Simplicity, refinement, elegance; all synonymous in fly-fishing, I think. Given also a delightful French chalk stream, which has been messed up neither by abstraction nor agriculture, nor even by commercial ‘fishery’ management, and we have everything that fly fishing was ever meant to be. Here in the north of France I am surrounded by such beautiful streams. I wish it could be my home country, in the south, but it cannot anymore. All that belongs to an England of several decades ago. History that has been cast aside and largely forgotten. Now, our best wild trout fishing exists in the north and, curiously, in hidden urban streams. Post-Brexit, it will be even more annexed to the periphery of our little country. But it is still as nature intended in France.
I choose my moments, sometimes to fish, sometimes to walk by and soak in the nature that thrives here. Even when I fish, it is usually just moments. This, perhaps, is one of the great secrets of the sport. The more you do, the more you catch, the less is the need. After upwards of 50,000 trout, and grayling, other things take precedence. Discovering new rivers, or sections of river, is a part of it, and one of my absolute favourites – anywhere – is the Aa, an Itchen-like (of forty years ago) stream which ticks all the boxes above and which is actually recovering from any human activity which adversely might have affected it, including two great wars. Now it flows untroubled through beautiful landscape and quiet villages, meandering and splitting into carriers and disused mill races, and is barely managed at all over it’s entire length.
One day back in early July my friends, Luke and James, discovered a stretch of the Aa where it splits into three carriers, a place I had not fished, even though I had explored a lot both up and downstream. Their smile that evening matched the stories they told me. I could scarcely believe their description. It was as if I was back in Kent, on the Great Stour, almost fifty years ago… Two weeks later I was back, finding their entry point and working my way very, very slowly upstream through a tunnel of trees. I fished the 11′, which was too long, and a #2 Sunray PL, which was perfect. Where is it not? There was a strong down-streamer (I didn’t choose my moment ideally on this one!), so could not fish a plume tip, which would have been devastating here in calm conditions, or if the wind had been gentler. I reverted to an Oppo on a duo rig, with a stabilising PTN on point. It was all jumps, rolls and Speys, and engineered casts, to avoid the jungle of foliage and (sometimes) place the flies close to the target area. Within minutes I counted four different species of upwing active on the surface, either as emergers, duns or spinners, although remarkably few rises (which was also the experience of Luke and James). It was soon obvious, however, that wherever there should have been a trout, was a trout, and often more. Twice I saw the deep, dark shadows of what I strongly suspect were big grayling, but they did not react to either the Oppo or the PTN, and I have long tired of plumbing with catastrophic quantities of tungsten – what is the point? They will, one day soon, rise to dry fly, and I can certainly wait until then. The trout reacted though, mostly to the nymph. Twice I hooked a fish on the PTN only for another trout to follow behind, finally attacking the Oppo, once even when the fly was almost two feet clear of the surface.
Sublime escapism, isolationism, realism; a purity that is lost to most of us, unless we are fortunate enough (brave enough?) to penetrate deep into nature and the world’s last places of value which our species has not yet ruined. We fly fishers sometimes, sometimes, do it, on rivers, or wild, northern lakes. Or the ocean. Who am I to be among these many natural forms? Yet here I am, for a short time, and I am constantly in wonder, and thankful that they still exist, somewhere. I do no more than perturb their space. Now. At least this is what I hope, and what I tell myself. So I do not tap off too many photos anymore, or hold the fish out of the water, at all. It is just moments that I have them, their wonderful forms, and their magnificent habitat, in my gaze.
A week later, after a family visit to the magnificence of Versailles, where so much of France, and Europe, was forged, not least the Treaty at the end of the Great War, I wandered down to the Ternoise. It had been beckoning, and also dropping away, clearing, after something of a spate. As I arrived a bait fisherman was just packing away, while his dog chased ducks in the shallows where I fancied a cast. He had not caught anything, and after admiring his cuillère, and his spaniel, and passing the time of day, I stood in his footprints on the river bank and watched the deep waters drifting by. Not a sign of a fish, of course, but you just knew… A few exploratory casts close in (the most important fish is the nearest one – even when you know they are not there) while I ‘measured’ the run, taking in its features, its character. Finally – I think it was the eighth cast, but the first cast with conviction – in that perfect place right on the current’s edge – you can see it – where there had to be a trout, the Oppo disappeared and I tightened into this gorgeous, wild Ternoise trout.
It lay in my palm as I unhooked it – that PTN jig. Finally, it only needs one cast. At its best, anyway. Maybe its enough for me. I know it might be different for you, and that’s fine too. This image of a wild trout has always done it for me, perhaps more now than ever before. One trout, one cast; it’s enough. Does it get better?