If we were to embark on a quest to find the mythical Astraeus, to see it floating, and if were heading out to witness fly fishermen, holding the fly rod and flies the same way as they did 2000 years ago, we would end up in Serbia – on the rivers of Stara Planina (Old Mountain). Sometimes called Balkan Mountains (Balkan – derived from Persian, meaning “high above or proud house”), Stara Planina is geographically close, only couple of hundred kilometres, to the location of the mythical river in Northern Greece where the first fly fishermen were sighted. Stara Planina and its rivers are part of the region that gave birth to the craft of fly-fishing. The rivers of Stara Planina, preserved in their original state, are the keepers of ancient fish genetics, which is the main reason why certain people are fascinated with them. The natural beauty of these rivers cannot be overseen. The thrill of experiencing this magical scenery for the first time, is everlasting, and it keeps drawing you back, till the end of your days.
From the times of old and the first anglers that used artificial flies, Stara Planina was the home to this most sophisticated fishing craft. It is of no importance whether the ancient craft of catching fish using only a branch of hazel tree, a thread and a hook from which dangled some tied wool and feathers – was discovered by the sharp minded people of Stara Planina. The craft became a tradition of the local people, that withstood the challenges of time, and they continued to catch fish that way till the 90’s. Not even the development and availability of modern fishing tackle, could diminish its popularity with the locals, or completely erase it from their hearts and minds. It became a way of living on the mountain, which could perish only after the last true mountain angler is gone.
Stara Planina and how the locals coexist with it
For a very long time the Toplodolska and Dojkinačka rivers have been flowing from the top of the mountain, bound by red sand stone, towards the gorge of Pakleštica, where the river is embedded in a clear white limestone, Stara Planina was a home to the ancient fishing craft, that everyone knows as – fly-fishing. The craft that always stood out from all other ways of fishing, as the unique and very imaginative concept of imitating a live insect. Hungry and fiery trout, swiftly appearing from the depths of a pool or rapid, would reward the anglers with their attacks. This craft has been passed from generation to generation and it was constantly enriched by the accumulated experience and sharp minds of the mountain people. These rivers preserve another invaluable thing. During a scientific research of mitochondrial DNA, a strain of ancient brown trout was found here, which is likely to make Stara Planina and its environment the birthplace of a whole species.
The people of the mountain have always responsibly coexisted with nature, without any knowledge of the science called ecology. When they settled here they learned to share the world they live in with all the plants, animals and fish, carefully preserving everything while harnessing the riches of nature. Everything they created on the mountain has in a way been an upgrade to the nature itself. Fly fishing is a part of this responsible coexistence with nature, a pure perfection, that does not need any adjustments or changes. The revolutionary idea of the first imitation lives on in its original form. Created in an ancient time, it remains untouched by “progress” and discovery of kevlar and carbon.
The Threats of New Age
None the less modern age did not pass Stara Planina by… The arrival of pseudo democracy and a wild market economy have brought new challenges to these lands. In the last 30 years the tradition of living with and care for nature has been under attack. Deforestation and the industrial exploitation of various natural resources – even the fact that Stara Planina, with its abundant wild life, is a natural park of the first category, protected by strict laws and regulations, did not prevent certain parties from taking advantage. Finally, trees and minerals were not enough: the development of mini hydro power plants began.
The New Elite, corrupt officials and “investors”, discovered a new “hidden treasure” – long forgotten plans and projects (conceived of during the mid 80’s) to “enrich” all the mountain rivers in Serbia with Mini Hydro Plants (MHP). Those plants redirect whole river systems through several kilometres of pipeline. Hiding behind the need for “green” energy, all MHP projects were approved by the government and implemented with a wild lack of interest in the consequences for the natural environment. Furthermore, the government subsidizes all MHP-projects, since this type of energy harvesting, on most rivers, cannot produce significant amounts of energy. The Serbian government opened the “hunting season” on mountain rivers.
The terrible conclusion: The sheer number of MHPs planned would completely destroy the interconnected mountain river systems of the Balkans.
The mountain of Ancient Memories, Stara Planina, stands proud and tall! Faced with the approaching start of construction of the first mini derivation type hydro plant, the people of Stara Planina, WOKE UP! The nightmare of losing everything that makes Stara Planina unique was upon them.
Such threats have never before been answered so vigorously in Serbia (or other Balkan countries). Several self-organized ecological groups formed one united citizens movement: the ORSP – Odbranimo reke Stare Planine (Protect the rivers of Stara Planina). The need for such a movement was obvious. Forged on Facebook (www.facebook.com/groups/1925328764350247) and Instagram, in just a couple of weeks there the group gained 10.000 members, today it has 100.000. People from all parts of Serbia – the local population, scientists, mountaineers, climbers, professional athletes, poets, musicians and many more gathered around this one crucial mission and created a pool of great potential, that transformed into a tidal wave called ORSP. In its two years of existence, it has been recognized by independent journalists, artists and some members of the academic community, and received several rewards. ORSP was created as, and still remains, a non-political movement.
Peaceful protests against the MHPs involve legal battles with local, corrupted politicians, as well as peaceful blockades of heavy machinery. Sometimes these protests evolve into open confrontations with the police or “investors” private security.
The “investors” have been held off for now. The rivers of Stara Planina are currently safe, but the people who protect them are still worried, the battle is on-going. MHPs continue to devour rivers on many other Balkan mountains, where there are either not enough people to oppose it, or locals are just not concerned with the inevitable consequences. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia are losing rivers every day, to the monstrous black pipelines of the mini derivation type hydro plants (MHP). The proud Mountain of Ancient Memories is the frontline today, and a bright example for all of us.
Aleksandar Panić (born 1962) – was born and raised in Pirot, above which, Stara Planina stands proud. Extremely passionate fly fisherman and fly tier, learned everything there is to know about nature, while exploring his backyard – the unique ecosystem of Stara Planina. Owing all of his knowledge to the traditional, ancient, way of living, for the last 3 years, has dedicated all of his time to protection of Stara Planina from greed and insanity of capitalism. One of the leaders of the ORSP movement.
Prof., PhD Goran Grubić (born 1955) – was born and raised in Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Professor on the University of Agriculture in Belgrade, teaching physiology and feeding of animals. Fly fisherman, who dedicated his life to scientific research of nature’s fauna, together with Aleksandar Panić creates the duo, that has written articles and books about Fly Fishing and Fly Tying.