The sea-run brown trout of Iceland

Iceland - a country with a total area of 103.000 square kilometers, and populated by only 320.000 inhabitants, is special in every sense you can imagine. The majority of the Icelandic people live in or close to the capital Reykjavík, leaving many parts of the country close to uninhabited and in pristine nature.

Iceland Fly Fishing
Huso Northern Lights Reykjafoss Seatrout The Seatrout

The Icelandic, descendants of Norwegian Vikings and Irish people were governed under Danish authorities until their independence in 1944. Since then, Icelanders have pushed the country into modern age. If you come as a foreigner to Iceland, you will quickly realize that Icelanders are hospitable, absolutely honest and will always help you when needed.

Besides its inhabitants, Iceland’s nature is breathtakingly wild and pristine. The island is 100% made from volcanic activity, which can be seen, felt and even smelt in many areas of the country. Geysers, hot springs, sulfur-smelling steams can be experienced in every trip. On average there are volcanic eruptions each five years, like e.g. in 2010 when the Eyjafallajökull erupted and the whole air traffic above Europe collapsed.

Besides the volcanic components, the visitor will see black, moon-like landscapes in the Icelandic Highlands, lush green meadows, fjord coasts or bright moss-cushions. Furthermore, you will find water everywhere you go. Waterfalls falling down cliffs, lakes and of course many gin-clear, healthy and nutritious rivers which attract fly fishermen from all over the world year in and year out.

Depending on where you go, there is always a lot to discover besides the fishing for arctic char, brown trout, seatrout and salmon. A famous area of Iceland is north western part of the island in the Atlantic Ocean by the name of the Skagafjördur district. In this part of Iceland, many studs of the famous Icelandic horses can be found, like Flugumýri, Ytra-Skörðugil, and Vatnsleysa, to name a few. The Icelandic horse is a rather small, however very robust breed which enables adults to ride them as well. What makes them special is the fact that they are not only able to go in gangues and gallop walk or trot, but also in another one called Tölt. Tölt is a gangue with little shocks making it very comfortable for the people on the horse’s back. You see the Icelandic horses often while travelling through the country – once I even had a small group behind me while playing a huge seatrout.

Another history-charged part of Skagafjördur is the coast of the Atlantic. Within the sea you can see several cliffs, one of them named Drangey. A mythical aura encloses this cliff because of two legends. One says, Drangey actually is and old troll woman, who tried to cross the fjord and was changed to stone as trolls do not tolerate daylight. The other one says, Grettir, protagonist of the saga “Grettir the Strong”, ended his days as prisoner on the rock island. A historic bishop, Guðmundur the Good, tried to banish all bad guys from Iceland by blessing all of their havens. While doing this on Drangey, a big hand came out of the rock, took him and told him “bad people have to be placed somewhere”. Hereupon the bishop decided not to bless Drangey. Icelandic people are not too scared by this island nowadays, as they visit it frequently from spring onwards.

Travelling further south from the small village Sauðárkrókur located directly at the Atlantic, you will pass Glaumbaer, a museum where one can visit a farm in the typical Icelandic building style of former times. The carrying parts of these houses often were made form drift wood, which is very resistant by its treatment from the sea. The surrounding walls were made from thick turf covered with Icelandic grass, which held all together. If you are on a fishing trip in this area, it’s just a short drive and it’s worth a visit. Furthermore, it happens that one of the best Icelandic seatrout rivers is located directly beneath this sight.

At the end of April of 2012, I had the opportunity to fish for sea-run brown trout in the Húseyjarkvísl in Iceland. The river is located close to Varmahlid, which is only a few km away from the Glaumbaer farm.

“Seatrout in Iceland?” one might ask. Not much is known about fly fishing for this species in this country. When fly fishers talk about these migratory fish, you mostly hear names of countries like Argentina or Scandinavia. The island in the Atlantic Ocean does not seem to be a typical destination for targeting seatrout. However, Icelandic people are enthusiastic seatrout-fishermen and many of them rather prefer to fish for seatrout than salmon, which is the fish Iceland is renowned for.

Icelandic people are enthusiastic seatrout-fishermen and many of them rather prefer to fish for seatrout than salmon, which is the fish Iceland is renowned for.

Most seatrout rivers are located in the south of the island. Many of these rivers are fed by springs or by glacier water which is filtered by fields of old lava and gets gin-clear by this. Typical for these waters as well is their bottom of black volcanic sand, which seatrout seem to like. This black sand is also found on the trout beats of the Húseyjarkvísl. However, this river is not located in the south of Iceland, but in the north-west and therefore is special.

Many of these rivers are fed by springs or by glacier water which is filtered by fields of old lava and gets gin-clear by this. Typical for these waters as well is their bottom of black volcanic sand, which seatrout seem to like.

At the end of April, three of us started our journey in Iceland. Our journey led us through Reykjavík along the main highway up north, passing Glaumbaer, to the small city called Varmahlid, where we crossed the river the first time. The ‘Huso’ meanders here in a wide valley which welcomed us with snow-capped mountains and in nice, sunny weather. At the end of April it can be quite cold in northern Iceland and sometimes it might even snow here. We should be lucky in the following days regarding the weather (and even get some brownies) which is something you do not really expect here end of April.

At noon we arrive at the lodge located close to the banks of the river. We do not lose any time slipping into our waders and make us ready for the fishing. The fishing permits here are assigned in three-day slots, i.e. the fishing starts and ends with half a day of fishing. The first spot we approach is one of the countless pools where an Icelandic fisherman caught a seatrout of 32 inches some days ago. The pools in the trout beats of the Húseyjarkvísl are deep runs on one bank of the river in which you present small, dark flies on heavy sink tips with 90 degree casts.

What a fantastic trip the Huso gave us again.
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After the cast you give the fly a few seconds to sink and then strip it back slowly. When there are aggressive fish in the pool, you normally get those violent takes after the first few strips. After ten minutes it happens exactly like this – my Icelandic friend hooks the first seatrout, a nice fish of 24 inches. After a quick photo we release it. Further precise casts do not bring any more seatrout; we can only land a few small brownies. We decide to go upstream to another pool.

In a deep run in the upper reaches of the river I get my first fish as well. During the first drift, I can feel a subtle take; in the second drift the fish takes the fly and runs 30m down the river. After a while the fish gets tired and I get him closer. During the landing I see that this fish is quite long and skinny, this is atypical for the Húseyjarkvísl. The springers of this river normally are very strong and fat fish...after the landing I see the reason for its shape – it’s a female salmon which has been in the river in the winter for spawning. I am releasing the fish quickly and let her proceed with her travels back to the sea where she will be in great condition after a few weeks again. Even though it was a kelt, I decide to spend the rest of the day taking photographs. The two friends of mine lose a few fish, but are compensated with an amazing sunset before we drive to the lodge for dinner.

The second day embraces us with sunny weather again and we fish several different pools in the lower stretches of the river. Except some brownies and three small seatrout, we have few contacts. We are wondering where those big fish are hiding. They must be there, but why do they refuse to take our offers? Is it because we are having sunshine and little wind? According to the calendar, tomorrow is high tide which might influence the behavior of the fish as well. Furthermore, seatrout are shy fish and with a teeny T-300 you are not really able to make a stealthy presentation of your fly. Very likely we spook the fish as soon as our lines hit the water.

For this reason we experiment a little with longer leaders on the next day. Also, the wind has picked up and there are small riffles on the water. One from our group fishes a small run which we do not know well and catches two brownies and three seatrout during an hour. Did we crack the code by changing our tactics? Should we focus more on the small, less known pools, presenting our flies in there with longer leaders? I am walking on the high bank of the river and suddenly I see the beginning of such a small run. I walk back and carefully wade into the river. After my third cast I hook the first seatrout, in great condition and as silvery as they can get when they come fresh from the sea. After releasing the fish, the next cast brings the next contact. In the beginning it feels like a brownie but then the fish jumps and I can see that it must be 28-29 inches long. Unfortunately I lose the fish during its next run. Checked the fly and another cast into that channel! And again I get a take and this time I am able to land the fish. Around 25 inches long, again freshly run from the sea and in great condition, I am enjoying the fish in shallow water a few seconds before it swims back.

After this fish I cannot hook any more fish here, but that’s a typical example of what we call ‘seatrout bonanza’ on this river – if you find the fish you can often catch several in a row.

At noon the leaseholder of the Húseyjarkvísl is visiting us. Fly fisher and guide himself, we drive with him to the upper stretch of the Huso; these are the salmon beats. The river changes its character here obviously – it is not that wide and the bottom is not covered with black volcanic sand anymore. Instead the river flows through a bed of gravel and the current if just perfect for letting swing a small salmon fly or riffling hitch tube. Upper frontier of the river and the salmon beats is a waterfall of approximately 20m height. The migrating fish cannot go any further at this point. Above the waterfall the river is called Svartá and this is a brown trout river.

The leaseholder tells us that the Huso was run down ten years ago by taking too much fish by the locals. He changed that by introducing a strict Catch & Release policy and since then the fishing got better and better. In the older times, only 20-30 salmon each year were caught with the two to three salmon rods, it’s now more than 200 fish in the five-year average. The numbers per rod are comparable with the numbers of some of the best, world famous salmon rivers. The seatrout have developed even better; ten years ago only a few fish were caught on the available three rods, now it’s several hundred each season. Several fish per day is nothing unusual, and each year in April and September, big, silvery seatrout up to ten kilograms are landed. Besides salmon and seatrout, you can catch brown trout with nymphs and dry flies in the summertime.

After our short excursion, we drive back to the trout beats. Particularly the afternoon is a good time according to the leaseholder, so we are excited to go back to the river. With a few more tips on our way we are approaching the next pools. During crossing the river we find another small run and hit the honey pot. During the next hour we hook six fish of which we land four. All fish are up to 28 inches long. My friend loses one of these fish after twenty minutes of fight without even seeing him. He loves seatrout fishing and I can see a tear in his eye - how big must this fish have been...?

Noticeable of the Huso-seatrout is their enormous condition factor. The springers come in in fantastic shape and give a hell of a fight. The fish tend not to stay in their pools after hooking them but run downstream far into the backing. Many Icelandic people prefer seatrout before salmon and I reckon this, as well as the violent takes of the fish, are the main reasons for that.

I experience that once again at the same pool where we started our trip. My plan is to fish through this pool as we could only land one fish here in the last days. Shortly before having covered the complete run, I feel a take and split-seconds later the water is exploding...a big silver seatrout is jumping and rolling on the surface. Hopefully it is hooked well. The fish runs down the river and I have to follow him on the high bank.

My friends are on the other bank so I need to find a spot where I can cross the river in order to beach the fish on the opposite bank. 150m further down I succeed and after a few more minutes I can land the fish. It’s an amazing female fish measuring close to 30 inches in length, and more than 16 inches in girth. What a fish! I am blown away!

After a few more hours of fishing we end our trip in the lodge with arctic char on the barbecue and relax in the Hot Tub in front of the lodge. I already heard that the winter of 2011/2012 was a so-called solar max winter, which occurs every eleven years on average. In these winters northern lights (aurora borealis) show up more often than usual. And even now, end of April, they appear once more...above us the northern lights are performing their beautiful show. I am fascinated and watch them out of the Hot Tub before I go to bed, tired but happy.