David Profumo takes a fishing trip to Iceland, where he deploys a Balmoral Special to bag a grilse on Sheep, the number-one pool on the fabled river Haffjarðará.
The land of ice and fire can boast almost 100 salmon rivers, which isn’t bad for a country with the same-sized population as Ealing. I’ve been fishing there on and off since 1987, but not until recently did I have a chance to visit the fabled Haffjarðará, a shortish river on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
Along the road from Keflavik, swathes of blue lupins soften the haggard landscape, with its great slagheaps of volcanic grey and blood-red scree, erratically strewn plains and summits still dabbed with snow. Many of the rivers flow through green meadowlands in their lower reaches.
Arriving at the lodge (or veiðihús), we tackled up immediately for the late-evening session. I was to share the productive Bottom Beat with Yvon Chouinard, legendary founder of the Patagonia apparel empire — although, rather awkwardly, I was togged up in Simms and Orvis gear. My guide was Ottar, a quietly spoken electrical-engineering student, who caught his first fish here at the age of seven — his grandfather had co-owned the river.
We were still in the opening week of the season and the previous party had accounted for a dozen salmon (including several to a Mr David Beckham), but the water level was preternaturally low and conditions were challenging. We shuffled across the weedy stream to try Sheep, the numero uno pool, and began casting beneath the cliff.
A good fish boiled twice at my tiny Madeline treble, then hit it hard, before stripping my Bogdan down to its backing, drowning the flyline and popping my leader around a boulder. Most of these early-run salmon are in the teens of pounds, with some — as I was to discover — going considerably larger.
At 9.30pm, we reeled up and went back for the first of the chef’s disarmingly good meals. Gone are the days when lodge cuisine comprised cod balls in cheese sauce, with some smoked puffin if you were unlucky. We feasted until midnight.
Host Bo had assembled an international party of friends, who were all hugely experienced anglers: I was the youngest by some way (and I’m no poussin), but all I can say is that the others quietly fished the socks off your correspondent. The only absentee, thanks to a passport theft, was the distinguished American novelist Tom McGuane, who also wrote The Longest Silence, one of my favourite fishing books of all time.
With some eight miles of fishable water, the Haffjarðará offers a newcomer a bewildering variety of pool — from the beetle-browed crags of the upper stretch, overlooked by orc-like lava outcrops moss-capped with grimmia, the air frantic with birdsong, to the streams and narrows below.
One of the latter, Grettir (which surrendered four fish one afternoon to my friend Roger), is named after the red-haired outlaw from the Sagas, who seized his opponent Gisli there (when the river was ‘swollen and difficult to ford’) and beat him senseless with a tree branch.
With the unwelcome upstream westerly, my casting felt a bit like that at times, especially as the others began to do well and I fell behind, although I did catch a gorgeous 3lb charr, or bleikja — perhaps a good Christian name for some future Beckham offspring?
Fish were showing in Bakki one afternoon, but would not respond. ‘Elusive buggers,’ muttered Ottar, presumably translating directly from the Icelandic. I was starting to lose my mojo. Then, magically, a 10-pounder took my drifted Frances and was duly landed. The world looked a splendid place and I could hold my head high — but I was to know disaster.
A salmon estimated to be in the 20lb class had been seen in the Falls and, one fishless afternoon, I lobbed in my Black Conehead and was treated to a strike of almost tuna-like violence. The chrome lunker took to the air, hurtled around the pool, made a lunge for the white water and pinged me off against a rocky ledge. That felt like the fish I’d come for and the image of it has since disturbed my sleep.
Moody and dreich, the last morning yielded me nothing. For my final hour on Sheep, I knotted on a small Balmoral Special (given to me, naturally, by a royal gillie) and it was promptly accepted by a lovely, redeeming grilse as the evening sun broke through. ‘The world as it should be’ in Mr McGuane’s fine phrase. Nonetheless, I feel I have unfinished business on beguiling Haffjarðará.
This stunning estate housed a naval captain, a Canadian mounted officer and the Profumo family.