For how many years have DF and I have ventured abroad for our annual adventure?
I am betting it is about eighteen, and it has taken in Scotland and Ireland (sic), but also Iceland, Canada, the US, and more recently, Slovenia with Rob Pickering aka M.Le Pique!
And it was Rob’s enthusiasm for a rematch which led to his suggesting we came to his (summer) part of the world in the SW of France, and we gratefully left him to it. On discovering the GourmetFly website and following exchanges with proprietor, Nick De Toldi, Rob recommended the French Pyrenees. The information supplied by Nick was comprehensive, and included thoughts around the touristic, the gourmandic, accommodation. Oh! and the rivers and recommendations for appropriate rods, lines and flies.
It is fair to say that we were concerned about snow melt, given the plan was for a mid May visit, and weather watching, having booked, made us all a little nervous, for the cold and rains of the UK through April, were just as prevalent throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, but…we went.
It’s a tad over three hours drive from Toulouse, but the trip was spent exchanging updates since we were last together at a friend’s daughter’s wedding, only weeks before, and these, punctuated with the banter which only great chums understand. It was darkening when we drove through St Jean de Pieds de Port, and as we climbed through steepening mountain sides we wondered whether the village of Esterencuby existed, but on eventual arrival, we carried and wheeled in the bags which lay where they were dropped, for three hours is a long time without a drink on a fishing trip, and once we dragged our Host, Michel away from the TV screen where he and locals were roaring support for the Toulouse Rugby team, we were (im)pression-ed, and ready to play! And Boy! We started well sampling local wines, to wash down hostess and cuisinier, Marie Agnes’ terrific cooking…the ‘duo of lamb’ was to die for. So good, that I had it three times through our stay!
Day One :
The next day it was down to business, and started with Michel’s issuing us a Carte de Peche Mensuelle each, and then guide, Benjamin Charron arriving dead on the expected hour, which always encourages, and whilst his English was good, we left it to Rob, who’s French excels mine and DF’s, to assist with the plotting.
And they concluded that our first foray should be to a tributary of the Nives near the village of St Etienne de Baignorry, called La Nive des Aldudes.
This is a pretty, clear flowing stream with a variety of runs beneath tree lined banks which provided cover and security for fish, and no real difficulty for casting, and the waters were low-ish and wading, easy. Sadly, and in spite of a warming and sunny morning, not a fish was seen moving, and the Halfordians diverted to the Skues-esques, but with no more success. Lunch was spent in mutual consolation! Benjamin was quiet!
The afternoon was spent on the main river Nive at St Martin d’Arossa, and whilst it looked ‘fishy’, we were stumped again. A pit-stop to look at two tributaries just below St Jean, and a few casts produced ‘rien’ also, from the Arzuby, nor from the Le Lauribar.
Back at our Auberge, I was studying the stream from the bar terrace, and saw a rise below where the tributary, the Esterenguibel,enters the Nive headwater
Quick as a flash I was on the cobbled bank, and an elk hair caddis proved too alluring for not one, but two, Basqueses truit…bingo!
And so to dinner, flushed with an irritating smile!
At breakfast I was introduced a friend of Michel’s…winemaker, Jean Brana. Irouleguy, is one of France’s smallest wine producing areas, and least known. His Domaine is one of the finest and we had enjoyed Jean’s wines during all of our two dinners, our favourite being, Harri Gori, the red, a blend of Cabernet Franc (40pc), Cabernet Sauvignon (10pc), and Brannat. Grateful for the compliment, he told us of his favourite place near Bidarray, on the Baztan, which is we where we headed, guide-less, today. But for three old farts, we decided that the steep sided access to the stream was not compatible with ageing knee joints, or any other part of our torsos, but we drove to the Spanish border, close to its source and enjoyed watching the tumbling waters splashing between crevice and over mighty boulders at the start of its short run down to the Nives. But we were disappointed not to be able to try it, and we moved on…to lunch, as I remember. No fish on Day Two, then.
Day Three :
Truly a day to remember.
Le Pique knew that the Irati was made famous by Ernest Hemingway who wrote a few words about it in “The sun also rises”, and wanted to fish it. Hemingway fished it as it flowed through the Navarra region of Spain. To fish our side of the border required a 45 minute car ride on a road which challenged my atrocious head for heights, or rather, lack of one. The winding road onto the Irati Plateau went on for mile after mile, with the vertical drop, or so it seemed, moving from one side of the car to the other, and my grip on the door handle tightening with each twist of the road. But the discomfort passed as we hit the plateau 3000ft above sea level, and entered the biggest beech forest in Europe.
On this sunny day, and with the new leaves still glistening in their early time lime green, against the clear blue skies, even the most critical would be hard pressed not to have wondered at the intense beauty of the place, which we all agreed was, simply stunning, and worth a testy drive to reach it.
The small stream below our parking place, was the headwater of the Irati. Crystal clear, with every pebble visible in the sunlight…a nightmare of a place for trout which had hopes of avoiding nasty predators, and roaming Anglos fish-less for two days!
Sure, it was difficult, but being in a beautiful place was ample compensation. I spent twenty minutes, watching olive duns float over the dishiest of lies, in gentle hopes that one of the hundreds which drifted past, might tempt a fish from the deeps under sunken roots. But whilst I waited in vain, it was glorious watching the short time in the lives of those little aerial creatures, who would shortly mate in mid-air then end their lives, their mission accomplished. The cold waters of our late Spring meant then, that those olives would fulfil their role, and that next year…there will be millions more, nymphs and duns, and spent spinners to feed the fish which outwitted us, that day.
Until after our picnic lunch…when just half a mile higher upstream we encountered a few rises, and these led to two fish for me, and two for DF, although he claimed his were too small to be called ‘fish’!
The return to Esterencuby was equally testing too, but shorter, and passed by lingering snows….and highlighted by scenery and extraordinary views of the westerly Pyrenees. Stunning territory!
Day Four :
Benjamin was with us again, today, and he suggested that our morning should be spent upstream of St Jean, and he took us to the kind of beat on which I thrive. La Nive de Beherobie is varied, intimate, protected, interesting and challenging, and in spite of our trying various techniques, with no fish moving at all, and very few flies coming off, again we blanked. Poor Benjamin.
On the afternoon he took us back to La Nive des Aldudes, and we fished a beat beside a quarry in the brightest light and on the hottest day of our visit, and where several fish were moving. Le Pique got into one quickly, but it was off just as quickly. I cast to two fish which were moving under trees and in the cover of large overhanging rocks, and the trying was fun…if you know what I mean! We blanked again.
Day Five :
We conceded! Three anglers and chums fishing through eight sessions over four days for six fish. The Gods were not with us, or rather Mother Nature was proven yet again, to hold more sway in outcomes piscatorial, than we could ever hope to. So we went to Biarritz, and had the best fish of the week…at La Concha..brilliant! And then ‘afternoon tea’ at the Hotel du Palais Imperial, a return to the days of pure, unadulterated luxury. Who goes on fishing trips to catch trout anyway?
But don’t be put off!
Benjamin tempted us with the tenkara method, and we might have been successful with it. On morning five, a local angler using local technique…a long rod, fixed spool reel, float and weighted line with a worm bait, took four fish from flooded waters just below the Auberge, and in ten minutes, to our great disgust. I guess we were guilty of depending on what we know and could have experimented but, we didn’t, and I don’t like the shorter game of cricket, either!
There are too many streams here to fish on a four or five day visit, and whilst we tried hard, we were, in reality, the victims of this year’s climate, for our techniques work. But anglers all over Europe who expect that May should be the productive month, that experience tells us to expect, have been thwarted this year…and that’s fishing for you.
It was still a great trip, Guys!
And, to Michel and to Marie Agnes and all at Auberge Carricarburu, thank you for your very generous hospitality, which we really appreciated.
You have a wonderful fishing Inn…is your handsome picture still above the fireplace?