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 its most common freshwater fish, the Arctic Char. My journey began with a flight from London Heathrow to 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. It had huge wheels and tires and was fully equipped with rod holders – it was the ultimate fishing wagon. We headed east 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 fishing. I noticed a little plastic box on the dashboard which 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 lunar landscape 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 dwellings in Iceland it was an impressive wooden structure – a 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 treacherous high gorge, Tiffi 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 access proved too difficult, 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 ice cold and the weather conditions can change rapidly. The winds can be bitterly cold too but with no other option, I had to continue and brave my first experience of an Icelandic river.
We began fishing using nymphs suspended below an indicator, a popular technique enabling you to easily adjust the depth in which you fish. 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 onto the indicators… I watched Tiffi attach four (yes, four) just above his braided leader loop. 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 maximise bite detection.
Meanwhile, I’d opted to try a single mini fish pimp indicator 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 which makes it challenging to spot the char easily. Today was no exception, the water was camouflaged with a wave, but 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 sections 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, which would cause 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 way, the indicator bobs along as naturally as possible with the current without any resistance, which is easier said than done at sometimes, amongst the wind!
It was an interesting lesson learned. Of course, it was all common sense really, but it reminded me of the importance of observing and 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 water’s edge. “Pick a spot”, said Tiffy, as I positioned my camera bag in a safe place. I opted to start further upriver, 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 – they tend to stay deep, holding themselves against the current with their huge fins. 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 and it was a magnificent creature – almost prehistoric like, with a huge head and jaw. Following a quick photoshoot, Tiffi revived the fish in the shallow water. His neoprene gloves helped keep his hands warm and maintain a secure grip on the wrist of the fish. Soon, with a flick of its huge tail we watched as the char disappeared amongst the boulders of the riverbed. Job done – the pressure was now on me to catch a fish.
I was finding the fishing quite hard work amongst 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 disappear. I immediately 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 brown trout, a good fish of about 2.5lb and it had taken my Red Latex P, on the point. I admired the beautiful fish, took some pictures and slipped it back into the crystal-clear water.
Lovely as it was to catch, I was desperate to connect with that first char. I waded back to the exact same spot and with confidence riding high I re-cast upstream. Finally getting to grips with the technique, I watched as my indicator disappeared again. I struck, and everything went solid. This time it was not a snag, it was a better 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 certainly a char. I battled with the strong currents before finally manoeuvring 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 around 5lb. I admired its distinctive markings as Tiffi took some pictures. I felt like a very lucky man – I had persevered with a new technique, and it had worked. Tiffi had done his job. His visiting angler had caught a char, it was smiles all round as I gently released the it back into the water. That afternoon, we continued to take over a dozen char on nymphs and the best I landed was a specimen of 7lb – an epic fight battling with the strong currents. We also caught using huge streamers, which provoked the aggressive nature of the char – fantastic sport!
The unique landscape and extreme off-road driving make for one big adventure. Tiffi’s truck got us to places I never thought possible. At times, we were literally in the middle of nowhere, targeting fish that rarely see artificial flies. 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. Much of the time, you find yourself traversing down steep, rocking hills before reaching water – so it’s best to travel light. I used a waist pack to hold essential items, but a chest pack would have been a better option, considering how deep I was wading.
I was reasonably lucky with the weather but be prepared for the worst, it’s a case of four seasons in one day. Chest waders are essential, along with a good pair of wading boots with tungsten studs and of course don’t leave home without your long johns! Those Icelandic waters are cold, very cold.
The char is certainly common in Iceland, but the Kaldakuisl seems word-class, holding larger than average fish. You can expect to regularly catch fish around the 4–5lb mark – which is fantastic fishing my 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 and all thanks to my guide. Nice one Tiffi!