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Caccia e pesca in Venezia

Exploring the outdoors around the lagoon of Venice -

In the fall of 2002, I decided to introduce in my programs the wonderful fly fishing destinations of Slovenia developed by my counterpart Planet Fly Fishing. I thought that combining a short stay in Venice and a fly fishing extension to a really unspoiled countryside would be close to the perfect holiday. But for ever I had also been intrigued by the possibility of hunting ducks near Venice following -again- the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. Was it possible to combine the three experiences, enjoying la serenissima, the ducks and the Alpine streams ? Probably yes, in the period comprised between mid- September (opening of the ducks in Italy) and the end of October when fishing closes in Slovenia.

Very few places in the world can beat Venice for the pleasure of a short stay. As you know, it is a concentration of beauties and curiosities and you discover quickly that it is an outstanding place for sound simple gastronomy and pleasant wine tasting as well. It is also a place for your health as nowhere else in the world are you required to walk so much in a car-free environment. The visiting sportsman will discover that the natural surroundings are special features of your holiday. Sea winds and smells, wide views over the lagoon, morning fogs, rains and even sometimes wet feet during the aqua alta often remain memories comparable to your feelings in front of a Tintoretto painting.

As we speak of nature -and though few people really read the novel- it is almost universally known that Hemingway was in love with Venice in part because of a young contessina and perhaps in equal measure because of the excellent duck hunting he found there during the winters of 1948, 1949 and 1950. By then he’d learned that Venice is at its best during the fall and winter months. As far as fishing is involved, if you except the marvelous contributors to Venician gastronomy found at the Mercato di pesce al minuto, fishing in the lagoon is hardly noteworthy. For a while, Hemingway rented an Alpine lake in Cortina d'Ampezzo but lost the lease. Contemporary trout fishing in Italy has lost most of its value. However, unbeknownst to Hemingway, it is possible to combine a Venetian visit with a fantastic fishing no more than two hours away by car in the wild mountain streams of Slovenia.

I went to Venice with very few hints on shooting opportunities, thinking that it would be fun to explore the city in search of famous duck hunters. I assumed that visiting the classic landmarks, and narrow streets I would necessarily bump into a guy betraying his passion by displaying duck decoys or perhaps using the universal themes of waterfowling to decorate his gondola, his shop or his bàcaro ba


Fishmonger at the mercato di pesce al minuto. Just past the bridge of Rialto. A major goal of morning walk for Hemingway. "A market is the closest thing to a good museum like the Prado or as the Academia is now..." - Chapter XXII of Across the river...

Al minuto
does not mean that fish were caught one minute ago or anything like this, but that fish is sold there by retailers.


In search of famous duck hunters in Venice.

The first idea was to check the Gritti Palace Hotel and the famed Harry's Bar, but with little hope. Obviously there, no one would display decoys or wear a hunter's cap to show his passion. The Gritti boasts a unique location -the terrazza where you can take breakfast or dine is directly on the grand canal- But something tells me that after Hemingway no one came here to use this place as a base camp for a duck hunt. Same thing for the Harry's bar, it all looks very polished now and the prices tell that the place is more for occasional drinkers -not to say tourists- than for local hunters to congregate and chat freely.

The terrazza of the Gritti is ideally set on the grand canal

I have said above that I had few hints about Venitian duck huntings. This is actually not so true as I had read most of the lines written about the topic in the biographies of Hemingway, or in the history book of the Harry's Bar written by Arrigo Cipriani. Also an article had been published in France by Bruno de Cessole in the beautiful outdoors magazine Jours de Chasse. In turn I spoke with Bruno and obtained from him the phone number of the barone Alvarito, actually the very son of the other barone who was Hemingway's hunting companion in Venice in the late 40's. I hesitated to call him saying that I was a sportsman and writer in search of information about Hemingway... -how many people had done this before me ?- but I did and lost my fears when he answered and suggested that I come at the end of the afternoon for a short conversation. His father was described in the novel as a very shy person, and apparently the new barone inherited the same réserve. As I am also quite shy, the conversation could have soon turned to a long series of embarrassing silences but with only a couple of words I understood that hunting is not for him an occasional winter pass-time but a true passion of surpassing importance. He explained to me very clearly what the hunting was like in the post war period and how it is conducted now. Surprisingly not many changes have occurred -and in fact not many changes have occurred since the XVIIIth century when Pietro Longhi was painting his scene di caccia -that can be admired at the Querini-Stampalia foundation in Venice.

Pietro Longhi's Scene di caccia from the Querini-Stampalia Web-Gallery

The hunting areas are found all along the seashore from the estuary of the fiume Pô to the border with Slovenia in the south of Udine. Between the town of Chioggia and Slovenia, the deltas of large rivers like the Brenta, Piave, Tagliamento, Isonzo and others were at the origin of the the many lagoons. In this area, you are considered to be hunting in the region of Venice even if many places are situated well outside the city's lagoon. Most of the estates were originally owned by ancient Venitian families.

Waterfowl hunting across the ages in the Veneto region

The barone explains that almost for ever there has been both an aristocratic and a popular method to hunt the wetlands. The seashore formed by water pockets and grassy silt banks named barenes has been stable for many centuries now. Long before the Longhi's masterpieces these places were huge private estates, occasionally planted for rice and widely used as semi-wild fisheries. Minnows were trapped and stocked in the so called valli di pesca and harvested later after having grown and fed on natural nutriments. The valli di pesca were -and still are- excellent duck magnets for the migrating species from north-eastern Europe, but also the local reproduction of mallard and a few other species is quite good. With the growing social importance of field sports, the owners of the valli gradually turned their properties into hunting estates -reducing the water depth- and the fish production became a minor side activity. The only difference between the past and today is the fact that the estates have mainly moved from the hands of the Venitian aristocracy to those of industrial tycoons from all over Italy. The barone explains that his own father had split the the huge family valle in Latisana, into three smaller ones and gradually sold each of them to wealthy businessmen from Milan or Rome. This is the evolution of these valli di caccia.

Outside these properties, on the very lagoon, you can still find huge areas of attractive duck waters where villagers and seamen -fishers, or boaters like gondoliere- have always been almost freely hunting waterfowl. There is a big difference between hunting in the valli and hunting in the lagoon. First, a huge financial difference, then of course a difference of comfort -the hunters of the valli still employ many game keepers and boaters. They gather at nice lodges named casone where a cook is often hired for the hunter's comfort. The casone is a traditional marsh house with a reed thatched roof and the comfort inside can be outstanding. Technically it is also not the same hunt as on the lagoon. Birds reside in the valli, therefore hunters shoot very few days in hopes of seeing tremendous quantities of the ducks on each shooting day. In the lagoon on the other hand, hunters mainly expect pass-shooting at traveling birds. Only if your outings are frequent can you be assured of hitting the good days. The hunters of the lagoon shoot from their boats anchored at some point of the silt banks. Conversely valli hunters use the botte, described by Hemingway as "The sunken oak hogshead that they used in the veneto for blinds..." The valli hunt is currently named caccia in botte.

The barone confirmed that after Hemingway, no or very few other Americans really came to hunt here. None of the valli ever operated for paying guests and if you are not invited there is no way you can shoot there. "Hemingway" -he adds- "was hunting both ways, the popular and the aristocratic when he was invited by my father like the day he describes in the novel. But during the winters 48 and 49 he was an almost permanent guest of the Locanda Cipriani in Torcello. Cipriani was keeping it open only for him. Some mornings when he was not working -he was always waking up between 4.00 and 5.00 am to write- he would hire the services of a local boater who would take him morning flighting, at oar distance from Torcello".

"I am still also invited at our former valle but I like very much the popular way to hunt also" -the baron continues. "I will give you an address were you should go and talk with a team of gondoliere, who are keen hunters, you should be able to negotiate with one of them to take you out one morning. I remember Hemingway liked very much these morning of secluded hunts. You know that very often I saw him in the very armchair where you are now. He was often coming for a hunters chat with my father after these days".

Torcello - La Locanda Cipriani

and the Byzantine chapel

Then he also added : "But I do not see well what I can do for you ? - I was seating in his palazzo in the armchair of Hemingway and the holy man was asking what he could do for me !!! - Life offers sometimes unexpected pleasures. He took me down by a frightening 100 year old elevator hidden in the wall to the garage on the canal where his motor boat was parked. In the garage was a wooden hunting flat boat recalling vaguely the shape of the gondolas. The boat was full of old painted cork decoys. A pure marvel. I took two outside for a picture but did not dare ask if he could give me one.

The barone had an appointment in town and he drove me back with his boat respecting the slow 20kph. He stopped at the fondamenta di San Trovaso and explained me where to find the duck-hunter gondoliere and we said goodbye.


The painted cork decoys of barone Alvarito

Venitians make beautiful cork decoys that have now been replaced by the usual plastics. Still you can purchase nice painted wigeons and pintails at the tiny armeria Tesconi. Mario Tesconi is a charming man and if you speak Italian, his conversation is real pleasure. His shop is found from the Rialto in a small street named Calle del Carbon.


Duck hunting in the Veneto region

I walked across the beautiful and quiet sestiere -district- of Dorsoduro, trying to find my way in the direction of the famous dogana di mare -sea-customs. After getting lost a few times and also after spotting a few restaurants and a bàcaro bar I decided to visit again later, I finally reached the small office where the waterfowl gondoliere were having a rest. The man I was looking for was not working and I saw him right away.

people drinking outside a bàcaro I promised to visit again

Despite his pure Venitian blood Giuseppe looked more like a Viking, and this is the description the barone had given. Giuseppe ? I asked. He smiled and confirmed that he was the man I was looking for. We started a long pleasant conversation at the end of which he nicely offered to take me the next morning to go around some hunting places of the lagoon. He would be at 4.00am in front of my hotel on the embankment riva degli Schiavoni.

Giuseppe the hunter looked more like a sort of viking...

The hunt itself is very classic, but the landscape and surrounding makes it unique. There are not many places in the world were no car is involved. It is particular of Venice that the approach "drive" is done with a motorboat. It is difficult to explain with words and even with pictures. The vision of the bricole woodposts and in the far the lights of the island's monuments or a standing -sometimes leaning- campanile produces a lot of emotions. Some voices now say that Hemingway was not such a great hunter or angler but he knew for sure what activities and places in the world are directly touching your soul.

The people of the lagoon benefit of a huge hunting territory. From Venice some places are joined within 30 minutes of navigation but others need 1 hour, 1h30 and even 2 hours. The departure for a morning flight is either very early like we did between 3.00 and 4.00 am or even after dinner the night before 9.00 pm and in this case the hunters arrive on position in the middle of the night. They will place the decoys and calling ducks, then sleep for a while in the boat. The area is huge but during the good periods there is serious competition between the local waterfowlers. The land is public and the best places known by all good hunters can be occupied by the first arriving. The system is simple, you must join a place where you know that migrating ducks will be turning around to find a rest on one side (on the open waters of the main lagoon), and on the other side, some food and freshwater on the inland ponds and wet meadows of the barene silt banks. On the shoreline you must find a place forming a micro-bay or any place where you can hide your boat. Very often, the boat will be anchored at the entrance of a creek. Hunters are seated facing the open water and have the land in their back. The boat is sometimes secured by wood posts and camouflaged on the sides with reed panels. In front of the boat, -on the main water- are placed decoys and live calling ducks. The calls are completed by the hunters whistling when flocks are seen turning around. Live ducks will play the mallard part and hunters will do the wigeon. Mallard and wigeon calls attract any surface duck expected there : Two teals comparable to the blue-winged and the green-winged (sarsegna and crecola), pintails (asià) -Hemingway shoots a nice pair of pintails in the novel- shoveler (fofano), mallard (mazorin), gadwall and wigeon (ciosso) are the main expectations. Then some gray geese (oca) are also bagged sometimes with luck, and also diving ducks -pochard and tufted duck- later when the ice starts covering the big Alpine lakes of Austria and northern Italy (like the lake of Como or the Lago Maggiore).

The season runs from September 15th to the end of January. Tuesdays, and Fridays are closed days. There are good periods all around the season -in Europe, some ducks start migrating by mid July or August- but the peak of migrations is situated between October and the end of November. Winter birds may travel only motivated by serious cold weather conditions. The birds proceed from Northern and Eastern Europe, from countries like Hungary, Poland, Czekoslovaquia, Russia and the Baltic republics.

Our own windless and mild morning only produced the vision of a teal flock too far and high and the pleasure to see and hear dozens of fast flying waders following the shoreline and suddenly surrounding you because they have not seen your blind. But this was only a small part of the beauties I had seen and the flow of emotions I had felt being an actor in such an amazing décor.


Typical hunting landscape of the lagoon with the campanile of Burano in the background

Hemingway's most controversial novel -is it really as bad as often described ?- offers excellent descriptions of the winter in Venice. Moreover with only a few sentences Hemingway gives us some of the best lines ever written about duck hunting.

.../... hearing the wings in the air. He rose, turned, saw the single drake, long necked and beautiful, the wings fast moving and traveling to the sea. He saw him sharp and clear with the mountains behind him.

The wonderful osteria owned by the picturesque and talented Giovanni Locorotondo

Learning how to use properly the bacàri bars

Interviewed by the Italian TV at the market of Venice

Venezia is a door to unsuspected pleasures


Fly fishing in Italy

We can arrange your guided days near Cortina d'Ampezzo

Continue to Slovenia

or to Piedmont

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