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Fly Fishing Lessons: River Predators and Persistence

Updated: Feb 18

Understanding predatory fish in rivers is difficult for any angler. Often, they are few and far between as they need larger ranges while seeking eating opportunities. Knowing their forage base is likely the most important factor when beginning to hunt these fish. Next is understanding the periods of time during the day when these fish have the advantage over their prey. These feeding windows may be anglers only opportunities at success as the fish are likely to be lethargic and patiently waiting for their moment. I had some experience chasing larger browns and striped bass in rivers here in the U.S. but targeting the Huchen, or European Taimen, in Montenegro was an eye opening experience on just how these river predators behave.

Fly Fishing Montenegro

The Huchen is the king of the Danube River and its tributaries. Also known as the Danube Salmon and European Taimen. Their range stretches as far north as Slovenia, to the Black Sea in the West and back down to its southernmost tributaries in Montenegro. My adventure brought me to the River Lim which runs through the small mountain town of Plav, Montenegro, located high in the Balkans close to the Albania border. This was one of the most beautiful areas I had visited in the world. I was astonished the area didn’t receive more attention from the press. The only other tourists seemed to be western Europeans looking to do some mountain climbing.

Heavy rains had been the story for April and into May prior to my arrival. Much of the snow had melted from all but the highest peaks of the Prokletije National Park. Though the water was high, it had cleared up quickly thanks to Plav Lake which filters much of the runoff. The Huchen had finished their spring spawn in April and were transitioning into their summer patterns.

I met with Oki, the head of fisheries for the town of Plav, early on day one, and we headed to some of his favorite Taimen haunts. He let me know the higher water would make finding the huchen more difficult for the next few days. This was counter intuitive to me as many of the large brown trout and other river predators are typically on the prowl when water levels rise from fall and spring rains each year. These taimen apparently spread out under these conditions and don’t often hold as tightly to their favorite holes where they can confidently stalk their favorite prey, European Grayling and whitefish. After a full morning of casting into deeper holes around the submerged cover along riverbends and boulder outcroppings we decided a change of scenery was necessary as we had not even moved a fish.

I had gone through the process of circulating through every streamer in the box, throwing heavy both heavy and neutrally buoyant to cover the entire water column. Early that afternoon we headed to the outlet of Plav Lake in hopes that some of the taimen in the lake were cruising the shallows looking for some of the smaller native brown trout and grayling feeding on the mayfly hatches. Action was still slow here but we did see a few larger fish boil around one and landed a couple of modest sized Pike that were hanging around the grass beds. Later that afternoon and evening we dropped back down to the lower section of the Lim and fished several long tailouts where taimen stalk grayling during the low light hours. Again, we had no success. The taimen seemed to be waiting for better conditions so we decided to try again the following morning.

The next morning saw the same conditions and the same results. We did see one taimen chasing a grayling around the lunch hour but the action was short lived. Oki informed me that the hour window between noon and one usually saw a spike in activity from the Taimen along with dawn and dusk, but the fish seemed to be far less active than normal. My arm was exhausted from casting the big streamers so I had some decisions to make.

The Taimen was not my only target on this trip so I decided to put the Lim River on hold and move on to targeting the Softmouth Trout and Marble Trout. These fish were no cake walk either, but I did manage to get a few to the net with some time to spare on my trip. After making the 10 hour drive back to Plav from Slovenia, I had another full day to target the taimen.

With a refreshed shoulder and improved spirits I headed out again the following morning. The morning bite was slow once again, but the water had dropped considerably. And again, there was activity around noon as I had seen several taimen crashing the surface, and chasing food further up and downstream from the two deeper holes I was fishing. What surprised me is that these Taimen were targeting fish in the fast water runs and tailouts. After another biteless morning I headed back to town and joined Oki in celebrating his son’s birthday. The festivities were interesting and entertaining despite the obvious communication barrier between Oki’s family and me. I mentioned to Oki the activity I had seen and he said this was pretty typical of the Huchen. The fast water gave the predators the advantage while the grayling and whitefish fed on aquatic insects. I knew I was on to something and would return to the tailouts later that evening.

I spent the afternoon fishing Plav Lake and landed several more Pike, but as the sun began to get lower in the sky, I headed back to the runs I had seen the taimen stalking fish at the lunch hour on my previous two visits. It was about 6pm when I arrived, and a hatch of larger mayflies began to pop off the water. I parked myself on the shoreline and fought the urge to cast for the rising grayling and brown trout that began to sip from the surface. The calm in observing was a nice change in pace from the intensity of streamer fishing. After waiting for an hour and a half I began to get a bit restless and decided to stretch my legs. I walked downstream then back to the tailout. Oki had showed up to cheer on my efforts just before 8pm. The sun had just dropped below the ridge line when a crash on the surface exploded not 20 feet from where I stood. A taimen had cornered a fish along the large log that lay on the edge of the fast run. I immediately headed upstream to get better positioning for the cast. The huchen continued to blow up along the log as I got in position.

I made my cast mid stream and swung and stripped my fly into the long. With a slack mend of my lined and a couple quick pulls, I darted the streamer away from the log. In no time, the 7 weight rod doubled under the pull of a good taimen. This fish was not a giant but still in the ten pound range. In the fast current he had all the advantages. Within 10 seconds he had managed his way around a medium sized boulder, wrapping my fly line. Without thinking I attempted to free the line from the boulder by raising the rod tip. The line popped in an instant as the leader met the boulder under the weight of the fish. I was incredibly disheartened. My 3 days of hard work and effort would amount to nothing.

Oki had made his way down to see what the commotion was about, and I informed him what happened. He seemed unphased by the news and urged me to continue upstream. I wasn’t sure if he knew something I didn’t, so I followed his lead a retied another leader and streamer on. After no luck in the tailout and undercut above, we headed back upstream to a deeper cut we had visited several times with no luck. It was 9pm as I headed down the rocky embankment and made a couple casts while Oki retrieved some gear from his car. On the second cast my rod buckled under the weight of a huge fish. It was clear I was once again outgunned, even though the water was much slower in this area. The fish anchored itself in the depths of the hole upstream and after at least 30 seconds of inactivity, I began to think the fish had gotten me hung along the bottom. I pulled in every direction with no success, scared than any additional pressure would snap my 20lbs test. With little other options coming to mind, I bent down and picked up a rock from the gravel bar where I stood and chunked it into the water where I thought the fish might be. I repeated this until the third rock brought the fish off the bottom with a strong surge. I caught a glimpse of the Taimen that was easily over 30 pounds with 40 not being out of the realm of possibility. Within a few seconds he had me well into my backing as I chased him downriver. I was at a waste deep run as I tried to keep up with the fish after it had reached faster water. The fish finally came to a halt toward the other side of the river but not before turning around another boulder. After learning my lesson from the previous experience, I kept tension and reeled in slack as I walked downstream. The taimen did not rest long and surged back upstream before I could get very far downstream. The upstream surge immediately snapped my leader like butter on another boulder.

Fortunately the locals on the river likely didn’t speak great English as I emptied every obscenity in the English dictionary on the fish and the river. My spirit was shattered. As I made my way back upstream, Oki was on his way down with the big net. I hesitantly told him the news. This time he took the news a bit harder but assured me there were a few minutes of daylight left. I told him unless he wanted to see a grown man cry, I wasn’t sure I could handle another heartbreak. As it is illegal to fish for taimen after dark in Montenegro, I figured the 15 minutes we had left before the darkness set in at 10 wouldn’t be that bad as I tied on one last fly. I walked further upstream from where I hooked the behemoth and continued to cast.

After no luck in the pool above I dropped back into the top of the pool where I hooked the last fish. I pulled my streamer off the far bank and to my astonishment, my rod buckled again. I jabbed in the strip set and began to back up on the back. The fish didn’t know what had hit him as a back pedaled up the bank link a small child after hooking his first fish. The taimen quickly rolled onto the gravel bar where Oki quickly got him in the net. The feeling of relief was indescribable as I was still shocked at my luck. He was certainly the smallest of the taimen I hooked that day, but I couldn’t be any more proud. After 36 hours without so much as a sniff, I had managed 3 bites within the final two hours of fishing.

The excitement made sleeping tough that night, but the thought that I would go home after landing all 5 of the species I had set out to catch on this trip was all the comfort I needed. In the morning I headed back to Albania for my flight back home.

This experience really drove home the idea of large trout and river predators feeding during opportune windows. Many will not be force fed, but feed on there own terms as their survivability depends on the ability to be as efficient as possible while on the hunt. Also learning the type of areas where these predators can more effectively stalk unsuspecting or distracted prey has helped me incredibly on my adventures for trophy brown trout and large bull trout here in North America. A bigger rod might not hurt when targeting the other species of taimen in the future as well.

For more Fly Fishing Lessons learned the hard way and other Fly Fishing Stories, check out the Georgia Wild Trout website where you can read more articles as well as anything you want to know about Fly Fishing North Georgia.

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