Saturday, October 23, 2021

By Max Woolnough

The traveling angler looks for fishing opportunities anywhere there’s water. Whispers and rumors come from social-media posts, and light research on Google sometimes leads us to a leap of faith. When we choose to roll the dice, we always have to wonder if things may pan out or not.

That’s how I felt when I decided to roll those dice and visit Bosnia and Hertzgovina (BaH). I was hoping to find some wild trout and grayling, and beautiful surroundings, plus a little relief from the daily grind. Fortunately, during a six-day trip based out of Hotel Kraljevac, which is located 30 minutes south of Banja Luka in northwest BaH, I found just that.

Within a 25-minute drive from the hotel there are numerous rivers to fish, including the Ribnik, Sana, and Sanica. Each require a slightly unique approach; on the upper Ribnik you might throw subtle downstream presentations at a 180-degree angle below you; you may have to go 45 degrees across stream on the Sana, always mending to ensure the perfect drift. Bosnian fishing is an education and a test. Catching these wild brown trout and golden-hued grayling requires finesse. Do it right and you’ll get an obliging eat on the dry fly.

On the Ribnik and Bosnia’s other rivers, you can fish nymphs if you choose to, and they are always effective. For me, however, nothing compares to fishing the surface. And that’s why Bosnia appealed. On the Ribnik and other streams I found beauty in the simple downstream presentation of small drys, ranging between sizes 18 and 26, thrown off a dainty 3-weight rod and line. And there was plenty of time to do just that: like clockwork, the rivers came alive twice daily with hatches of blue duns. Those bugs presented an incredible opportunity to sight-fish numerous large and beautiful wild grayling, up to about 19 inches or maybe a little larger, and some beautiful browns. You can wade nearly all of the upper Ribnik and the experience is amplified by towering mountains rising from each side of the river.

The fishing season here runs from April though November. But just like you’ll find in North America, spring runoff influences water conditions and the fishing. However, by the end of May the rivers are predictably stable and the grayling are as active as they’ll be at any time of the year. Prime time runs from June through August when hatches and water conditions are ideal. However, fall fishing is just as productive—it’s a time when the brown trout are especially active and aggressive as they gear up for spawning. Fish to five pounds or more aren’t out of the question.

When I visited, in June and July, days on the Ribnik ran with a beautiful regularity. Each started when the fish rose, usually around 10 a.m. The river runs consistently at this time of the year, although there can be thunderstorms in the afternoons. Fortunately, this doesn’t affect water clarity and the fish eat steadily. The hatch of blue-winged olives subsides around 1 or 2 p.m., making way for a picnic and bankside nap . . . or lunch at one of the riverside restaurants. My favorite is restaurant Aqua Gornji Ribnik, where there’s great goulash to be had. When wandering around town you are always in good company—waders and rods are strewn around, and local Bosnian beer and coffee are always flowing. Lunch ends in time to rest up before an evening session, which typically starts around 4 or 5 p.m. From the hotel, it’s a short drive to the head of the Ribnik, making it an easy choice. But all of the rivers are productive in the evening and I tried to vary my schedule as much as possible.

Browns and grayling aren’t the only options here. In fact, as the rivers widen and slow in the canyons of Kluj, they provide a bigger challenge. In the deeper and darker water, Danube salmon, which are known locally as hucho, reach incredible sizes. They are mainly caught in the evening hours, or after dark, on large streamers. Single-hand rods are adequate for these rivers but spey rods are totally viable, too. Want an opportunity at a really big fish, say something between 10 and 40 pounds? Bring a box of big streamers and your spey rod and swing away. You can also target nase, which are an even greater challenge—they appear throughout the day, occasionally throwing themselves out of the water, shedding algae and snails from their gills, or when being chased by hucho. These freshwater milkfish eat weeds, and are difficult to hook, but they pull as hard as any freshwater fish I have ever fought. Another option is to target freely rising chub in the Sana’s crystal-clear water.

One day I fished the Sanica. It too runs crystal clear and cold, a stunning example of the variety of fly fishing to be found in Bosnia. It’s smaller and more intimate than the Ribnik, and your chances of seeing another fisherman are slim to none at best. It’s shrouded in silver birch and large oaks, and characterized by longer runs. Its fish prefer the shaded areas under trees and, subsequently, any snag that presents itself. The Sanica’s fish are very receptive to terrestrials, like ants and moth grubs, that fall from the trees. The trout here were fewer and more cautious than the Ribnik’s, but this just served to make every trout hooked and landed a greater achievement.

If the Sanica’s trout weren’t playing ball I could rely on the plentiful grayling, generally found in shoals, at the back of riffles and hugging the edges of the current. On this river you can expect to catch trout up to five pounds, with an average of about two-to 3.5 pounds. Grayling are more abundant and average around 1.5-to 2.5 pounds, but can be caught up to 3.5 pounds. Hucho can weigh up to 40 pounds, but most range between eight and 15 pounds; the biggest hucho are usually caught during winter, and at night.

Lunch on the Sanica is markably different—it’s held at a gypsy camp. Cold beer is a given and the food is truly exceptional, with vegetables and sour cream complementing veal. The people are super friendly and welcoming; when I saw all the locals queuing up for lunch I knew I was in in the right place. Once again, you are seated by the side of the river in full view of rising trout and grayling that are happily sipping down midday ants and other terrestrials. This part of the river, however, is one of a number of sanctuaries throughout Bosnia where there is no fishing. That allows some fish to eat, breed and live naturally. So it only serves to whet the appetite for the evening rise wherever you decide to fish.

When fishing this area of BaH, a guide is essential for at least half your days. Hotel Kraljevac, which is a gorgeous wood-sided structure that serves fine food and wines, can organize guides through local tackle shops. It’s especially important to have a guide during your first day on the water; they can dial you in to the prime stretches, point out the hatches, suggest fly sizes, and demonstrate productive presentations. Once you know the routine, other days can be enjoyed alone, searching out the perfect water and making accurate casts that lead to the catching of a great fish—the essence of sight-fishing. That mix of guided days and DIY makes fishing here perfect for anyone. That combination also allows you to fish at your own pace.

Lodging, dining and guides are stunningly affordable. I found the guides to be professional and dialed in, the fishing was outstanding and the scenery breathtaking. It’s truly some of the most astonishing fishing for wild trout and grayling that you can hope to experience, in a place some people have never considered fishing, and some sadly still fear due to the region’s war-torn state in the 1990s. That has passed. Today, you’ll find the Bosnian people to be reserved, but friendly, and eager to help you enjoy their seemingly endless supply of great fishing.