Fly Fishing for Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho)
As soon as the cold season starts articles about fly fishing for Danube Salmon pop-up regularly in fly fishing magazines and on the internet. As a result many average fly fishermen and sometimes even beginners surrender to the temptation and want to try to catch a hucho, the largest non-migrating salmonid species in the world by using fly fishing tackle. As in most waters a guide is needed for getting permission to fish for Danube Salmon, they assume that it cannot be that difficult with his help. That`s a big mistake!
The Huchen aka Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho) is the largest European freshwater salmonid. He can get about 1.50m in length and a weight of 40kg. In ancient times significantly larger fish had been reported. Historically huchos inhabited mainly the right-sided tributaries of the river Danube but the species was also stocked successfully in Spain and Marokko. Due to its size and the tasty meat the Danube Salmon was caught with different and in some regions quite brutal methods. Espacially during the spawning time they were blinded on their spawning redds and stabbed with pitchforks and other stabbing tools. This has changed with the decline of the species and today huchos enjoy a usually 2-3 months spawning season and recovering time during which fishing for them is forbidden. This helps the fish to gain weight safely after the exhausting spawning activities.
Meanwhile the attitude of anglers towards these beautiful giants has changed, too. Today most huchos are released after being caught and only very few are killed. A quick picture after the catch serves as an identification tool as the spots on a hucho are unique like fingerprints. So multiple catches of the same fish within the years can be documented and the growth rate and eventually a change of the location in a river are shared among the hucho anglers. It also serves as a proof that a careful treatment and a correct release does not harm the fish.
The time is the key!
Huchos are very special in regard of their biting times. If a hucho is not in the right mood a grayling in its preferred size can swim right in front of his mouth and he will show no interest at all. Because of their moody behaviour it is pure luck if you catch a hucho on a streamer during a hucho guiding. It is usually a waste of money and time except if you can come on call. Even if you plan to fly fish for huchos for a whole week you cannot be sure to experience an activity period of this species throughout your stay.
In winter 2017/2018 right after Christmas I fished three of the best Austrian hucho waters with high stocks of good fish for 9 days in a row. During this time none of the numerous fishermen at these public beats had even got one single take! Only on my departure day a single specimen hucho was caught on a spinning lure. Nine days without a take! This is hucho fishing! A few weeks before, in one of these rivers there were about 30 huchos - some of them real giants - caught within a period of one week. Regular catches of huchos are usually only made by locals who live by the river and know "their" huchos well. They usually only fish when the fish are moving.
The Water Level
Hucho fishing is dependent on the weather and the water level.
Medium water level:
A medium water level is usually not good as the huchos prey which mainly consists of fish can easily spread all over the river. Huchos are usually not so active during this time. They don't show up at the feeding spots but stay in their "garages" as I use to call their hideouts.
Catching huchos right at their lies is usually not possible with fly gear as only spinning lures can be presented on spot in deep or fast flowing parts of a river. When they are resting at their lies they are usually not active but might "attack" a lure that passes their head in very close distance in a defending movement. This means they don't hit it hard and the lure will only be in the hard front part of their mouths. Whereas a few of such "takes" can be stroken with a spinning rod and braided non-stretch lines this is no option for the fly rod.
Rising and sinking water levels:
If the water level rises prey fish move towards the banks where the current is slower. As long as the water is not too clouded they will feed there and are easy prey for the hucho who can easily detect them with its large eyes. At peak levels or when the water is dirty huchos and their prey are not feeding. Especially in winter time when a depression brings rain that turns into snowfall later the coloured river clears up and the huchos get active again during a short period. This is perfect hucho weather! They stop feeding when their prey starts spreading in the river again. Whereas rising water Levels combined with rising water temperatures increase the huchos activity, rising water levels in combination with dropping temperatures (snowmelt) immediately stops any hucho activity.
Under low water conditions the huchos can hunt successfully without loosing much energy as the current is slow and the prey fish concentrate at certain spots again. For the fly fisher low water conditions make it easier to spot the huchos and to reach their feeding spots without getting too much pressure on the line. The fly can be fished slower but the big eyes of the huchos catch every single unneccessary movement of the fly fisherman. This means fishing public water under crystal clear low water conditions is very difficult in regard of the presentation. This is in my opinion the main reason why night fishing under low water conditions was so popular in the past. It still is, but nowadays only very few rivers can be fished at night. So you should at least try the Hours with less light. Dawn is usually better than dusk as the temperatures are higher. The cold mornings after a freezing night are usually not the best choice.
In smaller rivers upstream streamer fishing or nymph fishing can help to master such situations, too. In any case be sure to not get in the field of vision of a hucho. He will not necessarily disappear but he will probably not take anymore.
An experienced hucho angler looks for active fish where shallow parts meet the edges of deep runs. Drop offs, inlets but even better outlets of pools are also targeted. These are the spots where huchos hunt preferably. A huchos lie and his feeding spot are not identical. Dependent on the size of the fish and the hucho density there can be seveal hundred meters or even more inbetween the two.
Due to a high fishing pressure some hucho waters are despite of their hucho density extremely difficult to fish under low water conditions. Among them is the Sava Bohinjka in Slovenia. One needs to be very experienced to be successful there with the fly. At Sava a significant numbers of fish are caught on spinning gear as it is much easier to approach a hucho with spinning tackle. Most of the fish are caught during dust and dawn when the fishermen are less visible for the large predators. In some hucho waters it is allowed to fish at night or at least up to midnight and in a few on the southern Balkans also in summer. In the Alps the hucho season usually starts in Nov/Dec and ends between the end of January and end of February dependent on the river. There are some exceptions from that rule though.
If the water level and sight depth stay the same for a longer period, the influence of the moon becomes more important. Around new moon but also near full moon the chances to hook a hucho are usually better but the real game changer in regard of hook ups is the weather (air pressure).
Hucho Fishing is Hard Work!
Except in open waters with large gravel banks with a lot of space for overhead casting and in rivers in which smaller streamers are working well fly fishing for huchos is tough, very tough. Moving at or in the water sometimes in icy conditions and deep snow is a real challange for body and mind. Little mistakes, carelessness or flippancy can have fatal consequences especially if you fish on your own. Fishing high line classes and heavy tackle is very demanding. You have to be well prepared to be able to cast large hucho flies with the weight of the fly line. Some hours in the gym prior to the start of the season is not an amiss as without training you can easily overload your wrist or elbow which can lead to a tennis elbow or tendinitis but first of all to sloppy casts. If a large hucho streamer and especially a weighted one hits your rod, even the best rod will need to be replaced.
Casting Hucho Streamers
The most important of all casts for a hucho fisher is the roll cast be it to fish spots without back space or to roll the streamer out of the water to finally present it with an overhead cast. Depending on the weight and size of the streamer switch casts can be used, too. If streamers between 5-10 g of weight or long T-tips in combination with large joint streamers are used an interrupt of the energy transfer will make it impossible to switch any more. You will recognize this immediately. Such line/streamer combinations can only be cast with a roll cast, a hybrid roll cast (which means that you roll cast and shoot a few meters of line) or an overhead cast.
The Limits of Fly Fishing
At fast and deep stretches of hucho rivers fly fishing is not possible. You would need to fish very heavy streamers that cannot be cast by using the fly line as a casting weight any more. I totally agree with Austrian fly fishing legend Sepp Prager, who loved to spin fish for hucho from time to time. If it is not possible any more to fish a streamer by using the weight of the fly line, spin fishing remains as the only fair and meaningful angling method. Spin fishing for hucho is of course easier than fly fishing as you can cast from spots a fly fisher cannot cast at all and you do not need to get so close to the fish. Besides that you can skip the time for learning how to fly cast, Despite that spin fishing for huchos is not so easy as otherwise every spin fisher would catch a hucho. This is not the case.
Alibi Fly Fishers
The reason why even less skilled fly casters are found on the net with pictures of huchos and a fly rod has its origin - at least this was what was plausibly confirmed to me from many fly fishers - in hucho guidings.
A guide usually recognizes quite fast if the client is skilled enough to get a large hucho streamer somewhere near a hucho without spooking it. If this is not the case he should be given a smaller fly first and if this does not work he should be told to improve the casting first before trying it with a fly rod. As an alternative they should be given a spinning rod if the regulations allow it. Instead of doing this, some guides prefer to switch to a plan B. A heavy streamer of 20-40 g of weight is cast with a fly rod by replacing the fly line with a running line only. Some anglers who call themselves fly fishers even use monofilament or polyfilament only. The line is pulled from the reel first, to cast their heavy streamers like a spin fisherman to the wanted spot.
For casting streamers of 20 g and more with a fly rod, fly lines are not needed at all, as such heavy flies cannot be cast with the weight of the fly line anymore. The fly line cannot fulfil its function. This does not change with the alibi-shooting heads that are meanwhile promoted. These short heads have the shape of a long drawn-out weight and support the casting of the weight of the streamer. These short shooting heads work only with overhead casts and unweighted flies (Check by making a roll cast to see if the line is able to lift the fly out of the water!) but as soon as you put a heavy streamer on, it is the streamer that is pulling the line behind. As soon as this happens, you should not call it fly fishing anymore! You can recognize alibi-fly fishers the way they cast. They just pull line back in and lift it directly from the water to the back cast which is done in a sideways manner to finally shoot it the same way as a spinning lure. Some use a sideways pendulum cast and often move the rod slightly off shoulder after the front stop to not hit the rod with the heavy streamer.
If the streamer flies in front after the line is stretched and pulls the running line or monofilament behind, you use the fly rod as a spinning rod. If this is the case you are definitely not fly fishing any more.
Quo vadis? What`s next??
Shall I cut my shooting head to 4m, 3m, 2m or perhaps only 1m? Or should I forget about the fly line at all and cast the streamer with a fly rod and thin monofilament or polyfilament only, like some anglers already do? The fly line cannot pull such heavy streamers through the air anyway, so it only works as an alibi device. Where shall this lead to? This is not fly fishing anymore but spinning with a fly rod, nothing else!
Instructor collegue and hucho guide Markus Kaaser from Carynthia (AT), who fly fishes for hucho absolutely correctly and successfully, rises his eyebrows and labels the heavy-weight streamer casting not as fly fishing but as "adventurous methods". For me fishing this way with a fly rod is just absolute nonsense! Sadly enough, many of the published so called "fly caught huchos" were caught this way.
Especially at the Una in Bosnia (which is in regard of hucho fishing because of its depth rather a spin fishing than a fly fishing water) and some other rivers on the Balkans but also at some stretches of the Mur in Austria these doubtful techniques are stillI in use. Fishing this way is not forbidden if the fishing rules allow spin fishing too, but speaking of a fly caught hucho and posing with a hucho and a fly rod in a picture to suggest one was fly fishing but instead was using such cheaty methods is not worthy of a true fly fisher.
At the Sava Bohijnka in Slowenia the heavy-weight streamers that were widely used in previous years have more or less totally disappeared in 2018. Many anglers fish even unweighted flies now. The guides did a great job to bring fly fishers back on track to true fly fishing. Besides that, more or less all huchos are released now. Thumbs up!
True Fly Fishing for Huchos
Is it possible to catch a hucho on a fly correctly? Yes, of course, but the combination of streamer weight and the correct fly line are essencial. Your line must be heavy enough to pull your hucho streamer through the air. The shape and length of the fly line (head) is very important. If the correct line is used, the loop of the fly line is always travelling through the air ahead of the streamer and even when casting very large streamers the fly line and leader stretch in the very last part of the cast. If you want to know if your fly line works, just make a roll cast.
If the fly line is able to present your hucho streamer (which btw also applies to nymphs) via a roll cast your tackle fits and you are fly fishing for huchos.
Single or Double Hand Rod?
I use the following tackle combinations for fly fishing for huchos. Of course rods of other manufacturers can be used, too.
I just love CTS for their uncomparably perfect rods. With CTS you have the possibility to get a rod according to your preferences. With other manufacturers you get certain rod models. With CTS you simply choose a base model and you can tell CTS to make it ie one line class higher in the bottom part and two classes higher in the tip. They will build up that rod for you!
- Single hand: CTS Affinity X, 9ft. # 12
- Double hand: CTS SK 11-12ft. 9ft. # 10-12 for underhand casters
- Double hand: CTS DQ 11-12ft. 9ft. #10-12 for casters with the dominant upper hand
I use my own Hucho Rod series from CTS. The CTS GF Hucho Hunter 600 and the CTS GF Hucho Hunter 725. They are 11.6ft 6-piece double-handers with casting weights of 600 gr or 725 gr.
Hucho rods with tip action can only play their advantage in overhead casts with enough back space. For all waterborne casts it takes rods that load deep into the bottom part of the rod, ie mid-flex rods or even better underhand rods. If I had to choose between a single hand and a two-handed rod, I would choose a 11-11.5ft. two-handed rod due to greater flexibility and improved guidance. With rods exceeding 12 ft. you might experience problems with landing your catch and you can not fish that effectively along your bank.
However, fly fishers who have difficulties with casting two-handed rods, will unnecessarily generate noise that can make huchos switch into the denial mode especially in waters experiencing a high fishing pressure. Besides that other fly fishers will be very annoyed if you destroy their fishing time.
In this case, the one-handed rod is the better choice as it is in narrower waters. I have never made friends with switch rods.
in which the roll cast is of great importance and where smaller and lighter streamers can be used as the fish face a heavier fishing pressure (e.g. river Pielach/ AT)
- floating line: RIO InTouch OutBound Short Flt (single hand rod)
- clear intermediate shooting head RIO Outbound Short SH/I coldwater plus DirectCore Running Line (single hand rod)
- Double hander with RIO Skagit iFlight / RIO Skagit Max Game Changer and RIO DirectCore Running Line (only for high water levels)
Double Hand Rod:
- RIO Skagit Max Game Changer or RIO Skagit iFlight + T14-20 (2.5 - 4 m depending on the situation) for large streamers
- RIO DirectCore Running Line
Single Hand Rod:
- heavy WF line RIO InTouch Big Nasty for fishing mouse patterns or poppers
- intermediate SH RIO Outbound Short SH/I coldwater plus DirectCore Running Line
- RIO InTouch Deep 3 for deeper parts
Whether a huge hucho can be stopped in an emergency situation or not is dependent on the leader as this is the weakest part of the system. This means it should be as strong as possible. However it should break before the fly line does. The running line should be stronger than the fly line and the backing should be even stronger.
I usually fish a fluorocarbon-coated leader of 0.45mm with a breaking strength of 44 lbs which equals 20kg. My fly line and my running line have a breaking strength of 50 lbs and my gel spun backing breaks at About 70 lbs.
If your fly line breaks at 15 kg your leader needs to be weaker as you would not be happy to lose part of your system because of hooking ground. For a huge hucho and strong current this can be too weak. This does not mean that you cannot land a good hucho with it, but it extends the fighting time any might finally harm or even kill the fish some time after you released it. Hunting huchos are not leader shy but if the fishing pressure is high, the water is crystal clear and the water level is low, fluorocarbon can be of advantage.
The leader is connected to the welded loop of the fly line with a doubled-loop with Bimini Twist so the hard shaking of the huchos heads in the end of the fight can be buffered at a pinch.
Various imitations of their prey fish from 15 cm to 25 cm in length from unweighted to max 9-10 g in weight are useful. It is important that the streamer has enough volume in the water. If light synthetic hair or bucktail flies are used, you can also cast tandem flies of up to 40cm with a two-hand rod and Skagit lines. Tube flies are standard for larger flies, as for hucho fishing a very sharp hook is an absolute must and when using tubes they can be swapped quickly. If you fish with ordinary streamers and single hooks, you have to check and eventuelly sharpen your hook after every single contact with the bottom. A whetstone is a standard tool of every huchen fisherman.
Less skilled fly casters should use smaller and lighter flies not exceeding 15 cm, since large-sized flies are difficult to cast and therefore more stressful for the joints. Big eyes are very important if you tie the flies yourself, especially if you want to fish them at high water levels.
For many years I have been proclaiming fishing for salmonids with mouse patterns. Brown and rainbow trout but even grayling love mice. So do huchos. Mouse fishing is now becoming more and more popular, especially on trickier waters, and even huchos exceeding 20 kg have been caught with it. For taimen fishing, imitations of mice, rats and even squirrels (on the spinning rod) have a long tradition. For fly fishing for huchos, my Minky Mouse has to be built a bit bigger. The hooks must be very strong but not necessarily very big. The mouse can be fished on the surface or even intermediate as especially rats are good divers, too.
Since I caught my first hucho nearly 25 years ago, I have fallen for this beautiful species. It's just something special to stand by the river when it's cold and snowy, to fish successful spots carefully hoping to get the desired take. Hucho fishing needs planning. The right tackle and a few hucho streamers in which you trust 100% have to be in your jacket, and the weather must be observed.
Hucho fishing on haphazard and without observing the weather is not only not very effective, but above all, it is expensive. In some waters (ie parts of Sava) the escort of a guide is compulsory. Including license costs this makes about Eur 200.- per day, tips not included. In some waters (especially at private beats) hucho guidings are even more expensive and a package for 3 days hucho fishing may cost as much as Eur 1500.- and more. If you really want to spend it, make sure in advance if you will be really fly fishing there and not alibi fly fishing. In addition to the high costs, you probably don`t want to cheat yourself, because most insiders know anyway what guidings at certain rivers and beats are all about.
However, there are also waters that are cheaper and just as promising, as long as you are there at the right time. Some of them require a guide but you might be allowed to fish there with a colleague, too.
Fishing with a companion makes sense not only in terms of safety. If a good huchen grabs your streamer at an unfavorable spot in the river, you will not have a chance to land it without a guide or a fishing buddy. If you are alone you can only beach it (you can pull it into shallow water). Without such shallow spots, you will not have a chance without a guide, because you can not pull a big fish against the current and hand-land it at the same time. Please also keep in mind that if you fight a hucho too long, you will kill him. Huchos are to valuable to let them die!
While a salmon heading towards the end of the pool and the following rapids can be reversed by lessening pressure so he will finally remain in the pool. Doing this with a large hucho means to lose him for sure. If a huchen wants to go downstream, then he does so, unless you can stop him with full force. Giant huchos usually never turn back!
Especially when fishing for huchos your tackle must be 100% reliable even in extreme situations.
Rivers With Significant Hucho Populations
Over 60% of the waters with hucho populations are in the Balkans. Especially the Drina river system with its numerous tributaries in Serbia and Montenegro was considered the paradise for Huchen par excellence, which even let the Mongolian Taimen rivers pale. Only a poisoning of the Drina put an end to this. The populations there are unfortunately only a shadow of the past. Nevertheless, the huchos are still living there in many waters and remain the undisputed kings of the rivers.
Other waters where you can fish for huchos:
Mur (AT), Gail (AT), Drava (AT), Inn (AT), Danube (AT), Pielach (AT), Melk (AT), Lech (DE), Isaar (DE), Iller (DE), Regen (DE), Mitternach Ohe (DE), Wertach (DE), Sava Bohinjka (SLO), Sava Dolinka (SLO), Sava (SLO), Ljublanica (SLO), Sora (SLO), Kupa / Kolpa (SLO / CRO), Savinja (SLO), Drina (SER / MO), Lim (MNE), Tara (MNE), Vrbas (BIH), Sana (BIH), Una (BIH, only spin fishing, fly fishing in June, Mresnitsa (CRO), Dobra (CRO), div other lesser-known rivers in the Balkans, Boprad (POL / SK), Dunajec (POL / SK), San (POL), Don, Vah (SK), Tisa (UA ), Rio Tormes (ESP)
Information about the rivers can be found on the internet. Usually a special license is required for hucho fishing.