Not that Georgia…

When asked if I was available for a photo shoot by one of my good friends and professional photographer Dan Armstrong, I immediately jumped at the offer. He kinda left me hanging for a little while, I just assumed he was wanting to snap some shots of the world famous Henry’s Fork with some guy in the backdrop with a fly rod.

Dan then told me the plan was to go to Georgia. My first thought was “hot asphalt” and “peaches”. I was looking forward to eating some. I didn’t really even know Georgia had fly-fishing, but whatever. A little while later he text me and said that the trip would require a passport. I told him that Georgia was in the US and I didn’t think I needed one. I was somewhat confused at this point. I am not quite as worldly as Dan, so he explained that it was the former Soviet Republic in Eastern Europe, in the heart of the Caucasus. “Holy Shit,” I exclaimed.

It had been 7 years since my traveling days to Argentina and my passport was expired. My main concern was that there would not be time to renew it. I got on it and renewed my passport in a couple of weeks and was set to go. I really didn’t even think about asking information regarding where exactly we were going and what we were fishing for until I knew for sure it was a go. All I could imagine was that we were going to be close to Russia, and that meant big fish and lots of them.

Dan informed me that he had a friend in Georgia, a man by the name of Daniel Kunin from Vermont who studied in Georgia in the 90’s and now worked as a diplomat to the Georgian government. Daniel Kunin loved to fly-fish and set up the trip in order to figure out what sort of potential there was for fly-fishing in the Tusheti National Park where he had built a beautiful stone cabin some years ago. He had been fly-fishing the waters of the National Park for several years but never really mastered being able to catch fish with a fly rod consistently. He wanted to bring a crew over from the states in order to figure out how to fly-fish effectively on the rivers of the Tusheti National Park. Pioneer waters that had never been fished with a fly rod, to see if there was any potential to promote fly-fishing there and expand the tourism activity.

Our crew consisted of myself as the “professional fishing guide”, Dan Armstrong all around bad-ass fly fisherman and photographer, Matt Hansen avid fly-fisherman and writer for Powder Magazine and The Drake, and Arden Oksanen cinematographer, editor, producer, and bad-ass as well. Basically, I was with a group of impressive individuals. I was nervous, but very excited for the opportunity, it was an honor.

In preparing for the trip I needed to pack an arsenal of flies. Orvis donated a plethora of flies based on my recommendations, rods, reels, equipment, TroutHunter let me take any fly I needed and also donated TroutHunter tippit and leaders, Leslie Harrop gave me a screaming deal on ants and Trusty Rusty’s. I loaded up with everything I thought I would need to fish rivers that had never seen an artificial fly. Bead heads, streamers, leeches, worms, hoppers, terrestrials, everything I would need for the exploratory mission that was set before me. Although I had a month to prepare, it seemed as though I did all my packing the day before I left which wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did.

Our trip was scheduled for September 24th to October 4th initially. The Georgian government was providing our tickets and funding for the Journey. Shortly before we were to leave, we found out that the trip would be cut short, we would need to fly out of Georgia by October 1st as the elections were taking place and there were concerns regarding whether or not we would get to come back if the election results were out of favor.

In 2008, I learned that Russia invaded Georgia. A five-day war occurred and hundreds died. The battle took place near the Tusheti National Park, very near where we were to be fishing. The bulk of our time was to be spent just 30 miles from the Russian border. 2008 did not seem that long ago.

Checking in at the Bozeman airport, for about an hour I didn’t think I was going to be able to go. Turns out, my ticket name was different than my passport name. One letter was out of place. Not Good! Somehow the ticket master was able to get it fixed, it was good we showed up extra early. We were off on the adventure.

It is always good to have a 9-hour layover when the layover is in Munich or Munchin as the locals call it, during Oktoberfest. Real Sour kraut, sausage, and steins I think they are called. We took the train to the Hoffbrau, ate like kings, and had three 36-ounce German beers. We were ready for the second leg of the journey to Georgia, with a damn good buzz.

We arrived in Georgia around 3am and were picked up by several vehicles and a group of Geogians. They loaded us up and we proceeded to Daniel Kunin’s house in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where we would stay the night. Driving through the capital at 3 in the morning was amazing. The architecture of the buildings was unlike anything I had ever seen, you could tell that the Georgian people took great pride in the uniqueness of their city. I felt as if I were a million miles from home.

We settled in at Daniel’s home, had some brief introductions, and then made plans for the next morning to head into the Caucasus. There was some talk that we might get a helicopter, a Mi-8 Russian copter. It was still up in the air, so to speak. He would have to call the president of Georgia in the morning to find out.

The next day, Daniel came to pick us up; he had some good news and some bad news. The good news was he got us the Mi-8; the bad news was he now had to write a speech for the president as a return favor. Didn’t seem like bad news to me.

We were given an awesome tour of the capital prior to our helicopter ride. There were beautiful churches, 4th century towers, buildings that looked as though they should not be standing based on how they were built, however, the engineers were genius and unique. I could feel the history and knew I was only getting a brief glimpse of such a beautiful city. I could see the appeal it had to Daniel and why he never wanted to leave after spending his college years in Georgia. The people we met were so hospitable and appreciative of us and made us feel at home and safe. It was the culture of the Georgian people. Once you have a friend in Georgia, they are your friends for life, they say.

After the capital tour, we loaded up the gear, a couple cases of Budvar and jugs of wine, headed to the military base, and got in a Mi-8. I had never flown in a helicopter; I was very excited and giddy. We lifted off, over the city, vineyards, spectacular countryside, and then over the 9000-foot peaks of the Caucuses. Once we entered this massive mountain range we began to see clusters of small villages. Stone houses, livestock, small crops, and every village had a watchtower of varying sizes. The watchtowers were made of stone and every village had a slightly different structure and size to their towers. It was a competition as to who could build the biggest, I was informed.

I could see some of the rivers from the helicopter. It was difficult to tell from our altitude, however, they appeared to be slightly off color. I didn’t think much about it at the time, as I was not sure exactly where we would end up. It was fall, and the colors were everywhere. Yellow, orange, red, and every combination of those you could imagine.

Upon arrival to the village where Daniel’s cabin was located, a local village man who was very well known in the park met us and helped transfer the gear. He was one of those high mountain Georgian villagers that was as strong as an ox and will probably live to be 120 years old. He never really left his village, and considered the big city to be four villages away where there were only a few more houses and a couple of hotel type homes. He had an old truck to haul the gear. Daniel had purchased the truck for him some time ago so that he could use it when Daniel had to haul gear and supplies. Daniel was well respected among the villagers; he helped them as if he were native Georgian.

It was beginning to get dark when we finally got settled in the cabin. Dinner was prepared, cognac passed around, and Budvars consumed. Budvar, to my surprise, was the Georgian Budweiser. The bottles were even similar. I was told that Budweiser was actually a Georgian beer. It originated in Georgia, and Anheiser Bush stole the recipe, changed it slightly, and renamed it. I enjoy Budweiser, my beer of choice back home, but Budvar was delicious. I have not been able to drink Budweiser the same since. There was no refrigeration in the village, but this did not matter, the Budvar was the “Shit!!!” I only wish we had brought more cases.

The Georgian staff and Daniel cooked us up a great meal. Skewered chicken with a special Georgian sauce and vegetables grown in the village, we enjoyed a delicious meal with great company. Dinner was often interrupted with a Georgian tradition of toasts. Many toasts, f followed by consumption of homemade Cognac. So smooth and delicious. I don’t quite remember too much about that first night, but the Cognac was good. Daniel told us history of Tusheti, stories of his adventures, and entertained us like a pro. After dinner, it was time for a hunt.

Not being a great hunter myself, I wasn’t sure about going hunting that night. For one, I was seeing double, and for two, I could barely walk. Nonetheless, we set out hunting rabbits; they were plentiful in the area we were told. Luckily, Daniel didn’t let me hold a gun. We walked or stumbled down the hill, around the mountain, and I only fell about ten times. I landed in cow or horse manure most of the times I fell. We were fortunate I was only holding a flashlight; otherwise the trip may have ended abruptly. We never saw a rabbit.

I awoke the next morning feeling hung-over, but ready to roll and catch some hogs. We had heard a lot about the farm fresh eggs that the hens lay, but when Daniel went down to gather some, there were none. The Hens did not produce. They probably felt uneasy having foreigners in their village, we imagined. Oh well we thought, maybe tomorrow. We cooked up some Tusheti Taters instead. After breakfast, we headed out, slowly.

We never really seemed to leave the cabin very early, it was always around 10:30 or so. Nobody seemed to be in a rush, which was nice. We were finally rolling to the river. Our plan was to fish a river called the Alazani, which doesn’t translate to anything, I was told. I asked several Georgians what Alazani meant, and they told me it was just Alazani, no meaning. We drove down a rugged dirt road for about 30 minutes and arrived at a bridge where we parked. The water was unclear, off color. Different than anything I had ever seen. It was a grey tint with about a foot visibility. Being the fall, I would not have expected it to be off. We all discussed our options and thought about traveling to another river, but after discussing that the rivers there are typically off color, maybe the fish were used to that color, and adapted to their environment. We were all excited to fish anyway, so we geared up and tied on some flies.

I started with a nymph rig, San Juan and a rubber leg. Matt tied on a hopper and a dropper. We took a couple more rods loaded with buggers and streamers. We were ready to catch some fish. We walked up river a spell, saw a beautiful looking run, and threw our first cast. I felt like I was the first person in history to show an artificial fly to this river. It was exciting, I felt like a true pioneer in a sense. After about two hours, 164 flies, 30 blood knots, 164 clinch knots, 14 tangles, 36 snags, I still hadn’t touched what I thought was a fish. Daniel was fishing a little up stream, and he hollered that he hooked one, and it got off. Matt, no fish either. What in the hell was going on?

Some local villagers appeared up stream, coming around the bend. They had a big throw net. They were throwing it out, and working their way down river. The stream was small this time of year, easy to wade, but with some deeper looking holes. You could easily cast across it. As the villagers approached, we asked to see their catch. Three small trout appeared to be a cross between a Brook Trout and a Brown. A BrownBro of course. Native to Georgia we guessed. Well, we then knew there were fish in them there rivers, just how to catch them with an artificial fly was the puzzle. Our hopes of figuring it out heightened.

We moved down river to hit some holes that the net fisherman from the village didn’t fish. Perfect water in structure, depth, pools everywhere. A Trouthunter’s paradise. If the water was clear, there was no question we would be having success. Matt finally hooked and landed a 12-inch BrownBro. It was exciting for everyone. I asked what that Brownbro took, and he told me it was a prince nymph. Maybe it was turning on I thought. I hurried and tied on a prince, again, and proceeded to work a hole diligently, without success. Matt’s fish was the only one to be caught on the Alazani that day.

We met up at the rigs for some homemade goat cheese, bread, more cognac, and a couple Budvars. We then decided to travel to another river. Two more hours of rough road, and we arrived at another river. Also called the Alazani. It was chocolate brown. We didn’t even try. Somewhat discouraged, we continued to drive.

We ended up at a tributary to the Alazani, a very small creek; some spots were only about two rod lengths broad. Very shallow, but more clear than the first Alazani. This small creek was also called the Alazani. We spread out and worked the pools. Finally, I caught a small BrownBro, stripping a prince. I got a few other takes using that technique, but coming from the Fork, had a hard time with confidence dragging my fly through the water. Although it was small, I felt some success. Somehow that fish made it into The Drake Magazine. I don’t really care that it was small; I traveled 10,000 miles for that bad boy. It was awesome.

After a long day of fishing, it was time for Cognac and Budvars again. We were all a little confused, a little discouraged, and a little mystified. After a few Budvars, the fish we caught were bigger, and our hopes for more fish the next day grew. Ideas flew out left and right. We all had a different plan in mind for the next day, different techniques, different strategies; it was a game, a complicated puzzle that needed to be solved. We were the pioneers; we had to solve the mystery of the Alazani.

The rivers in the Tusheti national Park were all glacier fed water systems running off the shale rock of the Caucasus, down through fine cement like sediment that appeared to be the primary cause of the grey water color. Just walking through the stream would cause a cloud of grey sediment to be kicked up. We had to be careful when fishing above each other as to not cloud up the water even more.

What was going to be the outcome today, we thought. Again with high hopes of success, we set off with a Park Ranger. We were going over a few mountain ranges in order to find a water system that we were told by the ranger would be crystal clear. Four hours of driving over rough, treacherous mountain passes; we could finally see the river in the distance. Still somewhat grey in color, but it was starting to look more clear. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me.

The scene of this stream, also called the Alazani, was spectacular. There was a small village on the mountainside with one of the fanciest watchtowers I had seen. A smaller tributary ran through the village. After investigation of the water, it seemed to be only slightly less turbid than the lower Alazani, it was well worth a try. We began to believe that these waters were never really crystal clear and that we needed to use our knowledge of fly-fishing to solve the mystery of the Alazani.

It was time for the double San Juan rig. While tying on the rigs, Matt had a 4-inch bright green hopper land on his rod. Although there were thousands of hoppers everywhere, this was by far the largest. It scared him it was so large. There were thousands of hoppers all over the place in the National Park. Red, blue, orange, yellow, and every size you could imagine. We had used hoppers the day before, but never saw any fish rise all day. I pulled out the largest hopper I had for Matt. It was a large gumby hopper, tan in color. He was a little perturbed I did not have a 4-inch bright green one. “Shoulda brought one”, he said.

We fished hard once again, to no avail though. I was feeling frustrated and confused. It felt as though it was my first day ever fishing Bonefish flats in blue jeans and tennis shoes. I had no fucking clue. I did not want to fail my crew and the country that paid for my adventure.

It was getting late in the day, and once again, Matt Hansen, the bad ass that he is, gets a nice BrownBro on a worm. Any fish I these waters would make the angler feel like they had conquered the impossible. I was happy that he was able to perform, and save the day. We fished for another few hours, until it began to get dark, and them decided to head back to the cabin. We toasted to Matt’s success with some cognac, and hit the road to home.

The road home was long as we were out of cognac and Budvars. There was no quickie mart on the drive home, and we were thirsty. We asked our driver, jokingly, if we could stop and get some beers somewhere. He said that he would try. Thinking that he did not understand what we were asking, we didn’t get our hopes up.

Our driver stopped at a very dark, but large log cabin that looked more like a hotel. All the lights were off. We got out of the car and approached the structure and knocked on the door. A lady appeared. Our driver spit out a little Georgian, and before we knew it the lady had 6 sixty ounce Georgia beers in her hands. Holy shit I thought, there was a 7/11 in Tusheti. Beautiful, warm, 60 ounce plastic bottles of the sweetest Georgian brew anyone could imagine. Over the past few days, we had seen quite a few plastic 60 ouncers lying around, like someone had just littered or something. Turns out, we learned that those 60’s were actually just “spiked”.

To “Spike” a 60 was a tradition of Georgia, probably. People would go to their place of peace, a holy site, a location of great sentimental value, or memory, pound the 60, and “Spike” the bottle out of respect and honor. Yeah, spike it like you just scored a touchdown in the super bowl.

We didn’t spike the 60’s that night, we felt too guilty about littering I guess. We got a good buzz on and cruised back to the cabin for some dinner. Another crew of Georgians arrived to help with our crusade. The younger of them was a 22 year old who loved to hunt rabbits. That was what he lived for. You could see the excitement in his eyes as he prepared for the rabbit hunt. He didn’t even bother with dinner, just took off on the hunt.

Another night of toasting, with wine this time. Daniel had loaded up to about ten gallons of white wine. We were out of cognac and Budvar, so the wine tasted exceptional. We spent most of the time trying to decide where to go next to find some hogs. We made the plan for the following day, ate, drank, and passed out.

Another beautiful morning in Georgia, the mist rising from the fall colored valleys, villagers harvesting their crops, herders hauling their sheep to graze, it was a scene out of an old time movie. Our hopes to find some good fishing were back, it was to be the epic day. Once again we all had the excitement as if it were our first day in Tusheti.

Although the fishing was tough once again, we were in awe at our surroundings. Fishing was only secondary. At any moment we could see the elusive Ibex, we saw bear tracks in the sand, there was so much wildlife, but they were sly, just like the fish. It was all a mystery, a puzzle that we couldn’t solve. It intrigued me greatly. I have been many places where the fishing was so easy that you had to try to make it difficult. Here, there were fish, but how to catch them with a fly was the challenge. Some of the best days I have ever had flyfishing, I never even touched a fish, some days, never even threw a cast. It is all about the experience, the good friends you are with, and the location that makes it special.

On the drive home, we stopped at 7/11 for some 60’s. We pounded them quickly; stopped at the bridge we fished the first day, and “spiked” the 60’s. It was a spiritual experience, and granted the fishing was not as successful as we had hoped it would be, the entire experience left a positive experience in our souls, the intrigue, fascination, and mystery of the Alazanis. One day we will return for the challenge. One day we will again have the desire to attempt the impossible, and make it possible, and if not, we will be in a beautiful place surrounded by good friends and spike some 60’s because we are true fisherman.