Fishing trips

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It’s not every fishing day that one has the chance to fish in the watershed previously inhabited by the oldest known artists in human history. A few weeks ago, however, I found myself in the south of France, in the city of Valence. The city lies on the edge of the beautiful Ardeche region, which seems to be largely constructed from towering limestone cliffs and tumbling crystal clear streams.

On this trip I’d managed to bring along a simple setup, which included a 5 weight rod, reel, a box of flies and one or two other accessories. No waders, no heavy wading boots, just a pair of sandles. More about this in a moment..

On the evening before my earmarked fishing day I finally found my way to a small fishing shop (Denis Guichard I think was the owner) in Guilherand-Granges, a town which lies next to Valence, on the Ardeche side of the Rhone river. He summarised the ticket options for me and kindly pointed out a few likely streams. I love the simplicity involved in fishing most countries outside of the UK. Buy a permit, fish anywhere. No skipping past the large Manse stretch of X and X a river, where the fishing is reserved for their-stuck-up-privyships Lord and Lady Whoha. Just miles of river and the chance to escape for a few hours.

The morning arrived and I set off early with no definite plan. The joy of an uncertain day awaited, where fishing could be had wherever you found yourself. I headed up the D533 road and into the heart of Ardeche. This is possibly the windiest road I’ve ever driven. By the time I arrived in Lamastre I felt like I’d been to the gym.

At this point it was time to make a decision. Right or left. Slightly nearer or slightly further away. I opted to maximise fishing time so turned right and headed up to a remote corner of the upper river Doux (known as the haut Doux).

We now interrupt proceedings to mention perhaps the greatest joy of fishing in rural France. As I passed through a small town called Desaignes I stopped to pick up some tucker. Oh what tucker… Unlike many small towns in the UK, places like Desaignes (and seemingly most of the others besides) have retained small, independent bakers, butchers and grocers. You can rock up at any time of day and buy exquisite bread, beautiful locally-made sausage-products and whatever else you care to eat. As a fan of the aforementioned sausage-products I duly purchased some swine and found myself in a porky heaven. With my larder now amply stocked I was ready for the river.

At a bridge I parked the car and stepped into a day of warm sunshine and light wind. The river was exceptionally clear and rather low. Extensive bankside herbage forced me to slip on the manly polyprop tights, socks and sexy sandles. Boots would have made more sense, but then ‘sense’ doesn’t seem to be very connected to the warm, gentle baggage policy of everyone’s favourite Irish-based budget airline. As I gingerly stepped into the streamy water and the end of the first pool, my feet and ankles produced some muted protestations, before slowly quieting down into a numbed stupor.

The river was small, at turns 1m to 5m or so across. It seemed to be particularly rich in invertebrates. Ranks of cased caddis lined the surfaces of most rocks, and turning up a few stones revealed lots of squirming upwinged nymphs. Many of the bankside trees were also covered in the shucks of hatched flies. There was certainly an abundance of trout food. Now to find some trout..

I sat on a rock at the bottom of the first pool. It was a beautiful combination of a tumbling run-in at the head, a deep scoured channel next to some large rocks, a bit of flat water at the tail, before more rapids leading to the next pool. This was my first visit to fish a river on the continent, so I had no experience of locally-recommend flies or tactics. But where there are caddis and upwings there must surely be deer hair sedges and dirty dusters, so on went one of the latter in a size 16.

A small rise revealed that there were fish here. I felt uncommonly excited about this. Perhaps it was the outstanding beauty of the surroundings and the apparent solitude of this particular bit of stream. More likely I suppose it was the possibility of catching a trout on a different island to my own home waters.

I made a few duff casts before getting caught in a tree on one of my backcasts. Did I mention that the water was clear? As I struggled to get my line and fly back, I think I probably spooked this and several other pools. A few more failed casts with the retrieved line and I moved on.

This turned out to be the basic state of play for most of the rest of the day. Struggling to make casts whilst hemmed in by trees, feet and lower legs feeling more and more detached from my body. Lots of cockups, lots of lost flies. But it was all great fun really, stalking up and trying to spot fish. Making too much noise and not spotting any fish. You get the idea.

Eventually I came to a particularly enticing pool. Wide and fast run in at the head, the stream then turned abruptly to the right and calmed down to flow alongside a huge boulder. A careful cast and a fish took but didn’t stay on. A little further up and success at last as a beautiful little trout decided that the haggis-flavoured sedge was worth eating after all. Time for a pause then, a trout had been caught, success was assured and I felt a bit chuffed if I may say so.

Over the next few hours I worked up and up the stream, with a handful of similarly-sized small trout. I spooked plenty of other fish, but never saw anything that might be called ‘large’ (i.e. over 1/2lb). Nonetheless, they were very pretty fish and felt like a fair reward for my now deep-purple coloured feet. At one stage I switched to a small nymph underneath a bit of sheep’s wool as an indicator, and caught the nicest fish of the day from a tiny little divot behind a rock.

Time wore on, and with the thought of 2 hours of that road back to Valence, I called it a day and started the squelchy trudge back down to the car. On my way I stopped briefly to talk to a farmer who had been driving in and out of the river in his tractor performing some unknown task. I noticed his eyes immediately drawn to my deliciously attractive wet leggings and sandles. He motioned and asked if I’d been walking in the river. I said I had. He said I should have been here last week, it was much warmer. There was something fitting and reassuring in this information. No matter where you fish, at what time of year, you’re always a week too late.

A gallery of all my photos from a day out in Ardeche. Click the full screen button for a 3D-like immersive experience.

The spring public holidays are greeted by fly anglers with particular enthusiasm. Time off from work right in the middle of the early spring hatches, a chance to escape down to some flowing water. I planned my own debacle last night. Leaking waders were further patched with aquasure, flies properly arranged in their boxes and old rotting bananas removed from the depths of the fishing box. There’s a special satisfaction in having plans laid and all equipment prepared the night before. Time enough for a wee dram and for the flow of memories past and perhaps to come.

I arrived at the waterside this morning in good time, despite the longer nature of this foray. The fishing is really all about catching the spring hatches at this time of the season. Arriving by 10.30am I reckoned I would have a good chance to watch an olive hatch start, build up and fade away. The searing warm temperatures made me a little uneasy, however. Well over 20C in April is a bit odd, and I wasn’t sure if this, perhaps coupled with the very low water conditions, might affect the aquatic insect activity. It did.

I ambitiously opted for the slightly shorter, and increasingly floppy 4 weight rod. There was barely a wheeze of air at the car, and I knew the river level was already at summer low. I convinced myself that in order to optimally stalk and cast to the legions of spooky rising trout that would surely be found, a light-line approach was most suitable. This was a cock up.

As I crept up to the riffle it was instantly obvious that things were going to be tricky. The river was about as low as I’ve seen it, and out in the open the bare wheezing of air experienced at the car was more of a prolonged sneeze. Undeterred I strung up a long leader and headed below the riffle to a lovely pool with a long, flat tail out. Here the bright sun revealed every stone on the riverbed. Twenty minutes of observation revealed nothing at all except for the odd hawthorn fly being blow downstream.

I opted to fish a small blackish nymph. A bit of sheep’s wool served as an indicator placed a meter above. The tiniest shot I carried went on 8 inches above the nymph to get it down into the depths of the seam ahead. It turns out that this setup, with a 15 foot leader, a 4 weight floppy rod and a pleasant downstream breeze allowed me to consistently place the fly line tip and the entire cast within 5 inches of each other with a 90% success rate. The other option, namely that of actually landing the cast extended, was achieved with a success rate of 2%. This quickly lead to an angry/happy quotient of approximately 0.95, and a probability of the angler being a moron of 1.

Twenty minutes and a mile of circular walking later and the much more friendly 5 weight shotgun Sage was strung up with a similar setup. Despite the excellent casting possibilities afforded by the new approach the end result was still a consistent 0 fish. There was also no hatch, no sign of rising fish and a bit of general malaise on the part of all concerned.

I wandered upstream, trying my best to spook something which at least looked like a fish, and didn’t even succeed in this task. The feeling at the waterside was really quite odd. Blasting sunshine and blazing hot, with almost no aquatic activity of which to speak. It seemed more like the middle of August than a time of the year I always look forward to in the hope of hatching olives.

The obvious move was to put up a dry fly and blank with that instead of battling with the increasing wind and the convoluted nymphing setup. On went a wee dirty duster, and some minutes were passed in a semi-doze at the water’s edge. I saw no more rises behind my eyelids than on the river’s surface, so went back to some casting practice up the next run.

Quite suddenly there was a rise barely 3 meters ahead. I paused, then flicked the fly up above the rise, all whilst doing my best impersonation of a lifeless tree. This was a kind fish, for he instantly engulfed the fly and gave a really excellent scrap before coming to the net. A very respectable 16″ (not weighed), in great condition. I made special note to remove my excessively yellow-tinted polaroids to admire the iridescent sheen to the gill flaps, then held him in the current just a bit longer than needed.

The mystery of a dead river coming to life in the form of a spotted brown trout, held for a few moments in my hands. The seeming impossibility of it all is what fascinates and frustrates and delights during any day on the river. It’s the mystery that’s magic.

A flash gallery of all my selected photos from today’s trip. This is a test really, not sure if I’ll use it again. Click the full screen button for a 3D-like immersive experience.

The weekend past fell in the middle of a fairly remarkable period of spring weather. I say spring, but it’s really been more like summer, with temperatures well above 20C, a very light south westerly and a general feeling of the goodlife. I say summer, but as local residents of this country will attest, such words don’t always inspire memories of beaming sunshine and melting ice creams.

Saturday awoke like a world with dew still on it. I say this not just for the well-placed Norman McLean reference, but because it was true. Beautiful, big drops of dew all over the grass. Promising start.

I decided to head for water which I’d skipped at the last moment the week before when I opted for a closer-to-home season opener. This time I made good time, arriving at the waterside, new polaroids at the ready, before 11am. A few olives peeled themselves off the water and lazily fluttered upstream in the slightest drift of a breeze. An upstream breeze here is quite rare, and even rarer when coupled with pleasant weather.

I watched the water for a good half hour. Plenty of time to make up the season’s first 15 foot dry fly leader. The season’s first olive-hatch-matching dry fly was a deer hair emerger. Nothing new to see here..

A few fish were rising in a run on the far side, but to get there would require a short hike upstream to cross in shallower water. The minds ticks slowly at moments like this, as it weighs up the likely benefits of going to all that hassle, possibly for a couple of small fish, while a sixth sense (also known as prior experience in this case) suggests it’s worth staying put and waiting. I waited.

A large, water-pushing rise in mid-stream. A second fish just upstream of my right-bank position. I opted to try for the nearer second fish. After a couple of ‘come-short’ rises where my strike resulted in hooking thin air, finally a solid take and an enthusing tussle before a beautiful 12oz spring brownie came to hand. Thoughts of taking fish like this on a dry fly in April take up large chunks of musing-time between October and March.

Time to concentrate on the creature pushing around all that water in mid-stream. I watched for another 5 minutes as olive after olive met their demise, with a few March brown’s thrown in for measure. I made some pleasingly drag-free drifts (at least I thought they were drag-free) with no response. Feeling a bit desperate, I added the secret weapon of a mini leopard-print skirt to the DHE and tried again. Suitably dragged-up, the fly was annihilated in a large splashy rise and I watched with some disbelief as my fly line payed out in a quick-step across the river.

A long fight followed, during which I had time to variously contemplate that I might be about to break my personal brown trout record, I might be about to loose an amazing fish, I’m sure I’m going to loose this whopper, and finally I’m about to wet myself. Some minutes passed, but I could barely move the bulk of fish attached to my line, and held on in hope as it repeatedly stripped off huge reams of fly line. At last it decided to investigate the nearside bank, and I managed to gain most of the line back. As the fish swam around and around in front of me, I got my first proper glimpse. What I saw was not very brown, or very trouty. It did, however, make my net look quite comically small.

Some careful maneuvering and as much side-strain as my 5-weight rod could bear and the silvery fish swam headfirst into the aforementioned comical net. The tail remained thoroughly beyond the rim. I threw my rod onto the bank, and paused for a handful of seconds to cradle the fish. And what a fish. Shining silver, deep-forked tail, a smattering of spots above the lateral line. I’m not a migratory fisherman, but I believed then, and do now, that it was a fine spring salmon of about 8-9lb. Not huge for a springer, but in excellent condition (with the exception of some possible net damage on the head). And caught fairly and in good faith on a size 16 deer hair emerger during a spring olive hatch.

A bit bizzare, and a one-off I’d have thought if it hadn’t already happened 2 seasons ago. I’ve since been in touch with a fisheries biologist to recount these unexpected spring catches, and he has confirmed that such things happen every season in Scotland. Quite why salmon feed on fly hatches like this is not clear. Whether they gain any nutritional benefit is also unclear, and probably unlikely given that the stomach lining of a salmon begins to disintegrate in fresh water. But rise they do.

I must confess to feeling a bit short-changed at the time, given the several minutes during which I thought I might have a genuine whopper-trout on the line. It’s been quite a few seasons since I’ve had that privilege. In retrospect, however, that’s perhaps a bit of a silly way to think. I now feel rather grateful to have had an encounter with a fish that’s been to Greenland and back, and that it so-appreciated my dragged-up deer hair emerger.

The season is now open on all rivers. Today I kicked off my own fishing year by wandering down to a local small stream for a few lazy hours. Over the past 24 hours or so we’ve had a bit of rain, so I was expecting there to be a good bit of water pushing through. Indeed the river was a bit coloured, but not overly high. The pale brown tinge emphasised the early season feel, complementing the blustery breeze and fleeting sunshine.

I saw 5 upwinged flies in 4 hours of pottering about. Not exactly a bonanza hatch, but a warming reminder that the time is fast coming where dry flies may be used without irony.

I started off with a tungsten-beadhead nondescript nymph. I lost it first cast in the branches above my head. The lovely orange indicator/float I intended to use for take detection immediately pinged off and sailed away downstream as I hopelessly jiggered the rod trying to free the nymph. The distinct feeling of the season passing early comment on my dubious methods passed over along with darkening clouds and a stiffening wind.

I decided to replace the beadhead job with a more castable nymph, and second cast a pretty little brownie gobbled it up. Such quick success, sometimes a good omen, but generally not.

First cast after returning the trout and another encounter with an overhanging branch. Another attempted jiggle of the line and another pinged indicator. I made a mental note to head up the hill later on to stock up on sheep’s wool, these modern mini-football indicators just don’t stay on fine tippet very well.

For the rest of the day I opted for the comedy dry fly routine, and fished a wee dirty duster. This felt much better balanced on my light line setup, and I finally started to remember how the whole casting thing was supposed to work. Moments later and a single rise spotted. First cast truly dreadful, an over-gunned, under-slacked cockup job. Second cast and a rise and take, hooked for a few moments then lost. Would have been slightly larger than the first, but nothing remarkable. No worries, there aren’t that many remarkable fish in this bit of river anyway. At least I’ve never come across any.

I gave up about 4pm, opting for a relaxing evening of watching clouds (see next post). Luckily, we’ve got lots of them around here, and plenty big ones at that.

The season’s passing has me wondering about all the places I didn’t fish this year. The hundreds and hundreds of lochs and lochans which have drawn my imagination away from this desk. They’ll be there again, next year, calm and fiesty pools in which to cast away an hour’s thoughts.

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