Chasing char in Iceland’s Central Highlands.
Story and photos by Zach Matthews
The wind veered again, this time blowing straight up the Kaldakvísl River in Iceland’s Central Highlands. Shivering, I tugged my hood around so it covered the left half of my face. The rain squall—just short of freezing—rattled against my jacket like sleet on a tin roof. It was late June, but the weather was miserable; Iceland was suffering through its wettest summer in a century, causing landslides in some areas not seen in a thousand years; one slide wiped out a famous salmon stream, forming a new lake.
I flicked my rod upstream, resetting my drift, trying to ignore the conditions. Behind me I could hear my wife, Tracy, hunkering deeper into her nook in the rock wall. Five months pregnant with our first child, she was as bundled up as a person could be while still being able to cast. She had already caught her fill of fish, and was now focused on staying dry. Across the river, my friend Snævarr Örn Georgsson howled merrily in the gale, his rod tip bounding from yet another hookup.
I was knee deep in drinkably clear water, filtered down from glaciers we could occasionally glimpse on the mountaintops surrounding us, when not veiled by clouds. The Kaldakvísl offers excellent fishing on a clear day, with large, white-finned char visible and no backcast obstructions for miles. Casting between rain squalls was something of a suffer-fest for us, but the char didn’t care. They continued aggressively feeding on midge larvae and the occasional stickleback (a small baitfish), oblivious to our privations.
Iceland’s Highlands are a seldom-visited, somewhat stark region, which is often snowed in for half the year. We journeyed here at Snævarr’s suggestion, crossing a moonscape of volcanic scree in his Land Cruiser, miles and miles from the nearest town. Magma hardened in a hurry when this part of the island was formed, segmenting the stony ground into strange polyhedral pillars as big as a man—sort of like the crystals in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Over the millennia, the Kaldakvísl broke those pillars up, grinding them into gravel as it cut itself a streambed through the lava fields. Where we stood, the river’s flows had sheared off a vertical wall, leaving shallow nooks wherever a single multifaceted pillar had fallen into the river.
Tracy sheltered from the storm in one such slot. Just as another curtain of rain passed over, my indicator dunked and I set the hook, feeling the heavy tungsten nymph bite deep into the jaw of a powerful arctic char. I was fishing with an antique reel, nearly 100 years old, and the char’s first run made it scream. I watched its wobble with increasing trepidation as the char hit third gear, wondering whether a vintage reel could hold up to such an intense fight.
Char are relatives to the brook trout and, like their cousins, easily hooked. They are not, however, so easily landed. In fact, I was quickly learning that, pound for pound, your typical trout has nothing on a mature arctic char. The average-size char in the Kaldakvísl is over four pounds, with many reaching twice that size. Even a four-pound char is plenty to handle, especially on a 5-weight rod on rain-swollen river flows. As my fish got into my reel’s backing, I hastily ran back over what little I had been told about the arctic char in this river.
Iceland employs a beat system, similar to the “outfitter” system in place on some western U.S. rivers. On the Kaldakvísl, the person with rights to the beat is named Kristjan Pall Rafnsson, a young and hip Icelandic angler who is co-owner of Fish Partner, a major Icelandic outfitter. The difference between Iceland and, say, Montana, is that you can’t just access the Kaldakvísl and fish on your own, as you can on the Beaverhead and dozens of other Big Sky Country waters. In Iceland, all the rivers are private, so you must secure permission from whoever owns the fishing rights. Rafnsson and a crew was actually filming a documentary on another section of the river during our trip, and we had met briefly before heading out.
Rafnsson explained the unusual nature of the Kaldakvísl, which has everything to do with Iceland’s volcanic history. “In this river,” he said in his lightly accented English, “we have both char and brown trout. There are three sections, divided by big waterfalls. The brown trout are actually highest in the watershed, above the first waterfall.”
This is paradoxical, because char are the fish better known for their preference for high altitudes and the coldest waters, nearest the glaciers. I asked Kristjan how the brown trout could have gotten above the char, and he answered, “They got there first.”
Iceland has a sizable seismic history, meaning at some point in the past, the Kaldakvísl flowed all the way to the ocean without waterfall obstructions. During that time, the browns swam the full length of the channel. Later, a prehistoric earthquake disrupted the river, creating an unbridgeable waterfall. Char reached the watershed, intermingling with browns in the middle and lower sections, but couldn’t get over the waterfall to reach the headwaters.
This didn’t seem to impact their abundance. Rafnsson explained that the base of the food web in the Highlands is the insect life. “You don’t see them when it’s windy and raining, of course, but we actually have so many caddis,” he said. “We also have a ton of midges. The char feed on these year-round, and they also eat the sticklebacks, which is why there are so many healthy fish.”
The char are unquestionably in prime shape. Working cautiously so as not to blow my reel to pieces, and by using the current to turn the fish after each long run, I had managed to bring my char close enough to see. Shimmering teal and orange in the clear water, its white fins flared like airplane wings. I got enough of a look to see that it was over 20 inches long and probably weighed around five pounds—and then it made another run. As it sped away, I watched it scatter a whole school of its brothers. The white-fronted fins of char are easy to spot, and I could see many more all
around me as I leaned into the current, resetting my feet.
While I shivered and battled my fish, Snævarr was merrily toying with another of its brethren in the midst of the rain squall. He was apparently immune to cold, which we joked was all thanks to his Viking ancestry.
On a previous trip to Iceland, I fished with Snævarr on his family farm on the eastern side of the island. There, fat brown trout over five pounds pig out on arctic char fingerlings, which wash down from the Highlands during the annual summer runoff. Char thus serve as both predator and prey; in the Highlands, mature char convert insect biomass and sticklebacks into baby char, some of which get pushed down to the coastlines each summer when the glacial fields begin to melt. Those babies are then eaten by predatory brown trout with noticeably long, sharp teeth—a special adaptation. These fish-eating browns grow fat as hogs in the summer, but nearly starve all winter, until the next glut of char arrive. The consistent rains, which were soaking me to the skin, convert to snow each winter, helping recharge the Highland glaciers while setting up a new cycle. The Highlands ecosystem, stark as it is, thus serves as the nucleus of an entire Icelandic trout food web.
Upstream I heard another howl, this one slightly higher pitched. My friends Ken and Sydney Barré had accompanied us, and Sydney had just stuck her first fish, which was doubling over her blue fiberglass rod like a willow wand. Snævarr quickly landed his fish and reeled up, moving upstream with our only net. If we had chosen to, there’s a good chance we could all have fought fish at once—the char certainly would have cooperated. Sydney landed her fish quickly, and I watched them snap a few photos, with big smiles all around. She had two things to be thankful for: She had just landed her first arctic char, but more important, that also meant she could now join Tracy in the shelter of the shattered rock wall. Another squall line was building in the distance, and the wind made even shouted conversation impossible.
Without question, the Kaldakvísl would be seen as a national treasure in almost any other country. Between its stark natural beauty, the abundance of its char (and brown trout) populations, and their near-suicidal willingness to take flies, it is an angling paradise, albeit a wet one. The funny thing about Iceland is how long it has taken for its citizens to recognize just what they have.
Until recently, the Icelandic angling community was almost exclusively focused on salmon fishing. Catch-and-release was rarely practiced, and few anglers even bothered fishing for char. In the past 10 years or so, that has changed, sometimes with epic effects. Snævarr also guides for salmon in Northeast Iceland, for example, and he has seen firsthand the effects of catch-andrelease on that fishery.
“Twenty years ago, it was incredibly rare to see anyone catch a thirty-pound salmon,” he said. “Then the anglers started practicing catch-and-release. I remember when the first thirty-pounder was caught; it was a big deal and even covered by the national papers. Nowadays, we are seeing a few thirty-pounders every year.”
I asked him how the adoption of catch-and-release could increase fish size so quickly, and he continued: “Many Atlantic salmon die after they spawn, but a significant number do not, and obviously those fish can grow bigger and return. However the biggest fish also arrive first, meaning they are subject to angling pressure immediately, in many cases before they can spawn. By letting those fish go, they get to spawn instead of being killed. That means we keep the big fish in the gene pool instead of weeding them out. Before, we were basically accidentally selecting for smaller fish to
pass on their genes, and now it’s turning back around.”
This same awakening within the angling community is now extending to Iceland’s arctic char fishery. Where before, char were seen almost as a baitfish, now interest is up, in part due to the relatively inexpensive nature of char fishing. Many salmon beats can cost a whopping $3,000 a day or more, but char fishing on the Kaldakvísl is much more affordable. The rod fee per angler is about $800, but that includes a guide, meals, and, most important, what they call “Super Jeep” transportation from Reykjavík. Compared to salmon fishing or even the increasingly popular brown trout beats, arctic char are still a steal.
As the squall lines faded into the distance, the softer side of Kaldakvísl revealed itself. Leaving most of my party basking in the sudden sunshine, atop a high, grassy cliff overlooking the water, I worked my way upriver, picking up char and also brown trout. A feeder stream above a small waterfall had been spanned by an arched wooden bridge, right out of a fairy tale, and I jokingly glanced underneath it to make sure there weren’t any trolls hanging around. Suddenly, movement caught my eye, as I spied a hen ptarmigan merrily bouncing along the river’s edge under the bridge, pecking midge larvae out of the shallows.
She must have felt my gaze, because she froze, then quickly buzzed over to a bank of the creek, tucking herself down in the grass. I made my way over to her and realized I had found her nest—rare even by Icelandic standards. I eased down into the lush grass beside her, as she tolerated my presence. For a few minutes, we shared a kind of uneasy companionship; I meant her no harm, which she may have sensed. Together we looked out at the Kaldakvísl, with two waterfalls and my happy group all in sight. Snævarr and Ken both resumed angling, hooking fish in tandem, as the ladies lolled in the warm grass, eating a snack and enjoying the suddenly beautiful weather.
Iceland is like that—one minute it’s a volcanic, sea-sprayed rock in the North Atlantic, and the next it’s like something out of a Tolkien novel. For an angler, it’s a paradise, whether you’re angling for salmon, brown trout, or merely the sorely underrated arctic char.
Zach Matthews is a contributing editor and the host of The
Itinerant Angler podcast.