My original plan had been to investigate some of the big lakes of southeast Europe in Slovenia, Hungary, northern Italy and southern Austria. I’d even been as far as Lake Balaton just to the southwest of Budapest. But I quailed at the sight – a lake too far for me, I’m afraid. I decided to make my way back to Britain through Austria and stopped off at a delightful town called Klagenfurt, very close to the border of Slovenia. What a beautiful city – all open squares, cafes and music. I was also told about a fabulous catfish water – the Worther See – a place with an amazing record of big fish. I checked it out, obviously, and was impressed. A huge water but one that had some degree of intimacy with islands and bays. I fished a day or two without success and decided to move slightly to the west to a town called Villach. I’m glad I did.

This enchanting small town was well-placed for some of the most extraordinary fishing I’ve ever experienced. It sits close to the banks of the River Drau, a major watercourse that according to my map and my local information worked its way east across the plains of Hungary eventually to join with the Danube drainage basin. Here, in southern Austria, it’s still a mighty river, frequently dammed forming alternate lakes and fast-flowing, rocky stretches of water.

The first day, however, I fly fished on the Little Drau, one of the water’s tributaries. Beautiful. Glistening, crystal-clear with some of the most remarkable trout I’ve ever caught. There were the usual rainbows but others with the most extraordinary mottled markings – marble trout perhaps? And, finally, there were definitely the biggest grayling I’ve ever personally seen in my entire life. Some of them had to be five pounds, if not more, but catching them….way beyond me I’m afraid. The cost for the day was around £20 and I returned everything I caught bar a couple of rainbows which I took for my hotelier’s wife to cook for supper. All idyllic stuff.

The next day, however, is the one that I really remember when I decided to coarse fish on the River Drau itself. I bought my licence in the Town Hall, I guess it was, in Villach and drove out along the river to find an ideal place where the water was quick, deep and rocky, spewing out from one of the major dams. It was around nine o’clock in the morning and I decided to sit there ‘til six or seven before going back to enjoy an evening dining under the stars with a barbecue and glass of red! I’d been doing a lot of travelling and this day was really an excuse to put my feet up a little. Fat chance.

I was fishing pretty standard gear – heavy, quiver tip rod, feeder, six-pound line straight through, size eight hook, two grains of corn and plenty of corn going in the feeder. Nothing special, nothing fancy and I didn’t, in truth, expect to catch much at all. How wrong can a man be?

And where do I begin? Well, let me try to give you just a thumbnail sketch of the day. I suppose most of the morning was spent taking a profusion of different sorts of fish…I’d picked up quite a few nase, a fascinating species that grows to three or four pounds or so, fights very hard and has a head shaped rather like a mullet. They tend to browse on rocks, sifting algae, caddis grubs and the like. Mind you, after ten or fifteen fish averaging around three pounds, I guessed they liked sweetcorn too! I also had bream – silver bream of a couple of pounds perhaps but also some bigger bronze bream, one of around eight, perhaps even nine pounds, which fought magnificently in the quick current.

Next on the menu…brown trout and rainbow trout came along fairly frequently – generally fish of two pounds or so but I picked up one rainbow that might easily have been five pounds and nearly emptied the spool in that quick flowing water.

In the late morning I began to catch roach and what roach they were…in fact, I nearly collapsed! My first weighed in at two pounds ten ounces – I definitely weighed that one and then, shortly afterwards, I took one of just over four pounds!! At the time, I was almost sure they were our own British roach but, on reflection, I’m not quite sure now. I naturally consulted all the fish books in my possession and I’m beginning to think that perhaps what I was catching were Danubean roach, close cousins. But what the heck? What amazing fish and again a species that fought very well in the quick water.

Around about lunchtime, I began to pick up fish that certainly looked like chub to me – nothing large here, about two pounds – though I did see bigger fish top. After that, I had a pike of about ten pounds or so that attacked a small roach on the way back in and which I successfully landed! The next cast produced a quite stunning grayling that I guessed was about two and a half pounds.

In the mid afternoon, it even began to drizzle for a short while and I hit quite a few small fish, a cross between bleak and dace I guess. One of these was taken by a zander on the way in – a fish of perhaps three or four pounds – not spectacular but it fought very well. Fifteen minutes later I struck into another one, then there was a death-defying thump on the end of my line and I was playing something like a log – which turned out to be an infant catfish of perhaps five pounds. In the mood I was in, the size hardly mattered at all. I was just revelling in the elation of not knowing at all what was going to happen to me next…

The answer was barbel. A shoal of fish had obviously moved in and I took five, or was it six, in quick succession. Nothing supremely large – perhaps up to five pounds or so but still fantastic fighters in such rapid water. During this mad spell I also saw another fish top that had to be at least eight pounds, if not larger.

The weather didn’t improve much and in fact I was beginning to feel like a piece of blotting paper and decided to pack up – my mind reeling from the weight of fish I’d caught during the day. Then it happened. Three times, way out in mid river, a great silver shape at least a yard long broke the surface. A guy watching me simply said "Huchen" – the huge, Danube salmon, one of the oldest members of the salmon family left on the planet. It was a fish I’d often wanted to see and now I’d even achieved that landmark.

Back at the hotel, I recounted the glories of the day but I have to say my hosts weren’t too excited. Indeed, I was shown a photograph of a forty-pound pike caught from the same area only a couple of weeks earlier. That was followed up by a photograph of a sixteen-pound zander. Indeed, the more I investigated the less I could believe where I’d been fishing…pike to fifty pounds, catfish to three hundred pounds, barbel to seventy pounds, zander to twenty pounds, chub to nine pounds, roach to four pounds, trout to twenty-five pounds and bream to twenty-two pounds!! All from the River Drau, either from the dams or from the quick water.

It’s one of life’s tragedies, the little tragedies, for me, that I haven’t been back to that sensational valley now for well over four years. Things, you might say, have changed in the meanwhile but not according to the information I’ve had on a fairly regular basis. The river is still fishable and it sounds to be full of fish. My own recommendation would be to take your car. That way you enjoy an incredible drive through some of the most scenic parts of Europe and you are sure to have all the gear with you that you can conceivably need. Mind you, such an undertaking is difficult if time is at a premium. The obvious alternative is to fly into Vienna and hire a car there. Klagenfurt is around a hundred and fifty miles to the south along roads that you just wouldn’t believe. Accommodation is plentiful in the area and not too expensive. The scenery is wonderful and generally, the sun will be shining on you. I’m not saying, of course, that you’re going to catch fish that make our own record fish list weep but there’s a fair chance of putting a bend in your rod…I can promise you that.


DOS AND DON’TS
DO try to time your visit out of the prime August holiday period. If you can go in September you’ll find everything a lot quieter and accommodation easier to come by. My sources also indicate that the fishing is very probably better once the real heat of the summer begins to recede a little.

DO make sure that you have your licences in order. British anglers are sometimes regarded rather glumly on the Continent because, sadly, some of our number do tend to bend the rules a little bit.

DO, for the same reason, observe all and every regulation. Also, be particularly careful about night fishing whether in Austria or anywhere in Europe. Remember that it’s not allowed in many countries.

DO yourself a favour and really set out to enjoy the local foods and wines in this enchanting part of Europe. Of course, you can stick to your British staples if you like but you’ll be doing your stomach a grave injustice if you do. Get yourself a phrase book so you can work out what all the menus are trying to say to you and you’re in for a gastronomic treat.

DO try to speak to the local fishermen. If you don’t have any German yourself, you’ll find a good few of them speak passably good English and they’re the ones that can really point you in the right direction on what is a major watercourse. You’ll find they are very friendly and willing to help.

DO explore the valley itself. Apart from the big lakes like the Worther See, there are numerous smaller ponds and lagoons hidden away in the forest. Sometimes these are backwaters of the Drau and can hold some enormous fish. You might also come across some grass carp – I took them to about eight pounds on my visit.