Monday, June 6, 2016

Exploration and solitude in Bern

If there's one thing I miss about living in the U.S., it's the ease of getting away from it all, but lately I've been able to find that feeling in Switzerland too. Bern is only an hour and a half drive from my home outside Zürich, but when I'm clambering upriver over slippery boulders in a deep gorge, I feel the sense of isolation and solitude that I only rarely experience in this beautiful but densely populated country I call home. While much of the fishing opportunities in Switzerland are restricted to smaller leased beats, some areas still offer a sense of exploration, and here in the Hasli Valley we have the best of both worlds. A big chunk of the area is private, meaning low fishing pressure and good fishing if you're lucky enough to have access, but the leased section is big enough and included lots of little tributaries that would take the average fisherman years to fully explore. The fish might be a little smaller, but they're plentiful and eager to take a dry, and this is the style of fishing I think I love more than any other. The clear blue pools, the deep gorges and the plunging waterfalls require thoughtful fishing and will punish the rushed and the careless.

I was in Bern with Sascha from Fishing Swiss Alps and my partner Mark from Firebelly on opening day, and the weather and the scenery was beautiful, but the water was ice old and the fish were few and far between. We had a little tour of some of the more scenic waters in the area, the Aare River, the famed Reichenbach, and the beautiful little Urbach. The scenery was so pretty we didn't mind struggling through thigh deep snow for the occasional small fish.

Good thing waders can double as snowpants...

The Reichenbach, made famous by Sherlock Holmes.

Mark hooked into a brown on the Aare.

Spotting fish from above...

Sascha casting to wary fish.
We fished all day, and warmed our cold bones with one of Sascha's delicious burgers, and headed back to our respective families, already planning the next trip and rehashing the day during the long drive home.

Fortunately things were a little different the next time we met up. Although the forecast looked so grim that we almost decided to cancel, we arrived at the river on a perfect sunny day. The very first pool we saw held close to a dozen fish, with the largest being a good 15 inches. We took turns pulling the fish from the rear of the pool, but the big one eluded us. I started out with a black nymph and caught well, but switched to a bushy dry once I realized the fish could be coaxed to the surface with relative ease. We made our way upriver, alternating pools, every one of them holding a handful of fish. The going was slippery and not without an element of danger. We fished for hours and we both genuinely enjoyed taking it easy and watching the other catch fish, a sort of prerequisite for this type of river where you're trading off pools and can't make your way upstream without spooking fish.

Looking down on the first heavily populated pool.

Fast chutes, plunging waterfalls, and deep pools.

Sascha working a pool

And the result. A beautifully colored brown.

On a fish...

And another...

With scenery this nice I didn't mind putting down the rod and picking up the camera.

We made it to one of the few places where you could climb out of the gorge, and walked and talked our way back to the car, making plans for next time. As always, there are just too many rivers, and too little time.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A second chance in Slovenia...

It's hard to believe how quickly time passes, but for our 7th annual fishing trip this year, Mark and I decided to revisit Slovenia. We had a great time last year, but we wanted another chance at a marble trout, something that eluded both of us in 2015. Again, we flew into Ljubljana, Mark from Singapore, and me from Zürich. We wasted no time in stopping at the local grocery store and grabbing some unpronouncable snacks and beer and headed directly to the Idrijca, where we had some luck last time. Sadly, it was slow fishing all afternoon, and the only thing we managed was a lone rainbow on a streamer to get the skunk off. Creatures of habit that we are, we had a plate of calamari and some beer, and headed to Kobarid to meet Matt Calderaro. Some may remember that we stayed at Soca Fly last year, but the beautiful little lodge and fly shop in the town square of Kobarid sadly no longer exists. Matt has had a rough time of it the past few months, but the indomitable spirit of the Soca Cowboy is apparent, and he's already on his way to bigger and better things. We chatted and drank, and headed to our B&B in the small town of Prapetno, had a glass of whisky, and called it a night.

Mark on the Idrijca
An Idrijca rainbow
The meat room at the B&B

At 9 AM the next morning we met Matt for a thick cup of coffee, and headed down into the Soča Canyon on foot. We immediately saw a good sized fish rising, but we put him down as we approached too closely. (Matt thought it was my height that scared him off, I blame Mark)
Car sized boulders and a fast current made progress slow, but soon enough I came across Matt watching a feeding fish. We lost sight of the fish but Matt generously gave me first crack, and after I bounced a royal wulff off of a boulder into a pocket, I set the hook into a nice fish. It didn't take long for us to realize it was a marble, and a nice one at that. Matt netted it, and Mark took some photos, and I was on cloud nine. I did what I came here to do, and everything else was just gravy. Now I just wanted Mark to hook into a marble as well. Alas, these two fish were the only active ones we came across. We exited the river for a cup of coffee, and Matt headed back home to Austria, and Mark and I headed back down to the Soca. We threw streamers as there was no surface activity in the drizzling rain, and I ended up hooking a few rainbows and another marble, while Mark hooked a few bows as well, and we called it day and headed back to the B&B for a simple yet hearty bowl of mixed grilled meats and vegetables and good Slovenian beer.

Casting to the fish...

And a nice marble is the result.

A Soča Marble with a compley twist bugger

The next morning, we decided to visit the Bača River.  Lousy weather was predicted, but we were pleasantly surprised by some warmth and the occasional rays of sunshine. We dropped into the river and started working our way up. I dropped a black magic nymph in a likely looking hole and hooked a decent Marble, while Mark stuck with a dry and was having luck there as well. Shortly we came across what looked like a small fish feeding a few inches off the bank, but when Mark cast to it and hooked it, I quickly realized it wasn't a small fish after all and Mark landed a big, beautiful brown on his 4 weight.

The Bača River

The Bača River

Mark hooked into a brown

Mark's dry fly-caught brown
Another Bača Marble

We worked our way upriver slowly, methodically spotting rising fish and fishing the pools carefully, trying to leave the fish at the head of the pool undisturbed while we peeled off the ones from the rear. In some cases we succeeded, in most, we did not. These fish are wary, they see lots of flies and fishermen during the season. Another memorable moment came when I spotted what I thought was a fish in a riffle, I dropped a nymph next to him a few times, then asked a perplexed Mark if I could borrow his dry-fly rigged Morgan for a moment and handed him my H2. I dropped a fly over the fish, and brought a nice marble to hand. Shortly afterwards, Mark took the next rising fish and it was a beautiful marble. The pressure was off, and we wound our way through the beautiful Slovenian countryside, catching visible rising browns and marbles as well as coaxing fish from likely looking spots on dry flies. Mark came across a World War 1 artillery shell casing, not an uncommon occurrence around here, as this region suffered greatly in the first World War. The Soča Valley was one of the bloodiest fronts of the war, 1.7 million died here as the Italians tried to drive into Austria repeatedly over a span of two years. It was hard to imagine this valley as anything other than a verdant and serene angler's paradise. The sun set and we made our way back to the car, grateful to have enjoyed one of those days that makes a trip memorable.

The scenic countryside

A fire salamander.

Streamside beer.

A WWI artillery shell.

The next morning we decided to revisit the Bača and try to recreate some of the magic of the previous day. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate. We spotted a few rising fish during the occasional break in the driving rain, and Mark spotted, cast to, but unfortunately spooked a monster of a fish, with a head as thick my fist, and I managed to catch a rising marble and a grayling, but other than it, the fish stayed down and weren't interested in what we had to offer. We loaded our soaking wet gear in the car, and headed back to the airport, already plotting 2017...

A Bača grayling

Once again, Slovenia was great. Last year we went during the summer, and we caught more fish to be sure, but I'd say the quality of fish was much better on this trip. As we did last time, we found Slovenia to be a beautiful, clean country full of friendly and hospitable folk. We won't be back next year, as we've already decided to mark the somber occasion of my 40th birthday with a week in the Swedish wilderness, fishing as far as away from civilization as we can get, but for 2018, who knows?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The fish of a thousand casts...

My colleague and I recently set up a small outfit here in Switzerland catering to the fly fishing needs of expats (, if you're curious) and we've got a few events for local flyfishers coming up throughout the year.

The first of these events took place last weekend, and we set it up along with Sascha Urweider, a Swiss chef and flyfisherman. He also happens to be a phenomenal underwater photographer and videographer, evident on his popular Facebook page, Fishing Swiss Alps.

The season on lake run brown trout starts in February, and we couldn't wait to get something together despite the admittedly slim chances at success. Making sure to be very transparent as to the unlikelihood of actually catching a lake run brown from the shore on the fly, we called the event "1001 Casts" and went about setting up an evening of fly tying, beer, Sascha's delicious burgers, and some fishing the next morning.

We arrived at his hotel in Innertkirchen a bit early to take care of some business, and around 6pm, the first attendees started showing up. I was particularly happy to finally meet some people that I'd interacted with for a while now on the internet, and it was nice to see a healthy mix of english speakers as well as natives. After the introductions, we sat down and enjoyed gourmet burgers and fries before breaking out the vises and starting to tie. I didn't do too much, I was sandwiched between two great tiers and was busier watching them and talking.

So many vises, so many dead animal parts. Heaven on earth. (Photo by Jan Scheffmann)

The feathers flew and the empty beer glasses multiplied throughout the evening, and we hit the sack at around midnight, some people stayed up hours later... Mark and I are both fathers of young kids so waking up the next day at a normally unimaginable 7:30am was relatively luxurious. We had a leisurely breakfast of fresh bread, meat, cheese and the traditional Swiss Birchermuesli.

We drove to the Brienzersee in a convoy, most people made it, some people got lost on the way but we all had our lines in the water around 10am. I brought a handful of loaner Orvis sticks for those without, and I chose a 10 foot 7 weight Helios 2 for myself, a very good match and a pleasure to cast, especially with a floating line...

The morning started out overcast, but the fog burned off in time for lunch, revealing the alps and the deep turquoise blue of the Brienzersee. No one had any success with the fly rod, and we consoled ourselves with a delicious and unique shoreside lunch of Raclette, some people fished for a few more hours , tried out different rods and lines, and gradually made their way back home.

Me enjoying the scenery while casting an H2 10 foot 7 weight. (Photo by Sascha Urweider)

Mark casting in vain.

Raclette break.

Raclette, for those that don't know, is basically melted cheese on bread or potatoes.

Sascha, the Raclette pro.

Oliver, the Raclette amateur.

Strip, strip, strip.

All in all a very enjoyable time, it just goes to show that flyfishing is just as much about being outside and among old and new friends as it is about catching fish. We'll do it again next year with the expectation to get skunked, but we'll surely be having a good time doing it.

The only thing that could have made it better were some fish, but the chance to meet, tie, and fish with such a big and friendly group of the most passionate flyfishermen and women in Switzerland was fantastic. We'll definitely be planning something similar for 2017, hope to see you there!

Hopefully the weather is this nice next time....

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A few hours on the Itchen

I know I'm not alone in having a healthy appreciation for the history of fly fishing, so when I found myself in London on a recent business trip and the opportunity presented itself to fish the famed Orvis beat on the River Itchen, I didn't need much persuading to bring along my waders and gear. After checking out the Orvis UK headquarters and warehouse, I headed out to the beat with Richard Banbury. The English countryside around Winchester was absolutely beautiful with pheasants and thatched roofed houses around every bend, and as we drove Richard told me about all about the region. In short order we arrived at the beat and geared up in the fishing hut.

The Abbots Worthy beat of the Itchen is stunningly beautiful short stretch of chalk stream water and to see a river like this so close to London was quite a surprise. Gin clear water with big wild fish nestled between patches of flowing watercress, a classic little fishing hut, manicured banks and narrow little footbridges combine to make a dream fishery and it's no wonder that Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. both came here to wet a line.

On our way to the beat in less than optimal weather.

George, barreling over a footbridge.

A nice brown that succumbed to a dry.
The weather was unfortunately less than perfect, but my habit of overpacking served me well as my waders and wading jacket kept me plenty warm in the howling wind and driving rain. Casting wasn't particularly easy on a day like this, but I was in fly fishing heaven for the few hours that I was there. I sight fished some grayling with a nymph and caught a few browns on a dry, enjoying the company of Richard and his fine black lab, George. Richard took a few fantastic photos for which I was very grateful. One even landed in Trout & Salmon Magazine, much to my surprise and yes, delight.

A beautiful photo by Richard Banbury.

I admit it, I bought multiple issues.

My 10 foot 4 weight Recon was the perfect size for this fishery and handled the wind admirably, but I have to be honest: If the opportunity ever presents itself again, I'm bringing a bamboo rod and a classic old clock and pawl reel. I don't think there would be a better way to pay respect to such a beautiful and storied river.

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.