At Frontiers we take pride in our advice. When our clients talk to us about Iceland, our objective is to match them up with what we think is the right river for them. Some key questions beyond budget might be:
Fitness levels, not in terms of long walks particularly, but more in walking or climbing in and out of canyons which can be typical of Iceland rivers: knees can be a real consideration.
Preference for fishing double versus single-handed rods.
Objectives in terms of intimate fishing for lots of small salmon and grilse (most typical of Iceland) or the less typical more classical, speculative salmon fishing on bigger rivers with light double-handed or switch rods for larger fish, though any Icelandic salmon river has significant numbers of smaller salmon and grilse.
Some rivers have colder water than others and this has a bearing on the size of flies used which impacts the style of fishing; the bigger the flies, the more typical the salmon fishing style. A conversation about this is often also worthwhile. Some guests really want to enjoy the interest and intimacy of tiny flies and floating lines, other just want to catch some fish regardless of method.
But a second and equally important objective is to look after our clients as well as we hope we advise them, in the preparation and run up to their trip. Knowing a good cross-section of hotels and restaurants, knowing driving distances and where other areas of interest are etc are all key in preparing our clients for their trip to Iceland. It is for that reason that we invest equally in ensuring our admin team know their destinations as well as our advisory team. It is difficult to do for every destination in the world but for Iceland, where we are advising and looking after many clients, it is expected of us. It was for that reason that I took Fliss Hewetson-Brown on her second trip to Iceland during the 2013 season along with our US colleague Cassandra (Cass) Ufner. Cass used to oversee the administration of the Ponoi, but she has moved into the marketing department in the USA and so her interest had a double perspective.
To explain the title of this piece: we had my normal white Hyundai rental car which I have had for years; we were two drivers (not three) because Cass did not feel comfortable driving in Iceland even though it was us Brits driving on the wrong side of the road; we were three staff as explained and our mission was to visit the four main Frontiers’ rivers, the Thvera/Kjarra, Midfjardara, Jokla and Breidalsa while stopping at many others along the way with Cass and Fliss completely circumventing Iceland. We arrived, picked up our car, enjoyed a quick sushi in town and headed on the road to our first stop Thvera/Kjarra. Fliss and I have done numerous hotel inspections in Reykjavik over past years and Cass used her time before we arrived to conduct her own.
We stayed at the Thvera Lodge for two nights thanks to the kindness and hospitality of our clients staying there at the time. We were due to only stay one night but they persuaded us to stay two. We spent the morning driving up the Kjarra valley and the afternoon driving the Thvera. The river was full of fish and it was fun to show the girls fish lying in the pools and even watch fish running up under our feet as we stood on the bridge and heading on upriver.
On our second day we got up early and headed west and north to the Midfjardara. It was a very foggy morning with a strong wind coming off the glacier. (I can never understand how the fog can be so stationary yet there is a howling wind blowing.) The Thvera Lodge is about an hour and a half from Reykjavik; the Kjarra Lodge is forty minutes up a track from Thvera. Midfjardara is about two and half to three hours from Reykjavik. Thvera can be fished on the day of arrival at a stretch and one can also depart after fishing too if one is prepared to miss a little fishing, but Kjarra, with it’s long rocky track, and Midfjardara require nights before and after fishing if one is not to miss a significant amount of fishing, unless you use a small aircraft or helicopter.
We arrived at the Midfjardara in good time to spend most of the morning driving the river but unfortunately it was still foggy so it was difficult for the girls to get a good feel for its beauty. Midfjardara is a ten rod river with two rods to each beat. It was Iceland’s top producing river with 3554 salmon for the 2013 season. It has a good head of multi sea-winter fish comparatively and a strong run of grilse and small salmon as well. At this point I should explain the Midfjardara. I’ll take it from the sea upwards. The lower water which is 15 kilometres long is actually one beat but they sometimes carve it up to make the beats more balanced. This whole beat is Beat One and is the main Midfjardara stem. There is little canyon to this beat and most of the pools are very easily driven to. Some pools are stable, others move around according to the winter floods.
The first tributary is the Vestura which provides two beats. This is the most wonderful river with every conceivable pool, pot and run. It is physically pretty easy though there is some clambering into and out of small canyons. The Vestura can take a lot of credit for why so many people love the Midfjardara. It is one of the classic rivers in Iceland where you really can see the salmon you are fishing for while actually fishing for them. There are many rivers where one can the fish before actually fishing for them either from the top of a cliff or some vantage point before clambering down, but to be able to see them while fishing for them is the ultimate experience. I remember a wonderful moment with Rabbi, the current proprietor, a few years back. We were crouched half way down the canyon, could see two fish and were casting to them and watching their reaction, which was very little to start. We tried a micro-conehead and still no reaction. We changed tactics and cast the conehead a little upriver to allow it to sink before drawing away from the salmon. This got movement from the fish. We did it again and again, each time improving the angle and depth until the larger of the fish took. We saw it all! The Vestura is split into two beats and has the famous Túnhylur or Bridge Pool where one can see literally hundreds of salmon.
The next beat is a combination of the Austura and its tributary the Nupsa. This is the shortest beat but when the Nupsa is in its prime there is a huge amount of fishing. Again, there are small canyons here but nothing too demanding or substantial. Again, many opportunities to see fish and have that intimate experience of casting small flies to fish you know are there because you have seen them.
The final beat is the Upper Austura, which is physically demanding getting in and out of this dramatic canyon but it is so worth it. It is probably the longest beat and has to be, and often is rated, as one of the most stunning beats in the world for salmon fishing. There is no doubt that for some, this beat might be too demanding physically but I am impressed every year by those that persevere and go for it. If you do not feel up to the canyon, this is not a reason to miss the Midfjardara as the team are always willing to swap beats around to allow you to go elsewhere because there is always someone willing to go to the Austura canyon.
If one needed the most classic example of what is so appealing about fishing in Iceland and why, the Midfjardara is it. It is the ultimate in pool variation from shingle runs full of fresh fish willing to take a riffled tube to rocky canyon pools where fish are easily seen and have to be coaxed with smaller flies gently presented. There is one further reason why Midfjardara is a strong choice and that is the caliber and experience of its guides. They are mostly the same every year, led by the proprietor Rabbi Alfredsson with his partner Jonni Birgisson but also include two superb international guides in the form of Alejandro Martello from Argentina and Jason Jagger from Colorado, both also superb photographers. The lodge, food and accommodation is typical of the high standard now achieved by all the top rivers in Iceland.
My final word on Midfjardara needs to be about how it performs in low water. To travel anywhere to fish for salmon and find low water is perhaps the greatest disappointment and therefore a river’s ability to perform and offer continued interest and opportunities to catch fish in low water is very important. Of course every river suffers in extremely low water but I have been very impressed with how Midfjardara not only continues to catch fish in low water but how fresh fish seem to still run. One looks at the river in disbelief that fresh fish still run and take in such low water. It is not infallible but for not a big river it continues to perform long after other rivers have started to struggle badly and that adds to its value in my book.
I should mention that the lodge was full with guests and does not have extra rooms like Thvera, so we stayed at the Hotel Edda nearby which is part of a chain of 14 simple, cheap hotels which are schools in the winter and hotels in the summer. I have now stayed in two and the rooms are always a good size and very clean. The food is not sophisticated but was good. If you need their website, it is http://www.hoteledda.is, just click on the British flag.
Having passed the Vididalsa, Vatnsdalsa, the wonderful little Asum and the Blanda we continued north before turning east for the northern city of Akureyri. Akureyri, also known as ‘Danish Town’ is the capital of the north and Iceland’s fourth largest town. It is very attractive and there is some good shopping to be had. All the Icelandic brands are well represented here. It is also a city of art with plenty of galleries, schools and a university. The church is considered one of the most beautiful in the country and well worth a visit.
Just by the church is the Kea Hotel, one of three in Akureyri, but this one is ideally situated to walk into the best parts of town. It has good rooms and an excellent dining room where lobster tails heavily feature on the menu. Check out the restaurant opposite, it is called Rub23. The ‘Rub’ is the seasoning they use on various dishes. This is a good fish restaurant but with other dishes. In fact everything looked great on every passing plate I checked out. When I was last there I had some sushi followed by wonderful Lobster Tails Rub23! They were wonderful! For pudding I felt that the chocolate mousse needed to be sampled and it was superb too!
There is a magnificent view as one leaves to continue east and is overlooking the Eyjafjordur from the other side looking down over Akureyri.
From there we pushed on to Myvatn. We were very lucky that it was a sunny day and witnessed the ‘midge towers’ in person. It was the most extraordinary site. As we were driving past the lake we saw what we thought was fine water spray, before we realised that it was in fact midges in fine towers moving up and down. For the next mile or two these towers popped up and disappeared from everywhere until we reached town. It was spectacular.
A quick stop in town for a snack and on to Jarobobin, where there is a mini-blue lagoon and you can swim in geothermal, mineral rich waters, and then over the orange hill to Namaskard to see the steaming and violently bubbling sulphurous mud pits amid a weird orange and yellow landscape.
Quickly on to the contrast of the lupins growing in the Dimmifligardur desert. After we had crossed the mighty Jokulsa river where 30 km down stream is the huge Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe at 44 m high and 100 m wide. The lupins were not as good as last year.
Having crossed the Dimmifligardur desert we took a left turn to go and have a quick look at the Sela and Hofsa, the two most famous north-east rivers which have good numbers of bigger fish. They did not have such good years in 2012 but a little better for 2013. A new road has been built which takes you straight to Vopnafjordur which made getting to Sela easier. Quick lunch in Vopnafjordur and then on to see some other clients at the newly and impressively upgraded Hofsa Lodge. Gone are the days of walking down the hall to the showers. All the bedrooms are a great size with excellent bathrooms now.
From there we headed over the mountain to the Jokla valley where we met up with my friend and river owner Throstur Ellidasson.
Throstur is one of Iceland’s most highly regarded characters in salmon fishing. He created the now well-known Ranga fishing but had to leave after losing the lease. He returned to his home river the Breidalsa and began a new project on the Jokla. We were to spend time with him on the Jokla for a day and a half before moving on to the Breidalsa. Throstur keeps saying that the Jokla Lodge is a temporary build until he is sure that his project to increase the runs has worked but it is a perfectly nice, comfortable and cosy set up. Perhaps the bathrooms could be a fraction bigger but everything else was fine and in keeping with standards across Iceland or better.
The secret to the Jokla system is…well actually there are many. First, one needs to understand what has taken place. The Jokla used to be an unfishable glacial river with salmon in it. Due to the development of the aluminium smelting plant at Reydarfjordur there was a massive water diversion project to supply water to the plant and this has meant that all the glacial water has been diverted to Egilsstadir and on to Reydarfjordur which now leaves the Jokla clear. Throstur has taken the natural stocks and worked to enhance them. He now has five rivers, the Jokla, Laxa, Kalda, Fossa and Fögruhlíðará , all with stocks of salmon, sea trout and arctic char. All the rivers are a different size from the Jokla being the largest to Fossa and Fögruhlíðará being very small. The Laxa, though short, and the Kalda, are the pick, and fun rivers to fish, the Laxa with a single hander and the Kalda with a single or double. If you come and stay at Jokla you will need a full array of rods.
On our second day with Throstur he decided to take us speculating and it turned out to be a very memorable day. In the spring, he and the farmers that own the land along the Jokla had decided to surgically blow part of a barrier on the river. It was a big waterfall in a canyon of black polished rock which nobody ever really was aware was there. They blew one side of it just to ease the path for the salmon. They had been putting parr in the upper river beyond and the fish were stacking up below the falls as they had hoped they would. This was the year to allow them to run the river. A few days before Throstur had taken guests who had caught fish both just below and above the falls and it was here that we started our day. I fished a lovely tail above the falls and caught a fish, which of course delighted Throstur. We then drove way up river to unfished waters to look to see if we could find fish that Throstur hoped and believed would be up there somewhere. He showed us where he has stocked from and we decided to fish the main pools below one specific stocking area. I caught a grilse, which was the first salmon ever to be caught there, but the girls were with the Throstur and to his enormous delight he caught three fish of 8, 12 and 15lbs, all bright. This was the culmination of years of work and a big day for him. It was a real pleasure being with him for this special event.
From Jokla we headed to Throstur’s home river the very beautiful Breidalsa. I have sent many happy clients to the Breidalsa over the years and know many more who have been. It is the most beautiful river, in fact it must surely make a bid for one of the most beautiful river valleys in Iceland. It is an eight-rod river and one gets there by flying to Egilsstadir and then it is an hour and half’s drive to the lodge. As one comes over the top of the valley one is next to a small stream which is the source of the Breidalsa and if a clear day there, before you is the entire valley stretching away. Breidalsa has two tributaries. The Tinnudalsa is a stunning river, which comes in about half way down the main beats, and into that runs the Nordurdalsa which is equally pretty. Between the main river and the two tributaries the river is split into four beats and there is plenty of fishing.
Breidalsa is a beautiful medium-sized river fished with either a double or single-handed rod. It has its own natural stock but has enjoyed Throstur’s efforts too with a smolt-releasing programme. Breidalsa is well-knowned for producing large fish in the high teens and even over 20lbs. In 2011, several fish over 20lbs were caught. It is not a numbers river by southern Iceland standards but on normal years it is a 700-1400 fish river to six to eight rods. Unfortunately, this year it has had a terrible run, which is really unexplained. Last year, it suffered from very low water like all the rivers in Iceland but this year, its neighbours did OK but sadly not the Breidalsa. As a result Throstur is reducing his prices for 2014 and/or recommending that guests consider a combination week with Jokla.
The Breidalsa Lodge is one of the best run lodges in Iceland and it is perhaps the only one that is interior-designed in Iceland with the norm being quite Scandinavian white walls and clean white bathrooms. At Breidalsa, the rooms are painted with proper curtain and good bed linen etc. Throstur prides himself on having the same team of guides from year to year as well as the same house staff. This makes it a very friendly place, particularly to return to and the guides know the river extremely well.
The best way to describe the Breidalsa is simply to show you pictures of this beautiful and very happy place. I hope that the Breidalsa will return to its usual form in 2014. Throstur and his team certainly deserve that.
From Breidalsa, I headed to Sela where I fished my usual four days with friends for my 20th year. Fliss and Cass drove south to complete their journey. You can read the reverse of their journey, which I did in 2012, including the Golden Circle here.
A big thank you to Ingo Asgeirsson of Thvera/Kjarra, Rabbi Alfredsson of Midfjardara and Throstur Ellidasson of Jokla and Breidalsa for all their hospitality.