Photo Essay: Into the Tusheti, a Journey of Fly-Fishing Exploration

Written by: Matt Hansen

Into the Tusheti

Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was the first stop on this journey of discovery.

All photos by Dan Armstrong

In late September, a crew of four Americans traveled to Georgia’s rugged Caucasus Mountains to see what promises it might hold for fly fishing. The objective was Tusheti National Park, a remote nature preserve with several mid-size rivers that flow along the border of Georgia and Russia. While the Georgian people have been fishing these rivers for centuries, mostly with nets and bait, it was largely off the map for fly fishers. Lacking any solid information about where to go and what to use, the team relied on an American contact there (whose fluency in Georgian was invaluable) and their own exploratory spirit.

Tusheti did not provide many easy answers, as most of the rivers were cloudy from perpetual runoff. But what the team discovered was an incomparable Georgian hospitality, a place where the grasshoppers are bigger than the hummingbirds, a chance to solve a timeless fly-fishing riddle, and an opportunity cast in a place that rarely sees outsiders—especially those carrying a fly rod.

What follows is a series of photos shedding light on fly fishing in Tusheti. A full story on the expedition will appear in The Drake magazine in 2013.

Top photo: Colorful and diverse, Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi sits at the intersections of ancient and modern, Islam and Christianity, and Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Home to 1.2 million people with a strong Orthodox Christian population, Tbilisi dates back to the first century. Its numerous large cathedrals stand as reminder to the important role religion has played throughout the years. Since 2008, however, which marked the end of the Rose Revolution (and saw Georgia attempt to strengthen its ties to Western Europe and the U.S.), numerous state buildings and civic structures have been rebuilt with magnificent steel beams and glass. Coffee shops, restaurants, and internet cafés line the avenues downtown.

The Kura River, which eventually flows into the Caspian Sea, runs right through the city. Many people fish it from the sidewalk, using long rods to drop worms over the tall concrete embankment. Our driver and guide, Ioseb Ninoshvili, says the Kura is “rich with fish.” Probably not a good idea to eat them, though (which Georgians are apt to do with most fish), because of the heavy industrialization along the riverbanks.

Into the Tusheti

Henry’s Fork guide Marty Reed helps Daniel Kunin load our essentials into a military Mi-8 helicopter. Kunin, who is originally from Vermont and has lived in Georgia off and on since 1990, is a former diplomat with strong ties to Georgia’s government. He lassoed this huge chopper as our military escort into the Caucasus Mountains. Kunin loves to fly fish and had invited our team to Georgia to help figure out how to catch trout in the high-alpine rivers. The opportunity was even bigger than the helicopter: to be the first to cast a fly into unknown waters.

Into the Tusheti

Any trip into the Causasus would not be complete without a case of Budvar, the world’s first official Budweiser (the American brand stole the name), and a jug of apple juice. Actually, that’s homemade cognac. It would be empty in two days.

Into the Tusheti

Marty Reed gets a bird’s eye view of Georgia.

Into the Tusheti

“What’s our vector, Victor?”

“Huh?”

Into the Tusheti

The Georgian countryside is replete with vineyards, reminiscent of California’s Sonoma County. Unlike California, however, these hills rise up to meet a huge mountain range that shares the border with Russia. The suspense and scenery of such an approach is truly breathtaking. A trip that takes 45 minutes by chopper would take eight hours by car.

Into the Tusheti

Located in a remote corner of Tusheti National Park, the little village of Shenako was our base camp for the week. It’s reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, only without the tourism, roads, or ski lifts. Four years ago, Kunin obtained permission from the village elders to built a traditional stone cabin here, less than 10 miles from the Russian border. Locals survive on subsistence farming and raising sheep and cows. Winters are harsh, but there are some who stay year-round, preferring to be cut off in the mountains rather than join the bustling cities in the lowlands.

Into the Tusheti

We rigged 5- and 6-weights, and had a 7-weight on hand just in case. Though Kunin had fished these waters before, and while the rivers we were planning to fish had similar characteristics to those in North America—abundant aquatic life and terrestrials, including every size and color of grasshopper imaginable, plus 6,000 feet in elevation and beautiful late September weather—we didn’t really know what to expect. Which is to say, we had high expectations.

Into the Tusheti

The roads in Tusheti are very rough and go over high-mountain passes with terrifyingly steep drop-offs. Ioseb alone went through two tires on the way up, and a third on the way down. Most locals get around on horseback or foot. We had the luxury of Kunin’s SUV, or as the locals call it, a “Jeep.”

Into the Tusheti

Casting on the lower Alazani River, a stretch of the river with riffles, pools, eddy lines, and a few cut banks, which looked increasingly promising.

Into the Tusheti

Marty Reed casts to fish that have probably never seen a fly.

Into the Tusheti

Hansen caught the first fish of the trip with a size 18 Soft Hackle Beadhead Pheasant Tail dropped off a San Juan worm. When asked what kind of fish are in the river, the locals say, “trout.” When you ask what kind, they say, “river trout.” The fish appears to be in the German brown family, but it lacks the deep golds and yellows. Instead, these fish have silvery blue sheen, red and black spots, and the bottom of the tail fin is lined by a reddish stripe. Which, you know, is indicative of the infamous Brownbro.

Into the Tusheti

“I think I see some Budvar.”

Into the Tusheti

A tributary of the Alazani runs through fall foliage of the Caucasus Mountains.

Into the Tusheti

Since the dawn of time, people have been walking these mountains and trying to catch the local trout. But never have they fished it with a fly.

Into the Tusheti

The Tusheti has numerous small creeks that feed the larger Alazani River. Often, passage is blocked by deep canyons and tight gorges. Without a sufficient topo map, the urge to see what was around the next bend was irresistible.

Into the Tusheti

Fishing often comes down to choices. Thankfully, they are not of the life-and-death kind, even though it can feel that way sometimes. Each choice is sustained by the hope and belief that this is the fly, this is the cast, this is the one that will get the job done. If not, we make another choice until we find the right one. Which, after all, is why we play the game.

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