By Bob Bradley
You know the saying we fishermen have “Oh, you should have been here last week!” well for once I
was there last week; ‘there ’ being the upper Avon in Wiltshire and you know what? The fishing was
hopeless! And to cap it all, a few days after I got back, my buddy on the other end of the phone-line
sitting in his office 250 miles south of here, was now telling me that the mayfly was just building up
nicely and would be great in a week or two’s time. So, now, that would be: “Oh, you should be here
next week, or the week after”- if you follow me. In short, I had been too early; and not for the first
time this spring; I’d been too early once before already.
A couple of months or so before that mayfly debacle we had tried to jump-start the season by
nipping over to Italy to bag a few trout and grayling on the dry fly in Tuscany and Umbria with my
friend Luca Castellani. This would be before the season got underway over here in ‘Blighty’; before
the March brown’s stirred in the Usk, before the large olives seduced the first Eden trout of the year
from their winter reverie, and well before those green drakes reminded the trout down south that
“‘banker’s hours’ are just fine this month dear boy”.
I love those Italian streams and I thought I had worked it all out and it would be perfect; steady
temperatures and steady flows that carry plenty of bugs, and gently rising fish that seem happy to
play the game of upstream dry fly. On the Tail-Water Tevere in Tuscany, or the Nera in adjacent
Umbria, you can wade gently upstream picking off fish as you go or you can spend hours quietly
working on one fish, tapping away, changing fly, watching the fish’s response and repeatedly asking a
slightly different question with olive, sedge, stonefly or midge until you get the answer you want, or
you pile in a bad cast and blow the whole thing. But even then, all may not be lost; just stay put and
wait, tail water fish often return and start rising again just as before; give ‘em ten or twenty minutes.
And that’s why I like this sort of fishing, it’s quiet and relaxing, one can take one’s time; it’s warm, the
air is still and there’s no pressure. It’s also a great way to watch fish behaviour and their reaction to
different flies and presentations and OK, it’s also great in the evening to retire to the bars and
restaurants, with great food, great wine and watch the bella signoras. It’s what fly fishing is all about;
so pleasant you could do it in bed…So in late March, a week before the London Fly Fishing Fair, The
Doctor (my fishing companion of 25 years) and I left snow-bound London at 7 O’clock on a freezing
Monday morning on a flight to Perugia. Francis of Assisi airport, Umbria sounds dreamlike and Luca
would be waiting to take us to quiet waters and days of lazy rising trout.
But, oh how wrong we were, as we landed the runway was wet; there were puddles – we don’t allow
puddles just north of Rome even in March – but there they were. And there was Luca, looking moist!
There was only one thing to do, lunch, and anyway it had started to pour down. So we headed for a
3* cafe and watched the workers of Perugia partake of their mid-day meals: pasta, wild boar, rare
beef, lamb cutlets, roast peppers, sumptuous salads the full nine yards, all with Chianti and double
espresso to follow. How the hell they work in the afternoons I can’t imagine, perhaps they just go
fishing, we did, just for the last few hours on a local stillwater – the rain had rattled off down the
valley leaving a half-blue sky – so we went off and caught fish, plenty of them too.
But next day the rain had returned. We were meant to fish the Santa Susanna, a crystal clear, chalk
stream like spring creek that is stacked up with huge trout that rise even on the darkest of winter
days. But spring dry fly in a deluge is no fun; dry fly in a deluge is wet fly!
It definitely looked as if we were too early! Again!!
Then Luca drops his bombshell:
“Let’s go catch some lake trout in the mountains”
“It will be deep in snow, we may have to walk the last mile or so because the tracks will be iced-up,
but the fishing could be great”
So we left Umbria and headed north, passing the lovely medieval hill town of Anghiari and the Tail
Water Tevera in Tuscany and on up into Emilia Romagna. Actually it was developing into quite a nice
morning, the cloud broke and eventually the sun shone through but sure enough, as we drove north,
the motorway became edged with snow which deepened as we drove and the surrounding hills held
a full white coating. As we left the motorway and started on the side roads the snow thickened and,
as promised, the mountain tracks they were indeed iced-up. But we kept going into the winter-
wonderland and eventually Luca slid the car to a halt on a forestry track beside a beautiful lake.
It felt pretty strange slipping into waders in two feet of snow; ice axes and crampons would have
been more appropriate as we slithered down the last slope to the water’s edge and tramped around
the lake-margins. But here we were, with the temperature only a degree or two above zero, snow
right up to the water’s edge and apparently, fish to catch. Thank goodness the sun came out! The
whole thing seemed surreal and on top of that I had a 4-weight rod and a floating line! To deal with
lake trout which go to double figures. Only one thing to do, something, anything, I tied on a hot
orange whisky fly and began casting in what I thought might be a clear example of going through the
motions until we retired to the nice little bar/restaurant that I had spotted peaking out of the trees at
the far side of the lake. But that’s not the way this story goes.
Far out in the centre of the lake there was a clear line of flow which marked the position of the old
stream which was dammed to make the lake. That was where the trout would be waiting for the
current – which might have been a few degrees warmer than the rest of the lake – to bring their food.
That was where the fly had to go. And go there it did, after fan-casting around the margins of the
rocky spit that we were on to make sure we weren’t over-casting trout that were near-in, it was time
to put out some line as they say. Dead easy, until the gentle breeze drops the temperature by 2 or 3
degrees, the line freezes in the rings and the whole thing seizes up which then calls for a sharp rap on
the rod just above the cork to send up a shudder which shakes off the ice and allows normal casting
to resume; hey ho…
But after a while, the lay-back double haul for distance became more natural and eventually the
retrieves of shots that made the distance to the flow-line were rewarded with taps; I was getting
follows from the feeding lane and eventually my fly – which I had changed to a damsel nymph or was
it a Sweeney Todd? I can’t remember – was stopped by an authoritative and solid thump and I was
into my first Italian lake trout. I won’t bore you with the details; it was a beauty, about 4 lbs, it pulled
like stink and I was amazed; all around was deep snow and even though the sky was now clear blue
and the sun was bright (ish) it was still pretty cold; the scenery was Alpine stunning and I had caught?
a fish. And those fish kept biting. The Doctor hooked a ‘monster’ which dragged him all around the
lake but turned out to be foul-hooked in the pectoral and of moderate size (the ribbing was
remorseless) and then he did it properly and banked a real biggy. Luca hooked something that
apparently was as big as his leg but which broke off when his point-fly fouled the bottom as he tried
to land it. And so we went on taking fish on lures and wets.
Now both The Doctor and I have fished with Luca a fair bit now and one of the things that I like most
about him (besides his love of blues music, his collection of vintage Fender and Gibson guitars and
his recording studio – I kid you not!) is his ‘experimental’ approach to fishing. How many anglers do
you know that when they are catching a load of fish on a given method say, OK, I know this works so
let’s make a change; let’s try a different fly, depth, speed of retrieve…whatever; let’s see how else we
might catch these fish, let’s see if we can learn something here instead of just bashing away; maybe
we can find something new, test a new fly pattern. I think that there is a message in that approach
that really does say it’s not all about just catching fish after fish; it’s about boring into fly fishing itself
to find out what our sport really is; to see what is possible.
Anyway, we changed from wets to dries, and we just kept on catching. The proportion of the catch
shifted toward rainbows and in fact, there was a slight rise later in the afternoon, but that didn’t
really matter; what I recall is that we moved about the lake all three of us casting whichever fly we
thought might work; Diawl Bachs, Damsel nymphs, biggish dries and the local Plumosus de Italo
(which is a local chironomid pattern with a cream body devised by Italo Fiorelli precisely for use on
the local lakes) making slow drifts, just keeping in touch, a quick short strip then dead drift again
then wham, a take. We lost count, all three of us returning fish at regular intervals; some were big
and some were regular sized stock rainbows but again that didn’t matter. We were here in the Italian
hills, fishing in thick snow, in bright (but cold) sunshine, doing what we loved, having fun just catching
fish; and some of them on dry flies.
We did make it for a quick lunch in that restaurant overlooking the lake. This a prime country for
gourmets; truffles and porcini mushrooms are found in the woods surrounding the lake, so the beer
and pasta were extra special but we didn’t linger too long over what was really a pretty good lunch.
The porcini (picked that morning) fried in batter were superb, but nothing could stop us going back
and finishing the afternoon with more casting and more fish. Eventually the sun sank into the trees,
the air temperature dropped to a level that our fingers couldn’t take and it was time to call it a day.
As we drove away the sun caught the trees and the snow, ironically turning them ‘hot orange’ about
the same shade as some of our flies. That night in the restaurant our dinner tasted as good as food
can taste and so did the wine. It was my fishing rod that first found this place for me and it’s my
fishing rod that keeps bringing me back; I am the lucky one! Ciao, Bella Italia! Ciao Luca!