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Bosnian bounty

By Sasa Kesic

Sa


A Bosnian beauty.
A Bosnian beauty.
The Pliva where Skues fished combines natural beauty and challenging fishing.
The Pliva where Skues fished combines natural beauty and challenging fishing.

A plump grayling is kissed gently before being released lovingly back into the water. The hand that held it is washed in the stream and then some water is brought up to the angler’s lips and drunk. The same ritual is repeated with a trout caught not long after. The plentiful fish are tricky and the surroundings stunning. This scene is found all over a small country in southern Europe, where bait fishing for salmonids is banned, and whose fly fishing heritage may be older than the UK’s.

GEM Skues is to blame for much in the modern fly fishing world, not least for a belief held among many Bosnian fly fishers that Bosnia is where fly fishing started, as it was he who, in Speculations on the Origins of Fly Fishing, remarked that the primitive way of fly fishing he witnessed on his trip there reminded him of Ælian’s description and elaborated on a possibility of Vikings bringing fly fishing to Britain from the Balkans. In his article, Turco as a Fly Fisher (Bosnians are not Turks, though), he writes about fishing in Bosnia and also touches on Bosnia’s rivers and fish in two more articles, all contained in Side-Lines, Side-Lights & Reflections.

Back then the fish were plentiful and today is not much different. The 16th European Fly Fishing Championships were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina in September 2010 and the catches were remarkable – 2,976 trout and grayling counted. An impressive figure, especially when you consider the fact that only one of the country’s premier fisheries was amongst the venues.

Peace reigns
There are political tensions (thankfully, no heavy arms any more), but as individuals Bosnians get along with each other just fine. The last war has resulted in a settlement where a loseish union of two large entities, one Serb and the other Bosniak-Croat, exists under a form of a European Union protectorate. There are no landmines left anywhere near any habitations or any popular fishing destinations, but do not go exploring on your own without making sure that there is no danger. The likelihood of there being any is miniscule, but it is worth being 100% certain. Bosnia is not wealthy and it shows, but it is thoroughly modern and European.

In Bosnia, no national rod-licence exists, but every bit of water is controlled for which you have to buy day-tickets. A friendly bailiff will normally sell you a ticket on the water, but more serious outfits may require the permit to be bought before fishing. Some places will have a good mix, some will be gems of wild fish, some will be dominated by huge rainbows, most will have several completely different sections. Many are overstocked, and some will appear overstocked, some will be easy and some frustrating. Often the river water can be drunk safely.

A water can either be a free fishery (slobodna voda) or a specially designated fishery (revir). Revir can mean no more than a stretch of water designated fly only, but it can also mean a premier water where fly fishing is serious business, and these premium revirs are much better stocked, controlled and looked after. They are invariably fly only, most restricting the method to single fly on fly gear. There are no upstream or downstream restrictions and no nymph closed seasons.

Penalties
Free fisheries will generally allow fishing for salmonids with spinning gear or any fly method and coarse fishing for coarse fish. National size and bag limits will apply everywhere, but revirs restrict taking of fish severely – for grayling and brown trout the norm is strictly catch-and-release and if rainbows are present the limit for taking is usually one (but some fisheries are trying to get rid of them and impose no limit). If you are planning to take a fish you do not have to kill the first one you catch over the size limit – you are allowed to release all fish until you catch one you fancy keeping and then continue catch-and-release. However, the penalties imposed by the revirs for killing a grayling, a brown trout, an extra rainbow or any undersized fish are high.

Some methods of fishing flies in Bosnia, although quite traditional, are much maligned by the modern-day Bosnian purist. These are the bubble-float and Bouncing Betty (locally known as liner or Tyrolean twig) methods of fishing teams of flies using coarse gear. I have never practised them myself, but can’t help admiring them quietly.

The mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina are part of the Dinaric Alps and are predominantly limestone. Limestone releases its water less evenly than chalk and holds onto it a bit longer than non-porous rock. This means that sudden snow-melt or heavy rain can make waters very high for prolonged periods. Water levels are more variable in limestone streams than in chalkstreams and this means less aquatic vegetation and less silt. On the other hand, just like chalkstreams, they are cold throughout the year, alkaline, mineral rich and packed with invertebrates. Limestone rivers tend to have spectacular sources. Some have water gushing from caves with great force, others spew forth from bottomless abysses. Many of these are accessible on foot or even with a car and well worth seeing.

Eastern, central and southern parts of the country all have plenty of good fishing but they are off the travelling anglers’ beaten track and the infrastructure for the angling tourist is in its infancy. I will not dwell on these parts other than to say that the main rivers are the Drina in the east, the Bosna in the central part and the Neretva in the south. It is the southern part that is Herzegovina. The whole of Bosnia is part of the Danube catchment whilst Herzegovina drains into the Adriatic. The highest concentration of the best fly fishing waters is in the Krajina (crah-yee-nah) region in the north-west of the country.

Bosanska Krajina is where you will find a concentration of revirs, English speaking guides, angling lodges and accommodation for anglers. Organised trips from abroad will virtually all come here.

The main rivers are the Una, named by the Romans for her unique beauty, her biggest tributary the Sana, named by the same guys for her healing waters, the Vrbas and its biggest tributary the Pliva. The Una is a river of some force that has carved a spectacular canyon on its journey and adorned herself with waterfalls and cascades and is never the same for long. The Pliva is a true gem of turquoise water, whilst the Vrbas is more emerald. Both feed lakes and whilst the ones on the Vrbas are artificial and beside some enormous trout contain a plethora of coarse fish including Wels catfish and zander, the Pliva lakes are natural and excellent fly waters where rainbows and indigenous lake browns (both plentiful, browns reaching staggering sizes) swim alongside two species of charr. The Pliva joins the Vrbas in a spectacular fashion, abandoning itself to a steaming and roaring waterfall, watched over by a walled hill that is the medieval town of Jajce (photo above left).

Listed here is my choice five of the many excellent Krajina premium revirs.


The Pliva Revir at Šipovo is regarded as the most difficult of them all, yielding only to true masters, and spoken of reverently by the local anglers. All information can be found online at www.plivaflyfish.com/index.php?lang=en, though, at the time of writing, there is curiously little about the modern, purpose built anglers’ accommodation recently erected there.

The same company runs The Ribnik Revir on the River Ribnik, which is the region’s pride and joy. The name of the river means ‘fishery,’ which speaks for itself. It is full of grayling with good numbers of bigger fish. The fishing is mainly by wading, and when I visited the fish were there for the kicking. Literally. It felt like I was wading as much through grayling as through water. There was a good hatch on and the fish were rising freely. As my dentist friend, who had until then been a dry-fly virgin, managed two good size grayling and a trout on a Krejica (see below), I felt that my blank was an achievement of sorts, but I was later told of many a better fisher than myself beaten by this magical stream.

The Martin Brod Revir and the Klokot Revir (right) are big fish waters, where many huge rainbows mingle with wild browns and grayling in fast water offering perilous wading. On the Klokot the big fish are in the source ‘pool’, and you will struggle to find a stronger source roaring out of a cave or a faster running pool anywhere. On the Unac at Martin Brod the big fish are where the river exits its canyon. Both revirs offer variety and plenty of wild fish away from the big fish hot spots. The Klokot on the eponymous river boasts a solitary huchen, yet to be caught, the friendliest bailiff in the world, and a decent website (www.flyfishingklokot.com/index.php?lang=en), whilst Martin Brod has the highest day ticket price in the country (€45 per day), no website and a painfully beautiful stretch of the Una, as well as the Unac. Accommodation is offered privately at both.

The best, in my opinion, is the Sanica Revir, with almost exclusively wild fish (some browns are reared from a local broodstock). Excellent angler friendly accommodation exists nearby, with a swimming pool and all. It even has a website at www.oazamirasanica.com.ba, (look for the US flag for translation). It is compulsory viewing if you’re planning a trip there. €23 buys you a day ticket that is also valid on the Zmajevac Revir on the Sana, well known for its huchen.

The Sanica Revir is fully catch-and-release, about a mile and half long and is currently being extended to include a tributary. The source, which will imminently open as a premium revir itself, is located in a few metres-wide crack in a tall rock and is a gush from a cave into a deep pool followed by a tumble through boulders, before the stream widens and settles in a slow pace. Trout and grayling records for the Sanica are rumoured at about 70cm. This is no typo – we are talking 28in grayling. 60+cm grayling, whilst not common, are not a rarity, nor is the huchen.
Tempted? – the local equivalent of ‘tight lines’, meaning ‘clear waters’ is – bistro!
 



Little Jays and other flies
The whole region has a fine fly-tying tradition, erring on the small side, so much so that the region’s patterns and tyers feature heavily in Darrel Martin’s excellent Micropatterns. On the practical side, the heavy epoxy Gammarus is a devastating weapon of choice. Standard nymphs like Hare’s Ear and PTN are widely used as are Bosnian Nymphs. Regarding dries, at its time the Mayfly reigns, whilst versions of Goddard’s Sedge are most popular for caddis hatches. For upwings other than Mayfly, tiny local dries are a must. The Bosnians of old started imitating upwings using jay feathers, named the flies krejica (kreh-ye-tsa) – little jay, and then started applying the name to the insects. So, all small upwings and their imitations are now called little jays, even when the only feather used in the pattern is cul-de-canard. Often premium revirs sell the flies and the ones that work on the day will be tied and sold there and then. Some Bosnian tyers are tying innovative and very effective new patterns – and keeping them secret, and a few are regularly in the medals at international fly tying championships.

In his Turco article, Skues mentions giving away some of his flies to the locals and furnishing a Bosnian tackle dealer with addresses of English fly tyers. Some years later, a couple of British pilots, having survived the crashing of their plane during or soon after the World War II, fashioned fly lines out of parachute cords and spent their time awaiting rescue fly fishing. So, although some traditional Bosnian flies clearly hark back to antiquity, for the others, British influence may not be beyond possibility.

Finally, there is a belief in Bosnia that rainbows much prefer huge gaudy streamers to anything else and the monstrosities thrown at these poor creatures are in total contrast to the delicate creations reserved for native fish. You’ve been warned.
 



The fish
Bosnian grayling will sometimes look much like any British grayling but can often look strikingly different. All fins exhibit a red or orange tinge and with large pronounced patches on the sides of a similar hue. Brown trout in lakes can grow to very large sizes and 30lb+ are, although rare, not unknown. Some lakes hold small charr.

The huchen or Danube salmon is closely related to the Mongolian taimen, grows huge, is relatively rare and is hardly ever fished for with a fly. It has strongholds in a few places throughout Bosnia and the Buk revir on the Una in Bosanska Krupa is a premium huchen revir, whilst the huchen from the Drina are known to grow especially big.

We’ve neglected Herzegovina, but its fish deserve a special mention. The Adriatic brown trout are more turquoise in the body, with a very irregular and sparse black dotting and often pronounced large red spots. The marble trout, a strain of the brown trout, can equal the huchen in size and are often sea-running. One other fish of note in the Neretva and a few other Adriatic draining rivers is the softmouth trout, a threatened species of delicate beauty, not unlike a cross between a trout and a grayling in its appearance.

Factfile


Bosnia and Herzegovina is an almost landlocked country in southern Europe, with a single portless small town on the Adriatic its only claim to the sea. Its history and ethnic issues are complicated, but the executive summary would be that there are three main ethnic groups – Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats. The people are quite similar and speak the same language (which I call Serbo-Croat, but the people there will now call Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian), and the visitor is likely to be dealing with all of them, often at the same time. They will be as cordial with the ‘others’ as with ‘their own’. None of the ethnic groups are particularly obsessed with religion, and you will generally not be able to tell them apart, except for a minority of Muslim women who may have recently taken to a declarative attire.

Forget images you saw in the news bulletins in the 1990s. Reports from Banja Luka, my modern and pretty hometown of old, were invariably coming from a muddy cattle market just outside the city. Contrary to popular belief, Bosnia & Herzegovina, as part of Yugoslavia, was neutral during the Cold War. There is no great love for Russia, nor a great hatred of communism.

Money
The last war has resulted in a settlement where a looseish union of two large entities, one Serb and the other Bosniak-Croat, exists under a form of EU protectorate. One convenient consequence of this is that the local currency, the konvertibilna marka (KM – not to be confused with the kuna in neighbouring Croatia with a KN symbol) is pegged to the euro – 2KM = €1.

In the Bosniak-Croat part, a law was passed recently forbidding businesses to trade in euros but it remains to be seen whether it will be widely obeyed. The Serb part remains happily euro-friendly, and this is probably the only difference between the two to be aware of.

Food
Food is exceptionally good, often organic and a bit on the rich side. By all means try all the local delicacies, but if pushed to choose I would go for spit-roasted lamb or pork. Trout is also very tasty, as are rolled or layered filled pastries. They are called pita (pitta) or burek (boo-reck), if the filling is meat. Pitas come with vegetarian fillings, too. In Banja Luka you must try ?evapi (che–vah–pee), a mutton patty in a bun of its own. As a Banjalukan, I am bound to forbid you eat them anywhere else – for the good of the ?evap name and for your own good.

Be aware
Bears, wolves and vipers generally know you are there much too soon and make themselves scarce, but if you tread very gently, you never know … A more real danger is in the form of very frequent traffic police patrols. You’ll be OK if you are not breaking any rules, but speed traps are very common and you can be done for crossing a line without indicating, having your lights off (they are compulsory even in daytime) or not coming to a complete stop at a STOP sign, as I know only too well, even if the incident in question was in Croatia. Food and drink are very cheap. Accommodation and fishing are cheap. Police fines are not.

Timing
However, the biggest danger by far to a travelling angler is the weather. Limestone releases its water less evenly than chalk and holds on to it a bit longer than non-porous rock. This means that sudden snow-melt or heavy rain can make waters very high for prolonged periods – you may find yourself spending a week seeking solace in one or more local brews. To minimise the chance of this happening choose the summer months, but there can be no guarantees.

Guides
Speaking of good guides, most highly recommended are Admir Jeginovi? (www.misija-ribolov.com.ba), Jan Jankovi? and Saša Dragojevi? of Zepter (www.zepterpassportflyfishing.com, also through www.waderson.com), Aleksandar ?uki? and Senad Kurtagi? (www.una-senadisanja.com). All speak enough English – some very good – and can organise bespoke trips with accommodation and transport to and from the airports.

Language
It would be incorrect to say that English is universally understood. Let us say that is becoming widely spoken among the young generations and leave it at that. With goodwill, language is no barrier and you will find no shortage of it, and anyway, with a good English-speaking guide it ceases to be an issue.

Airports
Sarajevo is the most convenient airport for the Eastern and Central Bosnia. Herzegovina is well served by airports due to its proximity to the coast. Sarajevo is an option, as are Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia. This region is probably the best geared for tourism because it contains Me?ugorje, the unofficial Catholic pilgrimage site.

It is possible to fly to Banja Luka with the Serbian airline JAT via Belgrade, but the most convenient airport for Krajina is Zagreb in Croatia. It hosts several direct flights daily from the UK (Croatia Airlines and EasyJet), and numerous others with flight connections at European hubs. Split in Croatia and Sarajevo are also options, but involve a lot more road travel through mountains and we are not talking dual carriageways either. They are worth considering, though as they are covered by both scheduled airlines (Croatia Airways, EasyJet, Ryanair, Flybe) and charters operated by the likes of Thomson and Thomas Cook. Renting cars from the airports is easy, but be sure to mention that you are planning to go to Bosnia to ensure the correct insurance coverage.

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