Lessons from Bosnia: Session 2
Since I received some positive response from my last Bosnia post, I figured I would continue the series through the rest of the championship.
I don’t want to beat a dead horse, so if you would like to refer back to the tips I shared from my first session you can find them here. They certainly applied to this session as well but I won't spell them out in detail. Hopefully it will be a good exercise for you as the reader to identify their application on your own in my text. In this post I’ll take you to the Pliva River during practice and in my second session.
We stayed on the river at a lodge catered specifically to fly fisherman run by the Pliva Fly Fishing Centre. Many of the other teams were there as well, and it was a stiff reminder of the looming competition each time we passed the row of vans from different teams out front or sat at tables next to them at dinner. It also gave us a chance to meet other competitors and gauge how practice was fairing for the rest of the field. The Pliva seemed to be challenging everyone.
The Pliva River just below the lodge in the practice water
The Pliva River is a very unique body of water. It gushes out of the limestone hillside in three main springs. On the last day of practice I took a quick walk to two of the main “sources,” as the locals labeled them. I didn’t know that one of the springs came out of a cave until we were getting ready to leave. I saw some cool pictures from my teammates that visited the cave, but I would have liked to have seen it myself. After all three springs combine, the Pliva is a full-fledged river with a significant volume of water beginning at an icy 47° Fahrenheit (8.33° C). The water is so clear and clean that our guides Renato and Jovo drank straight from it. We didn’t know until several days into our stay that the lodge also took its water from the river. Sadly, the river receives direct sewage and a myriad of other point and non-point source pollution shortly downstream and the fishery quickly diminishes. Several major pollution point sources actually entered the river at the top of my beat.
One of three main source springs on the Pliva River.
A "glass of Pliva" served to me at the lodge.
The Pliva has a reputation for being one of the most difficult rivers in Europe. During practice we fished a mix of medium gradient water near the lodge and flatter water downstream. The first day we had some success, but as other teams hounded the water the grayling and brown trout became even more intractable than they were to begin with. Sadly, practice started off rough for my teammates Josh Graffam and Norman Maktima when their bags didn’t arrive. Let’s just say wet wading in tennis shoes isn’t a nice proposition in 47 degree water. In the higher gradient water we found some success nymphing, often by sight, with a variety of patterns. Our guides favored some imitative perdigon style nymphs and uniquely tied scud patterns with vertically exaggerated carapaces, which are popular across Europe. Much of the water was fast and deep. This water demanded flies tied with oversized beads and lead wire to reach lower depths because of the one-fly-only limitation in Bosnian rivers. We also rose fish to dry flies; mainly to low riding cdc patterns. There were not any dense hatches occurring, but the occasional mix of small to medium mayflies and caddis were thrown in the mix. There were quite a few medium sized golden to yellow stoneflies around.
The brown trout in the Pliva were easier in general than the grayling. We heard a mix of reports from the success of other teams during practice. Some included rumors of other teams “figuring out” the tough grayling, though I’m pretty sure there was either unidentified sarcasm lost in translation or intentional misdirection in most of those reports. In the end, I think we all struggled to consistently catch the grayling during practice, especially in the flatter water where they were more demanding than the rainbow trout I’ve fished for in the Harriman Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork. Tippets had to be fine (7x or smaller) and presentations immaculate.
Some of the flat water we fished in practice. The fish were exceptionally difficult here.
My first Bosnian brown trout. A little stunner from the Pliva.
Josh Graffam hand modeling my first Bosnian grayling on our first practice day behind the Pliva River lodge.
My second session
When I arrived at the water for my session on the Pliva, I was sent to beat 17, right in the middle of the town of Sipovo. Sadly, like many rivers running through urban areas in the USA and abroad, the Pliva had been channelized and diked with grouted cobble lining the banks in the town (in addition there was an off-colored drainage ditch and a small sewer pipe entering the river at the top of my beat). I could diverge on a tangent explaining the biological and geomorphological ills of channelization, but I’ll leave that rant for another time. The short of it is that surveys generally show that fish populations are greatly depressed in areas running through urban areas where rivers are highly modified. However, I have fished a lot of rivers in this category over the years, and I’ve learned that trout are capable of clinging to what little habitat is available in urban reaches. Often I get a unique satisfaction in finding an urban gem. Anyway, I said I wouldn’t digress right?
During my half an hour of rigging and scouting time, I quickly rigged my 3 weight Z-Axis with a dry fly, my 3 weight Cortland Comp Rod with a nymph (on a Tactical Fly Fisher European nymphing leader), and my 6 weight Z-Axis with a streamer (that I didn’t end up using). After my rods were ready I spent the rest of the time slowly scouting up and down the beat. Past experience on channelized rivers has taught me that one of the few areas of habitat available for trout is tight to the banks. Channelized rivers typically have high velocities in the center of the channel with little structure to provide velocity breaks. In these situations I find that an often dubious mix of refuse forms the rip rap on the bank, but this structure provides the only friction that creates a place for fish to hold. For example, there is a run on one of my favorite urban rivers where I catch fish in a velocity break created by a headstone someone dropped in the river. My beat on the Pliva exemplified this situation precisely, so as I walked slowly up and down the beat from the sidewalk above, I carefully scanned for fish and for small pockets that might hold a fish. I quickly spotted several brown trout near weeds and rip rap at the bottom of my beat. I mentally noted their locations along with six or seven others by the time I had reached the top of my beat. The good news at this point was I knew I had fish in my beat on a river that was stingy to most competitors in the first session. Whether I could convince them to eat or not was a different issue.
As the bell rang, I started with my nymph rod and a small drab pheasant tail that had worked in my previous session on the Sana and during practice while sight fishing on the Ribnik. Though I could not see most of the fish I had spotted from above, I kept track of small landmarks on the bank to ensure I covered their lies without spooking them. Because of the steep slope of the armored bank, I spent the entire time on the near bank fishing from my knees crawling up the river to keep a low profile. This strategy payed off quickly and I caught several of the first few brown trout right away. As I worked my way inch by inch up the bank, I repeatedly switched back and forth between my dry fly and nymph rods hoping to cover willing fish with whatever method suited them best. When I reached deeper spots I switched from the pheasant tail to an imitative perdigon style fly. I knew there wasn’t much habitat so I tried not to waste any of it. I even caught two of my fish in the slack water created by the sewer pipe! By the time I had reached the top of my beat on the near bank, eight fish had taken pity on me and graced my net; mostly brown trout with a rainbow and a couple of grayling mixed in. A nice crowd of locals began to show up to watch me, as well, with more arriving after each fish. I didn’t see many spectators at the beats above and below me, which gave me a confidence boost that I was at least holding my own.
My Pliva beat. Most of my fish were caught near the river left bank.
After covering the whole near bank on the first pass, I decided to head back to the bottom and across while I let the near bank rest. The far bank had a much more gradual depth transition and was mostly grassy. This provided even less holding water, but I was hopeful I could scrounge a few more. As soon as I got into position a fish rose. I covered it with a cdc caddis and it confidently sipped it in. After returning from measuring the fish with my controller, another fish took my dry and I proceeded to donate my caddis to its jaw. A switch to a nymph brought one more trout to hand, but the remaining bank was marginal at best and I couldn’t find any more willing fish.
I started nymphing back down the middle of the run hoping for a fish hiding behind any rock it could find in the swift and deep water. About half way down, with no fish, I saw a fish rise on the steep near bank again. I waded over, with water nearly swelling up to the top of my waders, and got into position. Two drifts in and the fish that had risen (a spunky rainbow) ate my nymph. I didn’t want to spook the bank so I held the fish in the water and brought it down to where I had begun my first pass. By this time about 50 spectators had gathered and I appreciated the applause from my kind cheer leading section as the controller measured my fish. By this point there were only about 20 or 25 minutes left in the session so I decided to cover the near bank again doubly fast. The same pheasant tail and perdigon swapping strategy brought four more fish for a total of 15 in the session and a first place ahead of Saku Nieminen of Finland with 12 fish. It was as much as I could have hoped for from the stingy Pliva and I walked away happy, trying not to think about heading to the dreaded Vrbas River the next morning. My teammates had also done very well and we won the second session as a team. The championship had gotten off to a great start with us sitting in second place trailing Spain by two points.