Beating the clock, and chasing Atlantic salmon, in the land of fire and ice.
by Evan McGlinn
After returning from 12 days of fishing in Iceland, a few strange scribbles in my notebook said it all:
- Naked drone pilot
- Youngie’s fishing ghosts
- Lost camera in a trout volcano
- Minke whale appetizer
In 30-some years of fly-fishing about the globe, I’ve had my share of sleepless nights and unusual experiences, from casting for midnight stripers off Nantucket to washing down caribou stroganoff with vodka in Russia. But in Iceland, I finally understood why the CIA favors sleep deprivation for torture.
In Reykjavík in June, the sun rose at 2:55 and didn’t go down until 12:04 the next morning. But it felt more like 24 hours of daylight than a mere 21 hours and 9 minutes, because the sun never dipped far enough below the horizon for it to actually get dark. In summertime Iceland, cocktail hour starts around 10:30 and dinner runs past midnight.
Fortunately, those long nights are good news for the angler. With all those glacier-fed rivers teeming with Atlantic salmon, arctic char, and brown trout, who can think about sleep?
After a quiet night in a downtown Reykjavik hotel, I met my fellow anglers: Ben Hoffman from Pennsylvania, and from the UK Angus Walton and my old friend Tarquin Millington-Drake. For reasons too absurd to detail, I call Tarquin The Great One and he calls me The Safety Officer.
All three men work for Frontiers International Travel, and were here, at least in theory, to research and shoot photos for their new website on Iceland. Even though Frontiers has over 30 years of expertise fishing and traveling in Iceland, information about lodges and rivers has to be constantly updated. This required a mountain of gear—many enormous bags full of cameras and audio equipment, not to mention four pairs of waders, wading boots, assorted spey and single-handed rods, and a sack of junk food Angus acquired at a local gas station. It was like a contest to see just how much stuff will fit into a Mitsubishi Pajero.
Off to the side sat a formidable hard case with a rugged handle.
“What’s that?” I asked The Great One.
“The drone,” he said. “Fortunately, Angus spent his formative years playing video games and can fly it.”
Indeed. As we traveled around the country, Angus masterfully piloted the Phantom drone with its GoPro camera up huge waterfalls and down many long stretches of roaring river without once crashing. Well, nearly. At one point he did fly it just beyond radio range, and it came down on the far side of an icy glacial river. Being a hearty Scottish farmer’s son, he stripped and waded across, successfully retrieving the drone and sprinting through a field like a 1970s streaker for the Mitsubishi and its heater. Fortunately, sparsely populated Iceland has few gawkers.
Given our principal mission of reporting on lodges and shooting photographs and video, our trip itinerary, The Great One said, would be “rather loose,” and we would “play it by ear.”
I’ve known Tarquin long enough to know that what he really means is, We’ll keep a back-breaking schedule.
“I know you Yanks are delicate,” he said, “But you can sleep when you get home.”
With more than a thousand miles of driving, mostly over dirt roads and through the occasional river, we made only one wrong turn, when Angus accidentally drove us on top of a gravel dam only a few feet wide. Being The Safety Officer, I screamed, and he carefully backed up.
The global population of Atlantic salmon is estimated at around 4 million fish, about 500,000 from North America and the rest from Europe and Scandinavia. In the general scheme of things, the salmon fishing in Iceland is quite healthy. “Two thousand and thirteen was one of the best years in history,” Orri Vigfusson told me, “with sixty thousand fish caught. Two thousand and fourteen was also a very good year with thirty thousand fish caught.”
Orri should know. He’s the chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and a bit of a celebrity in the Atlantic salmon world. He’s spent his life working with presidents, kings, queens, and captains of industry to protect this great gamefish.
The good news about Icelandic salmon stocks is thanks in part to Iceland’s location, smack in the middle of the Atlantic salmon’s two primary feeding grounds: the Faroe Islands about 270 miles to the east, and Greenland about 210 miles to the west. The Icelandic fish enjoy a much shorter commute home than a fish from say, Norway or the Gaspé Peninsula. Canadian salmon haven’t been as lucky. “Two thousand fourteen was the worst ever recorded,” said Bill Taylor, president and CEO of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. He cited climate change and commercial fishing as well as increasing predation on Canadian salmon from sharks and seals as leading factors in the population decline.
I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but as we visited lodges on rivers like the Grimsa, the Nordura, and the Midfjardara, I strongly felt the presence of the many men and women who’ve traveled here over the last century. At a Lodge on the Big Laxa there’s a long hallway covered with vintage photographs. Just down from a shot of Bing Crosby, looking dapper in a fishing hat and Icelandic sweater, I spotted a picture of Bill “Youngie” Young, who I met on the Ponoi many years ago. He stood next to two other men, one of them holding a huge salmon. The caption read, Four old males: Marks, Williams, Young, Salar. August 1987. They looked happy (except for the salmon), without a care in the world. Now they’re all gone except Youngie, and he’s battling cancer back home in New York.
But it’s hard to stay sad in a country of midnight sun and spirited midnight dinners, not to mention the glorious fishing on rivers like the Thvera, one of the few places where we caught salmon in June, a month before prime time. The Thvera’s water varies from beat to beat, with two beats in a mild canyon and the majority easily waded freestone pools. Angus, Ben, The Great One, and I headed down to Pool 42, or the Berghylur pool. It sat in front of a simple Icelandic church with a traditional red roof. Angus fired up the drone and buzzed it up and down the river as The Great One and I made our way to the far bank.
At this point, a confession: I’ve been lucky enough to fish some of the world’s greatest Atlantic salmon rivers, but I’ve never been very good at it. I’m fine with technical trout fishing and small flies, and sight-casting for tarpon, bonefish, and permit. But for some reason the arcane skills of Atlantic salmon fishing have eluded me. Perhaps I thought it was simply a matter of swinging the fly. Fishing the Thvera with The Great One changed all that.
“Nice fish right there,” Tarquin said, spotting a silver flash downstream. We tied on a Collie Dog, a old Scottish pattern originally tied with mixed black and white fur from a border collie, now modernized with a plastic tube and what was probably goat hair. I began casting 45 degrees downstream, making the classic Atlantic salmon drift, the dangle, and the slow finger-twisting retrieve.
After several casts with no takes, The Great One added a riffling hitch behind the hook eye, so that the fly cocked at an angle to the leader. This technique was developed in the last century in Newfoundland, in part to recycle damaged gut-eyed flies, and in part to create that V-shaped wake that seemed to draw salmon from the depths when nothing else would.
These are the sorts of simple tweaks that change your fishing. Two casts later, a bright 14-pounder took the fly, and raced and jumped his way downstream, while overhead, Angus’s drone soared off in pursuit.
Four days later Ben came into the restaurant at the Hrauneyjar Guesthouse looking glum.
“I can’t find my camera,” he said, staring down at the zipper of his neon jacket. “I think I left it in the volcano.”
If you’re going to lose a camera in a volcano, Iceland is the place to come. We had traveled to an area known as the Icelandic Highlands to fish for arctic char on a nearby river, and Ben, Angus and The Great One had gone off earlier in the day to explore a dormant volcano transformed into a lake full of trout. Being The Safety Officer, I did the sensible thing and took a nap.
On their website (www.hrauneyjar.is), Hrauneyjar says they’re “situated at the edge of the country’s most impressive active volcanic area . . . the last stop before entering the vast and untouched interior of Iceland . . . [And] one of the last places in Europe where freedom, natural beauty and solitude are combined in a breathtakingly powerful experience.”
It’s also the last place on earth you’ll find a lost camera, no matter how hard you look.
You may be well traveled, but I can almost guarantee you’ve never seen a landscape like The Icelandic Highlands. It’s not at all cliché to call it lunar. Back in the 1960s, the Apollo astronauts came here to train for their mission to the moon. Neil Armstrong even found time to go trout fishing on the Laxa.
Iceland has its volcanoes to thank for this forbidding landscape, with miles of topography covered in sandy black lava. In fact, the country is one of the most volcanically active in the world, and small earthquakes are reported daily. In 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, the ensuing volcanic ash clouds disrupting air travel in North America and Europe for 10 days. But that’s nothing compared to the Laki (or Skáftar Fires) eruption of 1783-84. In eight months it spewed some 14.7 cubic kilometers of basaltic lava from 140 vents across 23 kilometers of fissures and cones. According to Wired magazine website devoted to volcanoes (www.wired.com/tag/volcanic-hazards/), that was enough lava to pave over a city the size of Boston 63 meters deep! The ash cloud covered much of the northern hemisphere, and the ensuing “Haze Famine” killed off the grass, which killed some 60 percent of Iceland’s livestock, which led to the deaths by starvation of more than 10,000 people on the island.
Speaking of food . . . This is a good place to address the last of my odd notebook scribbles.
We were in the northern portion of the country and stopped into Rub 23, a surprisingly hip restaurant in downtown Akureyri, which served some of the freshest fish I’ve ever eaten. Like my friend Paul Theroux, the best-selling travel writer, I fear the world is becoming a homogenized nightmare, with a Starbucks on every corner from Paducah to Paris. So it’s almost a relief that, when traveling, you have to be open to different cultures and their different menus. In this neck of the woods, that means minke whale.
I’m an adventurous eater. Growing up, my mother told stories of eating a sheep’s eye in a tent in Egypt in the 1930s. Years ago in Newfoundland, I searched in vain for a local dish I’d read about called seal flipper pie. So how could I say no the entry on Rub 23’s menu that read, Minke whale tataki—funky, fresh and full of flavor. And only 2,490 Króna, or about $18. I was vaguely reminded of those politically incorrect T-shirts you used to see years ago around Nantucket: Piping Plover. Tastes just like chicken.
Still, when in Rome . . . I asked the waiter what minke whale tasted like.
“Filet mignon,” he said.
He was right.