Imagine a stream narrow enough to give claustrophobia to a burly stickleback: it creeps through thick grass at the bottom of a meadow, as if trying to reach the main brook unobserved, yet someone has placed a sign on it saying Pêche Interdite. The French worry me sometimes. If there are people prepared to hoover out even the inhabitants of a thread of water like that, what will they have left in the more accessible rivers?
Like every other piece of water that I saw in Normandy, the Pêche Interdite runnel was guarded by a couple of sagging, slightly rusted wires. They looked completely inoffensive until my wife brushed into one and was knocked to the ground, whimpering, by an electric shock. What was really frightening was that it might have been our six-year-old daughter who touched the wire first.
The fences were a hazard fairly easily overcome. At last I had found a use for the wooden-teardrop shaped landing net which has rattled around in the boot for ten years. It may not scoop fish very well, but it is wonderful for pushing down the fences as you climb over, very careful in case the net slips and the wire jumps up between your legs. The nervous fisherman may prefer to throw himself flat and wriggle under them.
Once through the fences, the real problems start. The fishing in Western Normandy had sounded delightful in the brochures. I knew there were meant to be trout in these rivers, and that some of them would have a decent mayfly hatch. Miles and miles of trout fishing were promised us, along with stretches perfectly adapted to fly fishing. But this spring, when we arrived, the rivers were in the grip of a savage drought. The stream below our farm had shrunk till it was only two or three feet across for most of its width and very shallow. Its trout seemed full of dash and elan as they prepared to do battle with mayflies fully half their size.
Even though my ideal holiday would involve fishing nothing much except the stream which runs round the bottom of the farm, I determined to try the larger rivers. The Sée is supposed to be the best salmon river of mainland France, and the Sienne promised several hundred miles of trout fishing. They flow through beautiful valleys: the sun shone, and pale plump mayflies fluttered helplessly about. But both rivers, beyond their protective fences, turned out to be running the colour of weak chocolate. They were perfect for worming, and sure enough, the first fisherman I met was going equipped. This was disheartening. I'm not snotty about trout; I will cheerfully catch any sort of fish. But I do love fly fishing, and above all I love clear water, through which fish can be glimpsed. It shouldn't be completely transparent - who wants to fish in a swimming pool? But a river should promise a better, clearer, brighter world. I suppose I believe that heaven would involve swimming in sunny water, not grunging around like a catfish, waiting for a worm to brush my whiskers.
Of course, the time of year was wrong, too, by a week or so. After the first of June, tourists can buy a permit for the whole country for around eleven pounds. But in May, you have to pay four times that just to fish a single river system. A mixture of pride, embarrassment, and miswiring in the brain meant that I found myself paying 400 Francs instead of 80 to fish the Sienne, a river that I had not at that time seen at all, to a woman who elevated ignorance to a form of charm. Is the fly fishing any good, I asked her. Depends how good you are, she replied with irresistible indifference.
When I reached the river, it soon became obvious that while a landing net was indispensable for getting around and over the electrified fences, there was nothing in the river that could not be landed with a shrimping net. The permit was very strong on the fines for undersized fish, meaning those less than nine inches long. The fines ran up a scale at 100 francs a fish to a limit of 600; and I found myself gloomily wondering what sort of fishermen needed to be warned not to keep six underlength trout. After a long morning had produced only one trout that would have gone at least five inches if he had not let go, I began to wonder what sort of hero could catch six anything from the river.
The Sienne ran through low, steep-sided hills like those of Devon, and its banks were guarded, beyond the wire, by a tremendous profusion of trees. In Normandy you realise how denuded the English countryside has become: it is not just hedgerows that are lacking, but trees as well. On the Sienne there is a leafy branch waiting for every backcast. The only way out turned out to be to climb into the river, and there, wading comfortably on a clean rock bottom around knee deep, I found where the fish had gone.
It was feeding at the shallow inflow of a feeder stream in a pool whose banks were impenetrably defended with barbed wire as well as electricity. The thin water was clear enough to show him mooching around the roots of a bush, and occasionally rising to something invisible on the surface. He seemed enormously long, perhaps even nine inches, and very content with life. For half an hour I worked through my fly box trying smaller and smaller flies until at last I tied on a mayfly in despair. He took it at once, and for about twenty seconds thrashed about in a most frightening manner before disappearing again. I know already that I will remember him better than all the trout I'm going to catch this year.