Salivating Salvelinus – wild trout in the Spanish Pyrenees

Let us get the monkey out of the room now. Salvelinus (named after a genus of Salmonidae distinguished chiefly by their small scales. These include the brook trout, lake trout, Dolly Varden, bull trout, and Arctic char) are the more expensive fishing operation in Pyrenees. But let’s look at the details.

Who else pays its guides all expenses to go and scout and learn waters. That includes the supply of the car, fuel and accommodation and licences. In short, they are incentivised to go and learn and get to know their waters which is why they have loyal, long-term guides.

Who else will totally change the plan, including accommodation at no extra cost, at a moment’s notice if conditions are not conducive to success with the current plan.

Who else in the Pyrenees welcomes you with no waders, no rods etc and you can be fully kitted out.

Who else ensures, other than tips, that you do not put your hand in your pocket for your entire trip (except personal expenses) even if the plans change so much that you have to move accommodation due to conditions.

Who else has systems in place to be sure nothing is forgotten before departure for fishing each day?

Who really reads and digests your pre-arrival questionnaire so that when you have said you like certain food, you actually get it!

Who provides seats and mats from the car for you sit down and put your waders on or take them off without stumbling about in the dirt by the river?

In short, there are few operations that are so complex and yet make such an effort to ensure things go right. This is an operation which takes attention to detail and maximum effort on behalf of its guest very seriously.

I am not going to run through a blow by blow of my days because admittedly conditions were poor (ironically 26 degrees and total sunshine is not conducive to good hatches at the time of year of my visit which was early March) but I was also whizzing around looking at bits of water, checking out non-fishing sites etc all packed into each day. The focus for non-fishers is equally high class with a truly dedicated team lead by María José who is ready for hiking, culture and/or wine tasting, or spending time in nature, you name it they have done the research and are truly lovely guides.

Maria and Lur, who do such an excellent job with non-fishing guests.

Your journey commences with a 2-hr flight (from the UK) to Barcelona. You can then make a choice between some time in Barcelona or a 3-hour (approx) transfer to any of the Salvelinus accommodations.  The main lodges are located in tiny towns, surrounded by the many rivers, streams and lakes of Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia within about a one-hour drive. I recommend some time in Barcelona before or after your trip and Frontiers can organise guides, hotel and restaurant recommendations etc.

The operation in Arén perhaps has the simplest accommodation but is still spacious and comfortable. There is a spare tackle and wader room, a small gym and spa too with a plunge pool, steam room, sauna and massage room where the masseuse, Lur, really does a good job. The most special part is the way they do the meals. A very short walk (I mean one minute) from the lodge is Juan Antonio’s bar and restaurant, which his family has owned since 1730! Dinners are in the Salvelinus private dining room, breakfast is in the main dining room and lunches are always on the river. The food is truly outstanding and authentic. Juan Antonio knows his wines equally well. As I have said, it really shows that guests pre-trip comments have been noted. Guests can immerse themselves in the village community enjoying the bar in the evenings or return to the lodge. 

Fishing guests enjoy various experiences depending on the time of year. Drives, or helicopter flights vary accordingly from day to day. The season can be split into three sections as follows:

Spring – March to May

Just as for the UK, weather can be variable. It could snow and it could be ridiculously warm (as I have just experienced) but if the weather is normal (10 – 15 degrees, cloudy with occasional sun) then dry fly fishing can be good.  This is a part of the season before the run-off when fishing should be good with nymphs and dry flies and streamers if you wish to fish them. Some of the most senior guides like this part of the season best because they know exactly where to go after more than 30 years scouting these waters. Rivers are generally small to medium in size not requiring hugely long casting or very heavy nymphs. At this time of year, you will fish from about 11am to 6pm with the best action from about 12pm to 4pm.

June and July

Dry-fly fishing opportunities continue but this time of year is best for high country fishing where, at other times of year, there may be snow. The fish in the high country tend to be smaller but the scenery and experience is even more attractive. It is the time of year when the use of helicopters, though not necessary, may be most likely to be well-used. This is also prime barbel dry fly time. These fish run out of the lakes, into the rivers and are extremely strong. Delicate presentation of dries can be very effective, but these fish spook easily and take off like monsters! At this time of year, unless in the highlands, guests tend to fish in the morning, have a siesta and then go out for the evening rise.

August – Salvelinus does not offer services because they consider that, due to the heat and more people around, they cannot offer the kind of Salvelinus experience they like for their guests.

September to November

This is perhaps the most appealing time. The rivers look stunning, the fish are active and take well and many of the bigger fish come out to take larger flies. Fishing hours evolve as this part of the season changes from late summer to true autumn. Siestas in the afternoon might be the norm in early September but fishing will return to a full day with no siesta and even no evening rises.

We moved to another hotel they use; a drive of about 3-hours. Such moving days can be fishing days too on the way or fish and then move or move and then fish. The hotel is set amongst the stunning pre-Pyrenean range away from everyone. The hotel offers spacious rooms and a first-class restaurant. It can either act as an alternative accommodation to Arén or one might stay here for a few days to access specific rivers. Here we saw and fished two rivers (they all remain nameless!) the first was more open with less trees, there we found some rising fish and some early barbel. On the second day which was even hotter, we saw rises but they were not sustained so we had to use a combination of a small nymph hanging off a dry. Of course, I lost the monster! We were trying to be too clever protecting the rest of the pool while trying to land a big fish.

Following a further move of about two hours, we visited another very pretty river and even saw stunning, big, wild trout rising under the bridge of the local town. This was our hottest day yet, but it was perhaps the prettiest of the rivers I saw. We did see rises but they were just that, one fish, rising once. It was simply too hot and too bright for the time of year. From here we headed back into Barcelona.

So, as you read this, you might be thinking why I remain positive about it given my personal lack of success. There are many reasons as follows:

Too much effort and attention to detail goes into this operation (founded in 1999) for it not to be real. Besides, our US Office have sent guests for years and many repeat year after year. Americans know their trout fishing, understand good guiding and are picky when it comes to accommodation!

The instructions were to bring layers and be ready for cold weather. What I actually needed was my saltwater clothing for the Seychelles! I thought about wet wading but many of the rivers are tailwaters (rivers below dams hence bigger fish) so the water is cold.

I like the species variety of brown trout (the natives ones are a Mediterranean brown trout fenotype, perhaps partially hybridized, some of them showing four darker stripes hence sometimes known as ‘zebra’ trout), rainbows (introduced some 60 years ago – some nice big ones in some rivers) and brook trout in the high country. Finally, barbel, famous for their strength and power as well as their willingness to take a dry fly.

I liked the people very much. The guides were true professionals and made every effort to achieve good fishing. They are required to follow detailed protocols which many guides I have come across may consider to be a pain and therefore be tempted to cut corners – I saw no evidence of that.

The food and the wine were excellent, and a great deal of thought had gone into all the dinners. The same was apparent with the training, focus and knowledge for non-fishers. There was evidence of real effort and passion to ensure non-fishing guests have, at the very least, an equally good time. Though accommodations varied, as did locations, they were all fit for purpose.

I am always conscious of analysing rivers and their access as well as walking and wading requirements. We discussed it a great deal. I liked the fact that they had plans for spots for the experienced trout fisher who may be less able these days. Indeed, one of the days I did, we got out of the car, crossed the river easily and fishing the large pool (with a long head, middle and tail) all day. Only the most lame fisher would struggle with such a day and we caught some really nice fish.

Photographs do not lie. The guides are wary of photos which may give away too much local knowledge and they are embracing the guidelines from Keep Fish Wet but the fish are real, as are the sizes and they are wild.

In summary, I had a really nice time. The fishing reminded me of New Zealand but less the travel (2 hours instead of 24!) and walking because cars are available to move to new pools etc. To my eye, this is not a numbers fishery. This is proper trout fishing to good-sized wild trout up to, possibly close to double figures.  They require some stealth, strategizing with your guide and decent presentation, sometimes with long leaders. The walking is not lengthy, it is however uneven as most rivers are and there is some annoying undergrowth which catches ankles and could trip you up. Be warned from a wader point of view, there is a decent amount of prickly undergrowth! If you only bring one rod, let it be a 5 weight.

Bottom line, if you like casting upstream to larger wild trout on freestone rivers it is highly likely you will enjoy your experience with Salvelinus. For further details go to the Frontiers website.

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