H2O Magazine

BALKAN ON A BUDGET: CROATIA – A DRY FLY FISHERMAN'S PARADISE

Croatia is much more than sandy beaches and Slivovice. The beautiful Balkan gem is home to an array of rivers which will make any dry fly fisherman's knees go soft. And since traveling to and staying in Croatia is still extremely cheap, lots of great dry fly fishing can be had on a very reasonable budget.
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GACKA

The gacka river meanders calmly through the Otocac valley’s summery and lush-green culture landscape, and even at first glance, we spot a couple of well-nourished rainbow trout in the surreally clear water.

This evening, while Klaus and I rig up our light fly rods with eager hands, a sense of rural post-romanticism intermingles effortlessly with Nature’s inherent bittersweetness, and the immaculately combed Gacka meadows are ripe with Balkan essence.

The famous chalk stream gushes up from the underground only a few kilometers upstream, but already here – below the old Gacka Hotel, which was destroyed during the war – the water flow is massive.  

The river has carved itself deep into the terrain, and even though its crystal clear water masses possess a treacherous and distorting quality, it is fairly easy to tell that, here and there, the water depth exceeds four meters.

It is deep, slow flowing, and extremely rich in subaquous fauna – and the fish here grow almost five times faster than in other comparable rivers. It is no wonder that we are excited when we do the first couple of intuitive casts. Two day’s of fishing await us here, and we both sense that a lot of great experiences lie ahead.

THE FISHING

The fishing with the heavy nymphs, the strike indicators, and the extra weight on the long leaders is exciting and challenging, but at noon, when the first sparse hatches appear, our mindsets subtly transform and we are now tentatively casting small imitational dry flies.

We are told that it is quite common for the hatches to be extremely confined to the period between 12 and 14 o’clock, so we are intensely focused on the increasing surface activity for the next couple of hours.

Especially the rainbow trout are rising, but they definitely aren’t easy to fool. The hatches are complex and rich and the fish display a rather frustrating preferential moodyness.

One minute they’ll be eating tiny spent spinners, the next they’ll munch on surface film emergers, and we constantly have to be sharp, observant and experimenting to succeed. Our patience and tenacity pays off, however.

During the couple of hours that the hatches last, we manage to lure a small handful of beautifully coloured and hard-fighting rainbow trout – and our dry fly-hearts swell up in response and beat stronger than ever.

THE SOURCES

The fishing on the second day takes place just below the Gacka source and the charming old water mill, which is situated here. The whole area bubbles and trickles with water, and lots of minute brooks rush in and accompany the Gacka river in a willful and lush wanderlust downstream.

Klaus starts out fishing in the pool just below the water mill where the water flow is still rather minimal. He hooks up with a good fish in his first cast, and in no time whatsoever, he has landed a handful of frantically fighting rainbow trout that hit his dry fly without hesitation.

It seems the fish are a bit more heady today and our spirits are high as we slowly move downstream in seach of new scaly playmates.

THE TROUT

In no time whatsoever, the river assumes its rightful expression, and even though we have only journeyed a couple of hundred meters downstream from the source, the river is both deep and wide. We each find a suitable tempo and rhythm, and we both experience some fine fly fishing for brown- and rainbow trout, which to a growing extent involves small, weighted nymphs and long, slim leaders.

Undoubtedly, Klaus catches the day’s most impressive fish – a mercilessly beautiful brown trout a little shy of 50cm. It is revealed by its fiery golden flanks in the main current some 200meters below the water mill.

And with great care and precision, Klaus manages a long cast which drops the tiny nymph in a place where it is carried right past the fish. The gullible brown trout picks up the fly, Klaus lifts the fly rod, and in that same instant a hectic battle begins.

The brown trout desperately attempts to find shelter in the lush weedbeds, but every single time, Klaus turns and steers the fish out into the open. In the end, he guides a drop-dead gorgeous, golden and red-dotted creature into the net, and I shoot a series of concluding pictures with the old water mill as a meaningful backdrop. The release of the trout poignantly marks our departure from the river.

DOBRA AND VITUNJCICA

From the otocac and Gacka valleys, we journey onwards to the immensely charming medieval city of  Ogulin and the cosy Frankopan Hotel where we will be staying for the night. On the way, we visit the unique Plitvice National Park, which is comprised by a seeming infinity of majestic water falls, eerily clear lakes, rugged mountain plateaus and curious microcosms.

In the Ogulin area, diverse rivers such as the Dobra, Vitunjcica and Kupa are found. The Dobra harbors fine populations of brown trout, rainbow trout and not least danubian salmon, and with its rocky bottom, giddily flowing water and great width it is a river in the true meaning of the word.

The Dobra-tributary, Vitunjcica, is a beautifully meandering but small river, and it is known for its sublime fishing after rainbow trout, which grow to dramatic sizes. Kupa on the other hand is a real mountain river, and it is renowned for its marvellous grayling fishing.

Both dobra and vitunjcica suffer from snowmelt further up in the mountains and not least massive downpours – but this doesn’t prevent us from experiencing some fine and captivating dry fly fishing.

Our dry fly techniques are steadily adjusted and refined, and even though we don’t catch any big fish, we see them here and there – and we also make contact. When the day finally draws to an end, and we conclude the fishing, we are completely full of heart-warming impressions and our dry fly-hearts beat with renewed purpose and will.

We have caught more rainbow trout than any of us can count, and knowing that tomorrow will take us to the surreally beautiful Kupa river, we lay ourselves to sleep with impatient minds.  

KUPA

The fourth day arrives, and we immediately head Northwest towards the Kupa river – a journey which requires a fairly arduous drive through rugged but beautiful mountain terrain. The river marks the border to neighboring Slovenia, and it is the final stop on our fantastic journey through Croatia. It is every dry fly fisherman’s wet dream, and the many powerful and beautifully marked grayling scattered about in the river’s riveting water masses offer intense challenges.

Like the Gacka, the Kupa river simply gushes from the chalky Croatian underground born by accumulating subsurface water reserves. It originates in the gorgeous and rugged Rijsnak National Park and it is cool, clear and more or less temperature-stable thoughout the year.

We are here with Zlatimir Kostelic, the captain of the Croatian fly fishing team, a guy who – despite having seen more trout- and grayling waters than most – spends the majority of his fishing season on the Kupa river. Oh, and he doesn’t even live close by.

THE RIVER OF EMOTIONS

A decent walk downstream through rugged decidous woods leads us to a stretch of the river that tears and rips at our overwhelmed fishing hearts. We quietly work our way downstream, hook several fine grayling, and finally – in the most intense heat of noon – we spot some rising fish that cut willfully through the water masses to ensure some insect nourishment on the surface.

For the next couple of hours, we catch some extraordinarily handsome grayling between 35 and 45cm on carefully presented #18-22 dryflies. It is challenging and intense, and we completely loose ourselves to a subtle rhythm unique to this mountaneous region – a rhythm that clears our minds of any burdening sense of time.

It is nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful, and we both agree that this is some of the best dry fly fishing imaginable – even if the hatches and thus the dry fly fishing only last for a couple of hours.

IN THE EVENING

The evening fishing is incredible. Not so much because we catch lots of fish- which we actually do- but mostly because the river and the surrounding mountains, with the dimming lights, adorn a wonderous and captivating glow that makes the emerald blue and lush green of the river and the mountains blush with renewed vigour and life – as if the coming darkness was going to last forever.

We catch a small supplementary handful of grayling and find the fish rising to microscopical midges on one of the rare slow-flowing and deep stretches of the river. Only the most minute dry flies in our fly boxes, such as hopeless #28-32 gnats, will do the trick – and only with great difficulty. In return, even the biggest graylings in the river are now on their fins, and we therefore cannot help but fully and eagerly accept the challenge, and all the many defeats and few but overwhelming successes that are to follow.

Suddenly complete darkness descends and the sublime fishing ebbs out, just like a beautiful melody that quietly fades away. The river is still there slumbering away in the dead of night, but even though it whispers temptingly to us from afar as we head downstream towards the car, we have irrevocably placed our final dry fly casts on the river’s fleeting surface film.

We have been solemly quiet most of the day – like a couple of devout believers in Church, but now the silence has been broken by joyful conversation. And in particular the talk revolves around when we’ll be able to go back to Croatia and to the heartbreaker Kupa.

BY RASMUS OVESEN

PHOTOS: RASMUS OVESEN AND KLAUS BOBERG PEDERSEN

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