I love to catch big trout. I’m sure that doesn’t make me unusual – I think all flyfishers want to hook, fight and land a large and wily fish. We like to think that only the smartest, most cunning and hard-to-fool trout get really big, and by catching the best in the stream, we’ve proven to ourselves that we’re skilled anglers and smarter than the fish. It’s a universally satisfying feeling to land a beauty. And yet, on my most recent trip I didn’t catch a trout over twelve inches, but it was the best fishing I’ve experienced. Some of the most spectacular scenery, stunning streams, and beyond any doubt, the most gorgeous trout I’ve ever laid eyes on.
I had spent a weekend up north in Zagreb, the nation’s capital, with a rental car and no obligation to rush back home to Split. I had time up my sleeve, and a desire to check out some new water. Information on fishing can be hard to get a hold of anywhere in the world, and Croatia is no exception. However, in my experience, the rivers here are all so productive that no matter where you go, you’d struggle to be disappointed. I recalled at some point, whilst researching potential streams, seeing a photo of a canyon creek in Northern Croatia, called ‘Kamačnik’, which seemed right up my alley. I enjoy tight, clear water, where the stealth of the angler is almost more important than presentation of the fly. For this type of fishing, I have a nice little, 6’6” 3 weight, with a furled leader: perfect for delicately delivering dry flies in close quarters.
I arrived at The Restaurant Kamačnik late afternoon, after less than two hours on the road from Zagreb. The restaurant is located at the junction of the creek and River Dobra. To say my hosts were gracious would be an understatement. One of them, Sanja, had actually lived in Sydney for about seven years, so her English was excellent, and she went above and beyond to look after me. Not only did I get a hearty three course meal and a room at the nearby ‘Planinarski Dom Kamačnik’ for a grand total of $49AUD, but Sanja also arranged a fishing license for me through the local fishing club. It cost 150 Kuna (around $30AUD) for the day, which is the standard fee for most streams throughout Croatia.
The following morning, after breakfast at the restaurant, I slipped into my waders, threw my gear together and set out to explore the canyon. I was slightly disheartened when I began walking up the creek, as not a hundred metres upstream from the junction was a tall concrete weir, with absolutely no way for large trout to migrate up from the river below. However, many of these Croatian rivers are linked underground, so it is possible for fish to enter a stream via subterranean watercourses. Ever the fishing optimist (and having already bought the licence!) I pushed on until I found a way down to water level. Much to my relief, from that point on, I was rewarded with some outstanding fishing.
The Kamačnik rises spring-like from the ground amongst thick forest, and after just three kilometres it flows into the Dobra River, right near the mountain town of Vrbovsko. The canyon is a moderately popular tourist attraction, and therefore has a well-maintained hiking trail along its length, the majority of which well above the water.
The creek reminded me of a few streams I’ve previously fished in Western Slovenia for marbled trout. It has absurdly clear water, which has cut its way through the limestone, leaving very little, if any, bank alongside the water. (Unfortunately, it’s without marbled trout, but also without the expensive price tag to fish for them!)
My experience in fishing water like this, is that the trout are very easily spooked, and just delivering a fly to one before it darts off under cover is often the most challenging aspect. But it soon became apparent that these wild browns see far more hikers than flyfishers, even though I didn’t encounter another person all day. I tied on a CDC and elk hair caddis pattern, a personal favourite. It’s simple, with just two materials. Plus it’s buoyant, easy to cast and see, and fish just cannot seem to help themselves when you drift one past them.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried too much about fly choice. I soon learned that the trout in this creek were so naïve and feeding so competitively, they ate anything and everything I threw at them. I just could not make a mistake.
Fly selection, dead drift, tippet size, casting accuracy, reading the water and stealth, are all important skills and knowledge I’ve honed over my years of flyfishing, yet here I’d found trout where none of it seemed to matter! I caught fish on consecutive casts in the same pool, or while dragging the fly mending line, or when making a horrible cast and landing the fly where I didn’t want it… I even watched eager brownies rush from one side of a pool to the other to nail the fly. For the first time ever, I genuinely lost count of how many fish I caught in a day.
Now, of course, they weren’t what you would call monsters by the standard definition. In fact, they all measured between six and twelve inches. But monster is a relative term. In a creek like this, I wasn’t expecting anything much bigger than what I caught, and to stand in that cold, clear water, surrounded by tall, moss-covered canyon walls and lush, green forest, casting to enthusiastic little fish, was pure bliss.
What also became apparent was just how beautiful these native browns were, and the variation in colour and pattern was incredible. The colours of each individual fish took me by surprise every time I landed one, and these little Croatian gems were easily the most beautiful trout I’ve ever caught. One in particular was a genuine work of art, displaying bright orange spots with white (and even some blue) halos along its flanks; black spots along its back, and striking black and white-striped trim to its fins, more reminiscent of a brook trout.
By late afternoon, daylight was quickly deserting the canyon, and I would have been lucky to have covered half of the creek’s length. But I was more than satisfied by the water I’d fished. I packed up and found a spot to scramble up to the hiking trail. I was then able to enjoy the view of the creek from above as I walked back out – a perfect finish.
I spent the night in Vrbovsko, before packing the car the following morning and heading off to find some new water… but that’s another story.