When American anglers think of places to fish that offer privacy because they are hard to access, Europe wouldn’t normally come to mind. But, perhaps it should, since the vast majority of its rivers are either closed to outsiders or accessible only with fishing permits or an owner’s permission, which can be difficult and expensive to obtain. Consequently, some of the best and least fished trout streams extant are in densely populated European countries. The fine rivers of Patagonia and New Zealand are probably better known to many American anglers than those of continental Europe. A pity.
I love my grandchildren for many reasons but not usually because they help me get in more quality fishing. But here I was a few springs ago, nodding off, when Ann said “By the way, the kids are taking the twins to Germany for a christening in the fall and I think that we should go.” Bless those twins. For our family, Germany means Bavaria, so I was soon on the internet looking for fishing opportunities in that beautiful region. They’re not that easy to find without help. Fortunately, a few years earlier I had met some anglers from the Munich Split Cane Fishing Club, which controls water on over twenty rivers in Southern Germany. I contacted Gerhard Hoerl, a member, and he suggested a few rivers where he thought daily permits might be available and, better yet, said that over a weekend he could fish with me as his guest on Club waters.
The day after the christening we traveled to Munich with a group of family members to attend Oktoberfest – a 17- or 18-day event ending in early October that for over 200 years has brought gourmands and inebriates to the Bavarian capital to pig-out on beer, wine, fowl, wursts, pretzels and other regional dainties. It was the third day of the festival, and we were told that over the initial weekend a new record had been set as more than one million liters of beer were consumed. This was inspiring news and we all pledged to start quaffing early and do our part to set the new record for a Monday.
Oktoberfest is held in a 250-acre public park in the center of the City. There are 14 large beer tents and 20 small ones – with total seating for over 100,000 rotund people – owned and operated by six different Bavarian breweries. There is also an amusement park with some of the tallest and scariest rides that I’ve seen. Some of the tents are the size of airplane hangars, with the largest seating nearly 10,000 people. In a cellar under each large tent is a complete brewery, which is how so much beer can be kept fresh for well over two weeks. Many of the local men wear traditional lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, and many of the women wear dirndls that score well on the cleavage meter. Traditionally, an observant man can learn much of interest about a woman by noting the placement of the bow on her dirndl. The beer and the music start early in the day and continue into the following morning. We arrived about 11 AM and left in the late afternoon exhausted from eating, drinking and singing. By that time, most of the people in the tents seemed at least giddy, if not besotted, standing on tables and singing traditional German songs, mixed in with American classics and pop. Oktoberfest is an exciting event to see and enjoy, though for us, one day sufficed. We must have done our part, because we later learned that over the total entire festival more than 7 million liters of beer were consumed – a new record.
That evening Ann and I, despite being a bit lethargic from our intemperate eating and drinking, met Gerhard for dinner to talk about fishing and the upcoming weekend. Gerhard said that he had reserved Club water on the Lech River, in the foothills of the Alps south of Munich. He said that the Lech, which originates in Austria near the town and popular ski resort of the same name, was a tailwater (i.e., emerging from under a dam) and a particular favorite of his, with a good population of large trout that could usually be caught on streamers – flies that are stripped through the water to resemble minnows. I reacted, a bit impudently, “Do other methods also work there?”
“Why? How do you like to fish?”
Ann scowled at me, but I persisted. “Well, I prefer dry flies, perhaps with a nymph as a dropper.” Then, finding just a smidgen of grace, “But, hey, I’m a guest and I’ll be happy to fish any way that works. Just seeing new rivers is always exciting.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Our options of water for guests are often limited.”
The next morning, I dropped Ann off at the airport to return to the States, and headed about two hours south to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a lovely ski town nestled under the imposing Zugspitze which, at nearly 10,000 feet, is the highest mountain in Germany. Garmisch is familiar to many older Americans, because it was a major U.S. military base after WWII. I had reserved a day’s fishing on a section of the Loisach River that is controlled by a hotel.
Before fishing, I went to the Rathaus (town hall) to acquire a license. In order for a German to get a fishing license, he or she must take an extensive and expensive course on fishing and ecology (including a session on the proper way to kill a fish) over several months, and then pass a test, but this requirement is waived for tourists. Gerhard told me that the clerk would probably require me to present a fishing license from the States as proof that I knew how to fish (of course, it’s not), but the clerk didn’t seem to care and sold me a 3-month license for all of Germany for $22, which is less than I would have paid in most of our states.
Germany is noted for its profusion of rules and fishing is no exception. The earliest rules for fishing in Bavaria were published in 1553. Today the rules mandate that caught fish must be killed. This requirement results from a law that forbids the torture of animals, and it has been deemed “torture” to catch a fish merely for fun. But it’s all right to catch a fish and kill it – presumably a need for food trumps cruelty. An exception allows the release of small fish so, in effect, only babies can be tortured – a strange anomaly. An odd corollary of the law is that live fish cannot be used as bait – they must be killed first. My observation is that the “mandatory kill” law is observed by German fly fishers much in the same way that the 80 miles per hour speed limit is observed on their autobahns, where cars traveling over 125 miles per hour are common, and even speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour are not rare.
The day I spent on the Loisach was pleasant, with a few fish caught, but not memorable. The next morning, I drove east about two hours to the small German town of Siegsdorf, near Salzburg, Austria, to fish for three days on the Traun River, not to be confused with the Austrian Traun, a more famous river that is 70 miles farther east. Fishing permits on the German Traun cost about $70 a day, and are controlled by Rudi Heger, who operates a fly shop.
Heger requires anglers who purchase a permit to sign a form acknowledging that they understand that an angler is allowed to kill one fish, but if he does so he must immediately stop fishing for the day. Presumably, no one who buys a permit will want to quit fishing unless it is at the end of the day. But German law does not allow the release of a fish. So, it seems that one is compelled to choose between breaking either Heger’s rule or the German law. When I asked him how to solve this conundrum, Heger responded “You must decide for yourself, but you should know that we patrol the River and will enforce our rules, but the Government does not”. Enough said.
The first day, my beat was upstream from the town, where the river was small. I caught a half dozen smallish fish, mostly on nymph droppers off a dry fly. A pleasant day though, frankly, nothing special. But the email from Gerhard was, saying that he had gotten permission from the Club President to take me to the Club’s best dry fly river – the Ammer – where guests are almost never permitted to fish. I felt a bit selfish (for a nanosecond) that he had changed his plan on my account, but was glad that he had done it.
The second day I fished a lovely arm of the Traun that meandered through the woods, with nice runs and pools. The only negative was that much of it flowed close to the busy autobahn between Munich and Salzburg, and the traffic noise was palpable. However, the stream was so enchanting that soon the dull roar faded into background noise and went unnoticed. I had an excellent day, catching about a dozen nice fish on dry flies, the largest being a brightly spotted 18” brown trout.
The final morning, I was a bit disappointed when my assigned beat was in the village, near the fly shop. After an uninteresting hour or so, as I was walking along the path above a high sloping bank, I peered down and saw a good fish finning between two boulders, within a foot of the bank. I slowly backtracked, then slid on my butt the 15 feet or so down the bank and moved out into the water where I could cast upstream to the now unseen fish. On the third cast the fish rose, turned downstream and took the dry fly after it had passed over him. I forgot about patience, struck too quickly for a downstream take and, although I momentarily had the fish on, the hook pulled out. Damn! It was larger than I had realized.
I climbed back up the high bank and resumed walking and looking for other fish among the boulders that lined the stream’s edge. Over the next several hours I spotted three more nice fish, and was able to get one to take, which I carelessly lost in the same manner. The other two fish were not enticed by my offerings. About mid-afternoon I spotted a fish that looked to be a bit larger than the others, and repeated my routine. This time when it took the fly I waited to strike and the hook held. It ran fifty feet upstream and jumped three times, but I was able to land the lovely 22” rainbow. I was euphoric.
I continued stalking the bank until dusk and saw two more good fish, but could not get them to take. So, I had fished almost the entire day in a short stretch of maybe 200 yards, cast to seven large fish that I could see, hooked three and landed one. Perhaps, to some, a dull day, but for me a day of intense and sweet delectation that I won’t forget.
The next day, I drove, in a steady rain, west about two and a half hours to meet Gerhard for dinner in the small village of Steingaden, where we would be staying. It continued raining much of that night. We awoke the next morning to overcast skies and a light drizzle, and headed for the Ammer. I could see that it was a beautiful river – a series of pools and riffles, of a good size, and with a long section running through a deep canyon. We parked and walked through a field to a large pool that Gerhard said was full of fish. The water was high and dirty from the rain, and getting higher and dirtier by the minute. Gerhard quickly decided that the river would be impossible with dry flies, and that the only river that would be fishable was the Lech, because it’s a tailwater and we could fish with streamers. Perhaps my just desserts for being so brazen.
The Lech below the reservoir, is a big river, perhaps 60-75 yards across with a gentle current. Because the River emerged from under the dam, it was clear. The warm, overcast and drizzly weather conditions were perfect for fishing. As we started to walk down to the water’s edge, we spotted something that Gerhard said was unusual – a few dimples from rising fish well out into the current. I put on a small dry fly and began casting to one of them. The fish took and I soon landed an 18” brown trout. Gerhard immediately shifted his thinking from streamer to dry fly. A remarkable two days of fishing ensued. On a river that rarely produces good dry fly fishing, we fished exclusively with dry flies only to rising fish, and caught many fine browns, rainbows and grayling. A half-dozen exceeded 20” in length. The fly hatches were steady, and the variety of flies was impressive. It was as good as any dry fly fishing that I have experienced, and the fact that it was so unusual enhanced the enjoyment. After the two days, Gehard thanked me for coming, since otherwise he would never have been there to witness and experience great dry fly fishing on the Lech.
The Lech and some other central European rivers that flow into the Danube hold huchen, a trout-like fish that is, surprisingly, also found in Mongolia, where it is called a taimen. Huchen are rarely seen, as they stay deep in the largest pools. With rare exception, the anglers who catch huchen are those who are fishing specifically for them. Club guests are not permitted to fish for huchen, and a member who lands a huchen must report it, along with all of the details as to location, size, fly, etc., to the Club president within 24 hours. After we stopped fishing for trout at the end of each day, we walked to a spot that was 15-20 feet directly above the spillway of the dam where the water dumped out into a roaring maelstrom, and where Gerhard said huchen would sometimes lurk several feet below the surface, hoping to dine on a trout that is feeding carelessly. Casting from our perch, he ripped a six-inch long streamer through the turbulent water for ten minutes. His first cast coaxed up a giant rainbow trout that might have weighed ten pounds. Gerhard dismissed that impressive fish, saying “I want to catch the fish that will eat that fish.” But the leviathan did not appear that day, or the next. I couldn’t figure out how Gerhard could possibly land one from our position so far above the water, though he expressed total confidence.
Bavaria is a lovely region of lush green valleys, rugged mountains and charming villages. If you are there, and inclined to fish, it is well worth making the effort to secure the required permits.