A fly-fishing vacation

As dull as it sounds, nothing beats the serenity this sport has to offer.

Norman Cohen with his catch, a rainbow trout. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Norman Cohen with his catch, a rainbow trout.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I never thought countries like Slovenia and Croatia could be such great places for fly-fishing,’ says Dr. Norman Cohen, a former gynecologist and a veteran fly fisherman who recently returned to Israel after a two-week trip to these small Balkan countries.
Although many Israelis have discovered the tourist attractions there, including skiing in the Julian Alps, few are aware of these countries’ fishing opportunities. Israel is not a country for fly-fishing, except for very limited fishing in the Dan Stream – and that only for trout that have escaped from the Kibbutz Dan fish farm.
Both Slovenia and Croatia are only a three-hour flight away and still reasonably priced. Both countries offer fly-fishing experiences that purists of the sport will truly appreciate.
There are many aspects to fly-fishing, says Cohen; knowing the right fly and the right technique is fairly basic, but often there are subtleties that can make all the difference. He believes fly-fishing is a science, and that it is the purest form of fishing.
“It may take some time to learn, but it is an amazingly rewarding experience for the angler with the proper mind-set,” he says.
The art of fly-fishing is an old one, having originated in European royal families in Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Italy and Britain.
Cohen is a veteran fresh- and salt-water sport fisherman who made aliya from Florida, where he engaged in considerable salt-water fishing. He has made more than 20 trips to Alaska, where he fished with both fly and spinning tackle for trout, grayling and several species of salmon.
A holder of two International Game Fish Association “line records,” Cohen says he was surprised during his recent fishing trip to Slovenia and Croatia, where he fished in several rivers, beginning in the Julian Alps, an extension of the Swiss, Italian and Austrian Alps.
The two rivers he enjoyed the most during his trip were the Sava in Slovenia and the Gacka (pronounced “Gatska”) in Croatia.
“The Sava, one of the main rivers that flow from the Julian Alps into Lake Bled, is a ‘classic’ trout river that must be accessed by wading into water that averages between 10º and 13º Celsius. The Gacka River in Croatia, on the other hand, is much easier to fish in and can be accessed from the river banks,” he explains.
Both the fishing and the local scenery in these countries were as good as or better than anything he has experienced to date, he says. His Slovenia trip was based around the town of Bled, on the shores of the pristine Lake Bled, which is well known for its health spas and fantastic scenery.
“I fished in seven rivers that were within 20 minutes from Bled that offer first-class trout fishing,” he says. “There are three trout species: rainbows (introduced from North America), German browns, and marble trout, which are indigenous to this region. There are also the occasional huchos (large fish of the salmon family related to the Mongolian taiman or ‘Danube salmon’). These huchos... weigh up to 10 kg. or more.”
One of most exciting moments for Cohen was hooking onto a huge hucho: “I had what could have been a 25-pound [11 kg.] hucho eat a 10-inch [25-cm.] rainbow that I hooked; but he spit it out after a minute. It was truly amazing!”
Fishing in these locations, he says, is done almost entirely by what is known as “catch and release,” meaning that the fisherman has to return the fish to the water alive after catching and photographing it. He himself has done this kind of fishing all his life, even for large species of salt-water fish.
Getting to these two Balkan countries is relatively easy, he points out. After arriving in Zagreb, Croatia, from Tel Aviv, he rented a car, and after a picturesque two-and-ahalf- hour drive, he arrived in Bled.
He describes Lake Bled as a “very touristoriented place” with beautiful hotels and a casino. There are many private pensions, or guest houses, of varying qualities in and around Bled. The accommodation rates vary, running at 35 euros a night and up. Cohen stayed at a lovely pension costing 50 euros a night, which included a full breakfast and dinner. There are also private apartment rentals “that are often a ‘no frills’ type and are cheaper than the pensions,” he adds.
For those going to fish, permits cost 50 euros a day, and the services of an experienced guide (a must for first-time visitors to the area) cost between 130 and 150 euros per day. For species like trout, grayling and Hucho, use of a fly rod and reel are almost mandatory, and both “dry” and “wet” or streamer flies must have barbless hooks.
“All of these regulations are there to ensure that sport fishing will remain for years to come,” explains Cohen.
Fly-fishing equipment for such a trip does not have to come from an upscale sports catalog. It can be purchased for much less, and for under $200 (a bit more if purchased in Israel), a good three- or four-piece fly rod, a manual winding fly reel, and good quality fly line will suffice.
The fly line, which floats on the water, provides the weight for casting the dry or wet fly bait, which is done by whipping the line to get the bait out to where the fish are lying – often in a river pool or behind submerged boulders.
According to Cohen, the three types of flies used are dry flies, nymphs and streamers.
A dry fly is meant to resemble an insect such as a mosquito, grasshopper or mayfly that lands on the surface of the water. A nymph is a “wet fly” and is meant to sink to various levels. Nymphs imitate the insect in its larval stage as it is rising from the bottom of the river to hatch. A dry fly is fished on the surface, while a nymph is fished under the surface. Both use floating fly lines.
Streamers resemble small baitfish, grubs, leeches or other small creatures that are often a food source for hungry trout. These are pulled through the water and made to look alive.
“Dry flies and nymphs need to float naturally with the current to make the best possible presentation and to fool the wary trout into thinking it is not artificial,” Cohen explains.
The rubberized waders and wading boots that are worn in the water are required for stream fishing, as the stream or river bottom is very slippery.
“Most river fishermen use stocking-foot waders [a chest-high rubberized outfit with foot attachments] and buy the boots separately. Good boots can make all the difference when walking on wet rocks. Ankle support is critical,” stresses Cohen.
Fishermen who bring non-fishing family members with them can arrange tours for them that can include boat rides on Lake Bled, as well as tours to historical spots like Bled Castle, a 1,000-year-old medieval Gothic structure perched high above the lake. The castle includes a historic museum from the period.
There are also a number of beautiful waterfalls nearby, as well as spectacular caves and underground caverns, with entrance fees of between 10 and 15 euros. One of these caves, the Skocjan Cave in Skocjanske National Park, has a spectacular “fairyland” of natural stalactite and stalagmite formations and an underground river complete with waterfalls. “Fishing widows” and kids can enjoy themselves at Bled. You can rent a boat for less than 20 euros and relax. You can arrange whitewater rafting, sky diving, alpine sliding and various other outdoor activities. Also, one can drive into the breathtaking Alps and Soca Valley.
Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (pronounced “Liubyana”), is less than an hour’s drive from Bled and offers a number of attractions for non-fishermen; including a picturesque river walk and 13th-century Gothic architecture. Most of Slovenia’s 1,000-member Jewish community lives in and near Ljubljana, and kosher food is available from the Slovenia Jewish Community Center, as is information on synagogue services.
Cohen spent the second half of his trip in Croatia near a town called Delnice. There, he fished on his own in the Kupa River for grayling, which he says are “challenging but abundant,” and for brown trout, of which he caught several each day.
“The Gacka River, located near a town named Otocac, is a beautiful river that people can fish in from the bank. No waders are needed and the trout are abundant, but smart. There are many hotels, pensions and apartments all over the place. Delnice is only 45 minutes from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, which is absolutely beautiful.
“To have a rewarding [fishing] trip, preparation is a must,” he says. “Spending time with someone who has done it before and is knowledgeable about the specifics of the area and [is] an expert in fly-fishing in general can make a big difference in the outcome of a trip.”
And, he adds, “keeping expectations realistic is very important. Fly fishermen never approach a day of fishing with the expectation of going home with a bucket full of fish. Fly-fishing is as much a state of mind as it is a sport.”