David Beanland travels to northern Croatia, where he experiences mixed fortunes in his quest for grayling and brown trout.
The Kupa is a broad river, an effective border between Slovenia and Croatia. It wells out of a large, limestone sinkhole, where grayling ghost the misty blue depth. In its subsequent kilometres, the river becomes shallower, assuming a greener tone, but the grayling remain. They outnumber the trout. For a little over 30 Euros you can fish a 2km stretch about a mile from the Kupa's source. Tickets are available at the Risnjak National Park restaurant. It might be cheaper to pay in the national currency, the Kuna. Naively, when I crossed the border, I'd forgotten that Croatia is not yet in the Eurozone.
Much more fishing can be had further downstream, at Brod na Kupi. I was told by the owner of the Hotel Mance that tickets were only sold to guests staying there, but he was prepared to make an exception in my case. I'm not sure that's true, for I believe the fishing rights belong to an angling organisation. Anyway, my 35 Euros allowed me to explore a lot of the Kupa, the whole of the Kupica (a 3km tributary) and the little Curak (7km long). It's as well that there's a lot of water to fish, because the angling pressure is high. The Hotel Mance is conveniently situated within sight of the border crossing and close to all three rivers. Fishermen from Italy and Austria are regular visitors and there was a small group of Belgian anglers staying there. I had chosen to lodge about 20km away, at Gina's, a very welcoming and comfortable B&B in Kupjak. It meant I was well placed to fish rivers further south in Croatia, like the Kamacnik, Dobra, Vitunjcica, or the more distant and more famous Gacka.
At the junction of the Kupica and Curak, there's a big pool that was delicately ringed by rises. It seemed to be the right place to begin. I waded carefully by the bank and cast over grayling I could see wafting over the gravel bed. Nothing moved to the dry fly. Either they'd been targeted earlier by other anglers, or they were inured to artificial lures.
At the top of the pool, where a small weir and a scattering of rocks broke the flow into a bubbly tangle of currents, I noticed a large, dark shape, but it showed no interest in the flies I offered.
The Curak is the sort of river I'm used to: small, rocky and hugged by trees. I fished it expectantly and left disappointed. A few days later, I ventured further upstream, towards the gorge. It's a more challenging section with deeper pools – one of which produced a small trout. The Kupica also yielded very little.
It was the Kupa that provided most of my fish. On my first visit, I explored the downstream section and found a lovely flow of water a short drive from Brod na Kupi. There was a wide, shallow pool above, which accelerated over stones into a deep run over gravel. It looked like the perfect place for a shoal of grayling. Not that I had much hope: I'd caught nothing and there was no fly life. This is odd, given that northern Croatia relies mainly on forestry and has very little arable land. You would expect the meadows and bankside vegetation to harbour lots of insects whose lives are untroubled by pesticides. The apparent lack of large hatches might explain why terrestrial imitations worked so well for me. The Turck's Tarantula variant which had proved irresistible in Slovenia also succeeded further south. Casting at random over this promising current, I caught two fine, muscular grayling. The Kupa, I'm sure, holds bigger fish, but, after a hard day's fishing, I was pleased with my catch which came minutes before the rain.
I was keen to explore some of the smaller rivers to the south. Gina made a few telephone calls and came up with the Kamacnik near Vrbovsko. She discovered that it was fishable above the motorway viaduct. Below that point, there'd been an extensive fall of trees that blocked the stream. Winter ice had been so heavy that lots of woodland had been affected, both in Croatia and Slovenia.
The cobbles of Vrbovsko lead to the Flash Café where, for 20 Euros, you can get a day ticket. A road opposite the café leads to the junction of the Kamacnik with the River Dobra. Alongside a restaurant runs a path which takes walkers upstream. After a little more than half a kilometre, you reach the motorway viaduct. My approach was less orthodox, involving a drive back through Vrbovsko and along a very minor road. I asked a woman the way to the river and she got her husband to help. With him in the car, I was directed down a track which ended in a meadow. In fact, the track was mostly meadow. Luckily there was some firm ground where I could park. He pointed to the wooded valley, refused my offer of a lift home, and disappeared.
Even above the viaduct there were trees to clamber over, but fishable water was visible. The problem was, so was I. The Kamacnik is narrow, mostly shallow and very clear. Its trout are startlingly alert. My only chance of catching one was to fish the faster, broken water. The Tarantula winkled one out almost immediately, but then I struggled to entice another. Only when I came to a weir did I believe I might do better. And I did: three trout around 10" each were taken from directly below the fall.
Returning to the car, I was about to cross the stream when I saw a narrow, quicker section I hadn't fished. That yielded a 12" trout, a beautiful, golden fish. Some of Eastern Europe's rivers have golden trout; this looked like one, but I discovered later the golden version is really a variant of the rainbow trout (which mine wasn't) and California's state fish.
Given the size of the Kamacnik and the nervousness of its trout, I was glad I was the only angler. I could fish all the likely places and wade where I wanted. The Curak is similar – you want it to yourself. The problem is that there's no beat system, no booking office. You have to hope no-one else is there. With the bigger rivers, like the Kupa, it doesn't matter so much. You simply drive to a stretch which is fisherman-free, but even then you can't be certain that no-one has cast over it minutes before you.
Two days later, I was back at Brod na Kupi. First, I explored the Kupica and Curak a little further, and so it was late afternoon when I turned my attention to the Kupa. This time I tried the upstream section, driving past a few anglers before I reached an appealing pool.
As I parked the car, three children ran across the road – members of the gypsy family I had been told about. Like little insects, their eyes ran over me, the car, and its contents. They asked to get in and show me where the big fish were, but I just smiled, shook my head, and drove on.
Before long, I found an interesting spot where a limestone shelf provided a small cascade at right angles to the main flow. Effectively, there were three distinct parts to fish. I began exploring the current to my left. There was a slight rise which I guessed indicated a grayling. It came readily to the Tarantula, as did another, also about a pound in weight. From the next section, a third grayling took the fly. The most alluring portion of the pool was that main flow against the opposite bank, but often such places, to the angler's surprise, yield nothing. I could feel doubt growing as I covered the rope of water carefully. Another handsome grayling reassured me a little.
There had been a few large duns flickering about, one of which looked like a Yellow May. The only approximate pattern I had was a bushy, deer hair creation. I let that wander slowly over a relatively calm part of the pool. It was very deep, and suddenly, from the green gloom, came a nice trout of a fraction over a pound.
Further upstream there was a long pool in which the better fish were in the drop-off zone, visible as wavering shadows. Towards the far bank, the riverbed rose like a gravel ramp. A few grayling were rising there to the odd insect. It was easy angling – no immediate snags to trouble my casting and several targets to aim for. None of the big grayling the Kupa is known for, but I enjoyed tricking and playing those that I hooked.
That is the pleasure of fishing in Eastern Europe. The languages are nobbly with consonants and difficult to learn, the scenery is different with its mountains and dense forests, and so is the fauna (in northern Croatia there are bears, lynx and wolves). For the solo angler it's a challenge, but one which nourishes and stimulates. You should try it.