Corsica – Flyfishing for wild brown trout in a forgotten gem of mountains and rivers

An email arrived with a tempting invitation; would you like to visit Corsica and write about the walking and adventure sports that the island has to offer? I thought long and hard for about 5 seconds and then said ‘Yes please’.

Within a few seconds I was ranging through the search returns on Google and trying to discover what Corsica was all about. My knowledge was a little limited and I could only recall that Napoleon Bonaparte was a son of Corsica and the GR20, one of the worlds toughest mountain walks, ran across the Corsican peaks. I also knew that Corsica had some great rivers.

The information from the Internet started to give a picture of a beautiful island with a culture that encompassed colonial France and patriotic Corse to create a unique breed of people. The desire for independence from France is still much in the thoughts of the Corsican people and the central region where we stayed was a very Corsican place to visit. Graffiti calling for independence from France adorned many walls

Our destination was Corte, the capital of old Corsica, and our hotel was in one of the most spectacular locations in Europe. Home for the week was to be Le Refuge Hotel in the Gorges de la Restonica. The hotel is perched between the narrow road and the raging Torrente Restonica, which pushes several thousand gallons a minute down the granite bed of the gorge. Great food is the order of the day at Le Refuge and we could see the pounds pile on after the first meal.

Although the main part of the trip was to focus on the walking activities and mountain sports there was no way on earth that I would arrive in Corsica without my travel outfit. The images of rivers on the few websites that I found were too tempting to ignore so even if I could only manage a few hours fishing it would be the best fishing ever! Things did not quite turn out that way.

Sometimes it is only when sipping a glass at home do you get a true picture of what was good, bad and indifferent about your fishing exploits. I am still going over the Corsica experience and probably will do so for years to come or until I can get back there and apply the lessons learnt on this trip.

The Rivers
Corsica has the cleanest rivers in Europe. There is hardly any industrial activity on the island and the levels of recorded pollution are tiny. The rivers are stocked by a group of twenty or so local fishing organisations in association with the local department for the environment. From information gleaned across the various fishing websites it claims that the survival rate for trout stocks is the best in Europe and from what we eventually saw I can believe it.

Arriving at a new destination with a complete absence of local knowledge can be challenging. Even finding the fishing shop in Corte took three days!

We saw lots of dry riverbeds even in May before the summer heat kicks in. Spate rivers make up the majority of river forms and they tend to be highly seasonal. The waters tumbling down the Restonica could be seen to be falling through the week we were there in spite of late snow on the peaks. Sadly there are no fish in the Restonica; it would have been wonderful if there had been any.

No fish - No problem, I checked my list of possible venues and found that there were three rivers that were noted on the French websites – The Tavignano was first up and it was not too far from Corte. The roads on the island all follow riverbeds so doing a visual inspection is quite easy. The Tavignano is a gem of a river with several Genoese arched bridges still in use as the road follows the river from Corte to the coast at Aleria.

We travelled the whole length of the river and spotted a couple of likely places to wet a line later in the day. Lunch was from a boulangerie in Ghisonaccia on the busy N198, which runs along the eastern coastline.
Back to the river – I had spotted a track off the main road just a mile or so from the Pont Genois bridge. It led from the main road along to an ancient stone cottage behind which was a sandy beach and a lovely stretch of river fed from a tumbling, riffle of clear water. The river had excavated a deep pool which then ran over a bed of granite cobbles and away to the sea. Fantastic!

My partner laid out the sunbathing gear and settled to watch my efforts. A quiet walk along the 80 yards or so of easy bank fishing gave me some concerns. Once again there was no visual sighting of any fish. The river was in great condition and crystal clear until it fell away into the depths of the main pool.
The only thing to be seen were a few tiny pin fry hiding behind the boulders in the shallows and a few pond skaters. Everything was here, clear, pollution free water, ample insect life along the wooded banks, no obvious predators, no one fishing apart from myself, yet no fish.

I put my travel rod together and selected a small, black dry to try and mimic the local flies that could be seen here and there in the margins of the river. My first few nervous casts were clumsy but I have done worse and still caught fish. The result was nil. Over the next 90 minutes I went through my full repertoire of emergers, dries, nymphs and lures to no effect. The river seemed to be empty. I could not see anything apart from water.

It had been stated on one of the websites about outdoor activities on Corsica that although the rivers were in great condition there was a huge amount of illegal poaching. We can’t back this up but this was not the first ‘blank’ to arouse some suspicions about where the fish had gone. In spite of a poor start we had received a taste of what Corsica could offer and the next destinations promised something better.

The Gravona, Prunelli rivers and Lac de Tolla
Another day and another journey across the island towards Ajaccio and three potential opportunities to try the fishing. The drive from Corte south westwards takes you through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery that Corsica has to offer. The N193 is the main highway and is best described as a modest UK A road. The route however is unlike any in Britain. The villages along the road are ‘old style’ Corse and cling to steep, wooded mountainsides as the route snakes towards the highpoint at Vizzavona. The village is famous as a stopping off point for the GR20, Europe’s toughest high mountain walking route. A station for the narrow gauge railway also serves the walkers at Vizzavona and the surrounding forest offers home to Eagles, wild boar and countless streams and brooks.

From Vizzavona the road tracks down towards the Gravona Valley and the coast.
Most of the steep spate rivers flowing into the Gravona were very low and pointed towards the coming summer heat. The main river itself still held a good flow of water and we began to stop at suitable points to look at the clear water as it fell to the sea.

At one point I was able to walk as stealthily as I could for about half a mile along the river. Passing by some good pools and shallow riffles as well as past huge granite boulders in midstream.
Not a single fish to be seen anywhere.

I returned to the car in a state of serious disappointment. It seemed inconceivable that such a beautiful river could be so devoid of fish. Yet we had looked with care at four different sections and seen nothing. I was all for giving up and returning to Vizzavona to do some walking and cover some of the other aspects of our visit. My partner would hear none of it and insisted we continue and drive up the N196 then onto the D3 and up the Prunelli valley to Lac de Tolla.

Lac de Tolla
Off we go as the afternoon heat starts to climb. Another visit to a small boulangerie in Bastelicaccia for refreshments and we are away.
The Prunelli River cannot be seen for most of the drive but what you do see is another lush valley full of vines and fruit trees. Our expectation is that the Lac de Tolla will appear in the valley bottom like a Corsican version of Coniston. We keep driving but no lake appears. The villages are ticked off as we climb higher towards the mountains and it dawns that Tolla is going to be a dull, empty alpine lake. How wrong can you be? Lac de Tolla lies below the village of the same name and is ringed by pines and farmland in spite of sitting at close to 800 metres above sea level. The water is blue and the Lac is formed by a huge dam placed to provide drinking water and power to the west of Corsica.

We sit on the balcony of the only bar in town and examine our choices. The drive back is about 3 hours and we have arranged to meet some friends for dinner. It is red hot and the fishing is likely to be as bad as the rivers. Take some pictures and then turn for Corte seems to be the best bet. As we get ready to go a car arrives and two smiling Corsican fishermen get out. A decent Pike in lovely condition is brought from the boot of the car and ourselves, the barman and a few others gather to congratulate the fishers’ skill. This is big news in a place as small as Tolla!
It is discovered that the specimen was a mere ‘tiddler’ and the Tolla pike were known to grow to huge sizes. The barman explains the size of the resident fish with his arms outstretched in classic ‘fishermans tales’ style, also the ‘Truite’ were magnificent specimens and would break my rod.

That statement made up my mind, Liz would stay and read her book and I would just manage to get about 90 minutes of fishing. My Greys’ waistcoat, travel rod and a small folding net are gathered from the boot and off we go again. After the lack of fish in the rivers I did not really expect to see a thing apart from water. Mistake. I stood close to edge of the water at a small bay. A watersport centre was starting to prepare canoes and kayaks for the coming season. In the margins I could see several deep-bodied Brown Trout cruising in the deep, weed free water.
My hands shook with anticipation as I put the rod together, reel, leader and lastly a fly. A buzzer seemed like a sensible place to start. The water was slightly green but it was alive and deep. Fish at last.

As I looked for a suitable spot to start my campaign a little black dog joined me. He seemed to grasp what I was about and would not go away. As I got ready for my first cast he was watching where the line went and had seen all this before. He examined my technique without comment but got slightly agitated with every new cast, settling down as the line was retrieved. It was good to have a companion to help me along.

After a dozen casts the line tightened and a minor fight ensued which brought me a tiny brownie that although heavily outgunned still fought to break my rod. The dog went berserk and barked like mad until I had the fish in the net. I should have taken a picture, as this was my first brown trout and my first fish on Corsica. I had aspirations of the bigger specimens that still cruised past every 10 minutes or so. The little brownie was carefully returned to fight another day. And that was it, not a sniff of anything else. I tried the buzzer variations and then started to go through the ‘menu’ changing positions and tactics every 20 minutes or so, my small, black companion always alongside.
I could still see the fish cruising along in a lazy mediteranean style and as my agreed return time drew closer a few rises could be seen but no more interest in my offerings.

As I tackled down the fishing dog realised that the day’s entertainment was over and scooted away up a path toward the village. I trekked back and told my tale before throwing all the gear in the boot and starting the return journey.

Lac du Tolla held much promise and a visit of only a couple of hours is not enough to even scratch the surface. The lake is wide, long and deep and is holding some fine fish. This is where a return trip to Corsica started to be planned!

Casting a nymph in the Last Chance Saloon
Our last day on Corsica started with a shopping session in Corte and coffee in one of the little bars. I bought a handsome, Corsican made pocketknife as a souvenir. The plan for the day was to drive to Ponte Leccia and take the N193 east towards Bastia and a day at the seaside. The roads were very quiet, a bit like Sunday in the UK. The first port of call along the N193 was to be Ponte Nuovo. This was the place where the last stand by Corsican patriots took place against the French. The Corsicans were routed and many were killed, as the cause for Corsican independence was lost. The old bridge was later damaged during a bombing raid in World War II but it is still a place of great importance to native Corsicans. I pulled the car into the wide lay-by just over the new road bridge and looked down into the waters of the Golo River. I looked right down into the deep left channel to see three trout keeping position in the steady flow of the river. The fishing gear had gone into the car as something of an afterthought. I had not expected to fish on Corsica again but this was what I had brought the kit here for, Brown trout swimming in a clear river just waiting for me to present the right fly.

There lies another tale. In the run up to the trip I had built up a small selection of wet flies, nymphs and bugs to make my fishing a complete success. Sadly that particular box of flies was still sitting on a corner of my desk while what I had in my vest pocket was my all-purpose UK, Stillwater fly collection. I cannot blame my lack of success on this one fact but it was one of those stupid mistakes that will always be remembered with deep anguish – stupid sod that I am.

Liz agreed to me having a casting session if we could find a place to fish. Otherwise we would continue to the west and enjoy a day at the beach. I would find a place to fish this river if I had to Dynamite a path myself. I did not need to worry; someone had already done that for me.

About three kilometres away from Ponte Nouvo the new road winds its way along the gorge, just before the road starts to climb is a small mustard coloured hotel and a hundred metres further is the remains of a small access road that was constructed to aid the new road building. We parked here and the pathway led to a flat section of riverbank about 300 metres long. This section of bank had been supported with huge lumps of rock to stop the river undercutting the new road.

The water was clear and flowed steadily into the curve of the bank. Liz and I watched a dozen fish of all sizes rise to take at the surface and just below it too.
In the deeper water the huge natural boulders in the riverbed gave shelter to larger fish that were taking passing food items in an unhurried, confident way.

Game on! An hour was my allowance so I carefully put my thoughts to the problem of getting my first Brown Trout from a river. Floating line, floating braided leader, nine feet of Fluorcarbon and my best guess at what these fish would find interesting. My error with the fly boxes left me with very little choice. I had a couple of wets and the best one to me, not that I eat them myself, was a gold beaded nymph. My only though being that it was a big one.
I carefully and quietly scrambled down the rocks to one that gave me a flat platform about three feet above the river. Steady, get some line out. Remember the lessons and let’s fish.

My first cast went right across the flow of the river, good cast but too far. The fly sparkled in the water and I tried to judge the depth. The water is so clear that it could be three feet or thirty!

I started to reduce the amount of line and then stopped for a while to study the river and the fish. A large brownie had taken station at the shoulder of a huge, submerged boulder. An even larger head kept appearing from the furthest side of the boulder and I decided to try for one of them. The line went out a couple of times before I realised that I should reduce the leader. In it came again and I took off three feet and replaced the gold beaded what-not.

This time the line went out perfectly. The current brought it in line with the far shoulder of the rock and I watched as both fish sighted the bright sparkle of the fly coming towards them.

The smaller fish was higher in the water and came forward to the fly. The larger fish showed more of himself and then turned away never to be seen again. The smaller of the two fishes took his chance and turned to the fly and then quickly turned away to take station again in the current.

That was the end of the fishing. Time had almost run out and in spite of changing the fly a couple of times there was no interest from the fish.

Wrong menu, spooked fish or whatever, it was time to pack up and consider a return match in the spring of 2006, late April seems about right.

We drove to the beach, a tiny place called Aghione, which we found by accident down a sidetrack. A small beach café served a great meal and we looked out across a bay that was several miles wide with only thirty other people for company. Elba was visible in the veil of the heat mist and I wondered if Napoleon could have seen his home from his exile there.

Corsican Fishing Dog!

Firstly let me say that I am going back to try the fishing again! Corsica is a different destination than expected. The roads are quieter than we thought they would be and the mountains and rivers are without reservation – stunning. Food and accommodation are good everywhere and there is a huge range of options for both.
Local knowledge proved to be a major problem when it came to finding anywhere to fish and when we finally found the Corte fishing shop the owner and his pals did not want to offer any useful information.

A visitors fishing ticket is available but we could not find out where one could be purchased so we fished anyway.

Our visits to the various rivers did not exhaust the islands potential by any stretch of the imagination. there are dozens of other rivers that could produce some great fishing. The coastline is also another area that is largely uninhabited and undeveloped. You could spend months exploring Corsica and still not see everything.

1 - The top of the Restonica Gorge
2 - The Tavignano from the Ponte Genoese
3 - Fishing a pool in the Tavignano
4 - The Gravona above Ajacio
5 - Lac de Tolla from the pass
6 - Pike!
7 - The Golo

We travelled with the destination specialist – Corsican Places and we would go with them again.
Corsican Places
Cutter House
1560 Parkway
Solent Business Park
PO15 7AG
Tel – 0845 330 2077
Web – Corsican Places great company to deal with and very much a Corsica specialist. Also one of the few companies to do cheap charter flights to Corsica.
Warning! Be careful about booking with the main airlines as the flights can sometimes mean three legs and two airports before you get to Corsica!

A 9ft five piece travel rod from Steve Strickland at Roughlee Fishery, Lamina 75 reel with a WF6 and a WF7 floating lines, a small folding net and my grey’s waistcoat with the pockets stuffed with all the various odds and sods needed to fish - Oh yes! and the wrong box of flies!

Maps and Books
Michellin 345 Local is great for general use and route planning. More detailed IGN Blue Top maps (1:25,000) are for sale all over Corsica.
The Dorling and Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guidebook to Corsica seemed to be the choice for everyone we met.
ISBN 0-7513-3637-8
Walking in Corsica – Cicerone Press
A useful and well illustrated guide to the central mountain areas with good route information to get you to the hidden places. Good reference section on other books, maps, food, accommodation and culture.