I’m sorry it’s been awhile since I have posted about my sessions at last year’s World Fly Fishing Championships in Bosnia. I’ve had a lot of irons in the fire lately and some exciting projects coming down the pipe, including a film project with Lance Egan and Gilbert Rowley I just returned from shooting, but I figured it is about time I tell you about my 3rd session in Bosnia on the Vrbas River.

The Vrbas was heartbreaking to me as an angler, fisheries biologist, conservationist, and just plain as a human. I’ve never stepped into a more polluted river. The river was literally the sewer for the local towns and the people that lived on its banks. In fact, there was an outhouse on stilts over the river in one of the beats. All manner of unimaginable refuse floated down the river during our practice session and during my session in the tournament. There were multiple reasons many competitors referred to it as the “sh*% river” while we were there. Other than fire burning on the Cuyahoga River in 1969, I can’t think of a river that has justified the Clean Water Act, that we are fortunate enough to have here in the USA, more vividly than the Vrbas. It was such a stark contrast to the Sana, Pliva, and Sanica rivers that were the other moving water venues during the championship.

In this context, it was amazing that any trout lived in the river at all. Unfortunately, there was a fishing club that stocked fish just above where the competition beats started. As a result, the first five beats had a few to good numbers of stockies. If you didn’t draw one of the first few beats on the river in the tournament, you were doomed to try and find a fish to avoid the dreaded blank.

I ended up down on beat 19 with my fellow competitors who were also trying to be blank dodgers. Sadly for their sakes, many of them failed in that endeavor. I had a decent bit of broken water at the bottom of the beat with a deep run/pool above. Most of the pool and run was fairly featureless with no overtly obvious holding water. The water at the bottom was where I was sure I would catch my fish, if I were fortunate enough to find any. During the session I had my team captain Bret Bishop with me. I asked him to watch the river for any fish rising while I fished. None showed but he was treated to some nice hospitality from a little boy and his sister who lived in a house on the far bank and wanted to practice their English.

I started nymphing at the bottom of the beat, with a black version of myBlowtorch nymph, featuring a pink tag, and a pearl variation of the Butano. My flies were connected to a Tactical Fly Fisher Thinner European Nymphing Leaderwhich was in turn connected to aCortland Competition Nymph Lineand drifted by my 10’ 6” 3 weight Cortland Competition Nymph Rod.I spent the first 45 minutes fishing the best looking spots on both banks where some good looking pockets and seams were found. I admit that I started to worry when I had nothing to show for it. I wasn’t sure where else I would find any fish after scouting the rest of the beat.

The bottom of my Vrbas beat. Sadly, I don't have a picture of the upper end where I caught my fish.

Determined, I started working up the river right bank, which was full of tree roots and assorted structure that might give up a little wild brown trout if I could avoid losing a plethora of flies in the process. I dropped nymphs and streamers in between every possible gap in the roots and swung them under the undercuts. Still, I had no fish. At the top of the beat 150 or so yards later, there was a nondescript shelf near the bank just below a branch of a tree that was looming over the river. Because of the turbidity it wasn’t obvious and I didn’t really notice it while I was scouting the beat. As I fished toward it though, I saw a few swirls on the surface showing a slight bit of turbulence arising from the drop off. Upon closer inspection. I saw a color change signaling the change in depth and starting making an up and across presentation to the drop off. Still nymphing the blowtorch variation, two casts in I set the hook hoping I hadn’t come in contact with an unforeseen snag. I felt the telltale throb of a fish, and not just any fish, a grayling. I babied the grayling all I dared trying to do my part to make sure it made it to the net. Thankfully, it did and I got rid of the white stripe on my back with a 35 cm grayling on the board. UTTER RELIEF! Its beauty was such a contradiction to the ugliness of the water. I’ll never forget it. Three casts later I came tight to a small brown trout. When I put it in the net I was dreading that it would be too short. I’m glad I was wrong though and its tail barely touched the 21 cm line. The sad part was that I took a few casts while my controller filled out the scoresheet. When I went to sign it he had written a third fish on my sheet. I was shocked to say the least. With no verbal way to communicate with him I scribbled it out forcefully A few minutes later he had copied my two legitimate fish onto a new sheet and I was able to keep fishing without fear of karma biting me in the butt.

A beautiful grayling from the Ribnik since I don't have a photo of the grayling I caught in the Vrbas.

I then proceeded to cross the river and swing streamers on a sinking line over a shelf that dropped into the pool below. The only reward for my effort was itchy skin and smelly waders when I took a spill on a boulder I couldn’t see in the acrid water. My waders took a shower with me that night.

I wasn’t able to find any more miracle fish and I’m not sure what else I could have done in that session to get one. I felt fortunate enough as it was to have saved the blank and ended up with an 8th place for the session with my two fish; one being a fish that barely scored. My only real lesson for any readers out there is that attention to detail can reward you with fish in unlikely or cryptic places. If I had spent all of my effort on the best looking water at the bottom, which I fished twice as it was, I doubt I would have saved the blank on the “sh*% river”. 

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