Some will and some won’t have driven through the north-western Icelandic town of Blönduós. Always a happy place signifying progress while driving north. Even the most senior policeman is a very happy, positive man and a wonderful guide, fisherman and photographer. His stories of drug manufacture in remote farm locations in his area and incompetent Chinese tourists wrecking cars left, right and centre are worth a lack of concentration while fishing. On the way one has passed among others the Kjós, Leirársveit, Thverá/Kjarrá, Grimsá, Langá, Hafjaradará, Nordurá, Hrútafjardará, Midfjardará, Vididalsá, Vatnesdalsá and lastly the small but famous Laxá y Ásum. All rivers of great stature that produce extraordinary Atlantic salmon fishing in clear water when they are on form.
If you remember crossing the bridge at Blönduós you will have noted a big milky river tumbling its way to the sea. As you leave the town, the river to your right looks vast, a wide expanse of water that you cannot help wondering how you could possibly fish it. The milkiness and its power look almost scary. As you make your way along the valley you lose sight of the river, it seems to be a sort of braided glacial mess of channels some with clear and some with milky water. Then you begin your climb out of the valley to push on into the next and looking down to your right is a river you may have admired for all the years you have done that drive. It lies in a stunning valley which disappears away from you. On you go over the top and into the Varmahild valley and refocus on your destination.
This is what I have thought and have been thinking for decades along with the knowledge that the river has been pasted and pounded for many years by people worming and killing fish. Over 4800 fish in one year, 4800 wild Atlantic salmon killed… who does that these days? But in 2020, due to my dear friends Ingo, David, Halldor and Erik (the first three intimately involved in the IWF – Icelandic Wildlife Fund – dedicated to trying to stop or reduce the salmon farming projects in Iceland) electing to take on the river and try and restore it, I had the chance to learn and experience more. The clue is in the name Blanda which means ‘blend’ or mix. I wonder when it was given this name and if it was referring to the water or the species in the river.
There is no getting away from the fact that the water in the main river is milky but it is not cold and when you wade in you will be surprised that you can see your wading boots. It is no more milky than some of our rivers are peaty but a wading stick is comforting. The salmon do rise, I used a floating line in some pretty cold, wet, windy and high water conditions and saw all my takes. No, it is not crystal clear water but the fish behave the same or, actually, perhaps more aggressively (they are revered in Iceland for their aggressive takes) taking hitched/skated flies off the surface so please, give it is a second thought. While we are on the subject of water, reliable water levels are fast becoming an important consideration for Iceland especially after the 2019 drought. Blanda enjoys reliable hydro water with the main threat being premature overflow which wipes out the river. This has never happened in the fishing season to date but it is why the river closes earlier than others to ensure that no guests have their fishing ruined.
Beat One is the most famous or perhaps infamous beat. It is where the huge numbers of fish have been caught and killed over the years. The more the fish were killed, the less good the upper beats were and so it was a self-fulfilling prophesy that nobody wanted to fish the upper beats. For the true fly fisher Beat One is actually quite limited, a morning or afternoon session will do and that manifested itself in guest reactions this year. They were far from married to Beat One despite its productivity. But, to be clear, there is no denying that Beat 1 is one of Iceland’s most productive salmon beats particularly famous for its early spring fishing.
Once above the fish ladder, there is no denying that, for a time, there is a large expanse of river which looks impossible to cover. The answer is that basically, with a few exceptions, nobody tries to cover it because soon the river narrows and offers almost endless superb pools which offer wonderful double-handed rod (12 to 14 ft) or single-handed fishing. For the number of rods fishing, there is endless space and the challenge is to be brave enough to explore and try other places when you know the fishing is good on the regular pools. Six to eight rods disappear from Beat One through the main river. The top part has a deep canyon with stunning pools which are rarely, if ever, fished but that may all change. The hoped for plan (still to be tested) is to raft the beat, stopping to fish each pool from its best side and then continue on to the next pool. There are also plans afoot to have boats to cross the river to open up access to pools previously never fished.
I should explain where the milk comes from. It comes from Lake Gilsárlón through a hydro scheme and appears well up the main river. Above that is the crystal clear top of the Blanda or Refsá river fed by clear waters from Lake Blöndulón. The ‘blend’ take places at around 39 kms from the sea. Above that is miles of clear water salmon fishing which further ‘blends’ the mixed experience of staying and fishing at Blanda. Sea-liced fish are caught regularly on the Refsá.
Back to that stunning river we admired as we climbed out of the Blanda valley. It is not easy to see from the road but that too enters the Blanda to ‘blend’ with the main river. It is called the Svartá and itself produces 200 to 300 fish per year (10-year average) to three rods. There is also a superb junction pool where the two rivers meet. Svartá is best from late July and also enjoys sea-liced fish.
Before I address the ‘blend’ of species let me be clear, the Blanda system is not a grilse system by any means. Plenty of fish in their teens and twenties were caught while I was there and by subsequent guests and the mix of sizes will only get better with the no kill policy. The Blanda has one of the highest multi-sea-winter ratios in Iceland. I do not believe that the Icelanders have realised what incredible fishing this system has. The Svartá again has a trout/char (freshwater char) beat above the salmon fishing where upstream nymph and dry works well with light single-handed rods. I know, I did it catching 2lbs + char and 3lbs + wild browns. The stunning, fat 3lbs brown and the big head which slowly emerged to take my indicator amidst fast water are my takeaways from my time up there. This area has also been beaten up but no longer and again will only get better and stronger now it will be fished lightly with no fish taken. Look again and the Refsá has freshwater char up to 6lbs in its upper reaches (for those wanting a long, athletic walk and adventure) also catchable on nymph and dry fly and the trout have not even been checked out. By simply fishing the main river you will learn that there are beautiful silver sea trout up to 7 or 8 lbs, probably more, which are caught almost daily.
You will see sea-run char sipping flies in the quiet water and look even harder and you will realise that the main Blanda has wild brown trout up to and over 10 lbs which can be caught on upstream nymph, skated muddlers and who knows what else because nobody has really tried. I have seen them up to 8lbs and the biggest this year so far was 9 lbs (end of July). These fish are related to the same legendary, ice-age trout of Lake Thingvallavatn with their famous broad shoulders; they are proper leviathans. I have witnessed trout and sea trout slamming the skated muddler time and again on the same cast. I cannot think of another river which offers such a spectacular ‘blend’ of species all in one system. The ‘Blanda Slam’ of a salmon, sea trout, brown trout, sea-run char and freshwater char all in one day is there to be achieved.
Finally, still on my ‘blend’ theme, I know the birdlife in Iceland is spectacular but the Blanda valley has to be among the best with copious numbers of adult and chicks of very tame duck, geese, snipe, curlew, whimbrel, redshank, sandpiper, ringed plover, golden plover, terns, godwit, ptarmigan, great northern diver, red-throated diver, oyster catcher, dunlin, whooper swans… the list goes on and they are very photographable… included in this list were good numbers of the red-necked phalarope, a special bird for its rare westward migration against prevailing weather over to North America and down to Ecuador. I will be bringing the big lens next year!
The lodge is in great shape and has been well restored by my friends and that project will continue. Their greatest need is to sort out the drying room which is too small and dries nothing because it is a walkway. They are radically changing the way the river is run starting with ceasing to kill the fish, reducing rod numbers from 14 to 8, likely including the Refsá as part of the main offering and the Svarta as well as the trout beats so they are really bringing the number of rods way down from the 21 rods of the old days under certain circumstances in certain weeks to create something very special. Furthermore, hooray…finally… a lodge willing to operate normal hours unless weather is extreme. 8 am to 1pm and 3 pm to 8pm with dinner at 9 not 11.30.
I was ready to dislike Blanda but for as much as I was ready to dislike it, I liked it. I like it for its strong, aggressive salmon and the variety and quality of the pools it offers, the excitement of the other species and their size and the methods of catching them, the blend of experiences from the main river to the clear Refsá or Svartá to the trout beats up the top as well as the sea trout and giant ice-trout in the main river. In my last two hours fishing Blanda I caught a salmon on skated sunray, a big wild brown trout on upstream nymph and a sea trout on a skated muddler. What is not to like?! Whoever named Blanda was inspired because it really is the ultimate blend of fishing opportunities and therefore unique in Iceland and not at crazy top Icelandic prices.
I say to Erik, Halldor, David and Ingo, you made an inspired decision and I think you will have an incredible river on your hands with time. One week messing about the Blanda will not be enough for me – too much to enjoy!