Dateline: July 7, 2013 – Keflavik, Iceland
“Steve, it’s called Iceland. Do you see any hints it might get cold there?” Marta can be so mean-spirited.
Iceland seemed like a great idea when we were planning an adventure for my 50th birthday. It’s exotic, loaded with fish, and has enough culture to keep Marta believing it wasn’t solely a fishing trip. The Atlantic halibut has thus far avoided me, and they are present in Iceland. All I needed was a day of good weather, and I figured that this was JULY, so we had to have decent weather. Right? Right??
Since it was JULY, I had packed for a somewhat moderate climate – no sweaters or industrial underwear. A few days before we left, Marta checked some newfangled, high-tech thing called “Weather.com.” Turns out the high temperature predicted during our entire trip was a crisp 54 degrees, and several of the days featured freezing rain, if not snow. My packing strategy changed substantially. But Marta didn’t need to be so snotty about it.
Getting there was more difficult than it needed to be. United Airlines, always at the forefront of new and exciting customer service screwups, outdid themselves. We had bought United tickets to JFK to connect with a Delta flight to Iceland. We left ourselves a generous eight hour layover. Yet they botched it. Twice we boarded. Twice we unboarded. We finally did take off, but about 30 minutes into the flight, the crew figured out that the howling noise that sounded like a loose door was in fact a loose door, and we returned to San Francisco for a good old-fashioned emergency landing. So we found ourselves still in San Francisco, dealing with a UAL representative who couldn’t have been less interested if we were selling Amway. When it gets this bad, most airlines will just throw in the towel and arrange for a different connection. But United, with all the compassion and flexibility of the 12th-century papacy, seemed to feel that they could not have made a mistake.
The bad news – Delta had no seats for three days, so we bit the bullet and paid an ungodly amount for tickets on Icelandair’s next flight. (Icelandair is AWESOME, by the way – the even make sure the doors are shut before they take off.) The good news – we got to Reykjavik a mere 12 hours later than the original itinerary, albeit sans baggage. (The better news – after months of me pressing my case, United finally made mostly good, despite the best efforts of customer relations clerk James Sugimaya, who exhibited that rare blend of rudeness and indifference normally seen only in Parisian waiters.)
We arrived late at night and headed over to the charming house we had rented. It was there we caught up with Marta’s friend Laine, who was joining us for part of the trip. A well-known media consultant, Laine is a great deal of fun and always brings out the very worst behavior in Marta.
Troublemakers. And yes, they picked on me.
The next morning, Marta and Laine were somewhat subdued – which may or may not have been related to the quart of Limoncello that went missing the previous evening. (Frankly, Marta had just spent 48 hours listening to me negotiate with (“yell at”) airline people. She deserved a drink.) Slowly and quietly, we poked around Reykjavik. Our house was just up the hill from downtown, and because it was light almost 24 hours a day, we got to play tourist well into the evening. The first thing I bought was a sweater, because, even though it was July, it was cold and windy.
We examine a statue. Note my really cool Icelandic sweater.
The cathedral up the street. This was the only time we saw it in sunshine, and this was 11pm.
Our shadows up the same street.
Despite United Airlines deliberate attempts to route my baggage to Bulgaria, my gear did show up, likely because the Icelandair people actually cared. I was ready to hit the water.
So how many tags does it take to get a bag to Reykjavik?
On the morning of the 6th, I started two straight days fishing on the Atlantic. (I would also do a third day on the 10th.) My guide was Toggi Gudmundsson, a local commercial fisherman who had plied these waters since he was a teenager, so he either doesn’t get seasick or he’s really, really stoic.
My guide for the week. Look him up if you are ever in Iceland – +354 893-0007. You can also contact Jon Sigurdsson on email – Jon@FishIceland.com, to book fishing anywhere in Iceland.
Toggi picked me up early in the morning, and we headed back toward Keflavik and out to one of the small harbors that dot the coast. On the drive over, I was struck by how desolate, yet how beautiful the landscape was.
This part of Iceland looks like Iwo Jima, but with snow. This was the last sunshine I would see for quite some time.
Toggi’s boat. It has plenty of places to hold onto for dear life, which is important.
It was a solid, comfortable boat, and we headed out into the morning full of hope. Our first stop was a protected patch just outside the harbor where Toggi thought I might get a plaice, one of the more emotionally charged species for me. (See A Plaice in the Sun for details.)
There were no plaice in this place, but I got several dabs and added Iceland as country # 79 on my list. From time to time, I would lapse into a smiling reverie, imagining the look on Marta’s face if I ever caught a plaice, but the cold would snap me out of it.
My first fish in Iceland. Note my July garb.
We moved out to some rocky reefs a bit more offshore. The wind had picked up to a bracing 30 knots, and the seas weren’t what an expert would call “nice.” So we did a bit of fishing and a lot of hanging on, and while I some nice cod and dabs, I was looking for a halibut, which are typically out in deeper water. We gave it an ill-advised try to go out into the open Atlantic. I had thought it was nasty where we had been fishing, but the water outside the Keflavik peninsula was positively foul. See video below.
We ran back into the iffy protection of the peninsula, where it was bumpy but at least fishable, and we continued the species hunt. Toggi was an expert. He knew the water inside and out – every rock, every sandy patch, every place that could hold a fish. He understood my unusual needs, and we had quickly sorted out which fish I needed to catch. It was still windy and in the low 40s, but this was a marvelous improvement over the morning.
We began drifting big clam baits over a rocky bottom in about 100 feet of water. It took more than a pound of weight to hold the bottom – the wind was pushing us fast enough to troll for wahoo. I had a few hits, likely not wahoo, and then the rod lurched down hard and I found myself trying to wrestle something off the bottom. It took a few minutes, but I made progress. Toggi waited on the rail with a gaff, and with perfect timing, he reached down and swung something big and gray onto the boat. I whooped loudly enough to be heard over the wind, because writhing and gnashing and chasing me halfway across the deck was an Atlantic wolffish, and my day was a success.
An Atlantic Wolffish, species 1224.
The new species door had been opened, and I hoped to stride right through it. If we could just get a day of decent weather, I knew that the halibut would follow. I went home filled with optimism. After all, this wasn’t January. It was a month that is historically nicer than January. It was July.
For once, my day did not begin and end on the water – there was tourism to do. Toggi dropped me off back in Reykjavik, and Marta and Laine were ready to go. We raced off to a place called “The Blue Lagoon,” which I surely thought must have been creative marketing, like when United calls themselves “The Friendly Skies.”
Brooke Shields was nowhere to be seen.
But it wasn’t marketing. It turns out that the place is a thermal spring, with crab-boil hot water so rich in minerals that it is an opaque, sky blue. We swam and lounged in the baths, had a drink, and drove back to Reykjavik for a late seafood dinner.
The water in this photo is only a couple of feet deep. It really was this blue. Maybe even bluer.
In the morning, I awoke with great optimism that this would be my day, but the hail beating against the bathroom window told me that the Fish Gods had other plans. The wind had stiffened and was augmented by freezing rain and, yes, snow flurries. Just to be stubborn, we headed out a few miles, and it was ugly. The open water was not going to an option, so we kept working spots near the coast. I didn’t catch anything new, but the cod were biting like crazy and I didn’t barf, so we’ll call it a moral victory.
There were solid cod like this on almost every drop. But no halibut.
That’s me under all that Gore-tex. In July.
Don’t they know it’s JULY? I would have one more day, so I remained hopeful. And let’s face it, it was fun to catch a bunch of nice cod. But it would be more fun to catch a halibut.
That evening, Laine had arranged for us to take a helicopter tour of the area. In light of the weather, I was uncomfortable going up in anything smaller than a 747, but we got a small time slot where takeoff was considered less risky that it would be if it was more dangerous, and off we went. It was breathtaking.
With the girls before takeoff. Is that a cool sweater or what?
This could just as easily be the moon. Or Iwo Jima.
Did I mention that the scenery was incredible?
The girls and our impossibly good-looking pilot. (According to them.) He took off and landed on time, which means he will never work for United.
Still, this was little consolation for no halibut, but I had one more day on the water – July 10 – which would be my 50th birthday. Surely the weather would improve, because, say it with me, it was July. Would the Fish Gods mock me three days in a row? Would they ruin my birthday? Naaaaaaah. Couldn’t be.