Classic Photo Essay: Losing My Marbles in Slovenia

My largest marble trout of the trip, caught in the Soča Canyon, put up a great fight.
Photos by Sandy Hays

The email from my friend in Slovenia, Matt Calderaro, had a pretty humdrum subject line: “to bring.” But when I opened the email, I had to read it a couple times before I fully comprehended what Matt was telling me.

Can you bring some BIG bunny flies steelhead style with stinger hooks….in white, yellow, black, or green…..found us a meter-plus fish….it’s waiting for you! Perhaps an 8-wt, as well.

I know that a meter is about 39 inches, so it seemed that he was trying to tell me that he had found a marble trout over 40 inches long. That just didn’t make any sense. A 40-inch salmon? Okay. A 40-inch steelhead? Sure. But a 40-inch trout? That just seemed crazy. I dutifully went to my local fly shop and picked up some steelhead patterns, but I didn’t really believe that I’d need them.

The New Frontier
Matt and I have been pals since 2010, when he was a product developer here at Orvis, and we’d been talking about fishing together since the spring of 2013, when he opened a fly shop and outfitting operation, in the sleepy village of Kobarid, Slovenia. [Note: He now runs Soca Cowboy.] After leaving Orvis, Matt and his family had moved to his wife’s native Germany, and he began surveying the fishing opportunities in much of Europe. Ultimately, he fell in love with the Soča River valley (pronounced SO-cha) and planted his flag in Kobarid. (Click here for a map of Slovenia. Kobarid is at the far left.)

In recent years, a few spectacular videos from Slovenia have raised the country’s profile as a top-notch fly-fishing destination, and I was champing at the bit to check out the region’s stunning blue waters and legendary marble trout. Matt’s new venture offered the perfect excuse, so I set out on the last day of May—accompanied by my high-school buddy Sandy Hays, a New York-based photographer—on an overnight flight to Venice, Italy.

We watched big rainbows finning under the bridge at Kanal ob Soči.

The drive to Kobarid was a fascinating lesson in the geography and culture of the region. In just a couple hours, we went from the arid plains along the Adriatic Sea to the sharp peaks of the Julian Alps. The European Union has made border crossings nonexistent, so the only thing that lets you know you’re in a new country is that the signs are in a different language. We got our first glimpse of the brilliant-blue Soča soon after entering Slovenia and had coffee in the scenic village of Kanal ob Soči, where we saw our first trout—a few big rainbows feeding lazily under a gorgeous, 100-year-old arched bridge.

Another half hour down the road, and we were in Kobarid, which sits in a bowl surrounded by mountain peaks, the highest of which is Mt. Krn, at 7,400 feet. One of the first things you see as you approach is the beautiful and somber Italian Charnel House atop Gradič Hill, where lie the remains of more than 7,000 Italian soldiers killed in the First World War. And at the bottom of the hill is the stunning blue Soča, roaring out of a canyon into a wide, agricultural valley.

The White Whale
I awoke the next morning to a gorgeous view from my window in Pri B’zjak, the comfortable row house, where Sandy and I stayed. The valley was awash in the pink light of dawn, which seemed to bode well for the day’s fishing. As Matt drove us downriver, he began to regale us with tales of this 40-plus-inch marble trout that he had found, preparing us for the task at hand. But by this point, I was fully convinced that he was exaggerating, as outfitters and lodge owners are wont to do when describing their fisheries. We took a right at Most na Soči and headed up the Idrijca River (pronounced EE-dreet-sa, with a bit of a rolled “r”).

It’s hard to tell without a size reference, but that is a monster marble trout.

As we hiked downriver from our parking spot, it was clear that this was a beautiful piece of water, featuring riffles, deep pools, and long runs. It seemed custom-made for trout. Approaching the last known location of this allegedly monster fish, Matt told us to stay away from the water’s edge and move slowly. But when we got to the pool, the huge marble was nowhere to be found. Quelle surprise. Suspicions confirmed.

But even though the beast hadn’t materialized, there were three very big fish—in the 25-inch range—holding in the pool, so the adrenaline started pumping. The problem was that these marble trout had chosen the perfect place to guarantee their safety. The pool was perhaps 30 yards long and too deep to wade. To make matters worse, the banks featured overhanging trees and bushes on our side, and a rock wall on the other. There were no bugs to bring the fish to the surface, so we had two options: make hail-Mary casts with a streamer from the top of the pool and try to get a swing in front of one of the fish, or wade right up to the tops of our waders at the bottom of the pool and try to cast a nymph upstream of the fish. Both of these approaches proved exhausting and maddening, and neither produced a strike all morning.

Matt attempts to cast upstream to the beast, risking water over the top of his waders.

As we were packing up our gear to head downstream, Matt suddenly whispered, “Holy $*%#, there she is.” My eyes followed his pointing finger, and there in the middle of the pool was the largest trout I have ever seen. I spent three years guiding in Alaska, so I’ve seen my share of big trout, including a humongous 34-inch rainbow. But this fish was bigger. . .much bigger. (I learned later that the largest marble trout caught on a fly in Slovenia measured 47.2 inches and weighed 49 pounds. Crikey.) Because of the blue hue and depth of the water, we couldn’t see any detail, just a dark torpedo-shaped mass cruising along the bottom.

Suddenly, it was all hands to the pumps as we again unpacked fishing gear and camera equipment, came up with a game plan, and set out to hook the beast. Sandy was our spotter on the bank, as I headed upstream and Matt waded in below. We had all the same challenges as before, but the possibility of catching what seemed to be the biggest trout in the world made us redouble our efforts to achieve a good presentation. At one point, I found myself casting as far as I could quartering downstream, feeding another 50 feet of line into the drift, and then frantically mending downstream to the try to swing the fly in front of the fish. . .all to no avail. And then we lost sight of her again.

Sandy landed the first trout of the trip, a fat rainbow.

A bit dejected, we headed downstream, swinging streamers for rainbow trout in the faster water, and Sandy landed a nice one, about 17 inches. He has a habit of catching fish on days when I’m struggling, which I find somewhat annoying, but it was good to get the skunk off for the trip. Just as we were finishing our late lunch, it started to rain, so we packed up for the hike out.

When we passed the hole where the huge trout had been, we scanned the water, but she was nowhere to be found. We decided we’d come back the next morning to try again. It seemed an impossible task, but it was just too hard to give up on such an amazing fish.

A Slab of Marble
She was there in the morning, moving about quite a bit in the pool. According to Matt, this meant that she was “happy,” which might give us a better chance of getting her to eat a fly. We set up the same way we had the day before, hoping that the fish would swim into range for one of us to get a fly to her. I’ll spare you the details, but after about and hour and a half, we decided to bag the operation. Apparently, there was a reason that this fish had grown so large: she really had found the perfect spot. The Idrijca is fly-fishing only, and it is illegal to fish from a boat, so the beast seems pretty safe, for now. Matt believes that someday the planets will align perfectly, and someone will hook that fish. As for me, I am just happy to have made the acquaintance of such a spectacular specimen.

I was much more at home on this beautiful mountain stream.

Our next piece of water couldn’t have been more different. A small, freestone mountain stream flowing through a steep valley, it reminded me of some of my brook-trout hotspots in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I was casting a dry fly on a Superfine Glass 4-weight, while Matt had rigged his 5-weight Superfine Touch with a heavy nymph, so we could cover our bases. Strike indicators are not allowed on the waters, so all nymphing is “naked.”

At the first hole we came to, Matt spotted a nice marble trout holding near the tailout. I made several casts with the dry fly, to no avail, and the fish swam up into the hole. I backed out, and Matt threw his nymph right up into the wash. On the third or fourth cast, the marble slammed the fly. After a short, close-quarters tussle, we had our first Salmo marmoratus in the net.

The first marble trout of our trip, which ate Matt’s nymph, was a real beauty.

It was our first close look at this fascinating species, and its beauty and strangeness were fascinating. The fish had vermiculations on its back like a brook trout—to which the marble trout is not closely related—and its fins seemed oversize, with a yellowish hue. Marbles are quite snaky, as well, with sloped foreheads, which perhaps help them hold in heavy currents.

Of course, now I wanted one, so I switched to a nymph and was rewarded with my first-ever marble trout two pools later. It was half the size of Matt’s, but catching a new species is always exciting. Plus, catching a marble was why I’d traveled thousands of miles, so it felt like an important achievement.

Finally, I landed a marble. It was a dink, but I was excited nonetheless.

Into the Blue
Now that we’d caught our marble, Matt wanted to show off the rainbow-trout fishing on the Soča below town. We spent all morning in the same spot, drifting nymphs along the seam created by a fallen tree, catching chunky rainbow after rainbow. At one point, I caught three on consecutive casts. The trout were all in the mid to high teens and very healthy, with perfect fins and fat bellies. Because of the blue water and the light-colored substrate, the fish are silvery and light. . .almost ghostly.

The rainbows of the Soča River are muscular and gorgeous.

In the afternoon, we headed upstream in search of Adriatic grayling in the stretch just below the canyon, but bright sunlight and rising waters from thunderstorms in the mountains made for tough fishing. I managed to land one little guy, about 8 inches, but Matt came through at the eleventh hour with a lovely grayling that ate a dry fly in fairly heavy water.

The adriatic grayling were tough to find, but this one ate a dry fly just below town.

The next day we headed farther downstream on the Soča, below the village of Čiginj, to where the river splits around an island and is impounded by dams on both channels. Matt had said we’d be doing a bit of “canyoneering,” and the descent was somewhat harrowing. But it was worth it: we found ourselves at the base of the dams, in a glorious theater of rock and concrete, with the blue Soča at the bottom. From our vantage point on the rocks above the water, we could see lots of fish, both rainbows and marble trout, finning below.

Hooked up to my biggest marble in the Soča Canyon, I struck the pose.

I made my way out to a submerged point at the base of the nearer dam, tied on an olive DDH Leech, and cast to the rocks on the other side of the river. I saw a rise to my left and dropped the leech right into the rings, whereupon something hammered it. I assumed I had a pretty good rainbow on, but as it got closer, I could see that it was a fine marble trout—one that could have eaten the marble I’d caught two days earlier.

Matt ran down and netted the fish for me, and I’d become a member of the 50-Centimeter Club. This was the marble trout I’d been hoping for when I had made our plans to travel to Slovenia. It was much darker the big marble that Matt had caught on the small stream, with none of the yellow highlights, and it had large dark splotches on its sides.

This was the fish I’d traveled thousands of miles to catch, and it was well worth it.

The fish I caught two casts later was even stranger—the first marble-brown trout hybrid that Matt had ever seen in that part of the river. The head of the fish was all brown trout, as you moved rearward the brown-trout characteristics fade, and the tail was all marble trout. Browns and marbles hybridize pretty frequently in the wild, but Matt noted that there really weren’t supposed to be brown trout in that part of the Soča at all.

This odd brown-marble hybrid surprised Matt, who hadn’t seen on in the Soča.

Missed Connections
On our final day, we headed back to the small stream where I’d caught my first, small marble. We started higher up in the canyon, and again, Matt landed a gorgeous marble on the nymph. I was dedicated to the dry fly, though, and as the water warmed, I started to see some action. Soon, we saw our first rising trout, a rainbow that swam two feet out of its lane to slam my Orange Sedge. The fish went airborne immediately, jumping six times before Matt got the net under it. It was a stunning fish, only in the mid teens, but perfectly proportioned and darker than the Soča rainbows.

The small-stream rainbows are darker than those in the Soča.

The final fish I cast to in Slovenia provided one of the lasting memories of the entire trip. As we approached a shallow pool from below, we could see a large marble sipping dries while holding tight against a rock face on the right-hand bank. We got up on the bank, across from the fish and watched for a few minutes. The trout’s feeding lane was ridiculously narrow, no more than two or three inches wide, and the water was so clear and low that we could practically count the spots on the fish. I’d have to be extremely stealthy to get a shot at this beauty.

We dropped the tippet down to 7X, tied on a size 22 olive mayfly imitation, and Matt warned me that I’d get a couple casts at most. I waded very slowly into position down and across from the fish and made my first cast. Luckily, I dropped the fly right into the marble’s feeding lane, and we all watched as the mayfly headed straight for the fish, which slowly rose. . .and refused the fly. Cursing under my breath, I backed out slowly and rejoined Matt and Sandy.

“No problem,” said Matt. “We just got the wrong color.”

The marble trout is a fascinating species, and visions of 10-pounder continue to haunt me.

He handed me the same tiny pattern in rusty brown, and back I went. This time, my first cast was crap, and the fish scooted upstream. I was convinced that I’d blown it, but as I stood there berating myself, the fish rose again, higher in the pool. I slowly waded closer and made a second perfect cast. The fish ate the fly without hesitation, and I lifted my rod tip. But the fish and my fly were gone. The combination of 7X and the marble’s teeth had done me in. Although it ended in failure, the experience of spotting and stalking the fish and then getting it to eat was exhilarating.

The Good Life
Although we didn’t catch a ton of fish every day, both Sandy and I agreed that it had been an incredible trip. The waters around Kobarid are gorgeous and pristine, and we ran into fewer than a dozen other anglers in five days on the water. The technically challenging fishing often tested our skills to the limit. Marble trout are wary, wily, and know how to pick a difficult lie, so every one we caught felt like a real trophy. When I return, I will be sure to bring my A-game.

Kobarid is a quaint, walkable town with a great square and friendly people.

Adding to the experience, Slovenian culture is relaxed and welcoming. Each evening, Sandy and I would walk to the town square and sit at an outdoor café, where the friendly locals would ask us about the day’s catch. One night, we enjoyed one of the best meals of our lives at Hiša Franko, a picturesque luxury hotel just outside of town. On another, we feasted on game meats on the banks of the Soča at Camp Lazar. Almost everywhere you go, someone speaks English, which adds a layer of comfort.

When Matt first told me about his new venture in Kobarid, a place I’d never heard of, I wondered if it could really be as special a place as he described. It turns out that, as with his description of a “meter-plus fish,” Matt is not a man to be doubted.

If You Go

Travel: We found the best fares flying into Venice, Italy. From there, you can rent a car for the 2-1/2-hour drive to Kobarid.

Seasons: Marble trout season runs from April 1 to the end of September. According to Matt, September is the best month, with plenty of dry-fly action.

Fly shop/Outfitter: Worldflyangler.

Gear: Rod weights 4 through 8 can be useful, but just a 4 and a 6 will be fine. Matt uses only floating lines, but a sinking-tip line could come in handy in the deeper pools.

Permits: Anglers are required to purchase permits from the Angling Club of Tolmin to fish the waters of the Soča River Valley—about $300 for a week for catch-and-release fishing. All funds go directly to stocking and habitat work.

A version of this article appeared in American Angler magazine.

4 thoughts on “Classic Photo Essay: Losing My Marbles in Slovenia”

  1. Thanks for the excellent report. Slovenia is a very special place and probably my favorite place on earth. I was very lucky to have spent 3yrs of my military career at Aviano AB, only a little over a 2hr drive to the Soca valley. I’ve made a few friends in the area that I can’t wait to visit again. The only part of your list I would disagree with would be that a 8wt or even a 9wt is on my mandatory bring list. The heavy rod is needed for proper hook sets in the tough mouth of the bigger Marbles. Many of the locals that fish for big Marbles are using extremely heavy nymphs and streamers to get down to where the big Marbles hide. When I show my friends my SLO fly box, they can’t believe how heavy it is. Another very very important tip is stay out of the water till you are very sure there are no Marbles i. The shallow shoreline. They are ridiculously camouflaged and are very often in 6″-12″ of water hidden in the rocks along the shore. Tight lines brother!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *