Trout fishing in the Pyrenees
I've always had a hankering to cast a fly into the wild mountain rivers of the Haute Pyrenee. It's this vision I have of fishing a landscape of high craggy bluffs, topped by Cathare fortresses standing guard over rocky domains. The rivers of the Pyrenees can become immense, tumbling through valleys, accumulating tributaries like a Roman Caesar bent on swelling his watery coffers to bursting - the Arriege, the Sarlat, and the mighty Lot and the Garronne, all starting life as a mere snow flake in the high mountain peaks.
The region has a stunning and dramatic landscape with a personality to match. Originally Spanish but ceded to the French in the eleventh century, these cultural influences having absorbed each other in a turbulent history to become a unique and homogenous whole. The Pyrenean chain stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and the area I'd elected to fish was the Pyrenee Orientales in the south east corner of France - and when I got there, it was all but too blanking late!
After weeks of researching the net and struggling laboriously through French fishing magazines, I'd failed to register the early closing date of the mountain's premier category rivers - the Trout rivers! I know - it's a page one mistake. But I promise you, I did get everything else right. The rivers are fantastic and multitudinous, as are the Cathare castles - and none more so than the granite walled city of Carcassone. Standing unbelievably intact on a hill in the middle of a vast fertile plain, sandwiched between the Montagne Noir and the Pyrenee, it's not for nothing this medieval immensity is amongst the world's most priceless cultural sites - and one of the many powerful inducements for persuading your family to holiday in this wonderfully fishy region. There's kayaking, white water sports, riding and sailing, and any number of free cultural spectaculars to be enjoyed in the mountain villages and towns. Plus you're within easy reach of the Mediterranean beaches and quaint fishing ports scattering the coast adjacent to the Spanish border. (I hope you're getting the picture here, guys?) But now back to the fishing.
St Giron, in the region of Arriege: it's an old river town an hour and half's drive south of Carcassone, and we hit it around lunch time in time to see the tail-enders of a cycle race pass over her bridge.
The infallible antenna developed through years of travelling leading us straight to a quayside of canopied restaurants on the banks of the Sarlat. A good start, made even better by the large party of locals dinning alongside our table. It was my wife who spotted their badge of office - the monthly lunch gathering of the region's, 'Gardes du Peche'! What more could a man ask for, than to dine al fresco with a dozen local river experts, willingly imparting wisdom along with their wine? They gave me a copy of the region's 'Guide de Peche', a treasure trove of information about fishing in the Arriege - it's fold out map revealing a lattice work of dozens of fishable category one rivers, along with their altitudes, their associations, rules and regulations, and even the density of species to be found in their waters. But, and it was a horrible but - their season was finishing on the fifteenth of September, just three days away! (unlike my own local waters in Normandy that finished at the end of the month)
Panic!! After a quick reassessment, my wife agreed to reverse our holiday plans. I'd take her straight to the coast for extended bikini time while I returned for a truncated trip to the rivers. And then, if I could drag her away from the sun and Sangria, we'd explore the mountains together on our journey back home. Meanwhile, there was still the River Sarlat; it's fast flowing freestone waters right under the lee of my not inconsiderable nose. I asked one of the Guides for the closest place to cast a fly. He pointed to a spot upstream where glass-sheets of water cascaded a boulder strewn gradient down to our quayside level. "Dessu de la chute" (above the falls) I eyed my wife hopefully, "You can't get much closer than that?" (steeling myself for the long suffering sigh) ... "Well go on then - but only for an hour". Ten minutes later and I was parked by a concrete parapet just above the falls. The river there was broad and calm, of a good even depth and flow, and as clear and as pure as any fly caster could wish. And in the afternoon heat, in the middle of this busy little town, damn me, if there wasn't a pod of Trout rising right in front of my eyes! They were hanging out in the upper reaches of the water taking turn and turn about to snatch at passing flies - good healthy gulps, with sound effects to match.
The smuggler rigged in record time, I was down on the banks in my usual dither about what to be offering them. Settling on my current favourite, a smutty looking cul de canard emerger I gave the line air - but it's gliding drift falling short of their lie. A couple of carefully re-adjusted casts later and my fly was greeted by a white flashing mouth. Unfortunately I was quicker than the Trout - snatching my fly back from the jaws of death. I thought of an old pal's favourite maxim. "Think Jamaican, mon. You gotta be eeeezy". A few more gliding drifts, and I met my next offering with a Bob Marly lift - and game(fish) on - it took off like an exocet! With all that guerrilla training he'd had in the powerful mountain waters, his pound and a half of muscle was honed to a fighting perfection (roll over, Arnie, this terminator's for real) He wriggled and jumped, and plunged for the depths. But I managed to best him, finally sliding the warrior home to shake hands in the shallows.
By the time I returned to the quayside it appeared my wife had become an honorary Guide de Peche. A companionable soul, she was ensconced at their table marking the rivers worth fishing within easy drive of the coast. Clever girl, my wife - keep the leash short. Four hours later (including a detour to recce some of the recommended rivers) we dropped from a winding cliff road down to the delightful fortified resort of Collioure. We dined on fresh seafood at a bistro called Chemin de Fauvisme - named in honour of Fauviste painters (Matisse and Derain included) that used to come here for the special quality of light. But enough of the culture - by now we both dead beat.
Early next morning, I was awoken by the muted shushing of an un-tuned radio alarm clock; it was one of those micro-second moments when a million conflicting thoughts go racing through your mind - and I came to an equally quick decision. I pulled the covers back over my head, and rejoined the land of nod. Now, I don't about you, but personally I don't fish well when I'm tired and scratchy, especially if I'm on a tight schedule, and particularly when fishing new waters. I like time to explore in the relaxed attitude of mind that will be more forgiving of my day's undoubted mistakes. So I passed a pleasant day on the beach with my wife; two travel weary bodies in grateful horizontal rest, burnishing in the rays of the Mediterranean's late summer sun.
The last day of the season; rested and eager, if not a little anxious, I set out in the darkness for the tiny mountain village of La Bastide sur l'Hers. (It was the closest place to the coast I'd seen on the recce, and thankfully the most interesting) The l'Hers is a river that starts in the footholds of the Pyrenees rather than in the high mountains, but none the less diminished by it's lesser pedigree. The powerful waters having tumbled the lower altitudes to flow serenely through this sleepy little village in a good two hundred metre stretch, that in truth, looked the equal of any of the larger chalk streams I've had the (expensive) privilege to fish; and no wonder the fish were so joyfully on the rise. The weirs above and below the village marking the boundaries of a conservation area, putting these wild mountain wonders forever beyond reach. But at least I'd got a good look at the river's pedigree.
I needed local knowledge badly, and M'sr Argenovsky the president of the local fishing association was my man. Having culled his name and number from the plethora of information in the 'Guide", I'd pestered him by phone into an early morning rendezvous in La Bastide's only Bar. Bang on the stroke of eight he arrived, and over coffee laced with a bracing splosh of local gut rot we got down to the business in hand. The l'Hers only ran another few kilometres downstream before voiding into Lac Montbel, exiting the other side transformed to a category two river that boasted the best coarse fishing in the region. Upstream, between Bastide and the town of Lavelanet was where I should be - five kilometres of public waters, with as much variation as you could wish for. 'Fish light and small, and concentrate on the pockets' was his maxim. He'd even brought a few home made tyings to set me on my way. Nice chap, and we also shared a common ancestry. His white Russian father having settled in France after the October revolution, mine, in England.
The road to Lavelanet managed to stick fairly close to the river's meanderings, the waters mainly out of view at the bottom of steep wooded embankments. I stopped whenever access looked likely and made quick explorations to the stream bed - on one I found a fisherman, casting for Trout with a livebait rig?! The best access point was back in Bastide just above the weir - a stone bridge alongside an old disused Mill was the first point of entry. And as I tackled up on the bridge, already there were signs of a rise in the Mill-side pool.
Wading into the waters I picked a way to the tail. A couple of ill-judged casts later and I'd induced a take; missed it, though heartened by the response to M'sr Argenovsky's para-dun - but nothing more after that. Back tracking, I skirted the pool via the shallows to arrive at it's head. Taking height from a convenient boulder I scanned the pool - Grayling rising, and a fat looking Rainbow holding station under a concrete ledge attached to the Mill's crumbling wall. Impossible to cast across, so I marked the Rainbow's position and returned to the tail. Gaining access to the slightly submerged ledge, I tied on a goldhead Montana. Okay, maybe not your classic river tactic, but we're talking Rainbow here, not Trout. I pitched the Montana ahead of where I figured to his lie to be, but the run was too strong to gain the needed depth. Inching along further and venturing a peek over the edge - I found myself to be standing right over him! He popped out for a quick bite to eat and disappeared again from my sight. It was just like being back at Avingdon, dibbling into the bankside margins - I dunked the Montana alongside his lie, and he tailed himself out again to take a snatch at the fly. Bob Marley called the tune - and the dance was on. Thankfully the smuggler was a nine footer, and just long enough to stop him from escaping back under the ledge. Keeping the leader away from it's jagged edge I bullied him downstream to release him in the tail of the pool. A good two and a half pounder, none the worse for his fight. That was fun, I thought, but not exactly the wild mountain fish I'd come for - although I had heard Rainbows bred naturally in these waters But can this be true? If so, then well done me - but I doubt I deserve the self-praise.
I worked my way upstream searching endless riffles and pools, but neither fly nor eye greeted by any response; the only thing on the rise was the sun. Around midday, I'd gone as far upstream as I could - having rounded a bend to be barred by a small waterfall tumbling to a series of rocky pools. The river at this point had broadened, and was mostly in dappled sunlit, and birds were swooping the waters with greedy open mouths; now, this was beginning to look tasty. I gained vantage on another boulder and was rewarded by the sight of a beautiful brownie finning easily on station in a calm glassy pool, and by far, he was the largest I'd seen on the trip. Sipping occasionally from the surface food chain, this golden flanked beauty seemed not to have a care in the world. I slipped back to the water, taking station alongside a covering rock almost level with the prey - and waited. Twice more he rose to sip in some unidentifiable morsel before I summoned the courage to make my cast. (I'd put my faith in another of M'sr Argenovsky's hand made offerings - a small, sparsely tied emerger that would sit nicely in the surface run) He rose, but not to my fly, plundering another from the meniscus alongside it. So back went the fly to the head of the pool, and this time it's return to be greeted by a pair of pouting lips; a sshliurp, and it was gone - the severe bend in the rod tip indicating where. He was a lean, mean, fighting machine and fought his corner amongst the boulders. When I finally slid the fish home to unhook it, I worried he'd become exhausted by the fight; panting, lying docile in the shallows, he offered little resistance to my helping hand. But with an unexpected flick of the tail he was off on his bike, my Polaroid's smeared in the wake of his watery exhaust.
The highlight of my return journey downstream, was the sight of a dancing cluster of twinkling diamonds - on closer inspection it turned out to be a flotilla of Corixa at play; hundreds of a stickie little legs skating the surface like a scene from a pantomime ice show, dancing a "Now you see me now you don't" routine, in and out of the dappling shadows. (How I wish I knew more about my environment; there's a myriad joys of nature lying in wait for the keen and knowing eye) But I was pleasured by the sight of a couple of grayling gulping down my Terry's Terror back at the starting pool. Cheers Tel - Vivre la mouche Anglaise!
The irritability of hunger was now taking precedence over a flagging concentration - plus the peculiar sound my brakes had been making was giving cause for some concern. So I returned to La Bastide to share a beer and a bowl of delicious duck cassoulet with my found new Russian friend - and replete; I accepted I'd had the best of my day. So I headed gingerly back to the coast; finally descending to Colioure in the growing darkness - ears and nerves severely frazzled by the harsh squeal of brake pads worn down to grinding metal. And believe me - Noddy was never happier than to jump in his box. But you know how it is after a hard day's fishing - you still need quality pillow time to reflect on the day's proceedings. Musing on it in football terms, you'd have to say the creative midfield was woefully short in conjuring up chances, and the striker missed a good few sitters. But given it was the last game of a gruelling season, and played away with no foreknowledge of the opposition's tactics - it wasn't a performance to be too ashamed off - but definitely room for improvement. And then my pillow bade me sleep, and safe in limbo time, where conscious thought and growing dream entwine - I felt at peace; the tumbling, trout filled mountain waters and brooding Cathare Castles, now so more vivid than any dream.
At the end of our holiday I did manage another detour through the Mountains, before hitting our motorway back to gloomier northern climes. God, I'd missed so much because of my stupidity; the amount of water on offer was unbelievable - and so much more that was hidden from my view. But I admired it and without too much envy, content in the knowledge that next time, and there will be a next time, I'd be far better prepared for the game. So, go South East young man, and share the dream - I promise it won't disappoint.
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