Unforgettable fishing in Iceland

Iceland is a relatively young country, geologically speaking. Rising out of the ashes it remains a sparsely inhabited island full of natural beauty, even though it is only a short flight from Europe and the eastern United States.

Despite its name, Iceland has a relatively mild climate. During the fishing season, which stretches from April through October, the weather hovers around the low to mid-50’s (10-13° C) during the day, though it can change quickly.

Owing to its young age and location, only five species of freshwater fish inhabit Iceland’s waters. They are the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), brown trout (Salmo trutta), threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), and European eel (Anquilla anquilla). Many of the fish found in Iceland spend at least some portion of their lives in the sea, but at least a few populations are landlocked.

Iceland brown trout

I headed to Iceland to target a species that I had wanted to catch since childhood: the arctic char. I still remember viewing pictures of the species in full spawning colors in outdated fishing books and dreaming of what it would be like to hold such a beautiful fish in my hand.

Notwithstanding the short season, finding fishing opportunities in Iceland is not very difficult, though the regulations are much different than what you find in the United States. Waters are for the most part privately owned and managed by either the landowner or an angling club. Thus, different waters have different regulations, with many waters being fly fishing only, and you must pay the people in charge of them directly if you wish to fish.

Luckily, fishing is a popular pastime in Iceland, so quite a bit of time and effort goes into everything involved with it, from managing fisheries to constructing fish ladders to writing up to date reports. Icelandic people also speak English in addition to their native language, so there is a good amount of information on fishing in Iceland online for the angler coming in from abroad. After doing some research, I decided it would be best to head out with a guide for my first experience.

My guide was Mr. Heimir Bjarnason, a former engineer with a lifetime of fishing experience in Iceland, and the owner and operator of Go Fishing Iceland. We met early in the morning when he picked me up on the old cobblestone street in front of my hotel in Reykjavik in his SUV.

We made our way to Lake Laugarvatn, which took about an hour even though it seemed to be a much shorter trip. In Iceland, practically every turn in the road provides you with one amazing view or another. Vividly colored fields and lava formations are interspersed with geysers, lakes and rivers. Outside of a few small villages, houses are few and far between. Only minutes after departing the capital you find yourself in impressively wide open spaces.

Before long we had arrived at our destination. Here the views were even more spectacular. The landscape was dominated by an outcropping of mountains that towered majestically over the surroundings. A school was joined by a few other habitations on the far side of the lake. The lake itself was vast, surrounded by short, lush grasses. The water was pristine. The silence was only occasionally broken by the call of one of dozens of distant birds. I was the only angler in sight. It’s simply amazing that all of this exists such a short distance from a city that is home to more than 120,000 people.

I had decided against bringing any gear from home on this short trip after reading from multiple sources that doing so  was quite an ordeal. Iceland is quite protective of its environment, which has so far been largely shielded from invasive species, and so requires any fishing equipment brought in from outside the country to be sanitized before use. Everything I had seen indicated that having this done was an arduous task, and I feared I simply would not have the time. Mr.  Bjarnason later informed me that the difficult of the process is greatly exaggerated (you simply take your gear to a special room and have it cleaned), but was still happy to provide me with rod, tackle and a pair of neoprene waders.

When fishing lakes, I am usually more comfortable fishing with spinning gear. In my opinion, it is a more appropriate tool for the job in most cases. I informed my guide of my preference beforehand, and so he came equipped with a spinning rod and a box of lures.

In my opinion, the medium action rod and Mitchell reel spooled with heavy monofilament was far from the most suitable outfit. This is not a direct criticism of my guide. Across the board in Iceland it seems that spin fishing is not taken nearly as seriously as fly fishing. Many waters prohibit it completely, and bait fishing is even more restricted, seemingly limited to a few isolated ponds stocked with farm-raised rainbow trout for children and beginning anglers. Knowing that, I really couldn’t blame him at all.

I would have much preferred fishing with a long, light action rod and reel spooled with 4 to 6 pound low diameter line. Combined with a fluorocarbon leader, I’m sure this setup would have been most effective. Still, it was impossible to be upset with what I was given when in those surroundings. So, without hesitation, I followed my guide into the lake, which remains shallow far from the bank, and began casting a large spoon in the direction he pointed out.

A bit of wind made the water a bit choppy on the lake. Repeatedly I cast my lure, varying the speed and depth of retrieve. Occasionally I’d twitch the rod a few times. After about twenty minutes of this I finally got a follow from a smaller fish. This was repeated on the next cast. Still, no takes.

Around this time my guide decided to ply the water next to me with his fly rod. Retrieving a small midge nymph in short bursts, he was able to hook up with an average-sized char in about fifteen minutes. After coming in for a closer look at the fish, I decided that I’d try my hand at fly fishing. Mr. Bjarnason happily handed the rod over to me, and after some brief instruction on the proper casting technique for the shooting head line he was using, I too was fishing the nymph.

After about an hour of fly casting, some good and some down right terrible, my guide suggested we walk to another part of the lake a short distance away. Here the wind died down and the water was as smooth as glass. I waded into knee deep water, again wielding a spinning rod. I tried a few lures from the box before deciding on a large gold spinner. The lure, a 1/4 once Abu Garcia Droppen, proved to be most effective.

There was a bit of a current in the lake, with the water moving from my right to the bank on the left behind me. After trying a variety of retrieves, I decided to cast far to the left, almost parallel with the bank. A deliberate, steady retrieve gave the spinner plenty of action. On the second cast I had my first fish.

A short fight ended with a small arctic char surrendering to my cold, wet hand. I had the fish I came for, and I was content. After a quick photo I released the fish to fight another day. Now I was happy and a bit more confident. Almost on cue, bright sunshine began to emerge from behind the clouds and warm the air.

Using the same technique I managed to catch two more char, both about the same size. Then, after releasing the third fish of the day, it happened… Out of nowhere, another of my retrieves was interrupted by a powerful strike. I didn’t have to do much in the way of setting the hook as I was instantly engaged in a fight with a much stronger fish.

I called for my guide and I made my way back to shore. After a few minutes of intense fighting, an intensely colored native brown trout unexpectedly emerged from the water. I guided it into the net and headed for the grass. The fish was spectacular. Clean, with great markings, and the largest native I have ever caught. It was definitely a very welcome surprise.

At this point I was pleased with the outcome of my trip and would have been happy if I went without a catch for the rest of the day. As I sat on a log drinking coffee and eating the sandwiches Mr. Bjarnason had brought along, I felt a genuine serenity.

But there was a lot of time left in the day, and so, more fishing to do. Returning to my previous spot I again cast my spinner far down the shore and begin a smooth retrieve. On the very first cast after the lunch break I hooked into another quality fish. Again I could tell that I had something bigger than the smaller fish caught in the morning. After a brief struggle, I brought the biggest char of the day to the net. I admired the fish as it shimmered in the daylight before taking a photo and returning it to the water.

Another thirty minutes of casting led to naught. I requested that my guide take me to River Holaa, a waterway that begins by escaping from the far end of the lake. After confirming that I was okay with walking through a good stretch of wet grass and mud, we set off.

River Holaa is a clear, swift waterway with a visible bottom of grass and rock. It maintains a good width throughout its flow, and the general lack of trees in Iceland means that nearly the entire river is accessible to anglers.

Just below the lake, I began casting the spinner across the river and swinging it downstream. I quickly hooked another good sized arctic char, this one with more intense colors. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to photograph the fish. But the memory of that brightly colored fish will stay with me.

It would prove to be the last fish of the day. We ventured downstream a bit, eventually running into one other fly angler, but there were no more fish to be had. And that was fine for me. I had everything I could have wanted, and then some.

On the way back to Reykjavik we discussed fishing in Iceland, Europe and the United States, and a whole lot more.

Though short, my time in Iceland made a lasting impression on me. The trip to the lake and river in particular were simply unforgettable.

Spin fishing seems to be considered a much less effective method than fly fishing in Iceland. I believe this has as much to do with European and English traditions and influences as it does with the lack of selection. There are numerous lures and rigs available to the spin fisher that seem to be off the radar in Iceland. Suffice it to say that although they work in many situations, spinners and spoons are far from the be-all and end-all of fishing!

If I am ever lucky enough to return to Iceland, I will fish on my own, with my own equipment, to find out whether or not my theory on the effectiveness of spin fishing there is true (though the fishing in Iceland is simply fantastic whether or not you catch any fish at all). The quality of the roads and ease of navigation combined with the plethora of information available means I will have little difficulty in finding a place or two to wet a line. And when I begin to make my preparations, I will most likely be consulting Go Fishing Iceland which not only has information about guided trips, but also about fishing in Iceland generally, including where to purchase a fishing card that allows access to 37 lakes.

Mr. Bjarnason and his Go Fishing Iceland operation can be contacted through its website, www.gofishing.is or by phone at  +354-551-2016.

6 Responses to “Unforgettable fishing in Iceland”
  1. mark johnson May 12, 2014
    • admin June 25, 2014
  2. Steve March 2, 2016
    • Angler September 6, 2016
  3. Montez August 3, 2018
    • Angler August 17, 2018

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