Nothing daunted, I began to study the road signs as we made our way past Longchamp and St. Cloud and onto the Autoroute de l'Ouest. I saw a familiar one at last; it showed a smiling, happy tiger and was captioned: "Mettez un tigre dans votre moteur." I stowed the phrase away in my mind, and after we had finished a roadside breakfast of croissants and coffee I patted my stomach and remarked with seeming nonchalance: Maintenant j'ai un tigre dans ma moteur." It was my first joke in French: a poor, ungrammatical thing but mine own. Duchange smiled politely and began telling me, in rapid French, about the fishing on the Risle. It is, he gave me to understand, the fishing place the most beautiful of the world. His friend, Charles Ritz, is the fisherman the most beautiful of the world. One would have a lovely day on the stream, is it not? One was not to regard badly the dark clouds descending the road; after he rains the fishing is well because the river it becomes then the tomb of all the flies. Comprehended I?
"Oui," I said.
Charles Ritz waited for us by the river, and we went straight to the Aclou Reach: 200 yards of classic chalk stream full of many mysteries and few solutions. On this stretch the Risle moves at an even pace through waving fields of submerged weeds and watercress. At its extremes it is only four feet deep and some 35 yards wide. The trout lie in pockets and fingers of water between weed beds, gobbling up a proliferation of sedges, gnats, mayflies, stone flies, duns—all the fly life of a typical chalk stream. The trout get so much food that they become lazy, disdaining any offering that is not within easy reach; hence there is a premium on casting accuracy. Once the trout is hooked it must be horsed across the weeds to the limit of the leader's strength, else it will stick its head into the greenery and wait for the fisherman to break off.
I tried my best to follow the gamekeeper and the elderly Ritz, who keeps his legs in shape by daily isometrics, as they headed upstream through a tapestry of Norman green: olive and chartreuse and lime-colored vegetation in the water and verdant pastures all about and here and there a copse of elm and linden and chestnut trees, all dotted for relief with buttercups or boutons d'or, yellow irises in full bloom marching down to stream-side, purple clover, brown-and-white dairy cattle and chubby, rust-colored chickens. We passed decaying wooden footbridges, ruins of tiny factories that date to the nonelectric times when the river's waterpower ran the mills, eel traps sticking out into the water like crumbling piers. It was a Monet painting in the wild state. Swallows darted overhead, feeding on the same flies as the trout, and from deeper in the woods a familiar sound kept repeating itself at short intervals: cuckoo! cuckoo! cuckoo! It suddenly dawned on me that these might be alive. To the gamekeeper I said, "Are those real cuckoos?"
"Either they are real cuckoos," said this local wit, "or it is 137 o'clock."
Taking in all this audible and visual grandeur, I made a snap decision: not to fish. Years ago I had played bridge with Charles Goren, and my ego had suffered bruises and lacerations. I would not repeat the error now by fishing with this other expert Charles. "Come now," Ritz said, "you need not be ashamed. Let me show you."
He lifted the line over his head, false-casting slowly, until far across the stream a ring of water exposed a trout's position. Within seconds Ritz dropped a perfect cast on top of the fish, which, however, was not having any. "See how easy it is?" he said. But I had observed several points. Ritz had used about half the normal number of false casts to get out enough line to cross the stream. His cast was so flat and so fast that he shot all the extra line held in his left hand plus another six or eight loops that he had held in his mouth. He had cast twice as far as my own personal record with more accuracy than I could have achieved with a .22. "Would you like to try now?" he asked.
"Non," I said.
Instantly he put the rod in my hand, clamped his oversized hands on top of mine and began teaching me the "high-speed, high-line" casting technique perfected by himself and several of his close friends. The system is built on a strong upward snap as the rod moves from about 10 o'clock to about 12. When the rod reaches the trigger point the wrist straightens out, the forearm jerks upward and the elbow rises about three inches, all of the motions seemingly with one aim: to punch a hole in the sky with the fly. As Ritz explained the technique, the elbow lift and the sharp wrist snap and forearm movement are the heart of the cast, with everything else flowing from that. But as an old caster of bass bugs, worms and hellgrammites, accustomed to using all the muscles from the abductor hallucis of the big toe to the occipitofrontalis of the forehead, I was a hopeless student. "Come on now," Ritz implored. "De-tense yourself! De-contract your muscles! You're trying to squash the rod, that poor little fellow. Listen, for heaven's sakes, this isn't difficult. You've got to succeed if you want to make me happy. Do you like me?"
I said that I liked him.