By José Rodrigues
Wine and wild carp
So many different factors play a role in this little game and yet all you need is a rod and some luck. Well, most of the time anyway. There are certain conditions in and out of the water that have to met if you want your sight fishing trip to be successful. Let‘s take a look. The idea of Fly Fishing for carp is not really new or original. Rather, it seems to me, it is a sort of fashion trend that has fishermen- and women going nuts with all sorts of different methods and technique in the whole of Europe, or maybe even the world. I‘m proud to say though, that the techniques used here in Portugal are quite special. You can‘t fish many spots the way we fish ours!
You‘ve heard about Portugal – few rainy days, almost 250 days of sunshine per year. The beaches, the old cities of Lisbon and Porto, the impressive monuments, the lovely countryside and the loveliness of the people. There is a reason Portugal has won the World Travel Awards for best holiday destination for the second consecutive year… but let‘s take a look at what I‘m sure you‘re more interested in.
A little more than an hour‘s drive from Lisbon we enter the heart of the Alentejo, which during the summer is like a savannah, decorated with ancient olive trees and aged cork oaks. The Cork Oak is an astounding tree, protected by law and producer of the well-known Portuguese cork, which for instance is used in the manufacturing of rod handles. You might even be looking at your rod now and be like: “Oh, that‘s where that‘s from.”
The Alentejo (Portuguese for „beyond the Tejo“) is the largest and least populated region in Portugal and stretches from the Algarve in the south up to the Tejo valley with its gentle hills, olive groves, cereal fields, vineyards and cork oak forests. Between fertile grasslands, the white villages and towns shine, where life goes its own, leisurely way.
As we stroll through the field we catch a glimpse of the vineyards – rows and rows of rich green, delicate plants that produce the nectar of the gods. The wines from the hot Portuguese hinterland, one of the best wine regions in the world, are particularly appreciated. The traces of professional wine-growing go back over 2500 years to the time of the Greeks and Romans who settled on the Iberian peninsula. Here grow rich and aromatic grapes of the varieties Aragonez, Castelão or Syrah, which get by with little water in summer and have to withstand temperatures of over 40 degrees in the shade – and whose wines are meanwhile regarded as an insider tip among connoisseurs. But of course these wines, as good as they might be, are nothing if they‘re not served with a classic Alentejo dish: the unavoidable pork, lamb and bread as base, seasoned with fresh coriander, mint, juniper and oregano. I could write two pages just daydreaming about the olive oil. Among a great number of enjoyable dishes I want to highlight the following: the Cod ‚à lagareiro‘, Dogfish Soup, Portuguese Stew ‚Alentejo style‘ and the famous Grilled Black Pork steak.
But let‘s finally talk business. The fishing opportunities around here are quite unique, especially in terms of Fly Fishing and carps. There are few places in Europe where the climate, geography and the dynamics of the waters, lakes in this case, have led to perfect sight fishing conditions and very special behaviour in the fish. The Alentejo region is particularly dry and hot during summer. The amounts of rainfall during winter and spring determine the water levels and the lucrativeness of the fishing season which is May to October. June and July are usually the best months, stable weather and water levels, but of course ‚usually‘ means shit, no promises in fishing, no guarantees. August is quite hot, too hot for most. September and October are fair to middling, heavy storms sometimes and the water levels are low, but at times you‘ll find that‘s a good thing if you‘re hunting for the big mamas. Anyway, the fishing is always good, that is a guarantee actually.
The region has seen some tough years, the only means of ensuring economic growth and positive development were artificial lakes. Two types of lakes in this region: private and public. The private ones are usually smaller and found on farmland for the local farmers to cultivate plants and provide for their livestock. The public lakes are quite large. They are also used for water supply and irrigation, but more importantly, this is where the fishing takes place. These large lakes do not dry out during the summer, keeping the fish populations alive all year.
One of them is called Alqueva, the largest artificial lake in Europe, with about 1400 km of shoreline. Me and my pals selected six different lakes in the area and fish them by turns depending on water levels and seasons. The most spectacular thing about the region is that each lake is unique in its characteristics, resulting in the carp showing different sizes and behavior patterns thus ensuring a complete fishing experience to anglers regardless of their level of knowledge.
The one perfect cast
The briefing always begins the same way: „Forget everything you know about carp, or all the experiences you had about fishing carp because what you see here is something completely different…“. And that’s the truth. Compared to any style of fishing, it´s the bonefish hunt and permit fishing. That‘s the reason why in Portugal fun is 100% guaranteed!
Regardless of the anglers knowledge we begin our adventures with an easy teaser: Lakes with large quantities of carps, where you can try out different techniques, find out what works best to use it on the wiser and larger carps in the next lake. It‘s normal to catch up to 30 carps a day in these “easier” lakes. I‘ve heard about a couple of crazed fishermen who made it to 50.
We scout, walking along the banks, looking for feeding carps. Sometimes parts of their body stick out of the water, sometimes they‘re just a shadow beneath the surface. The guides help you find them and scope out their positions. Carps are very sensitive fish, they are alert and they will immediately leave if notice you. A careful approach is crucial, especially vibrations scare them away. If we get close enough, the next important step is the cast. The right timing, spot and way of presenting the fly. Put in front of the fish and it will swim away, too far on the side and it will ignore it. You have to be quick too. The carps don‘t stand still for very long.
Small specimen are usually easier to convince. But the wild ones, the experienced old crooks, they are the real challenge. They are big and old for a reason. We often spot them, feeding away at a distance and the moment we make a move they disappear, sometimes they even reappear right next to us, just to take a closer look, to wink at us, catch me if you can. But sometimes, if you‘re lucky and skillful, if you cast a perfect cast, and present the fly in the right way and the fish is hungry and approaches and he sniffs that fly, and swallows, and your heart nearly bursts. Well, then the fight is on and that‘s some fight. We live for these moments, truly. That‘s the Portuguese Fly Fishing experience.
Due to the climate and the strength of these fish, the equipment needed is very similar to the equipment used in tropical fishing. Fast action #6, #7 and #8 fly rods. Quality reels with a decent drag system because here in Portugal the reels are actually used! Nylon 9 feet 1X and 0X leaders and fluorocarbon 0X and 1X tippet. In the Alentejo region the sun can be very painful, so it is necessary to pay some attention when it comes to choosing the right clothes to wear. It’s mandatory to use quick dry long sleeve shirts, trousers, a decent cap, gloves, face protection like Buff and of course a pair of polarized sunglasses.
Again – the flies we use around here are similar to the ones used in tropical fishing. A lot of the contemporary models are tied inverted, with the hook up, just like the famous Crazy Charlies. It prevents the fly from getting stuck all the time. Personally I prefer flies with discreet and natural colors like brown, olive or black, sporting soft feathers like Marabou or furs, rabbit for instance. I also do not use shiny materials, mostly because it scares the carps away. Most of the models I use sport thin elastics on the tail or the sides, it adds balance and makes for an appealing look.
Weight is another important part. It determines the sink speed, which is crucial. The carp seem to be pretty interested when they see the fly dropping at the right speed in front of them. If the fly just appears on the bottom the fish will not see the fly, but they still can find it – if the luck is on the angler‘s side …