Dateline: January 18, 2013 – Slavski Laz, Slovenia
On July 14, 1973, I learned to believe in miracles. That day, I watched my beloved Detroit Tigers stay on the wrong end of a 1-0 score for 8 2/3 innings, and then win the game on two straight wild pitches by a luckless reliever named Dave Sells. Light-hitting shortstop Eddie Brinkman scored the winning run; it may have been the only time in my childhood I saw him reach base. That game kept me hopeful throughout the lean Tiger seasons in the 1970s, and more generally, showed me that anything is possible. To this day, I drive Marta crazy watching the bitter end of each Detroit game, no matter how far behind they are, and yes, last year’s World Series still upsets me.
Eddie Brinkman, the Tiger shortstop of my childhood. He was such an amazing fielder that we forgave the paltry batting average. He was the first major-leaguer I ever saw wear glasses, which gave me hope, because I spent my childhood peering out from behind an awful set of brown hornrims.
Almost 40 years later, my faith in miracles was severely challenged. I found myself waist-deep in Slovenian snow, hypothermic and fishless, wondering whether I should throw in the towel or wrap it around my ears for additional warmth. I had fished nearly three days without so much as a strike, and all normal people would have been back in the bar at the hotel, where there seemed to be just as many fish and it was warmer. But because of July 14, 1973, I always believe a miracle finish is possible, and I stuck it out.
The target for this trip was a huchen, a member of the trout family that lives in southeastern Europe and grows larger than a third-grader – the world record exceeds 70 pounds. Inconveniently, they bite best in the dead of winter, but conveniently, I was heading to Europe in January for some meetings. Because we would be going to the Balkans, bringing Guido “Leadfoot” Gerhards (see http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/serbing-our-time/) was out of the question, because I do not like jail. However, Stefan Molnar (who you may remember as the particularly inflexible German from http://1000fish.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-five-gram-rule/,) was up for the trip and we decided to brave the conditions and give it a shot.
This time, the drive to Slovenia was after dark, but with the whole route covered in snow, it was still beautiful as everything glowed in reflected light. We made good time and got into Ljubljana around 11.
This is what we would have seen in the Alps if the sun had been up. Luckily, our drive back was in bright sunshine.
More Alps. Also taken on the way back, but with the tearful ending coming up, it fit better to put the pictures here.
Morning came (too) quickly, and I never sleep that well before a fishing trip. Our guide, Tomo Sebenik, picked us up at the Hotel Slon promptly at 6am, and Stefan and I were likely not at our best. Thus began three days of liberally trading off caffeine for sleep.
Tall and rangy, Tomo spoke solid English and it was soon evident he knew his business very well.
That’s Tomo on the left. If you ever find yourself wanting to catch a huchen or anything trout-related in Slovenia, look him up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the drive to the river, he also warned us that the fishing would be difficult. It had been unusually cold and snowy, and with no runoff, the water was low and clear. Huchen are extremely wary fish, and we would need to get lucky to score. With three days ahead of us, I still liked the odds.
We headed off into the mountains north of Ljubljana and soon were driving along the River Sava. The beauty of this area defies description. The river valley cutting through mountains and pine forests was stunning enough, but a deep layer of new snow made it look like an amazing postcard. Once we stepped out of the car, however, it didn’t feel like a postcard. It felt like the world’s biggest walk-in freezer. It was cold. Somewhere around 28 degrees.
I spent my childhood in snowy Michigan, and I was quickly reminded of how hard it is to walk any distance through deep, wet snow. We only had to go half a mile to our first spot, and it felt like a marathon.
Stefan and Steve arrive at the first fishing spot. We’re smiling because we hadn’t realized how cold it was going to stay or how tough the fishing was going to be.
The spillway we started at looked incredibly fishy, but as we started to cast, we saw a few rainbows, but no huchen. We moved after about an hour, and saw our first huchen – a yard-long shadow that eased away as soon as we started casting near it. This is the issue with this species – while trout of all kinds are wary beasts, these things are ultra-skittish. Whereas a brown trout might spot a careless angler who fails to crouch, huchen will hear a car door slam half a mile away. I even tried to tie my knots quietly.
Tramping through the woods later in the morning. By this stage, I was already over the natural beauty thing and ready to catch a fish.
The snow began falling heavily in the afternoon, just as we moved to a spot that required about a mile of hiking. When we set gear down, it was covered with a layer of white in a matter of minutes.
Five more minutes and we couldn’t have found the bag. Ten more and they couldn’t have found me.
Yes, it was that cold.
We saw two more huchen – giant shapes gliding between the rocks – but this also means that they saw us, and they skulked away without biting. At least we knew they were there. Stefan suffered silently along with me, and we closed the day out in the winter twilight.
Our last fishing spot on the 16th. Winter wonderland, yes, feeding huchen, no. Note that most of the good pictures in this post are courtesy of Stefan.
Another view of the spot. We saw two huchen here, and they were big, but I think they heard my teeth chattering and were spooked.
Some scenery as we packed up on the first afternoon.
That evening, we explored Ljubljana a bit, and found a nice local restaurant where we commiserated over Slovenian beer. Tomorrow just had to be better.
Steve strikes a memorable pose at the Three Bridges landmark in Ljubljana.
Our guide for the second day was Dusan Stih, which is “Hits Nusad” backwards, funny unless you happen to be Nusad. Dusan gave us the same warning – that the low, clear water and cold temperatures were working against us, but we had two days ahead of us, and I still liked the odds, although I liked them about a third less than I did yesterday.
Steve and Dusan prepare to do battle with the mighty huchen. Or not.
Dusan also guided the Sava, but a wider, slower stretch that was out of the mountains and in to the central valley of Slovenia. Again, the natural beauty of the place defies my writing skills. We tried a couple of spots but had no hits - Dusan certainly kept us moving from place to place and trying every possible lure. We cast and cast, the baits looked beautiful in the water, but no bites. Doubt began to creep into my psyche, but I kept thinking of Eddie Brinkman.
Molnar casts relentlessly on the second morning.
Steve and Dusan. The river looked so positively perfect I couldn’t believe I hadn’t had a hit yet. But I still liked my odds.
Somewhere around noon, something odd happened. The light changed. Stefan looked up and said “What is the bright thing in the sky?” It was the sun. It appeared for about 90 minutes between snowstorms, leading to some lovely photos, but, as Dusan warned us, it also meant that the fishing would be more difficult.
Actual sunshine. This lasted less than two hours.
We kept on the move throughout the day, each place more beautiful than the last, and the final location was near Dusan’s fishing club. Apart from a nice clubhouse and picnic grounds, they had a beautiful, modern hatchery. He kindly let us into the building and gave us a tour, and it was here I embarrassed Stefan horribly.
A huchen hatchery. They have small huchen in captivity here. They control the food supply. You know where this is going.
Yes, I tried to catch one of the huchen fry in the hatchery. I know that normal people would be ashamed of this, but if you think there is any chance I am normal or have a sense of shame, you must be a new reader. Welcome!
Yes, I really am doing what it looks like I am doing. I can only imagine what the Slovenians were saying to each other.
The guys smiled politely as I rigged up a handline, figuring that hatchery trout would eat anything and I could at least add the species, then focus on getting a bigger one tomorrow. Molnar said nothing but took lots of photos. The hatchery manager wished me luck, but insisted that the huchen were too spooky to eat anything I would give them. And so, with light line, #28 hook, and Gulp bit attached, I lowered the rig into the tank and was promptly ignored like Barry Bonds at a Hall of Fame vote. Here I had mortgaged what shred of dignity I may still possess, and I got NOTHING.
We moved outside. The stretch of river in this area was beautiful and looked very fishy, but then again, so does any given part of the Sava. We set up and began to cast. Some rainbows pestered Stefan, but nothing stayed hooked.
About half an hour later, Stefan got a solid hit and had a fish on big enough to stop him in the current. I looked over, a touch pleased and a touch irritated, because this was likely THE huchen, but I still wished him well. Dusan came down and landed it – the fish was a six pound plus rainbow, Stefan’s personal biggest, but not a huchen. I breathed a competitive sigh of relief and kept fishing.
Stefan’s personal-best rainbow trout.
Dusan and I walked over to a spillway about 300 yards away. The creek arm looked a touch too deep for my Sorrell boots. The bottom was covered with the worst sort of slippery algae, which has the color and consistency of grease. Therefore, I tried to run across. I fell. And not just a slip and crash, but a marvellously comical, slow-developing Polish acrobatic act that saw me finally splash onto the rocks, knee first.
As if it didn’t hurt enough to get up in the morning, I now had to deal with a magnificent multi-colored bruise that turned out to contain bone chips. Whereas I had struggled to describe the scenery a day before, words like “frozen wasteland” were coming to me easily now.
We fished on through dark, when it went from cold to REALLY cold. Siberia cold. The kind of cold Solzhenitsyn would have complained about. Dusan insisted that the fish hit well after dark, and although we got nothing, I did learn that nose hair really can freeze.
Stefan and I had another good dinner in Ljubljana. We talked fishing well into the night – Stefan is certainly passionate on angling, and I could tell he was thrilled about his big rainbow. We still had one more day to go for huchen, this time back with Tomo. Our odds were falling with the thermometer, but I knew that Eddie Brinkman never worried about odds.
It got downright chilly at night.
On the third morning, we were ready to mail it in. The weather had gotten colder, it was still snowing, and we were going to drive all the way cross Slovenia to fish the River Kolpa, on the border with Croatia. Luckily, we found a snowplow and stayed behind it for most of the trip.
We made one stop, to pick up snacks, at a hybrid tractor parts/convenience store that had some of the most questionable fast food I have ever seen, and that’s saying something. The kind of place that puts the “gross” into “groceries.” At least they had Red Bull.
We finally reached a village called Slavski Laz, and struggled to find parking because the roadside was piled high with plowed snow.
The village of Slavski Laz. Not even a Burger King.
Our first spot was another absolute postcard, although I discovered a gully the hard way while walking out to the river.
I manage to find a gully with chest-deep snow. Stefan offered no assistance but kindly photographed the moment.
The first pool we fished. The far bank is Croatia.
The River Kolpa looked slower and deeper than the Sava. Figuring that the fish might bite better in deep holes, I spent the morning throwing jigs and very deep-diving plugs out over some beautiful ledges. I just knew the fish had to be there. Now and then, the silence would be interrupted by a large load of snow crashing out of a tree into the river, or on to Stefan’s head. This was funny until it happened to me.
We moved to a perfect-looking point that looked out over a deep pool and a large flat that Tomo told us was about six feet deep and held a lot of fish in the evenings. We worked it thoroughly, and Tomo told us we would come back to finish up here after dark. I heard him say “finish,” and I have to admit it sounded good. Could it be that we could go three days without our target fish?
Stefan fishing in our first visit to the big pool north of town.
Steve trudges his way out to a point.
We walked down the road to another set of ledges and a beautiful riffle, and as the light slowly drained from the sky, I started coming to grips with the idea that it didn’t look good for my huchen quest. It started getting a lot colder, and as we moved back into our final spot, I tried to think of last-minute miracles and Eddie Brinkman. I cast and cast. It got completely dark, and a thin moon shone through the haze above us.
I tried to stay focused. Slow retrieve, work the deep areas, fish shallower in low light. Tomo had mentioned several times that the fish moved onto a flat on my right in the evening, so I made sure to cast upstream every so often.
Stefan and Tomo on the bank of the Kolpa, after dark on day three.
Fishing was permitted only until 6pm. I looked at my watch – we had eight minutes to go. Although I was looking forward to getting into the warm car and finding some kind of food, I also had to face that I had spent three days in freezing temperatures and waist deep snow for no fish. Well, more like 2.999999 days, because at that moment, with eight minutes to go in the day and my dignity in tatters from the hatchery humiliation, I got a strike.
Whereas normally I would shout “Fish on!” or some similarly manly phrase, all I could manage was an astounded “No way.” Tomo said “What?” I responded “No way.” He asked “Fish?!” I said “Fish.” With my lure only about 30 feet out, I had gotten a crushing strike. The fish wallowed on the top for a moment, trying to throw the lure, then made a hard run for deep water, came across downstream, then started coming toward me. I asked Tomo to get in the water. Luckily, he was wearing waders, not that it mattered when I made the request*.
Tomo deftly flipped the fish up on to the bank, and there it was, 5 pounds of steaming huchen, sitting in the snow just a few minutes before we were going to leave. I couldn’t believe it – I have pulled out some miracles in my career, some 9th inning comebacks, but this had to top everything. I had caught a huchen.
It’s a small huchen, to be sure, but it’s a huchen, and I caught it outdoors, which restores my dignity.
A closeup of the beast. Note the powerful jaw. As an afterthought, this fish qualified as the 16 pound line class record on huchen, because no one else has bothered to turn in a bigger one.
I just put this in to improve the ratio of fish to scenery photos.
I rarely offer advice to other anglers, because, well, I don’t know that much. But I will throw something out here. Stay focused, stay confident, and keep thinking fish. Because last-minute miracles, like the one at Slavski Laz, can come to pass - if you’re paying attention. Because if Eddie Brinkman can score a winning run on two straight wild pitches, anything can happen. I may be the light-hitting shortstop of huchen fishing, and the fish might have thrown a couple of wild pitches, a balk, and an error or two, but I’ll take it. This one’s for you, Eddie.
*Note from Marta – He’s not kidding about this. Steve made an Irish guide (sans waders) get into 3 feet of 50 degree water to land his Atlantic salmon. I’m not sure if I was more astonished that Steve asked or that the guy did it without question.