In fond memory of Orri, I thought I’d dust down and share this almost shaggy-dog-story about a time I went fishing with him on a lovely little river in Northern Iceland.
The last time I fished with Orri Vigfusson he’d just had dinner with Kiri Te Kanawa who, it turned out, was a keen salmon angler. So, it wasn’t surprising when I called him en-route to Orri’s small salmon river in the far north of Iceland and he told me he wouldn’t be joining us that evening as he was in Reykjavik having dinner with Tilda Swinton.
That was fine I said. We’d see him tomorrow and besides I couldn’t blame him: ‘she’s a lot better looking than me,’ I said.
I hung up and Rod – who was traveling with me on his first trip to the salmon rivers of Iceland – asked what on earth I had been talking about.
‘Tilda Swinton? You know, the polyamorous Hollywood actress? A bit tom-boy, but strangely foxy too.’ I drifted off, imagining her in waders.
‘What about her?’ asked Rod after a pause.
‘Oh. She’s having dinner with Orri. She must be into salmon angling. Makes sense I suppose. I think she lives in Scotland. Orri’s probably tapping her for funds.’
It’s a five-hour drive from Reykjavik to the middle-knuckle peninsula of Iceland’s northern coast, through which and pointing right at the pole, flowed our destination, the River Fljótaá. We were half-way when I put the phone down. The sun was falling into the sea out of a blue, late-summer sky. Iceland had put on her make-up: red farm buildings glowing like the vermillion spots on trout, bright splashes against the vibrant green of hay-meadows, the purple haze of volcanic scree and ancient larva fields.
Route One, which circumscribes the whole island, which is in part still a dirt road, runs back and forth from the coast through isolated fishing towns that smell of rust and herrings and up and down the long, empty valleys of Iceland’s salmon rivers. Even the smallest are enticing and promise salmon. And when we stopped beside a hop-over sliver of silver in a valley only two or three miles long, to help a farmer lift his trailer back upright and onto the road, he confirmed that it did: ‘A few salmon, yes. And a lot of arctic char.’
This was encouraging, the idea that every capillary, vein and artery of water was crawling with sea-run fish: the extended thought that you might only have to wet a line to catch one. In fact I’d been to Orri’s secret little north-coast river before and knew first-hand just how good Iceland can be. But of course Iceland has this reputation. We had just crossed the Laxa á Ásum: ‘Best salmon river in the world, that,’ I said to Rod, as the unprepossessing but intimate brook flashed under the car. ‘Along with the Selá and the Hofsá and depending who you ask.’
The Ásum fishes two rods and in Iceland’s short season they might catch a thousand fish. Rumour has it that Eric Clapton fishes there: true or not that tells you a lot about who can and can’t afford it. The other half of Iceland’s salmon reputation is that it is a playground only for the seriously rich. But if every small coastal stream contains salmon, while you might not want to build a trip around a stickle, there must surely be middle-sized, modestly-full-of-salmon rivers in Iceland that don’t break the bank? There are.
The Fljótaá’s reputation, if anything, is for sea-run arctic char, colloquially and confusingly called trout: it fills with them through August. These fat, game and achingly pretty fish taste better than anything else that swims and indeed, if you go with the drift of the misnomer and look at them as a kind of Cheshire sea-trout (they’re terribly orange), are enough to justify the trip alone. The Fljótaá is a cold stream, in a cold valley. Ice hides in pockets on the hills all summer long. Char like all this chilliness. But the hydro damn, built some decades ago, had the effect of warming the water just enough to turn the dial on the small, indigenous salmon stock from de-frost, to simmer, and last year to rolling boil. Last year, 2009, four rods over about four weeks, landed over four-hundred salmon. And the first time I saw the place I fished it for four hours and caught four fish.
‘Would you like to see my little salmon river?’ Orri had asked me, while I stood next to a river in which enormous brown trout were rising to very small flies (Iceland’s other trick). ‘Sure,’ I said regretfully. Orri’s daughter was recruited as chauffeur and I was sped three hours across the island and debouched next to a pretty but small stream that to my untrained eye – or rather an eye trained by fishless trips back home – didn’t look as though it would make up for the enormous trout I was missing. Even so I strung up with a small Green Highlander – as instructed – and only half-way down the first pool turned a salmon at the tail of the stream. I backed up, sat down, hitched the fly and tried again. This time the fish stuck and five minutes later my first Icelandic salmon, so fresh that it still wore sea-lice, was caught. Suddenly time was short. I had two more, but four hours passed in as many minutes and only half-way down the beat, Orri’s daughter parked up and waiting on the bluff above, I saw my last fish roll at the tail of the pool, pleaded for just one minute more, rose and caught it.
And yet salmon are capricious animals, even in Iceland. Late August was more shoulder or shin than the rump of late July I had enjoyed that previous time. And Icelandic weather – described to me once in a masterpiece of understatement as ‘unpredictable’ – might crash the party at any time: cold snaps, heat waves, unremitting northerly blasts, it’s all in the puffy-cheeked deity’s arsenal on this ice-capped lava-cake in the north Atlantic.
We arrived at Bergen, Orri’s tardis-like lodge on the slopes above the middle beat, at close to midnight. The place was cloaked in a darkness I was unused to in Iceland, having only ever been earlier in the summer. Lights glimmered on the hydro wall a mile away upstream. There was a candle in the window of the bungalow and Unnur, Orri’s wife, was behind it knitting. I had been indulged by Unnur’s spoiling cookery once before and warned Rod he would not be losing weight over the next two days, even if he sprinted up and down the river: ‘Wait till you try her skyr with bilberries fresh off the hill.’
Fishing on Icelandic salmon rivers divides into two sessions per day of six hours each. Two days here and you might fish as much as in four back home. With a short blast of pillow time we were up beyond early, mainlining caffeine and Cheerios. And soon we were outside stringing up the rods in a chilly dawn, the killer-whale hills of black rock and white snow wreathed in a mist that would burn slowly from them over the next hour.
My job was to take pictures, Rod’s to catch fish: we took our pick from beats one and two, and plumped for two. Here the river drops from its furrow in the alluvial scree above and falls inside the fold of the valley a Foxes glacier-mint blue between interlocking fingers of bluff and headland. Each pool more delicious than the last.
We started at the top. I snapped the shutter. Rod fished. The light was good. Nothing bit. Just a matter of time I thought. If only Rod would fish a little slower, a little faster, if he’d cover that run better, not bother with that. A monkey was on my shoulder. Then Rod’s line pulled away for long enough that I wondered if he’d noticed. I’ll say this: Rod knows how to hook a salmon much better than I do.
‘Did you see that?’ I asked, turning. ‘Yes,’ said Rod, the salmon very much on the line. As the fish jumped and showed itself to be a bruiser I almost forgot my job as shutterbug. But it jumped again and I got the splash. And again and I got the splash a second time.
‘Why can’t these things stay in the air longer?’
‘It’s too bloody heavy to fly!’
The journey from dining room to matrimonial bed is much shorter for Icelandic salmon and they always seem to run portly. This one looked like the scourge of the ocean, terminator of a million sand-eels. A deep fish that wouldn’t give up and had me dancing in the shallows trying to tail it, while it summoned grunt for an apparently limitless number of lunges across the pool. It was, when finally we had it in the shallows, officially landed, gripped and grinned, a better way than ever we might have hoped for of losing the monkey.
Not quite as good however as the twenty-pound fish that towed Rod up and down the river for an hour in the afternoon. Rod’s biggest ever salmon. Thank you Iceland. Even Orri was impressed with thirty-five pounds of fish off his little river in one day.
‘What would Tilda have said?’ I quipped as we celebrated over a vodka-tonic.
Orri looked puzzled.
‘Who ees Teel-da?’ asked Orri.
‘Tilda Swinton. What would she have said about such a haul?’
‘I don’t know what Teel-da would hef said. Who is this … Teel-da Sveenton?’
‘Tilda Swinton? You know. Hollywood actress? You were having supper with her last night! In Reykjavik!’
‘No I was not. Last night I was having supper with the King of Sveden and you said that you understood because she’s much better looking than me! I was a little confused at the time,’ said Orri.
So, it seems, was I.
A version of this story was first published in The Field.