I was shown all
his treasures. Bamboo trout rods as wispy as magicians' wands; salmon rods the
size of vaulting poles. One-of-a-kind reels that never went into production or
had been specially made for presentation to a champion caster or a legendary
fisherman. Flies, tied by famous tiers, containing feathers from exotic birds
now protected from the threat of extinction. Books long out of print with
hand-colored plates. The talk, not always about fishing, was unflagging. We
finally parted early the following morning.
By then I knew
such out-of-the-way things as how to masturbate a prize bull for the purpose of
artificial insemination and that the human race owes it to the lifework of a
certain Miss Rothschild, of the banking family, that fleas, so important to
medical research because they carry some of the most dread diseases, have at
last been classified. Fleas are classified by the shape of their penises. I
also knew by then all the latest about the Atlantic salmon in its long, losing
battle for survival.
Affre—knew these things because he is a veterinarian. In France, as elsewhere,
veterinary medicine can be a very lucrative profession. Pierre could, if he
chose, earn a great deal of money at it, for he is brilliant, tireless, able
and willing to take jobs that other vets turn down, such as vaccinating large
herds of cattle—hard and often dangerous work—or night duty in animal
hospitals. He does not enjoy operating on house pets, for it is monotonous and
unchallenging; he would prefer to do research. But that does not pay. If he is
to have the money that his expensive sport requires, he must treat sick cats
and dogs. Even so, Pierre always has, as he, making one of his rare grammatical
mistakes, puts it, "few money." The reason for this is that no sooner
does he get a little in his pocket than he throws up his job and is off to
Scotland or Canada or Iceland in quest of the trophy salmon that swims
continuously in his thoughts. Pierre is free to travel. He has no intention of
getting married, for that would tie him down. Nor does he wish to bring
children into a world where, by the time any son of his was grown, there would
be no salmon left to catch. That, as regards his favorite fish, is Pierre in
his black mood; he can be, the very next moment, just as intemperately
In the same
year—his 20th—that he won his first national fly-casting championship, Pierre
caught his first salmon. Until then his fishing had been for small game. That
year, in a truck borrowed from his father's plumbing business, he went to the
Pyrenees. There, in the Gave d'Oloron, he caught one of the few salmon
remaining in a river that had once abounded in them. It was an 18-pounder.
Pierre paid for the trip by selling the fish. Unlike America, most European
countries, including France, permit the sale of game fish, and salmon is
everywhere very high-priced. It becomes more so with each passing year. In that
economic fact lies Pierre's hope and his despair, the latter gaining upon the
former with each passing year.
photograph on the wall of his apartment, of him bringing that fish ashore, is
that of a man who has found his fate. It might be his wedding picture. Sad if
so, because of the salmon's uncertain future.
When they are
young and fancy-free, fishermen play the field, angling for anything, pleased
with whatever they get. Their hearts are not yet in it. But waiting for each
and every one of them is his fish, and each species—the ones really worth
fishing for, that is—demands his undivided devotion, like a jealous woman. Of
all fish, the one Pierre Affre fell for at first sight, hook, line and sinker,
is the most beleaguered, the most exacting, the most finicky.
Pierre did not
fit my notion of a salmon fisherman. He was too young, too poor, too lively
minded, too French. Salmon fishing requires rather a phlegmatic disposition,
the opposite of Pierre's excitability and restlessness. Patience is not,
despite the common belief, required of all fishing; of salmon fishing it
is—patience, perseverance, indeed doggedness, and a low expectation of
fisherman ought to be British, and he ought to be upper class. Success as a
salmon fisherman depends little upon skill, as does trout fishing; it depends
instead upon luck, which is to say, upon the size of the fisherman's bankbook.
The rod with the best, which is to say, the costliest, beat of the river, and
the one who can rent it at the height, which is to say, the costliest time of
the season, is the one who will catch the most and the biggest fish. Far
better, of course, not to have to bother with renting a beat, picking a time.
That is why many of those thinking of going in for salmon fishing seriously
have arranged to be born Scottish lairds with 20 or 30 miles of prime water
flowing through their estates. Having lacked the foresight to provide for that,
you must work very hard, or at least very profitably, and invest wisely, and
save, and you will still do well to wait until after retirement, when you have
time on your hands. Much time is needed, for, as any gillie will tell you,
"One catches a salmon very seldom, sir." He will also tell you the
story of the gentleman who, at the end of his week's fishing, points to his
single salmon and says to his man, "George, that fish cost me �2,000."
To which George replies, "Jolly good thing you caught only the one,
Salmon fishing is
a sport for gentlemen. A gentleman fishes determinedly and then, at a fitting
hour of the day, he as determinedly quits fishing and turns to other pleasures
appropriate to his station. Tea, a drink in congenial company, a leisurely
dinner, then coffee, brandy and cigars, a game of bridge, a nightcap. He makes
no unseemly haste to be on the water in the morning merely because he is
spending a few hundred pounds a day to be there. A gentleman is not—need it be
said?—a fishmonger. His catch goes as gifts to friends. When a gentleman
catches nothing—which is very often the case—he conceals whatever
disappointment he may feel, and no gillie would ever dare presume to cross the
social gulf that separates them and sympathize with him. He is not new to this,
he would have you know; he has generations of not catching salmon behind him.
Fishing for him is a pastime—or is it even that? Is it not rather a class
obligation—like shooting grouse? Certainly it is not a passion. Gentlemen do
not display passions.
Pierre Affre is
the son of a plumber, the grandson of small farmers. He must earn his living,
and his consuming passion for salmon fishing leaves him little time to do it.
The Seine, the river he, along with millions of others, lives near, was once a
salmon river, believe it or not, but is now little more than a common sewer,
poor even in three-inch gardons. Always with "few money," and in
competition, for a steadily dwindling salmon population, with those with lots
of it, what hope has Pierre got?