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When running an inpatient surgical ward there is a constant struggle to get the patients home after operations. There is, of course, some reasonable length of stay needed for serious matters etc. However, from my point of view some of my patients could go home sooner than they themselves wanted. There were all kinds of ploys used to hasten their discharge, but the opposition had some tricks up its sleeve, too. For instance, when I would do the rounds on Monday, I expected that someone would be able to go home on Wednesday. So, I would suggest discharge on a Tuesday. Then when the patient began to balk I would suggest: „Well ok tomorrow then,” and everybody was happy. The hospital had a library and the patients used it in their convalescent period (Icelanders are a literate bunch). Then I had the following rule to lighten the atmosphere in the wards where there were a number of patients together. Of course, the patients preferred the romantic genre of books, for example, the Red Series (Fabian bare chested, etc.). The rule: Whenever a book like that was spotted on a patient’s nightstand, they would be unceremoniously discharged (or an attempt would be made on the basis of the evidence). If you can read that stuff you are ready to go home,right. And It would happen that this did not go over too well.
At that time, we had a Surgeon General of Iceland Ólafur Ólafsson, who was and still is a crusty old guy. He sported bushy white hair, and his equally bushy eyebrows were in the Santa Claus class. He was at the tail end of his career at that time. His voice was deep and gravely, and had he been an American he would have been reading the voice overs in the Whiskey and Cigarette commercials. He probably would have put James Earl Jones out of the voice work. As Surgeon General he has a great sense of humor and the ability to see the absurd and funny in just about any setting. He was always a champion for the patients and their rights, and was never a tame tool for the politicians – he was a very unconventional civil servant. He gave me invaluable advice: “Jonas, just be yourself.”
Contrast him with the Suits and apparatchiki that we have met through our lives.
Author‘s addition to the definitions: A Suit – a civil servent totally devoid of any charm, humor or even a face.
Ólafur could be a handful, especially when he called in the middle of the night (he is a night owl) to discuss some pressing issue. You are fast asleep in some happy dream and then “It is Ólafur” and you began thinking – it must be some damn volcanic eruption. When he was still working, his offices were next to the square where the homeless and unfortunate souls of Reykjavik congregated. To his credit, he always kept a protective eye on his neighbors and tended to their needs. When he retired he palmed them off to another humanist doctor. I just love this guy for lots of reasons.
Now, one of my patients got offended by my Red Series comment and made a formal complaint to the surgeon general. Such a matter needed to be resolved and resolved it was.
I got a formal reprimand letter from the Surgeon General’s Office stating (loosely translated):
It has come to the Surgeons General’s notice that you have been joking around with your patients during the morning rounds.
It is decided by the Surgeon General that you are not to joke around with your patients.
P.S. Unless they have the same sense of humor that the Surgeon General has.
P.P.S. It is forbidden to divulge the content of this letter.
I contacted Ólafur on my last visit to Iceland and he released me from the ban.
I am sure that gorvernments and especially the populations the world over are be better served by persons such as Ólafur as compared to their empty, talking Suits.
Icelandic Medical Association centennial – fly casting course
In the fall of 2017 I got an email from IMA’s president asking me to teach a fly casting course to Icelandic doctors. The IMA is celebrating its centennial this year, and the president thought it a good idea to introduce some play into the pomp. I was all for it and started to organize the course. Indoor or outdoor is the first dilemma. Outdoor is a better option generally if we could have some other weather than Icelandic, but it is the only one we have there in the subarctic. There is a near constant area of low-pressure area at our latitudes called the Icelandic low.
We Icelanders never use that word or acknowledge the low’s existence because it is just too damn depressing. Denial is a robust defense mechanism. However, all phone calls between Icelanders start with “How is the weather?”
So, outdoors was not feasible. To get anything done in Iceland it must be before spring (if there will be one that year at all). When the days get longer, and temperatures get into double digits (Centigrade) the natives go nuts. It is impossible to plan anything because now everyone is so busy living and enjoying life – scheduling a course then would be utter folly. In the summers it is even worse to get together a group of people. So, March indoor it was. We secured a good size gym and announced the course, and all the spots we had available were promptly filled. Forty-five persons booked and 42 showed up. What I was most pleased with was that 15 ladies participated. Some of them were intermediate and some beginners at fly casting. Unfortunately, fly casting gatherings can get to look like a Trump rally at times. We need to attract young people and more females into the mix.
I have discovered that it is far easier to teach females to propel the fly than males. Females do not resort to brute strength and are much more limber. They also listen better than males and pay attention. There are some great female casters, and Joan Wulff was the best of both sexes for a spell – her accomplishments were not built on power (Ms. Wulff is still teaching, and her books are great). Usually it takes up to an hour to break down a male and get his attention. Starting out they use far more power than they ever need, and the speed they use is excessive. So, the first hour goes like this: “Slow down – slow down – are you deaf – slow down. God dammit, slow down. Less power – less power – have you got a seizure?” I do not know for certain why males behave this way – I think it might be the testosterone marinade that we males live in. However, when they slow down and go gently a big smile is usually our reward. “Wow I could feel that.” – is the refrain – meaning they felt the rod unload in their hand (a bent rod straightens and counter flexes and then straightens again – you will feel a slight kick in your hand – called unloading). The term casting is perhaps inappropriate. There is no follow through of the hand as when we throw a stone, and we stop the rod tip high – it is the rod tip that propels the line forward – the caster only bends the rod tip with his motion.
Many ways to skin a cat
An old friend of mine Stefan B Hjaltested was a co-instructor, and we got along very well. He did teach differently than I do, but we both got the same results in the same amount of time. He did not use any technical terms – do this – no do not do that etc. – was his way. His approach is “teach them like they are children.” This only proves that there are many ways to skin a cat.
All in all, we taught for 30 hours and we hope that our students had as much fun as we had.
We also hope that all our students learned a lot and will diligently practice new tricks before their future fishing trips.
Pictures – Davíð Valdimarsson
As a boy I vaguely remember reading about the Berlin airlift (Berliner Luftbrücke – i.e. airbridge).
That was when the russkies were naughty (they still are), and when they wanted to mess with Europe they just squeezed its balls, i.e. Berlin. To get vital supplies to Berlin after the roads and railways were closed (by the russkies), the Allies resorted to a massive airlift to keep the city running. I found this utterly fascinating and subsequently had a brief obsession with airplanes. One of my casting students (a retired pilot) actually flew on those missions via that corridor [via one of the three permitted air corridors]. But I am just rambling, so I will get on with it.
During the tail end of my Med School days, I got the opportunity to do a locum (relieve some doctor who needed a break) in general practice out in the sticks. This was very welcomed since we med students got paid, and it was a learning opportunity for us. What the patients thought of it is not clear, but I guess they thought it better to have someone manning the shop, albeit an inexperienced medical student. It was deemed prudent by the authorities to send two med students to relieve one experienced doctor. So off we (I and my colleague) went and wound up in the farthest district from Reykjavik on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
That month turned out to become very eventful, and we were very busy. At this stage in your journey as a doctor everything is just so damn interesting and stimulating. We for instance had a patient who developed a sudden onset of pain in one eye! What the heck can that be? So, dive into books (remember no internet), and if we needed more, a corded telephone was our best ally. We treated cardiac arrhythmia, overdose, urinary retention and even plucked shot gun pellets from the derriere of the local police officer. Plus, all the other more routine ailments. It turned out that the organ specialists in Akureyri (closest big town) and Reykjavik, whom we repeatedly had to consult, were very helpful. They probably remembered their own bygone locums, so the system worked – if you had the sense to ask for help. We both were keenly aware off our limitations, and relatively free of hubris (that came later) – but when I reflect on that period I realize that we were so ignorant of all the ways things can go caput [go to hell in a handbasket] in medicine, that we just happily forged on with our trusted ally, the telephone. When I gained more experience I never encountered a situation that I could not make substantially worse by untimely intervention or the wrong one. So, make sure your indications for doing anything in medicine are solid before proceeding.
To give you a glimpse of the Zeitgeist I can share the following story. We got a call from a farmer who had some pain in his chest. “A stick fell on my back” was the story. “Can you come out here and have a look?” When we arrived at the farm, we met the family, and then we were invited to a meal. There was no examining until after. After that and conversations about our family trees (yup, that was the social norm) we got to have a look at the farmer. This was the typical attitude of those people in those days. Tradition dictates a certain decorum, and it is to be observed even if you had a “stick” fall on your back.
As it turned out, the “stick” was in fact a large driftwood log. This farm owned a stretch of beach where you could harvest these logs. Such logs drift from Siberia to Iceland’s shores and were through the ages extremely valuable as there were no big trees in Iceland for construction purposes.
Furthermore, they were salt impregnated after their journey in the ocean and thus rot resistant. The farmer had his ribs on one side broken with air under the skin (subcutaneous air). When you encounter such air, it feels like the crunch of newly fallen snow under your fingers. The lung was punctured, but the farmer was stable so we sent him off via airplane to the nearest hospital in Akureyri.
During the Cold War the Americans had built a radar station on the top of a nearby mountain and ran it from 1954 to 1968.
To service it there was a small airfield on the shore running from east to west. To be able to land there, a radio beacon had to be turned on. The airfield manager (and only personnel) turned the beacon on after receiving a call from Keflavik. ”Can you turn the beacon on Mr. X?” to which the answer was “Whiskey?” “No damn it – no whiskey.” “No whiskey no beacon.” They could get by with few words. If the negotiations were successful, the beacon got turned on, and the airfield manager was happy. The way alcohol is sold in Iceland is through state monopoly shops. Sweden has the same system, for instance, and it is rumored that the people living on the Faroe Islands only get to buy their liquor if their taxes are paid. The state shops in Iceland are called “Der Reich” (The state) and exist only in the bigger towns. The population with no “Der Reich” makes a phone call, and the merchandise is delivered with the next post delivered by flight. It was thus imperative to receive the post on a Friday. On Friday the airfield manager had radioed in the local weather conditions on which the pilot made his decision to fly or not. The “terminal” at our local airfield was the bridge cut off from a decommissioned trawler. Yet it functioned well. We were in the terminal once waiting for some medical supplies when we witnessed another interesting exchange on Friday afternoon: “You reported the local weather – visibility unlimited – calm – no clouds” came the voice of the pilot from the radio. Then we could hear the drone of a plane from above, but it was totally overcast (clouds 600 feet), wind from the north 10 mph (crosswind). “Yes – it is amazing how the weather on the arctic ocean can change in a heartbeat,” answered the airfield manager tongue in cheek. Now the calm voice of the pilot was heard – “I am going to kill you Mr. X.” “Well, you have to land to do that” was the logical answer. The bush pilots are very good, so nothing untoward happened despite dicey weather. We got our supplies, and the village its vital necessities.
My local fly club is called FFNWF (Fly Fishers of North West Florida). Now that is a mouth-full without vowels but still not quite Hebrew. We just love our abbreviations here, but I can tell you that it takes a while to understand them. Especially if English (American?) is your third language. Some abbreviations are simple and ubiquitous like the OMG! exclamation that is now being used even in Icelandic parlance. What the heck does POS mean? Or NYOB – PAWS and on and on. So, here’s my advice to the natives – go easy on those abbreviations when talking to a non-native. But I digress.
When I first saw the term “Casting Clinic” in our monthly newsletter I was not sure what it referred to. Casting could refer to fly casting, but it could also mean shaping a plaster of Paris cast. The clinic part implies some medical endeavor in my understanding. But what I discovered, was that it means club members get together and wave their rods. The idea is that we supposedly teach each other, especially those who are starting out. Then we can show off a bit by banging out long casts with sharp pointy loops (Yup – guilty as charged). As I have been sucked closer and closer to the black hole of teaching fly casting, I realize that this way of preaching probably is not a very effective way of converting beginners to intermediate casters or intermediate casters to good ones (to become a great caster you need private lessons!).
So, this year we are running an experiment. I plan to introduce one special fly casting drill/exercise every clinic during the year. The February clinic was devoted to the pick-up and lay down cast. We had a good turnout – around 20 casters with several new faces, which was heartening. When we commenced I got up on my soap box and explained the basics of the cast to the group. Then we divided the group into subgroups of two, with one experienced caster in each, and set off to practice. I was a libero (soccer speak – for a player who is undisciplined, so he gets to roam around) and went from group to group running my mouth and praising technique or correcting small errors, etc. We focused on just this cast for half an hour, until it became apparent that the group was starting to lose focus. Then we reassembled in the larger group and went through the components of the cast. I was rather pleased with this first lesson and I hope that the next clinic will have a good turnout of students, especially new ones. These clinics are open for all comers.
The pickup and lay down cast
This is a basic fishing cast, and we will break it down into its components.
Its purpose is to unstick the fly from the water surface (the lift part) and cast the fly out again (the subsequent parts). We start casts by lifting the rod tip until the casting hand is at breast height. We do not rip the fly line from the water surface since that will scare the fish. When we lift the rod tip you will notice on the water that the fly line clears the surface and runs away from you to the leader. That is when you commence the casting stroke. Pay attention! If you wait too long the fly line will sag again to the surface. The idea is to have just the leader in the surface.
We start with fly line (30´ – 35´) and leader (7,5´) straight. There should be no slack in the line.
The Pick-up and Lay Down Cast
- Rod´s tip down and lift gently to shoulder level (peel)
- now we flick the line over the rod tip upwards and backwards (pluck)
- and pause for the line to straighten (pause)
- now we flick the rod forward (pat) and stop the hand at 10 o’clock. The line and leader straighten, and we let them gravitate/float down to the surface and let the rod tip follow.
Last November I fished for bonefish in the Bahamas with three of my friends. They are all experienced bonefish anglers, but I am not. I was very much looking forward to this trip to learn more about bonefishing. As it turned out, this trip was great and surprisingly the company, too.
Our destination was Water Cay on the north side of Grand Bahamas. This location is off the beaten path with low fishing pressure, but with a reputation for big fish.
To get there we flew into Freeport, where we were picked up at the airport by our guides. From there to the marina where the skiffs awaited us is about a 40 minute drive. Our gear was stuffed into the skiffs, and we reached our destination in 20 minutes. From where I live (Florida Panhandle) I got there in half a day’s travel.
The lodge sits on the south tip of Water Cay with a small jetty. There are 3 double occupancy rooms on the left side for the anglers, and the ambiance is pleasant. The cooking and housekeeping was in the capable hands of Kay and Syd. The meals – both plentiful and good – were served in the dining room in the middle of the house.
Bonefish are a very challenging fish to catch. To do so you have to spot them. If you hook one you are in for a surprisingly fast run that will take you into the backing. If fishing from a skiff the angler should take a ready position at the bow. The guide is up on a poling platform in a better position to spot fish. When he does, he guides you to their position and if you are lucky, the fish can be reached with a cast. The skiffs used are shallow draft, very light, and with a poling platform. Bonefish can also be caught by wading the flats. Spotting them from a lower position is more difficult, but doable. Sometimes after finding a fish, the water is too shallow for the skiff. Then you try to get into a position by wading.
There are endless flats around the lodge and plentiful of mangrove thickets. These flats are a veritable smorgasbord for the fish as the tides move water onto and off the flats. Crabs and shrimp also move in, and the bonefish like to feed on them on the bottom.
Bonefish use the mangroves to escape and love to tangle you up by swimming through them.
The three guides: Sidney was the headguide, and Greg and Esra were very good guides too. They found fish everyday. Unfortunately, only some were caught, but that is on the angler. The wind was a factor, and there were two cold fronts that came through during our stay.
What I liked about their approach to guiding was their teaching. They spot the fish, and then you were guided to the position by “Point your rod – left -stop – 45 feet,” for instance. After you had totally bungled it, there was a brutally honest post mortem. “When you took that clumsy step up on the bow you scared the fish away.” Or “When you slapped that line down it scared the fish.” And “Nope that is a Barracuda.”
You get the picture. There were many more variants of my ineptitude, but when I did everything right the fish took a look at my fly and sometimes grabbed it.
(This is the Anna Karenina principle of fishing. Its first sentence: “Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.” The standard translation: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Paraphrased: you succeed at bonefishing in only one way, but you can screw up in multiple ways.
After this trip I am confident that my skills have improved, thanks to their excellent teaching. We all caught fish, and I lucked into a 7.5 pounder that is my personal best in bonefish.
I did not fish with Dave, so I have no picture of proof, but he caught fish, too. This sums up our time there, and I plan to be back there next fall.
is difficult but exhilarating. Their runs are spectacular, and they are sneaky and run into the mangroves and out again to tangle you up. It is not a given that you land the one you hooked. However, that is in itself the most exciting part. To catch one you need several aspects to be aligned. First off you must see the fish, then can you cast to it and on and on. I have broken it down to the following parts to clarify my thinking and to give you an idea of the complexity involved.
The moving parts of Bonefishing
1. Sun position and its movement across the sky
It is always best to have sunshine, then they fish will have a shadow that you can spot, and that will lead you to the fish. It is best to keep the sun behind you so you do not have to look into the glare from the surface. How the sun is moving and how you are moving is important, and the guides set up their poling paths to take advantage of that. So trust your guides to do that part – you are in their home waters. On an overcast day the fish can still be spotted, but it is much harder.
2. Clouds and where they are moving
Pay attention to the clouds and how they are moving, since this directly affects visibility. If you are under a cloud, but there is sunshine “over there,” you move over there.
3. The wind
Be prepared for the wind. You might have to cast into a stiff breeze. The wind might be blowing onto your casting side, pushing the line into your body. You might have to make your back cast into a hard wind, and you must be able to solve that. Very rarely is the wind direction “right” and the wind light. The only advice I can give is that you should practice the “wind” casts before you go there.
Line control is important in the wind. Mostly you can let the line loose on the deck if you take care to get it into the lower well of the skiff. There your fishing buddy can keep an eye on it and clear tangles. It is advantageous to place this line between the leaning poles – it seems to help control the line. One day it was blowing so hard that I had to hold the loops tight in my left hand. A very big loop on my pinkie, a slightly smaller one on my ring finger, and a smaller still on my middle finger, similar to what one can do when using a two handed rod for salmon. Then you shoot it out when opportunity arises.
4. The tidal movement
As the tide inundates the mangroves, bonefish move into that maze to feed. When the tide falls the fish move off again. So, it is vital to be cognizant of the tidal movement. However, reading a tidal almanac is not enough. Wind can block the water from rising and conversely can block its egress from the flats. Local knowledge is the key, and the guides are tuned into this.
5. Travel line of fish and speed
Bonefish rarely keep still. I saw countless bonefish that turned out be sticks on the bottom. “Not moving – bottom,” was the guides refrain. When you see a fish and it is moving, you must place the fly in front of him. For that you have to gauge the speed at which the fish is moving. You assume they go straight and try to intersect their line of travel. It is preferable that the fly sinks to the bottom before the fish gets there. The correct weight of the fly in relation to the depth of water must be spot on.
6. Movement of boat and disturbance from it
I was skeptical about claims that the fish could sense the boat at 60 feet, but I came away a convert. Just by rocking the boat slightly is enough. Once I stumbled slightly and put my foot down a bit too hard and the fish in my sights bolted. This is one moving part we can have control over. Move slow and do not make any noise that is unnecessary. Barefoot on the bow is probably the best option, otherwise wear something soft on your feet.
7. Your surroundings
One needs to pay constant attention to the surroundings because the mangroves will happily eat your fly line if you place your back cast close to them.
How to prepare for a Bonefish trip?
It is tempting and easy to buy all the paraphernalia of fishing and equate that with success. That is not how it works. Most of the “moving parts” above are outside your control. What is under your control is your casting prowess, your movement in the boat, and using correctly weighted flies (get the fly to the bottom before the bonefish arrives). Your casting is by far the single most important point. I have never met a person who casts too well. I have met a lot of fishermen who could improve their casts with simple corrections. You cannot buy a cast!
That’s the way the cookie crumbles….
“Hi doctor X! You’ve got free air in your abdomen.” Doctor X is a pediatrician, rotund and florid. He is rather excitable and has a vivid imagination. You often expect him to have a cerebral hemorrhage during a conversation (blow a gasket). He is a great story teller with artistic tendencies, and has good rapport with children and their parents. A bit unorthodox perhaps, but never boring. “I can sell this darling on the internet for you,” he said once when some parents were complaining about their son’s stomach. Well, the doctor had been seen by the surgeon on call, because of an abdominal pain, who had promptly ordered a CT scan because of his abdominal pain. After the examination he&the patient somehow got through the cracks and just went home. The surgeon on call came across the CT later in the day and there it was — free air in the abdominal cavity (which means there is a hole in a bowel somewhere). The surgeon immediately contacted Doctor X and ordered him to come post haste to the hospital. Understandably Doctor X got really scared, and with his imagination racing, thought his days were numbered. He was expected to return within the hour, but time dragged on, and finally he shows up obviously freshly shaven and sporting a new haircut! “Where the hell have you been?” was the first question. “I am certain that I am not going to make it,” came the retort — “that´s why I went to have a haircut and a shave.” Now the surgeon is incredulous “we fix this all the time you idiot” (is that how you talk to a pediatrician?). “No, I am a goner,” he continues, “to be on the safe side I also had my portrait taken by a professional photographer – in black and white for effect. Something for my family to remember me by.”
His treatment was uneventful, and he recovered. Since that time, he has a new found respect for surgeons and thinks we are miracle workers, nothing less. Doctors are a very difficult group to deal with as patients. Especially those who are cynical and meddle in their treatment plans. The only group that is worse is probably the clergy. “It is all in His hand” type of reasoning can get you to a boiling point. “Perhaps He put us here to take care of you” reasoning does not seem to enter their minds.
At the end of my training I used my vacation to do locum work at my first surgical department. I was a newly minted surgeon (licensed and all), and it was common for new specialists to do locum work in Iceland instead of taking a vacation. The family got to go home to all the relatives, and we got some brownie points for relieving the staff doctors. It was a bit like a dress rehearsal, where we could show just how good we were and also get a feel for working there for the future.
The atmosphere at the surgical department was jovial, and the morale good. The rhythm of the day was to present new patients at the morning meeting. The emergency patients were discussed, and any problems incurring during the last 24 hours were recounted. I had been on call, and we had admitted an old lady with a distended abdomen in the morning hours. She was emancipated and in dire straits, and the bowels were obstructed. What to do? Well, first off you discuss that with your patient. She understood that an operation was very risky, but by doing nothing she was going to die. She still enjoyed life she told me, and we decided on an operation as our only option. The staff surgeons were very negative about this endeavor. One of them of the “It is none of your damn business” fame (see my blog, http://everyjonahhasawhale.com/?p=1811) thought me mad. “Are you going to operate on that mummy?” He went on and on about it. Then there were the anesthetists! “The electrolytes are terrible, the kidney function impaired and my god that heart.” Well, I honestly love anesthetists and I understand their plight. First, they have to anesthetize such a person, and then they have to deal with the surgeon – at the same time. So, the discussion with the anesthetists on the merits of such an operation, and the risks involved could be interesting. My central argument was always simple. The primary disease process causing all those abnormalities in the electrolytes, etc. was perhaps, and quite likely something that could be reversed. Our philosophy is, if the primary process can be fixed, the secondary problems have a chance of getting better. So, the patient will only survive the operation that fixes the primary problem. We must be very focused on that, and actually try to simplify things (some might call it tunnel vision). If you do not do that you will become mired in minutiae, and you can not do anything at all because it is all so terrible and rapidly getting worse. My arguments carried the day, and the anesthetists got the old lady ready for an operation. I was about to open her abdomen when the door of the operating room banged open, and the surgeon with his walrus mustache barged in.
He was in fine spirits and was holding a pen in one hand and a death certificate in the other hand (those forms were the only ones we used on yellow paper.) Then he bellows – “When you start cutting – I will start writing!” He really was a lovable scoundrel.
There you go – what an auspicious start to an operation. By that time, I was getting to know him and I suspected that he was only “weighing my cojones,” so I did not get too rattled. All this black humor is a coping mechanism in a stressful environment. The operation was easy, and I found the suspected incarcerated femoral hernia, which was easy to fix. This lady recovered nicely and was duly discharged.
I sit here alone on the banks of the river
The lonesome wind blows and water runs high
I can hear a voice call from out there in the darkness
But I sit here alone too lonesome to cry
The Lonesome River – Bob Dylan
For doctors the river is constantly there. Our lives are lived on the banks of the river. Sometimes our toil is to prevent early departures and sometimes it is to help people to navigate across. We might as well fish it while we are at it!
Hrútafjarðará og Síká
Hrútafjarðará (á – river/stream) is a two hour drive north from Reykjavík. The lodge there is one of the nicest in Iceland with self catering. The river is fished by 3 rods and is fly only. Most of the pools are easily accessible by any car. For the upper parts of the river some walking down into the gullies is required, but nothing too strenuous. For over 20 years the river was leased by R.N. Stewart, author of Salmon Rivers of Iceland.
His description is spot on – “The Hrútafjarðará from the Réttarfoss north, is a delightful mixture of rocky gorges, open flat pools, swirly pools, fast runs, still pools and then opening out for the last two miles into a flat plain of gravel and pastures with several excellent pools until it reaches the long narrow fiord leading to the Arctic Ocean.” The catchment area for the river and its tributary Síká is 367 km². This river system is fed by a myriad of rivulets coming together (a spate river), and as such the water levels will fall and rise in harmony with the local rains. Each river has a waterfall in its course stopping the salmon’s ascent. Hrútafjarðará has 9 km of bank length and Síká 3 km. The rivers have 42 named pools and between 200 to 700 salmon per year are caught there.
From Réttarfoss (foss – waterfall) the river flows straight north through rocky gorges. The pools and holding places do not change in this part but the water level does. The salmon will concentrate in the deeper pools during a drought, and spread out when there is more water. The pools between the old main road bridge and the ocean course through gravel beds, and here the channels and holding places are at the whim of the water and the flow.
The gravelly river part also holds some trophy sized sea-run char. The lowest part is tidal, and during high tide that is the place to be. I love catching the arctic char whenever I can find them. The trophy char are every bit as strong as the salmon and fight hard. Síká is similar to the main river but smaller, with the stream coursing through a rocky gorge for most of its length. Síká joins the main river about 1 km from the sea. On this trip we did not fish the Síká because of low water.
Now for the fishing – it was just phenomenal! The river is gin-clear and is just perfect for the tiny flies that we like to use. When you swing those, the takes are exciting (beginners will experience rectal spasms). In addition to those we mostly used small unweighted black tubes. There were salmon in all parts of the river, and they were duly caught. There are maybe 1-2 pools where something heavy is useful.
In Iceland we call the first salmon a person catches his/her “María salmon,” and that salmon will stay with you forever. One such salmon was caught by master Gosi (his nickname – Pinocchio!). His father calls him that, and everybody falls in line (Johny Cash´s “A boy named Sue” comes to mind?), his real name is forgotten even by his kin, but his smile is infectious and well earned……..
…. before he realized that tradition dictates that he eats its adipose fin. This is an ironclad rule in Icelandic angling circles.
The pool Réttarstrengur is a long chute, and the salmon are stacked up under the hill in a long line. If they just stay put it is very hard to spot them, but they are there. Then they give the game away by jumping, and we duly note that.
This one moved in the current at the top of the pool, giving his position away, and Sibbi caught him.
The middle part pools are just incredible – the scenery – the solitude and the clear water makes for an unforgettable experience.
The pool Sírus is magnificent but did not produce this time. Note how Sibbi is using the rock to be invisible to the fish.
In the valley bottom the river courses through gravel, and the pools are constantly changing. Here in addition to the salmon you can find the arctic char. In the open you will have to contend with the wind, but in the gorges the wind is not a problem.
This river is just a wonderful place place, and I will always welcome the opportunity to return.
My first rounds
I graduated from med school 1977. My class was required to do internships in various departments to fulfill a certain standard (Europe adheres to this system). When the standard was met, we could embark on studies in our chosen fields. This system is not used here in the States. Here you graduate and go directly into a specialty without going through the main departments of medicine and surgery. Young doctors, in the European system, can sniff various branches of medicine, so it helps them to choose right. It is amazing how similar personalities aggregate in the same specialty. Think about the orthopedic surgeons you have met – and my case is proven. There are even some medical idiot savants who can tell the speciality of male doctors just by looking at their ties. I think the European system has the edge, as it exposes young doctors to more varied scenarios, but it takes a year, and time is expensive.
It is known that surgeons can be a handful. They can get a very bad case of the “God complex,” and the cardio-thoracic ones tend to be severely afflicted, with neurosurgeons, who are a close second. Society has some blame here, as witnessed by this rendering on a stamp of one of the pioneers of modern surgery, Professor Theodore Billroth.
This could easily be Jesus with his disciples, right? I, however, am the most humble surgeon that I know.
My first day as an intern was at the Department of Orthopedics, and I was eager to learn proper bedside manners and how to conduct the morning rounds. The Chief of Orthopedics was a big personality. He was a bit under average height, but compactly built, and a former gymnast. His hair was black, combed straight back – he wore black glasses. He was always very neatly attired, and brought his own white gowns to work, which were starched to perfection. I discovered quickly that the attending doctors at that time had two faces. First was the “inside face” for the medical and nursing staff, then there was the “outside face” for the ´patients. He was very charming and funny in his own way, and I grew to like him a lot. However, he could be brusque, and small talk was not his forte. Professionally, he had his opinions and he made them known. I never detected any meanness in him.
Well, I will get to the morning round now. We set off from the nursing station, in a big posse, The Chief, his attending ortopods, the head nurse, and finally I, trailing behind. We got through the first patients, and nothing special occurred, and I was picking up pointers, drinking it all in. Then we entered a room where yesterday´s patients were located. Lying there were four elderly ladies who had undergone hip replacement surgery the day before. The method used by the Chief was called the Charnley´s operation. Charnley pioneered the so-called plastic and steel concept. The part of the hip joint that is the pelvis was replaced with a steel cup that was lined by plastic. The other part of the hip joint, the femoral head, was summarily cut off by slicing through the femoral neck. This part was then replaced with a metallic prostheses with a ball part that fitted the plastic cup. So, all in all it is a considerable operation with a long incision and severing of a bone. The Chief bursts into the room and asks the first patient about her status. “Doctor, I am in pain” said the first lady, and this turned out to be the answer du jour for the four ladies operated on. The Chief did not answer the first lady, just moved on to the next lady, asks his question, does not respond, and moves on, etc. Wow, I was impressed by the compassion and tenderness of the spectacle. Now the Chief heads for the exit and turns around and says, “You ladies cannot have any pain in steel and plastic,” and he was gone. It was an absolutely correct statement, and I begin to think – I need be to toughen up some for this specialty.
At that time, we did not have any ultrasound, computed tomograms (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Understandably, diagnostics were really difficult. The hospitals had their fair share of people who had all kinds of complaints, mostly rooted in some neurosis or other. How to sort it all out was a challenge. We were doing all kinds of investigations and taking all kinds of tests on these patients. Patients lingered in their beds as this waltz was being performed. Next I became an intern at the department of Surgery at the City Hospital. Our hero is now a crusty general surgeon with a walrus mustache, a small beer belly, and outsized personality. He is one of the most charming persons I have ever met, and a superb conversationalist. Full of humor and mischief. We were discussing a difficult case where we were coming up empty in test after test. It was becoming apparent that there was malingering behind this. Come the morning rounds next day and we found ourselves at this patient´s bedside. Our surgeon recounts the negative results of all our testing. The patient is whining and whining and whining (you know, honestly, they can do that) and our hero was becoming irritated and fed up of all the b.s. going on. Finally, our patient laments “Then what is wrong with me doctor?” — to which he immediately answers “It is none of you damn business.” That response was truly one for the ages!
It could be very hard to discharge this type of a patient. However, we had an ace up our sleeve! You know when all else fails – we suggested the Air Encephalogram. That was done by tapping a little bit of cerebrospinal fluid via lumbar puncture, and replacing the fluid with air. The air rose into the skull, and then x-rays were done. This usually was a quite a painful procedure and the clientele was aware of this. This suggestion usually worked to get them check out of the hospital.
Did this behavior influence us young men and women at the beginning of our careers? Sure, it did up to a point. Society was changing fast at that time, and iconoclasts were hard at redefining professional roles in society, and pretty much the whole of society.
After that I found myself in an ER setting, fresh from graduating and probably pretty full of myself probably. I was asked to see an old man whom I had not encountered before. However, I immediately recognized his name (which is magnificent – but cannot be divulged). I had read about him in a contemporary novel describing the diverse and often colorful characters on our national scene years prior. He had led a tragic hard life of addiction, and was well known in the ER setting, and now he was there old, burnt out, with withdrawal symptoms, and generally in a bad way. Despite all that, he had a presence of serenity, and was still in possession of his dignity. His speech was immaculate, the voice was clear, and he was very courteous. It started badly. He, in his calm courteous voice listed the drugs he needed to counter the withdrawal symptoms – then he said he needed to be admitted to his usual ward. He had quite the experience with this situation. I was young, inexperienced, cocky and stupid, took umbrage at the patient telling me what to do. I delivered a mini rant of sorts for a while. He just looks at me with a sad expression on his face and experienced eyes, and he obviously pitied me. Jonas, he asks me “Are YOU really going to become one of those?” It was like being hit with a sledgehammer. Was I in jeopardy of becoming a stereotype? Well, I cannot have that. Since that day, I have tried to be just me. So, I sobered up and pretty much followed his plan of action, and off he went to his ward. What are the chances that you can “cure” such a person? Well, nonexistent really.
I am sure that all these patients and my interactions with them, and a host of colorful specialists shaped my personality. Sometimes it felt being like drowned by a great Kanagawa wave.
After my surgical training, on return to Iceland, I realized that I would need a hobby to stay sane. The constant barrage of sick patients, and the pressure cooker of the hospital environment is stressful, and I needed something to get away from all that. Then there were the meetings! My Lord, those were the worst of all. Imagine being trained to make decisions on the spot, and then acting on those decisions. Then you have to suffer through meetings where no decisions are ever taken. And to boot, the people at those meetings really did not want a decision, as it would risk scrapping some future meetings (coffee and danish is good remember). Is it any wonder that I choose the solitary and quite sport of fly fishing?
One thing I have learned on the way. Old doctors are the worst cynics you will ever encounter.
I fish with my friend Sibbi, whenever we can team up. He is about 20 years younger than I, and it is quite common that a fishing pair are of different ages. We have some things in common — we just love being outdoors and taking it all in. We suffer fools badly (remember, false modesty is no virtue), and are very old school, both of us. We first met at a lake in Iceland (Vífilsstaðavatn). This is a shallow lake that warms fast in the so called Icelandic spring. This is where the trout start to move the earliest in the Reykjavik area, and naturally that’s where you would find us. I was just starting out on this fishing journey of mine, and I really was a terrible caster and a worse catcher. At that time I was an attending surgeon at the City Hospital, and was working on my thesis. I guess my ego was at least extra-large and all that. We were fishing the Vífilstaðavatn one evening, and I was on call at the hospital. We were fishing with an old crusty trouter, Jón Petersen (the type who wades until water pours into his waders, then he is happy), my cellphone kept chiming, and I was barking orders. At that time Jón and I did not did not know each other, and he turns to me and says, “what is going on, either you are selling moonshine or delivering pizzas.” That cracked up this kid whom I had noticed there fishing. This led to our friendship. He laid out his line like a god (ok, let´s award a him demigod status at this juncture). He was catching char after char and the rest of us were – well, not. However, he was in a foul mood and cursing out his line. “This worthless piece of shit etc. etc.” “Well, Sibbi what is wrong with your line?” He replies “It is too effing short” (at 80 feet!). He was well into his backing at fourteen! The way I roll, I have no problem realizing that someone is way better at something than I am. However, I also know that if somebody can do something manually, chances are that I can copy it and master it. Just imagine the situation — the kid teaching the surgeon with an outsized ego. The kid, however, was willing to teach me in his own way. And to my credit I buckled down, swallowed my pride, observed and took his guidance. He did not teach by talking. I had to observe and figure out what was going on. Let´s assume it could be A or B. I then asked, “do you yada yada A?” He then looked at me with a touch of irritation, and then I knew it was B! He is not the kind that has found the Holy Grail and wants everyone to know about it. Little by little my fortunes improved, and I started catching, and my casting improved, too.
Sibbi is a marvelous angler (out fishes everyone all the time), and therefore his contemporaries just can’t stomach it. I suspect there is a healthy dose of testosterone poisoning and self-image problems in this situation, but I digress. I have no problem fishing with him because I turn it into a learning experience. By observing and “copy & paste,” I have turned into a decent angler, I like to believe, but I am still learning. In his teens and twenties, Sibbi was a Ghillie (guide) in our top rivers. Sometimes the merriment of anglers at the lodges went on into the morning with resultant late or non-starts. Imagine being a teenager with a whole blue ribbon salmon river for yourself to experiment with.
Once we guided together in a brown trout heaven called Laxá í Mývatnssveit (see my books). The group we guided there for a week there was headed by Mel Krieger and his fishing buddies from California. It was great fun, and in the kitchen we had one of our well known chefs, who incidentally was fond of pot, and his specialty was fish. He was a big bruiser who liked to cooke in shorts. It was very nice to visit the kitchen, and take in the aroma. It turned out that Mel did not eat fish at all. It was all sorted out though. Some of these Californian anglers were very good casters, and it irked them that the kid cast farther than they could. They brought out the shooting heads and special lines to no avail. It was a custom of Americans, at that time, to leave the their gear as an extra gratuity for their Ghillies, instead of lugging it all back home. I was not tipped since I was a surgeon and in their view did not need the money (although I did). However, I was awarded a brand new two piece GLX 9´eight-weight rod. I still have that rod, and fish with it often, and it is still every bit as good as the new rods being touted today. It has lasted much longer than money would have!
We have fished lots of lakes and rivers together, and sometimes we do not catch anything. However, we never grumble or get into a foul mood because of that. I have been in the company of countless anglers that become very upset when the going is tough, and I can not stand that attitude. The unpleasant truth is that we sometimes do not have the skills needed for a certain situation. Assume we are in a river, and the first day we catch nothing, and nobody else does either. “There are no fish here” …….. and on and on they go. The day after the fish start hitting and god is in his heaven. Do they think that the fish went somewhere on vacation – to Tenerife maybe? To return 24 hours later? The fish are always there, because they live there – if you do not catch them it is because your skills are lacking in that situation.
I often hear anglers around us comment something like this about Sibbi “He just has some thunder-stick rod.” “He is just so diligent.” “He is just lucky.” “Lady fortune has just touched him” – and on and on. All of it is utter fish crap. I have reflected on this self-deception, which it essentially is, and I think anglers just can not admit that their skills are lacking. Thus, we are back to the testosterone and frail self-image speculation (we sorely need more female anglers). If you can not judge your abilities correctly, chances are that you will have trouble improving.
The marginal gains
This has been a lengthy rumination to get me to the marginal gains and the way Sibbi does it.
Let´s start with the fly. Certain fisheries seem to favor certain types of flies. By talking to other anglers and based on one’s own experience, the “right” type of fly is tied on from the beginning. There are thousands of flies but only a limited number of types of flies. We do not carry a lot of flies, we just cover the types. Furthermore, Sibbi gets that fly to the depth where we think the fish are.
The leader Sibbi uses is the thinnest he can get away with, for instance, 10-pound or even 5-pound for salmon. Leader to fly-line connection is the least bulky for a nail knot connection. Tapered leaders are expensive (especially in Iceland), so he goes with a straight level tippet. Dry fly opportunities seldom present themselves in Iceland so he uses stiff tippet material. This results in the leader landing straight (fly line too), and the fly is fishing from the moment it is in the water. He also uses longer leaders than customary. When your casting improves, you can turn over longer leaders.
Sibbi never over-lines his rods, rather he under-lines them. Good casters do this frequently – the head might be a tad light but by carrying more running line (more overhang) the rods load well. Floaters are his preferred lines but he sometimes uses floaters with a clear intermediate section if he wants the fly deeper. He uses fly lines with “normal” weight distribution (the head has the same diameter throughout), but opts for the longer heads. The backing is totally immaterial.
Now for the rod. Typically he uses lighter rods than the average angler, but often favors ten feet rods. Thus, he can cast a bit farther, hence stand farther away from the pools, which is important. He is into the so called fast action rods, but prefers rods that will bend in the middle. Fast, but no broomsticks. Most of his rods are old Loomis rods. His casting is superb, both length and accuracy, because he has practiced, and taken the time to develop such a cast. There is no or absolutely minimal false casting. The fly is placed with laser loops at the spot he thinks is the right one, then it swings across. One back cast and the fly is where it is supposed to be again, and everything is straight and fishing from the start. Basically, his fly is in the water (that´s where the fish they are) as much as possible. He can do this with any decent fly rod but he just likes the “feel” of certain rods. All good casters can use any rod, but they choose their rods based on “feel,” which is purely subjective.
Its importance has been vastly overblown. For most trout and grilse fishing you do not need an expensive reel. Any trout reel will do, and most trouters never see their backing. I have seen him catch countless salmon with a five-weight rod and a simple trout fly reel. However, if you connect with a 20 pound plus salmon in a foul mood (you very rarely do), you need something better. Last trip he connected with a salmon in that class, and the reel was a simple trout reel. It is no more, because it spun so fast that the lubricant overheated and it seized up – goodbye salmon.
Reading the water
I have dealt with that subject for lakes fishing
and here is the link to stream fishing
When all of this is added together it becomes crystal clear why he is so successful at angling. He gains an advantage at every link in the system and when all is added up, it translates into a huge advantage in the end. Most anglers are too lazy or complacent to analyze themselves and do not hone their casting. And thus they are doomed to mediocrity.
What is the single most important item? – The cast
If I were to pick just one component of all these, I would absolutely pick the casting. The other ones are really rather simple, but good casting only comes from practice. It kills me when I see anglers in costly salmon rivers, and they have no cast or just terrible casts. This is also the case here where I live, most fly slingers can not handle the wind when fishing the salt.
“You can observe a lot just by watching” – Yogi Berra
is a long glacial river running north that has been dammed for hydroelectric power. That turned the river into a major salmon river. The resident salmon is very compact, and has a big tail. I like to smoke the few salmon I harvest. The gentleman running the smoking business can easily peg the salmon from Blanda because of those characteristics. The dam was constructed, and the river was directed into a new channel to the intake of the power plant. This picture explains it neatly.
The dam was built in a good area for a reservoir. The Blanda Reservoir has a live storage capacity of 412 Gl and is the third-largest lake in Iceland. The water is diverted through diversion canals and lakes on a 25 km long route to the station’s intake reservoir. From the intake reservoir, water runs through a 1300 m long canal to the station’s intake, where it is diverted to the turbines in the powerhouse. The drop to the turbines from the harnessed head is 287 m. From the turbines, the water is lead through a 1700 m tailrace tunnel back into the river channel.
During summer, when water is stored in the reservoir (the silt accumulates there), the glacial part of Blanda became much clearer and fishable, and thus becomes a major addition to our to our salmon river menu. Blanda IV now is a clear water river that forms as rivulet fed stream. The surrounding landscape is igneous rock and volcanic soil. Water just disappears into the ground when it rains, and reappears as rivulets that that little by little form the river, which is clear as gin. I think this type of a river in Scotland is called a spate river, which has no fixed flow. Rain will make it grow, and then the surface falls again. And during long periods of drought the surface is very low. Now you will have big deep pools here and there, and the water just trickles between them. If you see the river like that it is hard to understand how the big fish got into the pools. However, when the water fills the reservoir, glacial water will make fishing impossible in all the Blanda beats.
Just a glance of the map will tell you that this is going to be a river in a deep V valley. This cannot be a river in an U-shaped valley. The giveaway is its relative straight course, where it has cut a gorge into the rock formations.
These two pictures give a good idea how steep and deep the gorge is. These next pictures tell the story.
However, this is a very majestic place. The pools are exquisite in the rugged barren landscape.
The lowest pools are easily accessible but for the rest of the river one needs to be in shape. Probably the best/most enjoyable way to fish this river is to drop the angler/anglers at the very top pool Rugludalshylur. From the road to this pool there is a half an hour walk. Then it is possible to hike down river and fish the various pools en route to civilization.
Skúli and Rossi opted for the lowest pools only and enjoyed their time with the beer. The cars you need are definitely of the SUV persuasion.
This one is great for the job. It is built like a tank and can get you anywhere. The only thing that does not currently work is the air conditioning. Do not worry the country is air conditioned. Notice how we transport the rods. Suction cups fasten the rod holders securely to the car.
Now for the fishing – it was great. The pools are small, and the river is clear. Stay away from the water´s edge and lengthen your cast instead. We like to stay 15-20 feet from the pool edges. Of course our lines will sometimes be on the ground, but we counteract that by using a bit longer rods. Sibbi was using a ten footer #7, and I was using a eleven footer #5 that can double as a two handed rod. Anything big has no place in this part of Blanda. We start by using the small flies and
if that does not elicit a response we might try small light tubes. When all else fails, out comes the Sunray Shadow tube, and as a rule it will get the salmon moving. Only once did I throw a slightly weighted tube. Be advised – the rocks in this river are treacherously slippery. I had my wading boots fitted out with metal studs and I slipped at least 3 times. I have no idea why the stones are so damn slippery but trust me they are. For the usual fishing porn – see below.
Interesting linksHere are some interesting links for you! Enjoy your stay :)
- Beginners guide to flyfishing
- Booking and Contact
- Books by Jonas
- CCI – ?
- Laxá í Þingeyjarsýslu
- Salt Water fly Fishing
- The wind
- 1. Chapter – Hooks
- Backing to reel and fly line
- Dry flies
- Floating lines
- Fly fishing in lakes
- 2. Chapter – Flies
- Fly fishing streams
- Leader to fly line and tippet
- Salmon flies
- Sinking lines
- Wet flies
- 3. Chapter – Flies for fresh – and salt water
- Flies for the salt
- Fly fishing the salt
- Intermediate lines
- Leader/tippet to fly
- 4. Chapter – Leaders and tippet
- 5. Chapter – Knots
- 6. Chapter – Fly lines and backing
- 7. Chapter Reels
- 8. Chapter – Rods
- 9. Chapter – Fishing in streams, lakes and salt
- 10. Chapter – The cast