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Review: Fly fishing in Spain

Specialist Holiday

Iberia re-visited

  • By SilverTraveller Graham-Mole

    1 review

  • May 2012
  • Wife

145 people found this review helpful

Iberia to Utopia – a new angle on Spain?
Standfirst. It’s a fisherman’s dream  hundreds of rivers hosting thousands of fish. Graham Mole has an angler’s day in paradise.

Given the chance to create Utopia I'd start, like any game fisherman, by making the perfect river for trout and salmon. Cool, clear, water would gush from snow-capped mountains, tumble in torrents through rocky gorges, then slide serenely through wild flower meadows. It would be stuffed with fish hungry for my fly. Optional extras? A perfect climate, fabulous food and wine and cheaper prices than at home. Finally, I'd find a comfortable fishing pub with a knowledgeable and helpful landlord. Then I'd wake up, cursing that it could never be true. But it could be and it is – because I've been there. "There" is Asturias on Spain's Atlantic coast, the jewel in the crown of Green Spain and a fishing Valhalla.

It’s one of my top four fishing venues in Spain, but I know from friends and colleagues there’s a host of others. Why else would glorious Galicia be known as The Land Of A Thousand Rivers? But even Paradise is not bereft of problems … the fishing is governed by a myriad mass of rules. And the bailiffs carry guns … even just getting a licence can be a nightmare. Firstly, you must visit a government office to get the licence, then to a bank to pay for it and then back to the first office to finish the procedure. Even with my rough Spanish, I've done it four times but now there are a growing number of guide services so you don't have to bother with such things as licences, hotels or the right tackle. All that’s done for you. The wonderfully titled Gourmet Fly outfit has a network of guides and also operates in the Pyrenees – another stunning fishing experience. The service is particularly useful for a first trip when government literature can be confusing. One year, it said in English "Trout. From the first Sunday in March to the 15th of August." The Spanish leaflet – only issued locally - said no trout fishing until the 11th May." The truth was that you could fish the river Narcea for trout from April onwards — providing it was by spinning a dead minnow. The reasoning is that the Narcea is a prime salmon river and the ban on fly fishing until May protects the just-hatched salmon.

It's a legacy of Franco, a passionate salmon angler, that entire rivers can be rested so they stay pristine and host some seriously large fish. Angling is restricted on some river sections known as "cotos". They're signposted "Coto de Pesca" and to ensure they're not over fished, only three anglers a day are allowed on and they're allocated by a local "sorteo" or lottery. The crucial question for a visiting angler is how to fish. The answer is to adopt local methods. The locals use artificial flies, but unlike our single dry fly, they attach five to a plastic sphere called a "boya", or "buldo" from the French "bulle d'eau" meaning "water bubble". It’s a really easy method – any Spanish schoolboy could show you how. Oh yeah? Trying it before a growing crowd of villagers I was baffled by their amusement until a small lad politely pointed out I'd put it on upside down! Cue applause from the highly amused locals…. The Asturian rivers are idyllic, the stuff of dreams. In the river Sella, there are all three game fish, brown trout, sea trout and salmon, while brown trout populate the Cares-Deva, the Puron, the Bedon and Pilo?na. The Deva also has sea trout and salmon. There is a good spring run of salmon, sparklingly clean 55 cm fish averaging 12lbs. Trout average 25 cm, and sea trout 35cm.

On one of my first trips there I stayed at La Fuente Inn at Cornellana, near Oviedo but do try for a room at the rear since the front is near a busy main road. The fishing was superb and incredibly cheap though nobody ever did as well as the landlady who’d appear before breakfast with a basket full of trout she’d caught. She never did divulge her secrets nor did she ever tell me about a quaint local – and potentially lethal – custom. I'd waded thigh deep into the middle of the river there when all the locals started yelling frantically at me: "Abre Embalse". Somewhere upstream a huge dam had been opened and the water was rising fast. I never thought I could waddle so fast in my waders back to shore. For lovers of Rioja wine (is there anyone who isn’t?) the place to go is up the 100-odd hairpin bends to the mountain womb of the river Najerilla. At first, white water crashes down the crags, then glides through the rocks, surging through the limestone walls of a gorge, urgently seeking the plain. Thirty kilometres downstream it reaches the wine capital, Logrono. There I met the river’s saviour, the then 70 year old judge, Theodore Sabras. After 25 years of single-minded determination and diplomacy, he’d saved it -
to be shared by fishermen world-wide.

He told me “I wanted to create a brotherhood of fishermen, people who think as I do. Those who care for rivers will always be welcome here.” For centuries the valley’s trout had been ruthlessly abused by the locals for the fish were a lifeline, a larder to be used. When hotels in Logrono asked for 150 trout they got them the next day. Poaching was a way of life. Judge Sabras saw the future and hated the vision. He explained “I had to repay nature for the favours she’s showered on us. She gave us such beauty. We couldn’t just throw it away.” So, using his judge’s influence, the local fishing society, of which he was president, got a ten year contract to manage just over 13 miles of river in the valley on behalf of the State. Now it flourishes, though the fishing is challenging and the routine is hardly English orthodox. You need to be fishing by 7a.m. because before the sun gets into the valley is when there’s a lot of fishy activity. After a brief flurry of flies that gets the fish feeding around lunchtime there’s little point in fishing again until around 7 or 8pm when you can go through to dark at about ten in June. It’s a highly recommended exercise before a three, maybe four, course dinner starting around 10.30pm. An afternoon siesta after a glass or three of Rioja is no hardship. Not that much further on is the river Irati which flows down from the Pyrenees to Pamplona and was a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway.

Park near the great man’s statue, then pop across the road for one of his favourite meals - trout bleu. Mindblowing. Hemingway fished the river with a worm but the locals employ a metal spinner. Using my English method – an artificial fly on the end of my line – I found it a huge challenge since the river is so rapid, the fish so quick. I should have persisted with the local method which is obviously deadly. Why else would the limit be 22 fish a day, compared to England’s normal four? But what of Asturias and Galicia? Last September I flew into Santander, winced at the Hertz prices and drove west through both provinces to Santiago de Compostela and flew back from there. As we now know Spain suffered with lack of rainfall and the rivers were badly hit. Also the main season finishes at the end of August though September fishing is allowed as long as you don’t take fish home. It’s called “sin muerte” or “without death.” The advantage of these stretches is that because the Spanish fish for the pot the rivers are barely used at all – ideal for tourists. But they’re not always the best. One stretch went through the middle of a small town, was pretty obviously a target for poachers and turned a pretty lurid shade of orange in late afternoon.

Another reason for using guides, one of which Stewart Akhurst is now specialising in Asturias. The best stroke of luck came in finding Jose Alberto Concha owner of the Montemar hotel in Llanes, the base for Brittany ferries’ fly fishing tours. He got me a licence and permission to fish a river high up in the Picos to Europa. His ‘it’s a great road’ turned out to be a white knuckle drive through the mountains, often just inches from a drop of hundreds of feet. But worth it. In Campo de Caso the river Nalon wound its way through gorges and, in one case, actually went through the mountain. A goat’s neck bell echoed into the canyon from which the river emerged. Did I dare go through? Perhaps not. What the September trip did prove was the old military adage that time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. Next time I’ll go in the spring or early summer, I’d probably favour just Asturias over Galicia, I’d certainly take the advice, if nothing else, of a guide and, because the 7 page rule book changes every year, get someone familiar with the regulations to obtain my licences for me. Can’t wait!

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