Bosnia – The Grayling Dreamscape

Having served in Bosnia in 1999, I never thought that I’d swap a rifle for a fly rod and actually return to fish some of its rivers. I love my small stillwater fishing, so this trip would be something new – a group fishing expedition in search of wild trout and grayling from Bosnia’s world famous Ribnik and Pliva rivers.

So what can you expect in terms of the fishing, hospitality and fun?  Read on to find out!

Fly fishing in Bosnia

Fly fishing in Bosnia.

You just know you’ve made a great decision, when Alex Jardine of Aardvark McLeod, asks if you’re interested in joining a hosted fishing trip to Bosnia? How can you not say yes? The first thing I asked was if my fishing buddy Michael Valler could come too?

Once we arranged the trip, Amy Pople of Aardvark McLeod sent us our code and link to a travel app called Vamoos. This app is just great, as it details maps, weather, travel docs and much needed advice on gear we needed for the trip. Then as you get closer to your departure date, e-flight tickets and confirmation info come through, which is all very exciting stuff.

On the day of trip, we traveled from Heathrow Terminal 5 and flew British Airways to Zagreb. Meeting our fellow party members Alex Jardine, Lewis Hendrie and Tim Wood in the departure lounge, we were also to liaise with Florian Bauman from Germany and Christopher Rownes of Guideline Fly Fishing. Plus already in Ribnik with a two day head start were Toby Merigan of Funky Fly Tying, Glen Wiesner and Chris Hartley.

Flying out on BA was great, with some cracking views of the mountains en-route in. We were met at Zagreb by Milan Bukara from Zepter Passport Travel Company. It is this company that provides guides to fish the Ribnik and Pliva rivers. For our trip we were also lucky to have Milenko Mita Balaban and Renato Opancar as our guides. Both have fished at International level for Bosnia and know the rivers like the backs of their hands.

After a drive through the stunning Bosnain country side, we eventually rocked up at the Ribnik HQ. Here we were taken down to the lodges and shown our rooms which accommodated two anglers. These lodges sit right on the Ribnik river edge and I mean right on it. Set on stilts and concrete stanchions, these Scandinavian type lodges are filled with all the amenities you need to make your stay comfortable. All rooms have TV, WiFi, bags of hot water and comfortable beds. Each hut has steps down to ground level, so you can go fishing, whenever you want – with the river on one side and a small brook on the other you can pitch a fly to the Trout and Grayling at any time.

The accommodation on the Ribnik

The accommodation on the Ribnik.

You can see the allure of this place right off the bat, as you trundle your baggage on the boardwalk over to the accommodation. When I say you’ll love the food, you’ll just have to take my word for it. The meals are all just delicious and with homemade bread at every sitting, which you can get seriously addicted to it. Milan was telling us, that you could put on between 4 and 15 lbs with the food here. So now you have an idea on how we got here and what sort of things to expect. So what about the rivers we fished?

 Ribnik River – first three days

The River Ribnik is a Karst (spring fed limestone) river, 5.6 km long, with an average width of 20-30 m and depth of 1 m. Riverside is covered with willows and other trees. Plentiful types of insects swarm on Ribnik including many types of Baetida throughout the year, numerous types of Trichoptera and of course May fly (Ephemera). This abundant insect world allows fishermen to fish with a dry fly during the entire season long.

Michael fishing the Ribnik

Michael fishing the Ribnik.

On the first morning Michael and I have a brief cast or two on the river, outside the accommodation, then meet outside the restaurant and fishing office at 8am to load up our fishing tackle and other gear for the short journey to the river. Our guides Mita and Renato are waiting in the mini buses and after a short five minute drive, we arrive at the café, where we’ll have lunch. It’s here that there is a very nice chap, who ties some really neat small flies that we need. He ties 18’s and 20’s in small beaded nymphs and CDC dries, which look just brilliant. They’re a lot smaller than we’d brought with us, so we buy more, in readiness to wet a line.

Extra small CDC dries are very effective on Bosnian rivers.

Size 18 & 20 CDC dries are very effective on Bosnian rivers.

This stretch of the Ribnik river looks just wonderful, with crystal clear water. There’s a lot of weed here with pockets of clear pebbly patches, which we spot fish in. Once you get accustomed to viewing the bottom, you begin to see fish in the pockets and on the weed, with the odd fish in the weed overhangs.

On the first morning there are lots of Grayling and Trout moving, but we are struggling to make contact with some fish. At the moment there is nothing hatching off, but Renato says there will be some surface activity soon. Renato goes on to explains about the fish feeding on different types of olives, stonefly and mayfly. Then says that you can fish dry fly most of the time, but normally first thing is a micro Nymph as the fly of choice then as the sun warms the water, a switch to dries is a good approach.

We try a few casts and Renato demo’s a quick cast on fishing tiny nymphs. Renato shows us the size of the shrimp patterns he fishes here and they are only about 12 to 14mm long. My imitations look massive by comparison. So with my new found knowledge, I make a cast that covers a small pebble patch. The line stops with Renato saying “fish” and I miss my first take, so re-cast to the same spot. A quick mend on the line and I watch the line tip, slink toward me. Spotting the slightest twitch on the line tip, I lift the rod and feel the rod tip bounce!  This is what we traveled for and I am well chuffed. A small grayling of about 5oz, but very welcome on a new method.

Whilst watching Michael fishing away I notice a grayling behind me about 2 ft away in the turbulent water that I’m creating by standing in the current. Amazingly, they’re feeding on the debris that’s being dislodged by my wading boots, in between the small pebbles.

The fish eventually start responding to a hatch, so delving into one of his fly boxes Renato plucks out a small size 18 dry for me – it is brown bodied with a small CDC wing. He peels off about 2ft of fluorocarbon and knots this to my leader. I make a short cast slightly upstream and see a small rise to the right of my fly, so I let the fly drift down and out of the main current seam. A quick splashy rise sparkles the water surface and I lift onto a fish!

I am well chuffed and look toward Michael who is also in. A double up and both of us, on different methods too. This river is quite something else!

a small grayling in silver armour

A small grayling in silver armour.

In the Ribnik’s crystal clear water you can watch as Grayling sidle up right at your side. I found this activity just mesmerizing and it’s great to watch, as you get to see how the bigger residents move about. Once they occupy a point in a clear patch, another grayling of similar size will move in too. If a bigger fish comes over, the small ones move sideways, but not out of the feeding zone – a bit like a family group, but these groups can get big!  Before I know it, there are 20 or 30 fish of varying size, fining away at pace with the current and their food.

We found that first day just fabulous, where we were missing takes and cursing our slow reactions, then laughing as a rod tip starts dancing away. Funny as hell and also quite relaxing too, as you’re trying to concentrate on fishing, then glance up to a mountainside view, that looks just stunning.

One day melts into the other

With the alarm on my phone buzzing away at 6am, we’re getting sorted for the second days fishing. On the short trip to the Ribnik, we make a quick visit to the fly shack and also pick up some thinner tippet for the dries later. Hopefully this will change our fortunes for the better.

On this morning’s foray, we make for the run below the Aquarium Pool again. Roving the fast water, I spot a small rise just off the main current between two current seams that is pushing water toward some logs and branches.  I make a short cast into the upstream eddie with a micro nymph and watch my line tip stop – and lift into a fish. Piling the pressure on, I’ve just seen this beast and what I initially thought it was small, is much bigger. At about 2lb, this is a nice looking fish. These larger Ribnik grayling have red flourishes near their vent, adding a little more colour to these already beautiful fish.

A nice 2lb Ribnik grayling

A nice 2lb Ribnik grayling.

During the fight, Lewis Hendrie shouted over from the other side of the river, that he has just caught a 3lb Grayling! Mita is on hand with him, to take a picture before he releases it.

Lewis Hendrie with a 3lb+ grayling.

Lewis Hendrie with a 3lb+ grayling.

After a cracking days fishing, that evening we discover a few of our party have caught some serious specimen fish. As dinner is served and the beer starts flowing, everyone is chatting about the fishing, the flies and the rainbows being caught by ‘’Rainbow Man’’ aka Glenn Wiesner. To quote Glenn ‘’I’ve traveled 2000 miles from America to catch rainbows!’’ We all burst out laughing. Funny as hell.

The next morning sees us walking down in the woods below the café, then after lunch we spend our day, back at our favorite run. Here, there are fish all over the place –  I take around eight fish which were stacked up on a long weed fringe. Picking them off the tail of the pod as they hit a small #18 olive goldhead nymph.

A Ribnik grayling - taken on a size 18 olive nymph

A Ribnik grayling – taken on a size 18 olive nymph.

Nearby Michael latches into a neat a neat looking brownie, which gives him the run around on the goldhead nymph. Soon after, he then connects with something solid, which he has on for while, and then pops the hook. Very unlucky indeed.

Michael with a Ribnik brownie

Michael with a Ribnik brownie.

There are lots of rises surrounding us, so we switch onto fishing the dries for the afternoon, until we realise that time has caught us up and it’s time to leave the Ribnik. I am a little gutted as this, as the Ribnik river has really kept me entertained.

The Pliva – a bigger water

The 33km spring fed river Pilva is famous for it’s clean water, which comes from cold Karst springs in the fertile limestone rocks, making this Bosnian river unique and full of trout and grayling.

River Pilva in Stunning Bosnian countryside

River Pilva in Stunning Bosnian countryside.

An hour and a half drive saw us travel from the Ribnik fishing centre to Pedja’s bar at Radoja on the Pilva river.  As we arrive Mita crosses the road bridge and pulls in for us to take a look – we see several of our party casting at rising fish, as darkness descends.

The Radoja set up is brilliant. Split into two houses and a bar/restaurant on site, we arrive to find ex policeman Pedja and his wife have a hog roast going, with Šljivovica (plum brandy) and shot glasses at the ready. When Pedja walks over to meet us, he is passing round shots for an initial toast. Now that we all have a drink the laughs begin and this night is a long one! Thank you Pedja.

The following morning with groggy heads after numerous shots of Šljivovica we head for the restaurant. With coffee and caffeine hitting the right spot, we can begin the day. Then Pedja comes around with shot glasses which I just can’t face today….

We make a short drive past the Pliva river, which now looks massive in daylight. It is at least twice as wide as the Ribnik, but also a whole lot deeper and tougher to wade. We take a first look from a bridge and spot some massive browns in the clear pebbly patches, but these are well out of my casting range with a four weight rod.

River Pilva - massive browns fin below

River Pilva – massive browns fin below.

Renato takes us to the river to get ready and we all split up. Starting with a small #18 CDC dry and around 12ft of 7x tippet I make a short cast, watching the drift in the current. There are fish everywhere, not just in the patches but on the weed too and in the big holes.

It is not long and I lift into my first Pliva grayling. Small, but still nice to feel the rod tip bounce.  A quick glance to admire it then he’s away. Renato comes over and suggests a change to nymphs. Michael is already rigged with one and has caught  too. So we’re off the mark and very happy fishing here.

Pillva river grayling

Pillva river grayling.

Later on, I make a few casts on a deep pool, with some fast water running at pace through it. Using a Czech nymph which Renato has given me, I try bugging with my fly line clear of the water, just watching the leader.  Because of the sheer weight of the fly, this isn’t a cast but more of an upstream lob. Watching the leader which isn’t being affected by drag on the fly line, I just catch the leader stop and tighten my line hand and feel the rod tip bounce. I have never tried this method, but what a reaction on a take!!  A little brownie pops up with the nymph in his top lip. After a quick tussle in the current, I slip the fly out and watch the fish bolt for the cover of the fast current and safety.

With lunch looming we make our way back downstream to the first hut we saw.  We are spoiled rotten with some monster burgers and cold beer and coke to wash it down. After last night’s activities the drinks are very much appreciated very welcome on what is a hot afternoon.

Post lunch Mikey and I head upstream and agree with everyone to meet at the top bridge for pick up tonight. We both tie on new leader in 7X about 12 ft long.  Michael has opted for the goldhead size #18 and I’m using a small CDC dry. I hook up a small brownie and after a little tussle move to Michael, as we start a cast and move leapfrog upstream. Working through fast runs, we take plenty of small grayling in the tail water, that are sipping duns.

A Pilva brownie

A Pilva brownie.

As the light starts to fade, so the others roll in and we all end up near the bridge and café, where there’s always a beer to be had. So with the day finally over we head back to Pedja’s and get ready for dinner.

Back to the Ribnik

We agree that in the morning that we’d like to go back to the Ribnik for the last days, so Mita does the arranging and we have a beer.

Next day after breakfast, we mount the mini bus for the journey back to Gornji Ribnik. We park up downstream of the pub and the Aquarium Pool. We split and head off to the river, with Michael and me opting for a close session where we have parked. We begin short casting with small pods of fish all over this long glide. Then a group of Italians drop into the river below us, forcing out of the pool in search of another tasty spot.  We move down and end up at our favourite spot, with fish showing everywhere. Spotting a few fish near the trailing weed in the centre run, I make a short cast and hook up on a feisty little brown. Then another and another.  In total about a dozen or more come to hand in a fast and furious session zapping the fly as it hits the current seam.

Casting upstream directly ahead of me and a splashy rise hits my fly, I connect for a brief second and feel the hook hold, and then we part company. Cursing my luck, I recast to the same spot. I see a tiny rise form and my fly is gone!  A tough, dogged fight ensures – my rod is hooped over and I have very little control, so I opt to wade downstream and get the fish above me, so I can eventually scoop it into the net. Now we can take a look at this beaut of a fish, with just amazing colour and the Ribnik signature blush.

My biggest grayling

My biggest grayling.

Lunch is calling so we head up to the mini bus for a catch up and our last lunch at the Ribnik café. Beers ordered and lunch on the way, I begin to think back to that last fish.  What a beast and I’m rightly chuffed too to land it!  After lunch Michael and I walk the path back upstream to the pool above the café. There are lots of brownies here, some small and some larger grayling too. We’re trying CDC dries and we both hook up in the riffle water, which is great.  I take four or five more small fish and ping another good one. The afternoon is spent engaging with the smaller residents, but nothing large. Absorbed in the action before we know it we heading back down to meet the other lads and transport back to Pedja’s.

With our last day looming, we head to the bar and dinner. Pedja has the shot glasses ready so we all take a hit, then get a beer or two. Reminiscing over the last week, we’ve caught some good fish and for Michael and me, the Ribnik has been our out and out favourite water. We talk over flies and share pics on our latest catches, which is very cool.

The following morning Michael, Florian, Tim and I opt to walk over to the other side and start fishing a shallow run above a bar. There are loads of fish here and they’re spooky as hell. Renato tells us the fish are taking the nymph which he can see by their reactions in the water. He spots for me as I make a slightly longer 20ft cast. The line settles on the water surface and I make an upstream mend. Watching the line Renato says, “Fish” and I push my tip downstream to make a quicker connection. With a pulse at the rod tip, I am very happy with the hit, albeit a small grayling. Renato moves to Michael to change flies and offer his advice on fishing this run.

Renato comes back over to me and offers a Czech nymph. Working down toward Michael, I hear a holler and Renato has caught a fab looking brownie.  Butter yellow belly with ash black spots looking gorgeous in this sun.  He squeezes off some pics, then releases it for someone else.

Renato's brown trout

Renato’s brown trout.

After more productive morning fishing, lunch arrives and we all clink bottles on our last bankside feed before flying tomorrow. This all seems surreal now, with the week having flown by. As we settle back, we watch a local chap in action, who looks like someone who has done this before. He exits the water after hooking up on several fish. Later he comes over to us with a bottle of Šljivovica and shows us the flies he uses. Tiny CDC’s in #20 and #22’s then he gives me four of them. Absolutely mint ties and super small. Then, as quickly as our days starts, after some great afternoon fishing it comes to a nice conclusion with Lewis chatting with the local angler, comparing fish catches. Ace.

We wake the following morning at 6am to get to Zagreb Airport. We pack the minibus and say our farewells to Pedja and his family. What a feeling of mixed emotions. Sadness at leaving this wonderful country, with the knowing that tonight, we’ll be sleeping in our own beds and no driving to the fishing in the morning.

Thanks

After a wonderful trip, I must say a massive thanks to Alex Jardine and Aardvark McLeod, for putting this adventure together. Also Zepter Passport with Milan Bukara for setting us up with fabulous fishing and lending us their top guides in Milenko Mita Balaban and Renato Opancar. Both very capable chaps who have a wealth of knowledge and make great company for us. Personally I’d like to thank Renato, for showing us a level of patience that a saint would he proud of. Plus putting us in front of some great fish. Last but by no means least to everyone who made us feel truly welcome.

For more information about fishing in Bosnia please contact Aardvark McLeod here.

Alex Jardine of Aardvark McLeod

Trip host Alex Jardine of Aardvark McLeod.

 

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Stuart Smitham

About Stuart Smitham

A Welshman living and working in Shropshire, Stuart is an expert at fishing small stillwater fisheries such as the prolific Ellerdine lakes. In more recent times Stuart has also turned his attention to flowing waters and wild trout and grayling, with his adventures taking him as far away as the beautiful rivers of Bosnia. A lover of dry fly fishing, Stuart says there’s “nothing like casting short but more accurate distances for free rising fish.” A passionate angler with many years of experience, Stuart is never short of generosity in sharing his knowledge and insights. Head over to his twitter to see more.