Adventures in the mean, green fishing machine
Swapping babies for Bentleys, Matt Harris headed to Iceland with his camera for a fly fishing trip with a difference.
Smile, honey! Smile for the man. Come on, baby girl. Where’s that smile? I can’t believe it – this isn’t like her at all – she never stops smiling normally. Taya. Tayaaaa... Oh come on, honey! Pleeeeease! SMILE, FOR GOD’S SAKE!”
January. Bad month. Another long day photographing babies for a pan-European advertising campaign stretched out ahead of me – a procession of anxious mums desperately trying to coax a usage-fee-winning smile from their almost universally miserable and – let’s face it – entirely press-ganged offspring. As any experienced photographer will tell you, creating images of happy babies is tough at the best of times, but it is infinitely more challenging when most of the ‘talent’ are afflicted with all the sniveling coughs and colds that come with the winter season.
“Let’s take a break,” I suggested, as Taya let out a plaintive wail that left me in no doubt that her “non-stop” smile was not about to materialise any time soon.
I grabbed a much-needed cup of coffee and was doing my best to reassure the nervous-looking art director when Louise, my lovely, long-suffering assistant, handed me the phone. “It’s a bloke from Bentley,” she whispered, “something about a fishing car.”
Excusing myself, I found a quiet corner and had a chat with the bloke from Bentley.
Could I help them design a custom Bentley Bentayga SUV specifically aimed at the avid fly fisher? “Yes.” Could I take said vehicle around Iceland, road testing – and off-road-testing – its suitability for go-anywhere fly fishing adventures in Iceland’s famously harsh but fish-filled paradise of a landscape. “Yes, yes, yes.” Could I shoot images as I went, teach a few journalists how to cast a fly for a day or two, and best of all, could I catch and photograph lots of preferably very big fish to illustrate the car’s genuine all-round fishiness. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes.” (“Taya! Tayaaaa! Don’t do that, honey!”) “Very definitely yes!”
“Wait. Who is this really?” Despite my scepticism, it wasn’t a prank, and four months later I was rocketing across the Icelandic Highlands with the hugely likeable Mark Mustard – the bloke from Bentley – on a dream assignment in surely the most luxurious 4x4 ever conceived. A purring British thoroughbred of a car, featuring an eye-watering amount of hand-stitched saddle leather and gleaming chrome that made nonsense of the perception that we Brits don’t make beautiful cars anymore.
Geoff Dowding and his team at Bentley’s Mulliner workshop in Crewe had pulled out all the stops, and, with a little input from myself, they had put together a beautiful bespoke interior that accommodated all you could possibly need to go fly fishing in utmost style, with everything neatly stowed and close at hand. Every last detail had been thoroughly thought through, from the burr walnut fly-tying station to the electronic dehumidifier designed to neutralise fishy odours, and the beautifully ordered result threw my own fishing vehicle – a tired old Mercedes estate shambolically crammed full of muddy waders, slimy nets and who knows what else – into very sharp relief.
I had organised two great guides to look after us. The first was my old friend Arnar Agnarsson at Laxa a Asum, one of Iceland’s most exclusive and prolific salmon rivers. Arnar is a great guy and he had somehow squeezed us in on Asum for a day. Arnar is a half-full kind of fellow and despite the early season, he was pretty confident that we would catch a few salmon for the camera; and we did.
Another guide – the excellent Kristjan Raffnasson – couldn’t believe his luck as he got to model for me – a job that effectively meant fishing one of the world’s great salmon rivers, and being chauffeured from pool to fish-filled pool in our magnificent mean, green fishing machine. Happy days.
With expert assistance from Arnar, Kristjan pulled out any number of beautiful, gleaming Salmo salar, jumping high in the air and clicking his heels with glee as yet another of the river’s freshly-returned salmon pounced on his tiny Red Francis Conehead with gusto. The photographer even got in on the act, taking a brief break from behind the camera when a late-evening drizzle set in to pull out the biggest fish of the day on his favourite riffle-hitched Sunray, a fly I had tied on the Bentley’s tailgate using its aforementioned built-in fly-tying station. Just because I could.
Shooting images of the car was a piece of cake. The imposing, muscular lines of the big Bentley, and the deep, lustrous Verdant Green finish meant that it was almost impossible to take a bad picture of the vehicle. Unlike my usual subject matter, the car, refreshingly, didn’t get a runny nose, have a tantrum or burst into tears. I really like photographing cars.
Once we’d got a bunch of pictures in the can, it was time to see what the Bentayga could really do. We headed south to Kristjan’s own personal stomping ground, the astonishing southwest Highlands of Iceland. We traversed a startling volcanic moonscape, where the brawling rivers came bouncing down out of the craggy uplands, and the sleek silver tourists of Asum were replaced by wily, broad-shouldered brown trout and hefty, hard-fighting and satisfyingly tricky char.
The car was a revelation.
After getting the all clear from Mark, we drove it off the road and onto the rough tracks that criss-cross the gnarled landscape. We even got to drive the Bentayga through the wild freestone streams; the tumbling waters of the Tungnaa and the wilder, more powerful currents of the Kaldakvisl proved no obstacle, even when we found ourselves up to our axles. Driving a Bentley through a fast-flowing river is not for the fainthearted, but the big Bentayga seemed utterly untroubled, and having forded the rivers, we were able to go exploring way upstream.
Climbing a steep bluff, we found ourselves gazing at a stunning, picturebook waterfall. Kristjan and I slipped our 6wt rods out of their hand-stitched leather-clad tubes and, grabbing a couple of fly-boxes from their burred walnut holders, we scrambled down into the beguiling valley of the Kaldakvisl.
This remote and rarely visited little gem of a river offered fantastic fishing: the fast, boulder-studded runs were jam-packed full of big char, and most would respond voraciously to a delicately presented Gold-Head Flashback Pheasant Tail. Big, lazy brown trout would sit in the slower glides and the glassy tailouts, sipping bugs from the surface, and proving tantalizingly difficult – but not impossible – to catch.
We caught lots of gorgeous fish for the camera on that beautiful bluebird morning and there seemed to be a new challenge around every spectacular corner as we tramped upstream. The Tungnaa was similarly rewarding. Having sight-fished half a dozen gorgeous golden-bellied char out of the crystalline waters, I spent over an hour on a particularly big brown trout – certainly over 8lb – and when I finally tricked it into swallowing a tiny emerger, it dragged me off down the river before opening out the tiny hook right at the net.
Kristjan found another brownie of well over 5lb sitting right below a cascading waterfall, and I watched as he expertly tempted it into snaffling his artfully-presented nymph.
After a fabulous few days exploring and laughing at our almost impossible good fortune, we were joined by a gaggle of journalists who had been dispatched from all over the world to investigate Bentley’s new creation, and with a bit of help, they all caught a few fish. Lauren Steele from the US proved particularly adept, and after a quick casting lesson, she was pulling out big char from the crystal waters of the Tungnaa like a veteran.
The next day, Kristjan and I were off again to explore pastures new, and I was soon discovering that Iceland’s great trout fishing isn’t confined to the country’s rivers and streams.
Ljotipollur – meaning ‘stinky pit’ – is a lagoon in a dormant volcanic caldera and its clean, clear waters are anything but stinky. They were – happily – also full of beautiful, leopard-spotted brown trout that ferociously ambushed the hapless little caddis flies as they sat in the glassy surface.
Embarrassingly, we didn’t have any suitably small emerging caddis imitations between us, but suddenly I had a brainwave. A quick dash up the hill to the car and we were soon equipped with some simple, little Deer Hair Emergers that I’d whipped-up at the Bentley’s custom fly-tying station. A ripple got up, and we were soon pulling a procession of beautiful brownies from the surreal little lake. Kristjan had a clutch of other fish-filled lakes up his sleeve but one stood head and shoulders above the rest.
While the terrain around the lake didn’t present much of a challenge for the Bentley, the vast trout that prowled its waters tested our tippets to the absolute max. Thingvallavatn is a remarkable fishery. Sat right on the fissure that divides the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the lake is the largest in Iceland, reaching depths of 114m. Back in the mists of time, its trout used to run to the sea, but a landslide in the last ice age has trapped them in the vast lake where they prey on the huge numbers of char that thrive in the deep, cold waters.
As the waters warm in late spring, the huge trout come marauding into the shallows, intent on ‘re-metabolising’.Their favourite spots are where streams and warm-water springs raise the temperature of the water still further. The trout are full of char, but only by warming up in the shallow waters can they digest the bellyful of fish that they have wolfed down in the depths.
This represents a great opportunity to the fly fisher; whilst the fish are normally in water that is prohibitively deep, now they are swimming in shallow areas no deeper than 6ft, and although stuffed to the gills with char, these big eating-machines will continue to habitually feed on whatever nature puts in front of them.
In this instance, the twin ‘plats du jour’ are midges and sticklebacks. To an angler used to regularly imitating both foodstuffs at my local Grafham Water, I was more than confident that I knew exactly what to do. And so it proved.
An afternoon on the ION Hotel’s beat provided me with one of the most memorable trout fishing sessions of my life. The fish were sitting in the mouth of a stream flowing into the vast lake and were lazily sipping emerging midges as they tried to hatch into the frigid Arctic air. In a short five-hour session, I managed 10 trout weighing 82lb, including one stupendous fish that pulled the scales down to well over 17lb. The fish all fell for my favourite Pearly Midge Emerger – a diminutive little #12 fly that has wreaked havoc for me at Grafham and Rutland. They fought like tigers, and each silver-flanked, pepper-spotted brute looked exactly like the sea trout from which they are descended.
On another evening, it was Kristjan’s turn to tussle with the big beasts of Thingvallavatn. Fishing at the beautiful Black Cliffs beat, and employing his favourite Black Ghost Streamer to imitate the sticklebacks, he hooked three magnificent fish including one trout we estimated at 15lb that was one of the most magnificent trout I have ever seen.
Finally, our Icelandic epic drew to a close and it was time to reel up. I looked longingly at the Bentley one last time, thanked Mark for an assignment from beyond my wildest dreams, and gave my new friend Kristjan a well-earned hug to thank him for one of the great fly fishing adventures of my life. At last, it was time to fly home to reality.
A week later, I was back in the studio, working for a big French multi-national on their new kidswear campaign. Taya wasn’t there, but little Carly was, and she was screeching for all she was worth. Mum was baffled, because apparently she normally never stops smiling. Normally.
I called a time-out. Receiving my customary cup of coffee from Louise, I was suddenly far away and watching a vast trout slip back into the glassy waters of Thingvallavatn.
“Well at least someone’s happy – you haven’t stopped smiling all morning – are you alright?” asked Lou, snapping me out of my reverie.
“I’ve just been driving round Iceland in a Bentley, catching 17 pound brown trout,” I grinned, “I am most definitely alright.”
Swallowing the last of my coffee, I dragged myself back to reality: “Right, come on Carly! Where’s that smile?”
Legendary British automotive brand Bentley can custom design the interior of the Bentayga SUV for an extra £80,000 to suit your exact fly fishing, shooting or almost any other requirements. The entry level model starts at £160,200.
Kristjan Páll Rafnsson runs Fishpartner and offers guided fishing on some of Iceland’s wildest and most stunningly beautiful trout and char waters. He also has exclusive access to two beats on Lake Thingvallavatn. He is great company and I cannot recommend his services highly enough.
Thingvallavatvn’s ION beats are run by two excellent and extremely likeable Icelandic guides, Jóhann Hafnfjör and Stefan Kristjansson. The fishing is some of the very best trophy trout fishing available anywhere in the world.
You can book the fabulous fishing on the ION beats through Tarquin Millington-Drake at Frontiers.