Adventure beckons in Europe, where enticing tales of Albanian trout lure Tobias Coe to a remote valley and its glacial river
One of the most treasured aspects of fly-fishing is the excuse it provides to travel to those lesser-fished rivers that run through far-flung valleys in exotic corners of the world. Granted, there are parts of this country one can visit in pursuit of trout and salmon that are as breathtaking as any foreign field. But there are also those places that are relatively unknown and wouldn’t immediately strike the keen angler as fishing destinations for the adventurous such as Eastern Europe: the home of the Albanian trout.
ALBANIAN TROUT FISHING ADVENTURE
Over the years, I have embarked on a few oddball adventures with a good friend of mine, Howard Day, to unknown fishing locations that have at times unveiled some surprisingly good sport, as well as trips where a lack of fish has resulted in the sense of adventure and scenery taking centre stage. The decision to travel to Albania was to fall into the latter category, but it is a place of beauty and potential. This rugged Balkan country sits across the Adriatic Sea from the heel of Italy and is sandwiched between Greece, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro.
The journey started when Day received an email from Zafir, a former rafting and kayaking guide in Albania. It’s a place I’d wager most anglers wouldn’t consider a fishing destination. Zafir had explored the rivers and streams of the country since he was a child and, in addition to working as a DJ and events organiser by night, was starting up work as a fly-fishing guide.
After several more messages and exchanging information on the potential fly-fishing adventure, a couple of months later we found ourselves on a flight out to Tirana, the capital of Albania. With the inevitable airport faff out of the way, we met Zafir. Even before we’d made it to the car, his enthusiasm was evident and he started telling us stories of the rivers he fished and the trout in them. Some rivers, by his admission, held limited potential as decades of overfishing using nets and even dynamite had taken a toll on the fish populations. Other rivers were, he said, relatively unimpacted and still inhabited by healthy numbers of trout, some of which grew to a large size. The fish in these rivers were a combination of native brown and marble trout – similar to those found in nearby countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.
As Zafir continued to weave tales of rivers replete with trout but untouched by anglers, our journey took us out of Tirana and into the Albanian Alps. Situated in the north of the country, near the border with Montenegro, these mountains are some of the most unspoiled in Europe. Characterised by steep, karst-derived topography, they are very sparsely populated.
As we made our way up a twisting road towards a pass into the mountains, the lack of any significant population was abundantly clear. Villages were tiny, appeared nameless and often comprised only a handful of houses. Agriculture was small-scale and largely appeared to be subsistence in nature. The overall feeling was of a landscape where the shadow cast by man was limited and dispersed.
Once at the top of the pass we stopped to take in the view, pulling in beside a rusty old bulldozer that had been left in what was presumably a convenient spot. From our vantage point, we looked out over a vast, winding valley that sloped down to our destination: the Shala River. Snow still lay on the tops of the highest mountains and the gentler hillsides were covered with a dense pine forest.
We headed on down into the valley where we eventually reached the Shala at the little village of Theth. It is the only settlement of any size in the area and a short distance downstream of the river’s origin in a large bowl in the mountains. The village, more akin to a hamlet, was a loose scattering of a few houses interspersed with the odd bar and guesthouse. The river ran through the middle of it, bright blue in colour and tinged with the opacity of glacial meltwater. It alternated between short, deep pools and fierce cascades as it periodically steepened around a morass of boulders.
We followed the Shala down to our home for the next few days: an old farmhouse not far from the river. It was surrounded by a patchwork of small fields, some barely larger than a British suburban garden. Chickens scratched around the rock boundary walls and the base of fruit trees, the branches of which sagged with the weight of ripening plums. After introductions to our hosts were complete, we headed out to fish the last few hours of the day, heading up a small, clear tributary that ran close to the farm. We found a few rising fish, but exhaustion got the better of us and we returned without properly hooking anything.
The next day, after a simple but tasty breakfast of homemade bread, cheese and jams, we set off to fish the river downstream of where we were staying. On our way down the valley road, we passed a steep section of river where the water tumbled between huge boulders and the side of a sheer rock face. The space between the boulders was a series of deep, frothing pools. It was home, Zafir told us, to big marble Albanian trout. Despite this temptation, the difficulty of just getting down to the water, let alone trying to make a cast, meant that we didn’t bother any trout resident in this watery maelstrom.
The areas we did fish were the pools and runs where the river gradient flattened and the water was ‘softer’. We alternated between prospecting with dry flies and fishing through likely looking runs with nymphs. The fishing was tough. We only saw the odd fish rising and managed just a couple of small trout to hand. That evening we fished at a river junction just down from our host’s farmhouse. The small tributary we had fished the first day joined with the main river, creating classic ‘junction pool’ conditions that any avid salmon or trout angler will be familiar with. While we winkled out a couple more trout, given how good the pool looked and the tales we had been told, I couldn’t believe we didn’t catch more.
As I worked my way up towards the head of the pool, Day came walking down the bank towards me, his gait that of someone with news. It transpired that as he fished upstream he had stumbled on a gillnet with several trout tangled in it spread across the channel. A highly effective method of fishing, which Zafir had assured us didn’t occur in this valley and was one of the reasons he had brought us here to fish.
We went to find Zafir to tell him the news. He appeared quite shocked and also confused that we had found this. On investigation, it turned out that the culprit was our host at the farmhouse, who was simply “catching a few Albanian trout for dinner”. In somewhere so remote with limited links to the outside world (our hosts travelled out of the valley only a handful of times a year, we were informed), trout are still a valuable food source. Subsistence fishing for them was clearly the reason why we had struggled to catch a great deal through the course of the day.
Our enthusiasm was dampened slightly by this finding and the next couple of days were an odd mixture of disenchantment (with the fishing) and enchantment (with the surroundings, people and wilderness in which we fished). We picked up a few fish here and there but the only sizeable trout we saw were in a deep pool beneath a bridge. Even when we stood a good distance away, they seemed agitated and restless, perturbed by the presence of people nearby.
As we headed out of Theth at the end of the trip, we discussed our experience of the past few days. Albania is a stunning location, remote, unspoiled and blessed with spectacular scenery. With the right management, it could be a wonderful fishery with the potential to bring in anglers from all over Europe. It would, however, either require the netting of the river to stop or a move in location to somewhere where a complete lack of people meant there was no extractive fishing pressure.
Zafir assured us that there were places like this in Albania. He told us of an incredibly remote valley that could only be reached by a day’s hike and where there was no human inhabitation at all. He had fished it only a couple of times but said the numbers of Albanian trout in the river were incredible. Alternatively, he said it was possible to fish further along the Shala River by rafting down and fishing on the way, a trip he was able to organise and run due to his extensive rafting and kayaking experience. This latter idea sounded promising but Covid thwarted our plans to return to Albania and see these remote rivers. They are still there, though – it just needs an adventurous angler or two to go out and see for themselves.
NEED TO KNOW
There are regular flights to Albania from Luton and Gatwick, with no visa requirement. The people are welcoming and happy to see tourists. The optimal time to visit the country for fly-fishing is in the summer between June and September. Albania has a wonderful climate and the weather in the summer is sunny and warm. Howard Day (email@example.com, 07880 887712) can potentially help organise a trip.