Hook & Barrel
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fishingin in iceland

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Grab Your Fly Rod & Adventure To The Land Of Fire & Ice

For me, Iceland poses a question. A challenge.

How do you fit in here, and why are you on my shores?

I’ve never yet set foot on the Land of Fire and Ice, as the island country is so aptly nicknamed, so I have no idea yet how I fit into the rugged landscape. As to why I’m stepping off a plane, Pelican case and rods in tow, well, that I do have an answer to.

I’m here to chase sea-run brown trout. (A fact that the immigration agent finds fascinating as he wishes me good luck with a warm smile and a stamp in my passport.)

fly fishing for sea trout in iceland
Anglers can also expect to meet a few of Iceland’s furry residents as they fish throughout the week. Don’t worry; they’re chill.

Sea-run brown trout, often simply—and lovingly—called sea trout, come with their own program. Anglers travel to the far corners of the world to seek them out; perhaps the most famous sea trout fisheries are here in Iceland and in Tierra del Fuego. The sought-after sportfish are what’s called an anadromous salmonid. “Anadromous” refers to fish that migrate from freshwater rivers to the ocean and then return each season back to their natal streams to spawn. In layman’s terms, “salmonid” is the salmon family of fish, including salmon, trout, char, grayling, and freshwater whitefish.

These trout migrate from freshwater to saltwater—back and forth—every year. It’s no small feat, especially considering the extremely harsh conditions of the northern Atlantic, home to a healthy population of toothy predators that love to snack on fatty trout. It’s strange to hold one of these fish and think of the miles it has journeyed, what it has seen out there in the ocean depths surrounding Iceland, and what makes it come back and then journey away again every year. Some of these fish have likely logged more mileage than many American adults have. 

Iceland, Where You Fish With Vikings

And so, I’ve come to Iceland to explore its sea trout fishing, focused around a newly-premiered sea trout lodge on the island’s southern coastline. Fish Partner, Iceland’s leading fly-fishing outfitter, runs a successful trout and char program at their Highlands Lodge in the summer. Last season they introduced Battle Hill Lodge, a program dedicated to sea-run brown trout fishing. 

The lodge itself is a converted farmhouse nestled on the banks of the Fossalar River, overlooking a dramatic lava field and Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. “Orrustuhóll,” which translates to “The Battle Hill,” is a small hill resting nearby, where a famed 10th-century Icelandic Viking chieftain named Hróars Tungugoði was killed. Between looming Vatnajökull and the Viking history, it’s easy to imagine the landscape really hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries.

fly fishing for sea trout in iceland

Vikings still roam these lands, only now they are carrying high-end Spey rods and fishing nets instead of spears and shields.

I’m lucky enough to fish with one of them. Kristján Páll Rafnsson founded Fish Partner in 2013, and it’s easy to envision that it’s his energy and enthusiasm that have made the business such a success a decade later. Kristján’s passionate about fly-fishing, conservation, sea trout, Iceland in general, and—as a wild card—salsa dancing. Charismatic and one hell of an angler, he’s the perfect ambassador for sea trout fishing. There’s no weather too bad, no wind too strong, no rain too damp to keep Kristján off the water.

It’s a very Icelandic way of being, I soon learn. Kristján and his core team work hard to keep the bustling business on track, but they fish as hard as they work. I get to spend an afternoon fishing the Tungufljót River with Head Guide/Fish Partner Co-Owner Sindri Hlíðar Jónsson and Sales Manager (plus fly tyer extraordinaire) Eiður Kristjánsson early on in my visit, and it’s readily clear the team doesn’t just run a destination fly-fishing program—they take their own fishing seriously. Bright overhead sunshine makes for tough fishing on our shared day, but with what seems to be the typical Icelandic charm the guys laugh it off and we make the most of it.

Enjoy Fine Food, Formidability & Fantastic Fishing

An unexpected—and very welcome—dash of international flair comes in the form of Chef and Lodge Host Fabi Trochine and Hernan Bolletta (lodge staff, all-around handyman, and a professional musician), a pair of charismatic Argentines who take care of lodge life with ineffable charm and warmth. The pair keep things running smoothly behind the scenes, ensuring anglers are content, cozy, and made to feel at home. Whatever the day’s weather conditions, the return to the lodge to a hot, hearty dinner and relaxation is welcome, thanks to their skills.

icelandic cuisine

The value of good food isn’t to be underestimated in a place like this. Anglers need to be well-fed and ready to face a variety of weather and fishing conditions. One day may be sunny and mild, while the next might bring gale-force winds and heavy rain. I’m treated to both during my time in Iceland, and we fish through all of it. Life lesson: Just layer up and go; don’t be tempted to sit at the lodge and “wait for the weather.” Life’s too short to just sit around, and around the world over the years I’ve caught some of my best fish in some of the worst conditions.

The fisheries of Battle Hill are diverse: On any given day anglers could be hiking up canyons to fish small, clear rivers underneath fairytale waterfalls, plying broad river bends that cut through farmland, or cruising through grassy pastures looking for promising pools. My favorite beat quickly becomes the black sands of the Vatnamót River, accessed by driving across a stark black landscape that brings to mind the land of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Vatnamót means “River Junction” in Icelandic, and the place is aptly named: It’s where the Fossaálar, Geirlandsá, and Hörgsá rivers meet the mighty Skaftá. 

The river is so broad here it looks like an estuary; a wide, whirling mass of glacial and river water combining, churning together to create an incredible sea trout habitat. We look for seams where the greenish glacial water meets the clearer river water and begin Spey casting, letting the flies swing through promising water. The evening is extremely windy, cold, and very wet; rain is pounding into my face and soaking through my wading jacket and the layers underneath. But this kind of casting we can do largely by feel, so I bundle into all my cold-weather gear, shove the camera down the front of my waders, and get to it. 

Patterning Fish

I’ve chosen to fish an ancient, home-tied mutant muddler fly on the theory that it’s big and the head should displace a fair bit of water, hopefully catching the attention of a gullible sea trout. I don’t really know: Sea trout aren’t my specialty, but in theory it makes sense, so I figure I might as well try. 

That’s kind of how fishing goes, isn’t it? Let’s give this a try and see what happens.

fly fishing for sea trout in iceland
Guide Jerome Saunders and guest Amy Ray celebrate bringing another sea trout to the net on a windy day. 

Things happen. It takes a while, like all good things do—nearly as if the Vatnamót is ensuring I pay my dues before giving up the reward. But before night falls, I’ve caught my two best sea trout of the trip so far—one a silvery 30-incher and another a chunky, healthy fish of nearly 31 inches. I’m soaked through, shivering, and can’t stop smiling. Black water is lapping at my waist, driven by both the current and the wind. I can feel equally black sand moving, being pulled from underneath my feet as I step downward, throwing another cast. 

It’s ever-changing, this place. Between the wind and the water, the beats morph frequently and the guides are constantly having to learn new seams, pockets, and fish patterns. It’s not an easy place to guide, but Fish Partner has done an exceptional job of pulling together a team of young guides who see the challenge and jump at it. They’re charming, personable, willing to fish in all conditions, and simply pretty damn fun to be around. 

fly fishing for sea trout in iceland

After a decade and a half of working in and around lodges, that’s become a trusted gauge for me. Are the guides happy? Are they good? Not just fishy—but good with people. Can they manage the tough clients just as well as the fun ones? The team checked out gloriously; I’d happily fish with any of the guys anywhere, any time. 

Last Casts In Iceland

The week at Battle Hill passes all too quickly. Kristján and I are on our own program, fishing long days and making the most of the time. Before I know it, it’s time to pack my bags and start thinking about trading black sand and fluffy tundra moss for airport tarmacs and city streets. We throw my gear in the car but still have a few hours before the transfer van shows up, so we wader up, grab our rods, and hit a promising pool not far from the lodge.

fly fishing for sea trout in iceland
Author Jess McGlothlin with a sea trout. 

Kristján stays in the car to make a quick phone call and I head for the water, a purple Intruder on the end of my line in a last bid to catch one more sea-run brown trout. One swing through the pool doesn’t produce and so I go again, covering water, my mind already drifting to the logistics of flying from Iceland back to Montana and how it would still be a couple of days before I get home.

Anyone who’s spent serious time on the water will tell you that there is something to the “look away.” As soon as we stop focusing so much on our fly—looking away to talk to a friend, watching the clouds, getting lost in our own thoughts—that’s when fish tend to strike.

And, well, something struck. Oh-so-subtly. The swing of the fly slowed, and I fought the instinctive urge to lift the rod. Instead, I held still, breath caught in my throat, senses on alert as I tried to feel if there actually was a fish checking out my fly or if I was sleep-deprived, under-caffeinated, and making things up. Another slight slowing of the swing, then a subtle tug. Keep. Still. I waited until the fish took the fly and the line tightened before lifting the rod, and a silly grin spread across my lips. Fish on!

From the bend in my 8-weight, it was a decent fish. I grinned in the knowledge that if we could land this fish, it would be the perfect bow on a solid trip. Kristján came running with the net and minutes later, a gorgeous, colored-up sea-run brown trout was corralled—all 32.25 inches of it. Any fish over 31.5 inches is a “very good fish,” and it somehow seemed fitting that I met mine on the last cast of the trip. A couple of quick pictures, and it swam off again, back into the cold waters of its Icelandic home. We stayed long enough for Kristján to land a good fish, and then headed back to the lodge just in time to catch the transfer van back to Reykjavik.

A cold rain settled in on the drive back to the city, but my thoughts were on big sea-run brown trout and dark weather. I couldn’t have asked for a better farewell from Iceland, or a better team to have experienced the Land of Fire and Ice with. Anglers looking for a new challenge should add Icelandic sea trout to their list and plan to someday walk the ever-changing black sands of Vatnamót with a Spey rod in hand. 

The fishing, the friendship, the place itself…it’s well worth the journey. 

Hook Up With Fish Partner

World-class fly fishing in Iceland for sea-run brown trout awaits. But that’s not all! Although Fish Partner is largely focused on fishing, they realize that it’s impossible to visit Iceland without indulging in some more general tourist activities. As a fully licensed travel agency, Fish Partner offers multiple options for day trips as well as the ability to fully customize a tour for you. To learn more about the once-in-a-lifetime fishing adventures and sightseeing tours—Blue Lagoon, Glacial Lagoon, Reykjanes Peninsula, Golden Circle, and more—visit fishpartner.com.

blue lagoon in iceland

H&B Staff Gear Hot Picks

Hardy Marksman Z 

hardy fly fishing rod marksman z

Hardy has a long history of making premium rods, from the Zephyrus rod to the tournament-winning Zane Pro. Enter the Marksman Z, which proves to be a serious upgrade from those legendary sticks. Making its mark by winning the prestigious ICAST Best in Category for Fly Rod award in 2023, the Marksman Z sports a much faster action, allowing you to punch through wind, and durable components, which are key for any saltwater rod. This best-in-class rod is built with Sintrix FLT that is applied to an updated mandrel design and stands up to the most demanding saltwater conditions, offering the reliability needed for everything from Gold Cups to grand slams.

It boasts an asymmetrical reel seat, which prevents spacers from slipping around during boat rides and offers quick recovery while maintaining accuracy and casting distance. The Hardy Marksman Z’s unrivaled blend of feel, power, recovery, and downright durability makes this fly rod a steadfast companion in the saltwater world. (MSRP starting at $995)

Hardy Fortuna Regent Reel

Hardy Fortuna Regent Reel

The award-winning Fortuna Regent reel was designed to deliver effortless control and power under the most demanding conditions. With up to 22 pounds of drag in a single 360-degree rotation, you can fight big fish without missing a beat. The Fortuna Regent is built around a multi-pad, carbon fiber disc drag system housed within a sealed, waterproof hub design, which offers the highest level of sealing yet seen on a Hardy fly reel.

Drag is adjusted via a tensioned regulator, resulting in positive, linear drag application within a one-turn range while delivering impressive top-end drag. The large arbor spool delivers exceptional line pickup, and the narrow spool profile ensures easy level stacking of the line during the heat of the battle, giving you flawless reliability when you need it the most. (MSRP starting at $750)

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