A River, Somewhere

In the late 1990s, there was an Australian fishing show that was occasionally shown in the UK on one of the documentary channels. It was two guys who would visit remote and beautiful places, catch some fish and cook them in a local style. It was about the ‘experience’ rather than the fishing itself. It stuck with me and I recently found some of the episodes on YouTube and really enjoyed watching them again. The programme had aged pretty well, I recommend you to look it up.

Anyway, the show typically ended with the guys ruminating about the adventure they had just had or planning the next one, and the narration stating: “after all … there’s always a river … somewhere”. It was with that mind-set that I pored over a map of the French department of Alpes-Maritimes, ahead of a trip to Nice on the south coast of France last spring. The French Riviera is famed for film festivals, yachts, and casinos, rather than wild trout fishing. However, I had heard rumours that inland from the Côte d’Azur there were some rugged mountain streams that offered the chance of a fish or two away from the glitz and glamour of the coast.

As invariably is the case here in France, the departmental fisheries website provided some good information – maps, access points and tips for a handful of rivers that flowed down from the French Alps to discharge their waters in the Mediterranean Sea. These websites really are good and are a great resource for anyone wishing to explore the fishing in France. It seemed these rivers were quite small, but apparently they held healthy populations of wild brown trout as well as some stocked fish. Pleasingly, there were also a number of ‘parcours’ (stretches) classified as ‘no-kill’ or ‘sans panier’ (no basket). Given that catch and release is not practised a widely as it perhaps ought to be in France, I tend to try and search out such stretches wherever possible.

This was not a fishing holiday, so I was limited to one day to get out for a cast, but thankfully it was a perfect day for spring fishing – mild, broken cloud, a bit of sunshine and the odd shower. Driving inland from the coast I was still sceptical of finding good fishing this close to the Mediterranean Sea. The hills immediately above the famous resorts of Cannes, Antibes and Nice felt cramped and congested with too many cars on too narrow roads, and villas and apartments crammed onto almost every available piece of land. The only green space seemed to be the odd golf course. Moreover, given the Mediterranean climate and the volume of water required to fill all the swimming pools and water the gardens and golf courses of the numerous holiday resorts, I was imagining that any river in the region would be a sorry trickle of water, if not altogether dry.

Thankfully I was wrong. Before long, the commercialism of the resort towns and their environs were left behind as the route wound up into the backcountry. The road hugged the side of deep, heavily-wooded gorges beneath rugged limestone crags. Occasionally, deep in the valley bottom below, a river could be seen through a thick canopy of trees.

River access, as often is the case in France, was limited and difficult. I headed first to a campsite where the fisheries website had indicated you could get down to the river. Unfortunately, having parked the car and put on my waders, I saw three spin fishermen returning from a morning on the river. Fishing pools on a small stream that may have already been pummelled by three guys the same day did not make sense, so I got back in the car and continued upstream.

After another few miles I found a layby where I could park the car and, whilst there was no formal access to the river, it was possible to climb over the roadside barrier and carefully pick a way down a steep slope through trees and scrub to the bottom of the gorge. At least I could be sure this remote section of the river would be rarely fished.

Tackling up by the first pool of the day
Dyret and Pheasant Tail Nymph – a trusty combination

Looking upstream and down, the river indeed looked good – intriguing water with pools, riffles and glides as far as the eye could see in both directions. Despite my earlier concerns, the water level was good, and it was nice and clear with a slight green tinge. There also seemed to be abundant aquatic life to provide food for any resident trout – shoals of minnow could be seen in the margins and there were plenty of cased caddis larvae and freshwater shrimps when I inspected under some stones. I tackled up and, as ever when on a new water, started the day by hedging my bets with two tried and tested patterns – a Dyret dry fly with a beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph suspended beneath it.

My flies however failed to stir a response in the first few pools, and my thoughts began to turn negative – had hordes of holiday fisherman already killed all the fish, or was it really a ‘zombie’ river that dried out every summer, etc, etc? Then finally, in the third or fourth pool, there was a splashy rise to the dry fly. I missed it, but at least there was a sign of something living in the river bigger than a minnow.

Working my way steadily upstream, the river broadened and some spring sunlight was able to penetrate the bottom of the gorge. It became noticeably warmer, a few flies started to hatch and the birdsong coming from the surrounding forests seemed to gain a few notches. The dappled sunlight glittered off the riffles and, with renewed confidence following that first rise, I settled into a nice rhythm – casting my flies upstream, carefully watching them drift back towards me, retrieving the slack line with my left hand, taking a few more steps and repeating the process to prospect any and all likely looking areas ahead of me.

“It was a good fish, certainly a pound in weight, with golden olive flanks and a myriad of vivid red spots …”

My focus drifted momentarily, as I looked up to my right at the forest and limestone outcrops that towered above the river, when suddenly there was an explosive rise to my dry fly. I heard the rise and saw the splash out of the corner of my eye. It is always amazing how often fish take at that moment when your concentration slips. However, on this occasion, luck was on my side and an instinctive strike met solid resistance as a good fish was hooked. A lovely fight ensued with the fish darting hither and thither amongst the exposed rocks in between which the stream flowed. It was a good fish, certainly a pound in weight, with golden olive flanks and a myriad of vivid red spots. I let slip a “yes!” as I drew the fish over the net and knelt in the gravelly shallows to admire my prize and take a few pictures in the beautiful spring sunlight.

“… the river narrowed again and I reached a deeper pool beneath a series of small rapids …”

After that fish was carefully returned, I continued fishing my way upstream through the same broad stretch until the river narrowed again and I reached a deeper pool beneath a series of small rapids. The main flow was down the centre of the pool with softer water either side that looked like it had to contain a few fish. I carefully explored those areas with my dry fly/nymph combination and in a succession of casts the dry fly darted under on each drift indicating that a fish had intercepted the nymph. Two small, but beautiful fish, together with another bigger one closer to the pound mark provided a nice end to my first morning on this new stream.

One of the smaller fish taken on a nymph
A better fish, closer to the pound mark, also taken on a nymph

After breaking for a great lunch at a local village restaurant, I resisted the temptation to call it a day and have a siesta (after a couple of glasses of wine) and returned to the same access point. However, this time I decided to explore downstream. I waded across to the other side of the pool where I had started the day and scrambled my way through thick woodland probably for about half a mile (or at least it felt that far) whereupon I sat down on a streamside log, poured myself a coffee, gathered my breath and thought about how I was going to tackle the afternoon session. I had passed a lot of good pools on the way so I decided to slowly fish my way back upstream during the afternoon, starting with the same fly combination that had served me so well in the morning.

I diligently covered some lovely and varied water for an hour or so, but aside from a small fish that took the nymph I struggled. From the morning session I knew there were fish in the stream, but clearly I needed to change tactics. There we a few very good looking spots where deep glides flowed alongside rocky outcrops and overhanging trees that I felt must hold decent fish, but perhaps they were hugging the bottom and not prepared to rise to the dry fly or even the nymph trailing a foot or so beneath.

My stonefly nymph pattern

I decided to change to a couple of nymphs – a large size 8 stonefly imitation with a 4mm black tungsten bead on the point and a size 14 hare’s ear with a 2mm brass bead on the dropper. These would be sure to get down to where I thought the fish could be lying. The stonefly nymph was one of those patterns tied in a burst of creativity at the vice one evening during the close season. Two brown goose biots formed the classic two-pronged tail of the nymph. Some yellow macaw feathers I received as a free sample at a fly fishing exhibition earlier that year were used to form a segmented body. Interestingly, when I varnished the body to protect it (hopefully) from the wear and tear of trout teeth, the bright yellow softened to a lovely olive hue. A pinch of grey/brown dubbing was tied in behind the bead to suggest the thorax, along with some rubber legs, roughly sized to those on the natural nymph, to give added movement. Whilst I had not seen any stoneflies at all during the day – either in nymph form when I explored under the rocks or hatching – I felt this large morsel would look too good for any trout to resist, and even if I was wrong it would provide sufficient ballast to drag the ever faithful hare’s ear nymph on the dropper down into the depths.

My instincts proved correct and the heavy nymph set up worked a treat as I fished back through several pools where I had drawn a blank earlier with the dry-dropper set up. Firstly a couple of bruiser rainbows well over two pounds in weight were caught in a deep pool beneath a cliff face. Whilst they may have been rather ugly, stocked fish they fought very well. Then a series of decent wild brownies were taken in successive pools. I vividly remember the last fish of the day taking in a fast run alongside some tree roots. The nymphs we pitched to the top of the run and tracked back on a tight line under the rod tip. I could feel the flies bumping over the rocks so I knew they were in the ‘taking zone’ and sure enough, just as the nymphs passed by the tree roots, the line shot forward as a fish intercepted one of my imitations before giving me a lovely fight in the strong flow. All the fish took the stonefly imitation that afternoon and, incidentally, it has since proved a very reliable pattern back on my local streams in the Pyrenees with a particular knack of sorting out the better fish.

So if you are ever travelling to the Cote D’Azur, do not despair and pack a rod. Head inland to the limestone gorges of the Alpes-Maritimes. If you are prepared to do a bit of scrambling and bushwhacking, there are some little streams where you can while away a few hours, catch some beautiful wild fish and forget the hordes of holidaymakers just a few miles away. Remember … there is always a river … somewhere. Keep the faith.

“… a couple of bruiser rainbows well over two pounds in weight were caught in a deep pool beneath a cliff face …”
One of the ‘bruiser’ rainbows
A quality wild brownie that couldn’t resist the stonefly nymph in the afternoon …
… and another one
Lovely water for the intrepid angler

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