Hitched to the Hitara

WWMF Hosted trip - 12-16 July 2020

by J maxwell Stuart

Destination: Iceland

Holiday: Hitara

C-19 has hit overseas fishing destinations with the same sort of abrupt finality of the entirely unexpected landslide that severed the mainstream of the Hitara in July 2018.  On the night of 7th July an estimated 10-30 million cubic meters of rock cascaded down Fagraskogarfjall mountain covering an area of 1.5 square kms making it quite possibly one of the largest landslides ever recorded in Iceland.  Whilst the area is far from populated, the implications were potentially catastrophic. Thankfully no one was injured.  Clearly the implications for the river and the run of its salmon were no less disastrous than those faced by the enforced closure of fishing lodges worldwide as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

A ray of post lockdown hope at the bottom of one rainbow and a bountiful supply of salmon at the other!

All the catastrophic implications of the 2018 landslide have been felt by fishing lodges across the length and breadth of Iceland.  This on the back of the disastrous drought of 2019, which affected a great number of Icelandic rivers, must have made the lodge owners wonder what they had been doing wrong, especially when water conditions were immeasurably better this season.  Maybe worse has been the way the effects of the pandemic, which at its outset I for one saw as being restricted to a month or so in March and April has methodically crept up on the prime salmon fishing period of June & July.  Despite a last-minute reprieve, with UK and European travel corridors to Iceland being made possible at the start of July, restrictions of flights, worries over quarantine on arrival and on return home, stopped all but the most adventurous in their tracks!   For my part I was absolutely determined that I was not going to add this trip to my growing list of cancellations!!

The 2018 landslide which altered the course of the Hitara - Low water conditions in July 2019

International travel is certainly different!   For the first time since the pandemic started, I pulled out my surgical mask as I entered Luton airport for one of the few flights available from the UK to Iceland.  The only slightly remarkable aspect about the outbound journey was the lack of people in the airport, even though the Easy Jet flight was 90% full.   On arrival into Iceland, we were greeted with a very efficient testing system in place at border control.  A throat and nose swab, which whilst not sore was not especially pleasant, were taken on arrival with promised notification by mobile text within 2-6 hrs which would reveal whether or not I was a walking contagious timebomb!  Although eerily quiet, unlike Luton, happily, and thankfully Duty-Free on arrival into Keflavik was open, a mandatory stop off if you are to avoid being punished by the exorbitant alcohol taxes in Iceland.

Fishing kit disinfected, our diminished party of 3 sharing 2 rods set off in the slightly inadequate SUV hire car for the Hitara, a very convenient 2 hr drive from the airport.  (A more robust 4x4 is advised to ‘easily’ access sections of the upper Hitara). Text notification that we were all clear arrived mid-journey, mine being then last to arrive which gave me some cause for consternation.  It was certainly received with a degree of relief although enforced isolation whilst fishing from a remote cabin on a river did not seem like a terrible idea! 

Both the home pool, Breidin and Long Pool, Langidrattur provided continual action all trip

The Hitara lodge, ‘Lundur’, is unmistakeable.  Perched on the side of a cliff it has a bright green roof, a major waterfall above it and overlooking the most productive stretch of the Hitara below.  As we pulled off the road, we were treated to our first full glance of the river which appeared in excellent condition.   Seeing foaming white water covering the full width of the waterfall was enough to give that first dared hint of excitement that we had hit things right!!  The frustrations of lockdown and the concerns over quarantine were all swept away like a good spate on a highland river.

Our first beat for the early afternoon session from 4-7pm was the middle section of the river immediately around the lodge and it undoubtedly set the mood for the following 4 days.   The home pool literally boiled with salmon.  Bright silver grilse jumped everywhere!  Although we only landed one salmon in that first session the expectation of a pull or a take at literally any moment had my heart racing like a hit of double expresso.  By the end of the evening, I had had the luck to have landed 3 salmon with another 2 lost, the action split between a hitched sunray shadow on a ¼ inch tube and a mini ¼ inch conehead Red Francis.  Despite having enough Icelandic flies in my flybox to last another decade, over the following days those two patterns became my go to selection for the first two runs down any pool.   Only when they had failed did I venture deeper into my box of goodies!

A very welcome sight after months of lockdown - salmon everywhere in the Hitara home pool!

Fishing a hitched salmon fly is when you either tie a half hitch knot around the upper 1/3 shank of a regular salmon fly when tied around the shank or the body of a tube fly or use a similarly positioned ready-made hole in the plastic body of a salmon tube fly.   In both cases the end result is your leader protrudes at right angles from the body of the fly allowing it to ‘swim’ seductively on the surface forming a mini V wake behind the fly.  Although you can fish a hitched fly on any size of rod and at almost any length of line, where it is most effective is when it is fished with maximum control so ideally on a short line, using a single-handed rod.   You can then entice a salmon to take, on the surface, by swinging it across, the lie, whether it be skated, dibbled or dangled!

In this respect, the Hitara was on fire over the period we were fishing.  From the middle house beat to the very top pool of the main salmon beats the salmon obligingly showed themselves.  With the exception of one sunny and photographic day we were rewarded with predominantly grey skies and sporadic light rain.  The crystal water clarity of the Hitara does not reward anglers who adopt a less caring approach to both the presentation of their fly and how they approach a river.  Sunny days require stealth, both in the physical approach and with the use of long leaders and delicate size 12-16 flies.  That said a low-lying grey cloud base will forgive a lot of sins and luckily not all that uncommon in Iceland.

Pools range from the adventurous to the scenic. All very fishable regardless of ability and for the most part an anglers mobility

The Hitara is a small river fishing 6 rods across what is normally divided into 3 beats.  The lodge is typically taken in exclusivity although on this occasion, due to Covid cancellations, what had been a WhereWiseMenFish slot was now split between our UK contingent alongside Icelandic rods who were taking advantage of the gaps that had become available.   The river has a wide mix of pools, the bulk of which are very easy to fish, neither requiring long casts or difficult wading.   By way of illustration over the 2 days when my partner Hideko shared a rod with me she initially lost two salmon (after lengthy adrenaline-pumping fights when all but the absence of a net prevented then being easily landed) but then went on to land a further 3, all but one being hooked on a hitched fly.   Her cumulative fly-fishing experience to date had previously been confined to some tentative lockdown Trout fishing on a small pond!!

In Scotland, anglers are blooded with their first catch.  In Iceland things are a little more primaeval.  Orri, lodge manager and master of ceremonies presented both Hideko and two other Icelandic anglers who had caught their 1st salmon with the ritualised Icelandic passage of rights for a first fish.  The biting off and swallowing of the small adipose fin behind the dorsal fin, traditionally washed down with some aquavit or indeed anything that might come to rescue to assist in its downward passage thereby ensuring future luck.

Hideko with her first Salmon and enduring a little Icelandic tradition!!

I first visited the Hitara in 2019 when the East of Iceland was suffering its worst drought on record, rendering a great many rivers in Iceland almost unfishable.   Low-water conditions creates more fear in most salmon anglers’ minds than almost any other factor.  Whilst Iceland is relatively speaking easy to get to, comparatively, high fishing costs are enough to make anyone wary, even if salmon returns are consistently good and show no sign of decreasing.  

The main-stream of the Hitara is fed by a large lake covering a very significant 7.6 square kms.   For the 2020 season, the non-hydro dam at its mouth was repaired allowing almost 2m depth of water to be held back and released as required to augment the flow should it be required during a low-water year.  In addition the smaller tributary river Grjota has a lake about half that size, again with a dam and the ability to hold back water.  So far in the 2020 season water levels on the Hitara have held good, but just knowing that such a significant supply of water is being held in reserve is welcome news.  Whilst there are a great many rivers that benefit from hydro-released water, even if those dams can create their own issues, very few rivers can boast of having their own privately controlled and managed dam.   In a world where evermore uncertain weather patterns dominate, this sort of guarantee is nothing short of a godsend for those fishing the Hitara!

Good water conditions meant that almost all of the pools on the river were producing fish.

Although most pools on the Hitara are very easy to fish, requiring short but delicate casts, almost any fish hooked has the potential to provide an exciting battle.   The river is a myriad of fast streamy runs, interspersed with boulders and sharp rocky drop-offs and channels.  I would go as far as to say that hooking a salmon is the easy part of the equation in bringing a salmon to the bank in a good number of pools on the Hitara.   Grilse are certainly more common than salmon (across Icelandic rivers in general) although the largest fish caught over our 4 days was a very healthy 86 cm.  The bulk of the fish caught were in the 5-6lb range.   This might be considered diminutive if you were hauling it in on a traditional 13-15ft salmon rod but when the fight is conducted with a light single-handed rod, with delicate flies and leader and in a  river with numerous obstacles, the battle can be every bit as exhilarating as that with a bigger fish when the proportions are magnified across the board! 

Pool 6, a newly productive pool on the upper beat of the Hitara

Equally, whilst really none of the pools on the Hitara require a long cast, (especially so once you have worked out where the fish are lying), there are plenty of pools that are both exciting and challenging to fish.  Grettisstiklur is strewn with huge glacial deposited boulders where almost any fish of any size will wrap your line around numerous obstacles amidst fast flowing deep streamy water whilst Talmafossar is a string of cascading waterfalls with select lies amidst a spectacular gorge surrounded by towering stony volcanic pillars.  The variety of good pools on offer allow anglers of all abilities to find their niche whilst not restricting the more adventurous.  To cap it all the surroundings are spectacular, snow-capped peaks lie in the far distance to the East however it is the dominant Fagraskogarfjall mountain that immediately overlooking the river that dominates the views.

Following the landslide of 2018, which severed the main artery of the Hitara, resulting in the formation of a lake at the top end of the rockfall that substantially altered the path of the river, ruminations and rumours flowed of the potentially catastrophic effect this may have.   I am no fishery scientist however from what we saw in terms of numbers of salmon in the river, the Hitara is in very good condition.  In addition in 2019, 28,000 smolt were released into the river and an additional 30,000 are due to be released this season.  

 

Until next year!! - John in celebratory mood with guide Helgi

Orri who manages the lodge and river is not only active and knowledgeable but absolutely dedicated to ensuring the river can and will offer its very best.   Being on hand to assist anglers, whilst fulfilling the wide and varied requirements that a proactive approach to salmon river management entails would seem to be offering dividends.  Nature of course also plays an active role and it is quite possible that the new course that the river follows has improved the river.  Over the 4 days of fishing, my shared tally with John and Hideko, someone who had barely cast a fly rod, let alone fished for salmon before, was 25 salmon landed and a similar amount lost with countless raised to a hitch.  This is as good a testament as any to a river in very good condition.  I shall remain happily hitched to the Hitara!

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