The Lake and Area
Lake Thingvallavatn is the largest lake in Iceland, located only 40 minutes from Reykjavík. Thingvellir, where Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, was established around the year 930, is a place of historic significance. The lake lies in a rift valley along the North Atlantic Ridge, sitting where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates separate from each other. Lake Thingvallavatn is 83 square kilometers (32 square miles) and is deepest at 115 meters (377 feet). The lake’s catchment area is 90% underground and the water from thousands of cold springs has a constant temperature of 3-4°C the whole year round. The spring water is filtered through layers of the surrounding lava making Thingvallavatn gin-clear and easy to spot fish. Three out of the five species of freshwater fish found in Iceland live in Thingvallavatn; brown trout, Arctic char, and the three-spined stickleback.
Fall and Rise
Lake Thingvellir could have been another horror story of the human destruction of natural resources.
Since the settlement of Iceland in 874, Icelanders have fished its largest lake for its four subspecies of Arctic Char and legendary massive Brown Trouts. Then, in 1959 a power station construction at the river outflow of the Efra-Sog almost wiped out the entire Brown Trout population. The lake’s most important spawning grounds have historically been in the Efra-Sog outflow, but when a temporary dam broke during construction, it washed tonnes of gravel and sediment downstream, destroying nearly all of the trout’s spawning ground.
That could have meant the end to Lake Thingvellir’s “Ice-Age Browns” (called so due to being trapped
in the lake since the last ice age.) However, in the years and decades following this catastrophe,
much-needed action was taken to restore the Brown Trout population. Repairs were made to the
washed-out spawning beds of the Efra-Sog, catch quotas were created, fishing bans were placed, and
in recent years, large parts of the lake have become exclusively fly-fishing only and are strictly catch and release. These actions, as well as the introduction of fertilized roe and artificially, reared fry to both the Efra-Sog and other outlet and inlet rivers around the lake by passionate fisheries biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson, showed some, albeit slow progress in the following years.
Growing up fishing the lake as a child, I remember hearing stories of the giants of the past, and every once in a while someone would catch a monster brown, but they were few and far between, and never the size of the legendary 30+ pound monsters the older generations spoke of. Then, in the past 20 years or so, the restoration process has finally begun wielding results. The Ice-age Browns came back in big numbers and even bigger sizes. Each fall you can see trophy size Brownies pour up the Öxará tributary to spawn, and during the main trout fishing season (April-June, and again in August-September) there seems to be a record-breaking catch landed every week.
Lake Thingvellir is a difficult place to fish– brutal even. When chasing the browns you can go days without so much as
seeing a fish and will make thousands of back-breaking casts while being pounded by wind, rain, and snow, to no avail. But then, like a switch flipping on, all hell breaks loose and the Brownies begin moving in from the depths. Sometimes they are following schools of Stickleback or Arctic Char, other times they seem to sense that the chironomids are about to hatch in the millions, or maybe they’re just warming up in the shallower waters while seeking the fresh water running in from springs and
tributary rivers. Whatever the reason, when it happens, all of the long hours on the water, and those thousands of casts, are worth it– because there are few feelings as satisfying as landing a huge brown trout after seeing the fly line and then backing spin off your reel at full speed.
One of those days that makes it all worthwhile happened to me last spring– 5th of May, 2020 to be
precise. My good friend, and partner at Fish Partner, the founder, and CEO Kristján Rafnson, and I had decided to skip out of the office early that day and booked ourselves on the Kárastaðir beat at the north end of the lake. Kárastaðir is my favorite beat to fish on Lake Thingvellir. It won’t match up with Villingavatnsárós or some of the other beats on the south side of the lake in sheer numbers of fish caught there each year, but it certainly makes up for it with its splendid beauty, the high average size of fish caught, and varied topography and structure to fish to that break up the monotony of casting endlessly into a giant lake. On that day, we got to the lake around 5 pm (Evening and just past dusk is by far the best time to fish
there), we were supposed to meet with two of our friends there– Björn Rúnarsson, the lodge manager of the legendary salmon river Vatnsdalsá, and photographer and guide Bjarni Bjarkason.
When we pulled off to the parking spot, the weather was absolutely perfect for fishing that beat at that time of year; Sunny with a slight south-western wind that caused small waves to break on the bank. We saw that Björn’s car was already there, though he himself was out of sight. We gave him a call and heard him yell hastily into the phone as he answered, “I’m at Rauðkusunes. Can’t talk. Have a fish on, already landed 5 in 30min. Hurry up!” (Rauðkusunes being the southern point of the beat.) To say that those words got us amped up would be an understatement. We raced to get geared up, and to my horror, I discovered that in my haste to leave town I had forgotten my waders.
Fortunately, if there is one beat you can get away with not wearing waders, it’s Kárastaðir. We quickly put our rods together and ran down to Björn just as he landed a nice 65cm brown. He had landed 5 between 58-67cm in the 30 minutes before we arrived. After a quick peek at his fish and a high five, I instantly started casting to where Björn points to, and on the second cast, my streamer gets hammered. It was a small brown for Lake Thingvellir, just 52cm, and it was quickly netted. As soon as I finish netting my fish Kristján jumps in and starts casting to the same spot– a few casts later he hooks one. That’s how it continued for the next 30 minutes. One of us hooks a fish and tries to move the fish to the side so that the next angler could cast to the exact same spot. The browns seemed to be schooled up about 30 meters from the bank feeding heavily. After
about 12 fish were landed, Bjarni arrived, and thankfully for my freezing legs, he had brought an extra set of waders. He immediately jumped right into the rotation and shortly after that another local angler, also called Björn, approached us to see what the commotion was about so we invited him to join our rotation. After about 90 minutes the action began slowing, and we could take a bit of a breather. At that point we had landed 26 browns in varying sizes from 52 to 83cm, as well as countless fish lost. For the next 4 hours, we kept fishing and landed another 8 browns, but honestly, I could have happily
left after the first two hours, and spent more time sitting on the bank enjoying the spring weather
So, when people ask me why I love fishing Lake Thingvellir for these prehistoric browns, even when I
constantly get my ass kicked by the weather and uncooperative fish, I tell them it’s for nights like
this is when all the elements come together for an unforgettable experience.
So if you’re planning a trip to the Lake, be prepared(especially in the spring brown season), fishing will be tough, but when you hit it right there is no place it rather be.
Sindri Hlíðar Jónsson