For my second weekend in Europe, we had a plan much more ambitious than simple grundel-hunting or chasing pet store creatures in the shadow of my office. Jens had organized a couple of days on the Tisza River in northeastern Hungary, a location legendary for monster zander. (Which also has a lot of the interesting bottom critters that start popping up in Eastern Europe.) Even though the guest room at Jens and Birgitte’s house has become very familiar, I still didn’t sleep that well on Friday night, because I was flat-out wound up about this trip. I had studied up on all the unusual carp offshoots that live in this area, such as zobel, zahrte, and zope, and I was just certain I would be catching a few of them. I went downstairs a couple of times during the night to check and re-check the gear, and each trip up or down set off the dogs. They have 2 dogs – Paul, the sweet mutt who wants nothing but love and leftovers, and Bobby, who loves Jens and Birgitte but must always be locked up when there are visitors, because he is a touch unpredictable. So I have never actually seen Bobby, but judging from the sounds he makes when he hurls himself into the kitchen door trying to get out and kill me, I would estimate him to be around 9 feet tall and 375 pounds. Jens insists he is much smaller.
Now that I think about it, Jens and Birgitte probably didn’t sleep all that well either.
Paul looks pretty much like this.
This is how I imagine Bobby.
Early Saturday morning, Birgitte dropped us off at Stuttgart airport, likely to her great relief, and on a strangely-named yet curiously efficient airline – “German Wings” – Jens and I headed off to Budapest. Birgitte headed home to take care of their horses and to give Bobby a side of beef or a tourist or whatever it is that he eats.
The flight was smooth, except for a box breakfast that appeared to have already been eaten at least once. Arriving in Hungary was also uneventful, until we tried to rent the car. Car rental in these places is always a bizarre ritual, requiring detailed paperwork, background checks, and, if possible, a hostage. No matter how much we try to rush, it always takes an hour, but we did finally complete the process after producing multiple credit cards and some good old-fashioned begging. And so we drove into the dark and mysterious east, behind the old Iron Curtain, to places that produced those gigantic, musclebound, bearded Olympic athletes – who could forget the women’s swim team?
The drive to to Tiszafured was a bit more exciting than necessary, because for whatever reason, the GPS was stubborn and seemed to feel that returning to one particular dead end was critically important to our journey. This did not please Jens. So even though it was a slight breach of etiquette, he vented his spleen on the GPS rather than other drivers. “Hackbraten!!” he yelled. “Unterhosen!!” We did get the occasional view of Budapest from a distance, but this would be as close to the mainstream tourism we would get. Once we got out of the greater Budapest area, the GPS (and Jens) calmed down and we were on our way. It was overcast with occasional flashes of sunshine, and we passed through farmland, villages, and gently rolling hills with some larger mountains in the distance to the north. We saw some quaint old churches and toured the inside of a gas station convenience store.
We finally arrived at the charming, riverfront Hotel Hableany late in the afternoon. We were greeting by a stocky Hungarian, perhaps around 45, wearing several items of fishing clothing. Jens said “Steve, I would like you to meet our guide … Attila.” I struggled not to spit out a mouthfull of Red Bull. Attila? Did I hear this right? The guy reached out to shake my hand – I said “Steve.” He said “Attila.” Perhaps I had not been listening carefully when Jens was planning the Hungary trip. I certainly understood that we were going to the Tisza River in the northeastern part of the country, but not that we were going to have a guide named Attila. Who names their kid Attila anymore? Shouldn’t he have a fur hat and a spear?
Attila Juhasz, Hungarian fishing guide extraordinaire
Attila is another one of those names that I thought had gone out of style due to an unfortunate historical association, like Benito, Adolf, or LeBron. (And at least you-know-who didn’t hold a one-hour TV special to announce he was invading France.*) But the name was apparently still fashionable at least in this small town, and I was not about to question it, at least not out loud. We caught up for a few minutes, reviewed the game plan for tomorrow, then Attila headed off for wherever it is that people named Attila head off to at night. Jens and I settled into the Hableany, unpacking and assembling gear and going through the normal ritual where Jens talks me out of going down to the river to fish by myself because I pretty much can’t stand to be near water without trying to fish in it.
The staff at the hotel were very friendly – we don’t speak any Hungarian, but they could get by in German. There was a delightful little restaurant downstairs, and when we sat down to eat, the first thing I noticed on the menu was goulash. Well, figuring that I was in Hungary and remembering that I sort of like goulash, I pretty much had to order it. I think this one was made with real ghouls. It was served in more of a soup than a stew format, and along with your bowl, you are provided a basket of bread and a small dish of crushed red peppers. Apparently, the peppers are for decoration only and under no circumstances should they be eaten. No one told me this, and I happily dumped them in the soup. These were the sort of peppers commonly used to extract confessions, and they snuck up on me like a team of intestinal ninjas. I was about halfway in when I noticed my teeth were sweating. My voice sounded like I was on a helium/sand combination the rest of the night, and I went through half a case of very small bottles of Pepsi trying to get the taste out my mouth. Which therefore meant that I was full of caffeine and fluids and naturally did not have an uninterrupted night of rest, but at my age, who does?
In the morning, we took our gear and walked down to the river to meet Attila. He greeted us with a stern look and a glass bottle of what looked like local moonshine, but was in fact something far more sinister – a strong drink reputedly made from carrot peels and boot polish. The booze was named something like “schlivovitz,” which must be Hungarian for “turpentine.” Attila insisted we drink a toast to ensure a successful day, and I try not to argue with people named Attila. I am not much of a drinker, and after I tasted this stuff, I remembered why.
Our plan was to head to a local lake first. We ran the boat up the river; it was overcast and cold, but we soon turned off the open water and up a side channel. The side channel narrowed into a creek, and the creek soon constricted to a claustrophic jungle tunnel. Attila seemed unfazed and skillfully maneuvered the boat through the 6-foot wide opening, and we eventually came out into the lake.
Heart of Darkness, Hungarian style
It was still quite chilly, so casting lures might not have been the best bet, but we gave it a game try for a bit. After a while, Attila offered to anchor and fish for carp, and I cast out a light ledger rod. We quickly got bites, and after a few misses, I hooked up and landed one of those species-confused carp that can’t figure out if it’s a crucian or a giebel – but whatever it was, Hungary had become the 64th country I had caught a fish in. Before I could reflect even briefly on this accomplishment, Attila decided that this was worth drinking to, and so out came the (mineral) spirits. There was no paint to be seen anywhere in his boat, and this can not have been a coincidence.
Country # 64!!
A few minutes later, when I decided I didn’t need to throw up, I cast again and got another carp, then another, and then a silvery, bream-like critter. These are the one thing harder to differentiate than the carp – there are 4 or so very closely-related species, and to make it worse, the shameless little things hybridize. Why is this never easy?
Some sort of morally loose bream. This is going to take some work to identify. Zobel? Zope? Hybrid? This kind of thing keeps me up at night.
After an hour or so on the bottom fish, we moved down the lake and cast for pike. I got the only one, which left me feeling fairly competent in this group. Of course, this meant I just had further to fall in what was to be an afternoon of humility.
The savage Northern Pike. I’ve caught them in 9 countries now. Jaime Hamamoto has never even seen one in the wild.
We retraced our steps through the Hungarian jungle and headed past the Hableany down the river. We reached a series of flood control gates, tied off to the shore, and began fishing live bait for zander. Attila caught one. Jens caught one. Then they each caught a few more. I’m not being modest here – I just wasn’t catching anything. These were subtle, subtle bites, and whatever I was supposed to be feeling for, I wasn’t feeling it. They caught even more fish, and although I am not nearly as competitive as, say, Jaime Hamamoto, I was getting a bit grouchy. Maybe an hour later, I finally got a small one, most likely by accident. The bite felt pretty much like the weight hitting a rock on the bottom, but there were a lot more rocks than there were zander, and I never did learn the difference.
There was also the issue of the Volga zander. Just as Batman must have his Robin and Paula Abdul must have her sedatives, the zander has a smaller, lesser-known relative called a Volga zander. These are zander-shaped but differentiated from the standard by having bold black stripes instead of faint blotches and lines, and Attila had indicated that this species was quite common. So even though we hadn’t caught any yet, I wasn’t too worried about it. (Except that I kept pestering Attila with questions about where the Volgas lived, what they ate, and where he had caught them through the years, and if any were swimming below us at this very moment.)
Jens tells me how many zander I have caught.
To amuse myself and take a shot at some other species, I put out a small ledger rod armed with worms. I was on hair-trigger mode with every slight tap, because there are a variety of species here that are unique to the area. I was especially interested in catching what Jens and Attila called a “mini-wels” – a small catfish. I racked my brain trying to figure out what it could be, and the closest I could come up with was an Aristotle Catfish, but I had thought these lived further south. I didn’t have to wait long – a quick bite, a determined little fight, and as I swung a fish into the boat, Jens said – “Yes, the mini-wels!” The mini-wels, as it turns out, is a black bullhead, brought from America by misguided aquarists. Another American transplant? In Hungary? I flew 7000 miles to catch something that lives in every drainage ditch in Ohio? Why is it that I can’t go to Ohio and catch a Volga zander? I also caught more “free love” bream and a perfectly beautiful ruffe – see details of previous ruffe mishaps at: https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/liederhosed-a-ruffe-weekend-in-germany/
The expat black bullhead
A lovely Ruffe. This is actually a really big one.
As afternoon gave way to early evening, we headed back to the Hableany and another contest with the goulash. Now, you might ask – “Steve, the goulash positively punished you last night. Why in the world would you go a second round with it?” I am nothing if not stubborn, and I figured if I didn’t add the peppers this time, it might actually be a good dinner, and I would still be culturally authentic. (And there was no Burger King nearby.) So I pitched the small bowl of culinary shrapnel under the table, where it discolored the carpet. That made things better, but then I discovered that OEM goulash is also pretty darn spicy.
I drifted off to sleep, lips burning, but I was content that I had added a country and likely 2 species. Of course, I wanted that Volga Zander in the worst way. And Jens drifted off to sleep, unaware that his morning would start with a divine message.
Sunset over the River Tisza. It was getting chilly by this point.
* Of course, the fighting would have been over by the time the program ended.