Balkans By Boat | Kayak Angler Magazine | Rapid Media
A man wading and fly fishing. Photos by Rok Rozman

Kayak fishing to save Europe’s free flowing rivers

Parked on the side of a winding dirt road in central Greece, Rok Rozman gently packs his fly fishing into the back of his whitewater kayak. He carefully goes through his waterproof fly fishing pack, then tucks it into the back of his bright blue kayak. Two red kayaks sit nearby, resting on the round stones of the Kalaritikos River. Whitewater the colour of a robins egg washes past as I zip up my drysuit and slip into my lifejacket. Moments later we are drifting into the deep canyon of the Kalaritikos River. The flow pulls us along, as the river squeezes between the hundred - foot walls and into a paradise of steep, rust-coloured karst walls lined with electric green trees of early spring. It’s easy to see why ancient Greeks thought that gods resided in these valleys. 

As the current picks up and the walls close in, the whitewater increases, crashing over the sides of my boat. But at this low water level remains relaxed, a comfortable class II-III. Every now and then, we peer into the clear water hoping to spot the flash of movement of fish under our boats. This is a new kind of scouting for me. Kayaking I can do, but fishing is new to me. Over the next month we’ll get the chance to paddle and fish some of the most stunning rivers in Europe. This is the Balkans, and it’s a fishing paradise fit for Gods. 

About the Balkans 

The Balkans Peninsula refers to an area of southeastern Europe delineated by the east edge of the Adriatic Sea. From Slovenia to Greece the Balkans covers almost 500, 000 km2 ; area just smaller than the country of Spain. To look at a map of the Balkans an abundance of river stands out as a thick web of blue lines. European environmental conservation groups have started calling the area the Blue Heart of Europe, referring to clear creeks, steep canyons, stunning waterfalls and lush forests that make it an area like no other. Often associated with Mediterranean vacations and historic war zones the Balkans is also the source of some of the last free flowing rivers in Europe. Here, the snow that melts in the mountains flows undisturbed to the sea. In the Balkans, history and natural beauty collide. 

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The Balkans is also the source of some of the last free flowing rivers in Europe. Photo: Rok Rozman

Rivers in Danger 

Historically, this region of Europe has been actively defending their valleys from invaders for thousands of years. From Turks to Romans, both world wars and political turmoil of former Yugoslavia, foreigners have sought occupation of this area for a long time. Today, the people of the Balkans – especially those still living the traditional way of life with a close connection to nature - are fighting off a different type of invader.

Hydropower. Dodging environmental laws and largely funded by foreign investment, the lure of turning these running rivers into cash flow sees foreigners taking control over some of the natural resources of the Balkans, predominately the rivers. As some of the last wild rivers of Europe, and home to a slew of endemic and endangered plant and animal species, especially fish and mollusks, these rivers are biodiversity hotspots and remnants of the past. These rivers provide the opportunity to journey back in time, observing the life of locals who subside off the land. They also offer amazing opportunities for sustainable tourism  in the form of rafting, kayaking, cannoning and fishing. But fighting for the rivers and opposing hydro power in these regions can be tricky and political business. A more simple solution was presented to me a year ago when I became involved with protecting the river the Balkans. Maybe we can save these rivers by simply paddling and fishing them. Maybe we can show local governments and decision makers there is more value in a free flowing river rich in eco tourisms, than one clogged with concrete. Let’s use our fishing rods to fight back!

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The Balkan River is perfect for fly anglers. Photo: Rok Rozman

Balkan Rivers Tour 

In 2016 when Slovenian fly fisherman, whitewater kayaker and biologist Rok Rozman found out there were 2,700 dams proposed to built in his backyard, the Balkan Peninsula, he packed up his fishing rod and kayak and invited anyone and everyone to join him as he took a month-long tour to paddled as many Balkan rivers as he could. After 36 days of paddling 23 rivers in 6 countries, with protests, concerts and gatherings along the way, the 2016 Balkan Rivers Tour (BRT) became the biggest river conservation movement in Europe and has contributed to success in saving the Vjosa River in Albania, and drawing huge media attention to other rivers in danger and this unprecedented dam building craze. 

On March 30th, 2017 the Balkan Rivers Tour 2 kicked off, with a source-to-sea kayaking action on Slovenia’s Soča River. From the Slovenian Alps to Adriatic Sea, the aim of BRT was the same as last year; using recreation to save threatened rivers and drawing attention to rivers already affected by unnecessary hydroelectric development. The Soča River is a whitewater paradise and a river with countless easily accessible sections for world-class fly fishing. Home to many fish species including marble trout, Soča grayling and rainbow trout, the ‘Emerald River’ has camping and cabins along its edge and offers an excuse to explore Slovenia and Italy with a rod in hand. 

As a whitewater kayaker and freelance writer volunteering with BRT remotely from my home in Ottawa, Canada, I was offered the incredible opportunity to join the tour this year as the BRT media team writer. Using whitewater kayaks as a tool to access remote fly fishing rivers in the Balkans, we spent the month paddling and fishing rivers, sharing these unique pieces of remaining wilderness and demonstrating to local, regional, national and international decision makers, that there is more value in the tourism and fishing potential of healthy and free-flowing rivers, than the short-sighted decision to dam and destroy them. 

After the Soča River action, we traveled to Greece by ferry, and took off in search of mountains, rivers and fish. Putting on the Kalaritikos River the day we landed in Greece, we knew we were in a special and exceptionally stunning region as we navigated the tight switch backed roads down to the river. But pushing away from shore on the Kalaritikos, we had no idea the picture perfect fly fishing shoals that the river would present. Around every corner was a spot worthy of stopping to fish. When the Kalaritikos joined the Arachthos River, the flow and fishing spots just kept coming. 

After two days on these two mythical rivers, we traveled to the Voidomatis River. The river rewarded us after the long hike down from the mountaintop town of Vikos with clear pools and playful whitewater. Under trickling rain we paddled through boulder gardens with tree cover so thick it formed a canopy overhead. Drifting through pools so clear we could see the shadow of our boats on the pebbled river bottom. And fishing wherever we wished to pull our boats ashore. 

By accessing these fishing spots from a whitewater kayak we were able to reach places otherwise completely inaccessible by car or even foot. With the ability to cross even strong currents, we were able to put ourselves exactly where we wanted to fish. We may have been the first people to fish these pools, a humbling experience for sure. 

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Photo by Rok Rozman

In the following days we explored the deep canyons of the Aoos River which demanded significantly more whitewater kayaking competence than previous rivers. Huge boulder gardens, small drops and rapids peppered with sieves meant we had to be focused. However the lower sections of the Aoos offered riverside fishing beneath an ancient bridge just walking distance from the picturesque hillside town of Konitsa. 

Greece proved to be a land of fishing possibility and a paradise of river exploration. Even with lower-than-ideal water levels, the quality of the whitewater in Greece and the welcoming river community made it hard for us to move north to Albania. As we crossed the border, the contrast of the clean, clear rivers of Greece was felt strongly as we passed riverbed after riverbed clogged with garbage, trees dangling with plastic bags of every colour. Exploring the Vjosa River, the Mati canyon and the Valbona valley, the threat of construction and destruction by private hydroelectric development was visible everywhere. There were bulldozers in these paradise valleys and the irreversible damage we saw added fuel to the fire and strengthened the desire to protect them. (possible link t video in web)

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In the Balkans, hydropower has a reputation of corruption. Photo by Rok Rozman

Fishing to Save Rivers 

Hydropower is too often promoted, as a ‘green’ energy source that provides needed electricity to local populations. Unfortunately, it is often the case that hydro power dams run significantly below their intended capacity, creating power sold to foreign grids. In the Balkans, hydropower has a reputation of corruption and violations of environmental legislation creating massive and lasting environment and ecological effects. 

The species of fish in these rivers changes from one river catchment to another from Slovenia all the way to Greece. The diversity of fish species in these rivers is extraordinary and the region hosts one of the most diverse number of trout species. Marble trout are the most renowned fish in the Adriatic drainage and have many sub species found in different rivers. In Slovenia’s Soča River, marble trout have been caught weighting up to 20 kgs. The rivers that flow free of dams into the Adriatic Sea are home to unique sub-species of grayling, softmouth trout, and dentex trout among others. On the other side of the Dinaric Alps where rivers drain into the Black Sea, rivers are home to brown trout and the king of European rivers; the Huchen or Danubian Salmon. Growing up to 1.5 meter and weighing up to 30 kgs huchen populations are largely declining due to dams blocking spawning and migration paths. There are still some very healthy populations found in Slovenia, Bosnia and even Montenegro.

Our goal in touring the Balkans with boats and fishing rods is to generate attention to the destruction of these pristine rivers. We also hope to instill a thirst to explore these areas. Seeing the potential for long-term international fishing –based tourism in this region can help persuade decision makers that fishermen will bring more money to their region and country, than hydro power will. 

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Maybe falling in love with the Balkans will spark a feeling of duty to protect it? Photo by Rok Rozman

The Balkans provides a connection to the past, and a chance to explore old cultures in new ways. There are few places in the world where locals will invite you into their homes, offer you a glass of rakija, or even treat you to a locally grown lunch, displaying the purest and most honest hospitality. Multiple times along the tour we tasted – literally – this local kindness. Even language is no barrier for their warm hearts and honest desire to share their river. Increased ease in accessibly through rental cars and online resources makes getting your flies wet in the Balkans easy. It’s landing a big one on your hook that will take patience. But reeling in a big one means you have earned the catch of wild fish, not a stocked replica. 

After experiencing and falling in love with the Balkans during my time there, I am confident that the people, the rivers and the culture will steal your heart too. In the Balkans it’s like time stops. The pace of life slows down and scenery swallows you up. Maybe falling in love with the Balkans will spark a feeling of duty to protect it? Maybe we can use fishing rods as a way to defend rivers? Maybe, by the simple act of fishing a river, we can save the river. 

With the sun dipping close to the rim of the canyon, we pack up our fishing gear. Snapping on my spray skirt I float into the current, letting the water spin me slightly, craning my neck to gaze up at the towering walls lit up by the golden light of late afternoon. The thought of a wall of concrete here is sickening. The idea that sharing these rivers with anglers can have a positive impact on the protection of these ecosystems seems almost too simple. Fishing to save a river? Kinda like catching two fish with one hook, eh?

Balkans Info

Stay | Greece; Hotel Teloneio, in the town of Plaka beside the Kalaritikos & Arachthos Rivers 

Montenegro; Camp GRAB on the Tara River

Albania; Journey to Valbon, a cabins and campground on the Valbona River

Eat | Burek - Pastry made of a flakey phyllo and baked with many varieties of cheese, meat or spinach fillings. Each region and each bakery in the Balkans has their own spin on this traditional treat. Breakfast lunch or dinner, börek is a must taste. 

Drink |Rakija - Homemade liquor often produced using plumbs or the most accessible or in-season fruit.  Tastes will differ based on the method of distillation and the selection of fruit used. Served in pubs, as a greeting for guests, and used for medicinal purposes.

Say | Na zdravje (Naz-drah-vee) - Often accompanied by music, laughter, positive vibes this universal Balkan word for cheers will most likely be followed by the clinking of glasses. Bonus; Doubles as bless you when someone sneezes. 

Bring | Bring a variety of flies, from dries to nymphs and streamers, as rivers differ greatly between regions. For huchen or big marble trout large, long tube flies (up to 15 cm) are ideal. Both floating and sinking fly lines are recomended and range of tippets. Use a rod case to protect rod and reel and pack light and tight to conserve room in a kayak. A dry bag or watertight fly fishing hip bag is idea for tackle. 

Fish | For more info on the fish species in Balkans, go to:

Discover | As tourism begins to develop in the Balkans, guides will pop up but for now, your experience will be richest if you explore, adventure and drink up the culture with an open mind. Local paddler and owner of Via Natura rafting company and campground, Nicos, will show you around the Kalaritikos and Arachthos Rivers even taking clients down the river on a raft to fish along the way. 

Go | Huchen spawns in mid April – mid May and fishing season is best in late autumn (i.e. Nov-Feb in Slovenia) but can vary depending on the stretch of river and local fishing club regulations. 

Trout spawn in Dec and their season opens up in Mar or Apr and ends in Oct or Nov. 

Grayling spawn in May and June but are open to fish the rest of the summer and in the early spring.

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