Summer browns in Croatia

When we’re allowed to travel freely again, Ivan suggests putting Croatia on the list. 

When you’re a flyfisher who predominately wades the rivers and streams of Central West NSW, you get used to tough water conditions and low fish numbers. In my experience, some days, just seeing a trout can be considered a success. So, to travel to Croatia and fish river systems where native salmonids thrive in idyllic conditions, is a pleasure beyond description. Cold, clear-blue chalk streams, which rise out of giant holes in the ground, really need to be seen to be appreciated.

The source of the River Slunjčica, on a misty afternoon in between storms.

… and the source of the River Ruda; again rising from a chasm in the limestone – much like many other rivers in Croatia. A bit different to a typical stream in the Central West of New South Wales!

I arrived in Croatia in late February 2020 with plans to spend a whole year travelling Europe. I had a list of fish species and destinations I was hoping to tick off; some new, and some I’d already experienced in previous years.

That dream didn’t even last through to the end of March, for obvious virus-related reasons. But let me assure you, there are far worse places to live through a pandemic than Croatia! If you haven’t ever travelled there, it’s hard to describe what you’re missing, but I’ll give it a go. It’s a small but beautiful country, where you’re never more than a few hours from breathtaking rivers and the trout which inhabit them.

Split, a beautiful city between mountains and sea.

The city of Split, located on the Dalmatian coast, is full of charm, history, great food, beautiful beaches, perfect weather, and friendly locals. It also has a number of streams within an hour’s drive which provide some great flyfishing. In fact, from the centre of Split, there are two trout streams within a thirty-minute drive. The small town of Trilj is set on the River Cetina, only forty minutes from Split. Here you can purchase a fishing licence (a salmonid licence is 150kn per day – roughly $35) and access numerous great spots, all within a short drive.

Unfortunately, the local tackle stores do not provide much, if any, flyfishing equipment. I made the mistake of thinking I could pick up a landing net locally, as I tried to prioritise other equipment into my luggage allowance. But after no such luck (and a month of lockdown in a small Croatian studio apartment) I bought a ball of hemp twine, harvested a small sapling from the nearby forest, and made my own net.

After picking up a licence, I jumped in the car at 8am and headed to a spot just a few kilometres out of town. This stretch of river was flyfishing only, and strictly catch-and-release. The scenery was spectacular! The fast-flowing water, lined by thick greenery and steep rock faces, is rich in native brown trout (known locally as ‘pastrva’) and grayling (‘lipljan’). The solid limestone river-bed makes for easy wading. But while there are no slippery rocks to worry about, you need to be wary of deep holes and channels. These do present a hazard whilst wading, but provide perfect cover for hiding trout, waiting to ambush insects as they drift by.

The Cetina.

I made my way down to the water and optimistically tied on a dry fly. My go-to pattern, an Elk Hair Caddis with CDC, proved irresistible: I hooked my first fish within just a few casts. It was no monster, but a healthy wild brown, beautifully marked with alternating bars of black and gold, and a series of bright red spots along the lateral line. Off to a promising start, I managed to land three more of around the same size, and even missed a few hook sets on some other fish, all within a 50 metre stretch, and all on the dry. Seeing a trout eat your fly off the surface is always a pleasure, but to watch them rise up out of the depths, through the glass-like water to enthusiastically inhale it, is as good as trout fishing gets!

My first ‘pastrva’ from the Cetina.

It was great dry fly fishing, until things went a bit quiet late morning. I switched over to subsurface, and had some success on a grizzly-coloured Woolly Bugger, and a black tungsten-beaded Pheasant Tail Nymph.

A Cetina montage – they weren’t big, but they were beautiful. (Note the homemade net!)

Regulations in Croatia limit you to one fly on the line, so dry-droppers and two nymph rigs are out of the question. The fish were holding deep, so a weighted polyleader or a sink-tip line proved helpful for getting the fly down into the strike zone.

After a late lunch by the river, I decided to give the dry flies another run and was very glad I did. Casting a size 10 Stimulator across the stream and floating it down to the tail of a deep pool, revealed quite a sizable brown.

I can still see it in slow motion when I close my eyes… The trout rose up and took the fly only a split second before it would have disappeared into whitewater. Keeping the fish from taking off down the run proved a challenge, and it put up quite a fight – at one point disappearing under an uprooted willow for what seemed like ages.

The tail of the pool where I hooked the trout, and the rapids and willow where I almost lost her.

But eventually I managed to wrangle the fish out and scoop it up with my distinctly undersized homemade landing net. After a quick photo, I had the brownie back in the water, watching it swim off into the aqua-blue depths of the Cetina.

I managed one more smaller brown off the top, before an afternoon storm began to roll in, and I was quite content to call it a day.

After only a short drive back to Trilj, where I was staying, I treated myself to a beer, and generous plateful of roasted veal and vegetables, all for the equivalent of a measly 15 Aussie dollars. Oh, and I’ve since decided to build a bigger landing net…

A perfect way to end a perfect day.