The brown, hairy forearm of M. Louis Bugarel cast an imaginary lure with an imaginary rod at the far bank of the Tarn, where a heavy glide of water slid along a cliff still pearly with the morning rain.
"Cloc!" explained M. Bugarel, "tic...tic...tic...Bop!" He no longer held the phantom rod. Now his arm was a well-hooked two-pounder, leaping just once before lunging toward some dangerous midstream rocks.
"Don't try to horse him!" I shouted, entering into the spirit of things, forgetting momentarily that we were conversing in Angler's International, that curious language of gesture and onomatopoeia. We had no alternative; as bad as my French was, Louis' English was worse, consisting of the single word Glasgow accompanied by signs and eye-rollings indicating improbable quantities of drink and women. The mystery was eventually explained by the multilingual wine waiter at the Ch√¢teau de la Caze where Louis was janitor and I was a guest. He'd had a few days ashore in the gray Scottish city before sailing in a French destroyer to the Norwegian Campaign of 1940. The five years in a German POW camp that followed must have added a touch of bright pink to his memories of that last shore leave. Glasgow shimmered as romantically for Louis as Peiping or Samarkand.
Other differences of culture held us apart also at the beginning. As every Anglo-Saxon knows, thigh waders for trout fishing are green, a tasteful, drab green. When I first met Louis he was rolling along in this unspeakable shiny pair, the color of milk chocolate, and I knew I could have nothing in common with this evidently nonserious fisherman, though I was glad enough to see him since I was dripping wet, chattering with cold and in deep need of being instantly guided to a large cognac.
April 16, 1973
That was because I had just emerged from the Tarn, a beautiful, spiteful, glacial trout river in southern France that falls steeply from the mountains of the Massif Central in the department of Loz√®re and dashes through wild gorges before it levels off and joins the Garonne. The water is green glass broadening out into wide riffles with deep runs under the bank that you instantly recognize as perfect wet-fly water.
I had come across such a run on the afternoon I arrived at the ch√¢teau and I couldn't wait to put a team of flies across it. I waded in calf deep at first, covering the near water in case the trout were lying in the rough shallows, but I hurried over that section, certain that most of the fish would be lying beneath the deeply undercut far bank. As I waded further, the pull of the stream got heavier but I could see that for 20 yards ahead there was no great depth.
I was quite wrong. The Tarn is treacherously clear. The water was deeper than it looked and, snow-fed from high altitude, its power increased with every inch of depth. As soon as it was over my knees I knew I had to turn back and that it was also necessary to turn upstream. I had waded bad rivers before, notably the Wye in Wales with its rock gutters, but I had always had a steel-tipped wading staff. I hadn't thought it necessary to bring a staff to the Tarn.
The water took me when I was halfway around and swept me very quickly into the deep run I had been trying to reach. Then I was merrily away downstream in deep, icy water, my boots full and holding me down. For the record, I did not see my past life unroll before me. Outraged disbelief, as if a total stranger had shouldered me to the ground in the street, was my first reaction. But a calmer part of my mind recalled clearly what I had once read in a book on Scottish salmon fishing. If you are swept away by the river, the author said, don't try to swim ashore, just concentrate on keeping upright by dog-paddling. Fast, rocky rivers being what they are, you will keep going in spite of your boots and eventually you will be cast up on a pebble bank or a shallow shore.
He was entirely right about going along with the river, but the haven I found was a willow bough that I grabbed in one of my brief shoreward excursions. For a short time I streamed out from it, gathering strength, then I got a better grip, hauled myself some way along it until I could grab some bank. It was a little longer before I could drag my great dropsical boots up on the grass and lie there panting, having traveled roughly 300 yards, an alltime record, I would bet, for boatless navigation of the Tarn. I was also rodless, the delicate little Hardy Riccardi split cane having disappeared in the early stages.
I emptied my boots, then my canvas fishing bag (I had wondered what was dragging me back as my boots tried to drag me under) and squished back to the Ch√¢teau, in the gardens of which I first made the acquaintance of M. Bugarel in his unsuitable boots. He was sniggering, too, and holding a spinning rod. Only a man in boots like those, I remember thinking, would have the lack of taste to throw hardware across a perfect fly river like the Tarn. Our relationship might have deteriorated further had he not replaced his grin with a sympathetic "tsk, tsk" and escorted me to the bar for immediate treatment. As the cognac lit its small fires through my body I recalled what a similarly saturated Irishman had said to me as he drained his flask on the banks of the Bandon. "Inside and out," I told the uncomprehending Louis, "I'm as wet as a trout."
A fine beginning, and nearly a quick ending to the long, devious journey that had brought me to the Tarn, one that had begun in the elegant tackle shop of Hardy Brothers in Pall Mall, London, very handy for the club members of St. James—the kind of shop where you can arrive only by taxi. By a stroke of luck, the manager, Mr. Lee, was free, having just dealt, so he said, with the needs of the Duke of Devonshire. "The Tarn," I said, ignoring his name-dropping, "in southern France. Suitable flies and tackle."
Mr. Lee came back fighting. "The French folio," he ordered, snapping his fingers. A young assistant shimmered away and returned with a leather-bound volume. It proved to contain letters from several generations of Hardy customers recounting their findings in France. Astonishingly, though, not one of them seemed to have fished the Tarn. The chalk streams of Normandy, certainly. The fast rivers of the Pyrenees and the Savoy Alps, by all means. Also the southern lakes. But not a word of the Tarn.
This did not faze Mr. Lee. When in doubt, apply general principles. Dry flies, wet flies and nymphs for all seasons built up on the counter. "You'll need a fast-sinking line for the mountain torrents, sir," said Mr. Lee and immediately an assistant was tying 100 yards of backing on a No. 6 sinker. I seemed to have a new rod also and a lightweight landing net. Drifts of leaders accumulated. With a pair of studded waders over my arm I found myself out on the sidewalk. Game, set and match to Mr. Lee.
In Paris the equivalent of Hardy's is St. Hubert. Surprisingly, there also the Tarn was a mystery, but a gentleman with a thin mustache whom I would have matched against Mr. Lee any day was able to suggest some fly patterns that would undoubtedly meet my needs. I left with these and a superb fishing vest with 12 pockets finished in kid leather, without which I could not possibly manage. (For sportsmen who might fish the Tarn in future, I feel I should point out here that I was eventually able to purchase the correct Tarn patterns in the post office at Ste-Enimie on the banks of the river. But don't expect any style.)
There were further delays. Heading south on the Autoroute, it seemed a sin and a shame not to break the journey at Vienne, not far from Lyons, for a visit to La Pyramide, one of only 16 restaurants in France considered worthy of three rosettes in the Guide Michel in. Unhappily there was no possibility of a reservation until lunch next day. But such experiences come rarely. I decided to wait, booking a room at Valence nearby.
That meant killing an evening somehow, and Valence seemed to have few resources until I saw a neon sign in the main street, LE PUB TWICKENHAM it said. I should have remembered that south of Lyons is one of the great strongholds of rugby football in France. In the provincial glumness of Valence that sign beckoned like a harbor light. Twickenham is the big rugby stadium in London where international games are played. Undoubtedly, this was where the fans gathered and I was entirely right. Inside, any space left over from framed team photographs was hung with international rugby shirts. The blue, with thistle, of Scotland; the red, with ostrich feathers, of Wales; the white, with red rose, of England; the Irish shirt with a shamrock; the South African with a springbok; the New Zealand with a fern; the Australian with a wallaby; and, naturally, the light blue of France with the cockerel superimposed. A true Valhalla and presiding over it a man I immediately recognized, Elie Cester, until two years ago a first choice front row forward of the French International XV. Around him, poring over copies of L'Equipe, were lesser but still imposing figures. I knew exactly what to say and as I went up to the bar to order a past is I said it. "Barry John...c'est terrible, hein?"
That opened the floodgates all right. I knew they would not have heard about it. Barry John of Wales is the greatest rugby player in the world. And on the day I left home for my trout-fishing trip he had announced his retirement from the game at the ridiculous age of 27. Once the shock was over, those gallant Frenchmen assisted me to mourn, even though the news meant that in 1973 the chances of France beating Wales were greatly enhanced. (She did, last month, 12-3.) We mourned steadily through the night and the people who switched on their bedroom lights at four a.m. in the main street of Valence as my new friends escorted me back to my hotel probably didn't even realize that our voices, upraised in O'Reilly's Daughter, were simultaneously paying tribute to the departure of a great one and to the cross-pollination of cultures that meant that such a classic song was known wherever rugby is played.
Twelve noon was the time set for my lunch at La Pyramide and it says much for the stamina of us trout-fishing rugby men that I was there on time. There to greet me was la patronne, Mme. Point, an old lady with piercing eyes who has been known to refuse to admit naive English and Americans for lunch because they have asked not only for aperitifs but gin-based ones. Myself, this morning after, had no wish for an aperitif, not ever, not for the rest of my life.
The mousse of trout, with which the meal started, was delicate and light enough to master. I might have managed the pate de grives also had I not been foolish enough to ask the waiter what grives meant.
"I do not know the English word for them," he said, "but they are the little birds that are always flying around the olive trees." Mercifully, I did not learn until later that they were thrushes. But I was able to take a little of the turbot poached in white wine and was only shown up in my true colors while trying to hide my portion of poulet de Bresse under my dauphinois potatoes. Madame and the headwaiter were desolate. What was wrong? I couldn't tell them what was wrong. How can you tell the proprietress of a restaurant with three stars in Michelin that everything tastes of pastis?
It was clearly time that I headed south for the Tarn, to the Ch√¢teau de la Caze, a 15th-century turreted castle, now a hotel set with absurd romanticism on a cliff above the river. The lobby was cool and stone-flagged. Stone steps, worn hollow, led up to my turret room and even inside it I could hear the roar of the Tarn. How much better, how much more life-enhancing this was than that seedy rugby pub in Valence and its coarsened customers, I thought, taking a generous chestful of mountain air. I grabbed my boots and tackle, slipped on my new fishing vest and with the flies of Hardy's and St. Hubert went to make closer acquaintance with the Tarn.
An all-too-close acquaintance. But so magical was the look of the Tarn, so clearly demanding to be fly-fished that I was dry and back on the river within the hour with a spare rod.
This time I stayed dry, but that was the limit of my achievement. I fished down run after run of entirely response-less water. I knew that I was covering the right places. I went through the gamut of flies that I had brought from London and Paris and later in the evening I tried the locally tied ones also. Not a rise, not a pluck. There was no insect life showing either, but I'd fished plenty of streams where this was the case. There, if anything, the trout were easier to catch. The only other fishermen I saw were a couple of tourists tossing spoons across the water. They weren't having any success either, which would not have been surprising in any circumstances.
I went back to the Ch√¢teau, defeated but willing to be consoled by the spécialité de la maison, la truffe enti√®re, a complete truffle to myself, cooked in pastry. At least I'd recovered from that temporary setback of appetite at Valence. When I'd finished, the waiter leaned over. "The pastry cook would like to have a word with you," he said. He couldn't have any complaints, I thought. I'd made short work of the strawberry g√¢teau, hadn't I?
The p√¢tissier, though, had no complaint. He merely wished to show me his catch, which he had kept alive in a tank. It was a splendid five-pounder, a native trout, since the Tarn is not stocked. It had fallen, he told me, to a paste concocted there in that very kitchen. He took me out to show me his tackle. The p√¢tissier had his own special pitch, much trodden down, at the foot of the cliff on which the ch√¢teau was built. There, as a permanency, leaned his rod, 20 feet of bamboo. There was no reel, just a few yards of stout cord tied to a ring at the top like an illustration in a 17th century edition of The Compleat Angler. Mr. Lee would have fainted, but as for me, anybody who can catch a wild river trout of that size gets my immediate and close attention. "This paste," I asked as carelessly as I could, "was it simply a flour-and-water dough? Was anything added?"
The p√¢tissier smiled apologetically. As an angler, one had one's secrets. As an angler himself, Monsieur would understand. Monsieur understood, all right. It was already becoming plain that the entire staff of the ch√¢teau was fishing crazy: all through the days that followed I was to see them, singly or in pairs, sneaking down to the water in the off-duty hours, still in their blue-checked trousers and their white coats. The kitchen, probably, was a hissing stewpot of piscatorial competition and intrigue. As an outsider I couldn't expect any privileges.
So next day it was the fly rod again, and in the morning I fished my way down through perfect glides and riffles until the sun was high and the most responsive of streams would not have yielded a trout anyway. Not a twitch. And not a fish showing on the surface though you could see them well enough if you climbed one of the cliffs and looked down into the deeps. The trout hung there un-moving and nothing short of a harpoon gun was going to shift them. It was time to seek further aid.
That evening I drove 50 kilometers to Millau where, if every French trout-fishing story I'd ever read was correct in detail, I would find the members of the Club de la P√™che Sportive gathered for the hour of the aperitif. The stories were entirely correct. A brief inquiry at the Syndicat d'Initiative, the town tourist bureau, confirmed that the Café Moderne was the place. With-in minutes I was in the presence of M. le Président of the club and his committee colleagues. They admired my fishing vest, picked through my fly box and exclaimed politely at the creations of Hardy Brothers and St. Hubert. And then the president broke the news. There was, naturally, no sport to compare with fly-fishing. Had not he himself been honored to appear on internationally distributed posters of the French Tourist Board, thighwadered, casting a line across a pleasant reach of the Tarn? Did he not, in fact, live for fly-fishing? But, alas, Monsieur was a month too early. In May the Tarn was still too cold, there was no insect life, the trout would not move up in the water. There were small tributary streams, certainly, where Monsieur could fish fly but the trout were insignificant. It was a shame to have come such a long way. Was Monsieur staying at Millau?
No, I told them. At the Ch√¢teau de la Caze. At the ch√¢teau? Mild consternation. Then perhaps Monsieur has encountered Louis Bugarel, the janitor? I admitted this. But what good fortune! I recalled the short, thickset man with the sailor's gait and the chocolate-brown waders. I couldn't see any reason for the excitement.
"But, Monsieur," said the president, continuing in the somewhat literary style he favored in English, "Louis is king of the river. His catches are the greatest. Three, four kilos of trout he brings in after an hour's fishing. He speaks to the fish in their own language!"
And so it was that next day, as soon as Louis had finished carrying in the olive boughs that would fuel the great open fire in the restaurant of the Ch√¢teau, he took me to the banks of the Tarn for a demonstration of his methods.
"Cloc!" His imaginary lure plopped into the water a foot from the edge of the far cliff. "Tic...tic...tic...." He made three turns of the handle of his invisible spinning reel. "BOP!" and the trout was hooked, twisting in the green current. His face split in a Fernandel-like grin and he pulled from his pocket an old tobacco tin. Inside was the device that had made him king of the Tarn.
It looked like the hollow head of a bullet. Two holes were drilled through it and two tiny treble hooks each on an inch of fine nylon hung from the swivel built into the top of the contraption. "Attendez!" exclaimed Louis. His hand dived into another capacious jacket pocket and came up with a white plastic bottle. Opening it with the loving care a sommelier gives to a Ch√¢teau Lafite he thrust it forward. Within it were swimming half a dozen little gray fish. "Les vairons!" he said reverently. Minnows. I might have guessed. Louis was a drop-minnow king. He did not have to explain any more. Years before I had learned how deadly for trout was a dead minnow mounted with plenty of lead at its head so that it dived like a plummet as soon as it hit the water. You retrieved sink-and-reel and if you didn't take trout this way you could hand in your rod. It all came back to me, the memory of easing the rod tip, with the minnow reeled right up to the top ring, through a jungle of brambles and sally bush that lined the Taff in Wales and, when it was clear, flicking the minnow out to the far bank. If a trout was there you'd get it in the first two turns of the reel.
I made signals to Louis that now, instantly, we would go back to the ch√¢teau for the rods. He sent back a soothing, no-hurry gesture, pointed to the sun and imitated, successively and with surprising skill, first heavy sleep and then an alarm clock going off. He pointed to five o'clock on my watch face, and I got the full message. Louis and I would make a dawn start. Meanwhile we retired to the bar for a cementing pastis. "Glasgow!" I said, raising my glass. "Glasgow!" responded Louis. The word had achieved a new semantic level. It now meant "Death to trout!"
At first light next morning I raised the heavy iron bar that secured the mighty oak door of the ch√¢teau and, skidding a little on the cobblestones in my nailed boots, rendezvoused with Louis. We brushed between tamarisks heavy with dew and scrambled over boulders until the Tarn, as gleaming with promise as ever, slid before us. Under Louis' watchful eye I mounted a minnow, threading copper wires through the holes in the lead cap to secure it. He stood back, arms folded, to see if I had absorbed the lesson. I let the minnow swing at the rod tip for the moment to judge its weight, then let it go.
"Cloc!" I said as it dropped in close to the far bank. "Tic...tic...tic" went the reel. And "BOP!" The rod went over, the drag was buzzing and out there, rolling in the current, flashing gold and silver, was my first Tarn trout. A bit over one pound, which sounds better than a demi-kilo. "Bravo!" said Louis, netting it out. "Glasgow!" I said.
We split up, Louis going downstream and I heading toward a spot half a mile up where the gorge closed in completely and prevented further progress. I didn't get as far as that, though. By the time I had basketed my 14th trout the minnows had run out. The best fish would go a pound and a half but there wasn't one under a pound. The fish were not as plump as they would be in July and you could see why they had not been interested in the olives and duns I'd been wafting over them for two days. Meat hungry, they had no time to waste on trivia. I walked back, the creel strap cutting nicely into my shoulder, to join Louis for breakfast. He had caught 18, being more expert than I was at remounting a damaged minnow.
We took them down to the kitchen and tipped them out to annoy the p√¢tissier, who caught his very large trout at very long intervals on unnatural, still-fished bait. This day there would be no need for me to carry out the shameful task I had undertaken the previous morning. Around the ch√¢teau was a moat crammed with indolent, hand-fed rainbows bred to figure on the restaurant menu. And, taking pity on my fishless-ness, the chef de cuisine had invited me to catch the day's rations for him (for the information of those who might one day fish the Ch√¢teau moat, they come readily to a No. 14 Butcher, lightly dressed with a gold-tinseled body. Or to anything else). "Tonight," I told him, "you can serve the real thing."
Now I was eager to get to grips with a fish that at least would beat the pastry cook and his paste out of sight, if not anything like the vast 18½-pounder that held the Tarn record. Besides, that was taken at Ste-Enimie before World War I. No, a simple six-or seven-pounder would be fine. "Plus de vairons!" I said to Louis. Let's get more minnows.
It was now that Louis raised Catch-22. It was a lot easier to catch trout than minnows. At this time of year, he explained through willing kitchen interpreters, they were exceedingly hard to come by. In fact, on our dawn session we had squandered them like a sailor's payroll—in Glasgow. The day could not be devoted to fishing. Instead every effort would have to go into minnow collecting.
We walked over to Louis' private fishing shack in the ch√¢teau grounds and examined his minnow equipment. A trap made of a corked burgundy bottle with the glass knocked out from the end of the cone in its base. A miniature trap net that could be staked in the shallows. Hand nets as well. A little rod set up with a tiny hook to take a fragment of worm. Louis had clearly been in this predicament before.
Back to the river again, but this time to a backwater that was less than knee-deep. Louis examined it with care and rejected it. "Bah!" he exclaimed and we walked another quarter mile. This time we found a pool that must have had possibilities, though not for instant fishing with rod and line. Instead Louis set the burgundy trap and we left. "Poop! poop!" he said mysteriously. I figured this out for awhile then realized he wanted to be driven somewhere.
On his directions we motored downstream to the village of La Mal√®ne and went into the café. Louis seemed to be well-known there. There was a lot of handshaking and we settled down with a couple of brandies until maybe 10 minutes later a small boy burst in with a plastic bottle. Two vairons, by heaven! It was only courteous to take another brandy before we proceeded to our next stop, the café at Les Vignes, where a similar drama was enacted. It was several cafés later, by which time the situation was becoming distinctly Glasgow, that we made our last stop at Le Rozier. That brought us up to two dozen vairons and a diminishing chance of gelling back to the ch√¢teau that evening. It was only the thought of a repeat order of the entire truffle for starters and a promised cassoulet de Toulouse that got me over the last 20 kilometers and home for dinner. That and hauling the trap net. It contained one minnow.
To describe the rest of the week would merely be repetitious. Each day Louis and I followed the same routine. An early-morning massacre of the trout (we both turned out to be quantity, not quality, men, for we never topped two pounds) followed by a bibulous patrol of the cafés of the Tarn valley and a restful, well-fed evening. The last morning I recall well, though. I was returning to the ch√¢teau for breakfast, Louis alongside, when a big, new 4.2-liter Jaguar swirled the gravel as it pulled up on the drive. I scratched my head. Maybe I should have combed my hair that morning or at least shaved off the three-day growth. I had put on four pounds by way of cassoulet, truffles, p√¢té of guinea fowl, red wine and cognac, my fishing vest was losing its leather binding and a large stain of raspberry liqueur discolored the place where you are supposed to clip on the little pair of scissors. But I had caught many a trout.
From the Jaguar stepped a large, silver-haired gentleman and I could see the Hardy labels on the rods lying across the back seat. He addressed me politely in Anglo-French. "Est-il possible, Monsieur," he said, "to attraper les trouts round here?" I indicated my friend with a graceful gesture.
"Mon cher colleague, Monsieur Glasgow here, will tell you all about it," I said. "He is king of the Tarn."