In search of brown trout in the Cantal, France
As we meander through deserted mountain roads, I glance out the window of Guillaume’s little Peugeot at a red kite soaring over a mist-shrouded valley and can’t help wondering how this place has remained such a well-kept secret. The place in question is France’s Auvergne region (specifically, the Pays Gentiane within the Cantal department of the Auvergne). It is a little-known land of forest-clad extinct volcanoes streaked with mountain rivers containing wild and wily brown trout, and it is, quite simply, exquisite.
Unfortunately, the failure of Mother Nature to comply with our timetable has – for the moment, at least – thrown a spanner in the works. We stop periodically to gaze over bridges at the colour of the water, but each time Guillaume comes away looking downcast. Here’s a man desperate to show me his region’s fishing at its finest, but there’s little he can do.
Late May and early June usually herald the arrival of the year’s best sport, but the five days of rain that preceded my arrival have raised the water line. Rivers that would otherwise run clear now have the complexion of a Starbucks latte. There’s little to do but sit tight, drink some more wine, and wait.
For reasons best known to themselves, the folks here (very generously it seems to me) are now keen to share their idyllic pocket of France with the rest of us; indeed, they seem baffled as to why more people aren’t aware of it. Just 5% of the tourism here comes by way of non-French visitors. The Office de Tourisme in the small town of Riom-es-Montagnes, Guillaume proudly tells me, is the only one in the country to offer a dedicated welcome area for fishermen. Travelling anglers can drop in, pick up a 100-page guide to the entire area’s fishing (or single-page guides to individual rivers), and get the low-down from Guillaume on the best action and the hottest flies. There’s even a fly-tying station, so you can rustle up whatever he recommends when you inevitably realise it’s the one thing missing from your fly box.
In fishing terms, Guillaume Vernet is very much 'the man' round here. Born in the south of France, he moved to the Cantal some years ago, seduced by the simplicity of mountain life. He divides his time between coordinating fishing activities for the tourist office and working as an independent guide. He spends every other waking moment fishing the waters around his home in Riom. He reckons there are approximately 60 rivers in the Cantal alone (and many more spread out over the wider Auvergne area), and he knows most of them intimately. Nearly all of them – all fishable on a standard French fishing licence (carte de pêche) – contain trout.
But even Guillaume is powerless in the face of current conditions. Day one is effectively written off, and the next morning, my hosts coax me into a brief detour to one of the area’s favourite landmarks, La Font Sainte, a mountain church with stunning views and, crucially, a fountain said to bestow miracles on those who drink from it. I don’t usually go in for this sort stuff, but right now I’ll try anything …
Et voilà: un miracle
Later that afternoon, miracle water imbibed, and a new wave of optimism coursing through me, we’re off to La Rhue Veronne. The river’s elevated position means it’s one of the first to clear after the ravages of the rain. Negotiating the hill leading down to this particular stretch is a challenge in itself.
Below us, the decaying wreckage of a van lies crumpled against a tree, testament to one driver’s misfortune on the mountain road above. Beyond that is the river. After a few minutes spent sliding on our backsides down the steep hillside, through the tangle of undergrowth and trees, we arrive at the water’s edge. Guillaume’s got it spot on – the water has started to clear. It’s not perfect, but it’s fishable. My spirits are lifted instantly.
Guillaume stops briefly to retrieve something from the water and then shows me what he’s found: sedge larvae. The river is seemingly filled with them, and there’s no guesswork involved when it comes to fly selection. On goes a tan Caddis Pupa (size 14) and we’re off, creeping upstream. Beneath the overhanging branches, there’s just enough room to swing the 8ft 4-weight, but precision casting is required (if not always delivered). Trotting our nymphs through the first few pools yields little. Then the river widens slightly, and up ahead a small, deeper run gathers beneath a mini-cascade.
Dropping the fly at the head of the pool, I get about as far as throwing in a mend when I see the end of the fly line twitch back in the other direction. I know the fly can’t have reached bottom in that time, so it’s not hung up on a rock. My strike is met with that familiar resistance, and a fraction of a second later the trout is airborne. It's not a monster, but it’s got the typically defiant and jagged fighting qualities of a wild brown. “See, is never impossible,” explains Guillaume. “Is always possible, is just about finding solution to the problem.” A minute or so later, the fish comes to the net.
There’s something about an encounter with a wild fish like this that renders the issue of size irrelevant. Sure, by the standards of modern stocked fish, it’s relatively small (a pound perhaps), but it seems unjust to make comparisons. Just to have made a brief connection with this fish (perhaps the only time it will ever come face-to-face with an angler), feels like a huge privilege.
A couple more fish follow, and we’re up and running. That visit to the church seems to have paid off! As if to confirm it, as our session on La Veronne draws to a close, a pine marten appears on the opposite bank. He’s clearly as astonished to see me as I am to see him (the only species of mammal you’re less likely to see in the UK is the wildcat), and within seconds he’s retreated to the safety of higher ground to assess our presence, before melting into the hillside vegetation.
Magic in the mountains
The best is yet to come. The following day, after a morning spent sampling some stillwater sport on Lac du Roussillou (a private fishery just outside Riom, stocked with tiger trout, blues, monster rainbows and even the odd black bass) we’re back on the river. We’ve chosen La Grande Rhue this time. It’s the area’s biggest river and home to some of its larger inhabitants. “Is very wild,” explains Guillaume (‘wild’ rhyming with ‘field’), “but is worth it.”
And so, after another daredevil hill-slide, we’re making our way along the bank. Almost instantly it’s clear Guillaume’s instincts are spot-on again. On the far bank, just beneath some overhanging branches, a fish rises. “Et voilà. We have activity,” whispers my French companion. Thirty seconds or so pass and neither of us move. Another fish rises, followed by three more in unison. Within minutes, the river is alive with the sound of airborne fish, as clouds of sedges gather above the water. “OK, we have big activity.”
Standing there, preparing to unfurl the fly line, it looks as if it should all be so easy. But then, the process of fooling a fish that has survived in this harsh environment for thousands upon thousands of years should not be easy. And so it proves. Time and again, the fish refuse the fly like they’ve seen it all before. I’m starting to lose heart when Guillaume sidles up next to me and produces a small, very sparsely tied sedge pattern. It’s not totally unlike the one I have on. “Try this one,” he urges. “Is tied with plume from my own coq.” The bird, I would later discover, goes by the name of Julio and is something of a local celebrity. It’s a limousin bleu, one of a select number of local birds bred specifically for fly tying.
Out goes the fly, landing perfectly in a pocket of slack water in which fish have been continually rising. About three-and-a-half seconds is all it takes before the fly disappears in a boil of water. “Impact!” exclaims Guillaume, as the fish makes off downstream.
It seems Don Julio’s magnetism spreads far beyond the avian kingdom. The fish bores into the deep channel at the centre of the river, and I can feel its head shaking as I pray Guillaume’s invention holds fast. Fortunately, it’s not long before the fish surrenders in the shallows. With its dark flanks, deeply coloured by the water’s dissolved volcanic minerals, it’s the perfect representation of a wild Cantal trout. If it had been my only fish of the day, I’d have been happy.
But the fish keep rising, and we manage to fool a handful more before someone flicks a switch, the fish retreat and a clap of thunder echoes through the valley. Before long the rain has returned, and we’re back in the safety of Guillaume’s Peugeot. Tomorrow’s another day in the mountains and I feel sure we’ll have the river all to ourselves again.