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Icelandic high

By Oliver Edwards

Oliver Edwards says that the Big Laxa river, just three-and-a-half hours' flying time north of UK, is the most exciting wild brown trout fishing he has ever encountered

Just 5lb. One of the contrary brown trout.
Just 5lb. One of the contrary brown trout.

Approximately three-and-a-half hours' total flying time from the UK there flows a river which holds the fastest, most powerful brown trout anywhere on this planet. This is not just my opinion, but the opinion of much wider travelled anglers than I. I've been fortunate to have fished several high-profile rivers in many countries, but this river, without a shadow of doubt, is the most exciting I have ever fished.

The river I write of is the Laxa, in the north of Iceland. (Simply called the ‘Big Laxa’ to avoid confusion with several of the other river Laxa’s in Iceland). My visit in July [2012] was my sixth, and this time my old mate, Stuart Crofts, was with me; this was his second visit.

Whenever I mention Iceland, I inevitably get the same old hackneyed response … “Oh! But isn’t it cold there?” The truth is that Icelandic summers are usually warm, pleasant, and often far more settled and predictable than ours. In fact, summer temperatures can be well up in the mid-20’s °C, all thanks to the famous ‘Icelandic High’: that lovely anti-cyclone which has the habit of sitting stationary for weeks, with Iceland slap-dab in its centre. Think Scandinavian summers on the Baltic. However, like the UK, Iceland is an island, and not all that far from the Arctic Circle, so you can unfortunately hit a bout of bad weather too: the luck of the draw; so you must not forget to pack thermals and fleeces … and sun-block. You may need all in the same day!

But Iceland has one definite constant, and a blessing for we fly fishers – there are no mosquitoes. None. Also, that Scottish nightmare, the tiny biting midge, does not exist either. Oh, the bliss.

The Big Laxa is similar in flow to the Spey, but it is generally far wider, and in many places more akin to the lower Tay in width, often a football field wide. The river is spring-fed so does not flood, and thus provides a stable regime for both fish and invertebrates. From its exit at lake Myvatn (Midge lake) to the hydro-dam is approximately 33km, and throughout this length every imaginable water type is there to tempt you: riffles to die for; seams you dream of; mini pool-necks and tails by the thousand; crinkly runs; cascades; deep pots; and flat glides sliding along like silent conveyors. The lot. God really did make one heck of a good job with this river.

The substrate is strange to us, being composed entirely of debris from volcanic activity eons ago, and comes in two distinct forms - firm, gritty, black sand, or jagged lumps of lava. Everything is of volcanic origin. The chunks of lava are usually heavily pitted with a myriad gas blow-holes, perfect homes for the vast hordes of insect larvae. These chunks of lava also give the long strand algae a good anchor-point. So, with always-clear water, you look down onto light green wherever the substrate is lava rock, and where it’s sand, it’s black. The wading is mostly easy to fair, and wherever you find extensive black sand it’s a fair bet you’ll also find shallow water. The rougher, lava-bottomed areas can be tricky in places, and a staff is a help.

The river from its exit at the lake to the dam is divided between two lodges ... ‘Hoff’ serves the upper part, with ’Raudholar’ (Red House) taking care of the bottom section. The upper part is unique in geography, in that the river exits the lake via a delta in reverse: it starts by splitting around huge islands (large enough to fit a village on!), then progressively the islands get smaller in a jumbled maze. The braiding around these islands continues downstream to the lodge Hoff, then on further downstream, for maybe another mile. This entire area is one big matrix of cross-channels, riffles, island-point slacks, pots, runs … interesting fishing. Eventually, the river sorts itself out into a recognisable bank to bank configuration.

The Red House section is wider and slips along with deceptive speed, long flats interspersed with lava bouldered breaks, wide sweeping bends, and long riffles, with several large islands on the bottom section.
The head guide, and manager of the fishing is Bjarni Hoskuldsson, his eldest son Gudmundur (Gummi) has also now joined him. Bjarni’s grandmother’s farm is just a short distance from Red House, so you could say he virtually grew up in the valley. As you would expect, he knows every twist and turn of the river, and its many ‘hot spots’! Another regular guide is Asgeir Steingrimsson. Asgeir’s an experienced, mad-keen fly fisher and has fished the river for many years. Outside the trout season, Asgeir is a professional musician, lead trumpeter in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, no less. Brits get several bars of ‘Rule Britannia’ reveille each morning, which fairly clears the cobwebs!

Both sections are easily divided to suit group rotation, with just two anglers per beat. The beats are long, very, very long. In fact, some are longer than most entire club stretches here. The valley, with its handful of small farms, is remote and unspoilt. Once past the last farmstead the dirt road gives way to sheep track … serious 4 x 4 territory. It’s my guess that many of the more distant pools may never see a fly line over them from one year to the next.

The fishing day is divided into two six-hour stints: 8am to 2pm, then back to the lodge, drinks, lunch, a nap, crank a few flies out, then off again to a different beat, to fish from 4pm to 10pm. Back to the lodge, knackered and most likely battle sore, but content and with tales of huge browns emptying your reel. Then supper, more yarns, then bed. Believe me, you’ll not count sheep!

Life does not get any better than this.

So, just what is so special about these brown trout? For starters, they are truly wild: man's murky finger has not dabbled in this gene pool. Ever. Then they’re pretty big. (Currently three fish at 13lb and a few ounces each hold the river record, the latest in 1997).

However, their average weight is an amazing 4lb, a three-pounder being a bit on the small side, and you’ve been plain unlucky if you catch a two-pounder. Five pounders are common (honest!) and six-pounders, if not exactly jumping out on the bank, are landed regularly. Seven’s are definitely on the cards, and in most years someone will manage to land a ten-pounder. In plain English, every fish which takes your fly will be big!

It is a common occurrence for every member of the party to land a five-pounder, sometimes several. We’re talking about brown trout getting on for two feet in length and more, and as thick as your leg. But the really, really exciting thing for us fly fishers, is that these big muscular beasts are almost entirely insectivorous. There are no small baitfish in the Laxa to distract them: so it is no exaggeration to say 100% of their daily food intake is insect-based.

And the engine which drives this entire river system? Midge! Billions and billions, and the chironomid species are the small river types too, no huge Grafham buzzers here, just tiny 16’s to miniscule 26’s. However, they are in such numbers as to even change the diet of Arctic terns, which spend all day delicately swooping down to pluck them from the meniscus.

These browns are also artificial fly virgins … your fly will be its first! They rise well, too, and when conditions are right they rise freely. Oh yes, even the very big boys readily take tiny stuff from the surface. A big, dark neb half-mooning above the surface, followed by a dorsal leisurely wobbling at the surface – a long way behind the neb – followed by the tip of a dark grey spade some way behind that. My hands shake like a beginner.

These browns have always been trouble: awkward, feisty, angry creatures, a real handful, but last July they were possessed, on that we all agreed. What made them so utterly exciting on this visit was their almost explosive, reflex, high speed. Usain Bolt out of his starting block? No chance, by the time Usain’s take-off leg had straightened, a 4/5lb Laxa brown would be five yards in front, in first gear, and accelerating like hell.

This was a typical occurrence. You’ve closed to within a comfortable casting distance of a ‘big wobbler’. It’s just nebbed again, so he’s not spooked. This third chuck will be over him. Fly drifts down, the huge neb appears, fly disappears. You allow the dorsal to wobble, then whack! Instantly, any loose line is riven from your hand and slams up the rod before you’ve time to release it … then the reel’s a blur – weeeeeeeeeee. The rod is wrenched down, almost flat, buckling under the speed and power. You’re helpless, and hanging on. The run just goes on and on. Backing-knot whizzes up and out of the rod tip, and soon disappears across or down the river and out of sight.

None of us could stop these bolters, and many were lost. They knew where they were heading, and it was usually into a big lava pile way out, and they'd often reach it! Then either everything would go solid – and stayed so – or everything went slack. Gone, cut off – Lava’d.

Fortunately, not all the browns you hook will be ‘drag-racers’. More likely you’ll experience a fair spectrum of wonderful tussles. There’s the instant, explosive high jump, followed by another three or four, with line rips between each jump. There’s the long, long (lots of backing gone) run, and then a jump. You may also hook one which tail-walks in an explosive manner the instant you set the hook. One year, a five-pounder I was struggling with got so angry, it seemed to go berserk … and rammed the bank at high speed.

On the black sand areas, with a secure hook-hold, you stand a decent chance of landing your fish, even a seven-pounder. You’ll more than likely get towed downstream, even quite a way. The runs and jumps will be heart-thumping stuff, but with no lava sanctuary, and with stacks of backing you’ll eventually have it on the ‘dead-man's handle’. But even now, with the fire knocked out of it, it still won’t pack in. These Laxa browns are ‘salmon strong’, and although the sprinting may be over, they still have more in the reserve tank. At this stage, it’s vital you do not panic, as it may still take a while to subdue it. At short range they actually seem to focus on you, the big eye fixing you every time they make a pass, as though they’re thinking, "I’m not done with you yet sunshine…" Awesome fish.

So how was it for Stuart and me this past July? Well, after banging on about Iceland’s wonderful summer weather, we drew one of the shorter straws. Two weeks before was almost, perfect, two weeks after our visit was perfect. The nuisance our week was the North wind. It wasn’t a hooligan, but enough to well ruffle the surface and cool enough to suppress surface activity. Despite this, we both had exciting fishing with quite a few explosive events. I hooked one big fish which found its hidey-hole after only a few seconds of reel scream and went solid. Two large areas of boiling, swirling current on the surface indicated its obvious sanctuary – underwater lava rocks. These were upstream of me but only a rod length out. My instant thought was the dark water between me and the lava rocks: was it 2ft deep … or seven? As fast as I dare, I waded forward, and made out towards the disturbed water, rod pushed out at arm's length, and hooped, in the hope of putting pressure on from the other side. It got deeper, and then levelled at vest-pocket depth. As I got almost by the side of the underwater rocks, there was an almighty eruption at the surface… as though someone had thrown in a Labrador! Spray flew everywhere, green algae boiled up, and my rod twanged straight. B*&*%&*ks!

On another occasion, with Asgeir guiding, we struggled to find rising fish. So I decided to prospect the many likely spots with a good mouthful: a #12 Black Hopper. After many fruitless drifts, I arrived at the tail of a short pool, just an off-shoot of a larger pool. At its head was a gentle slope, maybe eight inches deep, rippling into the flat below. Green algae billowed in the brisk flowing slope like short Ranunculus. It looked promising. So I started trundling the big black fly down the many six-inch wide clear runnels, working systematically from my bank to as far as this slope went, the big fly briskly bobbing along. About half way across, out of nowhere, up comes a big, dark neb and the fly, without fuss, disappears. Whack, explosion! Wheeeeeeeeeee...out into the main stream and away, me stumbling downstream after it, then everything went solid. Oh no, not again! But this time I had the vaguest sensation of something animated, way out there in mid-stream, just on the edge of some white water. Eventually, and to my great relief, it suddenly kicked itself free, and battle resumed. This I eventually won… just on 5lb.

One afternoon with Stuart, and Gummi as guide, we were stymied yet again by the cold wind, bright sunshine, a clear, blue sky, and the surface riven by scudding ‘cats-paws’. Gummi suggested the inside of a point he knew. As we rounded the point, there, amazingly, amidst the ruffled surface was a snaking, mirror-flat lane. After seeing nothing for hours, there before our eyes, and only two rod-lengths away, were four or five big fish regularly nebbing in the glassy flat. Pulse-racing time!

Stuart slipped in, and second chuck the surface erupted, the next instant the fish is way, way out, with Stu scrambling to follow downstream.

To our relief, the rest of that small pod soon started feeding again, and while Stuart was just about to net his fish, I was having my knuckles reel-rapped by a four pounder, which also ended up in the net.

We had to wait a while, but sure enough a third of that small pod came back on again. The second time its neb appeared it was to Stuart's #14 Poly ‘F’ fly. That fish came out like a Polaris missile, but unfortunately fish and fly separated in mid-air. The fourth fish called it a day!

Not all the fish we encounted were so obliging. One morning session – again with Stuart, Gummi took us to Pollnes, a long, slightly crinkly run, about lower thigh deep. 30ft out, the run gently sloped up onto a shallow plateau of black sand along the full length of the run. We settled down to watch, but hadn’t long to wait. Stuart, about 40 yards above me calls out, “Good’n just in front of me”. At about the same time I too saw a huge tail, wag above the surface ten yards above me.

For the next half-hour we were driven nuts. I had four or five very big fish to cast to, Stu similar. We both went through several fly boxes. Not interested. They were totally fixated with something tiny, drifting in the upper water column; midge pupae probably. We tried many patterns: close-copy buzzers, various coloured bead-headed buzzers – from small to tiny – and drifted them at various depths. Small, sparse spiders, emergers, you name it. We left to find more agreeable fish.

The following day I found myself back on Pollnes. Within minutes of arriving big fish started doing the same thing, just showing the blade of the upper tail lobe. Thinking it would be hopeless again, I chucked a #14 black foam-bodied, rubber-legged dry to one which had just scythed its tail through the surface just upstream of me. Without hesitation up it came, and ever-so-leisurely ate the fly. Talk about contrary. That was another five-pounder I finally beat after the usual protracted scrap.

In total we each latched into 14 or 15, but only landed 50%.

You must go and fish this river. Feel the speed and power of these truly sensational brown trout. I was a pensioner before I first set foot on the banks of the Big Laxa, and I constantly reproach myself. All those lost years; how could I have missed this wonderful place for so long?

Full details and dressings of the flies that Oliver uses on the Laxa appear in the January 2013 issue of FF&FT.


The total river (two lodges) fishes up to 24 rods. Tacklewise, a 9ft, 5-weight seems to be everyone’s choice, a pokey 6-weight is OK in a fresh wind. Minimum of 100 yards of backing. Better 150! For tippets think strong: 8-10lb tippet doesn’t put them off, but drag definitely will.

Flies? Copy big black jobs such as the heather fly, plus other smaller terrestrials, and a few to copy small chironomids. Think black, and if you only took size 14 and 12 Black Klinkhamers you’d still hook your share of five-pounders.

Oliver and Stuart flew from Manchester by Icelandair on a trip arranged by Aardvark McLeod. Aardvark McLeod, tel: 01980 847389 (www.aardvarkmcleod.com)   

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