(with the family in tow)
By Arkadi de Rakoff
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, that high praise indeed -
these guys are truly great fishermen. What a wonderful way to finish off my last
evening in Lozere. The following morning we were off on the second leg of our search for
the Zebra, in the Jura Mountains above Lyon.
If you want to make the best of Lozere,
get yourself a guide - they're worth their weight in gold. The boys operate a cell-phone
network; exchanging information on local weather patterns, water conditions and insect
life, and just about anything else that might affect their client's fishing interests - so
be prepared for sudden changes of venue (the weather at this kind of altitude can be
rather unpredictable) But the sheer number of waters available allows them maximum
flexibility to give you a successful day.
So, even if you just let them start you
off, with luck you'll discover more waters in the course of a day than you could fish in a
month of Sundays - and I mean that literally.
Well, that about wraps it up from the
beautiful land of Lozere. And remember what I said - if you use the old laterals on your
good lady wife, all of this could be yours too.
Next month I'll introduce you to the Jura
- now this really is 'big' fish country The Zebra record was smashed there in 1999, with
the capture of a ninety five and half centimetre monster (that's more than a yard
in old money) - now that's some fish!!
For more information on fishing holidays
in France go www.clubfishfrance.com
Arkadi de Rakoff © 2004