Catch-and-release regulations on Iceland’s Laxá River have paid major dividends, and anglers—including the author—are catching some beasts.
[by Rasmus Ovesen]
One freezing weather front after another drifts through the valley, catalyzed by northern winds, and nestles upstream from me, blanketing the lava-laced landscape. It is almost impossible to keep warm.
The season has just kicked off at Laxá in Laxárdalur, perhaps Iceland’s most overlooked brown trout river. It’s June, early summer and light all day. But this is a season that brings schizophrenic weather patterns to Iceland. Last year at Laxá, guests fished opening week in T-shirts. This year, well . . . it was an entirely different story.
The Laxá drains out of Mývatn, which is the sixth-biggest lake in Iceland. The river meanders a little more than 60 miles downstream, through undulating terrain, in Iceland’s Nordurland region, some 310 miles from the Reykjavík. Laxá means “salmon” in Icelandic, and it is essentially a salmon river—but it’s dammed. And this, in part, explains why the brown trout fishing is so good. The dam, which is situated 12 miles from the ocean, prevents salmon from traveling upstream, and provides the brown trout with a slice of heaven.
Laxá’s brown trout fishery is divided into two beats: Laxá in Mývatnssveit and Laxá in Laxárdalur, which comprise more than 18 miles of crystal clear brown trout habitat. Laxá in Mývatnssveit is the upper beat, and consists of myriad pools, pockets, lava shelves, backwaters, and riffles, which are interrupted by one island and gravel bar after the other.
Laxá in Laxárdalur is more sedate and wide—not unlike many of Iceland’s famed salmon rivers. This part of the river, which is found immediately below Mývatnssveit, is more than 1,000 feet wide in certain spots. However, there are very few sections that can’t be waded.
Mandatory catch-and-release practices were introduced in 2017. Previously, between 1,600 and 2,000 fish were killed every season. Since 2017, the numbers and size of fish in Laxá have grown, and the average fish is now somewhere in the vicinity of 24 inches. Every year, multiple fish exceeding 28 inches are landed, browns measuring to 30 inches have been caught on dry flies, and fish up to 33 inches have been caught on streamers.
Because these fish are generally well fed and don’t compete with salmon, it’s not uncommon to catch brown trout over nine pounds, and the biggest fish in the river probably weighs around 17 to 18 pounds. For an Arctic river with a native, self-reproducing strain of brown trout, this is very impressive.
The season on Laxá begins in late May and runs through August; prime time is from the beginning of July through midAugust, when dry fly fishing is best.
Early in the season, you’ll cover water with weighted streamers, or with indicators and nymphs. Some of the most popular patterns include Zonker TC streamers from Fulling Mill in sizes 2 and 6, and Gray Ghosts and Rabbit Zonkers. For nymphs, especially size 10 through 18, jig nymphs in natural colors, along with red or orange Squirmy Wormies, are safe bets. These flies can be bounced along the bottom, and they’re easy for the trout to see and pick up.
Early in the season, you might also find yourself catching big landlocked Arctic char, as these fish migrate downstream from Mývatn during the winter months. There are no other distractions from the brown trout fishing. The brown trout are numerous. And they feed actively and intensely throughout summer.
As spring progresses and true summer arrives, Laxárdalur’s trout turn their attention increasingly toward the surface, and here they typically rise to a variety of midges and sedges. At this time of year, most people completely switch over and focus on sight fishing with dry flies. For this type of fishing, 9-foot, 4-weight rods, weight-forward floating lines, and 18-to-20-foot-long leaders, tapered to 5X, are used. For streamer and nymph fishing, on the other hand, heavier equipment is used: 9-foot, 6-weight fly rods, weight-forward floating lines with short, powerful tapers and 14-to-16-foot-long fluorocarbon leaders tapered to 3X.
During my trip to Laxá, I caught some giants on streamers. And on the last day, when we should have already been driving toward Reykjavík to catch our flights, I caught the most memorable fish of the trip.
From the start I suspected it to be a solid trout and I was right—I was in the middle of the river and the fish was propelling itself downstream, barely stoppable, with my friend Martin racing toward me with the net.
When the fish finally tired, Martin slid the net under its belly and carried it triumphantly to the bank—it measured 27.5 inches long and tipped the scales at 10 pounds. We released the fish and celebrated a great catch. Only then did I notice the river’s icy flow licking against my waders and wind ripping at my jacket. Wet snow fell from the sky. I squinted, shivered, and tried to find a little warmth in the knowledge that, despite the weather, Martin and I had incredible fishing on Laxá—we landed several well-built four-pound-plus brown trout and more than a handful of fish above six pounds, including the beast we’d just released. Despite the chill, we were in no position to complain about the weather.
We followed the river back to our car. Ahead was a grueling seven-hour drive under a low-hanging midnight sun. We had early-morning flights to Copenhagen and Oslo, and we’d burned our candles at both ends. However, with adrenaline pumping through our veins, a full tank of fuel in the rig, a bag of Red Bull on the backseat, and lots of stories to tell, we were expecting to make it to Reykjavík unscathed. We could sleep, we agreed, when we got old.
IF YOU WANT TO FISH THE LAXÁ, YOU CAN STAY at Raudhólar, a full-service lodge situated conveniently on the eastern shore of the river. It was completely refurbished in 2019, and accommodates 10 anglers, who get private rooms with modern bathrooms, central heating, and comfortable beds. The lodge is run by Reykjavík Angling Club (https://www.svfr. is) and is administered by Bjarni Höskuldsson, who has fished the river since he was a child. The fishing is split into two sessions. The first one is from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and is followed by lunch at the lodge. The second session lasts from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., and it is concluded by dinner at the lodge.
EXPECTATIONS: There are many fish in Laxá in Laxárdalur, but you shouldn’t necessarily expect to catch a lot of fish there. The water is, quite simply, too clear and the fish too savvy. Two or three big fish per day is what you can realistically expect to catch—if you fish hard all day, that is.
DAILY ROUTINE: Laxárdalur is divided into six smaller beats, encompassing both the eastern and western shores of the river, and they are rotated among the lodge guests on a daily basis. There is nearby parking at the best pools and runs, and every beat offers more water than you could possibly fish in a day.
To drive along Laxá in Laxárdalur and get to the individual beats, it’s definitely an advantage to rent a 4×4. GoIceland (www.goiceland.com) offers a wide selection of 4x4s, and it can help you find just the right car. Schedule for an approximately seven-hour drive from Keflavík Airport to the river. The roads are relatively small and winding.
TRAVEL: Iceland Air offers flights to the capital, Reykjavík.
Rasmus Ovesen lives in Oslo and has spent 10 years writing, fishing, and shooting images around the world. Check out more of his work at instagram.com/rasmus_ovesen.