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Angling Abroad: Flyfishing northern Spain

Skies are big and blue above the Rio Ara, one of the wildest rivers in western Europe. 

GARRALDA, Spain — This is the land of which Hemingway wrote in his classics "The Sun Also Rises" and "Death in the Afternoon."

It's the country where both Papa and his characters drank hearty red wine, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, watched bullfights in Roman arenas and caught brown trout in the unspoiled Irati River.

The fishing and the ambience remain largely unaltered.

"Not many things have changed here, at least for the setting," during the half-century since Hemingway fished in these waters, according to guide Nick Toldi of Gourmetfly.com.

"The very small villages are incredibly well kept and preserved. The mountains are wild and beautiful, like the wonderful beech forests of Ibañeta and Monte Iraty"

How good is the fishing in northern Spain along the Pyrenees?

Toldi notes that the quality of the waters is so good that in June 2003 this network of rivers and a high lake was used for the Fly Fishing World Cup.

"If one finds the results of the competition," Toldi said. "He can try to measure his own performances to those of the different teams that were competing. In any case, the traveling sportsman will find very pleasant remote nature to spend excellent outdoors moments."

My wife and I fished these Spanish Pyrenees last summer and found adventure and wilderness at every turn.

When I first spoke with Toldi on the phone months earlier, he sold me on the trip when he told me, "There is an outstanding harmony between the landscapes and the unique local architecture. The Basques have wisely kept their mountains in beautiful shape."

This area is the most primitive place in western Europe today, he promised.

Because I mistakenly put gas into our diesel van — hey, give me a break, they label diesel gasole — my wife and I nervously stopped for a couple of hours as we traveled at an 11th century fairytalelike fortress standing guard on the promontory village overlooking the junction of the Rio Cinca and Rio Ara. We left the car running (not taking any chances).

We made Sarvise by early afternoon, enough time to get settled in and take the rods to the river. We walked and fished toward the quaint village of Broto, but the river was so high and the sky so blue and the day so hot, the trout were uncooperative. We caught two fat trout the entire day.

We stayed at the charming and folksy Hotel Casa Frauca, a magnificent building with an interesting history that was rebuilt from photos after it was destroyed by the government in the Spanish Civil War.

Like most of the hotels in northern Spain, you eat at their restaurant for two reasons:

First, there are few if any other choices in towns so small the sheep outnumber the residents. Two, the food is as good as anything you'll get in bigger European cities.

A double room cost us 6,500 pesetas per night or around 35 American dollars. A fishing license for Rio Ara was 1,287 pesetas, or less than 10 bucks). That's my kind of budget.

Visitors will find the drive along the Rio Ara is as scenic as any in the United States. High mountains, frontier ghost towns, 1,000-year-old churches.

The river runs high and blue, and the fish are thick and feisty. Toldi advises that the lower Rio Ara "boasts an excellent reputation and runs free of any dam or any other kind of regulation of its course."

I had difficulty fishing the Ara in late June because it ran so high.

There are so many waters in northern Spain, the Rio Ara is just one of the fine ones. Toldi recommended the rivers near Jaca, but also suggests the Cinca heading to the Parador hotel of Bielsa. Near Navarra, there are excellent rivers above the town of Jaca, heading to Navarra. I found that just about every road crosses a river and I saw only one other angler the entire trip.

Access to public water in Europe is tricky to us Americans but not at all to Europeans. Finding parking on the narrow roads is difficult enough. But if land is not marked with some sort of warning, you can respectfully cross it to get to public water.

There are cotos, or private-club water that is open to the public, but only on certain days and with certain restrictions. There also is plenty of public water. You must buy your permits from places that don't advertise. You must buy a license from a different entity.

That's why I suggest hiring an outfit like Gourmetfly.com before you ever cross the pond to take care of all this and to reserve your lodging, all for a modest fee.

This is generally a region of difficult fishing. Due to the clarity of the water trout are quite spooky.

All towns of Navarra have a nice historical center, even if very small. Towns like Ainsa, Jaca or Pamplona are all worth a few steps and a drink at one of the old tavernas.

"Then what strikes everybody" Toldi said, "is the beauty of the landscapes seen from the main roads, the feeling of being in a remote, preserved region

We drove through Jaca in the northern Spanish frontier the next morning, through all kinds of different-looking countryside and enjoyed the often-desolate vistas. We stopped in the tiny Basque village of Garralda. Along the way, we began to see pelegrinos (pilgrims), sometimes walking three abreast in the road. Bicyclists, sometimes very old men, were also performing the Catholic pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela.

We fished the upper Rio Irati, where Hemingway and his characters fished. We caught many plump 6- to 10-inch brown trout. And one heavy trout probably 13 or so inches took my fly but broke off in the submerged limbs.

By midmorning the next day, after eating breakfast in a panaderia (Spanish for bakery) in Auritz, we fished the tiny meadow stream, Rio Urrobi.

The trout were small, but as we fished up to the ivy-covered ancient bridge from the 13th Century the water got deeper and the fish got bigger. Gray duns and red quills were hatching everywhere and the water was spotted with rises.

After a lunch in Roncesvalle, at a castle not far from where the great warrior Roland had fallen, we hit the middle sections of the Rio Irati. We drove past the cottage where Ernest Hemingway used to stay when he fished the river.

We found two different ways to the river near two small Basque towns, complete with white square houses and colorfully painted shutters with Basque names over the doors.

The river has a tea-colored tint to it. But it was so very clear, with such long, still pools, that the fish were awfully skittish and it took patience, long leaders and skillful wading to even draw a rise.

By late afternoon, the clouds moved in, the insects started hatching (an amazing variety of stoneflies, mayflies and even some caddis) and we started landing more and more trout. These were heavy-bodied fish stuffed from eating insects, especially the 1½-inch-long golden stoneflies that were landing erratically in droves.

A long dinner of trucha y jamon (trout and ham), a great bottle of Navarran wine, some brandy and the strongest coffee in the world, and the great day was complete.

Toldi is high on the Rio Irati, as well.

"Truly, it is one of the most beautifully kept regions of northern Spain and the surrounding deserves the Hemingway endorsement," he said.

"Like most European waters, the Irati is difficult to fish when no surface activity is visible and becomes quite easy to understand with a good hatch and fish rises to observe."

Want to know the difference between American anglers and European ones? Toldi casually confided that with long, 8X tippets and size Nos. 16 or 18 dry flies, most anglers should have fun. 8X tippets and fun in the same sentence?

I'd wager most American flyanglers have never fished with a 7X tippet, which is nearly invisible, I might add. I will return to these waters next summer packed with 8X tippet (if I can find a spool, that is) and armed with more patience.

Bueno suerte, amigos.

Mark D. Williams is a free-lance writer and author in Amarillo, Texas, who is penning a book about what he considers to be 250 top fishing locales around the globe. Contact him at mdwtrout@aol.com.