Dateline: July 9, 2011 – Bled, Slovenia
On every trip I take, I hope to discover new types of fish, but this was the first time I ever stumbled upon an entirely new form of life. Read on … if you dare.
Road trip to Slovenia!! That’s a phrase I never thought I would say, and yet here I was, on a Friday at my office in Germany, trying to get ready for a lengthy rush-hour journey to the Balkans with Guido Gerhards.
Guido is a co-worker of mine who loves to fish. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/fishing-off-the-company-pier/) He’s a great guy and he volunteered to drive for this trip. This is not an insubstantial commitment – we are talking European summer vacation traffic here, and going 1000 kilometers each way to remote destinations. But he was excited about the fishing and was firm in his commitment. On long trips like this, we discover things about ourselves, and we discover things about each other, but in this case, we also discovered things about biology.
By way of explanation, Guido has two lovely children, ages two and six. As part of preparing the car for this epic journey, Guido removed their car seats to give us more cargo space. But under these boosters lurked a horrifying secret. Nourished with spilled fluids, dropped foodstuffs, and a liberal application of drool, the spots under these seats had become hotbeds of new life, places where things evolved and flourished. The result was a furry square foot under each seat that was not only clearly organic, but was also mobile and had learned to communicate. It looked like a cross between the corner of a poorly-ventilated bathroom and a demon llasa apso. The Fungus kept mostly to itself for our journey, but it snored at night and also kept changing the radio station.
The Fungus gets a checkup at the vet.
The drive was long but beautiful, winding through Bavaria and down into Austria to Slovenia. The Alps were so scenic, so green, so charmingly perfect, that I expected a little blond girl in pigtails to come running down the mountain and interrupt the last two minutes of a football game. (Yes, this is an incredibly obscure reference. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJAn3cTMXW8&feature=related )
Your basic Alpine village. We should see Julie Andrews and a bunch of impossibly perfect children up on the hill someplace. Question – how is it that Captain von Trapp was in the Navy when Austria is landlocked?
More Alps. Thinking about it, Austria does have some very big lakes. But still – a Navy? Of course, they guy who led Hungary in WWII was an Admiral. Can somebody explain that?
We arrived in Bled at around midnight and met up with Marc Inoue and Enrico Ghedini. These are both top guys in the fishing field. Marc is a very well-known big game guide who fishes northern Croatia. His background would confuse the most experienced INS officer – American/Hawaiian parents, born and raised in Germany, lives in Slovenia. He has caught Bluefin Tuna over 600 pounds and has quite a host of other trophies to his name. He is a true practitioner of “combat fishing,” and he always has a smile even though he sleeps less than I do.
Enrico, a well-known Italian sportswriter, is the guy who made the whole thing happen. It’s a long story (isn’t it always?) but this trip had to be put together in a big hurry. Adrian Gray over at the IGFA put me in touch with Enrico, and Enrico handled it all from there. All we had to do was show up – what a great guy, doing this for a fellow angler he had never met before.
Steve and Enrico
In the morning, Marc and Enrico met us for breakfast. Now that it was light, I could see that our location was beautiful – near the top of a mountain, looking down over miles of green valley. We then drove about 20 miles, all downhill, and stopped to meet our local contacts. Breakfast consisted of grain-based products. (Mostly beer. Some vodka.)
Breakfast. You heard me. From left to right (or in order of sobriety) it’s me, Enrico, Marc, and Hauba.
Hauba, the president of the local fishing club, was a man of delightfully strong opinions. Whereas a British guy might say – “I don’t care for tuna,” Hauba was wonderfully, candidly Balkan – “Tuna is @#&%. It tastes like @#$% wood.” And he would knock on the table to demonstrate the texture of wood.
It was nearing 11 by the time we got on the water, and many of us were not on top of our game by this stage. On the drive to Mavcic reservior, the Fungus woke up and ate a pair of Guido’s socks. We parked, kept a window cracked, and left it a bowl of water.
It was stiflingly hot outside – pushing 100 – and the gamefishing had pretty much shut down. But this was our day to fish Slovenia, and we were going to catch something, darn it. We putted around the reservoir for a couple of fruitless hours, enjoying the beautiful scenery, when I noticed a large group of fish camped out in the shade under a willow. Chubs. A common and aggressive European predator, Chubs can stand fairly warm water and still actively hunt. I switched from Pike lures to smaller spinners, and within minutes, I hadn’t caught a damn thing. The school parted like the Colts defense every time I cast, and this left me bewildered and annoyed. At least the scenery was gorgeous.
A perfect summer day on the Mavcic Reservoir on the Sava River.
The Slovenian Alps in the distance. Slovenia has a Navy too, but then again, they have a coastline.
It was Enrique who saved the day by setting me up with a small yellow and green plug I would have never picked out by myself. My second cast with the plug drew a hard strike, and moments later, I had landed a Chub – and added Slovenia as country #69 on my fishing list. Guido was catching fish from the other boat, so the bite must have been wide open.
Slovenian Chub. It was not in the Navy.
The good bite kept up for an hour or more. We chatted back and forth between the boats. Guido pointed out that he had caught more chubs than me. Luckily, I am not competitive or I would have pointed out that he was dressed badly. Why is it that Germans think it is perfectly OK to wear dark socks with shorts?
Guido and his first Chub. He was legitimately thrilled to be catching decent fish on lures. Little did he know this is the largest fish he would see all weekend.
We finally took a break and ate lunch at a very nice lakeside restaurant. Later in the afternoon, we were working our way back, casting along the shady side of the lake. Guido was still getting Chubs – perhaps there was something to the dark socks. As I was casting to a downed tree, I got a much harder hit and a determined run. I thought I had gotten a very big Chub, but as I played the fish out, it was clear I had something different. And different it was – as it surfaced, I could tell immediately it was a Nase, an unusual creature that is scattered around central Europe but will almost never take a lure. What followed was a very slippery 20 seconds of my life, as I twice attempted to Boga Grip the fish, then finally just scooped it up with my hands. The day had become a total triumph – not only had I added a country, but I had also put a very exotic species on to the list.
The Nase – a truly unexpected bonus. Definitely not Naval.
Shortly afterward, we headed for the dock – where there would likely be more beverages. This time, the drink was some sort of grapefruit/beer thing that tasted as bad as it sounds, but was strong enough to be classified past beer, past malt liquor, and more in the “solvent” category. We took some photos and prepared for what was certain to be a very late and regrettable night. The Fungus howled and barked at us from the car.
Hey Guido, how many pairs of white socks do you own?
It was then, just when all seemed right with the world, that my sister called. I could tell from the sound of her voice something terrible had happened. Our Mother, she of the 5am hockey practices, had passed away in her sleep the night before. I wandered by the lake as we spoke for a moment, numb and shocked.
Hauba came back to ask me if everything was OK. I lied and told him it was – I didn’t want to share what had just happened. I had spoken to her only a couple of days before. I drank my beer quietly that night, and it was only when I was leaving, to go to what would become a sleepless night, that Hauba asked me again and I told him what had happened. I’m sure it was obvious something was wrong. He held my face in his big hands and looked at me, and gave me a long hug from the very bottom of his heart. I wept silently. My world had changed in an instant.
Even as I write this, some months afterward, it is very difficult to think of that moment. It had been a great day of fishing – a new country, a new species, and some new lifelong friends. I know this will sound awfully trite, but it won’t if you ever have to go through this – please, if your mother is around, call her. If she isn’t, remember the good times with her for a moment. I try to every day.