Mike revels in high altitude trout fishing in northern Spain.
The double-winged CDC mayfly imitation landed softly in a pocket behind a large granite boulder. The water was gin-clear. The day was hot. Like clockwork, a nice trout rose and ate the fly. I set the hook. In a flash, another trout the size of a wildcat pounced on my fish. Its teeth gripped the flank of my would-be catch and shook it vigorously to break its bones. Plus, my 6X tippet. The bright black and yellow bands on the big fish’s sides were radiating in the sun. An ancient predator was at work. We watched in disbelief as it swallowed my fish whole. Then it disappeared. Welcome to fishing in Huesca Province, Spain.
Three days earlier…
My wife and I flew into Bilbao from Amsterdam, on the type of low-cost airline that makes you pay close attention to the safety instructions. We actually did memorise the seats between us and the exit row!
We’d planned the trip to Spain four years ago, but as for so many, this was postponed multiple times due to the pandemic. Our 12 day itinerary was packed with the best stuff on offer from the Basque region, and it included 3 days guided fishing in Huesca Province. We were staying in the foothills of Spain’s Pyrenees. This is great country. With its rich history, fascinating culture, food, wine, walking options and of course a trout stream in every valley. A true paradise for fishers and their partners.
Being born and bred Dutch, one of the advantages is that we are both familiar with driving on the ‘right’ side of the road We navigated the three hour journey and countless complicated roundabouts that always seemed to be getting us from a main road back on to a part of an EU-sponsored highway under construction. And back again. (We could have taken a train from Bilbao and then arranged a pick-up by the guide as an alternative, but where’s the fun in that?)
It was all a gentle introduction to Spanish efficiency. Meanwhile, the ragged mountain peaks of the Pyrenees were looming closer and soon we started to cross the first big rivers.
I was especially keen to see the Irati. It was precisely 100 years ago that Ernest Hemingway fished this river when he wrote about hunting, fishing, and joining the running of the bulls in nearby Pamplona. He visited just after the Spanish Flu, the previous global pandemic. So perhaps we were both fishing our way out of a pandemic. In the much-acclaimed fishing episode in his Fiesta, he saunters onto a random river, fishes with a worm, kills all the fish he catches and then tops two bottles of red wine. All in the space of two pages out of 214! The same done today would have lost him his rod as he would have been fishing illegally under the Spanish Delegacion Agencia – and he would have been fined a further 200 euro for every fish in his possession, as most of this area is catch-and-release. As an aside, Hemingway would have been labelled a borderline alcoholic and definitely a poacher. How times have changed.
Guides and licences
After the winding drive, we could relax and set down the suitcases. I love a place where dinner starts from 8.30pm, and with a bar that is of course always open. The generous hospitality of the locals and the quality of the pintxos (small snacks) and local wines, is only matched by their love of bureaucracy. How do you get a valid fishing licence in Spain? Forget it. A myriad of notational, provincial and town-based rules, covering anything from catch-and-release, fishing for locals or not – but not on Wednesdays except when it’s a public holiday. And you need to have a Spanish bank account to pay your fees. Got it? Ergo, your easiest option for a short stay is to use a guide. New Zealanders would love this system. I asked my guide, Adrián, if they ever considered simplifying their way out of this bureaucracy. Without missing a beat, he replied, “No.” Okay, I like a straight answer.
My main goal was to catch zebra trout. Now, you know you are chasing a special specimen if, when you ask your guide about the fish, the reply begins with: “After they survived the last Ice Age…” So, we were going to chase a tough cookie, a match for the wild mountain peaks formed by glacial retreat. The name zebra trout is given because of the darker stripes through what otherwise looks like a brown trout (of which it’s a subspecies). I was soon to discover another difference between zebras and a typical brown trout… I was fishing with local guide Adrián, from Pyrenees Fly Fishing. I had only taken my trusty 4 weight bamboo rod, with all other rods and gear supplied by the guiding operation. That worked very well, and I could travel light.
On the first day, Adrián took me high up to fish the aquas alto montaña (high mountain streams). This required an extra stop at an unmarked booth to buy another ticket to get through an electric boom gate. The river here was small, a couple of metres wide at best. With the Pyrenees mountain peaks now all around me, I felt I had truly arrived. The scenery was stunning. Cliffs that gave you vertigo, with the buitres (vultures) always present. These big black birds glided along the rock faces, performing their own slow figure 8 patterns. Looking for a catch. So was I.
Adrián tied on a little CDC dry fly, and I soon hooked my first zebra trout. They are feisty fellas high up, and they take the fly aggressively. Every take looked like a rock thrown in the river, exactly where your dry fly just floated. Soon we were getting into the groove. It is amazing how quickly you forget where you are, and that you are fishing so far away from home. The rivers and the fishing soon felt very familiar. Until I felt I was being watched.
As we were changing flies, I suddenly saw a big, hairy head emerge from behind a granite boulder. Then followed a hairy body the size of a very fat fox. We were being eyed by a marmota. As its name suggests, it is a marmot, but of giant proportions; chocolate brown and native to these areas. I quickly asked if there were any other, more dangerous or venomous animals that I should be aware of? The answer was, “No.” I liked that simple answer too.
At the 39th World Fly Fishing Championships in Tasmania, the Spanish team ranked the third. And digging into the stats, they actually caught the most fish of any team. So, whilst fishing here, I was really keen to see exactly what they did differently when fishing dry flies. This was the time of the year for the dry, and the preferred method to catch fish. If there is a part of my game I felt I could improve, it was single dry or dry-dropper fishing. Imitation is of course the sincerest form of flyfishing flattery.
For starters, we used long, thin leaders that were deemed necessary for success. Think about casting 14-16ft of 6x tippet into a moderate breeze accurately. That part was familiar to me. What was new is that each area was first fished with a small CDC fly in the slow parts, and then the fly would be changed to a more chunky CDC fly to fish the same area again. Then we would repeat. I was surprised how often we got extra fish by changing and re fishing the same area. It makes sense of course; we all know the theories. I think we sometimes get a bit too comfortable and relaxed, fishing a ‘one fly fits all’ approach. Keep changing it up is the motto here.
The attention to detail which likely makes a difference, also showed in the line-to-leader connection. Being a Czech nymph nut myself, I love a smooth line-to-leader. It is essential for fishing long leaders. Yet on my floating lines, I still use a nail knot, which produces a slightly annoying bump each time the knot passes through the top guides. This never sits well with me. And I recognised in Adrián a fellow flyfishing nut. I mean, who makes a 30 minute YouTube video explaining how to make the smoothest line-leader connection for dry fly? The answer was standing right next to me.
Adrián also asked me to stand further back from the pools than I would on my home rivers, perhaps because the streams here are a bit clearer. That careful, long distance approach was combined with very stealthy wading. Adrián even said ‘ssssst’, a few times as I was wading too boisterously. And if all else failed, it was blamed on the fly. Did I mention that they fish CDC dry flies a lot? I briefly considered moving here!
Changing between rivers is made easy by the many tunnels that connect different valleys. They are great engineering works and allow visitors and anglers to move around quickly. Passing through these tunnels, a new world opens up at the other end. The various areas are dotted with small villages, perched high on hilltops. Always with a church spire at the centre. Every day the fishing was interrupted by a rich lunch, with chairs, a table, a three course meal and yes, even some wine. For the record, we kept it to two glasses, not a Hemingway-esque two bottles! The food was meat-and-potatoes style, and I am not sure how vegans would be able to travel through this country. I enjoyed every bit of it.
There was some snow around, but I thought it was surprising how little covered the peaks. As a kid driving through these mountains at roughly this time of year, I recalled there was much more snow. I had to ask the obvious question. Climate change? Adrian shrugged and said the amount of snow was the lowest it had been for a very long time, and it was affecting the rivers and dams used for hydroelectricity – alot. This meant that whilst the opening of the season here (1 June >) has produced great fishing, unless it rains, later in the summer (mainly August) is expected to be very difficult as streams reach critical lows. Their tailwaters, like ours, provide more year-round options and include some habitat for bigger trout. It pays to check local, up-to-date conditions if you are planning to visit.
It was on one of these tailwaters that Adrián suggested we take two rods. Both were 9ft in length, but one was 5 weight for dry/dropper, and the other was a 7 weight loaded with a huge cone-headed striped pine squirrel fly. Apparently, there were some large trout in the area. Thus far, my biggest zebra trout had been about 1½lb, so I was understandably a bit bemused to fish a fly that was not much smaller! We proceeded by fishing the dry first, then adding a dropper, and finished each deeper area with the big streamer.
The dropper box was filled with Perdigón-style nymphs. There are many varieties of the same theme, which is a tight wired body, finished with UV glue. The two styles we used and caught fish on were the beautifully-named Perdigón Falanjista (FA-LAN-GEESTA). We call that a hot-spot nymph. The other one was the Perdigón Gasolina; we call that dirty motor oil. I prefer the Spanish names! The Falanjista has its origins somewhere between an ancient black and red lure used by the rugged Basque cod fishermen of old, and a symbol during one of the many civil wars that raged in this area. Like so many things which have stood the test of deep time, you can trace the origins back to many possible (and intriguing) points in history.
It was on this session that, as I cast my last ‘dry-only’ presentation before switching to the dropper, a trout of about 1½lb ate the fly. I set the hook and turned my head towards Adrián. “Got a nice one on!” Adrián’s jaw dropped. “It’s huge, look, look, look!!” he shouted. I thought, “Calm down, amigo.” But as I turned back to watch my fish, I could see it was now caught horizontally between powerful jaws. The big predator trout (estimate 6lb but they always look smaller in the water) had swooped in and murdered my catch! I was offended. And stunned. I believe we both were. There are no photos, which is the very concept of ‘The one that got away.’ An un-Instagramable event. Life should be filled with them. But it was a veritable experience, and I have in Adrián a trustworthy guide as a witness.
We then did the obvious thing, which, no, was not to jig the big fish with the streamer – although the thought did cross our minds. That would be fishing Hemingway style. We ditched the 5 weight and streamer-fished the next three pools. After seeing this very large trout, I got that sudden taste for big trucha de País. This was exciting stuff. I had not expected to switch between dainty CDC presentations to Belgian casting heavy streamers. All in one single fishing session. It pays to have some versatile – if rudimentary – fishing skills when you are up this way.
This episode brings me to the name: zebra trout. I mean, really? Oh, I get it, it is because it has stripes. Very creative. Have you ever seen a large zebra, with its cute, fluffy ears, grab a small zebra and rip it to shreds? So no, zebra trout is not a label that is doing these fish any justice. The small ones take flies hard. I surmised after this event that this is because they don’t want to linger in waters patrolled by their gran hermanos (big brothers). They would get eaten. Wise move. The stripes, which apparently get more pronounced when they start to hunt, make ‘tiger’ the obvious choice. But that name is already taken. Tiger Brown would work? Anyway, I now refer to them as the locals do: trucha de País: the trout of this land.
Streamer fishing is a high risk, win-or-lose game. Casting a big, heavy fly hard against the opposite bank, and stripping it back quickly, is a very active proposition. One that, in the second pool, produced a big fish slamming the fly. But it missed my streamer by a mere inch. The recast was only half-heartedly inspected. The monster disappeared. Do you know the verse, ‘For want of a nail, the shoe is lost, etc.’? So too, for want of an inch, the dream photo was lost. The chance of a very big trucha de País had come and gone. Like a bolt of lightning.
Until that session, I had been happy catching a lot of fish. There is quality in quantity, as we say in north-east Victoria. But having seen these cannibals, it would be great to connect with one in the future. Like having a reason to fail stated upfront, perhaps a good flyfisher also needs a solid reason to come back.
The secret spot
The last day started by getting a secret key, from a secret house, to get access to a special valley. This time, the scenery was not matched by the quality of fishing. Adrián surmised that perhaps the locals, who it turned out all possess the secret key, fished here the day before. Ho-hum! As we drove back along the Social (public) part of the river, we stopped.
It looked inviting. No cars, no track marks. Blueish green water rushed over granite boulders. Fish-holding seams and bubble-lines everywhere. We had to get out. The first four casts produced four good fish. The quality was superb. So, the intrepid flyfisher can take a simpler approach. With a regional, ‘social’ license, and following the signs, one can sometimes be successful? Even in Spain, the best fishing is not always in the most exclusive zones.
Hemingway got to fish here with some mates because his muse wanted a holiday in the sunny, glitzy, seaside town of San Sebastián. But times have changed. After I scratched the itch of catching beautiful trucha de País, it was time for us both to make our way to San Sebastián. There and elsewhere in the Basque region, we were to immerse ourselves in some of the world’s finest food. Basque cheesecake is the best. Perfect beaches, ocean swimming and promenades awaited.
As we drove out of the Pyrenees, plans for a return trip were made. We only scratched the surface of activities here. Oh, and some more flyfishing por favor! I’ll make sure to pack a dozen streamers. Did I mention my love of casting a double-winged mayfly to soft water pockets? But I now know what lurks beneath, and I have a score to settle.