The Galleria dell’Accademia. The Ponte Vecchio. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. For the past few days, I’d been standing in these places absorbing the immensity of their historical and cultural significance. Statues, paintings, and facades that I’d been seeing my whole life were now right in front of me. There were moments that were humbling, emotional, and contemplative.
And then there were moments when I realized that I was paying hundreds of Euros to fish next to a hatchery.
If you haven’t read the previous installment of this little narrative, I suggest you click here to catch up on how and why I was in this situation.
“Oh, yes! Lots of fish today, you see? Get on your boots and we will get them!”
“Oh, yes,” I thought. “I bet there are a whole lot of fish here and up in those concrete raceways.”
Now I’m not too good for stocked trout. I’ve caught my fair share, and actually believe that there are some very viable reasons for stocking fish. Overall, I think that more harm is done than good in places where there are native fish populations. But I’m not going to balk at fat, dumb rainbows thrown into a Midwestern pond for a kids fishing derby.
What I am (and was) balking at was specifically asking to fish for native trout on my international vacation, and then being wildly driven across the Italian countryside to fish for boutique browns.
Northern Italy contains a portion of the Dolomites. As part of the typically limestone Southern Alps, the rivers that flow from the mountains down into the valleys below contain fishes that thrive in cold water ecosystems. The salmonids present are strains of the brown trout, with fish like the marble trout reaching incredible sizes on the Italian/Slovenian border. There are native fish to be had, and European fly fishers are engaged in conservation in ways not dissimilar to what we are used to in the States.
With only a day’s worth of time and a limited radius of travel, I knew that my options were limited. I wasn’t going to be venturing into the Alps in search of giant, exotic fish. But I had one request: native trout.
I’ve guided a little, but I’m far from an expert. The one thing that I do know is that the purpose of the guide is to give the client what they want. On smallmouth trips I had people that were perfectly content catching sunfish. I’d gently steer them towards flies and spots that would produce bass, and, in my mind, give them the most bang for their buck. But if they were resistant, I’d back down. Unless they’re going to wade over a waterfall, the customer is always right.
So again, maybe the language barrier was an issue. I figured there was no sense in being difficult in the middle of the woods in a foreign country (for a number of reasons), so I sucked it up and got ready to fish.
We’d been talking about the chance of fishing dries on the ride up. The sun was hitting the water and I did see a few little mayflies bobbing around the streambank. But nothing was rising in a consistent manner, so we agreed an emerger would be a good bet. The tackle, although a bit bulkier than what I was used to for small trout streams, was normal enough. The reel was set up for right hand retrieve, which wasn’t the end of the world but sure felt awkward. “Oh, yes. Many of us reel with right hands.”
I was quickly into a fish. The browns were feisty, pretty enough, and (presumably) good fighters. Each one was between twelve and fourteen inches, but didn’t really stand a chance against the heavy rod. In the moment, I wasn’t frustrated or bothered. It wasn’t like I could just pack up and go somewhere else. Plus, there were actively feeding fish in front of me. Maybe I’m not mature enough as a fisherman, but that situation is difficult to extract oneself from.
As I was fishing a riffle, my guide got a phone call. He gave me the “one second” finger and headed upstream. I caught and released a few fish, and he still wasn’t back. Then, I heard some noises in the bushes behind me. He was a pretty big, confident-striding Italian fellow. These noises were sneakier, lower, and unfamiliar. “Great,” I whispered out loud, “how ironic that I’m going to be eaten by a wild animal on the banks of a stocked trout stream.” I waded in a few extra steps. You know, for protection.
The rustling got louder, and I began to go through all of the bear-aversion tactics I’d read about. Make yourself bigger? Make noise? Go fetal? Grab a cub? (That last one wasn’t around at the time, but all fly fishers know that it is the latest in bear defense tactics.)
But are there even bears in Italy? And if so, do they even read the English edition of Field & Stream to know what methods of human behavior are supposed to shoo them off? And if not a bear, what creature could it be? I think there are wolves in Italian fairy tales. And its common knowledge that sasquatch are everywhere, so…
Just as my heart couldn’t take it and I was getting too deep for my canvas hip boots, I saw the source of the noise. A small woman, picking mushrooms. Crisis averted. Good thing I didn’t have bear spray on hand, otherwise I’d still be locked in the town stocks.
We smiled and waved, and as I got back to fishing my guide came around the river bend. “How is it? Any big trouts?” he asked. “Well, I have friends coming to fish. This will be good. Oh, yes!”
Guiding, it seems, is different in this part of the world. I’d soon find out that I didn’t know the half of it.
To be continued… here.