Angling Abroad: Flyfishing southwest France

Here's a glimpse of fishing in a clear stream as it runs through the verdant meadows and low fog of southwestern France. 

High in the Pyrenees Mountain Range of southwestern France is a secret trout-fishing getaway.

Here you can fish all by yourself in streams flowing under the gaze of castles that stand sentry like the ancient Roman armies that used to inhabit this ancient land.

These are among the wildest, most scenic trout streams in Europe, flowing under imposing peaks and set amongst the first race to populate Europe, the hospitable but mysterious Basques, in a land so medieval that sheepherding remains a viable and common way to make a living.

Unlike many other areas of Europe, flyfishing for trout in this isolated pocket doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Much of the best water is public, and the stretches that are not can be fished for a small fee. Licenses to fish public water are inexpensive (although confusing).

Fishing the Pyrenees is less about the size of the fish or deciphering the prevailing hatch and more about the substance of flyfishing in a land that hasn't changed much since knights rode about on horseback.

To be sure, anglers will find the freestone streams full of chunky browns, some fairly sizeable. And the scenery is as magnificent as any in western Europe. But you fish here for the ambience and history and culture and food.

Digs are cheap despite the high quality of lodging and the incredible regional cuisine these hotels serve (often as part of the price of the accommodations).

Most nice hotels run from $30 to $70 a night double occupancy, so dinner for two is often worth what you're paying for the room alone. The Pyrenees are only a 90-minute flight from Paris or Madrid, so any angler on a trip with the wife or family, or on business, would find getting to these ancient mountains extremely doable.

My wife, Amy, and I visited the Pyrenees in June for two weeks of fishing for brown trout (with the perfunctory adjunct side trips of shopping and general tourism thrown in for good measure).

We knew we wanted to get a full sampling of the range of rivers in this area, ranging from tiny high-country streams to the big, slow lowland rivers.

Don't think you can look at the map and see 60 miles from one town to the next and believe you can get there in an hour. You can't. There are no straight roads in the Pyrenees. And when you factor in your lazy lunch at a sidewalk café and a two-hour four-course meal, you won't have time but to fish one river a day anyhow.

One recent summer, we spent two weeks traipsing the small mountain villages of these Pyrenees that straddle these two countries. I tricked my wife into thinking this would be a true European, full-of-shopping, stuff-of-dreams vacation. She knew better, of course, but was willing to indulge me anyway.

We fished in 10 different streams, stayed in six villages, met locals of whom almost none of spoke English. We ate incredible food, fished where Ernest Hemingway and his characters caught trout and drove as crazily as the Europeans (if you don't, they'll run you over).

Our first destination was to fish a high-altitude stream for wild browns about a half-hour drive east from our hotel in Nay located near Pau — a very Englishlike city of some 100,000, the largest of the northern French Pyrenean towns.

We met up the first day with our fishing guide, Mariano Cruz, and immediately hit it off with him. He is exactly what we needed for our first foray into the French high country. He and I spoke Spanish. We communicated easily but he always made a point to help Amy understand what we were saying. And he spoke enough English to bridge the gap.

We spent till late evening with him fishing the Adour, the Adour-Payolle and a secret stream I am not allowed to name or he has promised to kill me.

The rivers were knee-deep, cobble-bottomed, clearing from runoff and cold. We could see trout holding but they were picky and the casts needed to be precise. We caught many browns, nothing of great size, but we were amazed at the incredible scenery.

At one point on the river, I was standing next to Cruz watching him cast skillfully to tiny pockets. He caught and released a fat, little brown trout and, as we stood chatting about the fish, he greased up his fly with some flotant he had in a film canister.

I reached in with my finger and swiped some, smelling it because it had a bit of a funky odor, then dabbed it on my fly and my tippet. With a smile, Cruz asked me how much my flotant cost me and how many bottles of flotant I bought each year.

When the farmers milk the cows, a residue is left, a milky cream, which when put in a film canister, looks just like what I had dipped my finger into. I dipped my finger in the river and wiped it on my shirt.

Cruz said he is a friend to all the farmers in the valley and they save the residue for him. He said he spends nothing a year on his flotant, while I must spend nearly $15 or $20 a year. That smell didn't leave my hand for days.

Our guide took us to a bar/cafe at the top of the mountain (so it seemed) for a very Pyrennees lunch of cured canard breast, cured Bayonne ham, cheese, butter, baguette, olives, and a meal of ternera (big ol' hunk of steak) and frites (the best fries I ever ate). From our covered table, we watched two different herds of sheep and one herd of cattle feeding within twenty yards of us.

Cruz was the perfect fishing and travel guide, helping us understand some of the cultural differences. When we asked him what kind of fast food he ate, he thought for a minute and told us how he selects a cow for slaughter each quarter year from a local farmer. He chooses a cow he has watched and knows, and this way, he said, "I know what kind of cow I will be eating. Only grass."

A day later, I saw the Gave d'Oloron swollen after two days of heavy rain and my heart sank. It was high on its banks and I knew that overnight, its tributaries would keep feeding it water from on high. So I figured then I wouldn't get to fish it.

Our next guide, a young Frenchman named Jean-Michel Boyer, luckily spoke Spanish and a little English. He agreed the Gave d'Oloron would be tough fishing (nymphs only and dangerous wading), so we decided to visit the Gave d'Aspe and Gave d'Ossau and their feeders.

Boyer was a super guide, driving us around for hours, stopping for us to fish and take pictures, winding around those high country roads, talking about angling techniques and so on, showing us the rare Egyptian vultures, telling us about the nearly extinct Pyrenean bears and taking us for a glass of uncommon wine.

We visited even some very small streams at the top of the mountains, including an exquisite little stream, the Gave de Lourdios, where the scenery was as close to heavenly as it gets.

The Gave d'Aspe looked amazing, but the water was so high that we spent an afternoon dunking nymphs with lots of split shot and caught only a few heavy browns. The Gave d'Aspe, Gave d'Oloron and Gave d'Pau are at the top of my list to fish next year.

We ate lunch at a local bar one day and found out some subtleties of the French language. My wife thought she ordered a salad with fruit but instead it was a salad with fruit of the sea.

The beautiful salad arrived complete with octopus legs draped all over the lettuce and in it were other lovely creatures of the sea.

Such are the surprises of a fishing vacation in southwestern France.