Articles & Essays

Fishing The Ancient Headwaters

By James Prosek
Audubon Magazine
January/February, 1999


It was not until we reached the hostilities in the semidesert of southeastern Turkey that I fully realized I was in the company of a monomaniac.

"I don’t think we should go down to Catak," I said. "Is a trout worth all this?"

Johannes nodded his head, grinning.

"I will trade you to the Kurdish terrorists for a trout from the headwaters of the Tigris," he said. "They like Americans."

We were stopped by the Turkish military not far from the Iraqi border. In the past few hours, more than 100 armed tanks had passed us on the road.

The officer who came to the driver’s door of our Land Rover was not much older than I; he wore a green uniform and carried a gun on his shoulder.

"What is your purpose for traveling to Catak?"

"Alabalik," Johannes said. "Trout."

At the time it seemed like a ridiculous answer, but we had told the officers the truth: We had come to fish for trout. Our monthlong journey had taken us to Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia in search of pristine headwaters. Now and then I paused to wonder exactly how I had come to be traveling through these places in a vehicle stuffed with fishing and camping gear, journals, vials of alcohol, glass aquariums, and cameras.

Our purpose was to discover and document subspecies of trout. Johannes Schoeffmann, age 47, is a baker and an amateur ichthyologist; he has made it his goal to document various types of trout, in particular the subspecies of brown trout native to Europe and Asia. Johannes catches fish and traces them on paper with a pencil, marking down their scale counts, number of fin rays, and other characteristics. He preserves their liver tissue in alcohol, carefully labeling each vial. The tissue samples are mailed to Louis Bernatchez, a research biologist at Laval University in Quebec who is using DNA to create an evolutionary map of trout and to define the characteristics that make each lineage unique.

The theory of trout evolution holds that about 15 million years ago, the common ancestral trout separated into two branches, one of which eventually gave rise not only to the modern species of Pacific salmon, but also to the rainbow and cutthroat trout. The other branch became the ancestor of the Atlantic Salmon, the brown trout, and related species. During the Pleistocene glacial epochs — the past 2 million years — climatic conditions promoted dispersal, isolation and speciation. The last glacial epoch began 60,000 to 70,000 years ago and ended 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. During the colder periods, trout dispersed throughout the Mediterranean area — the Black Sea, the Adriatic Sea — and this distribution gave rise to the diversity that Johannes and I observed on our trip.

When we started our trip I was 22, fresh out of college and looking for adventure. I had been fascinated by trout for years, having grown up fishing the trout streams near my home, in Easton Connecticut. When I was 13, my father cut out a small article from Yankee magazine about a type of trout that was once thoughts to be extinct but had recently been rediscovered in eight small ponds in northern Maine. The discovery of this particular fish, the blueback trout, made me wonder whether there might be other trout out there besides the rainbow, brown and brook trout that I knew of.

As a child I had painted birds, tracing the drawings of John James Audubon. Now I began documenting the various subspecies of trout, and when I was 20, I published a book called Trout, an illustrated catalogue of the trout of North America. Next, I wanted to illustrate the trout of the world.

Where to begin? I had always wanted to visit the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, in eastern Turkey, since some of the earliest civilizations and probably the earliest of fisherman had established themselves between those two great rivers. I also know that the first recorded reference to fishing with an artificial fly was in a second century text by a Roman named Claudius Aelian, who described how the Macedonians fished for trout in a river near what is now the Greek town of Thessaloniki. I wondered if the trout were still there.

I wrote to Robert Behnke, a professor of fishery biology at Colorado State University who is perhaps the world’s foremost trout taxonomist. He replied that he knew of only one man who had ever fished for trout in this region, and that was Johannes Schoeffmann, who lived in St. Veit an der Glan, Austria. I wrote to Johannes, telling him I might be in Europe that summer, and he invited me to visit him.

Johannes met me at the train station in St. Veit after my 17-hour ride from Paris. We quickly realized that we had a communication problem: Johannes could write English but could not speak it well. I did not speak German. But we discovered that we both spoke Spanish — and the universal language of trout, of course.

Though he was 25 years my senior, I soon discovered Johannes to be, at least in part, my alter ego. He was left-handed as I was, drew pictures of trout, and spent spare moments dreaming of them and planning fishing trips. As a baker, he typically worked from 2:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., leaving plenty of daylight for fishing.

The day after I met Johannes, we traveled over the border into Slovenia, to a valley where the emerald Soca River flows — one of the most primitive and incredibly beautiful valleys I had ever seen. After a lunch of prosciutto, cheese, and red wine, we drove to the stream with the intention of catching a specimen of the native marble trout. I was not deterred by the sign next to which Johannes had parked his Land Rover — a fish with a red X over it, the universal sign for no fishing — but when I went to get my fly rod from the back of the car, Johannes shoot his head.

He proceeded to put on a full-body wetsuit, hood and all, and walked, with his fins, to the edge of the stream. Within 30 seconds of jumping into the ice-cold and crystal-clear pool, he surfaced with a small marble trout cradled in his neoprene gloves, then let it slip back into the water. How could I have anticipated a man who fishes for trout with his hands?
The following day, before my train left for Paris, I told Johannes I would like to join him on his next expedition in search of trout. He said, "I might go to Turkey next summer, maybe to Albania."

"That would be fine," I told him.

So in the summer of 1996 Johannes, his wife, Ida, and I embarked on a monthlong trip that would take us from St. Veit to Trieste, Italy, by ferry to Igoumenitsa, Greece; through Turkey to the borders of Georgia, Iran, and Iraq; around to Greece again; to Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia; and then back to Austria.

In our pursuit of trout we sometimes had a vague reference to follow, such as a stream mentioned in a biological paper published in Italian at the beginning of the century. Mostly, though, we followed Johannes's instincts and our own knowledge of where trout might live. We drove through mountain regions, stopped by clear streams, and used a thermometer to see if they were cold enough to support trout.

A wild-trout population requires, among other things, clean, well-oxygenated water that is typically between 52 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and a streambed with suitable spawning habitat. Such fragile, pristine ecosystems are becoming harder and harder to find. In the 10 years that Johannes has been traveling to Turkey in pursuit of trout, he has seen entire populations wiped out by fisherman using explosives or nets, and streambeds silted in by road construction. He predicts that in 20 years few native trout will survive in Turkey.

In many of the countries where we traveled, there were no apparent fishing regulations. Even where regulations did exist, they were not enforced: the people there were more concerned with their immediate survival than with the future of their environment. Still, Johannes said the eight or so years of war that had devastated Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia had allowed trout populations to recover, since people had been hiding in their basements instead of fishing.

We found trout in all the countries we visited and in about half the streams we fished. The fish we caught were primarily brown trout (Salmo Trutta), although we also caught flathead trout in southern Turkey (Salmo platycephalus) and marbled trout (Salmo marmostus).

The more traveling we did and the more trout we saw, the more I began to realize that the naming process I was accustomed to was limited in describing variations of fish. The brown trout in every drainage differed significantly in their colors and their spots; sometimes the trout in different streams within the same drainage had different coloration and different spots.

The most beautiful trout we saw were in western Turkey, not more than eight miles from the Mediterranean coast. The paper that had been written by the Italian biologist mentioned this stream and the brown trout that inhabited it. We were staying in the town of Akcay, with a German couple who were friends of Johannes and Ida. One morning Johannes and I navigated the dirt roads through a grove of ancient, twisted olive trees and down a steep slope to the banks of the stream. The lower reaches of the stream were nearly dry, but in the headwaters, which ran through the olive orchard, the stream was remarkably pristine and cold. It was there that we caught some of the most colorful brown trout I had ever seen: bright-yellow sides, purple parr marks, and large red-and-black spots. All the fish had a peculiar oblong black spot above and behind each eye, which, from above, resembled another eye.

I fished with my fly rod and then joined Johannes, diving into the cold water. That afternoon, just miles from where we had caught the trout, we dove with our masks and snorkels in the warm Mediterranean and watched colorful little fish dart in and out of rock crevices.

Johannes's favorite river was the Krka, a crystal-clear, spring-fed stream in Croatia. This was the first time since the war began that Johannes had been to the Krka. He said there were many more trout now than on his previous trips - and larger ones - because much of the river was fenced off, owing to land mines. Along paths and roads, signs pointed to the ground, warning: MINE. We were cautious, using only well-worn paths to the stream. At one point we lowered ourselves off a bridge into the water and dived for the trout without touching the bottom. We saw brown trout that looked to be upward of seven or eight pounds, as well as a fish Johannes identified as the softmouth trout (Salmothymus obtusirostris). Softmouth trout live in only one other stream - the Buna River, in Bosnia, which we also visited. They are characterized by a slight overbite, presumably to facilitate feeding on insects on the river bottom. They had black spots, like brown trout, and silver and gold sides.

Our itinerary had been planned by Johannes, but at one point I asked if we could make a detour. I wanted to fish the stream in Greece that Claudius Aelian had written about 18 centuries ago. Johannes told me before we began our trip that what appears in Aelian's text as the Astraeos River is actually the Aliakmon River. Johannes had caught trout, though very few, in tributaries of the Aliakmon. I tied the same fly that Aelian described - using ruby colored wool and two cock's feathers - but when we reached the Aliakmon, it had been replaced by a maze of irrigation ditches diverting water from its main stem. We continued our journey and searched several tributaries of the Aliakmon near the town of Tripotamos (meaning three rivers in Greek). The water in one of the tributaries was clear, cold and trouty, and I cast my ruby-wool fly in all the likely spots, but we saw no fish. It was one of many examples during our trip of how the encroachment of human civilization has been detrimental to the survival of trout.

In its prime, I imagine, the Aliakmon must have looked something like the Vodomatis. Located near the town of Vikos-Aoos, in northwestern Greece by the mountains of the Albanian border, the Vodomatis was emerald-tinged, clear and cold. Its brown trout were large, 16 to 20 inches. Their subspecies name, dentex - meaning 'tooth' - derives from their long teeth. Johannes told me that they were similar to the Aliakmon fish.

The Vodomatis and the other rivers we saw that still ran clear and full of trout gave us hope that preservation is possible. As I cast Aelian's fly into this stream and reeled in a beautiful brown trout with blue gill plates and cream-yellow sides, I felt as though I were participating in a centuries-long continuum that, if we are more careful with out resources, can carry on for centuries more.

Note: This article first appeared in January/February 1999 edition of Audubon Magazine. They have generously allowed us to reprint it here. To subscribe to Audubon Magazine, call 800-274-4201.

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Between swimming past land mines in Bosnian
streams and dodging the Turkish military, it
wasn't your average fishing trip


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