Stalking the Zebras…fly fishing for trout in the south of France - Lozere
These days it appears most foreign travel articles are about lone obsessives fishing in remote and inhospitable places or in the golden shallows of a far-off Caribbean paradise. Well dream on sunshine, it's mainly for experts or editors out on a jolly - no disrespect, Ed, I didn't mean you (coward!) But for most of us mere mortals it's not a practical or financial option - too much grief on wallet and ear - imagine telling the missus you're off on an exotic, without her the kids!
Yet if you take a step sideways and give it some lateral - like getting 'er indoors' and the kids on your side - then the world could be your lobster. (and that doesn't mean compromising by taking soft fishing options to get the family onboard)
So, here's the plot: find a region where the fishing is fantastic with lots of attractions for the family; like plenty of sun and bikini time for your beloved and lots of 'supervised' adventures for the kids. Sounds expensive? Not if you use your loaf. Some of the most exciting fishing in Europe is situated in the south and eastern regions of France. You've got the Pyrenees in the far south on the borders with Spain, Lozere growing out of the central massif and the Jura mountains bordering Italy and Switzerland. Between them they possess around seven thousand kilometres of premier class trout rivers in the most stunning and dramatic landscapes of France. And if you know where to look, there's plenty to keep the family amused whilst you give it plenty on the waters. So, now you're asking, where on earth would I start? Well, as those of you less fortunate are tied to your desks for most of the year, I've volunteered to do the dirty work for you - and we're going to start with the region of Lozere.
I first made contact with Daniel Rixte through the internet site of Lozere's Tourist Board. And boy had I struck gold! Not only was he the President of the Mende Tourist board but also an expert fly fisherman and involved in the creating infrastructures that visiting fishermen and their families require. The region has a network of reasonably priced hotels, independent self catering gites, and even gite villages with swimming pools, tennis and volley ball courts, plus organised archery, canoeing, kayaking, white water rafting and junior moto cross Believe me, it's a kids paradise. Now, that's the family taken care of so let's get down to the sharp end of things - the fishing!
Lozere is known as the lungs of Languedoc and has the highest mean altitude in France. It's half a million hectares of protected national park, giving birth to 2700 kilometres of trout filled rivers and streams. The region's life blood derives from the snow melt waters of the Central Massive, filtered through varying sub-stratas of granite, basalt, limestone and shale to reappear as rivers so unpolluted and crystalline their waters could be bottled for supermarket shelves. Due to it's astonishing diversity of habitat, fly hatches in Lozere are explosive; zillions of buzzing, dancing, flittering and skittering life forms on which the fish gorge themselves from dawn until dusk, and beyond. And as part of Daniel's official remit is to help preserve and enhance Lozere as a piscatorial heaven, this trout obsessed, pocket rocket of enthusiasm and energy had volunteered as guide and mentor on a concentrated tour of the hot spots in search of an elusive prey - the stripped Zebra Trout! (they're a hybrid of Lozere's once sea-running Atlantic sea trout, that bred with the native stay at home's)
Daniel's synopsis on this unique fish. 'Wild and extremely savvy, fighting fit, and often very large' "Show the utmost stealth and discretion in your movement, and at all times, stay low" Possessed of a stiffening, six foot one a bit frame it would never be easy to find a convenient tribe of stick insects in which to blend myself. But if I didn't, I'd never come to shake hands with any of these wild mountain wonders I'd come here to hunt.
Our two and half hour ascent from St Etienne airport into the upper regions of the Central Massive was barely perceptible, Gracefully sepentine'd roads meandering a succession of rolling valleys, giving way to forested hills. Then suddenly; a dramatic plateau patchworked in deep yellow and bleached grey - swathes of weeping, Spanish broom garlanding immense, time-mottled granite sculptures; and the tantalising smell of mountain waters permeating the air.
We'd arrived at the river Alignon; 1,500 metres above sea level and hidden deep in the drama of a mountain Gorge, her tumbling waters in a powerful down hill race to swell the mighty Tarn a mere kilometre downstream.
Scrambling down the steep escarpment we found ourselves at the water's edge. A secretive sort of place cloaked from the world by woodland and never more than twenty metres of visible waters before disappearing round another tortuous twist in the Gorge - and what fish-holding lies these boulder-strewn stretches produced. Pascal Vernier the local guide was already there to greet us accompanied by two Dutch clients. They were halfway through their evening session - half a dozen fish between them including a couple of forty centimetre specimens. Like all the local guides I was to meet, Pascal was an expert practitioner of 'nymph a vue'. Nine foot cane, five weight floater, very long tapered leader and the finest of tippets topped by size 18-20 nymphs. And in the mountain clarity of water, you just target your fish. Simple enough? You must be joking - my first attempt was farce!
With what turned out to be Daniel's constant mantra ringing loud in my ears, "Above all you must be stealthy and discrete", I took a pearler into the tail waters of the first rising pool I entered, and emptied it! (the grip on the boots of my chest waders worse than useless, dangerous in fact)
Embarrassed at finding myself thrust headlong into a party of experts
and fishing an environment that was so obviously alien to me (I'm really just your average angler) the bemused look on their faces made me wonder - just what the hell I was letting myself in for! But like I said - someone's got to do the dirty work for you. Although on this occasion, I confess, the useless nature of my waders put most of the prey in this wonderful stretch of mountain water beyond my reach. So, for a while, I was just content to admire where they lived and absorb a few masterful cameo's of nymph a vue. Fading light and fatigue having won the day we headed back down the mountain to my lodgings. Did I say lodgings? Chateau La Caze turned out to be a stunningly restored 16th century Castle standing guard at the mouth of the Tarn Gorge - majestic moonlit waters flowing in silver tribute at the Castle's feet. And according to Daniel's schedule - this was to be only the first of three different gems I would fish the following day.
A fitful night's sleep kick-started to life by strong black coffee and I was out on the waters in the lee of Castle walls. Low sun defining the Gorge's craggy profile - gravel bars and vegetated islands revealing in the dissipating mists (maybe it was a trick of early morning light, but the Tarn's broad free-flowing waters seem to possess a sort of eerie opalescence) Small olives, midge and stone fly already at play in the warming air. Stunning! "Risings - stay low, Arkadi!". Daniel padded up alongside me, rod tip indicating dimples in a sheet-glass run. I cast at the tail to a far-bank riser - sub-aqua shadows disappearing fast at my falling line. Daniel crouched to a knee like Indian Joe, stalking another at the head of the pool. We couldn't induce any offers, so moving upstream a little we arrived at a long reaching bend. Daniel was quick to spot a pod of feeding broad-backed Barbels holding station in the deeper currents. Delicately plimping a down-stream nymph into their flow; finally inducing a turn, then a lumpen contact, a limp line, and a kilo and a half of lost fish. Merde! (too fine a leader but with the right set-up, what fun to be had stalking Barbel on the Tarn with a fly) I managed to rise a few chippy little Zebras and missed them. But at least now they acknowledged rather than fled from my presence. (I'll take any victory no matter how small).
Then all too soon, as was to be the pattern of our whistle-stop tour, time had run out. So, next stop 'La Calogne' above it's confluence with the Lot. But first, an hour's journey through the Tarn's spectacular Gorge and more to-die-for fishing spots pointed out along the way.
Eleven am and off-roading down a leafy track; Daniel driving under cell-phone instructions from Stefan Faudon our guide on La Calogne. Stefan was justly proud of his river - her journey started high in the untamed Roy Plateau, descending through wetland, gorges and woodlands before voiding into the Lot. Each stretch of different character, and each presenting it's own rich banquet of fly life for trout.
Our stretch was in woodland; a delightful, swollen stream - riffles and glides glittering 'Bien Venue' in the warm dappling light. If the Tarn was calm and majestic, then La Calogne was certainly a dancing coquette. And under Stefan's guidance, she bequeathed me a Zebra.
In imitation of Quasimodo hunched at the waters edge, I'd been side-casting an olive CDC, waggling out line and mending the fly's down-stream flow to the hoped-for contact. Eventually, a nippy little splash and I connected to twenty-five centimetre of feisty wild Zebra with a talent for aerial acrobatics. What a beautifully marked fish; pale red spotting and delicate Zebra striping (it gets stronger with age) Thank you Stefan, and thank you La Colagne. And yet again, it was time to move on - this time for lunch.
The elevated terrace of Stefan's family home overlooked a stretch of the Lot a couple of kilometres downstream of the Calogne confluence. He served us charcuterie and salad, then barbecued cuts of butter-soft beef raised on the upland meadows of Aubrac. And that's where we off to next - the Aubrac Plateau, and the river 'Bess'.
But before we left we couldn't resist the temptation of a half hour tickling the waters amongst the islands in front of the house. Actually it was more of a lesson; Daniel demonstrating some of the 'nymph a vue' techniques. Punched forward cast pulled up short - fine leader descending gently in a heap. Flowing, down-stream nymph uncoiling the finely greased tippet - line hand ready to tighten unwanted slack when the leader slides away with the fish.
But first you have to target it and make damn sure it doesn't target you!
"Okay, Daniel, I know - 'Stay low, Arkadi" (sometimes I wish I was shorter)
Aubrac: this was Arnaud Pelegrin's territory; a wonderful 1400 metres high plateau of meadows, wetlands and moorlands networked by springs and streams that meld into the Bess. This particular stretch was at the moor's edge, and again, of an altogether different character from the day's previous rivers, and Arnaud had made time to give me the guided tour. The waters were peat stained, broadish, the flow interrupted by small granite obstructions - the last gentle gradations before tumbling from the plateau to a far more torrential form. But here, the topography produced an interesting variety of pools and placid runs and rising, tricky critters of up to thirty centimetres (sometimes forty in early spring) This was more like familiar territory; a sort of grander, more dramatic Dartmoor at altitude, and certainly the promise of bigger fish. I'd wandered off to make my mistakes in private and found a treasure of a spot; mayfly appearing in early evening light above a long gliding stretch which at the tail disappeared over a rocky chute - intermittent but confident risings alongside the opposite bank. Too many obstacles to cast across, so back to the chest waders. Very carefully I'd picked a passage to mid stream; thigh deep and in Quasimodo mode I targeted my mayfly at a riser (damn! - even the finest of leaders look like hawser in the glassy meniscus) Then a simple sip and the mayfly disappeared, my rod bowed in acknowledgement - suddenly springing back to attention - the Zebra gone. 'Savvy and fighting fit, eh? I'll show you'!
And this time I did, a little further up the pool - a stronger connection and a three quarter pound beauty slid to thigh. Chuffed! A couple more missed takes and reluctantly, time to move on.
Eight thirty saw us off-roading through gorgeous wild-flower prairies in the neighbouring district of Mageride; finally parked up at safe distance from a small stone bridge straddling the uplands waters of one of the Bess's many feeder streams, 'La Remeize'. Now it was Arnaud's turn to urge stealth as we crept to the parapet - waters of the deep but narrowish stream growing denser in a gloaming light, and the unmistakable sounds of rising in the air.
We Indian Joe'd our way along the bank, Arnaud and Daniel assuring me there were big one's to be had (ignoring a few smaller rises along the way) "There, Arkadi!". The tell tale radials from a substantial gulp a few meteres upstream. I wanted to see how Arnaud would approach it. "After you Sir Percy". His casts were made from distance; line laid perfectly along the edge of the bank, only the long leader descending to the surface, his tiny smut of olive CDC all but invisible to my eyes. And on his third attempt, suddenly invisible to him. He was on! Forty centimetres of powerfully wriggling muscle straining against gossamer thin leader, and expertly brought to heel.
Now my turn at the next upstream riser - actually it was more of an across and down (easier for me - the long leader paying dividends for a drag free glide) I managed an offer on a sedge but too quick off the mark. Changing to one of Arnaud's home made's, I tried again - so did the fish. Now I was into a cracker nearing forty centimetres. Not a Zebra this time, but none the less diminished by it's pedigree; a magnificently marked Brownie of about thirty three centimetres, glowing buttery gold in soft evening light. We fished until well after light had gone, listening more than looking for any suspected take; Daniel managing two and Arnaud coaching me to a last nocturnal Brownie before we called it quits. This had been one hellava day!
The following morning I awoke to the sight of the Lot flowing past my hotel window in the picturesque regional capital of Mende. Mende is at the heart of Lozere's fishing, and at most, an hour from the farthest recommended spot. But this town stretch of the Lot can throw up some very big specimens of it's own. Daniel's thrice lost the same fish in excess of sixty five centimetres just casting from his back lawn. 'Noemie', he calls her; she's become an obsession (he's desperate for the opportunity to return her to demonstrate his love) We spent the morning taking in the sights and facilities, including a spacious well designed Gite Village on the edge of town. Then lunch, a visit to the local tackle shop for a new pair of waders, and we were off to rendezvous with Arnaud again for another fun 'coupe de soir'.
We found ourselves back on the Remeize at one of Arnaud's favourite spots, and again, totally different in character from the previous evening's stretch. Just ten metres from a (deserted) valley road I was presented with an immaculate cow-manicured bank and five hundred metres of delightfully placid stream on which to cast a fly; on the opposite bank, a gentle slope of verdant woodland humming with evening life. I left Arnaud with Thierry (his trainee) and Daniel, deep in discussion on their personal philosophies of how to get deep inside a fish's psyche then tie themselves something they think they'd all like to eat (what a wonderful and crazy way to earn your living)
I was thankful for time on my own to meander the banks - it was one of those magical evenings when the rises were prolific, and it was either going to be feast or famine. (Arnaud had tied a few impressions of the evening's offerings and this was to be the first time I'd actually cast a creation fresh from a bank-side vice) I fingered the size eighteen wisp of cul de canard he'd assured me was foie gras to a Remeize trout's palette, then cast my hopes and offering upon their glass-topped dining table. Greedy little buggers or what!? Six cracking fish on, and least as many missed. A heavenly couple of hours, crowned by a breath-taking upland sunset.
And so it went on; tasters and cameos of the incredibly varied fishing opportunities on offer in the land of Lozere. And sadly, so much more we didn't see due to the limited nature of our schedule. I missed out on the Truyere, the Jont, Altier and Allier to name but a few - all of them, I was assured, as interesting and diverse as those I'd been privileged to sample. But before I wrap this up, let me leave you with one last fishing snap-shot taken on an upper stretch of the Lot at Bangnols Les Bains.
Bangnols is a picturesque town secreted in the folds of a small mountain gorge not thirty minute's drive from Mende's front door; it's history and commerce founded in no small measure on the waters of it's ancient spar. We were standing on the bridge at the top edge of town; the upstream side of the bridge abutting the grounds of a sedate Spa Hotel, downstream side conjoined with an incongruous bedfellow in shape of a jaded Casino. Further downstream, the waters narrowed to a small rushing shute - and beyond, a three hundred metre stretch of leaf canopied water that tinkled and sparkled it's way through the pretty little town. And this was what we'd come for - to fish our way along the small ravine that runs through the heart of the Bangnols.
We descended an embankment at the head of the stretch; waters perfectly framed in the stone proscenium arch of the downtown bridge (I felt just being able to fish this canopied little treasure was reward in it's self; catching would be an added bonus) And yet again, Lozere's generosity was not found wanting. The bigger of the two fish I caught was a beautiful, thirty centimetre Zebra. Daniel told me, that from waters like this, it was a fish that any Lozerian would have been proud to capture. Well, high praise indeed - these guys are truly great fishermen. What a wonderful way to finish off my last evening in Lozere.
Words and pictures
Arkadi de Rakoff 2009
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