Neskirkja í Aðaldal

The farewell portrait and a death certificate

“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.

Neskirkja í Aðaldal

Neskirkja í Aðaldal

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.

Dánarvottorð

Dánarvottorð – Death certificate

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

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.

Réttarfoss - Salmon can not navigate this one

Réttarfoss – Salmon cannot navigate this one

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.

Trophy arctic char

Trophy arctic char – from the lower part

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.

#14 - #16 Salmon flies that work

#14 – #16 Salmon flies that work

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.

Gosi with his first salmon

Gosi with his first salmon

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……..

Gosi with his first salmon

Gosi with his first salmon

…. before he realized that tradition dictates that he eats its adipose fin. This is an ironclad rule in Icelandic angling circles.

Réttarstrengur - upper part

Réttarstrengur – upper part

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.

Salmon - upper part

Salmon – upper part

This one moved in the current at the top of the pool, giving his position away, and Sibbi caught him.

From the middle part

From the middle part

From the middle part

From the middle part

From the middle part

From the middle part

Fish on - from the middle part

Fish on – from the middle part (broke off)

Salmon - from the middle part

Salmon – from the middle part

Fish on - from the middle part

Fish on – from the middle part

The middle part pools are just incredible – the scenery – the solitude and the clear water makes for an unforgettable experience.

Sibbi fishing the Sírus pool

Sibbi fishing the Sírus pool

The pool Sírus is magnificent but did not produce this time. Note how Sibbi is using the rock to be invisible to the fish.

The flat gravelly part from the lodge

The flat gravelly part from the lodge

Fish on - lower part

Fish on – lower part

Salmon - lower part

Salmon – lower part

Lowest part - gravel bed

Lowest part – gravel bed

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.

 

“It is none of your damn business!” — And a reason for fly fishing

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.

Theodor Billroth

Theodor 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.

Hip replacement

Hip replacement – painless!

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.

Charnley´s hip prostheses

Charnley´s hip prostheses

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.

The Kanagawa wave

The Kanagawa wave

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.

Blanda IV

Blanda –

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.

Blanda IV and how it became gin clear

Blanda IV and how it became gin clear

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.

Where the glacial and clear water meet

Where the glacial and clear water meet

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.

Blanda IV fishing map

Blanda IV fishing map

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.

Blanda IV gorge

Blanda IV gorge

A lady at the center of previous picture

A lady at the center of previous picture. She is trying to spot salmon in the pool below.

These two pictures give a good idea how steep and deep the gorge is. These next pictures tell the story.

To get to truck you cross a river

To get to the truck you cross a river

The crossing

The crossing

On my way

On my way

Beer earned?

Beer earned?

No son, you go down there

No son, you go down there

 

However, this is a very majestic place. The pools are exquisite in the rugged barren landscape.

 

The pool Krókur high on the mountain

The pool Krókur high on the mountain

The pool Breiðan

The pool Breiðan

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.

The friends Skúli and Rossi enjoying a break

My friends Skúli and Rossi enjoying a break

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.

A glorified tackle box

A glorified tackle box

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

#14 - #16 Salmon flies that work

#14 – #16 Salmon flies that work

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.

https://vimeo.com/233997651

https://vimeo.com/234058516

A beautiful vista

Eystri Rangá

My fishing buddy Sibbi and I fished three different salmon rivers this summer. This post is about the first one, Eystri Rangá (Eastern Rangá (á = river). There are two Rangás, of which the eastern is smaller, with a steady flow of 30 cubic meters per second. It is mainly a spring-fed river. It holds salmon for about 22 km. Average early catch is around 4600 salmon with a generous portion of big fish. There are 9 beats with two rods, and you spend six hours on each beat. Anglers stay at a full-service lodge overlooking the river. There are 18 en-suite rooms. Guide service is provided and there is one guide per two rods on each beat.

http://www.ranga.is/veidisvaedi/eystri-ranga/upplysingar/

http://www.angling.is/en/waters/6369/

The East Rangá is about a one and a half hours drive from Reykjavik. It is a medium-size river flowing on the alluvial plain of Suðurland (South).  The upper river is 15 to 25 m wide, broadening to 30 to 45 m on the lower beats. The beats are easily accessible by car (SUVs are better but no monster trucks are needed), and no strenuous hiking is necessary. There are no major rapids or waterfalls along it´s course, but the flow is quite swift and begs for swinging the fly. The bottom is good, sand or earth, with a few rocky areas. However, wading above knee level made me quite aware of the swift current.

The river at the top is flanked by a range of low, grassy hills. The river meanders over Beats 7 and 6 on the alluvial plain. Lower down on Beats 4 and 3 there are similarities to Tierra del Fuego, because of the grassland and winds!

This river is best suited to two-handed rods from (13 to 15´), with an intermediate or sink-tip # 8 to 10. Big flies and tubes seem to work best here. The fish are often deep, and the river is cold.

http://www.lax-a.net/iceland/salmon-fishing/salmon-full-service/east-ranga-river/

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

It was not a “natural” salmon habitat because of the cold water in it. The salmon were not able to spawn there in any numbers. There were at one time some Seatrout around (anadromous brown trout), but now they are mostly gone. The river was turned into a salmon river by growing salmon to the smolt stage. Then the smolt are released into the river. They will migrate to the estuary, and then into the ocean to reach sexual maturity, and return a year or two later to spawn.

Rangárvað (#84)

Rangárvað (#84 refers to the # on the fishing chart) – cast to the other bank.

On a good day the vistas are great with the infamous volcano Hekla, and the ill reputed Eyjafjalla glacier, of flight delay fame, the main points.

Hofteigsbreiða efri (#57, Hekla the volcano at center)

Hofteigsbreiða efri (#57, Hekla the volcano at center)

Big and broad (the glacier at right edge is Eyjafjallajökull)

Big and broad (the glacier at the right edge is Eyjafjallajökull)

The current is rather heav,y and I wade up to my knees if I have to, but not more. By and large anglers wade far too much, and get  too close to the fish. Practicing casting before the trip, especially with an instructor, will increase your catch rate much more than wading.  This river is best fished with a two hander. The long two handed rods are known in Iceland, but mostly for overhead casts by the natives (well, the backcast is usually not a problem). Then they were used for steering earthworms into the gullets of salmon. I know it sounds terrible. but it is true. However, foreigners have always used the traditional Spey techniques with their two handers. It is a bit curious how the Spey casts faded from memory in Iceland because farmers (for instance in Aðaldalur in North Iceland) in the early 19oos  were using long two handed rods with Spey technique.  I hope Icelandic anglers are again catching on and will start using the two handed rod and maximize their advantage. Spey techniques can not be beat in close cramped situations with limited or no back cast available.

I have taken some two handed rod lessons here in Florida from the only certified two handed instructor in the whole state, Leslie Holmes ( http://leslieholmesflyfishing.com ), and have made some progress I think. At any rate I was rewarded with a beautiful salmon on Rangárvað (#84). I was fishing river left, and the fly was on the dangle.  Then snap T placing the anchor upstream of me, and the subsequent roll casts to the opposite bank. The casts were working, and during a swing of a Snaelda everything just stopped, and it was on. First salmon I catch Spey casting. By convention you face downstream, and if the river is on your right you are on river left and vice versa. “Fly is on the dangle”  means the fly is directly downstream of you close to your bank.

Salmon from Rangárvaði

Salmon from Rangárvað

The look on my face holding the salmon is rather constipated (was not), but I can assure you I was very happy, as this picture proves.

Full of high hopes

Happy

There are some places where the back cast is limited. Those are, of course, best worked using the traditional Spey casts. A case in point is the dark steep hill in the picture below. It begs for roll casts.

Dýjanesstrengur og -breiða (#65,64)

Dýjanesstrengur og -breiða (#65,64)

Langhylur (#80)

Langhylur (#80) The bank is a problem for overhead casting but no problem with a roll cast.

There are some very deep pools there, and in some places a sinking tip is good to have. Below I tried a Skagit set-up, and down it went, but the salmon were not interested.

Dýjanesbreiða (#64)

Dýjanesbreiða (#64)

 

We fished beat seven, six, five and four. To fish all the beats you would spend nine days there. These beats had some very varied flow patterns, calling for different approches.  We mostly fished these beats by the time honored tradition of swinging our flies. This means that one casts over to the opposite bank (or the opposite edge of a productive channel) and then the current grabs and swings the fly line and fly across to our bank. Sometimes we strip the fly a bit and experiment with the retrieve. We do not use microflies (#14-#16) here. This seems to be the river for tubes, and big is good. This was my first time fishing Eystri Rangá, so this should be read with that in mind. I will definitely return to this river given an opportunity. The days we were there the fishing was below average, but we managed to raise or catch salmon in every other pool we tried.

 

Rangá - Hekla looming in the background

Salmon fishing and ragtime snoring

My plan was to write about my recent salmon fishing trip in Iceland, but I got stuck on salmon trivia. I also feel that I should first explain briefly how this industry is set up in Iceland. I need to get that off my chest first, as a prequel to the fishing trips.

The Atlantic salmon is a truly magnificent creature. Now that is a boring sentence! – But to me it really is so.  Just to remind the reader of their life cycle I will undertake to summarize the main points.

Salmon before release - Eystri Rangá

Salmon before release – Eystri Rangá

To reach the river, in which it was born to spawn, the salmon faces long odds indeed. The life cycle is from a fertilized egg to the Alevin stage where the fish consume the nutrients of their yolk sac. Then they grow into a form called Parr (those small fish will take small flies). When the time comes for them to venture into the ocean (at 2-8 years) they enter the Smolt stage. The Smolt adapt to the saline environment of the ocean in the estuaries.

http://www.unm.edu/~toolson/salmon_osmoregulation.html

The salt excretion from the seawater poses a new problem for them, which they solve by excreting the salt load through their gills. When the fish returns to sweet water the process must be reversed.  Now they can venture into the ocean to grow and reach reproductive size. They are eaten by other predators at all levels of their stages, and very few will ever reach sexual maturity and return to their river of origin. Now the great miracle unfolds. They will unfailingly return to that river. Either after one year in the ocean (these fish are called grilse in the UK) or after 2 years (those are the salmon). As a rule of thumb, the one-year fish will be less than ten pounds and the two-year fish will be more. The salmon must now adapt to fresh water physiology in the estuaries, and still they face being devoured by seals, for instance, lurking at river mouths. The seals in the estuaries earn the wrath of the river owners who will take appropriate measures. After the salmon are in the river they will not eat at all and would vacuum up all their young ones if they did, and now are fueled by the fat they accumulated in the ocean. Those who survive will travel up the river and take up residence in some pool or run that they like. Freshly run salmon are silvery and will have some sea lice attached, but those will fall off after 24 hours in the river. Then their colors become darker as they wait for the fall and spawning. Every year there will be an influx of grilse (one year in salt) and salmon (two year in salt) to spawn. This is probably natures hedge to ensure against catastrophes. Nature is sneaky, and some males will not go to sea, but remain and reach sexual maturity. Females need more energy to produce the roe, I suppose. The big males and females will go at it in the fall. The dwarf males wait behind a rock, and will snatch any opportunity at fertilization.

Mountain pool

Mountain pool

It is a testament to the cynical nature of sapiens that now is the time we fish choose tofor them. Why do I do it? For me the thrill is in the “takes” or “strikes.” To swing a small fly near the surface and see the salmon chasing it and finally turn on it in an explosion of power and speed with water splashing is just breathtaking. I really cannot describe this moment or do it justice but it is an incredible moment and it is addictive. The general rule in Iceland is to release all salmon, but keeping a few grilse is allowed. The zeitgeist is moving towards releasing all salmon, and anglers as naturalists and conservationists will not be taken seriously if they keep killing the fish they love. It certainly makes no sense economically to fish for them to obtain food. Homo Islandicus is a peculiar beast, and the subject of catch and release causes more heated exchanges than any other subject on the fishing blogs, some of which are deplorable. I am convinced that in time all salmon caught in Iceland should and must be released.

Eystri Rangá

Eystri Rangá

On top of the takes the salmon rivers are beautiful and some of their pools one would never see if not through the angling. The surrounding scenery can be a bonus, and these rivers are in varied locations and come in different sizes.

Pool at the headwaters

Pool at the headwaters

Icelandic rivers are the property of the farms through which they run. The farmers form a syndicate around a river. Then the river banks are divided into “beats” to which a rod is assigned. The number of rods varies depending on the size of the river and on its productivity. One needs to buy a rod license for the rivers well ahead of time. If you do not possess a rod license, then it is ” no cigar.”  Below is an example of a “beat” map (svæði). Salmon angling in estuaries is illegal so there is no public access to salmon waters anywhere in Iceland.

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

Beats 4, 5, 6, 7 Eystri Rangá

The salmon culture in Iceland was probably influenced the most by upper crust Brits fishing the rivers starting late eighteen hundred and up to the second world war. After the second world war the anglers came from all over the world. The season is 90 days for each river with different starting days. The best rivers are run with “hotels,” but some are self-catered – understandably the meager ones. The hotels are best described as luxury fishing camps. Each rod gets a private room with two beds and a bathroom. It is customary for two fellow anglers to share a rod. The daily cycle when salmon fishing runs like this: The morning starts with breakfast, and continental it is not. You need your fat and protein to battle the fish. Now we start fishing at 7 AM and fish for solid six hours. At midday, there will be a two-hour break during which there is a shut eye and lunch because now we are getting hungry. At 3 PM we go at it again and fish for another six hours or until 9 PM. At 10pm there will be a three-course dinner with aperitifs and digestives. When we finally fall into our beds after midnight we are just whipped, yet are slated to be up again at 5-6 AM. The average salmon angler is usually big with thick torso and resonant chest. You might think that we sleep soundly after such an ordeal. We do not! Now it is time for the international ensemble of snoring virtuosos. You despair – you must sleep some – but alas, no quarter is given. There is the Austrian going strong, quite melodious, kinsman to Mozart. The Germans go with resounding tones, think Beethoven. Then there is the skirl of the Scots. You get the picture. It is a cacophony of immense quality. Earplugs are an absolute must.

When my fishing buddy shakes me awake next morning, he greets me with – “my god – you snore like a Brazilian saw mill”.

It truly takes a strong constitution to be a salmon angler.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_salmon

 

Lake Thingvellir (DF)

Fishing between Europe and America – Þingvallavatn (Lake Thingvellir)

The fishing season in subarctic Iceland is relatively short. The fishing rhythm of the year was to start tying after new year brooding in the dark waiting for the light and return of life. I tied my flies and fantasized about the coming season getting ready for the spring that might be there or not. In the north spring is not set to any date at all. When the migratory birds return spring is official. Certain birds have special meaning for us and the return of the Lóa (Golden Plover) will merit first mention during the evening news irrespective of what is going on in the world. Hearing the Plover calling first time each spring can bring on blurry vision in the most hardened of fly slingers. The return of the Kría (Arctic Tern) is also well received since now we can be fairly certain the there will not be night frosts until next fall. The third important migrant for me is the Hrossagaukur (Galinago galinageo – Snipe). When the male dives in the air patrolling his territory he sounds like a neighing horse (hence the name – hrossagaukur literally horse cuckoo). That this small bird can produce this remarkable sound fascinates me and it is always a joyous sound out in the fields whenever (If you have experienced the silence in the countryside following their departure you can imagine the joy of hearing the birds anew next spring).

Golden Plover

Golden Plover the harbinger of spring (DF)

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern bringing food to the nest (DF)

Then when life returned off you went and kept going as long into the fall as possible. The summers demand a sub-manic phase and sometimes I fished until next morning (the lights were on right?). This fix barely sustained me until next tying season rolled around. Within Reykjavik there are accommodatingly two trout lakes. One of them is very shallow Vífilsstaðavatn and therefore warms fast in the sunshine so aquatic critters start moving and the trout start feeding and cruising. This can happen in late March to April. Anglers are there pronto when the weather warms up (above freezing is good). Then there is a bigger lake called Elliðavatn that opens first of May holding both arctic char and brown  trout. Both these lakes serve to steady you after the long dark winter and it feels great to start there and get your cast and gear in order and the fly boxes sorted (typically you invent a new brilliant system each spring that spectacularly breaks down during the season so a new one is needed). These lakes are such treasures within the city and serve to keep one sane and lakes like that can be found many places around Iceland.

Lake Thingvellir

View from the north end of the lake towards south (DF)

Then there is the real McCoy Þingvallavatn (Lake Thingvellir) that is an unique place and a World Heritage Site since 2004. It is Iceland’s  biggest lake 32 square miles and 367 feet deep and dips below sea level. The rivers that flow into this lake are small and the biggest part of its catchment water is through cold springs in the lake bed (90% estimated). The spring water is gin clear as is the lake. The runoff river is Efra Sog (3800 cubic feet per second) and lower down called Neðra Sog in itself a Salmon river but three waterfalls  there (now with hydroelectric plants) can not be navigated by the salmonoids. The lake is ringed by some volcanic mountains of which the shield volcano Skjaldbreidur is the most distinctive. The area is one of majestic barren beauty year round. Needless to state that it can be bitterly cold there in the spring and the water temperature is just around 39F. We fish from outcroppings in the lava and wade out into the water on submerged lava ridges. You can bet the relief when neoprene waders replaced the rubber ones. Goretex waders are a bad idea any time of the year. Cold water can be quite disfiguring and downright scary! The other option is by belly boats. I have no experience of fishing the lake from a boat.

Skjaldbreidur

The shield volcano Skjaldbreiður (DF)

Þingvellir

Þingvellir view over the national park area (DF)

The lake is 40 minutes drive from Reykjavik and that is where we were headed all the time the other ones just warm ups. This lake is absolutely one of a kind. The lake is in a graben exactly where the Eurasian tectonic plate is separating from the American tectonic plate. This is the place where you can see the earth being torn apart having one leg in Eurasia and the other in America! The surroundings are mostly lava that is very porous. The rain just disappears into the lava fields and then at the interfaces of lava layers it seeps forward towards the lake. It takes the water welling up in the cold springs in the lake bed hundreds of years to percolate through the lava layers. This water is clean, clear and soft with very little calcium and it has a steady temperature of just under 37-38F year round and it is potable.

Nikulasargja

Nikulásargjá one of the rifts at Þingvellir (DF)

The lake holds 4 morphs of Arctic Char that have evolved there in about 10.000 years from a single strain. The fish became landlocked there post last ice age. In the spring we were mainly fishing for a strain that specializes in water snails on the lake bottom in the littoral areas (Kuðungableikja or Bobbableikja). For that we use intermediate lines and try to stay just above the lake bottom that is lava. Understandably we snag and lose our flies often and as the saying goes “they strike just before you snag” is an apt one. The flies we use are simple bead heads or just something black and round like the water snails. Middle of summer the smaller trout called Murta will appear in huge numbers and now is the time to take kids fishing. They love catching these fish and we usually rig them up with a float and the fly 3 feet away. It takes time to connect with this lake and it took me many a fishless trip to figure it out and start to catch there regularly.

Arctic Char caught by Perla Sol

Arctic Char caught by Perla Sol

The Arctic Char spawns in the fall when the temperature falls. In Þingvallavatn (Lake Thingvellir) the temperature is steady year round in the cold springs just at 37F.  Thus the Char there will spawn much earlier than usual. Huge schools of spawning fish can be seen from land and sometimes it  looks like the fish are swimming towards a cave opening to disappear but in reality they are just disappearing into a ball of fish giving this illusion. The color of these fish is black from above and hard to see against a black lava bottom. The telltale sign is the white edge on the pectoral fins so it looks like white V from above. From the side these fish are sporting stunning colors. These lake holds so much fish that it is ok to to harvest on or two as they are delicious.

Arctic Char

Arctic char with characteristic white stripes on its fins

The river flowing out of the lake southward is Efra Sog. This was the major spawning area of the biggest strain of the Brown Trout. The flow of the river and the Black Fly larvae there were optimal for the fish (Curiously Black Flies in Iceland are North American whereas the Midges or Gnat are European. There are no skeeters in Iceland). The absolute lurkers were caught there. In 1959 a hydroelectric damn was built at the outlet of the lake and the water routed through Dráttarhlíð to Úlfljótsvan to power Steingrímsstöð. There was an accident and a damn gave way and the resultant flood destroyed the gravel beds used for these fish for spawning. This stock collapsed and has not recovered to my knowledge. However the brown trout that by and large disappeared from our catches has reappeared and spawning occurs in small feeder rivers to the lake and in the autumn these fish are tagged and studied. It is seriously bad karma to to kill these fish.

Sibbi with brown trout

Ice age strain of brown trout caught by Sibbi

This is a strain of brown trout that has become landlocked after the rise of the earths crust post ice age. They are believed to have come the British Isles following the rising land. These brown trout are sea going and called Seatrout in the UK in America they are not widely known but the the sea run rainbows are called Stealhead. They have the remarkable characteristic that after gaining reproductive age they will spawn every other year and they will grow the off year. These fish can become very big because there is an abundance of food in the lake.

Iceage strain of brown trout caught by Sibbi

Ice age strain of brown trout caught by Sibbi

Sibbi is my fishing buddy and we have fished the lake countless times solo and together. This was the routine in the evening before. “You free tomorrow morning”? “Yup”. “How is the weather”? “Let´s check the weather station at Þingvellir. Not to bad 39F and calm”.  Then we each packed rods, neoprene waders and flies and all the paraphernalia. We like fast rods (GLX Loomis) but not noddles and broomsticks. You become excited about the trip and we were certain that we are going to catch a good fish. We thought about the flies which is not necessary at all cause they are not the deciding factor there. We rose early and trembled with anticipation. We usually left Reykjavik early when the night revelers and drunk drivers were returning home from their escapades. One managed to sideswipe us and clipped our side mirror but we shrugged that off and continued undeterred. Then when we arrive there calm descends upon us we move slowly and we listen and we look. There were mornings there when no birds could be heard working and singing. You know the feeling, everything is just dead. To be honest we really do not get upset at all. If this was the case we did not even assemble our gear to go fishing. We know it is no use when nothing is moving. We sit and take in the scenery shoot the breeze a bit. Not casting or catching does not bug us. Angling has nothing to do with success. We just went with the mood of nature accepted it and moved on. We were just as happy with this outcome as with a “fishy” one. Then we return home but stop at the National Park shop and have a hot dog.

Pictures marked DF are my Wife’s Drífa Freysdóttir

Websites pertaining to Þingvellir

Research – Icelandic spoken in this video but the Brown Trout does not mind and neither should you

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8F3uNXPipus

Silfra is a diving site famous for its clear water

https://www.dive.is/dive-sites/silfra/

The national park website

http://www.thingvellir.is/english.aspx

Sibbi with a trout

https://vimeo.com/42804675

Our favorite rods

http://www.gloomis.com