Terry Lawton is..... Lost in France
The chalkstreams of Normandy such as the Risle provide a wonderful and attractive alternative to the more famous UK waters for those fly fishers who find themselves in France.
Eventually we (my wife and younger son and me) found running water and a place to park the car. I got out to go and have a look at what I hoped would be the famous river Risle in Normandy, possibly the main channel or perhaps a side stream, a mile or two upstream from Pont-Audemer. As I walked over a bridge, a car stopped with an elderly French couple inside. They stopped to ask me if I knew where they could go fishing. I explained, in my limited French, that I too was trying to find where to fish but the map that I had been given when I bought my day ticket was not proving very helpful.
The French woman, and a very smart black greyhound, got out of the car and wandered off. Another car drove over the bridge which the French woman stopped. I went over to see what was happening and the driver, a young man who worked locally, spoke English and was a fisherman! Surely we would be fishing within minutes now. It wasn’t to be.
In 2008 I had stayed further north in Normandy - in St Valery en Caux, Seine Maritime - and in the local tourist office there had been a very helpful woman who gave me a very useful little brochure on fishing in La Durdent, a first category Normandy chalk stream. In contrast, the tourist offices in Honfleur and Pont-Audemer were of no help. The map showed the location of the different “parcours”, or beats, and local cafés. Knowing the location of cafés and bars is crucial as they are where you buy your ticket.
Buying a ticket can be entertaining. The barman, or in my case maid, is equipped with a case holding all the maps, permits and other information. Knowing what you want to buy is important as you will probably be dealing with someone who does not fish. If you print-out information from a website do take it with you. The woman in the Café Aux Pêcheurs in Pont-Audemer wanted to charge me €30 for a day ticket. But when I showed her the information from www.peche27.com detailing a “carte journalière” for €10, that was all I paid.
The Risle is one of Normandy’s best-known chalk streams and was fished and made famous by Charles Ritz. And the town of Pont-Audemer has a dry fly named after it. In his book French Fishing Flies, Jean-Paul Pequegnot suggests that the fly is a derivative of the English Mole fly, named after the river Mole in Surrey. It is said to be popular in May and June and also good when caddis are hatching. The wings are tied inclined forwards at an angle of forty-five degrees over the hackle. The fly has no tail and it is fished with the hackle flat on the waters and the wings sticking up and clearly visible, and the body vertically below the surface.
Normandy is France’s equivalent of Hampshire with high-quality chalk streams, lovely countryside, chateaux and chaumières (thatched cottages and houses) and proximity the French capital, but with far fewer people and cars. The chalk stream fishing is more accessible – once found – and far less costly.
My day on Le Durdent was the most successful of my two days in France. The first fly that I saw hatch was a caddis and when I picked-up a stone from the river bed, I wasn’t surprised as I have never seen so many cased caddis on a stone before. There were also some shrimps. Although it was difficult to see the fish against the pale, stony river bed, those that I could see were quiet deep in the water. I fished a copper-bead-head PTN and other well-weighted nymphs. There were nice runs and clear “pools” between the verdant and luxurious weed beds. It was easy to fish these clearer areas often without any success. Then as I started to move slowly upstream, I would spot a big fish as lots of little ones scattered hither and yon. The fish that I caught were those that I spotted and was able to cast to, usually lying close to one or other bank.
There is some 7ks of fishing in a river that is 23ks long. Interestingly, a little further up the coast is La Veules which at 1100ms is the smallest river in France. And yes the trout in it are of similar Lilliputian size. Le Durdent did not give me the impression that it is hard fished. I had the parcours to myself and there was little sign of the banks having much traffic up and down. Admittedly they were not very fisherman-friendly, unlike the cows in one field. Driving past on a Saturday I saw two anglers fishing downstream and an old boy spinning in an all-methods beat further down stream. He was probably after sea trout which are said to run the river.
Back to Le Risle. The Frenchman who could speak English and worked for a firm of civil engineers which had a depot beside the river, couldn’t understand the map, so he rang for help from a fellow employee who lived locally. He wasn’t much help either! So our man suggested that we get in our cars and go and look for the parcours. Off we went and soon stopped at another bridge. Here there were some canoeists practising slalom canoeing by a weir. The man in charge was summoned to the river bank, shown the map and asked for directions. He came up trumps! Back to the cars and off over the bridge, a nearby railway line and a left turn onto a little road that ran roughly parallel to the course of the river. We ended-up someway upstream from where I thought that I was going to fish but it was the main river!
I put on my waders and got tackled-up and set-off towards a bridge that gave me access to the true right-hand bank which meant that I could walk downstream and then fish back on the “right” bank. I fought my way through the undergrowth and found my way into the river. The bottom was generally firm and stony – so easy wading – and the depth varied from knee deep to over the top of chest waders in some of the deeper holes. There was a good amount of weed but not much fly about. I picked-up an old piece of wood lying on the river bed and it had some shrimps on it but nothing else. One or two big caddis did hatch and I saw a couple of fish rise, one of which, close to the far bank, was a good long cast away. The river was about 30yds wide – similar to the Test at Broadlands.
When I crossed the bridge, I saw some nice looking fish just upstream. Instead of heading of downstream I should have slipped into the river by the bridge and had a go at them as they had moved by the time that I got back there. There were still one or two big trout to be seen but hard against the bank in some very slack water. I was soon to find out that they were very quickly spooked.
Even though I did not see many fish and never had a touch, it was a great piece of water to fish and on a good day could, I am sure, be wonderful. When I had to pack-up I was able to speak to a young French guy who told me that he fished the river at least twice a week. He hadn’t caught anything and reckoned that conditions were not easy. He knew that the Risle used to be popular with English visitors many years ago – Frank Sawyer fished it with Charles Ritz – but there are not many English “moucheurs’ today.
I think that I ended-up fishing where I was allowed and none of the three local anglers I spoke to told me otherwise. But it wasn’t the beat that I was looking for. That was, I think, upstream from the canoeists.
What you need to know
Speaking some French is pretty much essential as buying a permit and ticket in a local bar will most probably have to be done in French. You may be lucky and find a customer who speaks some English and can help interpret.
You will have to provide a local address when buying a day ticket.
Rivers in France fall into two categories: 1st Category and 2nd Category. The top rivers are, obviously, 1st Category. A river can be of more than one category over its length. Most rivers have a mix of public and private water.
Some “parcours” allow any method ie fly, bait, spinning etc while others are “exclusivement à la pêche à la mouche” – fly only – and there are also beats with a no kill rule which may be relaxed on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and national holidays..
You can download a brochure on fishing in Normandy at www.normandy-tourism.org then click on Things To Do, then Sports and Activities, and finally Fishing.
Fishing in France is managed by local angling clubs, typically an APPMA, and these are grouped in regional federations. Many APPMAs have reciprocal rights with adjoining federations which helps reduce the cost of fishing in two or more départments, Eure and Calvados for example.
The best site for information on the Risle and other chalk streams in the départment of Eure is www.pech27.com This is the website of the Fédération de l’Eure pour la pêche. All the information is in French. A 15-day carte vacances for the period 1 June to 31 December, 2009, cost €36.
If you are planning to fish for only one or perhaps two days, buy your ticket as soon as possible in case there are days on which you may not be allowed to fish.
For expert help and advice on booking a fishing break to Normandy or anywhere in France for that matter, talk to Club Fish World who can help you find the best trout, grayling and even sea trout fishing to be had there.