“Bosnia? Isn’t that one of those war-stricken, ex-Yugoslavia states? Hm, don’t know much about it but doesn’t sound too tempting.” That is what I thought when Christof Menz contacted me in early 2016 with an idea about a fly fishing film.

While filming for another project with him and Uwe Rieder in Austria, he told me about the splendid Huchen fishing in the Una and the threat from dams in the area. Huchen, or Danube Salmon as some call it, is Europe’s biggest fresh-water Salmonid native only to the Danube system! I was all ears, although the danger of hydro dams didn’t sound too exciting at first, as pretty much all rivers in central Europe have them nowadays.

Why make a film about it, one might ask.

Anes Halkic and Uwe Rieder searching for Hucho

This was actually Christof’s Idea. Only after looking into the issue more thoroughly, I came across the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe”-campaign and I had to agree with Christof: This was something worth fighting for! We had met for the first time in April and quickly decided to go to Bosnia in July that same year. He continued by telling me about his friend Anes Halkic, local Bosnian, who had spent his last 12 years protecting the hucho and developing his guiding business on the Una. “Ani”, as everybody calls him, was well aware of the danger of hydro-dams and had been fighting against it with a rare passion. This was all I had to hear: Beautiful scenery, amazing fishery and passionate people fighting for a good cause.

In addition, it was clear that not many people knew about the conditions and situation down there. Many people nowadays only know the Balkans by its war history, although it offers some of the best fishing and most beautiful scenery in Europe. While researching the issue, we were quite impressed how much the Kayakers were doing, mainly by their “Balkan rivers tour”. Honestly, we were a bit embarrassed that it seemed like us fishermen were doing nothing.

With the film we wanted to achieve several things: Firstly, we wanted to show what is at stake in general as well as from a fishing standpoint. Although we made sure to include science, it was important to us to make clear what dams would mean for specific people, whose lives depend on the Una and its healthy fishery. Last but not least, we wanted people to know that it is not too late and that there is still hope as long as the message is spread and people keep fighting.

Getting up early is essential when fishing for Hucho during the summer. Anes Halkic and Christof Menz

Una – The Unique

Driving South, I had no idea what to expect, let alone that this would be my most rewarding film project yet. Even if you have been to a number of destinations worldwide, the Una is exactly what its name implies: Unique!

Many of us have a very disturbing impression of how rivers look. We are so used to straightened, boring, riddled-with-concrete waterways, that only a trip to a river like the Una reminds one that a natural, free-flowing river is something completely different.

By now, 38 fish species have been discovered in the Una alone, which is a large variety and biodiversity compared to other rivers and places. And according to Boris Davidov, a local scientist who helped with the film, that is because the Una has a unique structure, both perfect for the hucho and its prey. The sheer number of fish you can easily see in the river is simply amazing, to say the least.

This area is widely considered the last paradise for the hucho species worldwide.

The magnificent colors of fall in Una Canyon. Uwe Rieder fishing for Hucho.

Fishing

Fishing in the Una is just as diverse as its structure, flora, and fauna. While fishing from the shore is certainly possible and frequently done by the locals, looking for hucho is best done from a boat – either a raft in the Una’s upper, wilder parts or a traditional rowboat, which the locals have been using for centuries. As experienced hucho fishermen know, Hucho are very difficult to trick so the large numbers of hucho in the Una help the anglers’ chances at landing one significantly.

Even though we focused on hucho fishing in the film, the Una and its tributaries are certainly wadable and offers amazing trout and grayling fishing, especially in its upper parts in National Park Una.

Culture and People

We had chosen July to drive South, along with thousands of other tourists. The highway was packed! Only after we had crossed most of Croatia and passed the junction to the famous Adriatic until we were pretty much the only ones wanting to cross over to Bosnia. Though only separated by a river, the difference between the two countries couldn’t be more apparent. Driving through various tiny villages and towns, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on another continent. Bosnia is riddled by tiny farm villages and countless ruins that still tell the story of the Yugoslavian war 20 years ago. It seemed nobody has bothered or had the time or money to get rid of them. A strange feeling came over me as it hit me how little I knew about this area and its history.

It takes only two hours from the Croatian capital of Zagreb to our destination Bosanska Krupa. We were welcomed by Anes and his family, who I would soon consider the nicest and most warm-hearted people I’d had ever the pleasure of meeting. It didn’t take long to realize just how passionate Ani is regarding fishing and “his Una”. The Romans, he told me, came up with the name “Una” meaning “the One, the Unique”, and with a glow in his eyes, he added “and it is The One!”. I soon realized that it wasn’t just Ani and his family but that pretty much all locals were just as open and welcoming as him. It was amazing to see how little doubt or prejudice these people showed towards foreigners, especially considering their history.

Uwe Rieder kissing a beautiful Hucho goodbye before releasing it

Apart from breathtaking scenery, seeing the relationship between Una and the people living along it was really moving. More than just a river, the Una plays a big part in local life. When walking through the old town of Bosanka Krupa, you see people enjoying the river in every way imaginable. Locals barbecuing, swimming, diving, fishing, and rafting in the river are common sights.

Watching jumping hucho is another thing that is quite unusual. Scientists were able to document a hucho schooling behavior in the Una, something that was unheard of before. We were fortunate to be able to get this behavior, as well as jumping hucho on camera. When first seeing the underwater footage, you might think this was filmed in a hatchery but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Fish are 100% wild and the number is simply amazing.

Christof Menz casting in Una Canyon

The Threat

At the time of filming, more than 2700 hydropower projects were planned in the Balkans, over 70 of which were already under construction. Whereas central Europe doesn’t offer many opportunities for the hydro-electric lobby, the Balkans are pretty much untouched. Home to Europe’s last free-flowing river systems, so it is mainly Western banks and investors trying to exploit the regions waters. The worst thing is that many of these projects are planned within protected areas, even National Parks. This wouldn’t be possible in many EU countries, but laws are easier bent here due to corruption. The locals are either left completely in the dark about the dam projects or are placated by the promise of jobs associated with the projects.

It would be very unrealistic to claim that we can stop all dam projects. However, there is certainly hope! If only one single project is stopped, it was worth it and we can achieve much more than that. One advantage that the Una has, is the National Park Una with its constantly growing number of tourists. People are beginning to understand that soft tourism can bring much more money into the region than a series of dams that only benefit the hydro-electric lobby.

Christof Menz casting across a tributary of the Una

Get involved and help save this gem of eastern Europe and check out:
www.riverwatch.eu
balkanrivers.net

Be sure to check out the film on its website: www.unatheone-film.com

A portion of each purchase goes directly to Riverwatch.eu to support them in their fight against dams in the Balkan region.

Text and photography by Jonas Borinski. Check out the rest of his works on his Instagram, website or on Facebook!

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