October 21, 2022
This article originally appeared in the 2022 issue of Destinations, a special publication of Fly Fisherman magazine.
I will never forget the first time I saw images of the rivers and streams of Slovenia. It was 20 years ago in an issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine, and I was dumbfounded by the clarity and beauty of their waterways. I cerebrally filed my intent to see and photograph the region one day, long before learning that these same unique limestone rivers have world-class trout fishing. Many anglers consider it the New Zealand of Europe. As time passed and I learned more about the little nation at the crossroads of the Alps and Balkans, I was determined to experience it for myself.
Fast forward to 2019 when my wife and I finally landed in the capital city of Ljubljana to meet our friends John and Betsy for a one-week custom couples tour of the country. The men had similar objectives: Take our wives on a great trip with fine meals and boutique accommodations where they could partake in a wide range of thoughtfully guided tours. At the same time, we would sneak out for a fair bit of guided fishing. If we pulled it off, we would all enjoy great touring and dining together and, despite fishing hard, we would have some real brownie points in the spouse-bank by the end of it all.
Our last day of fishing was spent on a technical wild trout system that held large, wary fish. There were wild rainbows, browns, marble trout, and even rare marble/brown hybrids. The playing field was gracious from the fish’s perspective: single-fly-only and no added weights or attachments such as indicators. Despite the challenges, John’s day was made early. With our guide Sasa, he diligently sight fished to a large rainbow, and after 30 minutes John closed the deal and landed a gorgeous 22-inch fish among a green backdrop of wild rhubarb.
My day was a bit more of a struggle. I put down two large fish trying to coax them with a single nymph. Then, in the last hour, a nice rainbow rose to my dry fly, but for whatever reason, only nicked it. I rested the fish for half an hour as a sparse hatch of mayflies continued. After 20 minutes it rose again. After it rose three times, I crept back out with a fresh CDC dun and connected. The fish fought like it had never been hooked before, zigzagging wildly across the surface of the pool and jumping recklessly between boulders. As it lay submerged and recovering in the pale cobbled shallows I was overcome with gratitude, not only for this moment and this gorgeous fish, but for the fact that when we got back to our hotel, our wives would be smiling and carrying on about their own adventures in this beautiful, little-known country.
One Cool Country
Slovenia is a remarkably scenic, prosperous, and appealing country, formerly part of Yugoslavia. Its 2 million residents are friendly, highly educated, speak impeccable English, and pride themselves on never drinking wine alone. It is one of the seven safest countries in the world, and is one of the greenest and most progressive countries in the European Union. Sixty-six percent of the country remains heavily forested, and 12 percent of the landmass is covered in well-manicured vineyards, most of which are organic. Slovenia’s southwestern region is lovely wine country and shares much in common with neighboring Italy. The entire northern region shares a border and many cultural traits with Austria, and when you move south towards Croatia, the Balkan influence becomes more apparent.
Slovenia is also the southern terminus of the Alps. These dramatic limestone peaks, some of which exceed 9,000 feet, attract many visitors to the Julian Alps and Triglav National Park. Competitive sports, skiing, hiking, climbing, and mountain culture run strong throughout the country. Slovenia typically ranks in the top ten in terms of Olympic medals per capita.
Additionally, Slovenia is one of Europe’s wealthiest countries in terms of freshwater resources. They have rivers—lots of them—and indigenous marble trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, and grayling are all woven into the fabric of this country and its fishing culture.
Virtually every Slovenia fly-fishing trip is custom built depending on the size of the group, preferred dates, and most importantly, the groups’ specific interests and abilities. It works for a party of two, and can work equally well for a party of eight or more. If guests want a trip in which every day is filled with guided fishing, or a trip where there is no fishing whatsoever, it can be done.
So far, the most popular sweet spot has been six- to nine-day trips for couples that integrate two to four days of fishing among a variety of other thoughtfully guided activities. On fishing days, dedicated fly-fishing guides take the anglers, and the primary driver/guide will make sure that the other travelers have enriching activities planned, suited to their interests and abilities. It seems one of the rare examples of mixed travel in which the anglers have actually been thanked for going fishing and enabling the other travelers to pursue their guided interests.
What is equally remarkable is the depth and breadth of the activities available for travelers. If visitors are interested in easy walking, food, wine, and architecture, their trips are built accordingly. If they are into light hiking, waterfalls, alpine vistas, and photography, no problem. And if they want to dig deep into adventure and multi-sport activities, there is a vast menu of options including alpine hiking, cycling, whitewater rafting, via ferrata climbing, canyoneering, and even sailing. In the winter, trips can be designed with resort or off-piste skiing coupled with fly fishing for large huchen (Hucho hucho), which are kissing cousins of taimen (Hucho taimen).
Private parties of two are typically picked up at the Ljubljana airport by their driver/primary guide in a Tesla, and larger groups by Mercedes van. Vehicles are equipped with their own Wi-Fi hotspots for convenience. The first night is usually spent in Ljubljana and often combined with a visit to Ljubljana Castle, a stone fortification dating from the 11th century. It was completely rebuilt in the 15th century to defend against the Ottoman Empire, and today it is used as a cultural venue.
Walking, culture, and food tours of this charming capital city are also options, and will be conducted by a prearranged guide and followed by a great dinner. Your primary guide will be with you throughout the course of your trip, and a range of specialty guides will be integrated as dictated by your itinerary and interests.
Driving to the river one morning, I asked our guides Sasa and Bostjan how many days it would take to sample all of their preferred waters. They both paused. “About 60 days,” Sasa said, and Bostjan quietly nodded in agreement. I could hardly sit still, as that was not all their water; that was just the places they liked best! As much as I try to be present and in the moment, it seemed half of my time in Slovenia was spent figuring out how I could spend more time there—like a lot more time. For my trout fishing tastes, it seemed that every other river or stream I crossed was as beautiful as any I could imagine. The clear turquoise waters and the pale limestone bottoms made it seem like I might spot fish from the moving vehicle at 100 yards. I had been given a taste of something sweet and I wanted more.
Slovenia has a tremendous variety of water, most of which is in the central and western portions of the country. There are fertile lowland streams and cooler semi-alpine streams that can be relied upon for good fishing even in the warmest months.
Some of Slovenia’s waters are federally managed and others are managed by private clubs that still allow paid public access for visitors. These clubs are not easy to join, and new members need to be mentored for several years by existing members as well as pass a very rigorous test that covers fishing techniques, fish handling, biology, conservation, and high-level aquatic entomology.
These clubs have a fair degree of autonomy in how they manage their waters, and both the federal managers and club managers stock some of their waters in addition to managing their wild trout resources. Access laws are very liberal, and all the rivers have 6 to 12 meters of open riparian access along the stream corridor. Anglers even have some rights to cross private property to reach their elected sections of rivers. Licensing is expensive and averages 30 to 80 euros per person per day for residents and nonresidents alike, and promotes uncrowded, carefully managed fisheries. Your travel agent or guides will take care of the licensing for you.
Each section of river can also have its own specific regulations. In some sections, anglers can buy a more expensive license and harvest one or two fish, and other sections might be managed as wild-fish sanctuaries with strict year-round no-kill regulations. It is also worth noting that fishing with “fair chase” methods is very much part of the culture. Fishing with two flies is rarely if ever legal in Slovenia, and on some river systems, you’re not allowed to add weight or anything else to the line, including strike indicators.
On-site, the guide team retains ultimate freedom in deciding where guests fish so they can factor in current conditions, skill, and mobility. Better yet, you don’t need to bring flies, waders, or tackle on your trip, as they provide all needed gear as part of the package price.
Ultimately Slovenia is a little-known gem that combines European charm with the challenge and beauty of New Zealand-style sight fishing. Moreover, it is a destination that has equal appeal for general travelers, foodies, wine enthusiasts, adventure sport addicts, and anglers alike. And for better or for worse, once you have experienced the charm of the country and its fishing, you will be helplessly consumed with thoughts of how and when you will return.
In addition to beautiful freestone rivers with sight fishing for multiple species of trout, Slovenia offers another truly unique opportunity—a chance to catch the rare indigenous marble trout (Salmo marmoratus). Marble trout are close relatives of brown trout, and are found in only a handful of Adriatic basin drainages. While marble trout can be found in a small region of Italy, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, Slovenia is their greatest stronghold. In the 1960s, marble trout were almost lost altogether due to overfishing, hybridization, and competition from nonnative species. Luckily, several genetically pure strains were found in some nearly inaccessible tributaries of the Soca River in Slovenia. With the help of the Tolmin Anglers Society (one of the private angling clubs) they were propagated in hatcheries and reintroduced to their native range and are once again thriving.
Marble trout are like big vermiculated brown trout. They often prefer holding in lazy current, and they have immense growth potential. The largest ever caught on rod and reel was from Slovenia and weighed just under 50 pounds. However, most specimens are in the 12- to 28-inch range, and highly prized by fly anglers lucky enough to land them.
Ken Morrish is the cofounder and director of travel sales for Fly Water Travel. He is also a well-known fly designer and an ambassador for the Portland-based Wild Salmon Center. He lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife Mia and kids Lilli and Max.