Posted by: 1000fish | November 3, 2018

Saved by Nikolaj

Dateline: May 9, 2018 – Vrsar, Croatia

I came on this trip with a goal of catching five new species. I got five. But they were not the five I had hoped for. Indeed, four of them came from the harbor, while I was waiting for the boat. This is one of the risks of species hunting, and after all, I was the one who chose to make a return trip to Croatia – a place that has been particularly unkind to me over the years.

Despite my disasters in the region, I have a very good friend there. Part of why we go fishing is to spend time with friends. Sometimes, a great day with buddies can make you forget you didn’t catch anything. I grant you, this doesn’t sound much like me, but it has been a few years since I had fished with Marc Inoue, and I was dying to give the Adriatic another shot. Ah, Marc Inoue – the man who has singlehandedly introduced me to everything that can go wrong in the Balkans.

This is Marc with a TYPICAL tuna.

He is a great fisherman – as evidenced by his amazing Adriatic tuna photos – but the combination of me and him in the same country seems to make things go terribly wrong on a lot of levels. We’ve faced bad weather, family tragedies, bad weather, fungus, archaic regulations, land mines, bad weather, missing vowels, jail for Guido, and, of course, bad weather. But like field goal kickers and Cousin Chuck’s wife, a species hunter needs to forget unpleasant experiences quickly. (Interestingly, all three pastimes occasionally require a helmet.)

I knew I would be in Europe on business in early May, so Marc and I got talking. He would be fishing big bluefin on the surface that time of year, but he also felt fairly good about thresher sharks, pelagic rays, silver dentex, and sharpnose seabream, and there was always a shot at a few other assorted bottom-dwellers that have always fascinated me, like John Dory. I figured there were five species in there for me, and that would be enough to give it a shot.

Marc has moved his operation to Vrsar, in Northern Croatia. This avoids the long drives from Slovenia, and the location is both beautiful and convenient. I flew into nearby Pula airport on a Saturday evening, a quick hop on Lufthansa. (Interestingly, “Lufthansa,” literally translated from the German, means “We Hate You.”)

It looks like they’re speaking Welsh. In Russian.

We flew right in over Vrsar, where I would spend the next four days.

We got me settled into a beautiful hotel near the harbor, and then out for one of what would be several outstanding local meals. (Marc always, ALWAYS finds great food.) I got to meet his fiancee, Maja, and her son, Nikolaj, who turns out to be quite the passionate fisherman himself. More on that in a minute, but suffice to say that Nikolaj, all of six years old, saved the trip for me. (It’s pronounced “Nikolai” – remember that Croatians avoid vowels whenever possible.)

Speaking of offspring, Marc and Maja are expecting. This is awesome, and it proves that it’s never too late for adult responsibilities, except for me.

The happy couple. I want to see Marc give that same thumbs up when he’s changing a diaper at 2am. And while you muse about what a good-looking couple they are, just remember he is my age. I can’t figure it out.

The first day began brilliantly. While Marc was loading the boat, Nik brought his rod down and started fishing the rocks. I had been thinking more about big species, but the little guy inspired me. Moments later, I caught a tompot blenny.

The shortest fishing guide ever.

Blennies are so cool.

Ironically, species 1776 was not anything American-themed. (For those of you who were not paying attention in history class, or who are not American, or who are not American AND didn’t pay attention in history class, 1776 was the first year Abraham Lincoln won the NBA championship.)

Unfortunately for the species count and my stomach, we left the harbor. This marked the first of four days that Marc worked his tail off to catch a bluefin or thresher that just didn’t want to bite. He chummed hundreds of pounds of frozen sardines, rigged dozens of lines in every possible configuration, and tried spots close to shore and almost to Italy. We saw several tuna on the sounder, and Marc got even more worked up than I did every time this happened. He has the resume, but sometimes, the fish just won’t bite. Let’s not blame Marc. Let’s blame Croatia in general.

While we drifted tuna baits, I spent plenty of time putting smaller offerings on the bottom. I caught some interesting stuff, including a catshark I thought just HAD to be a new species. The scientists say it’s the same fish I caught in Wales in 2005, but you be the judge.

This is the fish I caught in the Adriatic.

And this is the one I caught in Wales. I am told these are both the same species, the smallspotted lesser catshark, or, for Martini, Scyliorhinus canicula.

In the meantime, the wind came up and the water got nasty, snotty rough. I wasn’t in danger of puking, except for when the bluefin went right under the boat without biting.

Little Nik was right at the slip when we got back, and I discovered he had fished the harbor all day, waiting for me to return. Maja is an awesome and patient Mom.

The harbor in the evening.

Nik walked me around his favorite spots, and we caught loads of small seabreams and blennies. The highlight of this session was a giant goby – another new species. The kid is good luck. It was difficult for Maja to get him to stop fishing and go to dinner, but not nearly as difficult as it was to get me to stop fishing and go to dinner. (I told her it would get easier with him when he reaches my level of maturity, which Marta guesses will be around age 11.)

Ironically, my first giant goby was a juvenile.

We had another fantastic dinner, this time at a steak place, and the food was so good I nearly forgot about the lack of big fish. Nearly. There were three days left, and my hopes remained high, because when it comes to fishing, I am the ultimate optimist, or, as others would call it, stupid.

We started very early on day two, but not early enough to beat Nikolaj to the water. He was waiting for me, and although he does not speak a word of English (besides “fish”) he excitedly pointed out a small goby. A moment later, I caught it, and after an email consultation with Dr. Alfredo Carvalho, it turned out to be a new species – Bucchich’s goby.

I was beginning to see why people have children.

Marc and I then went out onto the Adriatic and chummed and drifted and drifted and chummed. In the middle of the day, one of the rods went down, but not hard enough to be a tuna. I lifted up with great hopes for a thresher or a pelagic ray, but alas, it was a blue shark.

Alas.

Two years ago, I would have given Spellman’s eye teeth for a shot at a blue shark. But ever since that fateful night in Tokyo where I got one, I have wanted to avoid them, but of course that means that they have taken a special liking to me. We got nine on the trip, not counting breakoffs. We did not see a single thresher shark, or a married one, and the pelagic rays were more pelagic than we hoped.

I was shamelessly looking forward to another session in the rocks with Nik, and he didn’t disappoint. Just as the sun went down, I caught a beautiful ocellated wrasse – the only wrasse from this group that is readily identifiable.

Nik was now my new best friend.

I’ve seen these in books for years.

The little guy was so proud he had helped me catch fish, and I couldn’t help but wistfully muse that if I had a son his age, he would probably be in jail.

Dinner was again marvelous – Italian food overlooking the harbor, and we still had half the fishing in front of us, so optimism remained.

On day three, we mixed things up a bit. We changed boats to the “Bora Bora,” captained by Marc’s friend Milorad. “Mile” is an inshore specialist, so this would be our best shot at a sharpnose seabream, the species that Stefan Molnar shamelessly caught right under my nose on my last trip to the area. We left so early that even Nikolaj was not up, and we spent the first part of the day looking for tuna. While we again saw a few on the sounder, they again did not bite. I must emphasize again that Marc did everything he possibly could have – the fish just weren’t going to cooperate. Luckily, I’ve caught bluefin before, but they were relatively small, and yes, I want a photo with a 500 pounder.

Like this one.

Toward evening, we cruised inshore and set up for bream. The action was immediate and outstanding – we got solid fish on almost every cast for about 90 minutes.

Mediterranean seabream are one of my favorite fish – they fight hard and are great to eat.

For almost anyone else in the universe, this would have been completely epic, but for me, there were no sharpnose seabream.

That’s Marc’s friend Ivan. who joined us as well.

They were everywhere. But they were the wrong species.

Don’t get me wrong – I love to fish, and catching nice specimens like these was a blast – but there was no sharpnose, and so I was lightly disappointed. This is why guides hate me.

“The Bream Team” – Ivan, Milorad, Steve, Marc, and Nikolaj, who came onboard to inspect our catch.

We got in well after dark, so Nik, waiting mournfully by the dock, had no chance to conjure up a species. We had to go straight to dinner before the restaurant closed.

Nik finally sacks out. Until this moment, I wasn’t sure he ever slept.

Dinner was great again, but suddenly, we had one day left, and only one more shot at all these fish I hadn’t caught. Desperation set in, and I lay awake wondering what I had been thinking. When will I get the hint about me and Croatia? But then I also thought about the beautiful location, the great friends, and the amazing food. It would have been an outstanding vacation by almost standard, except for mine, which relate solely to fish species.

Nik and I had some time to fish while Marc loaded the boat, and while we didn’t get any new species, we caught my personal best salema – upgrading my photo album substantially from the micro-sized example I had caught a few years ago.

A normal-sized salema, Monaco, November 2009.

The beastly salema. I have no idea what is sticking out of it, but it went back inside and the fish swam away with no problem.

It was a beautiful morning, flat calm, and we motored out almost to Italian waters. In a wild coincidence, I recognized some oil rigs where I had gone fishing on September 19, 2003 – three days after the very first time I fished with Roger Barnes. It was my first fishing trip in Italy, arranged by a magnificent concierge in Bologna. I had the choice of either touring Venice or getting up at 3am, driving 3 hours to a port called Jesolo, and fishing all day. That’s an obvious decision in my book, but my Mother was bewildered by this for the rest of her life. (I caught two new species that day – Atlantic Bonito, which were awesome, and Brown Comber, which Marc calls “the Adriatic Brown $#!&”, which I have caught at least 9000 times since.)

My 2003 Atlantic Bonito – and I still haven’t been to Venice.

Back in the present day, fishing was tough. We saw some tuna on the graph, but they blew by us never to be seen again. We lost a couple of blue sharks at the boat, which didn’t bother me, but the other pelagics were not to be found. We got to mid-afternoon and the sardines ran low, and I began to accept that we weren’t going to get any of the big targets. In many of my blogs, this is when my patience would be rewarded with a miraculous gift from the Fish Gods. Indeed, one of the rods started pumping and sagging down – very likely a ray bite. I waited, waited, waited, then reeled into the circle hook. I felt weight for a moment, and then that sickening slack as the hook pulled out. I reeled in quickly, hoping to at least see a cleanly bitten bait, but the sardine was mashed. I had missed a pelagic ray, and my last minute Fish God miracle was more of a last minute Fish God kick in the nuts. Unhelpfully, Marc said “If Nikolaj was here, you would have caught it.”

But we’re still friends.

We ran inshore, and toward sunset, we saw a big school of fish breaking on the surface. We rigged Rapalas for trolling and tried our luck. I guessed the fish were horse mackerel or small bonito, but we got no bites in two passes. (Both of these species will generally hit anything in front of them.) We pondered the situation, and were about to write it off to horrible luck when one of the rods went down. This was not a dramatic bite. It didn’t take any line, even though we were going four knots, so whatever it was, it was having a bad day. I reeled in, expecting a small horse mackerel, but it was some sort of bream I had never seen before. I swung it onboard, and we had my fifth and final species of the trip – the saddled seabream. The book says it’s a plankton feeder, so I’m not sure how this happened. Marc had never seen one caught on rod and reel.

It was the only new species of the trip caught without Nikolaj present.

We decided to call it a day on that high note, and so the thresher would have to wait.

Vrsar in the afternoon. The whole country is just as scenic.

Nik was there at the mooring, and proudly showed us a bucket full of blennies. We released these when he wasn’t looking, or he would have insisted on cleaning and eating them. We fished another hour together, and my three-foot guide came through one last time. I caught a beautifully-marked peacock wrasse. It wasn’t a new species per se, as it turns out I had gotten one in 2011 in Slovenia, but that fish was a very plain example and hence hard to discern from the more common Doderleini’s wrasse. This one clinched the ID and let me add a species, so we’ll call the final score Nikolaj 4.5, Marc 1.5.

See “The Slovenian Coffee Trap” for details.

The saddled seabream inadvertently caused an awkward cultural moment. That evening, Marc, Maja, and her parents hosted a cookout for me, featuring grilled fresh seabream.

This was the best meal of the trip.

Maja’s father asked me what I caught. The local name of the saddled seabream is Usata, but, Freud firmly in cheek, I called it an Ustacha. An Ustacha is not a fish. Rather, it is a right-wing Croatian militant group that was awkwardly pro-German in the early 1940s and still does unfriendly things at soccer games. The room fell silent for a moment, but Marc gently explained my faux-pas to relieved giggling.

Oops.

And so the Balkans had given me another reminder that nothing in fishing in guaranteed … except that I will keep going back to the Adriatic until I get a few of those larger species, and failing that, at least to spend a few more days fishing the harbor with my new best friend.

Steve

 

 

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Responses

  1. Love Croatia.. fished a world championships just south in montenegro 2 yrs ago…the 1st pic of a Blenny is not a Tompot, I think its a Microlipophrys dalmatinus a species of combtooth blenny.
    And your 1st bream Pic is a Spondyliosoma cantharus, Black sea bream.
    Loving the Blog here in Ireland
    Dave

    • Hi Dave! Dying to get out on the water in your part of the world (in good weather of course.) Montenegro is also a pleasant place – been there once. Marta’s Mom was born there. You’re dead on with the black bream – I didn’t mention the exact species for these because I’ve caught them all previously, except the sharpnose, which frustrates me to no end. On the blenny, it is a tricky ID, but I would stick with tompot because of the 6-7 broad dark bands on flank, relatively deep body, and no ocellus at front of dorsal as in horned blenny. As it was explained to me, M. dalmatinus (which I think Nikolaj caught right in front of me) has less body depth, different head shape, different stripe pattern. Make any sense?

      Cheers,

      Steve

      • Hi Steve.. welcome anytime.. I will go with your i.d.. we get a lot of tompots here and they are different.. but look at the catshark.. look completely different over here!!!… any particular species you want to target in Ireland…we were even catching blue shark here on thursday!!


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