The fly fishing paradise on the doorstep

We talk with Diego Riggi from Fly Fishing Dolomitico about fishing guiding

Actually, it was supposed to be a fishing trip to one of Diego's home stretches, where we would fish together, chat a little about fly fishing and guiding and catch the odd nice marble or grayling. Actually!

You can see it on the faces - happy anglers look different. Petrus just didn't mean well with us that day

How an afternoon of fishing turned into a cosy aperitivo

After it had taken quite a bit of organisation to synchronise our two time schedules and find an afternoon when we both had time (which can actually be quite a difficult undertaking with a fishing guide during the season), the weather threw a spanner in the works. The exceptionally high, almost summer-like temperatures at the beginning of April this year melted away the late season snow and caused the river levels to rise considerably. When an extremely brisk and gusty northerly foehn set in on the agreed day, we both quickly agreed that Petrus simply didn't mean well for us today. The closed season is still in force on smaller headwaters in the middle and higher altitudes, and other possible fishing spots, such as lake outlets, have a longer approach route, which would shorten the effective time on the water even further. And so we resign ourselves to our fate, at least for today, because we don't have to force anything and decide spontaneously in favour of an aperitivo. After all, a coffee and an Aperol Spritz are at least as good a way of chatting about fly fishing as being on the water. And postponed does not mean cancelled! We will make up for our day on the water together at the next opportunity.

Spontaneousely we switched from our original plan to go fly fishing to a coffee and an Aperol Spritz

Andreas: Diego, it looks like our waders will stay dry today. Which stretch of water would you have chosen for us today?

Diego: Yes, unfortunately! Of course, we could have gone fly fishing anyway today, but it would probably have been a tough one. If we ever manage to go to the water together to make a few casts and catch a fish or two, I would have liked to take you to "my" Isarco. However, the flow conditions are absolutely unusual for mid-April here too, which is why I chose the "Small Isarco", a stretch of residual water near Campodazzo, which is normally very easy to fish even in changeable conditions. It is very well structured and harbours a very good stock of fish, but today the Isarco is also showing its uneasy side in this section. If you really insist, we will certainly find one or two spots that can still be fished well. Otherwise, we'll afford ourselves the luxury of a cosy chat over a coffee and postpone fly fishing together until another time.

Andreas: Works for me too, of course. But I'll take your word for it. And I'll write it in the interview so you can't avoid it later.

Diego: (laughs) All right, we'll certainly find another date. But then there'll be more fishing and fewer questions.

Andreas: That's a deal! But today you can't avoid my questions. You spoke earlier about "your" Isarco. Is this one of your favourite stretches of water?

Diego: The Isarco is definitely one of my favourite waters. It's an absolutely exciting fishing water, especially from here upstream. It's not always easy to fish and sometimes a real diva, but if the conditions are halfway right, you can experience great fishing here. Marble trout, rainbow trout and brown trout as well as beautiful grayling await in the deep pools and long runners, but they also want to be caught.

Andreas: Do you also come to this stretch with your clients?

Diego: Yes, basically yes, but it primarily depends on the clients. In order to be able to offer each client a customised day, it's important that the water suits them and their fishing skills. It doesn't help if I fish a highly technical stretch with a beginner or plan a physically demanding day with an older client. Then the client won't get anything out of it and, as a result, neither will I.  It's important to me that the client can enjoy the whole day as much as possible. That's why I send all my clients a kind of short questionnaire beforehand, asking them to assess themselves. If I can see that the client can have fun physically and from a technical point of view on the Isarco, I am of course happy to come with them to this stretch of water. Provided that the water conditions allow it.

Andreas: And what do you do when the surrounding waters are unfishable?

Diego: I've been guiding for a couple of years now and I have to say that, fortunately, I've never had to cancel completely a guiding trip because the water wasn't fishable. I have already cancelled guiding trips because the clients overestimated themselves a little, but as far as the waters are concerned, I have always been able to avoid them. I'm relatively centrally located here in the Isarco Valley and can reach a large number of different waters throughout South Tyrol, as well as in nearby Trentino, in around an hour's drive. If I'm guiding clients for a whole day, it pays off to drive a few kilometres to reach a fishable body of water.

Andreas: You've been guiding in South Tyrol for several seasons now, but you're not South Tyrolean yourself. Why don't you tell us how you came to pitch your tents here and guide people fly fishing on the Rienza, Isarco and other rivers?

Diego: You're right, I'm originally from Piacenza and always had to travel long distances to reach halfway decent fishing waters. At some point, I just didn't feel like spending any more time in the car than fishing, especially when I just wanted to go to the water after work to enjoy the evening and the atmosphere. So, one day I packed my bags and moved to Tione in Trentino. It was a leap in the dark, but it went exactly as I had imagined. Trentino has a lot to offer in terms of fishing and the structures and organisations there are much more professional when it comes to fishing tourism. There is also a lot of public funding there to promote this sector. I started guiding there and also set up an online shop where I primarily sell flies that I tie myself.

Even back then, I sometimes travelled to South Tyrolean waters with my clients, as the fishing pressure here is relatively low. And then a few years ago I decided to move to South Tyrol. And now I live less than 300 metres from the Isarco as the crow flies, which is another reason why I like to call the river "my" Isarco. In South Tyrol, fishing guiding and fishing tourism as a whole are still in their infancy and there is a lot of potential. But compared to Trentino, here you are on your own and are not supported by the tourism industry. On the other hand, it also offers a lot of freedom and development opportunities. Looking back, I have to say that I've always been very lucky in my "career“, and I don't regret any of the decisions I've made. Although I've been in South Tyrol for a few years now, I still have a very good relationship with the guides in Trentino and help out when needed. However, with around 80 to 100 days with my own clients on the water, I'm no longer as flexible and spontaneous when it comes to scheduling. On the other hand, this work gives me a lot of freedom and I can plan and organise every day myself. I have turned my hobby into a profession, I accompany my clients to the water, and I live right next to my dream water - what more could you want?

Diego with a beautiful marmorata and a nice grayling from "his" Isarco

Andreas: So, you work full-time as a fishing guide?

Diego: Yes, exactly. I work as a fishing guide during the fishing season and also run my small shop. I work with various hotels, especially in Val Gardena, as well as two Italian travel agencies that offer their clients excursions and entire packages for fly fishing in the Dolomites. As a fishing guide, I primarily take care of the fishing side of things, of course, but I am also happy to help my clients if they are looking for accommodation or anything else. I offer fishing guiding by the day, but fishing trips lasting several days can also be organised.

Off season, during wintertime, when the waters in South Tyrol and the surrounding area are closed, I mainly tie flies and sell them through my shop.

Andreas: And where do most of your clients come from?

Diego: Clients who book me directly mainly come from Italy. In contrast, clients who arrive through hotels or agencies are more international, and in recent years I have mainly been able to guide clients from North and South America. These international tourists have usually booked a fixed route in Italy, which takes them to Rome, Florence and Venice as well as the Dolomites. And there, in addition to purely alpine experiences, they can also discover the unique landscape by fly fishing.

Andreas: A few years ago, you and fly fishing in the Dolomites were featured in a in a travel supplement of the New York Times. Was that a booster for your guiding business?

Diego: To be honest, not really. At least I didn't notice an increase in bookings after the article appeared in the Times. The international clients actually tend to come through the hotels or agencies. The guests stay in South Tyrol for a few days and want to experience the Dolomites and the beautiful nature up close and fly fishing in the marvellous waters of the surrounding area is the perfect way to do this.

Andreas: Do these clients have different expectations?

Diego: Of course, every client is individual, but similar patterns can be identified. For clients from Italy and other neighbouring countries, the main focus when guiding is on fishing success. When they get in contact, they usually tell me directly that they are primarily interested in catching marmoratas,, which ideally should also be as big as possible. But fishing and catching are still two different things and even if trophy sized marmoratas live here in the Isarco, they cannot simply be hooked on demand. There is a reason why these fish have become so big. These clients sometimes put themselves under unnecessary pressure throughout the day due to their own expectations and I'm not always sure whether they can really enjoy the day.

Clients who come to us from across the pond are different. For example, anglers from Canada, the United States or Brazil have literally unlimited fishing opportunities at home. You can tell that they want to take home a fishing experience that emphasises a great day on the water rather than the number and size of the fish they catch. They take a very relaxed approach, are generally more willing to be shown around and are more open to trying out new things. Maybe it's just my impression, but I would say that this relaxed approach also means that these anglers ultimately catch more fish, even if they don't set out to do so.

However, what I have noticed more and more with all clients in recent years is that they specifically want catch photos and videos for their social media channels. And for this it doesn't matter whether the client is 18 or 80 years old.

Andreas: Are the majority of your clients fly fishermen or simply interested people who book a day of fishing and expect you to cast a rod and catch fish for them?

Diego: On the whole, they are fly fishermen who already have experience with the fly, some more, some less. I don't give many introductory fly fishing or casting courses and if I do, then only on the technical side of Euronymphing, i.e. fly fishing with monofilament lines, and more for local anglers or clubs.

What I have noticed, however, is that many anglers - regardless of their country of origin - tend to overestimate themselves. I told you about my questionnaire at the beginning so that I can better assess the client and organise the perfect fishing day for them on a very individual basis. One of the questions I ask them is how they would rate themselves on a 5-point scale, ranging from absolute beginner to fishing world champion. I'm always surprised at how many clients give themselves a 4 or 5. I didn't even realise there were so many world champions. wink

Joking aside, my main aim is to offer the client a day that is not technically or physically demanding, so that they can enjoy it from start to finish and return to their accommodation in the evening with a smile and a good feeling, remembering the wonderful day.

Diego guiding a client - taking photos for their social media channels is now part of the experience

Andreas: What does a typical day's fishing with a client look like for you?

Diego: As every client is individual and has their own ideas, I can't give a generalised answer to this question. Basically, we meet at the agreed time and place and then head to the water together. I check the weather and water levels in advance and get the necessary fishing licences. In the vast majority of cases, clients coming from America in particular also need the complete rental equipment, i.e. waders and boots, as well as the appropriate fishing tackle. This is also part of my service and must of course be prepared and organised.

Generally, we fish from 9 to 5, i.e. for around 8 hours and mostly will have lunch at the riverbank in form of sandwiches that I bring as well. If the client wants something different, I am of course happy to cater for this. My questionnaire also serves this purpose, as I ask the client to indicate any allergies or special requests in advance. We usually end the day by the water with a glass of Prosecco and a small aperitif, which I also bring along.

That's my package for a guided fishing day with Diego Riggi.

Andreas: Do you only fish with a fly rod during a guiding session?

Diego: I am a fishing guide who fishes with the fly, and I communicate it that way. I can therefore accompany and advise the client on the water when it comes to fly fishing and help them as much as possible to catch one or more fish. I am not a lure fisherman myself and if a client insists on fishing with artificial bait and the fishing regulations of the stretch of water being fished allow it, then they are welcome to do so. However, I cannot support him technically when it comes to spin fishing.

Andreas: And when fly fishing, what techniques do you recommend to your clients when guiding?

Diego: First and foremost, it depends on the water. In summer on a mountain stream, it is of course very exciting when the fish rise on the dry fly. I recently took a client to a lake outlet due to bad weather and he was able to catch 30 fish on dries. On the Isarco, however, I tend to recommend the nymph, either classically fished with a fly line or modern with monofilament. However, the streamer also works very well here if you fish and move it well. Of course, you can also catch fish with a dry fly on the Isarco, but the really good moments for this technique are just a handful and you don't necessarily have to make it difficult for yourself.

Whether Diego suggests to use a dry fly, a streamer or a nymph on monofilament line depends on the water, the situation and the client's wishes and ability

However, it also always depends on how well the client masters the respective technique, and here I have to say that the vast majority of anglers that I am allowed to accompany get to grips with Euronymphing very quickly and well. It's also a very efficient way of fly fishing, so the clients also have various experiences of success during the day, which gives them additional motivation.

Andreas: You are also a fly tyer. Do your clients fish with their flies or with yours?

Diego: Of course, I also provide my flies for clients who need rental equipment. If someone is fishing with their own equipment, I naturally also advise them on the ideal fly patterns - in my experience - for the water and situation in question. In most cases, they start with their own flies, and sooner or later most clients are happy to use some of my fly patterns. When it comes to nymph fishing, the pattern may be important to a certain extent, but the right weight in relation to the water depth and current speed is much more important. If you don't bring your nymphs close to the bottom of the water, you won't catch any fish, no matter how beautiful or elaborately tied they are.

Andreas: Diego, you've been fishing in South Tyrol for a few years now, but perhaps you still have a critical view from the outside. How do you rate the fishing in this region?

Diego: Phew, that's not an easy question to answer. As I mentioned above, I have to say that the fishing pressure on many South Tyrolean waters is relatively low. Although I am out and about a lot, both guiding and privately, I rarely meet other anglers. But that's exactly what makes the local waters so appealing and attractive to me. However, especially for the Isarco the flushing of the reservoirs by the electricity company is particularly noticeable. If an alternative solution could be found here, then the already very good Isarco could be even better.

The condition of many fish populations in South Tyrol is not solely dependent on fishing regulations. The legal regulations are quite strict, but the wild fish stocks in many waters, especially the larger rivers, are still below their potential.

I get a lot of feedback from my clients about South Tyrol itself, because they are all amazed at how clean and well-kept it looks here and how high-quality and well-developed the infrastructure is, even in rural areas. Guests visiting South Tyrol for the first time are also fascinated by the country's history and culture. This is certainly one of the things that locals don't even notice because they take it for granted. But these things are not quite so obvious when you look at them in a wider context and from the outside.

Andreas: Thank you, Diego, for taking the time to talk to me today, even though we didn't get to fish together.

Diego: No problem, I'd love to! Just get in touch when the conditions are better and you have time, and we'll catch up on the fishing part of our interview.

Andreas: Alright!

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Andreas Riedl
Andreas Riedl
Fly fisherman, fly tyer
Job: Product Manager
Hobbies: Road bike, balcony gardening
He got in touch with fishing at the tender age of 11 and has been fishing mainly with flies for a good 20 years. As a self-taught fisherman, he is open to everything new and also fishes with artificial flies on sabiki rigs or with a spinning rod. He considers himself lucky to have such an understanding family with two time-consuming hobbies.
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