Lyn Davies fishes the River Kaldakuisl, Iceland in search of his first Arctic Char…
Iceland may be famous for its hot springs, geysers and active volcanoes, but I only had eyes for it’s most common freshwater fish – the Arctic Char. My journey began with a flight from London Heathrow to the Reykjavik – the capital city of Iceland. Following an overnight stay, my guide collected me from the hotel lobby. Tyrfingur Gudmundsson, or ‘Tiffi’ was a local trout bum; a passionate angler who’s fished the lakes and rivers of Iceland since he was a child – I was in safe hands.
Tiffi had a 4×4 – but it wasn’t your average off-road vehicle. With its huge wheels and tires, this ‘monster truck’ really looked the business – equipped with rod holders, it was the ultimate fishing wagon. We headed South to the Highlands – an hour or so drive to our B&B at Hrauneyjum. I sat back and took in the scenery as we talked all things fishy. I noticed a little plastic box on the dashboard – it was full of flies of the same dressing. The gold-head pattern, known locally as the ‘Latex Pussy’ – or Latex P is particularly effective for the Char during the summer months.
Tiffi changed down a gear as we began to climb – we were fast approaching the Highlands. With the snow capped glaciers in the distance, I was beginning to experience the wild and rugged landscape set amongst black lava and red sulphur – a sort of lunar landscape if you like, with not a tree in sight. We were never far away from water – whether it was a fast flowing river or a lake (many of which fed hydro-electrical power stations) used to supply most of the island’s electricity.
We finally arrived at our B&B. As with most buildings in Iceland, it was an impressive wooden structure – a kind of hostel for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s regarded as the ‘last outpost’ before entering the Highlands. We checked-in, unloaded our bags and jumped back into the truck – we were off fishing. Tiffi was keen to show me the River Kaldakuisl, which was just a 5-minute drive away.
Within half a mile or so we turned off a tarmac road onto a well-used dirt track, which led us to the banks of the Kaldakuisl. It was one of his favourite spots – a rocky canyon of bright blue, crystal clear water coupled with an atmospheric spray from a nearby powerful cauldron of water. Peering over the tretorous high gorge, he pointed out a couple of Char circling below. Even though the pool was some ten metres deep, it was easy to spot the fish by their distinctive white tipped fins. It certainly was a special place, but it looked difficult to fish due to access and the sheer depth of the pool, so we headed for a more accessible stretch of the river, further upstream.
Our 4×4 allowed us to stop just yards from the water’s edge, a few steps away from a much wider section of river. Full of anticipation, I slipped on my breathable stocking foot waders and reached for my boots. At this point, I remembered about my thermal Long johns – they were back at the B&B. Bummer! Even though Icelandic summers are generally quite mild, the waters remain cold and the weather conditions can change rapidly. Layers are important, as the winds can be bitterly cold – but with no other option, I had to continue and brave my first experience of an Icelandic river.
We were to begin using nymphs suspended below an indicator – a popular technique enabling you to fish at a set depth. I watched as Tiffi made up his two-fly leader. To my surprise, he used 15lb fluorocarbon straight through – which seemed a little heavy to me. In fact, I noticed he struggled to insert the fluorocarbon through the eyes of his nymphs – but it didn’t seem to matter to Tiffi. He also prefers to fish his flies ‘in-line’. He rarely uses droppers when nymphing – he simply ties his flies directly to his main line. To him, droppers cause problems – they wrap around your line and eventually kink and tangle.
Then it was onto the indicators. I watched Tiffi attach four just above his braided leader loop – yes four! The wind and the ever-changing light conditions make it difficult to spot a single indicator, so he gangs them up on his leader to aid bite detection.
Meanwhile, I’d opted to try a single ‘mini fish pimp’ along with the same team of ‘Latex P’s’. We were ready to fish. I followed Tiffi as he climbed a steep bank to our right allowing us a bird’s eye view of the river. Being such an exposed place, it’s rare to experience little or no wind to spot the Char easily. Today was no exception – the water was camouflaged with a wave, which made for difficult fish spotting. Nevertheless, he knew where the fish would be. Looking down over the crystal clear water, he pointed out the likely holding areas. He divided the wide section of river up into ‘manageable’ chunks to explain the likely holding areas. He described the faster flowing areas of current as ‘streams’, which present food for the Char – the exact places he wanted our flies to fish as ‘naturally’ as possible.
There was one golden-rule I had to adhere to. It was paramount that my indicator would not ‘drag’ in the current – causing the nymphs to ride high and skirt unnaturally through the water. To prevent this from happening, I needed to ‘mend’ my fly line and simply ‘feed’ line out though the drift. This ensures that the indicator bobs along as naturally as possible with the current – without any resistance, which is easier said than done sometimes!
It was an interesting lesson learned. Of course, it was all common sense really – but it reminded me of the importance of ‘reading’ a river before you begin to fish. He continued to point out some huge boulders and deep pockets; all of which provide ideal holding areas for the better-sized Char.
We traversed down the steep bank towards the waters edge. “Pick a spot’, said Tiffy as I positioned my camera bag in a safe place. I chose to start further up river, allowing me to watch his technique from a safe distance. Carefully wading into the water, I immediately became aware of the temperature – it was freezing and boy was I missing my long Johns! I cast upstream and began to get used to the pace of the river and depth that I was wading.
Twenty minutes or so passed and I had only caught the bottom a few times – a good sign I suppose, that I was ‘getting down’ with the fish.
Soon I heard Tiffi shout as he lifted into the first fish of the day – he’d made it look so easy. I wound in and backed out of the river to reach for my camera. He knew instantly it was a Char by the way it fought – Char tend to stay deep and hold themselves against the current with their huge fins. He played the fish hard, with the confidence of a strong leader he bullied the near 4-pounder into the shoreline in no time. I watched as the fish rolled about on the surface, displaying its distinctive, deep orange belly and white tipped fins. It was my first opportunity to see an Icelandic Char close-up. Following a few photographs, Tiffi revived the fish in the shallow water. His neoprene gloves helped grip the Char, and they keep his hands warm in the cold water. With a flick of its tail, we watched as the Char disappeared amongst the boulders of the riverbed. Job done – it was now my turn and the pressure was on me to catch a fish.
I was finding the fishing quite hard work with the wind and the fast flow of the river. I had to concentrate to see my single indicator, ensuring it moved at a constant, natural pace – most of my time was spent shaking the rod tip, feeding line out downstream. Thankfully, at times, Tiffi would stop fishing to advise me, which helped as I slowly got to grips with the technique.
Meanwhile, with a long line out, my indicator was just about to begin to drag when I saw it sink. I lifted, and as if in slow motion (due to the huge belly in my line), I felt the weight of a fish. At last I had done something right. Following a long-range battle, I finally managed to get the better of the fish as it splashed just yards in front of me. I was of course expecting to see the bright orange underside of a Char, but it wasn’t to be – my first fish in Iceland was a Brownie – a good fish of about 21/2lb. It had taken the Red Latex P on the point. I admired the beautiful fish, took some pictures and returned it into the crystal clear water.
Lovely as it was to catch, I was anxious to connect with that first Char. I waded back to the exact same spot, and with my confidence riding high I re-cast upstream. Finally getting to grips with things, I watched as my indicator disappeared. I struck and everything felt solid. This time it was not a snag – it was a fish. Walking carefully backwards, I edged my way out of the deep water while reeling in as much fly line as possible back onto my reel. The fight was on – and it was a Char. I battled for a few minutes with the strong current before finally maneuvering the fish into the slack water. Tiffi watched on and at the right moment, he helped beach my fish.
I had hold of my first Char – a beautiful fish estimated at 5lb plus. I admired its distinctive markings as Tiffi took some pictures. I felt like a very lucky man – I had persevered with the indicator and it had paid off. Tiffi was happy too – he had done his job, his visiting angler had taken his first Char – it was smiles all round as I gently released the fish back into the water. Holding its tail, I gently rocked him back and fore before the fish revived itself and slowly swam off into the depths.
Come late summer or the beginning of the fall (Autumn), the Char seem to loose interest in the Nymphs. Prior to spawning, the Char’s aggressive nature takes over and larger Streamer patterns come into play.
It was time for a change of plan. It was time for some streamer fishing in the form of some huge Cone-head Wolley Bugger patterns in Olive and Black. These patterns are difficult to cast – but you certainly have the piece of mind that you’re fishing deep.
Sticking to a short leader, I tied on one of the huge long-shank flies and waded back up stream to begin fishing. To help my fly sink, I cast slightly upstream and mended the line. As the fly swung around, I used a simple slow draw to inject some movement.
It was certainly a case of ‘big flies for big fish’….. Of course, when you fish with such large, heavy flies you can afford to use heavy leaders – which gives you peace of mind that you can be quite forceful with the Char.
The unique landscape and extreme off-road driving makes for one big adventure. Tiffi’s truck got us to places I never thought possible. At times, we were literally in the middle of no-where, fishing over fish that hadn’t seen a fly in months. As with all river fishing, you need be reasonably fit to enjoy the best fishing spots. Four-wheel drive vehicles can only get you so far – a lot of the time you find yourself traversing down steep, rocking hills before reaching water – so it’s best to travel light. I also used a waist pack (bum bag) to hold essential items, but a chest pack would have been a better option, considering how deep you find yourself wading. My bag got wet a number of times – a chest pack simply keeps your kit away from the water.
I was reasonably lucky with the weather – but be prepared for the worst, – it’s a case of ‘four seasons in one day’. Breathable waders are essential, along with a good pair of wading boots (preferably with studs) – and of course, don’t leave home without your long-johns! Those Icelandic waters are cold – very cold.
Char are common in Iceland, but the Kaldakuisl seems word-class, holding the larger than average fish. In fact, you can expect to regularly catch fish around the 4–5lb mark – or even bigger. Thanks to my guide, my best Char was 7lb – which is a cracking fish by anyone’s standards. It’s plain to see why the Kaldakuisl is so special to Tiffi, at times he’s counted shoals of over 80 fish – when it’s virtually a fish a cast!
It was a fantastic fishing experience – one I will never forget, all thanks to my guide. Nice one Tiffi!
Fact file on Iceland
- Anything that gets wet must be disinfected before you enter Iceland. This includes your waders, boots, nets and rods and reels. It can be done at Keflavik airport, or by a local veterinary surgery before you leave home (a certificate is required).
- The island enjoys a standard of living amongst the highest in the world – and the fishing doesn’t come cheap either. You can expect to pay around £70 a day to fish any of the more productive rivers.