Updated: May 2
Many anglers get stuck in their ways when it comes to fly fishing. I was certainly in the group of anglers who would approach a stretch of river or a fishy looking hole with little regard for what the trout were actively doing in the stream. This was especially true on familiar water where I had a good idea about how the trout were positioned and where in the water column these trout were eating. These habits don’t necessarily prevent anglers from catching trout on any given trip, but certainly inhibit their ability to become the best anglers they can be while limiting their efficiency on the water.
Much of my fly fishing experience at the time was gained on the tailwater streams in Arkansas and Oklahoma as well as some freestone streams in Colorado and Southern Appalachia. I had reasonable success on all these trout streams but knew I had much more to learn. The eye opening experience for me came on a fly fishing trip to the Balkan Mountains of Southern Europe. The Neretva River which begins along the peaks of the Southern Balkans along the Montenegro and Bosnian border. The river flows through the heart of Bosnia creating a home for Adriatic strain Brown trout, the occasional Marble trout, and my target species, the Softmouth Trout. The Softmouth trout, or Salmo letnica, is a brown trout relative with a mouth that is more ventrally located than its brown trout cousins, much more similar to a grayling. The Softmouth has a patch of small red and black spots down their side flanks similar to their comingling Adriatic strain brown trout.
The Neretva is one of the larger rivers flowing through Bosnia. The section I chose to target the Softmouth was around the small town of Glavaticevo. This section is still relatively wide but still maintains the characteristics of a small river. Heavy rains throughout April and into May left the river higher than normal. Despite the conditions, the water was still gin clear with the turquoise/aquamarine tint that is a common characteristic of the Balkan streams that empty into the Adriatic Sea. Every small pebble in less than eight feet of water was visible as the water seemed to magnify what was beneath.
With the level of clarity I was confident that I would be able to sight fish much of the river or target the deeper areas where the trout could find more cover. Several mayfly species and caddis would hatch throughout the day which gave me a good idea what the trout were eating, but after spending a full 12 hour day on the water, my efforts only yielded a handful of European Grayling and a couple Adriatic Brown trout. These fish were landed on both dry flies and nymphs but I was not able to pattern where the fish were holding or any particular food item they were keying on.
The following day at lunch, I spoke with the owner of the lodge who informed me the caddis hatch downriver had been consistent in the evening and he had seen several softmouth trout rising the previous evenings. This left me with hope and we arranged to meet in the evening if my afternoon outing wasn’t a success.
After a few hours on the water that afternoon I returned to the lodge after an uneventful outing and we waited until the sun fell below the nearby peaks to hit the water. We arrived at a long run and tailout along a gravel bar around 7pm and there was little activity on the water. I was told we were still early for the evening festivities so I was patient and watched and waited for signs of life.
The river in the stretch was less than three feet deep at most. I imagined the trout were using the deepest water along some shoreline overhangs as cover. Even with the low light remaining in the day, I was still able to see every rock along the bottom and figured wading out a few feet off the gravel bar wouldn’t be a problem. This is where I would have made the mistake that would have cost me the opportunity to land some trout. I was urged to stay out of the water, so I listened, and it wasn’t long before the caddis began to come off the water around 8pm. The trout began rising to the caddis shortly after and seemed to appear from nowhere. Some rises were from within a rods length from the bank I stood on, and in less than knee deep water. I never once saw these trout in the water. They were complete ghosts.
In the next hour we would land a half dozen Softmouth trout and a few Adriatic browns before the sun set around nine. The trout were selective but a size 16 caddis would fool most. I was still amazed by the transparency of these fish and learned a very valuable lesson on patience and approach.
Though the journey was difficult, the experience was incredibly rewarding. Whether I am exploring new water or guiding newcomers on fly fishing North Georgia, I use more patience and more caution when approaching the water. Though these methods tend to slow down anglers, they will often lead to more bites and fish landed at the end of the day. Approaching familiar water this way can be an eye opening experience for many anglers who feel they have their local waters figured out as the change in perspective can be extremely valuable.