On an early morning in late autumn 2019, I drove with two friends from my family’s small rural home in Northern Italy toward the town of Bassano del Grappa, where we would meet our fishing guides. The car axles whimpered through each turn. The road was flanked by walls of dolomite, valley floors of grapevines and verdure.
Passing through villages with roads no wider than toothpicks, we intersected the Brenta River several times, crossing old wooden bridges and new steel overpasses with the water breaking below. The river wriggles from two serene lakes in the Trentino-Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps, and after more than 100 miles dismisses itself into the Adriatic Sea.
After an hour’s drive we made it to the river bend where we would fish that day. The sun hardly crested the horizon. It was only in this very specific stretch of water outside Bassano that we were allowed to fish, a condition of the country’s strict permitting and controls on fishing. The regulations make for good fishing and a protected river ecosystem.
Italy never appears on lists featuring the world’s best fishing locales. Wyoming? Definitely. Argentina? Naturally. New Zealand? No question. But the wonder of Italian alpine fishing is now making itself known thanks to tourism campaigns launched in the last five years and an explosion of guides offering tours that blend traditional fly fishing with cultural outings.
Aside from the cool factor of accessing backcountry tributaries near Roman ruins and the packed lunch that is likely to be haute if low-key, the wonderment of Italian fishing is threefold: the accessibility (although permitting is painless for guests and residents alike, the rules are extensive), the abundance (recent fishery management efforts have made the waters of Northern Italy a trout heaven) and the rolling seasons (lake trout and chars from January to October, rainbow trout from February to October, graylings from May to October and pike from May to December).
But the real beauty may be this: “The fisherman can say, ‘We’re going to Italy!’” said Angelo Piller, who operates a fly fishing lodge, tackle shop and guiding service in Pieve di Cadore, about two hours north of Venice. “He can fish and the rest of the family thinks they’re just going on vacation.”
When we arrived in Bassano we walked along the water’s edge across a path trussed by stone walls. To get to the Brenta, we had to first climb a stone wall and then lower ourselves into the brackish river water.
Fly fishing is most associated with waders, hats pricked full of hooks resembling various insects and artful wrist work. But this was more. As the water reached my chest, I walked further into the river. Downstream was the Ponte Degli Alpini, a covered wooden pontoon bridge whose earliest version dates to the 1100s and is named for the Italian mountain military forces. I could see lines forming outside the Nardini Distillery, where soon we would see patrons clutching shot…