March 18 2011
Sitting in our local south London pub the other night, tying flies to refill our boxes for the spring hatches, one of my pals asked idly what my best fishing moment had been last season.
I threw a half-hitch onto the elk-hair caddis I’d almost finished and picked up my pint to think about that one. No doubt about it: top of the list would have to be my first trout from the Wandle, 14 inches of outrage and tortoiseshell spots, just as The Compleat Angler’s footnotes always promised. I fished plenty of other weird and wonderful places, too, while researching a book I’ve got to write by the end of August, and caught memorable fish in most of them. But then… what about Austria?
During the 19th century, a fishing-mad Tyrolean hotelier had the finances and foresight to tie up most of the angling rights on the rivers that tumble north out of the Grossglockner range into the Salzach valley. Today, his Hotel Braurup is still a destination of choice for serious alpine anglers: a hulking, gemütlich old chalet with its own beer and museum of fishing tackle, a modern flyshop, and a dedicated fly-fishers’ Stammtisch as well as a four-berth tying desk.
The Braurup divides its fishing beats into premium and non-premium waters, keeping the gentler sequences of placid pools for hotel residents, making the white-water torrents available to all. Armed with a long, light rod, I loved their slam-dunk challenge, but the best was yet to come.
On one of their high-mountain walks at the top of the Felberbachtal, my wife and sister-in-law spotted a lake. Alpine stillwaters generally fall into two categories: high-altitude reservoirs, hugely deep and largely sterile, or low-level stock-ponds, muddy and eutrophic, on the floors of the great river valleys.
But the Hotel Braurup’s Hintersee is neither. Formed by an earthquake and landslide in 1495, this is a natural high-mountain lake slowly filling with sediment from the steeply eroding peaks all around. So while the gradient around the northern outfall shelves sharply into rocky depths, the grassy southern side is boggy, braided and just barely stable, and the depth of the whole lake never exceeds 10 metres: shallow enough for plants and insects to turn sunlight into fish food, deep enough to prevent anchor ice and total winter-kill.
In the end I fished the Hintersee twice: first on a still, clear evening with the flat-calm surface rippled only by the slow rings of midging char, second through one last wild afternoon when the wind blasted spray off the waterfalls on the rim of the corrie a thousand feet above, and the pretty Pinzgau cows tried to shelter behind me as I crouched in the reedy margins.
Even with other anglers occasionally trudging past, the isolation felt complete. The fishing was unforgettable: wildly spotted brook trout, orange-fluoro char, and, rarest of all, slim stillwater grayling, stalked with gossamer tippet and tiny, winter-tied spiders rolled from wisps of purple thread and starling feather. And I still can’t imagine a better excuse for sitting in the pub on a freezing night, tying flies to catch the best moments of next season.