Bulgaria For Giant Browns and ‘Bows?
Who Knew?
The author put the car on cruise control and drove into a windfall of tanker browns and some big rainbows.
By Katka Svagrova

As winter turns to spring and the days lengthen, my fishing dreams turn to my two favorite freshwater fish—brown trout and pike. Pike I can catch in my beloved Czech Republic, but if I want a first class brown, the choices are few. This past spring, travel restrictions meant I was limited to Europe, so I phoned a few friends and scoured the internet for ideas. I was surprised to find some amazing information on Bulgarian brown trout. I knew roughly where Bulgaria was, I had heard that the countryside was beautiful, and I knew the capital was Sofia, but I had no clue what it offered fishing-wise.

After doing a bit of research, I contacted a local guide, Stanislav Mankov, and we chatted about brown trout fishing in the Balkans. I was skeptical, but Stan soon convinced me that there were great fish to be caught in his country. He is a professional guide and a competitive fisherman, so I was sure he knew his stuff. Picking up my car and with a sense of having escaped the tyranny of Covid restrictions, I slung my gear in the trunk and pointed the wheels south, hoping to get a trophy Bulgarian brown trout. Wandering slowly towards the sun, I was greeted by wide, verdant valleys, towering mountains, snowy peaks, endless beech woods, and sparse population centers. Soon I reached the 10-kilometer long catch-and-release stretch of a river Stan wanted to fish. The entire zone is about 15 kilometers long, provides excelling trout fishing throughout, and is managed by a local fly-fishing club.

Hiring a guide to fish these Bulgarian rives is not mandatory, but it’s definitely worth it. Doing so saves a lot of time and dials in your effort for the greatest chance of success. To start out I set up my 10’ 5-weight nymphing rod, tying on two flies. The dropper was a version of Gammarus with a 3.8 millimeter tungsten bead. The second fly was my all-time favorite, the Orange Tag with a 2.8 millimeter gold bead. Stan told me that some of the fish I would see that day might measure 75 centimeters long (nearly 30 inches), so I tucked away the 5X and tied on 4X instead. Stan said that heavier tippet would not spook the fish.

It wasn’t long before I had action. A small rainbow was quickly followed by a slightly larger brown, but then things really took off when I hooked into a monster. My rod doubled up and I was fearful that the 4X would break. But with patience, care and Stan’s instruction, I was able to land a rainbow that measured about 70 centimeters long. I wasn’t expecting a personal best in Bulgaria, but this is what happened. I asked Stan how these fish got so large and he pushed his hand in the water and pulled up a handful of weeds. He pointed and I immediately saw Gammarus. The river teems with these crustaceans, providing a high-protein diet for rainbows and browns. But the trout here do look up for dry flies, as I would soon discover, so it pays to carry a hearty selection of nymphs and dries when fishing Bulgaria.

As the day warmed, Stan spotted brown trout feeding off the surface, so we changed to a dry fly. There were fish feeding in two spots, about 75 meters apart. Wading quietly into position I spotted a good fish regularly rising, sipping mayflies from the surface. Stan’s favorite fly looked very little like a mayfly, but he assured me it would work. Persistence and care are the tricks while dry-fly fishing; do nothing to spook your target, and land your fly delicately. This isn’t a cowboy rodeo, with the line cracking and snapping like a whip. It’s a delicate, gentle, precision skill, with your fly landing like a whispering ghost. Experimenting, I tried various dry-fly patterns, including my favorite pink caddis and green caddis. Many worked well, but Stan’s mayfly was the best choice. Bulgarian trout are quite picky and it’s really important, especially for dry fly fishing, to use really fine 0.14millimeter tippet. This will increase the number of takes. We used delicate dries in a range of sizes from 14 to 18. The smallest ones worked best.

The first fish I cast to was hungry. It took on just my second cast, the lips of this brown gently breaking the surface with my fly quickly disappearing into its mouth. I’ve been taught to strike quickly when trout are sucking in a dry, which is the opposite of what I do when salmon fishing, but these big browns are a bit different. You don’t want to set too soon, a mistake I made a few times later in the day. This time, however, I let the fish turn and dive with its dinner before lifting my rod. Stan said afterwards that you should count slowly to three before striking—a bit like that old British salmon fishing tip of saying “God Save The Queen” before raising the rod.
This was a splendid brown over 60 centimeters—my first trophy Bulgarian brown trout taken on a dry. Over the next few hours we landed more than 20 fish over 50 centimeters, some of them even approaching the magical 70 centimeter mark.

One of the most interesting aspects of that day was a fish I caught twice, about 10 minutes and 50-some meters apart. I’ve never knowingly done that before, but the photographic evidence was unmistakable; the cheek pattern on each fish was identical. I guess this was evidence of just how much the fish were on. After a long, cold winter the fish were super active in warming water and with a variety of food items to choose from. But that kind of action doesn’t last forever; Stan and I returned to the same spot the following day and things were much quieter. We still had a great day and caught some good fish but it just wasn’t the same. I left Bulgaria promising to return. With a knowledgeable guide and the right water conditions, you’ll find remarkable brown trout fishing—similar to what you might find in New Zealand—in a beautiful and sparsely populated landscape.

Katka Svagrova
Growing up in a fly fishing family, Katka has been casting a fly rod since the age of four. In addition to being one of the top guides in Europe, she is a world-class competitor, winning the Czech women’s championship 5 times in 6 years. She has also competed internationally, helping the Czech team place 4th in the European fly fishing championship. After a trip to Australia in 2014, Katka started travelling the world, fly rod in hand. Within 3 years she had fished more than 10 countries including Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, Belize, The Maldives, and Guatemala. Katka currently works as a fly fishing guide for Hreggnasi Angling Club on Laxa í Kjòs, one of Iceland’s most prestigious Atlantic Salmon rivers.