The following appears in the October issue of California Sportsman
By Chris Cocoles
LAKE BLED, Slovenia—Truth be told: I wasn’t sure if I was going to get in a fishing day or not while visiting here in late summer to celebrate my birthday.
Sure, we were staying in Lake Bled, a Tahoe-esque alpine resort ringed by the spectacular Julian Alps, a short drive from the borders of Austria (to the north), Italy (west) and Croatia (south). All my pre-trip research said Slovenia – once the far north border of Yugoslavia and now an independent member of the European Union after a 1990s civil war tore apart what spawned seven nations – had a fishing-centric culture.
Yet I was having too much fun doing various activities with my travel partners, my sister Charlene and brother-in-law Alan. We’d spent the previous few days island-hopping along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast; drinking local wine and beer; rafting down the mostly flat but gorgeous Sava Dolinka River once we crossed the border into Slovenia; and even cashing in a few extra Euros from the blackjack tables at the lakeside casino in Bled that capped off my birthday celebration.
Time was running short, as we would soon be headed to Slovenia’s sliver of a coastline in Piran, a Venetian-style port town, before heading to Venice to catch our flight home. So fishing – I was in touch with a couple of river guides via email before heading to Europe – would be a great if I did it but OK if it didn’t pan out.
But that was before I met Blaz, whose smartphone photo piqued my attention and got the angler in me a bit fired up to wet a line. Blaz navigates his pletna – a traditional wooden boat – back and forth across Lake Bled to its iconic island that tourists regularly visit. Its church, located 99 steps above the shore, is a popular destination for Slovene weddings.
As we waited for his boat to fill with passengers, Blaz called up his Facebook page and showed me a photo of a Lake Bled catfish. “Forty-two pounds,” he said to my astonishment. I replied I’d been thinking about fishing but wanted to do something simple.
“You can rent gear from the fishing shop (down the street),” he said.
“Hvala,” I replied, one of the few Slovenian/Slavic words I knew from previous trips to this corner of Europe, to Blaz after he got a good workout rowing us back from our island visit. So the next morning we decided to at least walk down from our rental house and maybe I’d have a chance at a similar Lake Bled monster fish.
WHAT I LOVE MOST about Slovenia – I actually loved it all and plan to go back someday – are its people. I found Slovenes to be warm, friendly and easy to communicate with since many speak very good English. (In my European travels I’ve discovered that Americans like me just aren’t bilingual enough; shame on us). Like Blaz, Matej, the manager at Bled’s Fauna Fly Fishing Slovenia shop (fly-fishing-slovenia.si), made a quick impression on me as we talked fishing in the store.
I asked about renting gear and he reached over to grab a spinning rod and a little tackle box. Within minutes I was giving Matej – he pronounced it Matthew and said it was spelled the Slovenian way – a few Euros for a one-day fishing license and gear rental. I asked about bait and he plopped a can of corn on the table, throwing it in for free.
“Just put a piece on the hook and throw it out; adjust the (split shot) on the leader if you want to get it deeper,” he said. “You might get lucky and get a big carp.”
I looked at the rod and its 8-pound test and told him, “I hope if I do I don’t break the rod.” Matej smiled, showed me a map of spots on the lake where I couldn’t fish and sent me on my way.
Of course, being the klutz I’m known to be I managed to stab my right thumb with the small hook when I grabbed the rod in the wrong place. Matej played doctor and got me a bandage after we stopped the bleeding.
“Is the hook stuck in you?” Matej asked with a laugh.
“I think it’s out,” I said.
“You think or you know?” he said before we did eventually find it on the floor as my day as a Slovenian fisherman started with a whimper.
Matej rerigged a hook onto the end of the leader and this time I carefully got the rod out of the store. “Here’s my chance to catch a big fish thousands of miles from home,” I thought, recalling my conversation with Blaz the day before as I headed down the lakefront. I would find out that the size of the fish isn’t as important as the experience.
MY BROTHER-IN-LAW didn’t feel like fishing that day, but Alan and Charlene did end up being my lucky charms after the first place that I decided looked like a good spot was anything but. After about 25 minutes of watching my bobber hardly move after a few short casts, they started walking back toward our house but quickly came back, claiming to have found what looked like a better spot to cast from and seeing a lot more smaller fish in Bled’s crystal-clear waters.
I wasn’t about to ignore their suggestion, so I reeled in and walked about 200 feet down the shoreline. And sure enough I saw a lot of fish a couple feet out in the shallows and was certain that a big one was lurking within casting distance. I adjusted the rig to get my line a little further out and managed to cast out beyond where the little guys were swimming. It was hardest to keep the corn on my hook, as frequently it flew off during my cast or was gobbled in the water.
Alan and Charlene took a walk and said they’d be back to check on me in about an hour or so. I told them I wasn’t expecting any miracles, but as I settled in I wasn’t complaining about the setting either. It was as scenic a spot as I’ve fished from. Looking west I saw the island Blaz had taken us too. Directly across the lake about 425 feet up a hill stood Bled Castle, Slovenia’s oldest and dating back to the early 11th century. (It was constructed on the orders of German king Henry II and given to Bishop Albuin of Brixen when the region was known as the province of Carniola.) So yeah, it was a pretty epic view, even if I wasn’t going to catch a fish.
But then it happened. I saw my bobber slowly begin to disappear from the surface, but I knew with my small hook I didn’t dare rear back on the rod too hard. So I slowly reeled.
I knew pretty quickly that this wasn’t the trophy fish Blaz showed me, but I really didn’t care, to be honest. It was sufficient that I was reeling in a fish on the other side of the world in a country I could see myself living in. Now I just had to figure out what I had caught. I thought maybe it was a small carp, but its silver body and red-tipped fins clued me in that it was something I’d likely never heard of.
I quickly snapped a couple photos of a fish that was probably all of a whopping 8 inches long, then released it back into Bled. I’d achieved my goal and realized that the massive carp Matej was hoping to fight probably wasn’t meant to be, but I kept trying.
Carp love to bite corn, so I waited and waited with the slight hope that something bigger would chomp my bait. But I remembered days spent at Clear Lake watching massive carp roam the shallows while ignoring my offerings. I figured the bigger fish here would be as hesitant to play. As I’d reel in the bait bandits were alive and well, so I kept carefully sticking another piece of corn onto the hook.
My bobber continually would sink toward the bottom, and the cycle would repeat itself over the next hour. Most often as I reeled in there was nothing but an empty hook at the other end, though I did manage to reel in an even smaller mystery fish before my family members returned.
I fished for about another 20 minutes after they arrived, and caught and released one last 6-inch consolation prize, snapped a few more pics and then packed up the tackle box I’d rented before we walked back to the house and continued our sightseeing later that day.
Our trip was winding down, and while getting back to the coast and that beautiful blue water of the Adriatic Sea was tempting, I was so looking forward to returning the next morning to drop off my gear, chat with my new buddy Matej and figure out just what I’d caught.
WHEN WE WERE ON our pletna boat ride, I looked over to the south shore of Lake Bled and spotted a massive building partially hidden in the trees that looked familiar from the research I’d done about the area.
Vila Bled is now a high-end hotel, but it was once the private retreat of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s controversial president from 1953 to 1980 (he died that year at 87 after he was literally declared president for life). Tito’s complicated legacy includes leading a socialist government that managed to shun the Soviets and keep itself together through the Communist era.
During much of the time Tito spent in Lake Bled he hunted. He was so obsessed with hunting, Blaz told me, he ordered big game be strategically placed in the forest near his compound for easy kills. These days, as Slovenia joins Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, etc., as independent nations after the bloody post-Tito breakup of Yugoslavia, outdoor adventure is part of Slovenes’ way of life.
When I stopped by Matej’s store, I learned he’s been fly fishing the nearby rivers for landlocked trout and Danube salmon and even a species of grayling, all of which frequent pristine rivers and streams throughout the country. Local diehard anglers like Matej mostly stick to rivers.
“Bled is more like our playground,” he said, while adding that carp, lake trout, catfish and perch are still popular fishing targets on the lake, particularly in spring.
When I showed Matej photos of my mystery fish, he quickly identified them as roach, which are ubiquitous throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and are in the same family aschubs, dace and other minnows.
We chatted a few more minutes and he showed me around the store before I had to leave to catch our shuttle to the coast. I’ll always remember interacting with Matej and Blaz, who both inspired me to give fishing a try in a country I fell in love with. CS
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495786087276192 and subscribe on YouTube (Fly Fishing Slovenia FaunaBled). Email: email@example.com.