Tuesday, July 7, 2015

4 days in the Soča Valley

For our annual fishing trip this year, Mark and I chose Slovenia. The Soča Valley boasts some 140 kilometers of some of the most beautiful trout rivers in the world. Just a short (and cheap!) flight from Zürich, we flew into Ljubljana, and drove about an hour and a half to Kobarid, the home of Soca Fly, the fishing lodge where we decided to stay for our four days. The lodge was fantastic, and the owner, Matt Calderaro, did a great job of bringing some of the US fly fishing culture to this sleepy little town in eastern Europe. Not only does Soca Fly offer a little fly shop in addition to three nicely outfitted rooms, but the town of Kobarid has a very lively town square with a selection of good cafes, restaurants, and bars.

Fly shop down below, very nicely outfitted rooms and a shared kitchen upstairs.

Day 1

Matt telling us what to expect on the Soča.
On the first day, we woke up bright and early and headed to the Soča River itself with Matt for the day. He wanted to show us the peculiarities of fishing the  river system, and we were very glad he did. It isn't an easy place to fish. The pressured fish and impossibly clear water demand concentration and deliberation. In short order we nymphed up some healthy rainbows in fast water. If you're not disciplined enough to retie your tippet after every fish, this type of fishing will change your mind in minutes. The strong fish, the fast current, and the sharp rocks combine to shred your tippet.  We moved downriver to a less turbulent section and tied on some dries, were we also had success. The fish were silvery and fat, around 15 inches, and very acrobatic and determined, perhaps due to the icy cold water of the Soča. I had to laugh at the fact that I naively considered leaving my waders at home in favor of wet wading. It would have been torture. Keeping my hand in the water long enough to let a fish recover and swim away was bad enough, standing hip deep in water this cold would have been unbearable.

Mark with his Tom Morgan 4 weight.

Matt showing us how it's done

The result

Then it was my turn...

As the day went on, we moved down the river, sometimes driving, sometimes hiking, and fishing dries to rising rainbows. I was very surprised at the vigor of these fish, I'd never felt as much fight from a trout this size and my 5 weight H2 enjoyed quite the bend throughout the day. Practically every pool contained massive fish. Getting deep enough and enticing them to bite was another thing, eventually we focused on easier targets. As the day went on, Mark landed a substantial Grayling, and Matt regaled us with stories of the history of the Soča Valley, and his time at Orvis and elsewhere. He's got a few lifetimes of fly fishing experiences under his belt.

Mark's Grayling

We finished up the evening with a delicious pizza, a few cold mugs of local beer, and a finger or two of whisky we'd brought from Zürich. After dinner we wandered across the street to the Hotel Hvala, famous for the mount of a 47 inch, 55 pound marble trout found dead on the banks of the Soča.


Day 2

On the second day, Mark and I went off our on own, to the Idrijca river. As was to be expected, we saw plenty of big fish, but hooking them was another matter. As we headed downriver, we switched to streamers and immediately hooked some fish and eventually came across the occasional pool of rising fish, where we would switch to dries, and then streamer or nymph or way to the next pool. Matt was nice enough to let me take one of his Mirage reels with me, and not just any Mirage. I guess one could say it was THE Mirage. Needless to say, I was particularly careful with it.

Limited Edition, Nr. 1.

As we worked our way downstream, I lost one very substantial fish on a streamer in a very small, unassuming riffle, and it wouldn't be the last big fish I'd lose this trip. (Consider this foreshadowing)

One of many on the Idrijca

I could have done just fine without any of these.

We called it a day, walked back along to the road to the car, and enjoyed a plate of Calamari and a local potato dish for what would be the first of our two dinners. Later that evening, Matt came back to the lodge with another pair of guests, and as we relayed fish stories it turned out that one of the guests had briefly hooked and subsequently lost one of the largest trout Matt had ever seen in that part of the Soča system. (Consider this foreshadowing as well) We headed over to a local campground, where we ate a delicious second dinner consisting of mixed meat platters with plenty more beer, and more whisky once we got back to the room.

Delicious Calamari from the Adriatic Sea, just an hour's drive away.

It would be a shame not to take advantage of cheap, good beer.

Day 3

The next morning we grabbed some sandwiches from the local grocery as soon as they opened their doors, and  hooked up with Matt again, starting at the Trebuščica river, a bit more on the Upper Idrijca,  the Bača and finally back to the Soča.

Our day on the Trebuščica started out great, plenty of smaller rainbows rising to dries and eagerly taking nymphs. The pools were frequent, but the river small, so one person took turns while the others watched and chatted. I brought my Superfine Glass 3 weight, and it was the perfect rod for casting smaller dries to these lively fish in close quarters. Around midday we came upon another fisherman fishing his way downstream, and his partner had apparently fished his way upstream, and in a stream this small, the fish would be down for a while, so we decided to move on..

The Trebuscica is a small stream, so we switched off from pool to pool

A fat Slovenian stonefly

Mark working a pool

The Upper Idrijca was beautiful, but not much going on in the fish department, we all caught a few smaller fish but nothing substantial. After a brief stop at the Bača and at a few nice pools on the Soča for a few fish on streamers on the way home, we enjoyed an impressive dinner of massive ribs at nearby Kamp Lazar. It should be noted that I was not able to eat everything on my plate.. I literally can't recall the last time that happened.

Ribs, Slovenian style.

Day 4

Our trip was almost over, and we had an evening flight, so we decided to fish a smaller river on our way back to the airport. We got a particularly early start, and walked down, spotting fish but having no luck at first. This was, it should be noted, the river where some other Soca Fly guests hooked and lost that big rainbow I mentioned previously. We walked down the river until it became unfishable in a canyon, and slowly made our way back up. In short order, we saw the fish.

Spot him?
A better look through the ridiculously clear water
He was huge, and actively nymphing right where the other guests left him. A short and very careful stalk, a cast, and nothing. Again and again, and nothing. Mark and I switched off, he tried with no luck. The fish would periodically move out into the current, and back a few minutes later, but his size made him easy to keep track of in the pool. He wasn't spooked or skittish, after a while I abandoned all caution in my eagerness to get him on the hook. Finally I got him to short strike a streamer. Mark had long since given up and was enjoying the wide open dry fly fishing elsewhere on the river. I took a break and did the same, catching plenty of fat rainbows on my 3 weight. I came back to try again for the big fish, and sure enough, he took a big black stonefly nymph, shook his head, came halfway out of the water and immediately threw the hook. After that my luck was up. I'd never had a fish that big on the line, not even close. 30 inches was a very conservative estimate. And with that, our trip was over, our plans for next year already coalescing on the drive to the airport.

Nonstop fish on dries on the Upper Soča

Mark with a nice bend in his Tom Morgan

With water this cold, the fish didn't need much time at all to recover

Until next time!

The main lesson I took from fishing the Soča Valley is that you can drive yourself absolutely nuts fishing for the huge fish you see in some of the deeper pools, and never get them to take a hook. The sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can find the plentiful and big fish practically everywhere else. Will we go again? Definitely, probably as soon as next year. Kobarid is a beautiful little town in a stunning part of Europe, with easy access to a number of amazing turquoise blue rivers, each offering their own challenges and peculiarities. For some odd reason I didn't bring enough rods, just my 5 weight H2 and 3 weight Superfine Glass. (I ended up breaking the tip on my H2 on the last day, so I was a little undergunned with the 3 weight). Next time I'll bring more rods. I also didn't land a marble trout so that's definitely on the list for next year. While the day cards were very expensive at a hefty 60 Euros per day (and even more if you bought a license enabling you to keep a few fish), that was more than compensated for by the affordability of every other part of the trip. There are various discounts available for the cards, but for the average fisherman, the lion's share of a trip's budget will be taken up by the license costs, a rude awakening for anyone used to fishing in the U.S. and grabbing an annual license for less than the cost of a single day here in the Soča Valley. Food and beer was very cheap, especially compared to Switzerland,  and the accommodations and service at Soca Fly are excellent and provide an almost palpable aura of fly fishing culture that's unfortunately all too rare in Europe.

If Tony Hawk were a flyfisherman...

Bear with me now, I'm going to mention skateboarding for a brief moment. When I was a kid growing up in the 80's, I had a multicolored Vision Gator board, Independent Trucks, and Slimeball wheels. I think it had pink grip tape too. I spent a few years skateboarding in suburban Connecticut, a worn copy of Transworld Skateboarding in my pocket, a few thousand miles away from my idols Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, Christian Hosoi, and the guy who my board was named after who I probably shouldn't mention as he'll be in jail for a very long time for some very bad things he did. But that's neither here nor there, and what does this have to do with flyfishing?

Peter Ortmann, a fisherman from Bavaria I've gotten to know through social media,  built a net out of a skateboard a few months ago. It was a neat idea, a little rough looking, but quite a cool idea that was definitely worth refining. 

Neat idea right?

And then he built this:

It doesn't have enough pink grip tape for my taste, but it's an incredibly impressive piece of work, and it took me tight back to 1989. It's cooler than any other net I've ever seen.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

An heirloom from Twin Bridges

Last summer I spent (an absolutely unforgettable) 3 weeks in Montana as a sabbatical, one week of which I spent at Sweetgrass Rods, as sort of a mini-internship. I split lots of cane and pulled strips with Glenn and helped out with glueing. After work they'd always hand me a few demo rods to fish with until it got dark, and Luca even took me to the Beaverhead and the Ruby. I sanded some blanks as well, and when my time was up, Dave not only said there'd be a job waiting for me with them if I ever moved to Montana,  but also that he'd finish up one of the rods I started work on and would send it to me. I was sad to leave, and grateful for the time they allowed me to spend there. All I really wanted and expected out of the whole experience was a little insight into Sweetgrass and a fulfillment of the requirements of my sabbatical, which I got, but I also made some good friends that I hope to see again soon someday, and was able to witness a part of fly fishing history that most people never will, getting a rod out of it was a very unexpected but much appreciated bonus.

I kept in touch with some of the guys there, and a few weeks ago, Dave mentioned that my rod was finished. I was excited as I tracked the package on it's way from Twin Bridges to Switzerland, and when it finally arrived, I opened it up and, no exaggeration, got a little lump in my throat and was taken completely by surprise. I was eagerly expecting a demo rod, like the ones I'd used while I was there, shipped in a PVC tube or something, with a basic reel seat, guides, wraps, etc. Instead there was a Sweetgrass logo'd metal tube, I unscrewed it and pulled out a 7'9" #5, with an agate guide, a beautiful seat, signature red wraps and bamboo winding check. Most touching of all, the inscription on the rod: "Built for Oliver with gratitude from the Booboys"

As beautiful as it is, it deserves to be fished, and fish I did. I probably won't be throwing weighted streamers on it, but balanced with a Fishon Agate it casts a dry on a DT5 like a dream. Last year's trip to Montana was absolutely unforgettable, and a souvenir like this is just icing on the cake. Thank you, Booboys.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A new confidence fly

I might be in midst of slicing my fingers open and burning myself on heat gun nozzles as I slowly learn the craft that is bamboo rod making, but I still found enough time to tie up a box of flies over the winter, and today was the day to put some of those new patterns to the test.

Opening day was cold, the water was fast and high, and no one was catching a thing. I gave up nymphing after an hour or so and switched to one of the new patterns I tried over the winter, and shortly thereafter, landed a big, beautiful brown on a day when no one else caught a thing.

A few weeks later and I hooked and landed a barbel that was over 24 inches on the same fly. (Something I only managed to do on one other occasion in the past few years.)

A solid 24 inches on my favorite streamer rod, the Epic 686.

That fly just earned a spot in the starting rotation, namely, The Complex Twist Bugger from the guys at Fly Fish Food. The name is a little misleading, it's not particularly complex. In fact it's riduculously easy. You can bang out a dozen in no time and fish them hard and close to structure, or share them with friends. They're endlessly modifiable according to whim and availability of materials. (I deviated a bit myself) And most importantly, they work.

Not a pretty fly to begin with, and even uglier when I tie it, but it's quick and it works.

I've never had a fly prove itself so quickly, especially on a day that was otherwise pretty dead. Confidence in a fly is invaluable, I'm sold.

A great video with tying instructions here at flyfishfood.com, they even sell the materials as well as the completed fly itself.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Vanity on the water

It isn't every day that a professional photographer accompanies you to the water. (At least not for a flyfisherman of my caliber) So when my colleague Sven Burkhard was curious to see what flyfishing was all about after years of me not shutting up about it, I leapt at the chance to take him to my home river. I grabbed my favorite gear and headed down to the river to meet him early in the morning. He showed up with a backpack full of gear, and I lent him a spair pair of waders that were way too big for him. No matter, he didn't know enough about waders to notice or care. We stayed in one spot most of the time, as he wasn't used to wading, especially with an expensive camera and lens in his hands. The shots he ended up taking were awesome. It might have been smart of me not to bring a rod rigged up with a weighted streamer, it made casting nicely much more difficult.

He was almost as excited with the results as I was, and we'll be doing it later in the season, hopefully this time with a fish or two at the end of the line.

To see more of Sven's work, visit his website at www.svenburkhard.com.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Epic 686, 8 months on

I've had my Epic 686 for about 8 months now, and it's high time I write up some thoughts.

Afer owning an Epic 580, choosing the 686 as my next rod wasn't particularly difficult. I had the opportunity to cast a 686, I already loved my 580, and Carl McNeil from Swift Fly Fishing is such a nice and knowledgable guy, and runs exactly the kind of small business that is so worthy of support.
But what color blank? And do I try the kit, or have it custom built? After hemming and hawing a bit, I chose nude. Deciding to have it built was easy, I saw what some of the builders out there had done and I wanted a piece of art as much as I wanted a rod. Deciding on a builder was the toughest choice yet, but I ended up having the blank directly shipped to Zeb Tonkavich of Snowman Custom Rod Works. I gave him complete freedom to do what he wanted with the rod, and he spent so much time chatting back and forth with me, answering my dumb questions, explaning things that went right over my head, and just generally keeping me up to date on its progress with photos and the like. He wanted to know what reel I planned to use so he could properly balance the build, and what type of fishing I planned to do. He'd send photos of winding checks he'd machined, and the trim wraps, and the wood he used to turn the reel seat. It was a great insight into high end rod building, and fascinating to see the rod approch completion.

The rod was waiting for me when I arrived in Montana last summer. Zeb worked hard making sure I'd get it on time. And it was worth the wait, and more than what I paid. The thick, handmade rod sock (by Andrea Larko) and the matching painted rod tube were a perfect complement to the rod. It felt fantastic in my hand from the first minute, and proceeded to take the first casts on the R.L. Winston casting lawn, of all places. I'd paired the rod with a Lamson speedster, one spool with a Rio perception line, the other with an Orvis hydros 150 grain depth charge. 

Since then I've used the rod to fish deep for big rainbows in Merrell Lake at Hubbard's Yellowstone Lodge, as well as late summer dries on my home river. Heavily weighted nymph rigs and streamers are no problem in the high waters of spring. It simply does everything well. And in an unfortunate incident I haven't yet mentioned to Zeb or Carl, it even withstands ceiling fans well. It feels great in the hand, great while casting, and great while playing a fish. When I head out the door, unsure of what kind of fishing I want to do, I instinctively grab it because I know it'll do whatever I want. I particularly love it with streamers. Just a few days ago, in the high, fast water of early spring, I was able to exert enough power to bring a big trout to the net remarkably quickly. I wouldn't have put as much pressure on the fish with any other 6 weight, and it might not be a coincidence that both of my biggest trout out of this river to date were caught on Epic glass rods.

In the end, I got a work of art build by a talented artist from Pennsylvania built on a revolutionary blank designed by a renowned caster in New Zealand, both of whom I now consider friends. That I also got a sublime fishing and casting tool out of the deal is just a bonus.