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Karel Liška was huge in many ways, the pioneer of Czech fly fishing who was also a beekeeper, liked tarot games and was an virtuoso zither player.
The first recorded use of an artificial fly was by Roman Claudius Aelianus at the end of the 2nd century. He described the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River (Greek).
Here in the Czech Republic the story of fly fishing started a lot later. At least if we talk about the "English" style of fly fishing with wooden rods, line from horse hair or silk and a reel - a wide drum which spooled out freely. It's no more than 130-140 years old maximum and one of the first and biggest fly fishermen here in the heart of Europe was, without a doubt, Karel Liška.
When saying ''one of the biggest'', I mean it very literally.
He was 240 centimeters tall
(7 feet 10.5 inches) and weighed about 140 kilos (300 lbs). He was born March 18th 1863 in Skola, situated in Galicia. Back then a big part of Europe was united under the Austro-Hungarian empire. Therefore his family was free to move to any other part of the monarchy, and so they did. They relocated to a little town called Strážnice in the Moravia region. Karel grew up here, studied in an agricultural school and learned about his passion, fishing, specifically on the Moravia river.
Around 1890 he inherited a water mill from his grandfather František Walda.
The mill was located in Dobřív on the Klabava, a river in the western part of the Czech Republic 70 kilometers from the river Otava in Žichovice – the place where he laid down the cornerstone of Czech fly fishing.
He rented a 7 kilometer stretch of this river for a time period of about 26 years - 1906 to 1932. The rental fee was 10 kilos of brown trout per year and the contract was always signed for 12 years at a time.
To describe his personality, let's say he was a huntsman. He had grown alpines in his garden, he was a beekeeper, liked tarot games and was an virtuosic zither player. He loved hunting dog breeds, especially Dachshunds. And He was an old bachelor. As one quote says: "Bachelors have consciences, married men have wives." So clearly Karel Liška too had a conscience.
He became very passionate
about the modern “sport“ way of fishing, fishing for pleasure and competition, mainly fly fishing.
Using thin, weak lines.
Give the fish a chance.
Catch and release.
Don't fish during spawning or during drought.
Protect the waters and its inhabitants.
...and so on...
We all know to respect and follow these rules nowadays, but it's necessary to realize that back then the normal way of fishing was to use traps, fish baskets, spears, or even poison. Here is a recipe for all: mix earthworms with "true lover's knot" (a poisonous flower), throw it into a river… and wait.
Liška was constantly trying to change this way of behavior. And as he used to say: "Every fisherman should first of all be a good character, an expert on his hobby and an unselfish improver and protector of the waters."
Liška had been learning foreign languages
so he was able to study foreign fishing literature. He subscribed to the Fishing Gazette journal from London. He was also the very first Czech fly fishing writer, best known as the author of "Sport Fishing For Trouts", published in 1926 by A. Neubert, Prague. He really was one of the fly fishing pioneers.
In the whole of Austria-Hungary, there was only one Fly Fishing shop, the Wollzeille in Vienna. They also sold his fly the "Liška Hackle". But the shop was far away and it was too expensive for Liška. So he started building, innovating and repairing all the tools that he needed. He himself had only one rod with black leather grip with only one cane tip, equipped with an English reel, priced at 4 UK£.
Liška was often fishing "wet" - just wearing wool stockings and leather hobnailed boots. An upright hat, size 65, was an integral part of his outfit. He was wet wading well into his 70's.
Liška created the first
"Fly Fishing School" in the Czech Republic. He used to take his scholars to practice casting with fly rods on a nearby meadow where the fly wasn't allowed to hook the grass (allegedly as it was practiced in England), and in a backyard, casting at a mark - a box of matches placed further and further away.
In the beginning he did not allow his students to fish. Liška only let them carry the equipment, help landing a fish or untangle lines. However, he had no problem with sending one of his students to shoot a twelve-pointer deer. For a nice fish he would then give a twig from the alder. It was clear that true focus from students made him happy. And the biggest joy of his was to watch others fly fish.
He wasn't really an intensive fisherman, he would sit down on the bank and watch the river, the sky and nature.
Let's mention a few
sentences of his own:
"If there's anything that brings you joy and there is time for it then don't hesitate to enjoy it."
"Look boy, here in my place everyone can do what want, and we wait for no one with lunch or dinner. In case you are late, it will be in the oven."
"Winter is the season I am the least fond of. Each year I cannot wait till the cherry blooms by the wall". Each year he'd waited till the cherry bloomed to go fly-fishing for the first time that year.
There was a lot
of fly fishing visitors at Liška's house on the Otava river from all around the world, some of them famous. Just to name a few here: Sir George Russell Clerk (a British diplomat), B. Lockhardt, Chichester or Mr. Butterwreight.
Let's let one of them say a few words:
"I have no better memories than one November evening on Otava river with a winter, blood-red sun shining on white walls of the Rábí castle, accompanied by cold air so sharp it bit your face, but with no wind at all so nothing disturbed the calm, the quiet flow of the river besides of gentle circles created by the fish.
Heavy basket and light heart and later dinner at our warm shelter of our cottage with fresh grayling baked on butter along with noble pitcher of Pilsner. My dream river in Czechia has always been the Otava which, to me, has been the ideal one. It's been the perfect one for a trout fisherman. It stems in the Šumava silence and every each yard provides the perfect fisherman's field. It really is a noble river for it's intact solitude, sublime more than Spey..."
A memory of Karel Liška is carried in the same positive tone:
"He is a splendid type of a Czech and one of the real fisherman who is just as happy with their rod as they are without it. In this life he discovered the secret of happy observation of water running and for his heart being golden, he will, one day, also fish in the calm waters of Elysium".
Well, Liška's biggest dream
was to catch an Atlantic salmon on a fly. He never did, never landed one. A few times he had one on the hook. There was only one Otava salmon caught on a fly in history. It was 6.5 kilos and the fly was a Grey Drake tied on a hook size 14. Although it wasn't all that bad back then, with salmon on Otava, most of them were killed just after they had gotten into the river by spears called "krondle" and hay-forks. However, salmon numbers were declining rapidly anyway, mainly because of river blocks and pollution.
Liška and his friend, pharmacist Gabriel, built a salmon hatchery in the basement of the Žichovice castle. About 7,000 of small salmon were hatched in local hatcheries. It caused a big salmon run in the Otava river in 1895, the biggest one in 20 years, where about 600 salmon returned. But in 1934 the Střekov dam was finished and thus the run of salmon stopped.
In Žichovice, the very last salmon was spotted and killed with "krondle" by Matěj Hlavsa, its year of grace being 1936. The last salmon of the Otava river was recorded June 19th 1941 and weighed about 6 kilos.
Karel Liška died at the age of 72
in Dobříva on May 30th 1935. He once announced that he'd like his remains to grow into a tree in which birds could nest and sing.
Great Britain had Izaak Walton. Here in the Czech Republic we had Karel Liška and I'm pretty sure you had some pioneers too in your country. Maybe they are long forgotten, but they did their job, that's for sure.