Dateline: October 8, 2011 – Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Despite the rumors, I am not generally a fan of using explosives for fishing. So I never anticipated that I would be reporting a situation where a few pounds of well-placed TNT – or at least the threat of it – saved an amazing river.
I’ll explain later.
What in the world was I doing in Bosnia? Well, mid-October found me back in Europe, with a planned return trip to the Balkans to try to catch some of the many fish we missed during July’s disastrous trip. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/where-have-all-the-vowels-gone/) The idea was that the three of us – me, Guido, and The Fungus, would reconnect with guide Marc Inoue to fish Croatia.
The Fungus. See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/guidos-fungus/
We would drive from Germany down to Slovenia on Friday night, meet Marc in Ljubljana, then head down to Croatia early Saturday and start picking off trophy species – the Silver Dentex, the Leerfish, and especially one of those monster Bluefin Tuna. On the way down, the weather was perfect, and The Fungus napped as we zoomed through the Alps on a glorious fall afternoon. I was filled with hope and all seemed right with the world.
At about 9pm, the Fish Gods took a deep breath, dropped their trousers, and soiled my perfect plan. A major storm, stunningly unanticipated by Weather.com, crept in out of Bulgaria or some other aria and absolutely destroyed the weekend. Temperatures plummeted, snow began falling, and the wind in Krk went from still to a rather brisk 80mph in just a few hours. We were screwed. Somewhere, Jaime Hamamoto was smiling.
Saturday morning, Marc, Guido and I gathered for a depressing breakfast to discuss plans B, C, D, and E. Somewhere late in the alphabet, Marc had an idea. “Let me make a call.” Marc is ridiculously well-connected throughout the region, and his call was to one Mladen Markovic, editor of Croatia’s top fishing magazine – “Ribolov Na Jadranu.” He came back in after a few minutes, and, trying to sound as positive as possible, said “No chance at species today, but we may be able to add a country for Steve. We are going to Bosnia.” (That’s a sentence I never expected to hear.) We piled into the car and hit the road – at least we had some sense of purpose. I packed light spinning setups and a float rod. Marc and Guido brought fly rods, and the usually playful competition between these two angling religions began. (Guido: “Oh Steve, you lack the artistry and grace to be a fly fisherman.” Steve: “Oh Guido, you lack the fashion sense to stop wearing dark socks with shorts.” It was like this for 3 hours.)
We headed southeast toward a place I had never visited, but had certainly seen on the news. The Balkans have a dark and sad history, and Bosnia-Herzigovina was the scene of some of the most brutal fighting in the civil war that raged here in the early 1990s. Every year, people are still killed here by hidden landmines and unexploded munitions, and I had no idea how close of an encounter I would have with this problem later in the day.
The drive was fascinating. From Ljubljana, we went east out of Slovenia through to Croatia, then headed toward Bosnia, picking up Mladen on the way. The terrain was flat around Zagreb, but gave way to forested hills and valleys as we drove south. We stopped in the Croatian village of Rastoke – a magical little place perched on bluffs above a river gorge, with small ponds and streams running right between the houses.
There were at least 6 sets of falls running along the edge of town.
Central Rastoke. Yes, there were fish right in front of us. Oh, I wanted to stay there.
There were a lot of reminders of this region’s tragic history. These men were convicted of war crimes in the Hague, but locally, they are considered heroes.
Miles before the border crossing, we could see minarets in the distance. (Oh yeah – for those of you who hadn’t read up on this, and that includes me, Bosnia-Herzigovina is a Muslim country – a leftover from the wars with the Ottoman Empire.)
Toto, I don’t think we’re in Western Europe any more.
About 30 minutes after crossing the border, we arrived at the River Klokot. The scenery was stunning, and I positively drooled at the fishing prospects. It looked like Bosnia would easily be country number 72 on the list.
My first view of the River Klokot. I nearly wet myself and raced to tie a Mepps on, but an evil surprise awaited me.
This section of the river is private, we needed to see the warden for permits. We walked into his office, and after the pleasantries were exchanged, Marc’s face got that “Uh-oh, I really don’t want to be the one to give Steve the bad news” look . He turned to me, took a deep breath, and said “Fly fishing only.”
“Fly fishing only” – the three most reprehensible words in my sport. Many of my close friends are astonished that after 70 blog episodes, I had not gone on a rant and rave about fly fishing, and their luck has finally run out. To be clear, I do not have a problem with fly fishing itself. It takes tremendous skill and is a beautiful art. But what I DO have a problem with are the overdressed and undergrimed snobs who think that if a fish isn’t caught with a fly, we may as well have used a pitchfork. Give it a rest, guys. It’s ridiculous to be a snob about anything that involves trying to outwit an animal with a brain the size of a walnut. Lose the pink flats shirts already, and yes, real fishermen can go an entire weekend in one pair of underpants.
The folks who managed the river had seen decades of armed conflict, so a simple temper tantrum from me wasn’t going to sway them. So I simply agreed and went to plan B – treachery. My float rod is long enough to look a bit like a Spey fly rod, and my centerpin resembles a fly reel to the uninitiated. I set up a nymph under a very small float and used the 13′ rod to fling it out into the cuts and riffles – I didn’t need to go far. Around 20 minutes later, I was rewarded with a small trout. I had now caught a fish in 72 countries.
I have added countries with much smaller fish, so don’t even start with me.
I spent the rest of the day having fun and picking off a trout now and then – different small lures, different areas. It was a pleasant place to fish – sparkling water, beautiful forested hills, and a wonderful lunch of local flatbread and grilled lamb.
Looking up the Klokot from under the bridge where I did most of my fishing.
Marc tries his hand at fly fishing.
There were a LOT of big trout in this pool. I know this because they all came up and laughed at my float rig.
Steve in a moment of introspection. Or gas.
After we ate, I wandered off to try a few pools down the river. I wanted to take a shortcut across a field, and as I was easing over the remnants of a fence, one of the other fishermen barked “STOP.” So I stopped. He spoke some English, and through gestures and saying “boom” a lot, he told me there could be mines in the high grass. Now, I am still not sure if he was messing with me or not, but Holy @#$%. These things are for real – even today, 20 years after the conflict that marked the end of the old Yugoslavia, landmines are still an everyday problem here. For an American used to fields and open spaces being perfectly safe except for the occasional cow pie, even the idea is unthinkable. Imagine what these people have gone through for 20 years.
The field in question. Even if the guy was just messing with me, he sure got my attention.
After that near misadventure, my companions had the local guide, Amir Alagic, keep a close eye on me. Amir helps the Klokot guests learn the river and techniques to get the most out of their day.
Local pro Amir Alagic. If you get within a day’s drive of this place, I highly recommend fishing with him. But stay on the marked paths.
He really wanted me to learn to fly fish, but we made peace and he pretended not to see my non-fly gear and showed me all of his secret spots. I managed to land some more small trout, but with his guidance, I also got some very decent Grayling – my biggest fish in Bosnia.
A European Grayling, caught on the float rod while Amir conveniently looked the other way.
Guido, who has suffered so much on these Balkan adventures, had the best day of all. He caught a nice trout on the fly, something he has talked about doing since I met him. But again, he should have stopped there, as this would represent his biggest fish of the weekend.
Guido, you really need to learn to take better fish pictures. Hold the darn thing in front of you – nobody wants to see a picture of your hands. And stop wearing dark socks with shorts.
While we were flailing around for mini-trout, Mladen was catching these. I guess that’s why he’s the editor.
We wrapped it up as the sun began going down and it started getting chilly. We had a long drive ahead of us, and we still had to figure out what we were going to do tomorrow. We took a few more photos and I shook hands with the owner.
Steve and Mladan. I have no idea how many big trout he caught while we were struggling. He has invited me to fish with him again, so stay tuned for future episodes.
The owner didn’t speak much English, but he thanked me for fishing there and smiled about my encounter with the mines. I said “Wow, that was close.” Through a translator, he said “There are only fish here because of the land mines.” I asked him to explain.
In the lean years after the war, the people were desperate. Meat fishing took precedence over sport fishing, and locals began foraging the river with nets and even dynamite. He knew this would ruin a natural treasure for generations, and so, late one winter night, he and some friends borrowed a roll of UN minefield tape and cordoned off the entire river as mined. The ruse worked, and the river was left in peace during those troubled years. So against all odds, some good had come from these awful devices.
We drove out through the twilight, and a few miles later, minarets gave way back to church steeples. We ate dinner in Zagreb and continued on to Ljubljana. This area has been the epicenter of so much conflict, and considering the enormous cultural differences separated by only a few miles, I couldn’t help but wonder if war would stir up again. For Amir and his family, and all of my new friends there, I hope it somehow never does.
Land mines are still a major problem in Bosnia-Herzigovina. There are a few organizations devoted to removing these – I found very good information on http://www.mineaction.org/country.asp?c=4 – and under the “how you can help” tab, there are a number of worthy organizations if you are considering a donation.