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It was clearly time that I headed south for the Tarn, to the Ch�teau de la Caze, a 15th-century turreted castle, now a hotel set with absurd romanticism on a cliff above the river. The lobby was cool and stone-flagged. Stone steps, worn hollow, led up to my turret room and even inside it I could hear the roar of the Tarn. How much better, how much more life-enhancing this was than that seedy rugby pub in Valence and its coarsened customers, I thought, taking a generous chestful of mountain air. I grabbed my boots and tackle, slipped on my new fishing vest and with the flies of Hardy's and St. Hubert went to make closer acquaintance with the Tarn.
An all-too-close acquaintance. But so magical was the look of the Tarn, so clearly demanding to be fly-fished that I was dry and back on the river within the hour with a spare rod.
This time I stayed dry, but that was the limit of my achievement. I fished down run after run of entirely response-less water. I knew that I was covering the right places. I went through the gamut of flies that I had brought from London and Paris and later in the evening I tried the locally tied ones also. Not a rise, not a pluck. There was no insect life showing either, but I'd fished plenty of streams where this was the case. There, if anything, the trout were easier to catch. The only other fishermen I saw were a couple of tourists tossing spoons across the water. They weren't having any success either, which would not have been surprising in any circumstances.
I went back to the Ch�teau, defeated but willing to be consoled by the sp�cialit� de la maison, la truffe enti�re, a complete truffle to myself, cooked in pastry. At least I'd recovered from that temporary setback of appetite at Valence. When I'd finished, the waiter leaned over. "The pastry cook would like to have a word with you," he said. He couldn't have any complaints, I thought. I'd made short work of the strawberry g�teau, hadn't I?
The p�tissier, though, had no complaint. He merely wished to show me his catch, which he had kept alive in a tank. It was a splendid five-pounder, a native trout, since the Tarn is not stocked. It had fallen, he told me, to a paste concocted there in that very kitchen. He took me out to show me his tackle. The p�tissier had his own special pitch, much trodden down, at the foot of the cliff on which the ch�teau was built. There, as a permanency, leaned his rod, 20 feet of bamboo. There was no reel, just a few yards of stout cord tied to a ring at the top like an illustration in a 17th century edition of The Compleat Angler. Mr. Lee would have fainted, but as for me, anybody who can catch a wild river trout of that size gets my immediate and close attention. "This paste," I asked as carelessly as I could, "was it simply a flour-and-water dough? Was anything added?"
The p�tissier smiled apologetically. As an angler, one had one's secrets. As an angler himself, Monsieur would understand. Monsieur understood, all right. It was already becoming plain that the entire staff of the ch�teau was fishing crazy: all through the days that followed I was to see them, singly or in pairs, sneaking down to the water in the off-duty hours, still in their blue-checked trousers and their white coats. The kitchen, probably, was a hissing stewpot of piscatorial competition and intrigue. As an outsider I couldn't expect any privileges.
So next day it was the fly rod again, and in the morning I fished my way down through perfect glides and riffles until the sun was high and the most responsive of streams would not have yielded a trout anyway. Not a twitch. And not a fish showing on the surface though you could see them well enough if you climbed one of the cliffs and looked down into the deeps. The trout hung there un-moving and nothing short of a harpoon gun was going to shift them. It was time to seek further aid.
That evening I drove 50 kilometers to Millau where, if every French trout-fishing story I'd ever read was correct in detail, I would find the members of the Club de la P�che Sportive gathered for the hour of the aperitif. The stories were entirely correct. A brief inquiry at the Syndicat d'Initiative, the town tourist bureau, confirmed that the Caf� Moderne was the place. With-in minutes I was in the presence of M. le Pr�sident of the club and his committee colleagues. They admired my fishing vest, picked through my fly box and exclaimed politely at the creations of Hardy Brothers and St. Hubert. And then the president broke the news. There was, naturally, no sport to compare with fly-fishing. Had not he himself been honored to appear on internationally distributed posters of the French Tourist Board, thighwadered, casting a line across a pleasant reach of the Tarn? Did he not, in fact, live for fly-fishing? But, alas, Monsieur was a month too early. In May the Tarn was still too cold, there was no insect life, the trout would not move up in the water. There were small tributary streams, certainly, where Monsieur could fish fly but the trout were insignificant. It was a shame to have come such a long way. Was Monsieur staying at Millau?
No, I told them. At the Ch�teau de la Caze. At the ch�teau? Mild consternation. Then perhaps Monsieur has encountered Louis Bugarel, the janitor? I admitted this. But what good fortune! I recalled the short, thickset man with the sailor's gait and the chocolate-brown waders. I couldn't see any reason for the excitement.
"But, Monsieur," said the president, continuing in the somewhat literary style he favored in English, "Louis is king of the river. His catches are the greatest. Three, four kilos of trout he brings in after an hour's fishing. He speaks to the fish in their own language!"