Bosnia? Isn’t that one of those war-stricken, ex-Yugoslavia states? Hmm, I don’t know much about it but it doesn’t sound too tempting. That’s what I thought when Patagonia sales rep Christof Menz contacted me in early 2016 with the idea to make a fly fishing film about the Una, a river that flows through Bosnia and Herzegovina.
While filming for another project with Christof and his fly fishing partner 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 them, are Europe’s biggest freshwater salmonid, native only to the Danube system. I was all ears, although the danger of hydropower dams didn’t sound too exciting at first, as pretty much all rivers in central Europe have them nowadays.
So why make a film about it?
Only after looking into the issue more thoroughly did I come across the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, and I had to agree with Christof: This is something worth fighting for. He told me about his friend Anes Halkic, a local Bosnian who had spent the last 12 years protecting the huchen 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 them with a rare passion. But it was clear that not many other 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.
That was all I had to hear to get on board: beautiful scenery, amazing fishing and passionate people fighting for a good cause.
Christof and I had met for the first time in April and quickly decided to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina in July that same year. With the film, we wanted to achieve several things: We wanted to show what is at stake in general as well as from a fishing standpoint. And although we made sure to include facts and 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 fish. 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.
When we began our journey I had no idea what to expect, let alone that this would be my most rewarding film project yet. Even if you’re well-traveled, the Una is exactly what its name implies: unique.
Many of us have a very skewed impression of how rivers look. We’re 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.
We chose to drive south in July—along with thousands of other tourists. The highway was packed. Only after we crossed most of Croatia and passed the junction to the famous Adriatic coast did driving became easier, and by the time we reached the border we were pretty much the only ones crossing over to Bosnia and Herzegovina—which in contrast to its neighbor Croatia does not belong to the European Union. 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 and Herzegovina is riddled with tiny farm villages and countless ruins that still tell the story of the Yugoslav Wars of 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 I realized how little I knew about this area and its history.
It takes only two hours to get from the Croatian capital Zagreb to Bosanska Krupa, the town we were heading to. We were welcomed by Anes and his family, who I would soon come to consider the nicest and most warmhearted people I’d ever had the pleasure of meeting. It didn’t take long to realize just how passionate Ani is about 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, that pretty much all the locals were just as open and welcoming. It was amazing to see how little doubt or prejudice people showed toward foreigners, especially considering their history.
Apart from the breathtaking scenery, the really moving part of the trip was seeing the relationship between the Una and the people living alongside it. Rather than just being a natural feature of the area, the Una plays a big part in everyone’s life. When walking through Bosanska Krupa’s “downtown,” you see people enjoying the river in every way imaginable. From a single point, you can stand on the shore and see people barbecuing, swimming, diving, fishing and rafting.
Fishing in the Una is just as diverse as its structure and flora and fauna. Thirty-eight fish species have been discovered in the Una alone, a mark of great biodiversity compared to other rivers. According to Boris Davidov, a local scientist who helped with the film, this is because the Una has a very unique structure, perfect for both the huchen and its prey. The sheer number of fish you can see in the river is amazing. The area is widely considered the last paradise for the huchen species worldwide.
While fishing from the shore is certainly possible (and frequently done by the locals), looking for huchen is best done from a boat—either a rafting boat in Una’s upper, wilder parts, or a traditional stand-up boat, which the locals have been using for centuries. As experienced huchen fishermen know, huchen are very difficult to catch, so a high number of fish—which the Una certainly offers—helps a lot. In addition, the Una offers some rare sights: huchen not only jumping, but schooling—something that was unheard of before. We were fortunate to be able to get both of these behaviors on camera. When first seeing the underwater footage, you might think this was filmed in a hatchery; that couldn’t be further from the truth. The fish are 100 percent wild and the number is simply amazing.
Even though we focused on huchen fishing in the film, the Una and its tributaries are certainly wadable and offer amazing trout and grayling fishing, especially in the upper parts in Una National Park.
At the time of filming, we had evidence of more than 2,700 hydropower projects being planned in the Balkans, over 70 of which were already under construction. Editor’s note: The number has now risen to more than 3,000. While central Europe doesn’t offer much more in the way of opportunities for the hydro lobby, the Balkans are pretty much untouched. Europe’s last free-flowing river systems run through the region, and it is mainly Western banks and investors trying to make money off of them. Worse, many of these projects are planned within protected areas, even national parks. While this wouldn’t be possible in many EU countries, the laws are more easily bent here due to corruption. The locals either have absolutely no idea about the dams, or the industry tries to convince them to support them with unrealistic promises of jobs. According to Ulrich Eichelmann of RiverWatch, about 90 percent of the locals have no idea what’s coming. This is exactly what needs to change.
It would be unrealistic to claim that we can stop all dam projects. However, there is certainly hope. If only one project is stopped, it will be worth the effort—and we can achieve much more than that. Consider the case of the Una alone: Many projects have been planned and were then stopped by locals and international activists. One advantage the Una has is Una National Park, 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 lobby.
Awareness and action are the keys to saving the last wild rivers in Europe, and with this film we hope to do our part to show the world what would be lost to the dams.
Don’t let this be the last generation to meet The One.
Take Action: Donate
In cooperation with local partners, the NGOs EuroNatur and RiverWatch have launched the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign aiming to save this natural European heritage from destruction. They can use your support.
To book a fly fishing trip with Anes Halkic and experience the Una for yourself, contact him via Facebook.