You might have thought I was out of my element. After all, I was in Croatia, part of the former Yugoslavia, 5,500 miles away from the stronghold of the Commando Head. My host, Ratko Stibric, an affable, warm-hearted, Commando Head enthusiast, was my host. He has been pioneering fishing with Commando Heads in this part of the world for the last couple of years. He assured me that Commando Heads do in fact work in Croatia. And for a visiting fly fisher, the Gacka spring creek is required fishing. My understanding was that this was a technical fishery, with fish most likely keying on various stages of caddis.
My first couple of hours on this fishery, with Ratko's friend Milam, guide extraodinaire and spring creek casting jedi (for real), were focused on traditional spring creek fishing: casting to rising fish, making complicated mends with small flies, etc. It was all fine and good. I missed a few fish. I caught a tiddler or two. I didn't really like Milam standing over my shoulder, but I understood that he was just trying to be welcoming by helping me fish effectively on his local water. A little while later we sight-nymphed to a deep-holding rainbow, which was posted up on the edge of a weed bed. I plopped a large caddis larvae that weighed about as much as a shotgun shell, throwing hardly any fly line, as far upstream as I could, while pulling it ever so slightly into the fish's lane. He wasn't having it. Ok, fine. We went downstream to a bridge and, while I can't remember who suggested it, we (I) started streamer fishing. I won't say that I was now in my element, because I love casting floating fly lines, like a lot. But now I could take it a little easier and forget about all of the complex micro-currents that are created by the submerged and emerged weed beds on the Gacka, which, by the way, is among the most famous and popular rivers in Europe.
I started out fishing a 7.5 foot OPST Commando Tip, in the S6 sink rate. My tippet was about five feet of 3X, and my fly was some black, marabou-tailed, chenille-body fly that I honestly would never have fished had Milam not suggested it. But this was Milam's river, he guides it, and I wasn't about to insult my host. Confidence fairly low, I started poking my way down this run, right under a bridge (actually not the bridge pictured above—that bridge was near where the deep rainbow was holding). My choice of rod as a nine foot 5-weight, with a 200 grain Commando Head. All proven, familiar stuff. I started doing the usual: casting across stream–actually a fair ways upstream to get more depth–and letting the fly sink until it came tight, at which time it would begin to swing, with my little pops and strips adding motion. It didn't take long until I got a deep, satisfying tug from a substantial fish. As the fish rolled, I saw a gorgeous red stripe, the kind of red stripe that I would expect to see in Alaska. The fish put up a spirited fight, with me feeling somewhat relieved that I had produced a fish in front of Milam.
Ok, so now I was on the board. I had represented my country and my company. And, significantly, I had proven that Commando Heads can work on spring creeks. And this is not some little wind-swept ditch in southern Chile. This is the Gacka, something akin to a Silver Creek in Idaho. This thing gets pounded. And I had caught a quality fish on a Commando Head on a streamer that honestly could have been tied by a ten year old on his first night of fly tying class. I continued fishing. A few casts later I came tight to another quality fish—a somewhat dark rainbow buck of around 17 honest inches.
"Ok, the first fish wasn't just a fluke," I told myself. I was in the game here. I moved a little ways downstream, now casting, thanks to my Commando Head, all the way across the river (Milam was extremely impressed at what the Commando Head could do). My streamer was attacked yet again, this time by a bright football rainbow that jumped multiple times. This was fun.
Having fished out this position (Ratko always referred to "positions" that we fished), we moved downstream again, to our third position. At this point the caddis were hatching with low, but noticeable activity. Every now and then a fish would make a splashy rise, typical of caddis activity. Milam, of course, was looking for fish on top. I, now free to make my own fly choice, chose a black and red jig leech.
I fished in the vicinity of another bridge, on both sides of the river. The surface was slick, the current slow. In this part of the river was more like a trough; there were no emerged weed beds wagging in the current, which was relatively consistent. I fished that 7.5 foot Commando Tip and that black jig leech and proceeded to ABSOLUTELY RAIL on brown trout. I don't know how many I caught. I stopped counting. The urgency, the hunger to catch fish completely vanished. I was in that zone where it really didn't matter anymore if I caught fish or not. And it is in those mental states when your catch rate only increases. The fish feel your desperation, and when that desperation is gone it's like they can no longer detect you with their sonar.
I caught browns up to about 18 inches. Some I sight-cast to along the shore, and watched as they slowly and sometimes not so slowly came after my jigging leech. Other times, I cast out into the current and made a traditional swing presentation. Either way, I could do no wrong. It was one of my most devastating performances in the last several years. Eventually, a couple of people, also not from Croatia, came and started fishing upstream. I noticed one of them watching me as I slowly crept into position right below the bridge. Again, I was in the zone, and I really didn't care if I caught any more fish or not. Sure enough, I made a short roll cast of about 15 feet, and hooked a nice brown. At that time Milam was talking to these foreigners, and I heard one of them say something about "that's not real fishing." I don't know if he was talking about me and my Commando Head or what, but I think he probably was. Sure enough, a few minutes later I approached the group of three, and upon learning where they were from, told them "man I'd love to go to (country X) some day, it looks beautiful." The man made a rude shrug. Ok, now it seemed like he was disapproving of me. There's still a lot of animosity and sarcasm towards Commando Heads. Some people really take issue with you being able to make effective casts almost anywhere, in a variety of styles, with any size fly you want to fish. People naturally scorn what they don't understand. If they want to look down on you, it's probably just because they are just jealous. I wasn't in the frame of mind where I needed to keep score, but I didn't have to keep score to know that I ate those pretentious snobs' lunch.
So I know that Commando Heads are effective for both casting and fishing in a variety of water types, all over the world. But what explains their particular effectiveness in this heavily pressured European spring creek? Well, first of all, it must be said that trout love little black leeches. My guess is that the fish in the Gacka just haven't seen a lot of swung/stripped streamer fly presentations (that being said, streamer fishing was absolutely not foreign to Milam; he had several patterns in his box). Gacka's fish are wary of anything floating on the surface, with the slightest appearance of drag. But when it comes to a slim little leech fished, deep, they just don't expect it. I am pretty sure that if everyone fishing the Gacka did so with a sink tip and a black leech, I wouldn't have had the success I had.
After fishing, we went to a local restaurant, where we had an ungodly amount of meat, accompanied by a ten pound pile of french fries. The meal was supposed to be for two, but it literally could have fed five people. There was lamb, sausage, cevapcici (a ubiquitous, skinless sausage), chicken, you name it. They are serious about their meat in this part of the world. Practically rolling out the door, we drove back to Zagreb, the capitol of Croatia, and prepared to head out to the River Krka the next day.
Thanks for reading.