On an early morning in late fall 2019, I was driving with two friends from my family’s small country house in northern Italy toward the town of Bassano del Grappa, where we were meeting our two fishing guides. The axles of the car swung through every turn. The road was surrounded by dolomite walls and valley floors of vineyards and greens.
Passing through villages no more than toothpicks wide, we crossed the Brenta several times, crossed old wooden bridges and new steel bridges with the water flowing below. The river twists from two quiet lakes in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of the Italian Alps, and after more than 100 miles it drains itself into the Adriatic.
After an hour’s drive we came to the bend of the river where we were fishing that day. The sun was barely crowning the horizon. We were only allowed to fish in this very specific stretch of water outside of Bassano, a requirement of the country’s strict permitting and fishing controls. The regulations make for good fishing and a protected ecosystem for the river.
Italy has never appeared on lists of the best fishing places in the world. Wyoming? definitely. Argentina? Naturally. New Zealand? no doubt. But the Italian Alpine fishing marvel is now well known thanks to the tourism campaigns launched in the past five years and the proliferation of guides offering tours that mix traditional fly fishing with cultural outings.
Aside from the cool factor of accessing the reaches of the countryside tributaries near Roman ruins and a potentially luxurious if low-key packed lunch, Italian fishing is three-dimensional: accessibility (although permits are painless for guests and residents alike). Both, the rules are extensive), the bounty (recent fisheries management efforts have made northern Italian waters a trout paradise) and the rolling seasons (trout and tartar from January to October, rainbow trout from February to October, salmon from May to October and pike) from May to December.
But the real beauty might be this: “The fisherman can say, ‘We’re going to Italy!'” “He can fish and the rest of the family thinks they’re just on vacation,” said Angelo Beller, who runs a fishing inn, handicraft shop and extension service in Pive di Cadore, about two hours north of Venice.
When we got to Bassano, we walked along the water’s edge through a path surrounded by stone walls. To get to the Brenta River, we first had to climb up a stone wall and then lower ourselves into the river’s brackish water.
Fly fishing is associated with waders, hats brimming with hooks that resemble various insects and skillful wrist work. But this was more. When the water reached my chest, I walked further into the river. Downstream was the Ponte degli Albini, a covered wooden pontoon bridge with the oldest version dating from the 11th century AD and named after Italian mountain military forces. I could see streaks forming outside the Nardini distillery, where we would soon see patrons clutching glasses of grappa and two winters of cider. Behind the waterline pierced a series of towers, a castle and curtain walls.
Fly fishing uses an artificial baited reed with a hidden hook, known as a fly. A brightly colored fly is thrown into running water (a river or stream) and is drowned and rolled to attract fish, mimicking the appearance of an insect or other prey. attached to the fishing line is a buoy that helps the fisherman know when the fish is biting; split shot weight, which helps to adjust the depth of the fly’s water; Then the fly itself is independent of the other two parts.
The float and split shot work in tandem to offer more tolerance when a fly is thrown into a stream or river. Adjustments can be made to lower or raise the fly, and when a fish is bitten, the angler knows when to slip the line.
I thought myself a decent angler, familiar with what I thought was my only fly-fishing technique, until our guide Matteo de Falco handed me a 10-foot pole and wished me my first good staff. I looked at him in confusion. The pole was huge, much taller than the 8 foot poles I often used.
Many fishermen who fish in the Dolomites do so using a method that dates back to the late 19th century and adapted from an ancient American technique known as nymphs, after the type of flies required to angle in shallow waters.
The first written mention of the technique was in the 1920s, according to George Daniels, the lead instructor for the fishing program at Penn State University, which teaches fly fishing courses and runs a full-time fly fishing and extension education service called Livin On The Fly. Frank Sawyer, creator of a famous fly called a pheasant’s tail nymph, wrote of using an 11-foot pole with particularly long leaders (the working end of the fishing line, hard for fish to see and where the flies get stuck) while fishing in English chalk streams. This technique was called the European nymph. “This tactic is so good that many fishermen do nothing but the euro nymph,” Mr. Daniels told me.
The European nymph technique is not about chasing a trout in a slow pond, standing for hours waiting for the fish to meet the fly. It is a more aggressive and faster action, throwing many molds into fast water directly at a fish, never impatient, always catching.
In Patagonia, I once caught trout using a tin can wrapped with fishing line. In Alberta, Canada, the winding thread of an ordinary fly fishing rod was tossed in clear water for hours without the slightest hint of a bite. This nymph was another technique.
“This technique is special and it is starting to become more popular because you can catch smaller fish, lighter flies, good sensitivity and the ability to catch two flies,” said Diego Rygi, one of the well-known aviation personalities and guides. From his office in his home in Tre Ville, 2,707 feet above the Sarca River in Trentino-Alto Adige. In 2019, he sold 12,000 flies across greater Europe through his Mosca Tzé Tzé website.
Hunting for European nymphs is hunting by sense: no strike indicator, no separate shot, but a taller leader and two or more flies that sink faster. The line tension is felt by the fisherman, which is more related to everything that happens below the surface and is largely responsible for the progress of the fly as it crosses downstream. It’s more difficult, but some hunters argue that without all the semblance of “advanced fly fishing,” this comprehensive method gives better results. It is also the international standard for competitive fly fishing, in which the use of strike indicators is usually prohibited. A very simplified interpretation of European nymph fishing is this: It is a reductive, pure fly fishing technique, stripped of the hardware that does a hunter’s catch.
he caught me
We had a successful morning, catching brown, gray trout, a hybrid between marble and brown trout, all of which we released back into the stream. It was as if every time Mr. de Falco cast his line he would bring him down near a fish, and somehow receive blows to his line like a commercial fisherman clutching a net.
Eric Sanders, an American who serves as a liaison for foreigners seeking Italian fly fishing, has linked me to Mr. De Falco, telling me that he “has the ability to sense where the fish lie. It happens to be 10 percent of trout.”
Around lunchtime we climbed out of the water and sat down to a meal overlooking the Brenta River, which felt like a cool breeze on our backs. As our second guide, Ricardo Nalin, prepared a lunch of salami, asiago and beans with sausage, Mr. de Falco distributed cups of cabernet. He stopped mid-casting and pointed at the floating chub nearby, calling him “Bastardo.” And set out in a sermon on the nuances of catching a “very smart fish.”
You can fish alone in Italy, but the regulations for where and when you can cast your line are very precise: in this stretch you can fish, but in this 100 meters you cannot; Here you can kill, but you can not at a height of 10 meters; Here you can fish only an hour after sunrise to an hour before sunset, and only on these dates.
Local guides like Mr. de Falco proliferated in the years before the pandemic. Guides are easy to find with a quick online search and cost between $300 and $400 per day per person (which includes lunch, but not hog rentals or boots), with discounts for groups and reservations longer than three days. Companies like Orvis have begun promoting hostels and guidebooks in the area. Global travel restrictions decimated the local guiding community, whose clients were mostly foreigners. The guides have continued hunting on their own, for fun, and their calendars are now filling up as visitors return from the EU, UK and North America.
As we ate, we watched Mr. de Falco cast his line from the observation deck where we sat overlooking the river. He dipped the line into the clear water, so that it could be seen straight to the rock bottom. He tracked the fly in front of the trout, which had bitten. Mr. de Falco pulled the string and brought the fish to us before throwing it back. Celebrate with Grappa and coffee from a carafe on this mini butane gas stove.
Strada Running along the river was busier now. The men stopped at the waders to ask Mr. de Falco about his Sky Italia TV show, “Pesca TV,” and asked for advice on fishing that day. He knew everyone. And most importantly, he knew where to find us more fish.
The sun crept out of sight. Near the end of the riverwalk, one of my friends launched the telescopic end of his rod into the water, separating it from the rest of his gear. The two of us had tangled our lines after a miserable team. Storefronts reopened for Italian lunch hours, and shoppers took to the streets.
On other fishing days, we’d stop at the distillery, where they served up their signature rhubarb and Grappa bitters mixed with juniper, licorice and other flavors, or have our lunch of polenta inside a 300-year-old home, near the wine cellar.
But this afternoon, we simply moved up the river, away from the old bridge.
and ecco (the Italian equivalent of voilà), the fish!