Fly-fishing for Huchen - Antun Mateš: The enchanted angler

Fly-fishing for Huchen

Boulders covered with an icy coating create the perfect ambient for winter huchen fishing.

I didn't often fish the Kupa for huchen, even though they are abundant there, primarily due to their small size. It's hard to imagine a fishing trip in which I didn't see at least a dozen small, undersized huchen, that we caught and returned to the water, or would follow the bait right up to the shore. On average, it took 20 – 30 bites to get one fish that was of the permitted size, and so the Kupa was commonly fished by those less responsible anglers who took the smaller fish. No, my great desire for catching big huchen directed me to the Dobra, where the huchen were fewer, but on average much larger. The Kupa only became attractive for me later, after I had already caught many big fish and learned that every fish above the allowed size was worthy of pride and awe, be it 5 or 10 kilograms. Over the years, my strength and will also started to slowly decline, and I was no longer as zealous to climb the cliffs of the Dobra, risking my life with the possibility of falling into a ravine. Meanwhile, the Kupa, particularly to Severin, could quickly and easily be reached by car, almost all the way down to the water. As we head down into Severin past the Frankopan castle, we descend down a narrow path to the ruins of an old mill, to a place where many a good huchen was caught. Just above the waterfall is a deep pool, almost a kilometer long, where big huchen can be found. I didn't really enjoy fishing in that part, as my experiences on the Kupa directed me to look for huchen in the whitest foam of the waterfalls, or between a passage of two travertine rocks. One winter, not just calendar winter, but an icy winter too, I carefully drove down in my Jeep, which always contained a good snow shovel, just in case, to the spring next to the mill where a large huchen had surprised me and gotten away the week before. I'll go there again, I thought. After fishing for huchen for so many years, I learned that it is a good idea to switch the bait on a fish who has already tried to bite. So this time, I decided to give my expensive and strong Sage salmon rod a try. A man named Kleich in Vienna had sold this rod to me and a group of friends for Alaskan salmon fishing, but in July it was not even possible to fish in that way, as the rivers were massive and swollen with the melted snow, and so fishing had to be from a boat. I figured, since I had paid so much for it, I might as well give it a try, and I carefully went down along the icy rocks to the water, to cast a large streamer made just for the occasion. The streamer had only just been enveloped by the powerful foam when a huchen bit it with such a force that I sat back in the cold Kupa out of sheer surprise. This was a good experience, and so, playing it carefully, I pulled out my first fly caught huchen.

In the winter, the best time for fishing is dusk, and so I usually planned my trips so as to be in my favorite position at dusk. There were many great fishing spots on the Kupa, and I started to keep a journal, sketching the waterfalls where the fish bit, its size, whether I landed it, and most importantly, the date. At the end of the season, it proved to be a rule that if you caught one fish, you should continue fishing, as the chances of a second catch were favorable. Dr. Martin Jakovac once told me very excitedly how he had fished on the final day before the season was closed, on 14 February, when a huchen with a tail as thick as a human arm had followed the zopf right up to his feet. I personally observed that spot under Vinica, and once caught an 11 kg huchen in that waterfall. The Kupa is an excellent river for fishing, as a large part of it can be covered in one day, and so I would regularly visit stretches from Severin, Zdihovo, Glavica, Jančani, Vukova Gorica, Ladešić Draga, all the way to the waterfall in the village Mrzljaci. Just a few more kilometers before the valley, under the village Kunići, the river flows through a short and high winding canyon near the village Rosopajnek, where I caught three large huchen under the waterfall, but only by casting from the Slovenian bank on the other side.

A very well known fishing spot, under the Severin na Kupi castle, where I caught many huchen.

However, if I should thank anyone for the material needed to compile this book, then that is my dear friend Branko, whom we used to call Headcutter or, more precisely, Decapitator. His exceptionally subtle framing of shots, like this one taken in his kitchen, forced me to buy my own camera.

One of the best known huchen anglers of the 20th century, Friedrich Karafiat, succeeded in catching 7 large huchen in a single day, the largest of which was exactly 15 kg, as he knew just where the fish were at that time. The angler rode from Karlovac to Mrzljaci on bicycle, which in itself is an athletic feat, and one by one, caught the big fish waiting under the waterfall that Mrzljaci shares with the Slovenian village Adlešič, where there is a sawmill. But the biggest problem was how to carry 7 large huchen on a bicycle. The angler himself was not overly strong, being only 160 cm tall, and so he asked one of the villagers to transfer the fish for him on his horse-drawn cart back to Karlovac. He paid for the transport with two large fish, and so the photograph shows only five of the large Kupa huchen. This respectable catch proves that there were no limits for huchen set in 1940, and it was not such a common feat for one angler to catch so many fish, and so the press treated the catch as sensational news.

When my sons grew big enough for fishing, Lovro and I would fish, while younger Matija would take photographs. Lovro was very persistent, and he would often catch smaller fish on the Dobra, which he would happily return, with my praise, uninjured back into the river. One day, at Fratrovci on the Kupa, I caught a huchen, and then dedicated the rest of the day to my sons, in the wish that they too catch a fish that day. I would usually go alone on these long and tough fishing trips, and they would accompany me only occasionally, and I knew of a spot near Vinica where the huchen could usually be found. Here, I regularly pulled fish out of the rapids, right next to the deeper part of the river where a whole shoal of nase was swimming, and the huchen were standing guard nearby. As a rule, I would get a bite at dusk, and I would either pull it up onto the gravel, or it would get away, which was not rare. But the dusk presented a problem in taking photographs with my Pentax, as the flash of the camera would light up only me, while the surrounding areas in the dark would barely be visible.

Though deprived of the beauty of the fish's natural environment, as the years passed, these night time photographs would come to make me very nostalgic.

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