Ever since I first held a fishing rod, as winter turns to spring and the days lengthen, my fishing dreams turn to my two favourite freshwater fish – brown trout and pike. This is when the excitement of the coming season becomes almost unbearable!
The covid affected spring of 2021 was no different. Pike I can catch in my beloved Czech, but if I wanted first class brown trout fishing, the choices were few. Travel restrictions meant I was limited to Europe, so I phoned a few friends and scoured the internet for ideas.
I have to confess, the idea of brown trout fishing in Bulgaria had never previously crossed my radar. I knew roughly where Bulgaria was, I had heard that the countryside was beautiful and I knew the capital was Sofia. But, dear reader, there wasn’t much else I would have been able to tell you about the country.
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 sceptical, but Stan soon convinced me that there were great fish to be caught in his country. He is a professional guide and competitive fisherman, so I was sure he would know his stuff. That we had mutual friends only re-enforced my confidence. I mentioned to another fishing buddy that I was off to Bulgaria. He laughed and pulled a face “it’s a bonkers idea - who has ever heard of trout fishing in Bulgaria?”
But my daddy taught me that fortune favours the brave and I was determined to check out this distant corner of Europe.
With a direct flight from Prague, travel was a joy. All the stories about crowded airports proved to be a nonsense; I travelled like a millionaire on a nearly empty aeroplane and with the minimum of fuss.
Sofia is a compact city with the jewel its gold domed Cathedral and nearby snowcapped mountains. This was not what I was expecting.
My fishing was a couple of hours off the capital but I’d planned two days touring in the south of the country, towards the Greek border. If I’d come this far, then surely it would be remiss not to get a better idea of the country?
Picking up my hire 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. I started to wish I’d planned a few more days and driven to the Greek Mediterranean to try to catch their famous rainbow trout (but about that maybe next time …)
Wandering slowly towards the sun, I was greeted by wide, verdant valleys, towering mountains, snowy peaks, endless beech woods, sparse populations and stunning scenery. This wasn’t what I was expecting. I drank local wine, ate local food and heard compelling stories of hunting in the lonesome forests.
When My brief trip to south was over, I got back to Sofia refreshed and relaxed and get ready for fishing. Stan was taking me to his favourite, secret trout river. I’ve learned of the years to temper my expectations when fishing. Too many times I’ve heard that I was going somewhere great, only to be disappointed. Of course, this is part of the addiction of fishing; the knowledge that there is no such thing as certainty.
There were two of us fishing this day with Stan our guide. I learned my buddy was experienced, but not much for trout, so Stan was to concentrate on helping him.
I was left my own devices.
The river was slowing flowing in the valley and everything looked promising, though Stan told us that water was a little lower than usual.
We started fishing at about 10 am.
These were club waters and sometimes could be busy. But we were alone- what a luck !
I couldn’t see any significant insect activity though sand martins encouragingly swooped and darted low over the water. Winds were light and broken sunshine forecast. I decided I would start with upstream nymphing. I set my 5wt 10’ nymphing rod with french nymphing leader and two flies. As a bottom fly I used the verision of gammarus with 3.8mm tungsten bead and as dropper fly I chosen my all time favourite orange tag with 2.8mm gold bead. As I have been told by Stan that these local trouts can reach up to 75cm (6-8lb) I immediately went for 4X tippet.
I began just below a small weir, making my way up stream, carefully covering the water and covering every possible lie. The key to french nymphing is to cast upstream and let the fly follow the current , keep your line (french nymphing leader) tight until your line will stop moving or you will feel the hit from fish - then STRIKE immediately!
If nothing happen you repeat your cast . While slowly walking upstream your can cover a pretty large area while a short time . That’s one of the many reasons why french nymphing is so effective.
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 my 4x tippet would be broken. But with patience, care and Stan to help, a rainbow of some 70cm was netted. I wasn’t expecting a personal best in Bulgaria, but this is what happened!
How did these fish get so large, I asked Stan. He pushed his hand in the water and pulled up a handful of weed. He pointed and I immediately saw Gammarus. The river teems with these crustaceans providing a healthy diet for the fish.
Where the water is managed and fishing strictly catch and release, the trout can grow huge. Alas, on most water in this neck of the woods, the fishing is not well controlled so the fish don’t get the chance to grow much before they end up on a Bulgarian dinner plate.
After my rainbow and as the day warmed, Stan spotted brown trout feeding off the surface, so we decided to change to dry fly. Our guide had his favourite - don’t they all - and my buddy and I quickly got ourselves ready. We could see fish feeding in two spots, about 75 m apart. Wading quietly into position we began to fish. I spotted on good fish regularly moving, sipping mayfly from the surface. Stan’s favourite fly looked little like a Mayfly but he assured me it would work.
I cast carefully and accurately diagonally upstream. The fly landed lightly on the slowly moving surface, the water clear below. I was careful to ensure it didn’t drag upon the surface, hopefully drifting temptingly over my hungry trout. Persistence and care are the tricks; 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. It’s an insect you are trying to emulate, not a slashing pebble.
And if the cast doesn’t work the first time, repeat: gently, carefully, precisely, confidently, expectantly; maybe slightly changing the angles.
Well, on this occasion, my fish was hungry, because on just my second cast the lips of a specimen brown gently broke the surface and my fly disappeared into his hungry mouth.
Trout fishermen are taught to strike early, the opposite of salmon fishing, but these big browns are a bit different and it’s easy to strike too soon - a mistake I made a few times later in the day as I became a bit complacent. This time I let the fish turn and dive with its dinner before lifting my rod. Stan said afterwards 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 first fish was a splendid brown of some 60cm and proved to be the first trophy brown I caught here in Bulgaria. My buddy soon hooked up with his own fish and on four occasions we were fighting simultaneously, Stan dashing between us with his straining net.
Experimenting, I tried various dry fly patterns, including my favourite pink. Many worked and it was never long before one of us was into another fish. Of course we lost a few, my buddy hooking one long distance fish which leapt clear of the water and which I’d guess was 70cm plus, about as big as they get on this stretch of river. Another fisherman upstream of us landed a similar size fish.
Amongst the fish I had this day, was one that I caught twice within about 10 minutes and some 50m apart. I’ve never knowingly done this before, but the photographic evidence was unmistakable, with the exact same cheek pattern. I guess this was evidence of just how much the fish were “on“ this early spring day, with warming water and plentiful food, after a long, cold winter.
Stan and I returned to the same spot the following day, when things were a bit quieter. It was still a great day’s fishing, even if not of the remarkable and unrepeatable heights of the previous day.
I left Bulgaria promising to return. With a knowledgeable guide, there is remarkable brown trout fishing to be had here - like New Zealand on the European doorstep. It is also a beautiful country of natural wonders and scenery ,which deserves to be explored by travelling adventurers!
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