Salvelinus is the sort of fishing destination that not only could I convince my non-fishing, ex-wife, to join me on, but conceivably I would be able to encourage her to learn to fish. A confident statement by any means! Let me elaborate.
Thirty-six hours prior to landing in Spain, at Zaragoza airport, I had been standing on the edge of a dirt runway in Alaska, wondering whether the bear which was running along the runway was going to move out of the way prior to our small bush plane touching down, and indeed what would happen if it did not. It did! Whilst undeniably jet-lagged I was hugely looking forward to my stay with Salvelinus. Whilst not quite the polar, geographic or cultural opposite to where I had come from, the two destinations have little in common. In a nutshell, Salvelinus excels in taking anglers to some of the most remote fishing areas along the length and breadth of the Pyrenees.
In my extensive fishing travels, I have visited some amazing destinations, many of them exceptionally remote, and although I was aware that there was fishing to be had in the Spanish Pyrenees, it had been low on my list of adventurous expeditions. Why go to Spain when you could catch bigger Trout in Southern Argentina or high altitude Trout half way up Mount Kenya?
At its most basic, the answer in my mind anyway, was three-fold. The first and most obvious reason is that to get to Zaragoza or Barcelona from anywhere in Europe is incredibly easy. Secondly, short stay/long weekend trips are a snitch. You can leave your desk on Thursday evening and be back at work on Monday morning, fully revitalised. Potentially, given a long weekend pass, you could even combine a short fishing break alongside a regular Spanish holiday. Finally, and maybe this is what Salvelinus promises to do best, is whilst the trip is very much fishing focused, it is also a decadent and entirely relaxing escape into all that rural Spain does well. Fabulous food, wonderful climate, and in this case, simply excellent service. Something that might appeal as much to ‘fishing widows’, as those on a piscatorial pursuit.
During July and August, the main centre of operations for trips is the exquisite village of Santa Cilia, around 2-hours drive from Zaragoza. On the drive to the lodge, we stopped at a fabulous medieval castle with commanding and incredibly picturesque views. It sets the scene for the rest of the trip. The lodge itself is steeped in history, the dining room is where the monks would press the grapes for wine, I would imagine with their bare feet.
One of the great things about the whole Salvelinus experience is that you can arrive totally bereft of any equipment. If need be, in your suit, straight from the work. Waders, boots, rods, flies are all included. In the bathrooms, you will find the same range of toiletries, from razors to toothbrushes, soaps to conditioners that you would find in a 5-star hotel. Ivan Tarin who runs Salvelinus has been listening to his client’s requests for the last twenty odd years and offers a very polished service!
My first day was spent with Ivan. We fished a mountain gorge and then a high mountain plateau for Trout, before a simply excellent stream-side lunch. I have had many riverbank lunches but Salvelinus lunches are quite frankly in a different league, rounded off with a very good bottle of red wine, all part of the package. Our afternoon was spent chasing Barbel on a fly. I will dwell on this as it was such a different experience. Firstly, I should say that the river we fished was full of them. You sight fish for Barbel so our afternoon session was picked to allow us to get the best light to help visibility. Barbel are spooky, like Bonefish, and finicky eaters like Permit, although I am not going to put them close to the Permit category of angler non-cooperation! Ivan has numerous ‘secret’ techniques he uses to catch Barbel.
Spend some time with him and all will be revealed! He has refined flies and techniques over a great many years, although it still requires skill! As the last of the good light dropped away I handed the rod to Ivan and he obligingly caught one for the camera! After supper, we spent a final twilight hour targeting Trout with an evening rise of white winged flies a short drive from the lodge.
The following day it was back to a high mountain stream amidst spectacular scenery and crystalline clear water. These mountain areas are best fished over July and August as outside of the summer months, at the heights we were fishing, things start to get much colder. Even though it was late July the early morning was comparatively cool, although by the time we made our way back downhill, around 11am , the sun had finally broken the last mountain peak and it was pleasantly warm. These mountain streams do not and are never going to have huge Trout. The cool water and the fast current means that we were fishing for the pleasure of the take. With dry flies we made our way up the stream, casting in and around the boulders and stones, in water so clear, it felt that it was impossible that there could be a fish you could not see. This style of fishing was all pretty new to me. Javier, my guide, an ex-Spanish marine, with many years overseas service, kept me straight. "High stick, high stick" he would call, ensuring that my fly danced over the surface as opposed to being pulled under by the fast current. The Trout were there and although my largest was little more than 8in it was the challenge, the fun and the surroundings that made it.
For twenty years or so Ivan has been exploring every stream, river and lake in the region. It shows. On our various journey’s, we went through countless barriers, barring public vehicle access to the areas. On the more accessible areas, all the zones we fished were controlled, and I can only guess at the network of permissions and permits required. Whilst I am sure there is fishing to be had if you want to DIY a trip, Ivan and the two Salvelinus guides I fished with, as well as the other guides who I met, were simply outstanding. Not only were they very skilled fishermen, they were patient, understanding, great company socially and their knowledge and tuition excellent. I would be pressed to fault them in any way.
My second evening was at the alternate lodge that Salvelinus uses in the small town of Arén. Like Santa Cilla, you could not wish for a more rural taste of local Spanish life. The accommodation was again very comfortable. The only fishing lodge I have stayed at where your room has complimentary bottles of white or red wine available for guest’s enjoyment! A masseuse is on hand but I think the most remarkable part is where we ate. Slightly separate from the lodging, on the outside and in appearance it resembles nothing more than a small bar/café. The sort of place where you smoke a Gauloise cigarette with strong black coffee in the morning, and another with a glass of house wine in the evening.
Appearances can be deceptive. The first indicator was the Gin & Tonics being served to the three other couples who were fishing (and for a group that is 80% more females than most fishing trips I have been on). Complete with additional fresh herbs it just suggested this was not your normal bar. The group of 14 odd locals who had also gathered outside to eat were being served a cauldron of escargot, not my usual dish but very good. Downstairs from the bar is a cosy and atmospheric dining room and we had a simply excellent eight-course taster meal. The full guide team joined us, most unusual when dining at this level, but maybe why Salvelinus has such an excellent complement of guides. One of the couples, from the US, had been returning to Salvelinus for seven consecutive years. As a group, the compliments that they bestowed on Ivan and his team made me feel privileged to be included.
From Arén we fished the lower sections of the Pyrenees which is best fished early and later in the season. Being lower the streams are calmer, have more insect life and naturally, the Trout are bigger. We fished with a complete mix of tactics ranging from dries, nymphs, eggs and streamers. On one river, fishing above a weir, huge Rainbow Trout the size of salmon could be seen effortlessly holding their lies in the current. All the locations were completely different, smooth flat water, very fast flowing streams, braids and everything in between. The one consistent feature was the excellent water clarity. Another point of note was that over my 3 ½ days fishing I only saw three other anglers, none of whom we crossed paths with. Neither were we disturbed by walkers, hikers or similar. Our main companions in the mountain areas were the cowherds, all with their bells chiming to the rhythm of their grazing.
My final night was a step up in luxury again! Although not necessarily part of the regular Salvelinus Itinerary, the schedule is extremely flexible. If you want to fish hard or enjoy good lunches the choice is yours. This delightful and very highly rated hotel, nestled amidst the mountains has stunning views, great rooms, food and is a fabulous place to stay, whether you are fishing or not.
The temperature over my final two days was above 35C during the day. (As it turned out it was the start of a heatwave in Southern Europe with daily temperatures in excess of 40C). I would say that it did not improve the fishing, and although fishing early and late is always on the cards, the excellent meals and the opportunity to have a blissfully relaxing time was also very appealing and not one I was going to squander. Of course it came as no surprise when Ivan sent some pictures of some sizeable Trout caught a short while after my departure, after the heatwave had passed! Understandably the fishing is focused around the higher more mountainous areas in July and August and the lower, although none the less scenic areas, from March through to November. Some of the most striking fishing is certainly in the mountain streams and this is one of the major draws of fishing with Salvelinus, even if the Trout are smaller and the fishing more technical. That said we fished such a wide variety of beautiful streams and rivers throughout the trip I would happily come and fish at any time of the year.
The last mention should go to my lunches on the last 2 days of the trip. We typically ate quite late having fished hard in the morning before things got really warm. One was in a vineyard, having been given a tour of the winery beforehand followed by some mandatory and enjoyable wine tasting! The chef from the lodge at Santa Cilia was on hand to provide us with a quite exquisite chicken and mushroom dish, following the usual, beyond superbly ripe Tomatoes, salad, cured hams and cheeses. More excellent wine of course, and to finish, desert wine, again a first at any fishing lodge I have been to. The final lunch was at an incredibly charismatic local restaurant which specialised in meats grilled on the open fire outside.
I always knew that fishing with Salvelinus was about more than just the fishing. I now have had the opportunity to appreciate quite how varied and how spectacular the rivers they can fish are. The trip was a gastronomic treat, the service and attention to detail is outstanding. The character and feel of this part of rural Spain was exemplified by fishing in a wonderful variety of locations. The guides, who I fished with were to an individual excellent and the chefs, restauranteurs and proprietors of the establishments visited made the whole experience complete in every way. You may find bigger or more prolific places to catch Trout and Barbel on a fly-rod, but I would be surprised to find another location where they do it in such formidable style!!
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