Iceland’s Jurassic lake delivers mind-boggling numbers of monster brown trout every year.
[by Rasmus Ovesen]
THE TAKE IS BRUTAL AND RESOLUTE— like an unexpected punch in the stomach. I’ve sent an obstinate cast into howling onshore winds, and even though I haven’t quite stretched the leader, I’ve managed to reach the drastic and alluring drop-off about 20 meters out that runs along the lake’s volcanic shoreline. Before I even set the hook, the fly rod goes into a convulsive seizure and fly line peels off the reel, slashing through the crystalline water surface and into the agitated, foaming waves. Seconds later, alarming amounts of fluorescent yellow backing follow. The fly reel’s tormented snarl won’t come to an end.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the contours of an ominous creature catapulting itself into the air approximately 60 meters out. It towers briefly above the roaring waves and lands on its back in a whalelike crash that sends sparkling droplets of water high into the air, and shock waves through my galloping heart.
Backing continues to peel through the rod guides of my dangerously arced rod, and I’m desperately trying to calm my thinly worn nerves.
When the fish finally slows down, the fight enters a new phase. Instead of racing toward deep water, the fish thrashes about in the surface, doggedly trying to eliminate the inexplicable pressure and drag.
I desperately lean back on the fish until the cork handle creaks, and after several minutes of tug-of-war, I slowly start gaining the upper hand. The fish comes closer to shore, I recover fly line, and soon get a short glimpse of the fish in the crashing waves. It’s a sight that sends shivers down my spine. The fish is big—really big.
The fly seems to be solidly lodged in the fish’s jaw, but the razor-sharp volcanic cliffs and rocks along the shoreline are disturbing. If the fish decides to seek cover, there’s no doubt it’ll be more than my leader can endure. The fish isn’t tired, but also doesn’t seem fully aware of the severity of the situation, and I’m able to bring it close to a small point where our Icelandic guide is waiting with a net. The fish glides over the frame of the net and into the basket.
It’s an ancient-looking warrior of a trout—a massive fish with a big, cannibalistic head, a tail like a metal blade, an incalculable number of dots resembling ink stains, golden flanks, starry eyes, and flamboyantly metallic blue gill plates. The fish measures close to 93 centimeters (36 inches), and even though it isn’t quite so fat as most fish in the lake, it weighs close to 10 kilograms (22 pounds). It is a veritable dream fish.
Using the smoldering, lead-heavy sky as a backdrop, my friend Martin Ejler Olsen, who followed the fight at close range, shoots a quick series of photographs before I unhook and immerse the fish back into the lake’s freezing cold water. It reorients itself, slaps its tail defiantly, and disappears into the fading azure.
The Lake with the Long Name
Martin and I are fishing Thingvallavatn, a massive lake resting below towering snowclad mountains in an ancient bed of barren lava plains and mossy meadows. It is early June, but the weather remains bitterly cold and sharp; howling northern winds agitate the lake’s massive surface, sending chilling waves crashing into the rocky shores.
While we planned to fish the lake for four days, already now, after our first expectant day on the lake, we have landed five incredibly beautiful brown trout weighing more than five kilograms each. These are ice age brown trout that can straighten hooks, shred leaders, and empty backing from our reels with just sheer power and determination. The fact that they can grow to such stupendous sizes only adds to their legend.
“Fish of more than 10 kilos are caught every year, and the standing record so far is an impressive 102-centimeter-long fish that weighed an estimated 17 kilograms.”
Lake Thingvallavatn itself is somewhat of a geological phenomenon in that it is situated right where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, resulting in elevated tectonic and volcanic activity in the area—shifts that have clearly marked and shaped the lake’s chaotic topography and surroundings.
Rainwater feeds Thingvallavatn by filtering through the porous lava substratum and slowly seeping into the lake, nutrient rich and crystal clear. However, 90 percent of the lake’s water reserves are subaqueous (under the lake itself), and the main source of the surface water comes from thousands of natural springs, which in turn help the lake maintain a stable temperature of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (37 to 40 degrees F) throughout the year.
Thingvallavatn brown trout, however, are something truly unique, with a genetic makeup traced to parts of England. From there, it’s believed sea-run brown trout from the last ice age migrated to the Icelandic coasts and ventured into different watersheds and rivers. One of these waterways led the fish into an area that became isolated from the ocean after massive volcanic activity over 12,000 years ago. At that time, what is now Lake Thingvallavatn’s southern perimeter, arose and dammed what was previously a roaring river.
Though isolated from England and their home rivers, the now landlocked sea-run brown trout showed no signs of unhappiness. On the contrary, fish quickly settled in the lake, and they grew in both size and numbers, even after mankind found its way to the lake during the Viking Age.
But things took a turn for the worst when a man-made dam in the lake’s southern end collapsed in 1959. The brown trout’s spawning grounds, which were situated above the dam itself, were destroyed as the gravel was vacuumed and washed downstream and fish populations suffered. In the following decades, trout numbers declined dramatically, and the lake’s fish ultimately faced the brink of extinction.
Amazingly, the trout’s unfortunate plight was reversed at end of the last millennium by a group of passionate volunteers who systematically rehabilitated the lake’s brown trout stocks. After electroshocking and capturing brood stock, the group succeeded in facilitating spawning activity in a handful of tributaries where the brown trout had never really procreated before. In 2000, the team declared its efforts a success, and over the past 15 years, Thingvallavatn brown trout have not only reestablished their hierarchal status in the lake, but also grown at a remarkable rate, aided by strong genetics and sublime growth conditions. Consequently, the fishing in the lake is turning into quite a phenomenon!
The average size of the Thingvallavatn brown trout is around 3.5 kilograms, though anglers catch fish in the vicinity of 8 kilograms on a fairly regular basis. Fish of more than 10 kilos are caught every year, and the standing record so far is an impressive 102-centimeter-long fish that weighed an estimated 17 kilograms.