Blue winged olive; I am a fly fishing addict, and whilst any day spent on the water provides me with my fix there is one thing I hope for more than anything and that is a big hatch. To find yourself on the water as small invertebrates dart to the surface, struggle through the film and dance into the air is a wonderful thing to witness. It is these moments that the river comes alive, birds and dragon flies dart through the air and, most importantly, trout and grayling feast below and in the surface.
Every time I’m on the water during a big hatch I feel like the luckiest person alive, what in the world could be better. There is one hatch I always hope to find in the UK and that is the blue winged olive (BWO). A small fly yet it produces the most amazing feeding frenzy, the fish love them. For several years I had heard stories of BWO hatches of biblical proportions in Bosnia in the autumn, unable to contain my curiosity any more I packed my bags, tied my favourite patterns and headed off in search of the hatch…
Flying directly from London to Zagreb, Croatia, myself and a group of likeminded anglers were met and driven 4 hours into the heart of western Bosnia. Our destination was to be two limestone rivers, the Ribnik and the Pliva. It felt strange leaving behind my beloved English chalkstreams to fish similar limestone rivers elsewhere, I almost felt disloyal… On arrival, however, any strange feelings gave way to pure excitement, crystal clear waters sparkled enticingly in the evening light just waiting for a cast to be made…
Our accommodation was in stilted log cabins sat overlooking the river. Each cabin was well appointed with twin-bedded ensuite rooms and plenty of space to spread out fishing tackle. The cabins were connected by a network of wooden walkways, breaking every now and then to offer a stair set down to the river’s edge. It was an angler’s paradise.
The following morning, before fishing, we did the most important thing… visit the local tackle shop. Okay, maybe tackle shop is an overstatement perhaps fly shack is more suitable. On the banks of the Ribnik sits a wooden shed, about 5 foot by 5 foot, it has enough room for the shopkeeper, desk, a couple of anglers and most importantly, dozens of beautifully tied local flies. Yes, I had tied dozens of my own favourites but these were subtly different and at €1 a fly I soon found myself filling a new fly box!
Now, a few euros lighter, we were fully prepared to take on the trout and grayling of the Ribnik. Stopping briefly to look over the road bridge, we saw three monstrous brown trout with the odd big grayling sat between them. Whilst these fish were cast at by all fisherman, their location next to a restaurant was obviously too appealing to move away from. We marked them for a lunchtime cast but opted to head upstream.
Pulling waders on and stringing up rods allowed us time to take in the spectacular surrounds. As a UK chalkstream angler, I’m used to similar rivers but they run over flat land, here the river winds in the shadows of large forested hills. Birds sing in the riverside trees as the morning sun slowly warms up the valley and burns off the morning mist.
The Ribnik is a ‘karst’, a spring-fed limestone river. It runs for just 5.6 kilometres before joining the Sana. The river is 20-30 metres wide in most places and the soft gravel makes wading easy. The depth varies from just ankle deep to waist deep with the odd deeper hole.
The river itself gently twists and turns, splitting every now and again around islands that change the flow speed and depth. The water is gin clear, you can count every stone and watch every leaf on beds of ranunculus as they wave in the current. The water runs at a fairly constant 7 degrees Celsius, the temperature offering a pleasant relief from the 25-30 degree air temperature but more importantly it provides fantastic living conditions for shrimp and other aquatic invertebrates.
Grabbing a small handful of weed soon reveals plenty of small shrimp and olives, two indicators of a very healthy river system. The shrimp are small, size 18-20, and they are orange and grey in colour. The olives however range from size 24 through to 14, most of which are pale olive with a few showing the darkening wing buds of a fly preparing to hatch.
Whilst the fish in the morning were slow to start rising I started with a small olive emerger, keen to get my first ever Bosnian fish on a dry fly. Even in the clear water the fish could be hard to see but they sat in all the places you would expect. Grayling held station midstream on gravel patches along with the odd brown trout. Most brown trout tucked themselves close to the backs near undercuts and tree branches.
As I waded out I found it near impossible not to spook the fish. After one or two steps in the water you would spook smaller fish from under the weed and they would shoot over to the bigger fish. Cursing myself for blowing my chances each time I had to look for the next target. It took me a while to realise this was not the right approach…
After a bit of trial and error I soon realised that you could wade into position, spooking your target. If you then patiently waited a few minutes all the fish moved back, and began happily feeding again. Lesson one learnt.
Now, fish feeding, I made the cast…nothing. I made several more with various mends and tucks before changing the fly. The fish was moved by the change, lifting through the water only to roll away at the last minute. I applied some leedasink, and got the same again. Nothing I did seemed to quite be good enough. Baffled, I moved onto another nearby fish and got the same treatment, and then a third one. All the fish were upstream of me. At the sound of a fish rising behind me, I turned around and made a cast in desperation and irritation. First drift down and the fish swam up and ate the fly without question.
In the ultra-clear water these fish could see everything, a dry fly fished upstream allowed them to see the leader. Dropping down to 8X tippet seemed to help but by far and away the best approach was to fish across or downstream, this then meant the fish saw the fly before any tippet. Lesson two learnt.
As the day warmed up the hatch intensity increased and more and more fish could be found coming up to the surface. The bigger fish however remained more focused on taking the nymphs as they ascended to the surface. Whilst the hatches were the size of large UK hatches they were not cloud-like, upon speaking with the local guides they confirmed that these were small hatches in their terms.
Anglers can always find an excuse, and this time we blamed the smaller hatches on the weather being too hot and sunny. BWOs like dull and dreary weather, and sure enough when the weather broke the week after we left and the hatches exploded…we will need to go back. Even though we didn’t see the hatches at their best they were still big enough to experience some wonderful fishing, both during the hatch and the evening spinner fall.
Whilst wading, and spooking fish, it was possible to locate a good number of big grayling on the Ribnik. Much like the UK, a fish of 2 lbs plus was considered a very good fish but it was also possible to have shots at fish between 3-4 lbs. These fish often sat alone, well aware of their surroundings and only moving for food close to them.
The small grayling were delicately marked, they were an olive/orangey-stained silver, very similar to the Slovenian grayling. The larger fish were much darker with dark tails and a reddening between the pelvic and anal fins. The brown trout were beautifully marked, big red spots with white halos filled the flank. Most of the trout also had a bright red spot on their adipose fin.
Over the course of a few days we enjoyed some wonderful fishing on the Ribnik, casting nymphs and dries to sighted fish. For the big grayling it was exciting to cast small nymphs to the fish and watch their reactions as they rejected or considered your offering. The biggest ones seemed to have a particular taste for ceramic nymphs.
For the big trout my preference was to wait until last light when the spinner fall started. One evening we were blessed with a huge fall. It started with one rise, then another, and another until the whole river was alive with fish rising. Changing my fly to a rusty spinner I then selected my rising fish. A small dimpling rise but consistent. Presenting the fly across stream the head came straight up. I struck into the fish and immediately felt the head shake of a big fish. A strong and athletic fight came to an end with a beautiful trout of about 4 lbs sliding over the net.
After experiencing the delights of the Ribnik it was time to make a change and we moved to the Pliva valley and the land of free flowing Šljivovica (plum brandy). The Pliva is similar to the Ribnik but generally deeper and wider making wading harder. It is 33 kilometres in total but we focused on the fly fishing section in the upper part of the river.
Before any fishing could happen we were welcomed to the valley by our host Pedja. A big tall Bosnian who is always smiling, he is also always carrying several shot glasses and a bottle of Šlivovica. With great enthusiasm he supplies you with shot after shot, meanwhile there is a full pig roasting over the open fire. Needless to say everybody enjoyed that night, perhaps we should have stopped drinking before the singing and dancing began… There were a few sore heads in the morning.
The first day on the Pliva was a baptism of fire, bright hot sunshine lit up the whole river and made it possible to see nearly every fish…but they too could see us. Like the Ribnik, there were fish everywhere, they varied in size but it was possible to single out big brown trout and grayling. Using similar methods to the Ribnik I targeted several fish, each one completely refusing my offerings.
Heading upstream, I found more fish that were equally unmoved by my flies. In desperation I dropped into a faster run and fished a Czech nymphing style rig. After a few casts I picked up a take and then hooked up. I took several fish from the run, the grayling fought hard in the deep fast water.
In the afternoon I changed tactics to fish a single dry fly on a long leader down to an 8X tippet. The fly of choice in these conditions was a size 18 CDC needle fly imitation. I worked my way along the bank, keeping a low profile by staying on my hands and knees, targeting rises close to the bank. I picked up a number of small feisty brown trout this way but every now and again would find a large grayling just dimpling in the surface. They were incredibly difficult to fool, but became slightly more obliging as the light faded in the evening.
Keen to see the whole of the upper section of the river, I took a day to walk to the source of the Pliva. My starting point was a road bridge over the river, staring at the crystal clear waters spanning some 60 metres in width it was hard to imagine the river’s source being just 2 kilometres or so higher up.
Along the journey there were some beautiful glides and riffles holding big grayling and a few trout. Nymphing again was the preferred method. In the faster water big caddis imitations worked well. The river did not get much smaller over the first kilometre until we reached a hotel on the river. At this point the river split in two and rose steeply into the mountain side. Following one of the braids the river turned into a tumbling torrent. Clear white water flowing over large rocks.
After a steep incline, the source was evident, at the foot of a rock face there was an opening. The opening gave way to a turbulent river, even here it was about 5 metres wide. Making the most of the fresh and cool spring water I topped up my water bottle. The cold and clean water offered wonderful refreshment from the warm day.
As with all fishing trips, the final evening came around all too quickly. The some set over the beautiful waters of the Pliva. In the dying light large caddis began to take over, crawling over every surface along the edge of the river including us as we enjoyed a final beer.
Bosnia gave us just a glimpse of what it has to offer and yet it blew us away. The people were lovely, the rivers were stunning, the hatches were consistent and the fish grew big and strong. Without hesitation I will be returning in search of the BWO hatches of the Bosnian Autumn.
Over the course of the week I used a 10 foot 3 weight rod with a presentation floating line. Light presentation and a soft absorbing rod was key when targeting the fish with light tippets. Dry fly was my preferred method but small nymphs in sizes 18-20 are a must including pale orange shrimp.
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