Cold Feet in Croatia

I heard the roar of the water long before I could see it. As I left the car and began walking upstream along the footpath, the source gradually unveiled itself from behind the trees which lined the river, until there it was: a torrential 22-metre-high waterfall cascading over a rock shelf into the river below.

I’m often somewhat unprepared for incredible scenery whilst out on the water, which is surprising given that every fishing trip I make in this country is accompanied by sapphire-blue rivers, waterfalls, lush forests, or  mountain backdrops. Croatia is riddled with limestone rivers, bursting out of giant holes in the ground, and whilst they teem with fish, it’s not at all unusual for the surroundings to steal the show.

The waterfall backdrop for this productive fishing spot.

I’ve noticed that despite Croatia being a popular tourist destination, there are still many stunning sights scattered throughout the country which  are relatively unknown, or at least unadvertised, to tourists. I prefer it that way. It’s a pleasure to fish in these locations without seeing too many people, let alone another angler. The rivers are home to both native and introduced salmonids. Browns and grayling are most common, but there are also opportunities in Croatia to seek out huchen (Hucho hucho), soft mouth trout (Salmo obtusirostris spp; an endemic species found in only a few rivers), marble trout (Salmo marmoratus), and rainbows are also introduced and thriving.

It was late afternoon when I arrived at this new spot, and I quickly noticed a few large orange stoneflies clumsily flying around, so I was quite keen to hit the water for some dry fly action. I contacted the local fishing club to organise a license, then made the most of the limited time I had left for the day. On this particular river, the ‘flyfishing only’ section is just a few hundred metres long, but it’s well populated with browns and rainbows, and varies from deep sandy pools, to shallow stony fastwater. Below this section, the river is too deep to wade, and the banks too overgrown to effectively cast from. Upstream, from the last bridge to the waterfall, is a no fishing zone.

The no fishing zone, which is a protected spawning site.

It was just my luck that I didn’t have any orange foam stonefly imitations, so I went with the biggest Stimulator I had. I started at a deep hole at the end of a run. Holding the short section of line I had out off the water, Euro nymphing style, I followed the fly with the rod tip as it flawlessly drifted along a seam. A good brown of around 13-14 inches shot up from the depths, and struck within seconds, before diving back down into the deeper water. I managed to wrangle it out and get a good look at it, just before it slipped off the hook whilst I fumbled for my net. At the time I wasn’t overly disappointed, instead thinking about what a great start it was at a new location, and on a big dry, barely more than a rod length from where I stood. However, by the end of the afternoon, and after a handful of misses on other fish, I came to realise that first trout was the closest I would come to success for the day.

I wrapped up a little early so I could head into the nearby town and organise some accommodation for the evening, and check out the town’s historic fortress. I’m told that it’s the second largest fortress of its kind in Croatia, and that its construction began as early as the ninth century. Perched above the town and river, in an ancient fort, up on a hill, I managed to catch the sunset of a lifetime.

It was worth sacrificing the last few hours of light on the river to experience this.

The next morning I returned; this time with a full day to explore every inch of the short section of river. I made my way along a lightly-used trail, following the river downstream to a road bridge which marked the start of the flyfishing stretch. I always enjoy seeing wildlife whilst out on my fishing trips, and coming from Australia, I’m used to seeing all sorts. However, almost tripping over a little tortoise sunning itself on the path, was a first for me.

A lazy local which I startled whilst walking down the river trail.

Upon reaching the bridge and traversing down the steep, grassy bank, I was able to see that a large, slow, sandy pool was full of smaller trout. I stuck to the shade of the riverside growth and slowly stalked upstream, spotting plenty of fish through the glass-like water. Finally, I saw one worth casting to, holding over the middle of the riverbed in around four feet of water. I tied on a black size 12 Pheasant Tail Nymph variant. I was in an awkward spot to cast from, and given that I was almost beside it, I was sure the fish would spook. But eventually I managed to drift the nymph down the correct lane and watch it get eaten. After a respectable fight, I had finally landed a fish! A nice brown of around 11 inches, coloured beautifully with fine brown and orange spots. After a quick photo it was back in the river.

First fish of the day, on a black Pheasant Tail Nymph.

Less than ten metres upstream was an even better trout, which looked to be around the 14 inch mark. Having just succeeded with the nymph, I made several attempts with the same pattern, for little more than a quick look. I changed flies, again without success. After a few nymph patterns were rejected, it became obvious that the larger size certainly made for a more cunning fish. I was then pleasantly surprised to see it rise. Perfect! I love any opportunity to fish a dry fly. I tied on a CDC and Elk hair caddis, which has been my go-to dry fly throughout Croatia. It just always seems to work. I looked on with excitement as the fish enthusiastically rose up to the fly… then in frustration as it closely studied the fly for what seemed like forever, before rejecting it and returning to the riverbed.

I worked my way down to 7X tippet, and switched over to an emerger pattern, then a size 20 Parachute Adams, then back to a big Stimulator, then a big foam hopper! While each fly got the trout’s attention, nothing would entice a take from of this wily old fish. Eventually, I went subsurface again and dead-drifted a size 10 black cone-headed Woolly Bugger. I didn’t need to worry too much about getting the right feeding lane with this giant fly, as the fish made a beeline for it from four feet away. It studied the fly as it drifted for several metres until I decided to give it a little twitch, hoping to entice a take. Instead, the fish spooked and darted off to the shady cover of the opposite bank. A devastating result, but I relish a challenge, and this time the fish won.

What I then realised, was I’d been standing perfectly still in a metre of frigid water for around 40 minutes. Even in the middle of a hot summer’s day, the water couldn’t have been much more than 10 degrees, and my feet had gone completely numb. So, I scrambled back up onto the bank to take a break, having a bite to eat, and thaw my frozen toes.

Cold, clear water, dense streamside vegetation and deep pockets make for a truly idyllic trout stream.

I spent the remainder of my day fishing large dry flies with great success, landing a number of gorgeous browns and rainbows. The slower, sandier spots produced silvery fish with less pattern than their stony section counterparts. I didn’t net any monsters, and missed a few more hook sets on some probably unnecessarily long casts, but the average catch was around 10 inches or so. My only complaint was that I ran out of river before I ran out of time, although that gave me an opportunity to walk back and re-fish a few of my favoured spots.

A finely-spotted rainbow.

All good things must come to an end unfortunately, and fishing trips are no exception. I eventually made my way back to the car, changed out of my waders, packed up and hit the road for the 90-minute drive back home to Split.