Fly Fishing in the Pyrenees

By Brian Smith

I was reading Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises for the third time and as a result I got the idea stuck in my head that I wanted to go fly fishing for trout in Spain.  Hemingway has inspired many travel and sporting adventures I have participated in over the years, and I have not been disappointed.  I think Papa had good taste in adventure and sport and he has a way of describing a country in such a way that makes me want to explore it myself. 

I booked the fishing trip with Ivan Tarin of Salvelinus Fishing Adventures located in the village of Aren in the Eastern Pyrenees.  The lodge I stayed in was the Ribagorza Lodge and Spa.  This is an Orvis endorsed fishing outfit that has good reviews and a nicely designed website.  Getting to the lodge was a relatively easy affair.  I flew into Barcelona from Atlanta arriving the morning of May 9th.  I took the train from the airport to the Barcelona Sants train station and stayed at the Barcelona Sants Hotel, located in the train station, which was a nice and convenient place to stay.  The next morning, I took the train from Barcelona to Lleida which was about an hour ride and I met my guide Aitor at the Lleida train station.

There were some good fishing areas between Lleida and the Village of Aren where the lodge was located.  Lleida was about an hour from Aren and I had arrived in Lleida at about 9:30 a.m.  We headed out to some good tail waters and started fishing.  The scenery was absolutely stunning, beautiful mountains and crystal clear waters, flowers in bloom everywhere.  There were red poppy fields on the banks and yellow wild lilies blooming on the banks.  We started fishing with the 4 weight rod, floating line with a deer hair nymph, number 18 hook with a golden bead head caddis nymph number 18 hook tied as a dropper to the dry with a 5x tippet.  Pretty soon after getting to the tail waters I was catching some nice brook trout on the nymph’s.  The fish were beautiful and fought strong.  After catching several nice brookies and rainbows we waded to a deeper run and Aitor introduced to me to what he called “Spanish Nymphing”.  The way this is done is with a 9 foot rod and two nymphs tied in line with a piece of colored leader between the fly line and the leader.  There was not indicator tied to the line, the object was to “high stick” the rod keeping the colored part of the leader out of the water.  

The casts were short roll casts into the deep water of the run.  I started trying this method in the run and ended up hooking the largest trout I had ever hooked on a fly rod.  I would estimate it was at least a 10 pound trout and this was on a 5x tippet and 4 weight rod.  I was ill prepared to fight such a fish; you most definitely cannot “horse” a fish like that in.  I could also tell Aitor was caught off guard as well.  The fish made several runs down stream and made a lot of runs to the bank.  I did manage to fight the fish to my feet a couple of times over the next 15 minutes.  Every time Aitor would try to try to get close with the net he would make another strong run.  Finally we made one last attempt to net the beast and he broke off.  Young Aitor’s hands were shaking after the ordeal.  What I did not know at the time was that this was the largest fish hooked that season and we were not fishing waters that they typically go to for the “trophy” trout so hooking that pig in that spot was quite a surprise.   We continued to fish until about 7pm, then made our way to the lodge were I met Ivan and Juan Antonio. 

The Sun Also Rises is a 1926 novel by American writer Ernest Hemingway, his first, that portrays American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights.

Ivan and Juan Antonio are partners at the lodge.  Juan Antonio runs the lodge which has very nice rooms, a restaurant and a spa.  The place has been in Juan Antonio’s family for 500 years.  The food was excellent.  When I got into the lodge at 8 p.m. I was introduced to Juan and they proceeded to bring out a variety of “tapas”.  I believe we had 7 or 8 courses that night and had a nice selection of regional wine and cheese.  Every evening I was greeted by a wonderful assortment of tapas and excellent wine.  We also had a very nice breakfast at the lodge every morning.  When fishing, the lunches were packed; however it was a much more formal affair than I am accustomed to on a fishing trip.  When it was time for lunch they always found a picnic table, pulled out a table cloth, wine glasses, plates and silverware, and the table was prepared with nut tray, cheese tray, salad, main course, wine, dessert and coffee. 

On the second day of the fishing trip I fished with Aitor again and we went to a different section of the river that was wider and more mountainous.  We fished with dry’s as well as nymphs and I caught a lot of nice brookies and rainbows ranging from 12 to 18 inches.  When we arrived back at the lodge that night I discussed with Ivan a plan to have some formal instruction from him the next day.  I was getting quite tired from all of the casting and I wanted to improve my casting as I had never had any formal training and I thought it would be a good investment of time.  I also needed some coaching on how to land a large trout like the one I had hooked earlier.  We came up with a plan to go to a tennis court located in the little village near the lodge and work on the casting techniques on dry land.

The next morning, the third day of the trip, we went to the tennis court where Ivan conducted a clinic for me.  I would say that his clinic was worth the entire cost of the trip.  He is an excellent, organized and professional instructor and I consider the decision to swap some of my fishing time for the instruction to be a wise investment.   The instruction I received will pay huge dividends in future trips with more hooked and landed fish.  We spent the first half of the day working on casting on dry land which was also a part physics lesson; you would have to be there to understand.  After lunch we went to a section of river running through a local park primarily for applying what I learned on the water more than to catch fish; however I was able to land a few of the native zebra trout, averaging about 6 inches in length.  Ivan was impressed with my progression and I was feeling confident and much improved.  He gave me a couple of options for the next day; we opted to go to water where I could concentrate on trophy trout and try to catch some on drys.  This would be more challenging fishing than what I had done earlier in the trip and the training was necessary to make it productive. 

The fourth day of the trip I was guided by Ivan and we were hunting for what he called “the big guys”.  We traveled to a section of river known to hold some large trout and we started stalking the river looking for rising fish we could attempt to catch on a dry fly.  We did find several nice brook trout and made an attempt to get them to take the fly with no success.  We continued up the river and found a pool that was clear and deep behind a stump and was holding some large fish.  We started trying to get a nymph down to them without success.  Then I started casting in the more shallow fast water that was flowing into the pool.  Soon after starting this I hooked a pig.  I fought it hard and then lost the fish, and proceeded to hook another three nice fish, losing each one.  My casting had improved greatly; however my landing skills were lacking for such large fish.  Ivan took some time out on the shore and grabbed the line and played the role of fish and gave me instruction on how to land a large fish.  

He also grabbed the line and pulled it until it broke off to give me a feel for how much pressure it took to break.  I was not applying enough leverage and needed more trust in the equipment.  After this instruction I gave it another try and I was successful in landing the largest rainbow I had ever caught on a fly rod.  It was a beautiful 6 pound rainbow that gave an excellent fight and it was great feeling to land this fish.  That fish was caught on a beaded head nymph.  After that we were back to concentrating on catching some “big guys” on dry flies.  We proceeded up stream and it was not long before I did hook a very nice brook trout on dry fly, he gave a good fight and I landed him as well as two more of similar size.  After this we continued up stream and found another fish rising.  I worked the bank trying to get this fish to take the fly.  After a lot of coaxing and playing with this fish I hooked into another 5 pound plus rainbow and landed him and we let that be the last cast of the trip, ending on a good note.  So, I finally did get the hang of landing the big fish on the light tackle, the last fish being the 5th fish in a row I landed that would be considered trophy sized fish.  That made for a nice end to a great fishing trip, and then Ivan drove me back to Lleida where I would catch a train back to Barcelona.


Brian R. Smith is an avid outdoorsman passionate about fly fishing, wing shooting, Safari hunting, and equestrian activities. He lives with his wife Gretchen in Alabama, and together they enjoy spending time with their horses and sporting dogs on trails, rivers, and in the sporting field. To read more of Brians adventures, you can follow him on Instagram @bohemianadventure