Dateline: August 2, 2015 – Sturovo, Slovakia
The foundations of the Basilica are more than a thousand years old, and it might be another thousand before I learn to pronounce its name. They could have called it something simple, like “The Sturovo Basilica.” But they didn’t go for simple. They decided to call it (deep breath) The Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St. Adalbert (or in the Hungarian: Nagyboldogasszony és Szent Adalbert prímási főszékesegyház.) To keep this blog under 3000 words, we’ll just call it The Basilica. Whatever they call it, I fished in its shadow for two days this past summer, and while I’m not all that religious, I’m pretty sure St. Adalbert was looking out for me.
The Basilica, which is actually in Hungary, viewed from the Slovakian side of the Danube. I have always wanted to open a pub there and call it “The Brew Danube.”
St. Adalbert of Prague (956-997.) Not to be confused with St. Adalbert of Egmond, St. Adalbert of Magdeburg, or St. Adalbert’s of Philadelphia, he is now a patron saint of Poland, Hungary, and Prussia, which would seem like a conflict of interest.
If you don’t know why I was in Slovakia, you must be a new reader – welcome! For the rest of you, I was in Germany on a business trip and Slovakia is about the last place in the continent I hadn’t been fishing, so I decided it was time to add it to the list. (Or, in the case of Hungary, add it to the Liszt.)
I had heard Slovakia is a gorgeous place, but it’s difficult to access, and it doesn’t have the same sportfishing infrastructure as many more well-known destinations. This is where Lubos came into the picture. Lubos Chren is a tour operator for Slovakia and the surrounding areas, and his site is one of the better things I have ever found on a late-night internet search.
Lubos is not a fisherman, but he is amazingly well-connected and found what he promised was a top-notch guide on the Danube. This area is actually quite exciting to us species-hunting types, as the further east one gets, the more exotic the species get. (They also seem to get farther down the alphabet – some of the typical critters are named things like zahrte, zope, and zingel.) I flew from Frankfurt into Vienna, where Lubos picked me up and we headed for Sturovo, the Slovakian village where I would be fishing. The drive – about three scenic hours – went quickly.
We enter Slovakia near Bratislava. This would hopefully be the 86th country where I had caught a fish.
As always, some of the place names are unintentionally funny. Of course, the joke would be on me if this was a real bar.
You learn plenty about someone on a drive – Lubos has been all over the world, including a long stint in Australia – but always knew he would come back to his home country. He’s very proud of Slovakia, and it was easy to see why – it is a beautiful place. We got to Sturovo in the early afternoon, on a hot, clear summer day. The first thing I saw was the Basilica, an architectural wonder I hadn’t expected in the Slovakian countryside.
Selfie with Basilica.
Lubos got me into my hotel, a very comfortable guesthouse right on the river, and then he introduced me to Zoltan the guide. Zoltan was a young guy – of course, that’s how I describe pretty much everyone now – and positively bursting with enthusiasm at the chance to take a foreigner fishing.
Zoltan Zimka. No, he is not an alcoholic – he was just offering me the traditional Schlivovitz toast to appease the Fish Gods. (As opposed to the traditional Schlivovitz breakfast I got in Hungary. Click “The Goulash Archipelago” for details.
Zoltan was initially bewildered by me. He is clearly an expert on the local gamefish – zander and wels – especially on crankbaits. He showed up ready to cast and troll, but of course, I wanted to set up float and bottom gear and go after the odd stuff. To be fair, he did bring almost every possible bait, including some horrible potato bug-looking things that he swore would catch barbel.
Do not put this in your pants.
Before we even boarded the boat, I float fished the anchorage and caught a few bleak. While I may never know if these are a different species than the standard bleak found elsewhere in Europe, I had chalked Slovakia up as country number 86, with the Basilica in the background.
Things weren’t looking so bleak.
We then set out to cast for zander. Zoltan knew the water encyclopedically, pointing out each hole and ledge, but to be fair to him, it was the middle of a hot summer, and the lure fishing was off. Judging by his impressive photo collection and the toothmarks on his crankbaits, Zoltan gets more than his share of fish. But as we got later in the day, my always-questionable patience was wearing thin and I was simply antsy to get some bait in the water. We anchored up over a hole and I began dropping worms down. In a matter of moments, I reeled up a small fish that looked like a perch, but a closer examination had me jumping up in excitement – no mean feat in a small boat. The fish was a striped ruffe, and this was a new species.
Closely related to a species I struggled to catch for years – click HERE for details.
As we headed into a pleasant summer evening, I began catching loads of decent white bream, all around half a pound. I got a few more ruffe in the mix, along with the pestilential round gobies (history HERE,) and even a few small nase. He chatted with other fishermen who drifted by in both Slovakian and Hungarian – because this is a border area, both languages are spoken with equal frequency.
It got fully dark around 10:30, and just as the moon came out, I got an almost undetectable bite and a fight to match. I swung a small fish aboard, and as I got my headlamp on it, I whooped in joy. I had caught a Streber, which sounds like a rank in the German army or some sort of lard-heavy pastry, but is actually a small fish that looks like a miniature sturgeon but isn’t.
Zingel streber for my fellow fish geeks.
I was starting to really like the place. Of course, I might have felt differently had I known that Slovakia was the only country beside Germany and Russia to invade Poland in the opening days of World War II. Clearly, Poland was doing just fine with the massed armies of other two, but Slovakia’s brigade and a half must have tipped the balance against the star-crossed land of my ancestry.
We fished well past midnight, watching the moon rise over the Basilica. St. Adalbert had looked out for me. I finally got a few hours of sleep in the guesthouse, dreams filled with more species, and perhaps hoping for a larger fish or two. I would get more than I expected in the morning.
The Basilica at night. Interestingly, St. Adalbert wrote the oldest known Polish hymn. It’s still in the top 40 in Warsaw.
Dawn broke beautifully, with a bright red sky. As I walked down to the landing, I remembered that this was supposed to be a bad omen.
Red sky at morn, sailors bring out the Gore-Tex. Or something like that.
It didn’t stay beautiful for long. A front had moved in overnight, and we had a wet, breezy morning on our hands. Only yesterday, I had been sweating in 90 degree heat. What is this, England? The Fish Gods and Mother Nature ignored my complaints, and we hit the water. The Basilica emerged through the morning drizzle, and fish slowly began to bite. As dawn made things a brighter shade of gray, we started getting bream. The very first one looked a bit unusual, so I dug around in the book I carry for just such an occasion, and St. Adalbert be praised, it was my third species of the trip, the aptly-named Danube bream. What rain?
The Danube bream. Caught in the Danube, as it should be.
I then had a run of much bigger bream – a pound and more – and one of them tipped the scales at nearly two. I checked the IGFA app on my iPhone – yes, it’s gotten that easy – and saw that the record was a pound and ten ounces. Technically, my 1/12 fish would be a tie, but I was thrilled. A tip of the hat to Jan Bredo Nerdrum, the Norwegian gentleman with whom I now share the record.
I know you English types are going to tell me this isn’t a big bream, but remember it’s not the same one you get in England so there.
Jan and his fish – Norway, 2004.
I didn’t know it yet, but the Danube bream was my final new species for the Slovakia trip – St. Adalbert had other plans for me. Zoltan had told me there were larger fish in the river, and he was about to be proven right. Repeatedly. About an hour after the bream, my light rod got smashed and I reeled in a nice Orfe.
A beautiful Orfe. These fish are also called Ides, and I regret that I didn’t catch my first one in spring, so I could write a blog called “The Ides of March.” Or if I caught a lot of them, I could call it “The March of Ides.”
I set up some larger baits, but because I have the attention span of a caffeinated ferret, I also just had to put down a four pound rig suitable for gobies and small bream. You all see where this is going, but I didn’t. The ten pound wels catfish ignored the larger offerings and came right after the ultralight, which was almost launched out of the boat. I caught it just as it went over the rail and began a lengthy fight. At the time, of course, I had no idea what it could be, and just held on for dear life. Zoltan skillfully pulled the anchor and chased the fish, and I leaned on the rod as hard as I dared. This went on for close to an hour, and finally, as we drifted into shallower water, Zoltan was able to net the beast.
Ten pounds of steaming wels. While this is a very small one, it was a world record on four pound line. Who knew?
We weren’t done. The weather slowly cleared, and about 30 minutes later, I hooked what I thought was another round goby. I was reeling it in quickly, but halfway to the boat, near the surface, my line stopped dead. I was perplexed for a split second, thinking I must have somehow snagged something, but then my line took off in the opposite direction. After a spirited fight, a large asp surfaced next to the boat. These predatory cyprinids are a sought-after species, especially on lures, but the biggest one I had caught previously was the size of a Rapala. I was pleased to finally have a presentable one.
I wonder why Cleopatra had such trouble …
By this time, I was a very big St. Adalbert fan. Just for fun, I put down one of the potato bug baits, and a few minutes later, I was rewarded with my third-ever barbel. Zoltan had been right, but I still made him bait the hook. I don’t like baits that can defend themselves.
A barbel – yes, it’s a small one. Hopefully, the barbel experts like Steve Collier won’t abuse me too badly.
We spent the remainder of the day working from hole to hole, always in the shadow of the Basilica, catching a few dozen more bream and an assortment of other Danube creatures. In the late afternoon, Zoltan insisted we pull out the crankbaits again. We cast for about an hour, and I was just getting attention-span challenged when I got a hard smack on a deep-diver and hooked up with something big. Mercifully, my casting rod was a heavier setup than my bait rigs, and in about five minutes, I brought a wels to boatside. Zoltan was thrilled, but not more than I was.
Braided line and a decent pike rod made this one a lot less dramatic.
I couldn’t have asked for a better way to close out the day. We fished perhaps another hour or two, catching an assortment of the usual suspects and watching the cruise ships and barges head up and down the river. As the sun started sinking, we pulled the boat up on the bank and went for pizza – the first meal I had eaten on dry land in 36 hours.
Sunset over the Basilica.
With three species and two very unexpected records in the bag, the drive back to Vienna the next morning was a pleasant one. It had been a short trip – just two days – but Slovakia was a marvelous experience – great fishing, great new friends, beautiful scenery, and excellent hagiography. I hoped that St. Adalbert would look out for me on my next road trip, an adventure which would have a familiar cast, but was still 31 days and 8000 miles away.