Article by Bill Robichaud
Additional Photos by Corina Cathomen
Indeed, I am a lucky fisherman – I live amongst the trout waters of the Wisconsin Driftless Area, and my girlfriend lives in the Swiss Alps. That’s even better than a woman with a bass boat, and we work it out, the long distance.
I feel at home in Switzerland. Corina is one reason of course, and trout have recently become another. I’m not much of a catch & release guy, and in Switzerland catch & release of trout is essentially illegal. My sort of people. Now, rest assured dear readers and members of Trout Unlimited, on my home waters of Wisconsin I still release most of the trout I catch, keeping only the few I can eat. Cooking and eating trout I’ve caught enriches the experience for me, through deeper immersion in the cycle of life feeding life. Nor do I believe that the moral high ground is held by releasing a trout and going home to cook a cod or salmon flown in from a thousand miles away.
In Switzerland, all non-native trout taken (brookies, rainbows) must be kept, as well as all native trout above the legal size limit (24 cm, or about 9.5 inches, in most of the waters we fished). The Swiss take on this apparently has two roots. The first dates to World War II, when this small country, neutral but surrounded by a continent aflame in war, strove to become self-sufficient, especially in food. Soccer fields were plowed and planted in potatoes, and it was made illegal to release any fish caught – gamefish or rough, it had to be taken home for food.
More recently, the animal welfare movement became involved. Their argument, adopted by policy makers in Switzerland (and likewise in Germany I’m told), is that catching a trout once and killing it causes less suffering than hooking, stressing and releasing the same trout repeatedly (although I’m not sure which option the trout would choose if given the chance…). In fact, Swiss law requires each that keeper trout be killed immediately, first by stunning it with a blow on the head, and then slitting its gills or belly. And every trout caught (of any size) must be immediately logged, either on a phone app, or written in an official trout registration booklet (the latter for old-school me).
Switzerland and the Alps are a beautiful contrast with my home ground of the Driftless Area. My home streams are mostly soft, slow, and silent. Yin fishing. And at times I can spend five minutes trying to coax and thread just one cast to a small pool, under, around and through the trees, brambles, and devilish Angelica. Fishing the Driftless in August is not for the faint of heart. On some streams late in season my simple marker of success is if a morning’s catch of trout exceeds the number of flies lost. I content myself with that as a good result over coffee afterwards.
In the Alps, the streams are hard, cold, clear, and rushing. Yang fishing. And there is the constant music, mountain music – from small cascades, riffles strumming over stony flats, and cowbells ringing from alpine pastures. There’s also more room here to stretch out a cast, with longer rods. This past summer I took my 400cm Suntech TenkaraBum 40 for some walks in the Alps, and Corina fished her DRAGONtail Mutant at its full length of 380cm. It’s a welcome relief to fish stretches of stream where, like an honest man, one no longer needs to be constantly looking over one’s shoulder.
And there are fish – beautiful native browns (Bachforelle in German, which translates, somewhat confusingly, as ‘brook trout’; the non-native brookies are called Bachsaibling, or ‘brook char’). For fun, and to show them something they’d perhaps not seen before, from level lines we fished my local homegrown Driftless pattern, the Pink Squirrel, and some all-American Prince Nymphs (beadless) and Pass Lakes. The Swiss trout ate them like chocolate.
Productivity in the alpine waters is not as high, natch, as the warmer, wooded streams of the Driftless. But enough trout can be found to keep it fun, and with enough size to require some raps on the head, for feasting later with a nice bottle of a crisp Swiss white.
It helps that the fishing pressure isn’t particularly high. The best fishing we found this past summer was along a gorgeous, stony stretch of the upper Rhine River that flows along the edge of Corina’s village. We could walk from her house to the best fishing, and some of it started just 50 yards upstream from a popular campground on the outskirts of town. The Swiss are more attracted to artisanal gold mining in the streams and to fishing for pike down in the lakes, than to trout.
The few other trout fisherman we met reported declines in both trout and thus trout fishermen in the past decade. Skeptics might instantly point to the ‘catch & keep’ rule as a factor, but I doubt that’s it. The annual season limit in Switzerland for one fisherman is 60 trout. If you catch and keep 60 (which few fishermen probably do), you’re done fishing for the year, since there’s no catch & release. Sixty is probably a sustainable cap. A more likely issue may be the continued Swiss attachment to the tradition of rearing and releasing hatchery browns (none of which Corina or I caught, identifiable by their clipped adipose fins). Studies in Switzerland are starting to show, as they have in the US, that the hatchery game can have long-term negative impacts on wild trout populations.
Fortunately, being fairly new to seeking trout in the Alps, I have no past to compare it with. And comparison is the first death of love. The waters are cold and clear, the vistas spectacular, and my ratio of trout caught to flies lost is favorable. Life is good in these mountains.
Bill Robichaud is the President of an organization that is working to save from extinction the world’s most endangered large mammal, the Saola (www.saolafoundation.org). When not doing that he hunts, fishes, gardens and forages from his home in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, and writes about it at www.birdinthebush.net.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021-22 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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