Charles Ritz, hotelier, trout fisherman, gourmet, author and miniature railroader, whipped his line high into the air and fired a cast 25 yards, smack on the upper lip of a brown trout, which thereupon did perish from the earth. "I don't believe in all this admiration for experts," Expert Ritz mused as he walked briskly along a French chalk stream looking for another victim. "Trout fishing is simple. But the men who write about it want to become so important, and the people throw them so many compliments, that they get like the Sphinx. They add all kinds of gimmicks to make their systems more mysterious, more fantastic. Now, I want to take all the mystery out of fly casting. I want to put an end to all that foolishness."
The 74-year-old Ritz paused as a freight train, pulled by a diesel and a steam engine in tandem, rattled by on the Rouen-Le Mans line along the stream. "People can say who am I?" he went on in a Continental accent ranging somewhere between Victor Borge's and the Little Old Winemaker's. "Well, I'm just a man with his father's name. They tell me Em supposed to be distinguished, but the only time I can be distinguished is when I'm drunk. Thank God, I'm not an expert. Experts make simple things complicated. That is how they survive."
The chairman of the board of the Hotel Ritz in Paris is a dink of a man—5 feet 6 inches, 145 pounds in his waders—with gray-black hair cut en brosse, darting brown eyes, brown-rimmed bifocals, an olive-brown complexion and a pencil-thin black moustache. With his natural rapidity of movement, his merry eyes and his swarthy coloring he puts one in mind of a tiny French mouse, a description with which he disagrees, "because I am Swiss." On behalf of his clientele, he has become an expert winetaster and student of foods; on behalf of himself, his tastes are simple, running to meals of spaghetti and beer. "The Ritz is not ritzy," he once pointed out—to which could be added, "Charles Ritz is not ritzy." He lives in a tiny room on the top floor of the hotel, leaving space for his six miniature trains in an adjoining room. Across the hall is the considerably more sumptuous suite of Coco Chanel. Ritz likes to boast that he is the liveliest resident of the floor. "Every night when I go to sleep," he explains, "I fight the legions of Julius Caesar and make love to the girls of the Lido. That is the noise you hear: 'oui, oui, oui, non, non, non' all night long."
The range of Charles Ritz's activities is encyclopedic; he is easily bored and must keep on moving from interest to interest. As the only living son of Cesar Ritz, founder of the hotel, the young Charles could have nested in the tight security of the Ritz chain for life. Instead, he has been a shoe peddler, a designer, a movie-theater entrepreneur, an importer, a customer's man in a brokerage firm, a writer, a tackle manufacturer, a sergeant major in the U.S. Army during World War I and a dozen other things, only returning to the relative stability of the family's hotel business about 10 years ago. But of all the multitudinous interests of his life one has remained constant: trout fishing or, more accurately, fly casting ("I tend to lose interest after the fish has been hooked"). He has written two books on the subject: A La Mouche in 1939 (in collaboration with Tony Burnand) and his magnum opus, A Fly Fisher's Life, which has been published in half a dozen countries and continues to sell steadily. "As the world is run now few people can fish as far as Monsieur Charles fishes," Ernest Hemingway wrote in the introduction. "No matter how it is run even fewer people could ever fish as well."
September 19, 1965
Ritz's long career as a hunter of trout began in 1911 on a stream in France. "I was 20 years old, and a friend gave me a rod and took me out," he recalls. "I horsewhipped the river all day long and got a handful of blisters and no fish. Then my host came along and took four or five trout, and I said to myself, 'This is not for you. This is something devilish, you poor sucker, keep away from this damned stuff, see?' Then around 1920, when I was working in New York, another friend took me to the Beaver Kill. The first trout I caught, it took the fly all by itself. I didn't even know what was going on. I dragged it on the sandbank and fell on it.
"Now all of a sudden I knew everything, I was an expert. I figured it was just a matter of knowing where the fish were. I noticed the fellows were catching trout every evening in the Junction Pool; so I had another conversation with myself. 'Now you're gonna get all the fish,' I said, 'because you're gonna get to the Junction Pool and get the best position before anybody else.' Two hours before the evening rise I took up my position. When the night hatch began, up came a fellow two feet away from me and he got 'em all and I got nothing. So that was the real beginning. Between that time and now I had to go through a lot of suffering. Where I finally learned how to fish for trout was on the Risle. When you can take fish there you can take fish anywhere. I first tried the Risle on May 21, 1927, the day Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget. Since then I have fished all over the world. But after you've been on a piece of water like the Aclou Reach of the Risle, any other place is lousy."
I was staying on the same floor of the Ritz where the "oui, oui, oui, non, non, non" was alleged to go on all night when written word came that I was invited to go to the Risle for a day with Ritz, who was already vacationing on the river. Awhile before the great day my telephone buzzed, and a faraway voice, faintly identifiable as that of the h√¥telier himself, told me: "I just wanted to remind you to wear a tie when you come up here. Let me suggest a tie and tweeds. We're having lunch with my host and hostess, and she won't let you in without a tie."
"All right," I said to M. Charles. "But what are they running up there on the river? It sounds like the Ritz."
"It's worse!" he said, laughing.
At 7 in the morning Ritz's friend, Guy Duchange, an electronics-equipment manufacturer, picked me up at the hotel for the 80-mile drive westward to the Normandy village of Valleville, where we would find the Risle and Ritz. "Bonsoir!" I said ebulliently, because I always get light-headed before a fishing trip and also because I had been told that the French appreciate one's trying to speak their language even if one is a Berlitz reject. "Bonjour" my new friend corrected gently and then continued in French, which turned out to be his only language.
Nothing daunted, I began to study the road signs as we made our way past Longchamp and St. Cloud and onto the Autoroute de l'Ouest. I saw a familiar one at last; it showed a smiling, happy tiger and was captioned: "Mettez un tigre dans votre moteur." I stowed the phrase away in my mind, and after we had finished a roadside breakfast of croissants and coffee I patted my stomach and remarked with seeming nonchalance: Maintenant j'ai un tigre dans ma moteur." It was my first joke in French: a poor, ungrammatical thing but mine own. Duchange smiled politely and began telling me, in rapid French, about the fishing on the Risle. It is, he gave me to understand, the fishing place the most beautiful of the world. His friend, Charles Ritz, is the fisherman the most beautiful of the world. One would have a lovely day on the stream, is it not? One was not to regard badly the dark clouds descending the road; after he rains the fishing is well because the river it becomes then the tomb of all the flies. Comprehended I?
"Oui," I said.
Charles Ritz waited for us by the river, and we went straight to the Aclou Reach: 200 yards of classic chalk stream full of many mysteries and few solutions. On this stretch the Risle moves at an even pace through waving fields of submerged weeds and watercress. At its extremes it is only four feet deep and some 35 yards wide. The trout lie in pockets and fingers of water between weed beds, gobbling up a proliferation of sedges, gnats, mayflies, stone flies, duns—all the fly life of a typical chalk stream. The trout get so much food that they become lazy, disdaining any offering that is not within easy reach; hence there is a premium on casting accuracy. Once the trout is hooked it must be horsed across the weeds to the limit of the leader's strength, else it will stick its head into the greenery and wait for the fisherman to break off.
I tried my best to follow the gamekeeper and the elderly Ritz, who keeps his legs in shape by daily isometrics, as they headed upstream through a tapestry of Norman green: olive and chartreuse and lime-colored vegetation in the water and verdant pastures all about and here and there a copse of elm and linden and chestnut trees, all dotted for relief with buttercups or boutons d'or, yellow irises in full bloom marching down to stream-side, purple clover, brown-and-white dairy cattle and chubby, rust-colored chickens. We passed decaying wooden footbridges, ruins of tiny factories that date to the nonelectric times when the river's waterpower ran the mills, eel traps sticking out into the water like crumbling piers. It was a Monet painting in the wild state. Swallows darted overhead, feeding on the same flies as the trout, and from deeper in the woods a familiar sound kept repeating itself at short intervals: cuckoo! cuckoo! cuckoo! It suddenly dawned on me that these might be alive. To the gamekeeper I said, "Are those real cuckoos?"
"Either they are real cuckoos," said this local wit, "or it is 137 o'clock."
Taking in all this audible and visual grandeur, I made a snap decision: not to fish. Years ago I had played bridge with Charles Goren, and my ego had suffered bruises and lacerations. I would not repeat the error now by fishing with this other expert Charles. "Come now," Ritz said, "you need not be ashamed. Let me show you."
He lifted the line over his head, false-casting slowly, until far across the stream a ring of water exposed a trout's position. Within seconds Ritz dropped a perfect cast on top of the fish, which, however, was not having any. "See how easy it is?" he said. But I had observed several points. Ritz had used about half the normal number of false casts to get out enough line to cross the stream. His cast was so flat and so fast that he shot all the extra line held in his left hand plus another six or eight loops that he had held in his mouth. He had cast twice as far as my own personal record with more accuracy than I could have achieved with a .22. "Would you like to try now?" he asked.
"Non," I said.
Instantly he put the rod in my hand, clamped his oversized hands on top of mine and began teaching me the "high-speed, high-line" casting technique perfected by himself and several of his close friends. The system is built on a strong upward snap as the rod moves from about 10 o'clock to about 12. When the rod reaches the trigger point the wrist straightens out, the forearm jerks upward and the elbow rises about three inches, all of the motions seemingly with one aim: to punch a hole in the sky with the fly. As Ritz explained the technique, the elbow lift and the sharp wrist snap and forearm movement are the heart of the cast, with everything else flowing from that. But as an old caster of bass bugs, worms and hellgrammites, accustomed to using all the muscles from the abductor hallucis of the big toe to the occipitofrontalis of the forehead, I was a hopeless student. "Come on now," Ritz implored. "De-tense yourself! De-contract your muscles! You're trying to squash the rod, that poor little fellow. Listen, for heaven's sakes, this isn't difficult. You've got to succeed if you want to make me happy. Do you like me?"
I said that I liked him.
"Well, succeed for my sake, because then you'll be doing the finest thing for me. Hold the rod loosely. Imagine you have a pretty girl in your arms instead of a fly rod. De-tense yourself! She's not going to respond to you like that, is she? You must learn to take it nice and easy in all things."
A merciful thunderclap fell over my ignorance of girls and fly rods, and we repaired to a gamekeeper's shack, where I asked Ritz how he had developed his high-speed, high-line technique. "At first I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "People would tell me, 'Your line is so fast, we've never seen a line so fast in the air, and we've never seen one stay up as high and as long.' I paid no notice. I said, 'That's nice.' Then one day my friend, Pierre Creusevaut, the champion caster, said to me, 'Your casting is jerky. It lacks elegance.' But nevertheless I was faster on a fish than Pierre. 'Why is that?" I asked myself, and I realized that I am naturally jerky in all my movements. I began to analyze my casting, and I found that I was packing all my effort into one jerk.
"Then I went to a casting tournament in Zurich to see Jon Tarantino, the American who may be the best caster in the world, and I saw that he was doing the same thing: a short pull but a very fast one. So I said to him, 'Let's go to my laboratory: the Risle.' I took him there and he put on the finest exhibition of fly casting that I have ever seen, using the same controlled jerk. Now I was aware of all the mechanics except the short lift of the elbow. I watched Pierre Creusevaut casting for salmon in a film, and I saw the elbow lifting at the same time that he straightened his wrist and jerked his forearm up—zic! It was all done in such a short space that no one knew what he was doing, including Pierre himself. That was the last piece to fall into place in the high-speed, high-line system. It's not a big discovery. It has always existed. But no one ever explained it. Now, by using this system, by simple mechanics, brass tacks and logic, the mystery can be taken out of fly-fishing."
But isn't it true, I asked sagely, that neither the establishment of trout fishing nor the writers of fishing tomes nor the anglers themselves want to take the mystery out of trout fishing? Isn't the mystery part of the allure?
"Perhaps," said M. Charles. "There are many eekons in trout fishing."
"Icons?" I said.
"Yes. I don't want to disturb anyone, but some of the ideas are ridiculous. Such as matching the hatch. Of course, there are times when you should have a fly as alike as possible to the flies in the water. But the casting and the accuracy and how you present your fly and how fast it gets there and how it swims are all more important than matching the hatch.
"I've never been interested in flies. Flies annoy me. I don't want to spend hours changing flies all the time. Once I had 3,000 flies. Every time I fished I took with me a whole cabinet of them. And when I had taken a fish with a certain fly I'd run up and down telling everybody, 'I've got the right fly! Here's the fly. Take it and fish with it!' I was an easy victim at first.
"But I don't want to take away from the fisherman the pleasure of his flies. The fellow who ties beautiful flies, I like to look at them, I like to have some. But if I'd spent my time on flies I'd never have found out what I did about high-speed, high-line. So I use nothing but the Tups Indispensable, the Panama, the Lunn's Particular, the Bivisible and the Black Gnat. I use only these flies because I'm lazy. I put one on and I say, 'Damn it, now the fish has got to take this fly!' Sometimes I feel it would be better for me to change, but I leave the fly on anyhow, because I believe more in technique, getting on the fish as quickly as you can, letting the fly arrive there so fast that the trout doesn't know where it comes from and he's taken by surprise and he says, 'My God, that thing's gonna escape if I don't grab it.' I don't say I'm right, but with this system I don't have to waste my time fooling around with flies.
"But trout fishermen are believers. They believe in the leader, they believe in the line, they believe in the rod, the reel, balancing the rod with the reel, matching the rod to the fisherman, matching the hatch. That's all nonsense. The fly-fisherman should learn how to cast. He should adapt to the rod. But fishermen waste time and money matching the rod when they don't understand movement and muscles. With our system the fisherman can feel when he's got it right. There's a certain feeling, like when you hit a golf ball well."
Over lunch I met the other dramatis personae of the Risle. There was Auguste Lambiotte, whom Ritz calls the Giant of Flanders, a tall, white-haired Belgian industrialist who links up with Ritz for trout-fishing vacations as often as possible. Together, the Belgian businessman and the Paris hotelkeeper are streamside models of old-world courtesy. If Ritz spots a feeding fish, he says to his friend Lambiotte: "I offer this fish to you."
"Non, non," protests the Belgian, "je vous l'offre!" Sometimes they argue the point until it is too late and there is no fish left to argue about. "La politesse is more important," says Ritz.
The proprietor of the Aclou Reach of the Risle is Edouard Vernes, head of a French bank and a dry-fly purist, who has been buying up angling rights and property along the river for decades until he now controls some three miles of breathtaking fishing water. M. Vernes is one of a class of Frenchmen who speak English not merely with a British accent but with an upper-class British accent, intoned in slow, careful sentences with long pauses in between. He walks along his stream with head down, heavy pipe clenched in his teeth, wearing an English-style tweed jacket, the kind with one little pocket above each big pocket, clasping the rod behind him with the tip sticking above his head so that he gives the impression of being a well-tailored, Eton-educated Martian. Until he speaks, M. Vernes has a tendency to awe one and make one nervous. But he turns out to be, like Ritz and Lambiotte, a most kindly man and a gentle needier. At lunch Vernes waited for Ritz to finish telling a story, then said to me:
"One day during the war a nervous pilot came down the river firing all his machine guns. You should have seen Charley! He went flat on his stomach and turned the color of that plate there!"
"Now, just a minute, my dear Edouard," said Ritz, taking the bait. "I was not afraid! I was merely anxious to live."
Vernes laughed and gave Ritz a bone-shattering clap on the back.
"But I do remember a time when we were on the Cherbourg express on the way to the river," said Ritz, "and the American planes came over, and we all had to jump out and run for the weeds. Everybody was hungry in those days, and most of the passengers were on their way to Normandy to try to find meat and eggs. While all the bullets were spattering around, a hare got up in the field. Every Frenchman on the train jumped to his feet and tore after that hare."
I asked Ritz and Vernes what had happened to the Risle during the German occupation. "Surprisingly, very little," said Vernes. "The Germans were disciplined about restricted waters. There was only one exception. Towards the end of the war Ribbentrop's son was posted here with the Hitler Jugend. He would shout, 'I want to eat trout!" and he would come to the river with rubber boats and grenades. But he was the only one. I was more concerned about a gasoline pipeline the Germans ran from the Paris area to supply the airfields around here. Our people treated it like a—how do you call it?—a self-service. And sometimes mysterious accidents happened to the pipeline. Pouf! We do not know how these happened. Acts of God. But I used to tell certain people, 'Watch out what you do to that pipeline! It goes across the Risle, and you might kill the trout!' "
To hear Charles Ritz tell it, M. Vernes has never used anything but dry flies in his entire life. One can imagine his shock when, shortly after the liberation, Vernes spotted an English major, who was also a lord, fishing the Risle with his batman. "I saw him lifting the line out of the water and placing it a few feet further downstream each time," Vernes recounted in his English accent. "And suddenly I realized he was fishing with a—eh—a wuhhhhhhhm!" Into the single blasphemous word "worm" Vernes put all the shock and horror of a Hitchcock movie, pushing out the sound as though it pained his voice box.
"What in the world did you do?" asked the bemused Ritz.
"I walked straight up to him, and he was ashamed, and he said, 'Oh, you saw!' 'Yes, indeed I did,' I said, and I gave him a good fly rod and some flies to use. I don't know why he was using a—eh—a wuhhhhhhhm. He turned out to be a good fly-caster."
After lunch the fishing contingent on the Risle was augmented by the arrival of a Bavarian nobleman, Prince von Quadt, who pulled up in a Mercedes after a 100-mph dash from Germany. "He is a very nice young man," Ritz said of the friendly Bavarian, "and I have only one reservation about him. He fishes like a tournament caster, and he is not interested in a trout unless it rises a mile and a half away." Working earnestly, his rod flailing the heavens, Prince von Quadt took three small trout. But nobody took the prize trout of the day, nor did I believe, at first, that such a trout could exist in the Risle. Ritz and I were walking along the stream when we came upon the prince's chauffeur in a high state of excitement. "There is out there a huge trout," the chauffeur said in German, one of Ritz's many languages. We looked at the pool and saw nothing at first. Then there was a slight swirl of water on the other side as the fin of a big fish came into sight. Plainly, no fish that big—at least two feet long and eight to 10 pounds in heft—could be a trout in these waters. "Pike!" I said, drawing on knowledge gained in the New World.
Ritz said nothing.
Then the big fish made a dash across the river to our side, pushing a conspicuous ridge of water ahead of him. He made a single, tail-slapping swirl and disappeared. Ritz gasped. "That is not a pike!" he said. "That fish is feeding exactly like a big brown trout. He is chasing minnows from one side to the other. A pike would not feed that way." Now the fish rose again, and all we could see were spots.
Ritz called down the river to Vernes's wife, Michou, a formidable, outdoorsy woman who is always followed by a cloud of tiny dogs (she sometimes hooks them in the ear when casting). "Come, Michou!" Ritz called in French. "There is a big cannibal trout up here." Madame Vernes, the same gracious hostess who insisted that even fishermen must wear ties to her luncheons, clomped up in her no-nonsense fishing shoes and her no-nonsense brown stockings and her no-nonsense tweeds and studied the fish carefully. Then she trudged off toward the gamekeeper's house. "Where are you going?" asked Ritz.
"To get the shotgun."
Madame emerged from the house in a few minutes, spraying orders all around. "Stand back there!" she shouted to me in English. "Out of the way!" she snapped at the German chauffeur in French.
The fish surfaced, and Madame fired one barrel. The trout descended a few feet and swam slowly upstream. Madame let go the second barrel, and the fish merely accelerated its departure .until it was out of sight. One suspected that Madame had not allowed for refraction, but one was not going to say so. Madame was disconsolate. "I know that dreadnought very well," she said in a British accent like her husband's. "I had her on two years ago, and she just towed me downstream and broke off. She's been around here for four years. We want to get her out because she's bad for the fishing."
"Do you have a name for her?" I asked.
"If it will please you," said Madame, "we will name her Caroline."
Somehow I found it more than pleasing, after enjoying the Verneses' hospitality over a big Normandy dinner, to realize that the prize fish of this prize river now bore such a wholesome, American name. And as much as I admire Edouard and Michou and the Giant of Flanders and the free-swinging Prince von Quadt and, most of all, Charles Ritz, i hope that they fail in their sworn ambition to remove Caroline from the Risle. In my fantasies I see them imploring me by urgent cable to bring my American know-how and skill back to the Risle. There I will make a perfect high-speed, high-line cast, and after a clean but bitter struggle I will haul the lovely Caroline out of the clear green depths of the chalk stream.
I only hope that they don't notice the—eh—the wuhhhhhhhm.