Der Angler was right where you’d have expected one to be, casting into the tailrace of a low head dam.
We’d just waltzed the Philosophenweg on the hillside across from Heidelberg and were crossing the Neckar back to the Altstadt for lunch and ice cream when I looked over and saw the man fishing off a ramp sloping into the river.
It was late morning and the sun was shining brightly over Southwest Germany that day earlier this month, but with how stained the water was below the spillway of a set of locks, I figured the fisherman must have felt he had a chance of hooking something.
And I knew there was something very big swimming nearby.
When Amy, River, Kiran and I had started our walk a couple hours before, I’d seen a dark back briefly surface about a half a kilometer downstream, leaving a large set of ripples on the otherwise calm river.
Holy Fahrvergnügen, what the $%@$ was that?!? was my first thought.
If it had been the Columbia, I would have immediately said sea lion, but neither the Neckar nor the Rhine it feeds are known for their pinnipeds, let alone manatees or freshwater dolphins.
As my family walked on ahead, I stood and watched the river, ruling out a swimmer, diver and the odd duck.
Had I just seen one of those wels catfish?
These sturgeon-sized bottomfeeders are native to the Danube and other Central and Eastern European basins, but have done well since being stocked in Western European watersheds, which run on the warmer side.
Pictures abound of fishermen in up to their gills in rivers and lakes while holding huge whiskerfish they’ve hooked and landed (they’re said not to taste good, so are mainly released).
I’m not sure if a wels was what this particular one was after, but I took a couple photos and, as one angler to another, wished him good luck.
It would not be the last time I crossed paths with fishing or hunting during our two-week trip throughout the middle and upper Rhine River valley and its tributaries.
BEING A NORTHWEST SPORTSMAN as well as a hook-and-bullet magazine editor, I naturally keep my eye open for fish and game wherever I go.
If there’s a stream, I’m peeking into it, wondering about its angling possibilities. If there’s a patch of forest, I’m curious about what its leaves and needles might be hiding.
Germany’s woods and waters hold red deer (Hirsch), wild boars (Wildschwein), ducks, rabbits and pigeon, as well as walleye (Zander), pike (Hecht), brown trout (Forelle), introduced grayling, and carp and its relative the asp, among other species.
Of course, fishing and hunting are tightly regulated there, far more so than here, where there are minimal barriers to entry by comparison.
A 2003 article in Montana Outdoors magazine outlines the rigorous steps needed just to get a hunting license — a year of study followed by a test that half are said to fail — as well as the social responsibilities that come with the activity.
Writes James Hagengruber:
The 450,000-some hunters in Germany play the combined role of game warden, wildlife biologist, and agricultural pest controller. They also must ensure that wild game animals have sufficient food and habitat. “The hunting right and the conservation duty are inseparable,” said [Thomas] Baumeister, [a German native who worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks].
And a post by a Neckar River valley-based catfisherman who has caught a 150-pound wels details some of what he’s faced with:
We have bans on using livebaits, night fishing, boat fishing, wild camping etc. and you have to abide by them. With special rigs and techniques, you can still present bunches of worms and deadbaits attractively. If you want to be successful, you have to use your imagination.
BUT DURING OUR RECENT TRAVELS through the country my wife was born and grew up in, we crossed contemporary as well as historical references to fishing and hunting, showing their cultural importance.
Right beside the Neckar in Heidelberg was the Goldener Hecht — golden pike — restaurant and hotel.
On the mountain above this university town were a number of hunting stands …
… and near one were fresh tracks of a Reh, a blacktail fawn-sized roe deer.
Outside Meersburg, we spotted a herd of the diminutive deer, though by the time I’d wheeled the rental SUV around to get a picture, all but one had retreated into a patch of trees.
Above the Rhine, Burg Rheinstein offered an impressive antlers-and-armor man cave.
And one hotel we stayed at sported a large bear hide hung inside the front door, while on the floor of a never-conquered castle we toured was this wild boar rug.
Unlike here, hunters can sell their game meat at farmers markets and to restaurants. At one countryside Gasthaus, I had Hirschragout und spaetzle, venison in sauce with noodles — sehr lecker!
Elsewhere, several establishments offered Zander, including the restaurant-hotel across from ours on the Bodensee.
Speaking of Lake Constance, an open-air museum there that told the story of the people who lived in stilted villages on the water a couple thousand years ago had a display of their ancient fishing hooks …
… , though I’m not sure I would have trusted them to hold onto the carp swimming through the Pfahlbaumuseum’s sheltered cove.
For that, I might have consulted the Jenzi fishing catalog, a sticker for which was affixed to a bench above the Bodensee at Meersburg.
Thus properly outfitted, I wouldn’t have minded tempting the schools of silver fish swimming in the Tauber below the famed walled city of Rothenburg.
And while we did get up to just under 100 miles an hour on the Autobahn, on smaller country highways speed limits were lower and there were numerous wildlife overpasses helping to prevent collisions with critters — this pair was in southern Baden-Wurtemburg state.
No, don’t worry, I won’t be moving to Germany anytime soon for its fishing and hunting opportunities. I think those in the Northwest are much more varied and less restrictive to take advantage of.
But I do appreciate that there, those with the will, time, money and patience are able to experience a little of what we take for granted here, making me cherish our opportunities all the more.