We are all together now and enjoying Bosnia but getting here was not quite as easy as we had hoped. Where do I start?
Fortunately, I made it across a busy airport to get my last flight from Paris but my bag did not. Arriving in Zagreb, I had that sick feeling you get when you realise everyone has left the terminal, the carousel has stopped and no matter how longyou stare at the plastic flaps, your bag is not coming out! The ladies in the “bag office” were lovely although there were a lot of them! Lost bags are clearly quite common in this part of the world. (Ed. To cut a long and amusing story short, Christopher was eventually reunited with his bags a day later.)
Finally, we were heading to Bosnia. I was driving one of the vans and Jim the other. On the way to the border we had convinced Vern that they would likely want to strip search him and in this part of the world, cavity searchers were not uncommon. As it would be done in alphabetical order, he would go first. I have never seen someone so nervous as we handed the passports over to a very serious-looking gentleman who was not to be messed with. “Don’t run Vern, it will make it worse,” we told him. You could see the sweat running from his brow. “He is looking at you in the back now Vern, he has your passport. Don’t look guilty. Keep your eyes ahead mate. Don’t speak.” I have not laughed so much in a long time! Then the relief…Vern hasn’t stopped smiling since we crossed into Bosnia but we have reminded him that there will be a return trip!
Driving out of Croatia and into Bosnia, it is common to see houses shot to pieces. Bullet holes everywhere! Many have been re-rendered but every second house is totally abandoned and was used for target practice with people still inside. Tragic. The war started in 1992 and ended four years later. Typically, religion was the main reason for the slaughters that took place. Now, unemployment is at 60 percent!
Our guide in Bosnia, Amir, was in the war and fought the Serbs – some of whom are now his friends. He has two children that he has been trying to put through university while his income is tying flies. His wife runs 100 chickens from which they get 50 eggs a day that they sell. That is it! If that isn’t bad enough, he was shot twice during the war. The first time was in 1993 when he was shot in the left arm from one kilometre away by a gun designed to shoot down aeroplanes. It took him months to recover. Then, soon after resuming services, he was hit in the stomach by shrapnel from a bomb. The shrapnel mostly passed right through him but he explained in broken English how the food he had eaten was coming out of him amongst the blood and internal organs. Perspective on my lost bag was quickly regained.
The place where we are staying is in an amazing setting; quite incredible really. It is situated on the banks of the Pliva River with the water running directly behind the rooms. The river is crystal clear and we can see grayling from the lounge, literally! The mayfly hatches are extraordinary but unlike at home, the fish do not seem to actively feeding on them. The water is bloody cold and fast. Very fast. Gradients are extreme but with the obvious limestone countryside and sink holes in paddocks, the clarity is indescribable. I am in a house with Staggy, Peter and Amir. When Yannick arrives, he too will be in with us. The rest of the team are a few doors down. As we situated right in front of a raging rapid, we go to sleep at night to the sound of roaring water.
Amir is a wonderful fly tier. Staggy thinks he is as good as anyone he has ever seen and that is a compliment. He takes his time to get things right and is proud of his flies. He should be.
Yesterday was our first day on the water. It started on what is best described as a flat, fast chalkstream. Every fish can be polaroided from a long way away. The brown trout seem very easy to catch and aren’t fussy about much but the grayling are not as helpful. Josh caught the first trout and grayling and fished well the entire day. Luke caught some good fish and had a particularly good afternoon, while Mick was consistent throughout the day and managed both trout and grayling in tough conditions. Vern, still recovering from his scare at the border, is starting to put that behind him now (no pun intended) and had both the dry and wet flies working to great effect. Staggy was his usual effective self and pulled fish out here and there while Amir also landed a couple of fish. All in all, we did not catch hundreds of them, but simply fished difficult water, changing approaches regularly to try and work out the strategies. The evening rise did not really happen but I was fortunate to enough to find an occasional nose sticking out of the water and every fish that rose ate the fly well. A highlight for me was polaroiding some large grayling which ate flies well. A far cry from most that we saw!
All in all, everyone was a little concerned at lunch time with the difficult nature of the fishing but after more practice and a few think tanks, things were falling into place. By night time, we were confident about everything except Pete’s driving.
Jimmy is well on top of things in his first year as captain of the world team. Nothing is a problem for him and he stays positive even in adversity. A spade is a spade and that’s fantastic. He has not quite learned which side of the road to drive on and we have had some close shaves. In fact, every time we leave the hotel, we give a few hedges a close shave! Vern decided that Jimmy needs All Terrain tyres on one side of the car and Slicks on the other! The banter is fantastic between the guys and the trick will be to keep this going when the pressure comes on later.
It will not be surprising to learn that I was the first person to fall in. I actually fell in while getting into the river for the first time! I then went for a swim again later when the gravel was disappearing from under my feet when I was running on the spot like a cartoon character. The water is freezing. We were warned it was so cold, it would have something of a ‘shrivelling’ effect if we fell in. You can tick that box! By the end of the day, Vern had also joined me but as we have already had children, it was not that tragic. We have to keep young Josh dry!
The rivers are also very dirty. I am talking about plastic bags, toilet paper, the lot! I am not sure they care. The rivers are postcard material but you would have to Photoshop out the milk crates. No doubt this won’t be the last time I mention this.
I need to make special mention of Josh. Rowdy! The Mouth! He sat in the back of the car from Zagreb well into Bosnia and may have said one word although most think it was just a burp. This is his first trip to Europe and five hours into the trip just after we checked his pulse, I asked him what he thought of Europe. His answer was, “There are lots of trees”. Wow! This place has left an impression! Finally, I decided that we would have to purchase a defibrillator to ensure that his heart is still actually working and that he isn’t simply a cardboard cut-out. All jokes aside, Josh may be quiet but he is fishing very well and catching a lot of fish.
Something that strikes you when driving around Bosnia and the border with Croatia is the number of brand new cemeteries. I have never seen so many pristine gravestones. It gives the place an awkwardness that is hard to describe and impossible to get away from.
Day two on the water was spent on the Vrbas River. This is a comp. venue for the upcoming championships. We had a look at some of the competition beats and fished a part of the practice water. It is the most disgusting water way I have ever fished. Amir said that if it wasn’t for part of the comp. being held there, you couldn’t pay him 1000 euros to fish there. Ironic really, considering we had to pay someone else to fish it.
The Vrbas looks very fishy with glides and runs, pockets and currents. The problem is the filth that continually floats past you and into you while you are trying to fish. Coke bottles abound with plastic bags still being the main issue. Sewage drains appear to run straight into the river, making changing flies quite challenging. You have to keep your hands away from your mouth which is difficult when juggling multiple rods, line that has been in the water and old flies. The river bed is a little slippery, made all the more dangerous with the constant distraction of people walking along the footpaths.
The fishing here was extremely good. Fish were rising regularly and every technique we tried was successful. The grayling were large and plentiful, while the trout were smaller and had that distinctive curved tail tip that’s indicative of ‘stockies’. Consequently, the trout were very easy to catch and we soon headed off to another area after lunch to find water that would be closer to the competition water.
The location for the second half of the day was certainly tougher. We all managed to catch fish but the numbers were closer to ‘normal’. A few stockies still turned up in the catch and the grayling remained large. Of slight concern is the fact that we have been told that they are no longer going to stock the river and that all of the stocking has taken place above the competition water in the practice water. The theory is, the stocked fish are expected to migrate down the river. The stocking took place a few weeks ago and somehow they have extrapolated that by the time the comp comes around, these fish will be equally present in the beats 3km away as they are in the beat closest to the town / stocking point. Oh dear! Nonetheless, there should be some grayling present and avoiding the blank is always a good thing. Having said that, the beats also seem to differ quite a lot in terms of the type of water you may draw. Some are very deep next to the bank and wading will be impossible, while others will be able to be fished in their entirety. This sounds like a lottery but you just have to catch the fish that are in front of you and at the end of the comp, from a team perspective, it will work out to be fair. The winning team will still have to deal with bad beats.
On a less serious note, we had a few more swimmers today. I actually managed to stay dry for a change which is rather nice. I should try it more often! Pete was the first casualty as he was trying to make his way out of the water for lunch. We were all watching him and it was like a slow train wreck. He fell again later in the day but only Jimmy was there to see it. The tsunami was felt downstream and has probably helped the dispersion of those stockies. Staggy had a good fall in front of Vern. I wish I had been there to see it because I don’t think I have ever witnessed ‘the heron’ fall in. Finally, Vern has become a repeat offender. I was fishing away downstream when I heard him screaming and thought he was into a good fish. As it turned out, he went A over T and one of his fly boxes was swept down the river. It went raging past Staggy and me. After running through a farmer’s paddock to try and keep up, I eventually managed to get hold of it a few hundred metres downstream with a lunging net. Of major concern was that it was a perfectly clear, compartmentalised fly box containing ten of his favourite patterns. Basically, every fish in a few hundred metres of river saw his favourite ten flies and none of them rose to eat the box! He is currently at the tying vice.
Finally, Yanick Rivierre arrives tonight and will be with us for around ten days I think. He is apparently our ‘technical advisor’. What does that actually mean? Soon we will have a psychiatrist and a physiotherapist! Actually, I could do with a back rub and probably a few session with the psych! Yannick will be a massive help to us in revealing some of the grayling’s secrets and we are all excited about his arrival. He too cannot wait to get involved and was talking madly about it when I was fishing with him a week ago. As he is the world’s biggest practical joker, I am expecting a little mayhem in amongst the serious fishing stuff.
That’s enough for now. I will try to write again in a couple of days or if something out of the ordinary happens such as Peter driving in a straight line, Vern standing up straight or Josh saying his first word!