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Deep Winter for Huchen
To catch huchen on the Sava River, you’ve got to wade deep and roll up your sleeves.
By Katka Svagrova

All photos by Katka Svagrova and Rok Lustrik

Hucho hucho, also called the Danubian salmon, is a relative of the Mongolian taimen (Hucho taimen) and is Europe’s biggest salmonid. It can, in ideal conditions, reach 59 inches in length. It is the European trophy for every ambitious angler.

Huchen were once widely distributed across eastern and central Europe, but unfortunately their numbers have declined sharply in recent years. Some people refer to huchen as “landlocked salmon” since they don’t migrate to the sea. In some countries, such as Slovenia, ecologists use the presence of huchen as an indicator of a river’s overall health. If huchen live there, something is going right.

Huchen need lots of space—wide rivers with fast-flowing clear water and very specific spawning habitat. Slovenia is among the best destinations to catch huchen on the fly. Despite the construction of dams and canals (which prevent these fish from reaching their spawning grounds), there is still a healthy population of huchen to be found in Slovenia, and that’s where I went this past winter to try my hand at this demanding game.

Trophy huchen are usually considered to be over 36 inches long, but every catch, regardless of size, is something of a miracle. Some people say that huchen is a “fish of a thousand casts” and that’s not far from the truth. Everything has to go right to land one.

Slovenia’s huchen season runs from October to February and is closed for the rest of the year. Obviously, weather conditions are a significant challenge. Prime conditions are when the air temperature is below freezing, the air pressure is low, snow is on the ground, and the river is slightly murky and slowly rising. Only the most persistent anglers should try for huchen—or maybe those with the odd screw loose. Expect ice in your guides and fingers so cold they’ll hardly bend.

Cast after cast you try to cover as much water as possible, while standing in freezing water. And all of this just for maybe one take a day? We were not especially lucky with weather conditions during our trip to the Sava River, but I still managed to get some fish.

This year I was guided by Rok Lustrik, who is considered one of the best huchen guides in Slovenia. Rok’s main playground is the famous Sava River, which holds some real monsters. But these fish aren’t easy—the Sava is crystal clear and its fish are really clever. Once you get your take it is really important to firmly strip-set so the hook anchors in the huchen’s hard mouth. Too weak a strip and all the effort of attracting a take goes to waste. Huchen aren’t especially good fighters, but the adrenaline from finally managing to hook one more than makes up for a lack of fast runs and acrobatics jumps.

Huchen are a dominant and territorial fish. In Slovenia, it’s not uncommon to see several fish over a meter long holding in the main current. Each pool usually has one monster fish in it. In general, huchen prefer long, deep pools with rocky bottoms. Huchen usually feed on common nase or grayling, which are widely spread over Slovenian rivers. We use tube flies in different color patterns, immitating grayling, rainbow trout, and nase. Huchen flies are pretty big, ranging between 6 and 7 inches long, with strong, barbless hooks. Tippets should be quite fine as these fish can see extremely well in gin-clear water. When fishing for huchen, it’s important to use rods with good “lifting power,” as casting these big tube flies can be a struggle. Nine-to 11-weight rods do the trick. You can use single- or double-handed rods, but the most important thing is to use the right line and tips. Your fly needs to get down to the bottom in fast currents where big huchen live. We used lines with 400-to 700-grain sink-tips. Each time we hooked up on bottom, we knew our flies were at the right depth.

My fishing buddy had never tried for huchen before we met up in Slovenia and flogged away for three days, probably exceeding the 1,000 cast rule. He only had one take, and quickly lost that fish. Within 10 minutes of arriving on the first bitterly cold morning, we watched several huchen circling in clear, icy waters, well within casting range. With care it was possible to get the fly to the correct spot, but these fish weren’t interested, repeatedly ignoring our flies. Over and over we cast, with a depressing lack of success. And that was the story at every pool but one. Finally, I was able to land a nice huchen nearing a meter long. As mentioned, early winter fly fishing for huchen is not for everyone. There is no guarantee you will catch a prized fish, but if you remain persistent, and keep covering water, you’re bound to get a take.

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.