Angling report by Bill N.

Published at - http://www.anglingreport.com

A SLOVENIAN ODYSSEY


In the fall of 2011 I took a fishing trip that was more than 17 years in the planning stages. 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 fly fisherman seated next to her. He inquired of her what type of fishing I preferred, to which she responded “. . . he prefers spring creeks and sighted fish.” His retort 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. However, after some preliminary research I learned some intriguing facts. Slovenia is a small independent country that was formerly a part of Yugoslavia. It’s population is 2 million people and it is about size of the state of New Jersey. It’s 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 are sometimes referred to as the southern Limestone Alps. The countryside is dotted with picturesque villages, though it’s capital of 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, however, most Slovenians are fluent in English, having started studying it in primary school. Slovenia is a member of the European Union and its currency is the Euro.

From a fisherman’s perspective Slovenia’s Soca (“sew-cha”) River system is home to a unique variety of trout, the marble trout (Salmo marmoratus). The marble trout 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—primarily 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 flowed, spectacular. Years before I had set for myself a personal goal of catching a trout on every continent, save Antarctica. Thus, I resolved to put Slovenia on my “bucket list”---the European leg of my continental “slam”.

However, I felt the need to plan a trip to Slovenia as more than just a personal fishing expedition. My wife would want to accompany me and she has other interests, notably bicycling. Thus, in 2009 a perfect strategy emerged.

Kit was on a cross-country bicycle trip with me driving our personal van as the “sag” (support and gear) wagon. We stopped along the way to visit friends who had just returned from a bicycle tour in the Czech Republic organized by VBT (formerly Vermont Bicycle Tours, www.vbt.com ). It occurred to me that VBT might have a bicycle tour in Slovenia that would interest my wife and if so, how could she begrudge me a few days on the streams of Slovenia!!!

And, as luck would have it, VBT had a 3-country bicycle tour which included Slovenia, Austria and Italy, ending in Venice. So, here was the perfect plan. We booked the bicycle tour and I lined up a Slovenian fishing guide, Rok Lustrik (www.lustrik.com) for four days of fishing. Everything was falling into place for the perfect vacation.

Ah, but not so fast! Just two and one-half weeks before our mid-September departure, while training for the bicycling tour, I fell off my bicycle and broke my upper left arm at the shoulder joint. It looked like fishing would be out of the question. Although, I could still cast, I had limited use of my left arm to strip line and reel against resistance. Additionally, the doctors warned that a fall could aggravate the injury and require surgery. Ouch!

Even with this bad news, I did not cancel our guide since my fishing buddy Doug Camp was scheduled to meet me for the fishing and our wives had plans to hike and sightsee. Further, I still had hope that the arm would heal sufficiently to allow me to fish at least on one of our four scheduled days.

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 the arm when stripping line or reeling against resistance. So, I was ready to give it a go as long as Rok, our guide, could assure me that we would avoid steep terrain and heavy current, as I still feared a fall and aggravating the break. Rok would meet us at breakfast the next morning.

At breakfast Rok appeared on time. He is tall and energetic with a likable personality and he has fluent command of English and a vast knowledge of the fishery. He had no reluctance about me venturing forth. Then, without further discussion, Rok announced to our wives that we would leave immediately and not return until 7:30PM. Only later did I realize that Rok’s time windows were tied to a train schedule.

Shortly after departure we pulled into the nearby train station and loaded our vehicle onto a flatcar. The train would take us out of the Sava River drainage which is part of the Danube River system that ultimately drains into the Black Sea northeast of Istanbul. We traveled by train south through the Julian Alps via an 11 mile long tunnel. On the other side, after a 45 minute train ride, we unloaded the car in the Soca drainage which empties into the Adriatic Sea near Venice.

Upon arrival in the Soca drainage, we took a short drive to the small town of Tolmin. There we purchased our daily permits to fish. And, here we learned our first lesson in fisheries management, Slovenia style. The permit was not issued by a government agency, but by the famed Tolmin Fishing Club. The Tolmin Club is noted for being instrumental in preserving the pure strain of marble trout through a program of eradicating the introduced brown trout and hybrid brown/marbles and planting genetically pure marble trout from headwater streams into their original environment, the main stem Soca drainage.

We learned from Rok that many of Slovenia’s prime fisheries are managed by fishing clubs under supervision of the government’s Fisheries Research Institute. 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 issuance of 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.”

We asked for an explanation and 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 angling method 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 the patterns.

Rok rigged us with nymphs under small white foam indicators and we walked to the first pool. Here, 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 3 pounds took the fly and proceeded to put up a strong fight before it was netted. After this initial success, our offerings were ignored and Rok announced 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 turqoise due to limestone silt from the towering Julian Alps. We had success here mostly blind casting our nymphs into riffles. Again the fish were strong and bright in color. It was here that Doug hooked and lost a large marble trout, our only major disappointment of the day.

Altogether on this 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 the angler has a right to cross private property to access the rivers.

After a full day 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 this, our first day.

On our second morning Rok announced that today 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. Downsteam of the juncture of these two large tributaries, the river is simply known as the “Sava”. The Sava eventually drains into the Danube, which as noted, ultimately empties into the Black Sea.

There are no marble trout in the Danube drainage, thus, our primary focus for this day would be rainbow trout and the Black Sea grayling (thymallus, thymallus). We might also get a glimpse of the major predator of the Danube system, the “Danube Salmon” (hucho hucho). The Danube Salmon is not a salmon, but rather it is a relative of the river dwelling Mongolian taimen (hucho, taimen). The Danube Salmon is a fish predator that grows to as much as 50 pounds and the fishing season for this species is November to February.

This 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. 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 that fish at eight pounds. Doug landed a rainbow of six pounds, but most fish were between one and three pounds. We each hooked strong grayling, but after spectacular aerial displays, none were landed.

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 is a Danube Salmon which 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 here 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. Notably, many Italians fish in Slovenia because of the quality of the fishery and the availability of access. Much of Europe is unavailable to the average

A Slovenian Odyssey

fisherman due to private property restrictions preventing access and, in some cases, poor fisheries management.
Because the Slovenian fish are pressured, it is a technical fishery where 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 had seen a few other anglers, however, there is so much water available that we did not feel crowded. But, there is no doubt that the fish see fishermen and, as we learned, some are very accomplished.


The next morning we were met by a replacement guide, Sebastian Podbevsek. Rok had a family emergency this day and arranged for Sebastian to guide us. Sebastian announced that we will 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 been made the day memorable. The road was built during the First World War by the Austo-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 notable in this conflict was the young Ernest Hemingway who drove an ambulance for the Italian side and was wounded in the fighting. Hemingway describes 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. Here the stream was about 15 feet wide with a few pools that appeared to be 4 or 5 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 under way. 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 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. After about 30 minutes time the fish had rejected 5 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 it was landed, 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. During our time 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 the tavern.

Well fed, we drove a mile up the main stem of the Soca. Here 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 7 feet below an indicator. As soon as the line hit the water, he would make a quick downward flick of the rod with his wrist. The rod tip would dip from about the 11 o’clock position to 9 o’clock. This quick movement would send excess line out toward the fly to minimize drag from intervening currents. I tried to duplicate 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 would immediately raise as much line off the surface as possible without disturbing the drift. He explained that the grayling are “quick strikers”. Hooking percentages dramatically improve by maintaining as little line on the water as possible while maintaining a drag-free drift.

For a couple of hours Doug and I worked on these techniques. 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 said “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 have to 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. Here, 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. Here 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, graylings and a single large brown landed by Doug. As we fished, I felt that my hooking percentage had dramatically improved. And 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 be 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 let down. Here, 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, an impressive hilltop castle.

Altogether, we spent 2 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 growing area 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. Then 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 it’s 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 “. . . tell him to go to Slovenia”.