The waters of the Soča River valley are home to gorgeous marble trout, rainbows, and Adriatic grayling.
[by Philip Monahan]
The email from my friend in Slovenia, Matt Calderaro, had a pretty humdrum subject line: “to bring.” But when I opened the email, I had to read it a couple times before I fully comprehended what Matt was telling me.
Can you bring some BIG bunny flies steelhead style with stinger hooks . . . in white, yellow, black, or green . . . found us a meter-plus fish . . . it’s waiting for you! Perhaps an 8-wt, as well. I know that a meter is about 39 inches, so it seemed that he was trying to tell me that he had found a marble trout over 40 inches long. That just didn’t make any sense. A 40-inch salmon? Okay. A 40-inch steelhead? Sure. But a 40-inch trout? That just seemed crazy. I dutifully went to my local fly shop and picked up some steelhead patterns, but I didn’t really believe I’d need them.
THE NEW FRONTIER
Matt and I have been pals since 2010, when he was a product developer at Orvis, and we’d been talking about fishing together since the spring of 2013, when he opened Soča Fly, a fly shop and outfitting operation in the sleepy village of Kobarid, Slovenia. After leaving Orvis, Matt and his family moved to his wife’s native Germany, and he began surveying the fishing opportunities in much of Europe. Ultimately, he fell in love with the Soca River valley (pronounced SO-cha) and planted his flag in Kobarid.
In recent years, a few spectacular videos from Slovenia have raised the country’s profile as a top-notch fly fishing destination, and I was champing at the bit to check out the region’s stunning blue waters and legendary marble trout. Matt’s new venture offered the perfect excuse, so I set out on the last day of May—accompanied by my high school buddy and New York–based photographer Sandy Hays.
We got our first glimpse of the brilliant-blue Soca soon after entering Slovenia and had coffee in the scenic village of Kanal ob Soči, where we saw our first trout—a few big rainbows feeding lazily under a gorgeous 100-year-old arched bridge. Another half hour down the road, and we were in Kobarid, which sits in a bowl surrounded by mountain peaks, the highest of which is Mount Krn, at 7,400 feet.
THE WHITE WHALE
I awoke the next morning to a gorgeous view from my window in Pri B’zjak, the comfortable row house just up the street from Soča Fly, where Sandy and I stayed. The valley was awash in the pink light of dawn, which seemed to bode well for the day’s fishing. As Matt drove us downriver, he began to regale us with tales of this 40-plus-inch marble trout he found, preparing us for the task at hand. But by that point, I was fully convinced he was exaggerating, as outfitters and lodge owners are wont to do when describing their fisheries. We took a right at Most na Soči and headed up the Idrijca River (pronounced EEdreet-sa, with a bit of a rolled r). It was clear that this was a beautiful piece of water, featuring riffles, deep pools, and long runs. It seemed custom made for trout. Approaching the last known location of this allegedly monster fish, Matt told us to stay away from the water’s edge and move slowly. But when we got to the pool, the huge marble was nowhere to be found. Quelle surprise. Suspicions confirmed.
However, there were three very big fish in the 25-inch range-holding in the pool, so the adrenaline started pumping. The problem was these marble trout chose the perfect place to guarantee their safety. The pool was perhaps 30 yards long and too deep to wade. To make matters worse, the banks were overrun with overhanging trees and bushes on our side, and a rock wall on the other.
There were no bugs to bring the fish to the surface, so we had two options: make Hail Mary casts with a streamer from the top of the pool and try to get a swing in front a fish, or wade up to the tops of our waders at the bottom of the pool and try casting a nymph upstream of the fish. Both approaches proved exhausting and maddening, and neither produced a strike all morning.
While packing up our gear to head downstream, Matt suddenly whispered, “Holy $*%#, there she is.” There in the middle of the pool was the largest trout I have ever seen. I spent three years guiding in Alaska, so I’ve seen my share of big trout, including a humongous 34-inch rainbow. But this fish was bigger. . . much bigger. I learned later that the largest marble trout caught on a fly in Slovenia measured 47.2 inches and weighed 49 pounds.
Because of the blue hue and depth of the water, we couldn’t see any detail, just a dark torpedo-shaped mass cruising along the bottom. Suddenly, it was all hands to the pumps as we again unpacked fishing gear and camera equipment, formulated a game plan, and set out to hook the beast. Sandy was our spotter on the bank as I headed upstream and Matt waded in below. We had all the same challenges as before, but the possibility of catching what seemed to be the biggest trout in the world made us redouble our efforts to make a good presentation. At one point, I found myself casting as far as I could quartering downstream, feeding another 50 feet of line into the drift, and then frantically mending downstream to try to swing the fly in front of the fish . . . to no avail.
Then we lost sight of her again.
A bit dejected, we headed downstream, swinging streamers for rainbow trout in the faster water, when Sandy landed a nice one, about 17 inches. He has a habit of catching fish on days when I’m struggling, which I find somewhat annoying, but it was good to get the skunk off for the trip. Just as we were finishing our late lunch, it started to rain, so we packed up for the hike out.
When we passed the hole where the huge trout had been, we scanned the water, but it was nowhere to be found. We decided we’d come back the next morning to try again. It seemed an impossible task, but it was just too hard to give up on such an amazing fish.