a couple of bigger fish lost mid fight!
The final piece of the river left for me to target was the estuary beat, the guys so far had done really well landing numerous sea run char and even a couple of sea trout fresh off the tide. Rob and I headed down to the tidal reaches with 10 ft #7s rigged up with sinking lines and bright flies. Anyone who has fished in Iceland will know that the off-road driving experience comes part and parcel of your trip, and this was certainly true for the char beats. Arnar drove us across the black sand dunes until we reached the edge of the dune, we were greeted by a steep, almost vertical bank. After a quick adjustment of gears we went straight over the edge!
We arrived at the pool at high tide, the still water waiting to rip back through the small outlet into the raging waves. There was a stiff onshore breeze making fishing conditions tough. Thankfully Rob and I have a good deal of Stillwater and UK saltwater experience and these conditions are quite normal. Whilst I was still trying to work out where to go Rob had snuck off to the hotspot and had immediately latched into a sizeable fish. After several runs and a few surface explosions, a beautiful tide-fresh sea trout slid up the beach, the fish was approximately 6 lbs.
Once the tide began to drop out the Arctic char switched on. The key was to cast into the rip and steadily draw the fly back. Frustratingly the char would follow the fly all the way to your feet, waiting for you to hang the fly before snatching out. We did not land many that evening but for periods every cast would have a follow.
As is normal in Iceland, the lunchtime winds began to die down at about 8pm with the tide still ripping out. I was able to fire out a nice cast into the current, after a pause I began to ‘figure-of-eight’ the fly back. Whilst in the flow the fly got caught up on what felt like the bottom, I continued to retrieve before setting the hook. All of a sudden a huge bar of silver emerged from the depths, twisting and turning, before making a b-line for the estuary mouth. As my reel screamed, I shouted to Rob and ran through a family of eider ducks sending them scattering in all directions. I tightened the drag trying to turn the beast but as I applied more pressure the fly pulled free! I sat on the small sad bluff, beaten, dejected - that was the fish of a lifetime. Back at the lodge that night, I retold the story with actions and props. Arnar listened intently before laughing and saying “Já, we never land the big salmon there!”. Although somewhat comforted by his words, I will relive the experience in my mind’s eye for a while.
Our trip drew to an end, having experienced some of the best early season salmon fishing that can be found in Iceland. We also caught countless brown trout, numerous Arctic char to 5 lbs and sea trout to 7 lbs. If you had offered us those catch returns at the beginning of the trip we probably would have laughed.
The trip offered far more than just fish, the group were great, Arnar put up with our trout fishing tendencies and each day we were surrounded by the most exquisite Icelandic scenery. Will we be back? You can count on it!