I enjoyed my best session of the year so far last week on l’Aa; the perfect chalk stream in the centre of l’Artois region of northern France. It was not dry fly conditions, because neither I nor Jean-François saw a single fish rise; so nymph, in the deeper, darker cuts of flow was called for – it was very bright with an air temperature of 26 degrees. Two trout of 33cm and 36cm were followed by my first Artois grayling, a magnificent cock fish of 44cm, which left me trembling, and almost unable to carry on fishing. And probably with a huge smile on my face! I also spent a few days with my daughter, Ellie, during which time we found a section of la Ternoise, at Monchy Cayeux, which is pristine trout habitat and hugely reminiscent of southern English chalk streams such as the Little Stour in Kent (at least as this little river was thirty years ago before abstraction (for agricultural purposes, of course, ruined it). I am just beginning to learn how to fish these wonderful streams. They are, slowly, changing the way I fish; because they are simply nothing like as easy to fish as most English rivers. There are areas of some of the rivers which are stocked, mostly with rainbows ((truite arc en ciel), but bait angler tend to clear these out very quickly, leaving the rivers with their wild populations of brown trout (truite fario sauvage), and the miracle of grayling, l’ombre (literally, the shadow). I wonder if you might imagine how I felt when suspicion – because of the way the fish stayed deep, throbbing on the end of the line – became realisation as I caught my first glimpse of that flame of dorsal fin. The fish actually jumped, three times, which is unusual for grayling and my relief was extreme as I finally eased it over the bank-side water crowfoot and was able to think about the camera…
If you fancy fishing these rivers please do get in touch. It is not for everyone! I spend more and more of my time in l’Artois now, and have several trips each year with fishing friends. It is just about full up this year, but there is still room for a couple of anglers on one of my September trips (during the week beginning Monday 15th September). Otherwise, it is going to have to be next year. Forget about numbers. Simply forget how it is on the manicured, stocked, artificial streams of southern England, or the prolific, wilder waters of the north. This is real and demanding fly fishing. It has made me into a better fly fisher, and continues to do so with every trip. It has changed me. Here is where the top French international anglers hone their great skills. I did not understand this until I fished here for some time. And yet it reminds me so much of the chalk streams of my youth, in Kent, before that lovely county of England was ruined by agriculture.
I adore the tranquility here. The French are so lucky to have such a massive country and comparatively small population, that in spite of agricultural pressure there remains complete river systems that are so healthy, and generally continuing to improve. Even in a region where conflict was extreme, through two World wars, as in l’Artois, nature is supreme, recovered or recovering, and the local inhabitants are so proud of this.
My friend Jean-François takes great pleasure in showing me his river, while we go trout spotting together. We see all manner of wild fauna and flora so rare in England now, or exterminated. As I write this I am briefly back in Cumbria before Jennie and I go back to France on the weekend, sadly without Ellie this time, and all my senses are filled with the clatter and stench of modern, rural, agriculturalised England. I wish it did not have to be like this. I wish England was still as it was when I was growing up in those glorious post-war times. I still remember the fishing back then, but probably only because I fish now on the chalk streams of northern France.