Article by Bill Robichaud
Last May I had the good fortune to visit Croatia, my first time in the Balkans. My raison de voyage and starting point was a conference on wildlife conservation in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. When the conference ended, I dove into a rental car with my tenkara rods, and went in search of Croatian trout.
Good Coffee & Bad Coffee
I have a friend, Bruce, who also travels a fair bit. Bruce is a caffeine head, and divides the world into ‘Good Coffee’ and ‘Bad Coffee’ countries. For me, the division is ‘Trout Yes’ or ‘Trout No’ countries – and one level further, countries with native wild trout ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Croatia ticks both the trout ‘yes’ boxes, with the country’s mountain streams harboring native browns, European grayling and the endangered huchen and smallmouth trout. Good to go.
For millennia, empires and their armies have crisscrossed the Balkans. After the most recent conflagration of the 1990s, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Croatia emerged as an independent nation. She was battered and bruised yet victorious, and today seems to be quietly, proudly thriving.
Denis, Darko, Pascal, & Daniel
From Zagreb, my rental car’s GPS led me a few hours southeast into beautiful hills of beech forest, and there to a modest two-story lodge in the woods. The place is owned and run by fly fishing guides and brothers Denis and Darko Gorjan.
I arrived at dusk, and after introductions and settling my kit into the second floor of the lodge, we sat down to a fantastic dinner, outdoors, of wild boar stew. Meals were included in my two-day stay, and when it comes to sustenance, D & D are my kind of people. In addition to the wild boar stew, subsequent offerings included homemade venison sausages on the grill, their own honey (thick and opaque with suspended pollen), a drink made from elderflowers from the very tree that shaded our outdoor dining table, and jam their mother made from something called Cornelian cherries (the brothers did a lot phone tapping into Google Translate to explain what we were eating).
Encamped in the ground floor of the small lodge were two other fly fishermen – Pascal, an erudite plastic surgeon from Burgundy, and his aikido instructor, Daniel (it’s an interesting, rich world out there, often brought to us by the people we meet). The good doctor had brought along some good wine, and he generously shared it around the table at meals. Pascal was clearly (and justifiably) proud to be Bourguignon, and I benefited from his ambassadorial largesse.
The First Morning
Then there was the fishing… Darko drew the straw (probably short one) to guide me, while older brother Denis accompanied the traditional fly casting Frenchmen, repeat clients of the past several years. Although also primarily a longliner, Darko knows tenkara, and even owns a tenkara rod, and so my fixed lines and I weren’t complete strangers in a strange land.
The first morning, Darko drove us to a café in a nearby small village. We had coffee (good coffee) within view of the border crossing to Slovenia, and from the barman I purchased my fishing permits. In addition to a fishing license, I needed to pay a daily use fee (about $12 per day) to a private fishing club with a concession on the stretch of water we would fish.
After downing the coffee and settling up, we drove a few miles along small roads and parked near the forested banks of an exquisitely clear stream, the Curak River. My God, what a sublimely beautiful destination is the Curak. Just the good coffee followed by all that beauty, whether trout yes or no, would have made the day complete.
But trout we found. Out of the car, I extended my DRAGONtail Mutant, fixed with 3.0 level line, and Darko tied to my tippet one of his creations – a dull gray yarn imitation of a caddis casing, mimicking an abundance in the stream.
Get Back on the Coast
Now, the only trout waters I know well are the streams of my home ground in the Driftless Area, in Wisconsin and Iowa. There the streams are commonly so smooth and narrow, often with high, steep banks, that the trout (mostly browns) can be successfully stalked only by wading directly up behind them, in the center of the current and the blindspot of their ‘six’. And so I followed my habit, waded into the middle of the fast flowing Curak, and started casting upstream.
Darko wasn’t impressed. “William”, he implored, “you must get back on the coast.” The rippled surface of the shallow, energetic Curak flowing over stones was enough to shield me from a trout’s eye view. Here, as in the western U.S. I’m sure, the gig is to wade near the edge (or walk along the bank), and send your cast perpendicular to the current. It took some time, and patience on Darko’s part, to rewire my Driftless brain and adjust.
Adjust I eventually did, and Darko’s caddis did the job, and soon I’d brought a couple of beautiful native browns to net. On this stretch of the Curak it was catch & release (and barbless hooks) only, and so I released them back into the flow. Venison sausages would have to suffice.
I was so transfixed by the beauty of the Curak and its potential for exotic trout (and keeping my back cast clear of the beech trees), that I didn’t register what was everywhere underfoot, and in the air, until I saw a couple of women, a mother and her grown daughter, collecting them: ramps, aka, wild leeks, aka, “bear onion” in Darko’s translation from the Croatian.
I’ve spent a fair number of early spring hours searching for ramps in Wisconsin, with limited success. And now here they were, massed around me in Croatia, as far as the eye could see along the banks of the stream. To paraphrase (and possibly butcher) T.S. Eliot, ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive somewhere else and find we are still at home.’ That’s how I felt along the Curak that morning, catching brown trout and taking in the heady, pungent scent of ramps.
There is solace in finding that the boundaries of our home extend farther than we knew. Likewise, it’s a reminder, which we seem to need often, of how very small, and interconnected, is this planetary marble coated in life.
The Geisha of Trout
That said, I was intrigued at the prospect of catching something I don’t know at home, a grayling. Darko explained that grayling typically hold in shallow, swift sections of the stream – the wide, flat runs. And, of course, our first grayling proved an exception to the rule.
After a streamside lunch break, we came to a beautiful, deep plunge pool – the sort of water that verily shouts “trout!” I cast into the current a couple of feet above the pool, and let it carry the caddis in, watching, like a cat at a mouse hole, where my 5x tippet met the water. The tippet paused, I set, and I was onto a fish, coaxing it up from the depths of the pool. It was a grayling that came to my net – the first grayling, Arctic or European, of my life. What an exquisite creature, with its delicate mouth and fan-like dorsal fins; the geisha of trout.
The next morning we started by searching for more grayling. In a wide, shallow run I had a few takes, but didn’t land any. I was amazed at what shallow, swift water the grayling held in. Being a more open stretch, I’d switched to my 400cm Suntech TenkaraBum 40, still using one of Darko’s caddises (he had to tie a few more the night before, since the beech trees had eaten enough of mine on the first day; I believe “Darko” is Croatian for ‘patience’). At one point I lent the rod to Darko, to show me how it’s done, and he soon landed a fine, beautiful fish.
When we had worked the grayling water as best we could, we moved further upstream to more brown trout habitat. Working upstream in the shade of the beeches, catching a modest-sized brown here and there, we eventually came to a beautiful little footbridge arching over the Curak. From the bridge, we cautiously peered below, and spotted a large trout holding just upstream.
Take a Bow
We worked out a plan of approach, and as Darko watched, I slinked down from the bridge, and crouched toward the “coast”, Darko directing me to the trout. He instructed me to land my offering about a meter ahead of the fish. I did my best, but a breeze took my cast and put it about a foot behind the fish. No matter – the trout spun instantly and took it, and I set the hook.
The fish first tried to dive under the edge of a submerged rock, and then into some trouble along the opposite bank, but I managed to keep it clear of both, for the moment. I soon heard voices conversing from the bridge above – apparently some hikers had joined Darko to form an audience. After several tense back-and-forth minutes, I scooped the large trout from the water – to a patter of applause!
My measure net showed the brown to be 16”, which proved to be the biggest fish of my two days on the Curak. And what a fine two days they were, begging for a Balkan return – and if the trout gods smile again, to take another bow.
Bill Robichaud lives in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, within view, natch, of Trout Creek. He wrote about fishing in the Swiss Alps for 2022-23’s print edition of Tenkara Angler. His day job is president of an organization working to save the world’s most endangered large mammal, the Saola (www.saolafoundation.org). He hasn’t gone grocery shopping for more than three years, and shares words and images about living from and with the Driftless land at www.birdinthebush.net.
This article originally appeared in the 2022-23 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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