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In the fall of 2011 I took a fishing trip that was more than 17 years in the making. It all began in 1994 when my wife, Kit, flew to South America to meet me in Patagonia. Her plane was 30,000 feet in the air when she struck up a conversation with a flyfisherman seated next to her. He inquired of her what type of fishing I preferred, to which she responded, "spring creeks and sighted fish." His response was "tell him to go to Slovenia."
When Kit recounted this conversation to me, I confess that I knew nothing of Slovenia or its fishery. Intrigued, I did some research on the country, which turned up some interesting facts. Slovenia is a small independent country about the size of New Jersey with a population of two million people. It was formerly a part of Yugoslavia. Its neighbors are Austria and Hungary to the north and Italy and Croatia to the south. Slovenia is not to be confused with Slovakia, which was formerly a part of Czechoslovakia.
Portions of the country are mountainous, notably the Julian Alps, which are primarily limestone and sometimes referred to as the southern Limestone Alps. The countryside is dotted with picturesque villages. Its capital, Ljubljana (Lube-lee-ah-nah), is a quaint but vibrant city with a population that exceeds 400,000. The official language of Slovenia is Slovene, but most Slovenians are fluent in English, having studied it since primary school. Slovenia is a member of the European Union and its currency is the euro.
As for the fishing there, Slovenia’s Soca (sew-cha) River system is home to a unique variety of trout, the marble trout (Salmo marmoratus), which is related to the brown trout and grows to mammoth proportions. The world record marble trout exceeded 55 pounds. The marble trout’s distribution is limited to Slovenian and northeastern Italian rivers emptying into the Adriatic Sea. Most of these rivers are part of the Soca River system.
Photos of the Soca River and its tributaries intrigued me. The water appeared to be comparable to New Zealand’s "air-clear" waters, and the scenery of the Julian Alps (from which the Soca flows) struck me as spectacular. Years before, I had set for myself a personal goal of catching a trout on every continent save Antarctica. On learning about Slovenia, I immediately put it on my bucket list under the European heading of my continental slam.
I will not go into the details of planning a trip to Slovenia. Suffice it to say my wife is a bicyclist and it turned out that organizing a bike tour to Slovenia that included days in Austria and Italy and ending in Venice was politically the easiest way to act on my desire to fish in Slovenia. We booked the bike trip through a company called VBT (www.vbt.com) and I booked my fishing (four days in all) with Slovenian fishing guide Rok Lustrik (www .lustrik.com).
I will skip over the complications that arose as a result of a bike accident I had shortly before our planned departure date and simply note that I decided to proceed as originally planned since my fishing buddy, Doug Camp, was scheduled to meet me for the fishing and our wives already had firm plans to hike and sightsee. I could only hope that the shoulder injury I suffered would allow me to fish.
After arriving in Zurich, we took the short flight to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, a picturesque city with a lively historic center. At the airport we picked up our rental car and drove 45 minutes to scenic Lake Bled. There, we checked into our lodging, the lovely Pension Lukanc (www.lukanc -bled.com). After check-in I strung my rod and took it out on the lawn of the
Pension. It felt good in my hands and I had only minor pain in my injured arm when stripping line or reeling against resistance.
At breakfast the next morning Rok Lustrik appeared as scheduled, right on time. He is a tall and energetic man with a likable personality, a fluent command of English, and a vast knowledge of the local fishery. When I told him about my shoulder injury, he saw no reason not to venture forth. In fact, he wanted to do so immediately and not return until 7:30 p.m. Only
later did I realize that Rok’s time windows were tied to a train schedule.
Shortly after departure we pulled into a nearby train station and loaded our vehicle onto a flatcar. The train would take us south through the Julian Alps via an 11-mile-long tunnel, he explained, out of the Sava River drainage. On the other side, after a 45-minute train ride, we unloaded the car in the Soca drainage and took a short drive to the small town of Tolmin. There,
we purchased our daily permits to fish. The transaction provided me some insight into the way Slovenia manages its fisheries. The permit was not issued by a government agency, I learned, but by the famed Tolmin Fishing Club, which was instrumental in preserving the pure strain of marble trout in the Soca through a program of eradicatingintroduced brown trout and hybrid brown/marbles and re-planting genetically pure marble trout from headwater streams into their original environment, the main stem Soca drainage.
Many of Slovenia’s prime fisheries are managed by fishing clubs under supervision of the government’s Fisheries Research Institute, Rok explained. There are 64 fishing clubs in Slovenia. Clubs may present a fisheries management plan to the Fisheries Research Institute. If the plan is approved, the club is licensed to manage the fishery in accordance with the
approved plan. The institute monitors compliance with the approved plan and determines whether the club will be permitted to continue management in the future.
As we were waiting for our daily permit, we eyed the large mounted marble trout hanging on the Tolmin clubhouse wall. Rok said that the fish weighed more than 50 pounds and was the largest marble ever caught on a fly rod. He also stated that this fish would never be equaled on a fly rod because"the river gave the fish to the angler."
When asked for an explanation, he told us that when the fish was hooked it launched itself onto a gravel bar at the angler’s feet. The angler, an Italian fisherman, recognized the opportunity and leaped on top of the fish and, in a mud-wrestling match, subdued it. Rok noted that this fisherman is held in high regard locally because he donated the trophy mount to the Tolmin Club and then magnanimously hosted a celebratory feast for all the club members.
With our daily permit in hand, we departed for the Tolminka, a nearby tributary of the Soca. The permit stated that fishing is catch and release and the angling method is limited to a single barbless fly with no added weight. As a consequence of the no-added weight restriction, most of Rok’s subsurface fly patterns have oversized heavy tungsten beads to quickly sink
Rok rigged us with nymphs under small white foam indicators and we walked to the first pool. There the Tolminka
ran crystal clear with sizeable rainbows and Adriatic grayling clearly visible. There was no surface activity so we began to cast to individual fish. On my third cast, a rainbow of about three pounds took my fly and proceeded to put up a strong fight before it was netted. After this initial success,our offerings were ignored and Rok announced that we would move on, this time to the main stem of the Soca upstream of Tolmin.
This stretch of the Soca is a sizable river, running a beautiful turquoise due to limestone silt from the towering Julian Alps. We had success there, mostly blind casting our nymphs into riffles. Again, the fish were strong and bright in color. It was there that Doug hooked and lost a large marble trout, our only major disappointment of the day.
Altogether on the first day we fished four rivers, all part of the Soca drainage. In each river we were impressed by the size and number of fish. On our third river, a small tributary stacked with rainbows, we learned a second lesson concerning the Slovenian fishery. To reach this stream we walked a considerable distance through an agricultural field. I remarked to Rok
that I had not seen any "no trespassing" or "posted" signs on any of the streams. He responded that I would not see any in Slovenia because all the rivers are owned by the government, and anglers have the right to cross private property to access the rivers.
After a full day of fishing, we caught the last train back through the Alps to our Pension at Lake Bled. At dinner, Doug and I recounted the day. Doug is a fly fishing guide in southern Colorado and we have both fished many noted trophy trout destinations. We both were impressed with what we had seen on our first day.
On our second morning Rok announced that we would stay close and fish the nearby Sava Bohinjka. The Sava Bohinjka is a major tributary that joins with the Sava Dolinka near Lake Bled. Downstream of the juncture of these two large tributaries, the river is simply known as the Sava. The Sava eventually drains into the Danube, which ultimately empties into the
There are no marble trout in the Danube drainage. Thus, our primary focus for that day would be rainbow trout and Black Sea grayling (Thymallus thymallus). We might also get a glimpse of the major predator of the Danube system, Rok informed us, the "Danube salmon" (Hucho hucho). The Danube salmon is not a salmon, but rather a relative of the river-dwelling
Mongolian taimen (Hucho taimen), which grows to as much as 50 pounds. The fishing season for this species is
November to February.
The second day of fishing was as remarkable as the prior day. After a stop to pick up our daily permit issued by the Sava Bohinjka club, we pulled off the road overlooking the river. There, below us, in crystalline water, were large rainbows lined up in the current. Again, there was no surface activity. And again we would fish with weighted nymphs under foam indicators.
We waded into the river and made long casts to sighted fish.
For most of the morning we had steady action. These were subtle takes by big fish. Our largest of the morning was a strong rainbow that I landed after a good fight. We estimated the weight of the largest fish at eight pounds. Doug landed a rainbow of six pounds, but most fish were between one and three pounds. We both hooked strong grayling, too, which provided
spectacular aerial displays but ultimately got away.
Late in the morning Rok signaled for us to follow him through the underbrush on a high bank overlooking a deep pool. There he pointed out a large shape lying on the bottom. He said that it was a Danube salmon that he thought was at least 35 pounds in weight. With that, he tossed a large rock into the stream and the shadow streaked downstream and out of sight.
Our afternoon of fishing was less productive, as the fish seemed to turn off. In addition, we came to the conclusion that the fishing there has its challenges. The fish are pressured. Club members, in exchange for their annual membership fee and a certain amount of volunteer duties, are given a specified number of fishing days. In addition, anyone paying the daily
permit fee can fish. Many Italians fish in Slovenia, Rok explained, because of the quality of the fishery and its accessibility. Much of Europe is unavailable to the average fisherman, he continued, due to private property restrictions that block access. Poor fisheries management is a problem, too, in many parts of Europe.
Because the Slovenian fish are pressured, it is a technical fishery. Good presentation is critical. I would compare it to spring creek fishing in Montana in terms of its technical demands. In our two days of fishing we saw only a few other anglers, but that was probably because there is so much water available. Still, there is no doubt that the fish in Slovenia see fishermen. Some of them, as a result, are quite wary.
The next morning we were met by a replacement guide, Sebastian Podbevsek. Rok had a family emergency that day so he arranged for Sebastian to guide us. Sebastian announced that we would drive north and cross the high Alps at Vrsic Pass to access the upper Soca River drainage.
If we had done nothing else that day, the drive over Vrsic Pass alone would have made the day memorable. The road was built during World War I by the Austro-Hungarian army using Russian prisoners of war as slave laborers. The narrow road travels up an incredibly steep escarpment with 25 hairpin turns on either side of the pass. On the north side there is a Russian chapel to commemorate the men who died building this road. Many of these Russian prisoners were victims of avalanches.
At the top of these Alps, in what was known as the Soca-Isonzo front, the Austro-Hungarian army faced off with the Italian army. For 26 months the two forces slugged it out in classic trench warfare. Neither side gained more than a few yards until the Italian line was breached and the battle lines shifted far to the south, almost to Venice. During the stalemate, it is estimated there were more than a million casualties in the valley of the Soca.
Though the details of this brutal conflict are not well remembered in the West, there were some notable participants. Erwin Rommel fought on the Austro-Hungarian side and later earned fame as the "Desert Fox" of Germany’s North Africa campaign. Benito Mussolini fought on the Italian side and later ascended as "Il Duce," dictator of Italy. Another person of note in this conflict was the young Ernest Hemingway, who drove an ambulance for the Italian side and was wounded in the fighting. Hemingway described the Italian retreat in his novel A Farewell to Arms.
As we descended from the pass into the upper Soca, I was jolted by the incredible scenery, the white limestone of the Alps, and the sapphire blue of the upper river. We stopped at a tavern where we were issued our daily license. Without moving the car, we followed Sebastian from the tavern for a half mile to a small feeder stream. There the stream was about 15 feet wide with a few pools that appeared to be four or five feet deep. Numerous trout and grayling visibly finned in the crystal water.
It was about 10:30 in the morning and a sparse mayfly hatch was underway. Two large trout were surface feeding along a rock wall. One of the two feeding fish was noticeably darker than the other fish in the pool. Sebastian thought that it was a marble trout and we concentrated on it, casting small dries.
I put several good drifts over the marble and it showed interest but rejected pattern after pattern. After each rejection Sebastian tied on a new pattern. Within the next 30 minutes or so the fish rejected five patterns. After the fifth rejection, Sebastian announced, "We change again, he will make a mistake."The sixth pattern was a size 20 classic upright, a simple tie with a thread body, hackle-tip wings and sparse hackle. And sure enough, the trout made the predicted mistake. On the first drift, the fish slowly rose and confidently took the offering. When I finally landed the fish, I was exhilarated at the sight of this specimen of the rarest of trout species.
The fish had darkly mottled olive coloring, was about 20 inches in length, and had an unusually large head and slender body. Sebastian explained that marble trout convert from insect eaters to fish eaters at about this size. Consequently, pursuit of larger marbles is usually limited to casting large streamers to sighted fish. The larger fish are, however, more nocturnal in their feeding habits and they tend to conceal themselves under large rocks or undercut embankments during daytime hours.
In addition to the marble, Doug and I landed several nice rainbows in this small tributary. At this juncture, Sebastian worked with us both on some nymphing techniques and he promised some additional education in the afternoon, when we would fish the main stem, after beers and bratwurst at a tavern.
Well fed, we drove a mile up the main stem of the Soca. There the river was 50 to 60 feet wide with visible fish along the far bank. Sebastian demonstrated a technique for this water. He cast quartering upstream with a weighted nymph about seven feet below an indicator. As soon as the line hit the water, he made a quick downward flick of the rod with his wrist. The rod tip dipped from about the 11 o’clock position to 9 o’clock. This quick movement sent excess line out toward the fly to minimize drag from intervening currents. I tried to replicate the effect with a typical mending motion but found that his "flick" mend was far more effective.
Of equal importance to the flick was the next move. Sebastian immediately raised as much line off the surface as possible without disturbing the drift. He explained that grayling are "quick strikers." Hooking percentages dramatically improve when you maintain as little line on the water as possible while maintaining a drag-free drift.
Doug and I worked on these techniques for a couple of hours. Just as we were becoming proficient at the flick mend and line lift, the sun sank behind the towering peaks and it was time to return to Lake Bled. As we were walking back to the car I asked Doug if he had learned anything today. He responded, "I learned that I’m not as good a nymph fisherman as I thought I was." I learned the same thing.
The next morning, his family issue resolved, Rok picked us up for our last half day of fishing. In the afternoon Doug and I would pay penance for our fishing days by joining the bicycle tour group at our hotel in old town Ljubljana. But for half a day we would fish on the big river, the Sava. There, Rok promised we would be fishing for big, strong rainbows and Black Sea grayling. There are also some browns in this section of river.
Our morning of fishing was again eventful. On this river of about 200 feet in width, Doug and I worked on our flick mends and line lifts. We hooked and landed some very strong fish, deep-bodied rainbows, grayling, and a single large brown. As we fished, I felt that my hooking percentage had dramatically improved. I started daydreaming about how I would use the flick mend and line lift techniques on my home waters of the Rio Grande and Conejos of New Mexico and Colorado.
Doug and I wound up our half day on the Sava staring down from a bridge as Rok pointed out two large Danube salmon lying side by side in a deep pool. Not far away we could see a rainbow that had to weigh at least ten pounds quietly finning in the current. Another memorable river, another memorable day!
Our stay in the medieval center of Ljubljana was not a letdown. There on the banks of the Ljubljanica River, the old town is a lively mix of riverside restaurants, open-air music, and winding alleys and pedestrian ways through medieval architecture. And overlooking it all is an impressive hilltop castle.
Altogether we spent two weeks in Slovenia, which included several days bicycling along the Julian Alps and then into Italy and Austria. Along the way, we passed impressive ski resorts and extensive bicycle trails. We also visited southern Slovenia’s wine-producing region and limestone "karst" area of impressive caves. In addition, we took in a performance in Lipica at the Lippizzaner horse stud farm originally established 1580 by the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand. Finally, after a few days in the small but scenic coastal town of Piran, we left Slovenia for a three-day stay in Venice and our flight home.
All in all, Slovenia and its neighboring countries offer many attractions for the traveler, but for a serious angler, none rival the beauty and quality of the rivers and fishery of Slovenia. As Kit and I flew home, I fondly recalled how this wonderful travel experience started on an airplane flight many years ago with the statement from a fellow fly fisher to "tell him to go to Slovenia." – Bill Owen.