Wine & Fly Fishing

Do I have your attention? Undoubtedly two of the finest things in life for many a devoted FlyLife reader, and two very good reasons for an overseas trip. After more than 20 years of dedication to this publication, the Sloanes were overdue for long service leave and a week’s planned fly fishing in northern Spain quickly expanded to a three-week cultural odyssey, from San Sebastian on the Atlantic Coast, across the foothills of the Pyrenees to Collioure on the Mediterranean in the far south of France. But the focus of our trip of course was fly fishing, having been invited back to Spain by Ivan Tarin (Salvelinus). His suggestion of a combined wine and fly fishing tour had been readily accepted. Having recently established a small vineyard at home in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley and begun dabbling in our own small-scale wine production, the chance to visit vineyards and sample wine along the way was an added incentive. Having greatly expanded his business in recent years, Ivan now operates two dedicated fishing lodges, at Santa Cilia in the Western Pyrenees and Arén further east, with a fleet of new 4WD vehicles and an enthusiastic young team of specialist guides. Last visit we fished mostly the quintessential high alpine streams, catching small brook trout, browns and native zebra trout (see FL#69); this time our base was the recently refurbished lodge in Arén, with an emphasis on larger ‘trophy’ fish in the tailwaters and bigger rivers of the Pre-Pyrenees foothills. Salvelinus will happily arrange independent itineraries for the non-angling companion — everything from food and wine to mountain biking, mushroom hunting, kayaking and a host of wellness and fitness activities — but we chose to stick together and divide our time accordingly. All this meant only three days actually dedicated to fly fishing, and Ivan’s schedule for me was ambitious to say the least. A trophy brown trout was on top of his agenda, followed by a barbel on dry fly, some big tail- water rainbows and, of course, the region’s celebrated zebra trout. TROPHY BROWNS First on my list of seemingly Herculean tasks was that trophy brown — in northern Spain? And I’m not talking stocked ponds here but wild fish stationed in shallow, accessible broadwaters amidst waving banks of weed. A weighted attractor nymph under a buoyant foam dry was the method of the day, and persistence soon paid off — big time — with a series of remarkable captures. Five pounders were small, with the bigger fish tipping the scales at 8 to 10 pounds plus: extraordinary. I’ve trudged across Tasmania’s Western Lakes, scoured New Zealand’s backcountry rivers and ventured as far as the Chilean fiords without seeing better specimens. Twenty years of constantly exploring these Pyrenean waters has led Ivan to some remarkable discoveries, with very little interest or pressure from local fly anglers it would seem. Until recently even he had no idea that fishing like this existed in Spain. There was some debate between us as to whether these big recalcitrant browns were gathering on a feeding migration, early pre-spawning migration, or were moving into cooler oxygenated water to evade higher water temperatures further downstream (air temperatures were hovering around 30°C throughout our stay). Apparently the lakes on the bigger river systems are rarely if ever fished and no doubt harbour some untapped monsters. I certainly had never imagined catching browns of this size and quality in this part of the world. Ivan too seemed pleased with the first morning’s effort, the reward being wine and food to match, with our visit to a local vineyard focused on the biodynamic and organic principles being so successfully employed. Exceptional fly fishing and inspirational wine making. GOLDEN BONES Knowing this was more the style of fishing I was accustomed to, my assignment next day was to catch a ‘golden bone’ on dry fly. As Ivan explained, barbel present a great sight fishing challenge along the slower river edges and tail-out river flats. They are ultra spooky but will readily accept a well-presented buggy-looking dry. He warned me that they take oh-so-slowly — delaying the strike would be ‘imperatiffe’. On our arrival, the river we would be fishing was much higher than anticipated due to recent thunderstorms. We ended up having to slide down banks commando-style to target fish that we could see holding close to the rocky edges. Not exactly flats fishing but if I can see fish I don’t hold back, and my first-cast success was met with great jubilation. The fish battled hard in the unrelenting flow and when it came to hand its golden scales looked stunning in the watery sun. Ivan expressed amazement at the slowness of my strike, but when those big rubbery lips clamped shut on the foam bug there didn’t seem much doubt — and he did say to strike slowly! A first-cast fish is always a bad omen and the barbel did prove a little more tricky after that, but by the end of the session I had added yet another novel species to the list, with a ‘cacho’ (a native chub) taking the dry unexpectedly. The afternoon, or what little remained of it, was reserved for trophy rainbows and again we were successful with a very good-sized specimen joining another cacho and several smaller browns. But as Ivan knew well from my previous visit, swinging macho streamers on sinking lines in heavy water is not my favourite form of entertainment. He, on the other hand, at my insistence was happy to take the rod and keep fishing like a mad man while I photographed him in ‘extreme streamer’ mode. By this time Libby was in the shade somewhere, digesting an excessive lunch and thinking about dinner. Scheduled for 9:30 (they eat late in Spain), we were late as usual. ZEBRA TROUT My final task: zebra trout on light tackle. Hardly a task, this was a joy for me, and undoubtedly one of the greatest attractions for any fly fisher venturing beyond the foothills of the Pyrenees. Now extensively hybridized with introduced Atlantic brown trout, there are still some hidden strongholds of this endemic Mediterranean sub-species. For our last fishing day we headed back into the mountains in a nearby national park and spent an entertaining ‘morning’ taking it in turns, casting tiny dry flies and dry/nymph combinations at rising fish in sparkling runs. Ivan’s 3-weight outfit (Orvis Helios 3F rod and SA Short Belly Taper line) proved delightful to fish with — responsive and accurate and effortlessly turning over a 12-foot leader even with heavier bead-head nymphs. Encouraged by Ivan’s familiar affirmatives of good cast, good drift and Attentiffe! whenever my fly was in the zone, I still found the flatter runs and broader currents more conducive to my rusty riverine skills, whereas he revelled in the faster, turbulent pocket water. With many of the trout we caught showing the distinctive banded ‘zebra’ markings we had ticked the last box of a memorable fly fishing visit. Ivan referred to them as trout ‘athletique’ in recognition of their lightning fast rises and strong fight. He told me that their paler, silvery flanks reflect the water with the broad dark markings appearing like the stones on the streambed, making them so difficult to spot. Much to Libby’s relief we eventually concluded the session with the usual extravagant picnic lunch, at 5 o’clock! We were having too much fun… ARÉN LODGINGS At the end of our stay in Arén, Ivan was eager for feedback to improve service delivery and asked us to list personal highlights. On top of my list was the food. Perhaps surprising, after the fishing I have just described, but the meals at our Arén lodgings were sublime. The village itself is a cultural jewel and the renovated fishing lodge offers every modern convenience and all the attributes of the best European hotels, including newly appointed ensuite rooms and a fully equipped gym, spa and sauna. The dining room is a short stroll from the lodge, where chef Juan Antonio crafts the best local produce into diverse tasting plates and multi-course experiences with matching wines from the region. His culinary skills have been passed down through generations, the recipes all in his head and the inspiration his life’s passion. Vegetarian, gluten-free and other food preferences were readily accommodated with compatible dishes. “I think I have just died and gone to heaven,” was a phrase Libby repeated on several occasions each evening on tasting the first mouthful of dish after dish. Wild mushrooms, Iberian acorn-fed ham, calamari, asparagus, fresh tomatoes, soft cheeses, slow cooked beef tenderloin, tender baby lamb… Another pleasant surprise was sharing the lodge dining table and exchanging fishing stories at day’s end with young women rather than crusty old men. The latter were outnumbered 8 to 3 by female fly fishers at the time of our visit, with a hosted group from ‘Braided’ having travelled from across the United States. (Braided describes itself as a community of women coming together to learn, travel and fish together — see braidedflyfish.com) MORE WINING & DINING But there is more. With wine and cultural tours now very much the focus of the extended Salvelinus experience, our remaining time included wine appreciation and tastings at several impressive vineyards in the Somantano region. We were also treated to a memorable Michelin Star lunch with matching wines in spectacular surrounds. This was topped off by a nighttime tapas tour and morning cultural excursion hosted by Ivan’s partner Sara in Zaragoza, a remarkably elegant city with its legacy of fine architecture reflecting a turbulent history with Roman and Islamic influences and strong Catholic traditions. Our final hosted lunch in Zaragoza was another wonderful degustation with an emphasis on vegetable inspired dishes and wines to match. THE BEST OF BOTH We couldn’t fault the experience and it is not surprising that Salvelinus was endorsed as the 2018 Orvis International Destination of the Year. Based on our visits in 2012 and 2018, for the ultimate Pyrenees fly fishing experience we would recommend three days at each of the lodges (in Santa Cilia and Arén) to fully appreciate the diversity of fishing, scenic grandeur and cultural attractions of the Aragon and Catalan regions. There are of course many other places where great wine and fly fishing can be found, not least within our own wine growing districts in Australia and New Zealand, but for the ultimate combination and the cultural experience of a lifetime, I don’t think you could find better than in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. Thanks to Ivan and Sara for hosting our stay. For details visit salvelinus.com

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