The morning dawned with mist still shrouding the mountains towering above the small Pyrenean town where my wife and I were staying for a few days of hiking and fishing. Walking through the narrow streets in search of croissants and strong coffee, we dodged large puddles, left by a violent thunderstorm that had woken us during the night. The town was slowly coming to life – the market traders were setting up their stalls in the square, the old men were gathering outside the bar-tabac to read their newspapers and enjoy their first cigarettes of the day, and thankfully the boulangerie was just opening.
Once fortified with caffeine and patisserie we continued our morning stroll. The sound of rushing water could be heard long before we reached the small footbridge crossing the river that flowed through the town centre. Transformed overnight by the deluge, the inviting, crystal clear waters we had admired the previous day were now an angry, grey torrent. However, higher up the valley, beyond the last villages before the Spanish border, I could imagine a mountain stream that would have been revitalised, rather than overwhelmed, by the rains, and its inhabitants reinvigorated after a long dry spell that summer.
That day in July we planned to hike high up into the Pyrenees, where we had been told there was a beautiful glacial lake – turquoise blue, with several cascades tumbling into it from the surrounding peaks. Our route began in a small village and followed the road out of the settlement before turning onto a footpath that took us for several miles through a thick mountainside forest. Eventually, we emerged into lush alpine pastures dotted with beautiful wildflowers and, in the distant valley below, there was the silver thread of a stream.
Arriving at a small road bridge over the stream, we of course had to pause to see if we could spot any trout. It would be easy to think that a boulder strewn, high-altitude creek would be devoid of life, and surely, without a careful approach, you would have no reason to believe otherwise. In such crystalline waters, the trout easily see or sense you long before you see them, and with any undue noise or vibration they will be gone in the blink of an eye. However, by treading softly, and slowly and cautiously peering off the bridge, they were of course there – several wild brown trout of varying size holding position at the tail of the pool beneath the bridge.
By that point, as luck would have it, it was around lunchtime and after hurriedly eating a picnic by the stream I put up my rod (always in my rucksack) for a few casts before we continued on our way. The conditions were perfect – mild, damp and overcast – and just the right amount of extra water after the storm to stir the fish into activity. On almost every cast something would flash or splash at my flies. It seemed that in every spot where you would expect there to be a fish, there was – behind the boulder, in front of the boulder, along the steady foam-flecked flow beside the far bank trees and bushes, beneath the overhanging grassy bank, in the draw at the tail of the pool, you name it, they were there and ready to feed. It took a while to connect with the first fish as they were mostly small and lightning quick on the take, but in less than an hour’s fishing I had lost count of the number of perfect wild trout brought to hand from just a couple of pools above and below that little bridge.
Returning to the hike, I eventually was able to tear myself away from those obliging little brownies, and we continued on our way. After a steep climb on zig-zagging paths through more forests, we finally emerged above the treeline on the shores of the lake. We were somewhat disappointed (though on reflection we should not have been surprised given the inclement weather) to find the lake completely shrouded in thick mist, the fabled waterfalls could only be heard, not seen, in the distance. Viewing the lake in all its glory would have to wait, but nonetheless paradise as far as I was concerned had been found in the valley below.
I could not wait to return to that little stream the next day and explore it further. Downstream of the bridge I had noticed that the valley narrowed and the stream disappeared into heavy woodland where surely there was a whole world of adventure to be had.
By the next day, the post-storm cloud cover and intermittent drizzle had given way to glorious sunshine – summer had truly returned. The wild flowers looked even more magnificent in the meadows and it was warm enough to fish in shirtsleeves throughout the day. Thankfully the stream was still in fine fettle and running at a good height, which meant that hopefully the fish would not be too bothered by the bright conditions.
Below the bridge the valley steepened and the stream tumbled between, over and around giant boulders, and formed a series of exquisite pools some deeper than they were wide. Those steep sections were interspersed with level stretches of tree lined riffles and pocket water. The fishing was all encompassing: technical, in that every section presented a myriad of challenges to navigate – fast and complex currents, obstacles to casting and to drifts; physically demanding, with rocks to climb and fallen trees to clamber through; and exhilarating, with willing trout to be found in almost every nook and cranny, eager to gobble any big, bushy dry fly that one could drift over their heads.
Once again, I lost count of the number of fish caught, mostly small, but with a smattering of better specimens culminating with a lovely 10 inch fish that confidently took a Stimulator in a magical pool beneath a small waterfall. This was a just reward after a couple of even larger fish had been hooked and lost during the day. One particular fish, likely over a pound – a considerable size for such a stream – had come up and gobbled my fly as it bobbed around a deep back eddy before running riot around the pool, eventually snagging me on a rock and breaking free.
I returned to the stream twice more that same season.
Once in mid-August, arriving on a Friday evening and fishing until dark. The river was much lower than on the previous occasions and the fish considerably more wary. My flies had to be smaller and more delicate, but still several lovely trout to nearly a pound graced my net, and some other fine specimens were seen ghosting under my fly, but refused to take. I camped by the stream and slept well to the sound of the running water. Rising early the next day, I caught a few more nice fish on nymphs, before it got too hot and it was time to leave.
In September, I chose to finish the season on the stream. It was already starting to get cool in the mountains and nothing stirred until mid-morning when a hatch of upwinged flies seemed to get the fish moving. In the end I managed six fish – five on dry flies, one on a nymph – and it was a lovely way to end the season. Whilst the numbers were down on previous visits, I had the blissful surroundings all to myself and the fishing was nonetheless completely absorbing. I remember one particular fish, the first of the day in fact, which, just as the hatch began, appeared under my fly and followed its drift for several feet before finally taking – superb sport.
My last visit was the opening day of the season just passed. I had started the day on a bigger river lower in the valleys. It was running high with snow melt, and the weather was cold and windy. After several hours with no success, I craved more intimate surroundings – somewhere sheltered from the elements and where I could be confident my flies were at least near some fish. So I drove for an hour, up that valley I was in, over the col and down into the next valley where my little stream was waiting. It was bleak compared to my last visit with no leaves yet on the trees and the still snow-capped peaks in the distance. Moreover, by the time I arrived there was not much of the day left, but the fish were still there and there was not a soul around. The stream rewarded me with four little brownies, lean after the winter, but nonetheless exquisite. I savoured my beer at the end of the day sat on a grassy bank listening the the sound of the rushing water – alone, in the wild, in paradise.
An excellent read, Adam.
What great trout fishing adventures!
I didn’t realise you were such a fine writer!