Flyfishing Switzerland


Flyfishing in Switzerland

Walter Bruderer can't understand why no-one fishes Swiss rivers- they're full of trout and grayling, and cheap to fish too! From "Fly Fishing and Fly Tying" - July/August 1999

Who ever heard of fly-fishing in Switzerland? England, yes, and the same goes for Ireland, France, Spain, Austria, and at one time Yugoslavia and Italy were hot. But Switzerland is never mentioned. The reason? There has always been plenty of trout but, by tradition, the Swiss - since Roman times - were worm fishermen and have mainly fished their lakes.


Today's generation of young people are "finding" a new sport... fly-fishing in their streams. The numbers are still small, so the word is not out. Getting the information for this article was like trying to find a ski in an avalanche. The first time I really became aware of the extent of the Swiss waters was from a gas balloon as I flew across the country and over the Alps. I was astonished at the sheer number of rivers and streams. Everywhere below, water cascaded from the glaciers and quickly turned into rivers. It was so easy to see why this little country is the mother-lode of Europe's water. But how come no trout fishing?




When I rode the famous bobsleds at St. Moritz, the teeth-chattering run followed the Inn river down the mountain, ending at Celerina. A few yards further on, the river flattens out into the lushest trout water you ever saw. For the next few years and many more visits, I studied the Swiss waters from the trains, which meander along the river banks as they wind around the countryside. Nary a fly-fisherman did I see. I hiked and climbed most of the major mountains; the only use I saw the Swiss put to their waters was to cool wine bottles.



Finally, curiosity got the best of me. I went to see a friend of mine and asked him where I could go stream-fishing, with the fly for trout. This friend of mine, a great sportsman himself, looked at me blankly and asked for an explanation for fly-fishing..., he'd never heard of it.


On my next trip to Switzerland, when I flew in a glider around the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, my friend set up a meeting with a man who was purported to be one of the best fishermen in the country. Two minutes into the interview I knew - I had a bait fisherman... the wrong guy. The idea of fly-fishing this fabulous water bugged me for the next year, I asked everybody if they knew anything about it. It wasn't until the next year that I got my first real lead.


The reason it was so hard to get a "line" on fly-fishing in Switzerland is because the sport is still fairly new and its popularity is just starting to blossom. 20 or 30 years ago only a handful of "traveling Swiss" practiced the art. Although the best fishing seems to match the season in other countries, the amount of winter snow can shift the season one way or the other by a few weeks. My trip was first planned for the end of June but the water conditions were not good, so it was changed to the end of August and beginning of September. It's all quite predictable; a late ski season means late fishing.


I fished four rivers and it was as good fishing as I can remember... anywhere. The remarkable thing was also the fact that it was not expensive fishing. Actually, the Swiss don't seem to know yet what an attraction they have for the fly-fisherman. Once you are outside the metropolitan areas, living and fishing are indeed reasonable. Would you believe a license costs between SFr. (Swiss Francs) 50 to 100 a week (£20- £40); and a hotel - and I mean wonderful little hotels -just SFr. 50 a night (£20) with breakfast? Believe me, I did it!


Nesslau, at 2,500 feet, surrounded by the hills and mountains of the Toggenburg, is considered a sub-Alpine region. It is an hour and a half by Train from Zurich and is in the German-speaking north east. The Thur river that runs through the region is a classical trout stream.


Close your eyes and envisage the sensational Swiss landscape with snow-capped mountains in the distance, farms built vertically on walls of green, a place where Heidi could have lived, and you will see it all. The stream is as breathtaking as the surroundings. The Canton, or state, controls the rivers, and each one has its own system. For example, the Thur is divided and controlled by local fishing associations with a five-member board. The Thur river in this region is over twenty miles long and is divided into more than a dozen fishing associations with 230 members.



In essence, it's private water, but the hotels (and there is only one to a section) can sell licenses to their guests. Fishing at the prime time each day, I didn't see more than a half dozen fishermen on the better than two miles I fished. And, what fishing it was! It was easy to wade in boots (I took waders along to Switzerland and never used them on the whole trip) and the variety of water made it most interesting... pools, riffles, runs, deep holes, undercut ledges; and in true Swiss tradition I never saw as much as a cigarette butt on the banks, let alone trash or beer bottles. Each spring, the school children are given the project of clearing the stream of its winter debris. Every village along the stream has its own filtration plant and returns the water to the river in drinkable condition. I saw about 20 miles of the Thur. No two sections were alike and each piece of water was more exciting than the last. The fishing was much the same as in some other countries... everything seemed to come together in the evening when the dry-fly-fishing is classical.


One of the charming evenings I had was fishing the water with the chairwoman of the local fishing committee, and she really knew how to fish. There is nothing like watching a graceful woman fishing! She kept pushing me ahead saying that she can fish the water anytime. That put me on the spot to produce, and I didn't feel comfortable until after releasing a few 14-inch browns. The fishing fraternity is much the same all over. English is no problem and they want to talk the sport. They use sparsely tied small flies. In the evenings in the riffs I worked big Wulff flies with good success. The locals knew of Lee Wulff, in fact, they knew most writers.


The charm of Switzerland is that the country is so small and ist transportations system is so good that during the middle of the day, when the fishing is slow, you can act like a tourist and get back in time for the evening rise. Each day I made a midday side-trip from Nesslau and was back for the evening fishing. A 45-minute postal coach bus to Liechtenstein's capital and you can be dining at what is considered one of the best game restaurants in Europe, the Hotel-Restaurant Real. Then, down the street in Vaduz, is a collection of Rubens paintings owned by the Prince that is the envy of the art world.


An hour from Nesslau by train is St. Gallen where the first German language was written... old manuscripts are still there in a rococo library that defies describtion.


But, you might say, the places are too touristy. So let's be off to St-Ursanne, two hours by train from Zurich into the Jura mountains, close to the French border. This countryside with it's rolling hills is very much off-the-beaten track. I never did see the river or the town as the train rolled to a halt. The conductor had to shove me off the train when it stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I mentioned the hotel to the lone French-speaking cabbie and we were off. Down we went, into the valley. The winding road was not long, only down. I didn't realise until later that the "wall" we had descended in the cab was the rear flank protection of an old Roman village. We approached a gate and once inside I, with this short cab-ride, had been taken back centuries in time. This was no tourist trap... but Disney couldn't have built the set any better had stood here, unchanged, for the last 1000 years. The village sat between the wall (with its train station on top) and the Doubs river. Three medieval gates kept the world and progress out. The centre square was the whole town, and the houses made up the wall. In the center of it all was a classical example of a 900-year-old church that would bring tears to the eyes of a Gothic scholar. My hotel sat on the square next to the fountain. The Hotel des Deux Clefs had nine rooms, a bar and a dining room. On Mondays they give you a key to the front door so you can come and go as you please while they take their day of rest. But I didn't Monday off. I fished.



Before sun-up I quietly left the hotel. The Village was still asleep, all the shutters drawn. My fishing boots went silently over the cobblestones of the square. The only noise was the splashing of the fountain. Rod in hand I walked around the corner, through the ancient vaulted gateway onto the arched stone bridge that was five times as old as my Americans friend's country.


The silence was broken by the three town clocks striking the hour of six within a period of three minutes At the center of the bridge, next to the statue of St. Christopher, the two of us peered over the long-standing rail. In the pale dawn light we may have seen a rise. I climbed down the opposite bank and went to work. Walking downstream to the end of the village wall, I waded in, casting upstream and on about the tenth cast had my first fish. To my amazement, in the first shafts of sunlight, I discovered in my net not a trout, but a 13-inch grayling... my first ever.


The 16 miles of the Doubs that flows out of France into Switzerland and then back into France is big water in Swiss terms. It's about 35 to 45 yards wide and has fast runs between very long, slow pools that are lined by trees and up to half a mile long. In the morning the action seems to be in the fast water... in the evening in the deep pools.


I was told by the two gentlemen who are in charge of the river that the water is so clean and pure that naturally spawned fish will grow to better than 10 inches in two years. It is considered to be one of the cleanest rivers in Europe. It's low in phosphate which prevents algae pollution; the high calcium content makes the river self-cleaning, and nitrates keep the oxygen level high. The water is considered a grayling river, because grayling still outnumber the trout.


There is a problem fishing the Doubs. Waders are not permitted. There are two reasons: The first is that they consider waders an unfair advantage over the fish, and second, they feel that walking the stream damages the waterbed. There is a third problem, the water is so clear that since you can see the bottom you tend to get in over your boots. I fished most of the time with wet pants.


Getting the license to fish the water has its own charm. If you arrive during working hours during the week there is nothing unusual, you buy the license for SFr. 25.- a day (£ 10) or SFr. 102.- a week (£42.50) at the Environmental Office at the town square. If you arrive later, or during the weekend, it can be purchased from the village police.


In the evenings a local trout fisherman took me to his favorite pools, and they were wild. He doesn't start to fish until the sun is almost set. As the light fades the action becomes so fast that you don't know which way to cast. So many fish are rising that the surface looks pockmarked. The trick is to work yourself into the pool as far as your boots will allow and make sure as night draws on that you are in a position to cast in all directions without snagging a tree. Measure your line so you can handle it in the dark. When the light is so dim that you can't see, the fish will jump and plop scaring you half to death. The first night I was in a tangle before I knew it and missed the best fishing. The second night I carried one of those Orvis flashlights that you hold in your mouth. The light worked fine until I hollered with delight on taking a 16-incher. I'd like to report, that the Orvis mouth-flashlight floats ...


Back at the square we went to the Hotel des Deux Clefs to have the fish cooked. One of the house specialties is trout blue... it's memorable eating.



All in all we fished four rivers in Switzerland. The Inn River in Engadine is of glacial origin and has been known as a trout river for a hundred years. The river is about 50 miles long, starting in the snow-capped mountains 12 miles up the valley from St. Moritz. It forms three lakes before it reaches St. Moritz, and then flows for about 40 miles to the Austrian border. The fishing is in the English tradition of no wading. You cast from the banks, which presents no problem since they are clear. The water is clear and cold and has all the usual situations that make interesting fly-fishing, with the added factor of sensational snow-capped scenery. Because the water is so cold, the fish take longer to gain size. I never took a fish under 10 inches, but my 13-inchers were considered good fish. One problem fishing this Engadine valley is the wind. When it blows it's bad news.


But the local fishermen have come up with an answer. They have designed a special rod that Orvis makes for them. It's a very stiff, graphite seven-footer called the HRH special that's quite sensational.



The Emme in the famous Emmental (where the cheese comes from) was absolutely classic trout water. You can take a train from Berne and get off at Luetzelflueh, walk across the track to the Bahnhof hotel. It has five double rooms and an excellent dining room. Stay there for about SFr. 42.- per person a night (£17.50) with breakfast, walk 10 minutes to the river in the morning and fish upstream to Ramsei (fly-fishing only), then take the train back to your hotel. You are going to have to search the world over to find a better piece of water.


I debated long and hard before I decided to write this story. Should I tell the fishing fraternity about the gem I found? Should I treat it like woodcock cover? Well, I'll take my chances, but when I go back to these places and some foreigners come sloshing down through the middle of my pool, I'm going to kick myself.