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Thin Blue Lines
Lithuania's 758 rivers, streams, and brooks cut like thin blue lines across the map offering a wealth of fishing opportunities.
If you were to spin the globe and place a sweaty finger on the most popular fly-fishing destinations, I very much doubt that Lithuania would even get a grubby finger smudge.
Officially the Republic of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuva; official – Lietuvos Respublika, for those of you that are not sure about it's location), is a country located in northern Europe on the flanks of the Baltic Sea. The largest of the three Baltic States, it shares borders with Latvia to the north, Belarus to the southeast, Poland to the south, and the Russian exclave of the Kaliningrad Oblast to the southwest.
Escaped the communist depression and Soviet concrete
Lithuania proclaimed its independence on March 11th 1990 as the first Soviet republic to lift the Iron Curtain and entered the European Union (EU) in 2004 after a bumpy ride through history. With all the turmoil and wars that the country and people have experienced, the land is slowly progressing. The nation’s metropolis, Vilnius is modern enough but then again, I was never a city kind-of-guy. But just around the corner, and another corner and then another, you’ll find it isn’t long before you witness the classic Soviet apartment blocks littered with graffiti and placed in undeveloped and neglected housing estates.
However, the country's 758 rivers, streams, and brooks, all over 10 km long, and more than 3,000 lakes all seemed to have escaped the communist depression and Soviet concrete.
Right up until I met my wife (a native Lithuanian), I knew very little about Lithuania except that “Lithuania is Lithuania” with no hidden extras. So I began my own secret research.
It wasn’t long before I discovered that the country hid something that ignited a spark in my mind. Like any fly fisherman, I focused on the thin blue lines in my rather super sized dog eared atlas - pages littered with notes, coffee rings and the remains of something green, hard and crusty. It’s then, the hairs on the back of my neck crackled and my interest became a zeal bordering obsession.
My exploration began four years ago in the Dzukija National Park, founded in 1991 and located in the south-eastern corner of Lithuania, covers 10,587 hectares, and is known for considerable numbers of elk, deer, wild boar, wolves, and foxes. The two main rivers that scour this landscape are the Nemunas and Merkys rivers not forgetting the endless tributaries with personal favourites such as the Salcia, Ula, and Varena that cut through the forests.
The Neris River has many fine tributaries offering brown trout and grayling but this is a scratch on a surface yet to form. The country is jam packed of “fishable” rivers and streams and during this visit, I decided to venture and explore further away from these usual favourite streams with a good friend called Jeffery Haun - an American from California, living and working as a school headmaster in Vilnius.
I took the ferry from Kiel to Klaipeda on a rather windy October night. Expecting a lumpy crossing and a rapid emptying of the contents of my stomach, I cleared the suspicious and time consuming German passport check and boarded the ferry. The ferry is no cruise liner or QE2. Basically, no swimming pool, no casino and no indoor casting pool. But it does have a bar, restaurant (with so much food that I am surprised the ferry doesn’t sink), and TV room playing tacky Russian music and that was enough.
22 hours later with a rather sore and empty stomach, I arrived at Klaipeda and spent the first night with family and consumed one excellent bottle of strong acid-laden infusion of Russian vodka.
The next morning, with a light head, I took the car journey to Vilnius, slowing and sometimes stopping, at every blue line that streaked under the motorway. All were noted and added to my already increasing list of waters to throw a fly in. The landscape had begun to radiate magnificent autumn colours but clearly, I was too early to witness the full head on explosion.
I stayed at the Apia Hotel located in the old town of Vilnius. A faultless and very pleasant hotel run by my wife’s friends and this served as an ideal central base.
At 05:00 the alarm kicked off and I got out of bed and was dressed and ready in seconds and left the warm security of hotel room, snoring wife and son. My friend Jeff was on his way in his beaten up Moroccan Land cruiser held together with duct tap, a block of wood and strawberry flavoured chewing gum (a long story), and sat in the back – his trusted fishing friend “Matuka” a rather playful black Labrador. Our intentions were to head out of the city and explore tributaries of the Sventoji River over a cup of rancid Starbucks coffee and soggy chicken tikka sandwich.
We were soon off road and blanketed in a cloud of yellow dust. Daylight was beginning to creep through the darkness and the Sirvinta river sign soon loomed out of the haze and like two pubesant school children, we jumped out of the car and got kitted up.
A low mist shrouded the water and from what we could see, the water was running clear brought about by weeks of clear skies and sunshine. From high up on the bridge, a few small fish were spotted feeding to the side of a fallen tree.
We concentrated about 5 km downstream of a small village called Liukonys. It was cold and I didn’t pay much attention to any kind of hatch, sticking to my usual favourite starting pattern - the beads on a stick. I plopped and plopped my weighted nymph a few times through a fast and deep run just below the fallen tree and sure I was getting a hit from something. It was tough spotting the take through the dim light so I tied on a size 6 white Muddler pattern as a strike indicator and took another go.
I saw that take! I lifted the rod and felt the dull jerks of something positively alive at the other end.
Not the monster I had hoped for but who can complain when a beautiful 30cm grayling comes to hand?
Jeff worked hard under the bridge. He had seen fish rising and knew it had to happen sooner or later. Rod in one hand and remarkably - coffee in the other. That’s one key advantage to Czech nymphing! His light grumbling broke the silence, “The water's freezing me winnits off” he commented.
After an hour or so with a few small grayling taken and the estimated loss of 300 metres of tippet and a bucket load of nymphs, we chatted for a while under the bridge comparing gear, the design on the coffee cup and why I could still taste the chicken tikka sandwich. We then decided to split up and search further upstream. The mist was lifting slowly but the chill was still biting through the waders and union jack boxer shorts.
I managed to find an entry point and waded in slowly, fiddling my feet forward, fishing out to the centre of the stream. Fishing from the banks was impossible owing to the dense trees and overgrown bushes.
Several small rises were spotted on each side of the stream and by positioning myself in the centre of the current would give me a good chance to flank them. My plan was to ride over them like a cavalry of heavy horse but like most fishing situations; I ended up like a five year old on a Shetland pony.
But a moment of melancholy enveloped me. I stood breathless as the sun's light bounced off the dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the waterway. I could have been anywhere. The light sound of a horse’s hoof and hard wooden wheel echoed in the distance. A distinct tat - tat - tats of a woodpecker somewhere above me. Jeff whispered from the opposite bank, “How‘s it going?”.
A rise! Jeff had also seen it. I waited a while for a second rise and stood still like a drawn archer ready to present my arrow. And again! I saw the distinct head nudge and the surface film rise.
I took three false casts and managed to present my Klinkhammer about four metres upstream of him. This was it and this warranted every gram of skill I could fathom. Mend, mend, mend - damn it - mend, mend, I paid out just enough line to keep in contact with the fly and stretched my arm out to the fullest to avoid unnaturally disturbing the drift.
Jeff had a better position than me and shouted, “He’s going for it, he’s interested, he’s gone back down!”
I didn’t see a thing. I had no idea what just happened but it sounded good. I gave it another shot.
In the course of the following half hour, I managed to move the fish and that was about it. Not a nibble.
However, I did see the fish and understood why he didn’t commit to battle. This beautiful brown had clearly seen this before. After all, he was a pretty fat specimen and built like a Russian javelin thrower who had managed to miss the last three doping tests.
In the next few hours we connected with several browns offering enough challenges expected from just about anyone. I agree that a 2lb fish is no pushover on a 3-weight rod and it is a lot more fun to catch and release a fistful of hard-fighting smaller fish than to go the whole nine yards with one biggie.
The fish offered fast and furious struggles with the odd heart stopping leap so my modest expectations were easily satisfied.
We departed and headed towards the Sventoji River to the north east of Kaunas and smack bang right in the middle of nowhere. The mere sight of this beautiful river shocked us into silence. Fast, shallow, deep, clear and truly a majestic force which had the characteristics of fish written all over it.
My bottle of cool crisp mineral water had now transformed itself into a warm, rather disgusting clear drink in the midday heat and decided to favour the inviting coolness of a beer from Jeff’s cool box all washed down with smoke and hamster crap flavoured chips.
There was no time to loose. We entered the river and waded out to the centre searching with all the stamina we could muster for a few fish the size of an ant's love muscle but all was not lost.
However, by reading the water and thinking in a calm fly fisherman type manner, I was able to locate a deep run that held fish. A planned approach was needed or I was going return home, tail between legs, begging for forgiveness.
I stood on the knife edge of a small sausage shaped sand bank looking down into this black void wondering how the hell I could sink something down there. I had no cannonballs to aid the descent of my Czech nymph rig. My mere weighted nymphs, I felt, were not enough to get down. Anyway, the proof was in the pudding.
The first few sweeps were just trial and error but soon established contact with bottom. Perfect, I thought, I am deep enough. All I had to do now was raise the rod tip slightly and the nymphs - I can picture it now - would bounce and dance rather seductively along the bottom winking to the left, to the right, as they passed.
It took a while but I managed to detect a hit in the froth and turbulent surface film and lifted the rod.
Now, at first I am not sure what I had connected with but it didn’t feel alive. The might of the river had clearly put it’s weight on the line and what could have been a 14 milligram goldfish, actually felt like a 600kg Great White Shark with a ship's anchor around it‘s neck. The rod tip keeled over, the reel drag was set on full reverse and my tri- and biceps were looking like Popeye’s right arm.
I could see a flash now and again of something silver but couldn’t tell what it was. I held the rod up high but this was proving to be dangerous with a 7X tippet and one foot slowly slipping into the abyss.
Jeff was fishing is way over in slow motion fighting the current and repeating, “Got one…got one?”
My concern was that the sandbank I was straddled on was not the ideal platform to fight this fish on and my rod arm began to shake under the weight. I transferred the rod to the non-fighting hand and immediately the fly line slipped through my fingers allowing the fish the freedom to run riot in his world and - not surprisingly - he did. This came as a blessing as a matter of fact because the fish ran downstream of me then proceeded to the right over shallow ground. I turned and stumbled over something but managed to regain a foot hold on some hard gravel and launched my body over into some shallow water adjacent to the fish. It was a brownie and a prize one at that.
Jeff stood behind me, camera clicking away. Every now and again I would feel a slap on my back and reassuring words, “great stuff…well done…no pressure…take your time”. Neither words nor physical abuse helped my situation as my only, and that’s a big capital ONLY, thought - like most of us - was I can’t loose this fish…
I didn’t see it. I was so focused on my footing that the weight my arm was experiencing, suddenly abated. Now, maybe chemically my mind was off-set from vodka and chicken tikka sandwiches?
I was sure I had the situation under control and my wing man - Jeff - was moving into formation to induce the final strike.
I could still see the fish but it wasn’t moving anywhere. It lay lifeless, void of energy and wildness just a few feet in front of me. I wasn’t paying much attention to the line or rod come to think of it. My entire concentration was focused on that darn brownie. What happened?
There was no snap - twang - ping - bang - jigger sounds what-so-ever. Simply, the fly had dislodged from its jaw and catapulted into my waders. Jeff couldn't have known. Standing slightly behind and to the left of me, he just swooped the net under the fish.
So physically how can you define that? I didn’t catch it. It had already won its freedom but instead of its flight instinct, it just hovered, mouth agape and awaited its absolution.
51cm of pure beauty. Smile, click and release. Then it was gone.
The following hour was full of my repetitive story, told in many different ways, until Jeff connected with an overhanging tree and snapped about 5cm of the tip of his rod. Luckily, a spare lay in the car but clearly, like the rest of us, he was upset and gutted.
On my return, Jeff had already exchanged his rod and was back in the water bringing a small grayling to hand.
“Shall we call it a day?” Jeff mumbled.
I felt weak and totally wasted and couldn’t summon the energy to climb in.
We walked slowly back to the car, stopping on the bridge to savour the image. The sun was setting and the temperatures were already falling and thoughts of a nice warm shower, hot meal, unopened (soon to be opened) bottle of Oban whisky and comfortable bed held fast.
Lithuania has a small fly fishing community but a very active one. There is a website for any further information on fly fishing in Lithuania. These guys are happy to help and experienced with their waters. The address is www.flyfishing.lt - the site is in Lithauanian.
Vilnius and Kaunas are the main International airports, which serve most European International airports but Palanga also has a smaller airport situated close to the Latvian border.
The only ferry terminal is Klaipeda and services operate all year between Kiel in Germany, Poland and Sweden. The crossing is over night and is a great way to relax and study the map and thin blues lines!
If your planning on driving to Lithuania - Good luck! You’re going to have to drive through Poland and that’s a nightmare. The roads are some of the worst I have ever experienced and if your preference is a white knuckle ride, then this is your ticket. Poland is building a main motorway and a good one at that, between Poznan in Poland to Warsaw but in 2005 this was far from being finished and only about 50km was completed. They even managed to pack the short distant with toll booths. The rest is still under construction. When this is complete it might be worth considering but check before you head off.
Lithuania’s roads are good but beware of some off road country pot holes that could swallow an elephant. The cities like Vilnius and Kaunas are like one big free for all stock car racing track. Lithuanian’s are fast and furious behind the wheel and be sure to pack clean underwear. Check your car insurance before you depart and update your last will and testament!
If you want to experience the rivers and streams then you will have to hire a car and arm yourself with a map and a few hundred headache tablets. Numerous car hire companies can be found at the airports and throughout the cities.
All major credit cards and Euros (EUR, €) are used almost everywhere but outside of the cities be sure to have the Lithuanian Litas (Lt) which is 100 centai to 1 litas.
Licences can be purchased from most fishing tackle shops. If not, they will help you to find somewhere that does.
Alternatively, if you plan of fishing in the many National and Regional parks, licences can be obtained in the parks main offices. Although no complete licence system is yet in force, don’t take the risk.
Licences cost from €3. Licences are available from: Department of Water Resources, Juozapaviciaus 9, Vilnius. Tel. 5 2723786
It would be advisable to hire a guide the first time you visit Lithuania. Distant Streams organises all inclusive regular yearly trips to Lithuania. For full information you can contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are planning to do some self exploration get a good map of the area you wish to discover. Although some rivers and streams are accessible, the quality waters are well of the beaten track.
There is no angling pressure and be advised to lock your car and remove all valuable items. Don’t offer an invitation.
There are plenty of reasonable hotels, farm lodges, and bed and breakfasts scattered throughout Lithuania. Even in the countryside, it is possible to find an oasis not too far from a stream offering a good service at a dirt cheap price.
A 7-9’ rod class #4-6 will be sufficient. The leaders should be tapered and turn over nicely, so you get the most control in your cast and can place the fly where needed. I used 12ft leader with a 6 to 7X tippet.
Nymphs size 14-22, Pheasant Tail, Copper John and my homemade Beads on a Stick worked well. Even emerging nymphs worked extremely well.
Dries size 14-20, small mayflies and emergers will do the job. The insect life is similar to what I am used to in Denmark and during the time I was in Lithuania I experienced some wonderful hatches in the warmth of the afternoons.
Long hi-tech underwear in your waders and a warm long-sleeved shirt. Summers can reach 30+ Celsius but spring and autumn bring favourable temperatures around 12 Celsius. Winters are bitterly cold bringing the mercury down to -15 Celsius during a heat wave. Dress to suit the weather and not to impress.
A hat, lip balm, mosquito creams and oils, and good polarized sunglasses.
Now, honesty is the best policy - or so I am told. I am not in a position to paint a picture of dream fish and the fat trophy we all seek. Lithuania, as far as I know, has no real big fish. I have been fishing the waters for number of years and have never really caught anything to write home about.
In fact one might ask why one should visit? Unfortunately, there are little or no real conservation efforts in progress to promote stocks. It seems that any funds that are available are well filtered to somewhere hidden in some private bank account.
I love and believe in the saying that “quality is better then quantity”, and Lithuania does offer some kind of quality if your eyes are wide enough to notice it.
The most interesting species are, of course, grayling and brown trout but be prepared for some surprises.
Salmon and sea trout are present in the country but it’s illegal to fish for them until stocks are at a sufficient level. I have never seen salmon or sea trout in Lithuania myself, but I am assured that they are evident but so are UFO’s.
Rules in the English language are few and far between but respect your own countries rules and be a good sport and apply them in Lithuania. Set a good example.
Pike reach unbelievable sizes and are also present in great numbers in the thousands of lakes and slower parts of the rivers. Perch, Zander, Carp and many other species can also be taken on the fly.
Ice fishing is by far still the most popular method employed by the locals.
Lithuania is covered with about 65% forest and pulsating with wildlife. Don‘t leave any litter or waste fishing line and hooks. Take note of the storks that nest on chimney’s and man made high rise towers.
Respect the people and their way of life. Lithuanian culture is rich and full of charm and the people are outstandingly friendly. The older generation have see and experienced more than we can imagine but yet they are surprisingly open to foreigners. A smile and a wave goes a long way!
The younger generation are very cosmopolitan and very Euro-minded.
Lithuanians love to eat and have an excellent choice of local and traditional dishes. If you don‘t know what it‘s like to feel full, then you will after sampling dishes like Cepepinai (grated potatoes and minced meat filling), Skilandis (smoked meats), Vederai (potato sausage), and Bulviniai Blynai (Potato pancakes) are just few. You will not have time to pack that all away.
You will get a good hearty meal fit for a fly fisherman for 20 - 50lt. That's around 1.5-3.5€ or 2-4.5 USD.
Lithuanian beer Svyturys is excellent but be sure to try local spirits like Midas, which is made from honey. The vodka is lethal. Be prepared to fly to the stars or wake up in some stranger’s bed!
There are many interesting old towns and cities, which are very rich in history. Evidence of the old Soviet occupation is still evident. Vilnius is littered with endless churches and cathedrals which display the most amazing architecture I have ever seen.
If you have the time visit the Geographical centre of Europe which is just 26km north of Vilnius, do so.
It’s not much but the photograph will aid a tale or two! Trakai castle is breathtaking and you can pick up no end of junk at the market stands there.
Kaunas, Kalipeda and Palanga and Nerja are well worth a visit but remember to take the time to stop and sample the local cafés and the delicious cakes and local cuisine.
Amber is the main tourist “got to have it”, but armed with a bucket and spade you can collect the stuff yourself (in small DNA sized pieces, so be sure to carry a microscope), from the Lithuanian shores.
There is something about Lithuania that I cannot place a sweaty finger on.
Yes, it could be the fishing and the complete solitude?
It might be the food that increases my weight ten fold?
Or it might be the beer?
Understandably you, the reader, may have no need to visit Lithuania. But whatever your excuse, there is a land over there that is raw and full of wildness and solitude and set deep in the green forests of Oak and Spruce runs a clear stream that’s all yours to explore…