By Harry Thurston
First published, Scandinavian Review ( spring/summer 1997)
Do you dream about catching fish?" Itseems like a strangely occult question coming from a Minister of theEvangelical Lutheran Church, but then, for one week every July, Gudni Olafssonis not only a spiritual guide to his 1400 parishioners along the valley of theMidfjardara River in northern Iceland but a practical guide to foreign salmonfishers like myself, who come here in quest of its fabled fish.
Though admittedly I do not seem blessed with anyspecial powers of prognostication, for three days last summer, I lived outevery salmon fishers' dream. I was a guest of the Federation of Icelandic RiverOwners, who had invited me to fish the Midfjardara. Iceland offers more than 100 salmon rivers, of which 20 areworld-class. "The country is young, that's why we have the best salmonrivers," I was told on my arrival. This island of fire and ice straddlesthe mid-Atlantic Rift and rose from the sea 25 million years ago-the meretwinkling of a geological eye. Water is a creative force shaping this newbornland.
Icelandic salmon fishing is like the country itself-wild and challenging and, unexpectedly, pastoral and inviting. The Midfjardara epitomizes this marriage of primal force and bucolic beauty.
An Aura of History
Literally, "Middle Fjord River," it isa four-hour drive from Keflavik International Airport. It offers the angler 115kilometers of fishable waters along the main river and its three tributaries,Austura, Nupsa, and Vestura. Traditionally one of the top ten Icelandic riversin catches, there can be few rivers that compare in terms of variety of streamconditions and the number of pools (some 220 named).
My favorite branch was the Vestura, whichcombined the best of the Midfjardara's many virtues. The lower section is aseries of canyon pools, stepping down to the main river by leaps and bounds.The upper section of the river meanders through abandoned farmland. I dubbedit, "The Valley of the Buttercups." Splashes of this pleasing weedwere reclaiming abandoned pastures where sheep roam free until the fallround-up. Then, local farmers become cowboys, riding into the highlands onIcelandic ponies and herding the sheep into lowland corrals where they aresorted as to owner. I, too, roamed freely through this gentle land ofwildflowers. Flowers even grew on the turf roofs of abandoned farms.
There was an aura of history along the Vestura,reaching far back into saga time, a time in its heroic violence at odds withthe present peacefulness. In fact, the Midfjardara is the setting for theIcelandic saga, "Grettir the Strong;" and the Vestura was home toKormakr the Poet, the hapless skald, who vainly pursued his lifelong love,Steingerdr, vanquishing her two husbands with a blunt sword only to be rebuffedby her. Orrostuhylur (The Battle Pool) seems to bear the traces of the medievalskirmish for which it is named, as the iron-rich soil stains the rocksblood-red.
There is a saying in Iceland: "When thewhimbrel sings, there will be rain." Daily, the tremulous cries of thewhimbrel drifted over the open land until midnight, when a hush fell as the sunbalanced briefly on the horizon before again beginning its ascent; however, therains did not come. Water was extremely low on most northern Icelandic riversin the last summer, which meant catches were unusually low. Even so, I hookedthree fish in as many days, and saw many others, like us, waiting for rains.
And I was blessed with venerable fishingcompanions. Peter Kriendler, 91, is the Emeritus Chairman of New York's Club 21which he describes, without false modesty, as "the most famous restaurantin the world." Ben Wright, 86, is the former publisher of Field &Stream. Theirs was the winning entry in a silent auction for a week's fishingon the Midfjardara, in support of The American-Scandinavian Foundation.
These two gentlemen (a word I use advisedly) havebeen fishing together since 1948.
"The most important thing about fishing isthe people you fish with," Ben offered as we sat watching his friend Peterwork out a smooth line. My first evening on the Midfjardara, I hooked and losta grilse--the only fish our group touched that day. As 10 PM arrived and weheaded back to the lodge for supper, Peter summed up everybody's feelings:"What a beautiful day of fishing. The pools are magnificent, the hills areglorious. You don't have to catch fish to have a good day on this river."