June 8th, 2019
Exactly 2 months in advance of my trip to Cluj, I did an internet search and found Fly Fishing Romania firstname.lastname@example.org at www.flyfishingromania.com. I immediately got an email response back from Smaranda Neagoe. We went back and forth trying to figure out a day that I could fly fish because of my crazy schedule while in Cluj. Smaranda wrote beautiful English so it was easy to plan. I didn’t learn until I got to Romania that Smaranda was a female. That “S” is really soft in the Romanian language so her name pronounced sounds more like “Maranda”. Smaranda (and everyone else involved at fly fishing Romania) made the entire experience one of the best out of country fly fishing experiences I have ever had. And get this. The costs of fishing guided for a full day (9am to 7pm, btw) with two hot meals was less than ½ of what it costs in Montana.
My goal was to catch my very first European Grayling. Check that off the bucket list. I think I caught 30+ of them.
All in all, I think I caught 50+ fish. I caught 20 or so brown trout (the ones that are actually native and wild to Europe). And one fish that my guide, Alin Hiriscau, called a “lake trout”. But, it didn’t look like what we in the states call a lake trout at all (which in the US is a huge char). It looked like a rainbow or land-locked salmon (kokanee).
It got ridiculous at points; fish on every “cast”. Granted, many of them were tiny. But, European Nymphing, like Tenkara, is wildly effective. It’s like raking the river inch by inch. I’m not totally bought into the European nymphing thing yet. The drifts are so short so you end of “casting” thousands of times. it can be tiresome lifting the rod and rolling a 10 foot “cast” over and over so I frequently changed hands. …and quickly learned I’m a terrible set with my opposite hand. In Euro-nymphing, you use a 10 foot rod or greater. The casts are not as much casts as they are flips of the leader; only 10 feet out of the rod tip up stream to about 45 degrees. The goal is to dribble your “euro-nymphs” across the river bed while trying to keep tension on the line. Yes you are hooking fish just 5-10 feet in front of where you are standing. These fish are not spooky to wading.
But, I barely knew anything about European Nymphing. That is until I met my guide Alin Hiriscau . Alin picked me up at my hotel in Cluj and drove me all the way out to Doda Pilii (a tiny city) in the Carpathian Mountains in Apuseni National Park to the Somesul Cald River (translated as Warm Somes River…which it is not). 2 hours both ways. It was a beautiful drive.
Alin and I had a great time talking nature and fishing all the way out to the national park. As it turns out Alin Hiriscau is an accomplished competition fly fisherman. Competition fly fishing is not so big in the US at all (although we have a team that I’m told by Alin is pretty good), but it’s huge in Europe. Most of what I have read about competition fly fishing in the US magazines is negative because the competitors end up nymphing only with squirmy worms and mop flies. There is certainly no fly-fishing integrity in that type of fishing. But, Alin on the other hand is a naturalist with huge knowledge of not only the fish and where they lie but also the entomology. That I do respect; I learned a lot from him that day.
After stopping at the local game warden’s house for a fishing license, we wadered up by Alin’s car and hit the water. The river was beautiful and its size was exactly my type of water: crossable almost everywhere.
Where he had me start casting was a shock. Right at the put in; 6 inches of water in a tiny riffle on the edge of the river. I thought to myself there is no way in hell fish are holding in that water so I figured maybe he wanted to practice the euro-nymph “cast”. But, sure enough I got struck immediately and did the trout set I’m used to….snapping the fish off. hmmm… I asked him “is this smaller than 7x?” as if it wasn’t my fault; which it was. And he told me “We don’t use that 3x / 5x thing here in Europe. We do it by diameter.” I stared closely at the tippet. My guess: 7x. I just screwed it up by setting hard like I would on 3x in Montana. but, within a couple more casts I backed down my adrenaline and had caught, landed and released my first small grayling.
And that is the big trick of success for the European Grayling: Reading the water. I’m terrible at it. I still can’t figure it out. But, Alin told me where to cast and that is where I did. And every time I said to myself, “you are kidding?” and every time I did. And every time he was right. The European grayling held in the most bizarre stretches of water. In many cases we ignored what I would call typical water that held trout completely and fished slow moving, skinny riffles.
Well, it wasn’t 20 minutes before we saw a rise. I brought my custom Jack Duncan made Winston B3 LS 5 wt and much to my pleasure Alin tied on a parachute adams. I made the 30 foot cast and within minutes we had a grayling to hand. My first grayling on a dry. There was some hooting, hollering, and fist bumping from the both of us on that one. That is when I knew the day was going to be special. We carried two rods (one for dries and one for euro-nymphing) and every time we saw a dry we switched: The tell-tale sign of a good guide. An awesome day for me.
We were around 3 hours into fishing when Alin got a call. it was Smaranda. Of whom I had not met yet. The group of six Englishman that she was guiding were not doing as well as me. I can’t imagine one guide managing 6 people. So, Alin asked if he could go help them up river and I gladly agreed. I was looking forward to a little alone time with the knowledge I gained from Alin. He pointed out the places I should fish while he was gone so I did…and I did well. we were supposed to meet at the bridge up stream but, by when I got there no one was at the meeting point at the time we agreed. Not a problem. that was an opportunity for me. I fished up stream of the bridge and absolutely killed. Fish after fish after fish. So fun.
When Alin did catch up with me, It was time to do lunch and I had already caught so many fish I could have called it a day easily. We hiked back into Alin’s car and then drove up stream to “the lake”. That is when I learned the river, was not a tailwater, but a headwater that drained into a huge dammed lake. We pulled up on a gazebo on a gated house property and walked up to 6 Englishman sitting at a picnic table drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and cigars. It was too perfect. When I got within 20 feet I said something like, “Is a lowly American allowed to hang out with you guys?” that got the expected laugh and within seconds I was handed one of their beers. …which quickly became two… and they were “tall-boys”. Does that sound like me or what?
Well, these 6 Englishmen, a bit north of me in age were the most fun group of guys I have met in years. they were on an annual fly fishing guys trip they had been doing for some 45 years. They were all from Northern England; the Norfolk area. And their accents were so strong many times I had trouble understanding them. I’m sure I sounded funny to them too. With some form of awesome home-made soup and bread for lunch we laughed and laughed to the point where I could comfortably call them limely bastards and you can imagine the trash talking I was getting from them about being American and our current president. We weren’t in any rush, but Alin (and I) wanted to start the afternoon session so Alin told me we were going up stream farther than before. On the way though he stopped for a car going the other way. so we got out to say hi. I didn’t figure it out immediately but, it was Smaranda’s husband Liviu (spelling?). She had mentioned she was hoping we could meet so I was pleased. Well, we immediately hit it off. He has the same excited fly-fishing passion I do. But, he was needed to help guide the Englishman so off he went back to the lunch site to gather them up.
Alin and I hit the river. Well we tried to. it was a bushwhack…which I normally love. But, I didn’t bring my simms G4Z waders (heavy duty). I brought really cheap light weight wading pants which I love…but are too fragile / thin for bushwhacking. I was careful as I could be not to rip them as I followed Alin, hopping trees and and ducking under branches. I guess they had quite the storm in the winter that knocked down many of the trees. When we got to the water it was not like anything we had seen earlier… it looked much more like trout water of the west, heavily forested with pools and pockets. Alin and I did well; on both nymphing and dries.
Then it was time for him to help the Englishmen again. This time he told me to fish up stream alone…that I was headed towards great water and that he’d circle back in an hour or 2 to track me down. Awesome. I get to fish alone in a beautiful forested river. And the trout are rising. He left me with both rods and frankly I should have told him to just take the euro nymping rod with him because I had done so well there was no reason not to dry fly for the rest of the day….which I did. and I did well without him.
I could see a fisherman working his way downstream towards me about 200 yards up stream. That was a surprise because I literally was in the middle of nowhere. I did see a rise upstream and targeted a 45 foot cast. Whack! It was a bigger fish that rose to my dry. And I quickly realized it was going to be my best battle of the day. because of the way it fought I could tell it was a big grayling. When I did get it close it did something really non-trout like that almost caused me to lose it. it stopped fighting then lunged at me and circled around me from the back. That motion from fighting on the left to behind me without me turning to fighting on the right had to look really awkward to the fisherman working his way towards me. but I did manage to land it and release it still pissed off. I’d say 14-15” which is big for that river.
When I looked up the fisherman was waiting about 100 feet up doing that polite fly-fishing thing we do not to spoil my water. It was one of the Englishmen! It was then that I noticed another rise out of the corner of my eye on the left. I called and motioned him to me. I have more fun guiding than fishing so I told him, “There is a fish right there rising. I want you to catch him.” He fought me on it. Which is expected from the gentlemen that are fly fisherman. But, I handed him my dry fly rod and insisted. But, it was going to be a tricky, truly expert cast, to hit a 4 foot drift protect upstream by a plunge pool guarded by rocks and downstream by branches in the water. So I emphasized how difficult the cast would be and not to worry about the flies. That I had hundreds of them. His first cast worked. Unfortunately I don’t believe he had the confidence that a fish would rise because when it did he wasn’t ready and set just a split second too late. To me that is a win so I was hooting and hollering and screaming “Woo!” I think I said something like, “I bet we can get him to rise again.” And man we worked it hard. He made a number of casts. Some good; some not so good. We may have lost a fly or two to the bushes and branches. I don’t remember, but I would have tied another one on quickly. And sure enough he did get the fish to rise again and this time his downstream set was fine. But darnit, sometimes that hook just comes out pointed inward and doesn’t catch. I was still hooting and hollering because it’s hard to get the same fish to rise twice. But, I could tell he was disappointed. I was not. I called that a win. I think we casted at it a few more times, but that grayling was not dumb enough to be fooled 3 times so he went downstream; I went up. and we agreed to toast to it later at the house.
As I worked my way upstream I caught one more on the dry. I was approaching water that Alin told me was the best in the river. It was a plunge pool. deep for this river. It was truly nymphing water, but I wanted to stick to my self-agreement of dries only for the rest of the day. It didn’t work. and that was fine. It wasn’t long after that Alin tracked me down. We fished our way upstream bit and did well. It was now 7pm. He said, “We can fish until it’s too dark to fish if you’d like.” Can you imagine a guide from Montana saying that?! I could have easily. I had the stamina and my guess is the rises would get better. But, we were invited to dinner and cocktails with the Englishmen and that seemed the like the right thing to do. As it turned out it was the fun thing too. They poured me their gin and we ate and laughed and told fishing stories. Me and Liviu talked forever about rods and fishing. we are “two peas in a pod” me and Liviu. As it turns out he’s actually a surgeon in Zurich and does the fly fishing business on the side with his wife because of his love for it. The clock was ticking, though, and we had a long drive back to cluj. So I shook hands with the Englishmen. I hugged Smaranda and Liviu promising to return (I will) and telling them that they are welcome in our house any time and that I would take them to the Sierras.
If you find yourself in the Cluj area on business or on vacation I strongly suggest you contact Smaranda at Fly Fishing Romania email@example.com / www.flyfishingromania.com. I give my day 14 hour day a 10 out of 10. I learned there that they have cabins they rent and are building in the area to provide a full lodge like experience. So, the next time I go to Cluj I’m definitely going to book a house with them and do a long weekend with Kelly and our Romanian friends in Cluj. Alin told me there are so many more rivers there I need to fish….