Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fly fishing for native brown trout in Belgium

After I decided I wanted to see where brown trout come from and catch one in their native range I ran into a stone wall of information blockage on the internet.  There really is very little information about where to fish, the rules in each country and the rules regarding private and public land.  I first looked in Germany for places to fish.  A number of sources say there is no public water in Germany.  Each fishing spot requires a separate permit from a land owner and , of course, none were available online.  Plus, there apparently is no catch and release.  I have no idea how accurate any of this info is but that was what pushed me to a new area.  There was no way I was going to bring back trout to a hotel room or whatever I would have to do with the fish I caught.   France was a little too far away but Belgium was pretty close to Amsterdam, where I was traveling to first for a conference.    If you search for fly fishing in belgium you pretty much get one site.  Sebastien is the guide I worked with and he is an excellent fisherman.  He also specializes in river restoration and after seeing the size of the fish in the streams he guides I bet he is really good at that.  I fished the upper Bocq and La Molignée river.  The water was a little off color due to some rain so it was hard to tell how many fish were in the river.  If I had to guess I would say there were fewer trout than I am used to in both Minnesota and Colorado but they are much bigger on average.  The average fish was a husky 15 inches and there were very few smaller that I caught.  I managed to hook, fight and break off the biggest trout I have ever seen on this trip. 

 I got into position about 15 feet behind a rising trout.  The cast was awkward, like they all were on the upper Bocq.  I was fishing a emerger pattern on 5x that Sebastien ties.  It is very sparse and all black.  I managed a few casts, two of which were right over where the fish was rising, with no response.  Sebastien calls out, form the other side of the stream, I think he is eating caddis, do you have a dark caddis to tie on?  I did and I switched flies.  While I was tying on I got a better look at the fish during a rise.  It wasn't a whole body flip but just a sip of the surface film.  I saw what looked like an alligator head poke out of the water only an inch.  The head was as big as my fly box which made me wonder what this fish was interested in my #18 Elk hair caddis for.  Later I would regret not changing to a heavier tippet.  I laid out a cast right over the beast and again, just a sip.  I set the hook and it felt like I snagged a log.  Nothing.  barley a wiggle.  He settled down to the middle of the pool like a log.  Then, with a flick of the tail he was alive and all over.  He headed towards the bank Sebastien was standing on and I yelled NET, NET!!!! Sebastien said it was too early but he didn't realize how big the fish was.  Then he came up and flashed us broad side; he looked like the size of a king salmon.  Thick and at least 30 inches long.  He took line like a tarpon and headed up stream.  I got some back and it was going well.  Then, he headed for the overhanging roots of a big tree, Sebastien shouts Watch the roots!, a slight twinge of my line hand, unconsciously.  Snap.  I checked back and never saw a rise in that spot again.  I tried everything later and the next day in that spot.  Nothing.  Just another fish story to you but I know what happened and even though I didn't land him, it was awesome.  
There was an intermittent hatch of giant yellow may flies.  I just missed the  madness that hatch is supposed to bring.  
I'm not going to tell you its easy to find a place to fish in europe but it can be done.  My advise?  Get a guide, get a gps (I didn't have one), make reservations way ahead of time and book through Sebastien.  He was great and knows how to fish the area. I would have been skunked without him.   You will have to rent a car wherever you go and the freeways are very well marked and easy to get around on, the roads in town however are not really marked and you will get lost.  Other places I looked into but were too far away for me were Slovenia and the Black Forrest in Germany.  If you are going on a strictly fishing trip go to Slovenia.  If you are just on European vacation and want to fish for a few days book through Sebastien. Its great to get out of the cites and see the country side in Europe.  The south of Belgium is beautiful and there are hundreds of small towns to explore, great biking and lots of great restaurants to check out.  It really reminds me a lot of the bluff country in South eastern Minnesota except with Roman ruins, castles and better beer.   
Fish tended to rise in what Sebastien called special places.  See that tree on the left and that huge ball of roots? A fish was rising right in front of it.  As you can see below, I got him.  I used a down stream presentation with one of those monster yellow may fly patterns and he took it just after it sunk beneath the surface.  

Average size native brown on the upper  Bocq

There were 3 fish rising in this run.  My favorite part of the whole trip was working my way up and catching all three each larger than the last.  

The Bocq as it passes through the town of Spontin

Dinant just south of where I was staying in Ahnee.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Native Trout

A native brook trout stream in Minnesota.  This tiny spring creek was likely only spared brown trout infestation because of its size.  Somehow, fish have hung on here for hundreds of years.  

I have spent a lot of my time fishing for brown trout.  I started fly fishing in Minnesota where most streams or creeks that would historically have brook trout are now brown trout fisheries.  Only once in 6 years did I ever catch a brook trout in a stream where brown trout were abundant.  There are remnant populations of native brook trout and also newly resorted streams with stocked but wild brook trout but most of the trout or cold water habitat in Minnesota and the rest of the drift less region has been overrun with brown trout.  Mostly due to the water quality and slightly warmer than historical temperatures brook trout are no longer suited to survive in the drift less area streams and creeks.  At least, that's what the DNR and TU says.  My feeling is there is a lot of habitat that is good enough for brook trout but brown trout are a more desirable sport fish.  Since brook trout and brown trout both spawn in the fall there is a greater likelihood of interspecies competition for spawning beds.  A similar situation exists out west where the introduction of rainbow trout to cutthroat habitat has lead to a reduction in cutthroat numbers.  Each of these unnaturally cohabitating species can interbreed creating tiger trout in the case of a brook trout/brown trout cross and a cutbow in the case of a rainbow/cutthroat cross.   However, the tiger trout is sterile and the cutbow is fertile which makes introduction of rainbow trout to cutthroat habitat more damaging due to  genetic pollution of the native cutthroat population.  
A Native Minnesota brook trout

Heavily camouflaged brook trout.  Even the orange belly is hidden behind black pigment.  

All over the country in all types of water there are non-native species decimating native fish populations and it's all our fault.  We move fish from waterway to water way for many reasons.  Sometimes it is a handful of ignorant people who do the damage, like whomever put lake trout in Lake Yellowstone, and sometimes its the government  who imported brown trout from europe in the 1800's which lead to the decimation of countless brook trout populations nation wide.   My problem is that no one even knows what their local stream was like before we messed it up.  I live in Fort Collins, Colorado now and mostly fish the Cache de la Poudre river.  At one point, there were nothing but green back cutthroat trout in the Poudre as well as all other eastern slope streams like the Big Thompson, the South Platte and even the Arkansas.  Green back now occupy less than one percent of their native range.   Their once immaculate habitat invaded by rainbow and brown trout, damed and diverted into vestige of what it once was.   I often wonder what it must have been like before the front range grew to the point that mother nature needed some rearrangement to accommodate all the inhabitants.  I also realize I am part of the problem.  I moved here from Minnesota for many of the same reasons people from all over the country find the front range so appealing.  Ironically, it's the outdoor recreation opportunities that make Colorado so great.  For all the damage rainbow and brown trout have done to native fish I still enjoy catching them.  I felt like I needed a little more appreciation for brown trout.  Even though I scorn them for not even being native to this continent I feel like they have a place here now.  They entertain millions of anglers and are likely better suited to some of our warming and changing river ecosystems.  I decided I needed to see brown trout in their native habitat to better appreciate the species that has given me so much enjoyment and caused so much harm to our environment.   I recently got back from fishing the Bocq river in the south of Belgium where I was surprised to find the habitat was eerily similar to where brown trout thrive in Minnesota.