Turkey’s Flathead Trout: Another Time, A Distant Place
Story and photography by First Lieutenant Edwin L. Kennedy, US Army
[This article was written by Brigadier General Kennedy, then a First Lieutenant, while assigned to Turkey in 1952-1955. It was discovered in a file folder by his son, also a retired Army officer, who edited the article and added the photographs from scanned 35 mm slides. Brigadier Gen. Kennedy, a WWII, Korean War and Vietnam war veteran, retired from active duty in 1979 and currently resides in Florida. We present his story here because it provides a glimpse not only to fishing in another country, but also to fishing in another time. – The Editors.]
Standing knee-deep in the swift, clear water, I paused momentarily before making my first cast. In the instant before the lure sailed out over the stream, thought to myself, “Of all the things I’ve seen and done in Turkey, this trip surely tops the list.”
The fact that I was fishing was, in itself, not uncustomary, but trout fishing—and in Turkey—that was something I had never imagined could be done. Everything had happened so quickly that until then I hadn’t stopped to realize that the entire trip had been unusual, even the way in which it had come about.
It started one hot day early in June while I was watching the approach of a plane load of VIPs and wishing that it would hurry and land. I wanted to get out of the sun and back to the coolness of my office in town, which in this case was Ankara, Turkey, where I was assigned to the Joint American Military Mission for Aid to Turkey,
“Who’s going fishing with me this weekend?”
The voice came from behind me, and though it was none of my business, I couldn’t help wondering who planned to go fishing with whom, and where they planned to fish. The mention of fishing aroused my interest and I temporarily forgot the airplane which by this time was making its final approach.
One by one the fruitless trips I had made to the rivers and creeks around Ankara flashed through my mind. Turkey is a country of widely varying terrain and the area in which I was stationed is, for the most part, made up of barren, rolling plains, devoid of vegetation except for sparsely scattered clumps of short grass and broken only by bleak mountain ranges. The summers are long, hot and rainless with the inevitable result that the creeks dry-up completely and the few rivers recede to sluggish trickles that are unable to support any species of game fish.
With so many failures of my own, I couldn’t help sympathizing with anyone naïve enough to mention fishing in Turkey. How wrong could I be! Only days later I was to find that not only was my sympathy not needed, but was completely and totally wasted.
Again the words, “Who’s going fishing with me this weekend?”, sounded in my ear. This time it came in loud and clear. Turning, I expected to see two fishermen in the act of planning a trip, but instead I saw only the Honorable Avra M. Warren, American ambassador to Turkey, and an avid sportsman. Suddenly the realization dawned that the Ambassador was directing his remark to me. He had to be since there was nobody else in the immediate vicinity.
Completely ignoring the now landing plane, I gave the Ambassador my full attention.
“Where are you going to fish, Mr. Ambassador?” was the most pertinent question that I could think of on the spur of the moment.
“Harry Miller wrote me from Elazig that the trout are really hitting now. I have no idea what kind of trout they are and neither does Harry, but I’m curious enough to go and find out.” The Ambassador paused to light a cigarette while I digested this bit of information. By now I was curious too, so when the Ambassador asked if I would like to join his party I knew what to answer.
Nine o’clock the following Friday morning found me a member of a hopeful but doubting group of fishermen standing on the airstrip at Elazig, approximately 340 air miles east of Ankara. Mr. Miller, a Bureau of Public Roads engineer stationed in Elazig, had been waiting for us at the airport, and as we loaded gear onto the pickup trucks, the seven members of the party kept a steady stream of questions aimed at him and his partner, Mr. Johnston. “How far from here is the stream, and when will we get there?”, and “What lures have you been taking these trout on?”, were only a few of the things we had speculated on since we had decided to actually make the trip.
Mr. Miller had a ready answer for each and every question and better still that confident look on his face indicated that he knew what he was talking about.
“Don’t worry”, he said, “We’ll all catch fish.”
I had no way of knowing then that I was on the threshold of the most amazing fishing experience I had ever known. Having completed our loading, we climbed about our trucks and headed due north out of town on winding gravel road. Soon we were crossing the first of several mountain ranges that lay between the airstrip and our objective. About 15 miles out of Elazig we crossed a wide tributary of the historic Euphrates River and an hour later turned off the road onto a narrow trail that had been hacked out of the side of the hill and obviously intended to accommodate nothing larger than a two-wheel ox cart.
Almost immediately the scenery changed, and the oppressive heat gave way to refreshing coolness. Instead of the drab brown hills we and several varieties of wild flowers with which I was completely unfamiliar. The valleys were dotted with bright green fields of millet and from time-to-time clusters of flat roofed mud and stone houses appeared on the lower slopes of the mountain. Many of the houses were dug into the sides of the hill in order to provide protection against the sever winters that often last from early October until the later part of April. Above us, snow covered peaks sparkled in the bright June sun.
Many ravines were still filled with snow and when viewed from a distance gave the mountain side the appearance of having been liberally splashed with white paint. From one of the ravines that extended to the road we filled our ice chests and the big freezer box Mr. Miller was carrying in the back of his truck.
Boulders blocking the road in mountains near Elazig, Turkey. Locals had to remove the large rocks so that our trucks could pass.
Twenty-five miles and three hours after we turned-off the main road our convoy rolled into a beautiful, green valley through which flowed a swift, clear stream. Crossing the stream on an old wooden bridge, we found ourselves in the little village of Ovacik. The entire town turned-out to greet us and during the exchange of courtesies, I strained my very weak Turkish enough to understand that we were the first visitors from the outside these friendly people had seen since the first snowfall of the previous October.
Village of Ovacik in eastern Turkey
Leaving Ovacik we rode up the wide valley keeping always in sight of the stream. During the next half hour we forded several small streams that fed the main artery. The water in each of these smaller tributaries was cold and clear and in the shallows where it bubbled over the its rock bottom, a sparkling blue. Like some of the other members of the party, I almost had to be physically restrained to keep from starting my fishing before we arrived at our campsite beside the main stream.
At the base of the steep mountain along a straight, swift stretch of water our lead truck halted and in a matter of seconds most of the party were rummaging through the pile of gear in the back of that truck in a frantic effort to locate fishing tackle.
While some of the older, less excitable, hands set up camp, the rest of us rigged our rods with feverish haste. At Mr. Miller’s advice, I fastened a red and white “Lazy Ike” to end of the brand new spinning line. Since my experience with spinning equipment had been limited to a few casts in the lot back of my apartment, I took the precaution to rig my fly rod, using as a lure a small Colorado Spinner. The others used a variety of trout lures ranging from the standard flies to spoons and spinners.
About fifty yards downstream from camp the rushing waters formed a smooth “S” curve. As soon as my rods had been put together and lures attached, I donned my waders and made for the head of the bend. At this point the stream was about 25 yards wide and at the deepest point appeared to reach a depth of 6 to 8 feet. As the straightaway raced into a high bank to make its turn, it left on the far side a deep run, where the current was not nearly as swift as that in the center. At the place where the fast water and the deeper run came together a riffle was formed and for this spot I aimed my first cast.
It was long—by yards—and wound up high and dry on the far bank. Disgustedly, I cranked the handle of my new Mitchell reel and bounced the “Lazy Ike” into the pool. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Ambassador already netting a fish and just downstream Mr. Johnston was happily playing a trout that seemed to stay out of the water more than in it.
I had already picked out a likely looking spot for my second cast when my rod bowed and the drag on my reel set up a steady grind. By the time I reacted enough to set the hook, there was no need for me to make the effort.
By the viciousness of his strike that trout was securely hooked.
His first run took him into the swift part of the stream in spite of my efforts to turn him. Once there, my cranking on the reel gained me not one inch of line. The drag was set to protect the 3 pound monofilament line and the fish aided by the current, continued to strip line from the reel in alarming quantities. Since I couldn’t make the fish come to me, I decided to go to the fish, or as close as possible anyway. After a few exploratory steps, I found that once the water was above my knees I was in danger of being knocked over by the force of the current. Having no desire to be submerged in that icy water, I quickly changed my plans.
Tightening the drag, I found that by exerting a little pressure I could turn the fish and even pick up a little line between runs. Soon I had my fish back into his home pool and so far I had never even seen him. I’ll have to admit that I was just a little disappointed at the prospect of landing my first trout without him making at least one jump. Maybe that fish was a mind reader or maybe he was just tired of being bullied, because as soon as I started working him through the quieter water, he began to give me my initial lesson in trout acrobatics.
The first time he broke the surface was to tail-walk halfway across the narrow pool, and that was just the starter. The sight of that golden colored trout as he churned through the clear water and bounced across its surface convinced me that I was on the end of his line, and it would only be a matter of seconds before we parted company. In the long minute that it took me to regain my confidence I developed a healthy and lasting respect for trout in general, and the fish I was attempting to land in particular. When at last I eased my net into the water behind a weary opponent, I knew the satisfaction that I’m sure countless other trout fishermen have experienced in the landing of their first trout
When I had removed the lure from the fish’s mouth and put him on the stringer, I had tied onto one of the belt loops on my waders, I waded ashore and carefully examined my catch. He was not the biggest trout in the world as I had thought when I caught my first glimpse of him, but according to my hand scales he weighed one ounce less than two and a half pounds. Along the top of his back from the tip of the mouth to the tail was fairly dark brown streak with extended a little way down onto either side. The sides themselves could be described as no other color but golden, except for the single line of small red dots that ran from directly behind the gills all the way to the tail at intervals of about one inch. I noticed that the colors that had been so brilliant when I first took the fish from the water were now beginning to fade—not much, but enough so that it was noticeable. I thought at the time, and still think for that matter, that I never had I seen a more beautiful fish.
Moving back out into the shallows, I cast upstream to the head of the run from which I had just taken the fish. No sooner had the lure touched the water than it was smashed with the same savageness that it had been the first time, and I was treated to a repeat performance of a frantic trout with innate desire not to with up in a frying pan. This time the star of the show, when finally netted, turned out to be a 14 inch edition of his daddy, who by this time had sufficiently revived himself enough to wind the extra long stringer twice around my left leg.
Completely overcome with trout fever, I waded cautiously to the next bend and dropped my lure at the head of a riffle that looked promising. For the third time in as many casts I was rewarded with the jolting strike which by this time I had come to expect. I set the hooks and the fight was on, but this time I was not so lucky. In trying to maneuver the fish into a position to be netted I dropped the tip of my rod just a touch, but that was all he needed. I wound up with a “Lazy Ike” well-tangled in my net and the fish with a clear-cut decision in a hard fought battle.
Moving downstream I made several fruitless casts into the next pool before I hooked another of these vividly arrayed fighters. The one thing that each of the fish I had hooked so far had in common was the savageness with which they hit the lure, and their determined fight to get into the swiftest part of the stream. From there on, each had his own bag of special tricks.
For the next hour it seemed as though I was constantly playing a fish or adding one to my already heavy stringer, until all of a sudden I realized that I had made at least a dozen casts without results. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was shortly after 2:00 p.m., the time when, according to Mr. Miller, the action would stop. Happy for the respite, I returned to camp lugging a string of 14 fine trout, the smallest of which was a plump 12 incher.
At camp I rapidly compared notes with the others and found that without exception the ones of us who had taken Mr. Miller’s advice on which lures to use had caught fish. One of the ‘diehards’, however had used nothing but dry flies and had come in without getting so much as a strike. Needless to say, he became a believer very quickly once he had examined several of the fish-laden stringers and the lures that had accounted for them. The obvious conclusion was that, while not bashful about striking, the fish had very definite ideas as to what lures they considered worthy of their efforts. Mr. Miller had learned the hard way how to tempt these trout and we were reaping the benefits of his research.
After a hurried lunch, we adjourned to the edge of the stream to clean our respective catches, some to be iced down for the trip home and some to be fried for supper. As we worked I asked Mr. Miller if he knew why there were trout in this particular stream and not in others that were just as ideally located and seemingly well-suited for fish.
His answer was that these fish were not native to this part of the country, but had been planted here years ago by one of the sultans who had a hunting and fishing lodge in this area. He further explained that they have thrived and multiplied not only because of their perfect habitat, but also because the people of the valley, descendents of desert wanderers, have little interest in fish as food and less in the sport of fishing.
In addition, the relative inaccessibility of the place has kept the spot unknown to most of the people who otherwise would have fished it. I said a silent prayer for that ancient potentate who so unknowingly furnished me with such wonderful sport.
As we expected the afternoon rise to begin around 4:00 p.m., we made short work of the cleaning and returned to camp to pick up our gear for another try at the trout. In my tackle box I had an assortment of Mepps spinners that I was anxious to try out. One of my friends who had done a considerable amount of trout fishing in Germany had given them to me with the assurance that as a trout taker they had no equal. Since we still had a full day on the stream ahead of us, I felt that I could afford to experiment for the rest of the day. My freezer chest was half full and I was sure that I could complete the job of filling it before we had to leave, so this time when I waded into the stream a No. 2 Mepps spinner was on the end of my line.
Before sundown I had caught and released 26 fish, ranging in size from 10-17 inches, most of which were taken on the same Mepps spinner. I found, however, that the Colorado spinner on my fly rod gave almost as good results, as did a double red and white bass fly. It seemed that red, white and silver were the magic colors for those trout and that suited me. I was well-equipped to serve up their favorite dish.
Supper that night consisted of crisply fried trout with all the trimmings, plus a lot of animated conversation about what we would do on the stream the next day. As I savored the flavor of the delicate pink meat, my thoughts were not on tomorrow, but instead, on plans to make another visit to this fisherman’s paradise. I knew then that I would never be satisfied until I had a return engagement with Turkey’s Flathead Trout.
END NOTE: My father was an avid fisherman until about 15 years ago and age and health caught up to him. He tried to get this article published in 1954 and dropped it when no one showed interest. I found the article in his papers and thought it might be neat to try again. – Ed Kennedy