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The brown, hairy forearm of M. Louis Bugarel cast an imaginary lure with an imaginary rod at the far bank of the Tarn, where a heavy glide of water slid along a cliff still pearly with the morning rain.
"Cloc!" explained M. Bugarel, "tic...tic...tic...Bop!" He no longer held the phantom rod. Now his arm was a well-hooked two-pounder, leaping just once before lunging toward some dangerous midstream rocks.
"Don't try to horse him!" I shouted, entering into the spirit of things, forgetting momentarily that we were conversing in Angler's International, that curious language of gesture and onomatopoeia. We had no alternative; as bad as my French was, Louis' English was worse, consisting of the single word Glasgow accompanied by signs and eye-rollings indicating improbable quantities of drink and women. The mystery was eventually explained by the multilingual wine waiter at the Ch�teau de la Caze where Louis was janitor and I was a guest. He'd had a few days ashore in the gray Scottish city before sailing in a French destroyer to the Norwegian Campaign of 1940. The five years in a German POW camp that followed must have added a touch of bright pink to his memories of that last shore leave. Glasgow shimmered as romantically for Louis as Peiping or Samarkand.
Other differences of culture held us apart also at the beginning. As every Anglo-Saxon knows, thigh waders for trout fishing are green, a tasteful, drab green. When I first met Louis he was rolling along in this unspeakable shiny pair, the color of milk chocolate, and I knew I could have nothing in common with this evidently nonserious fisherman, though I was glad enough to see him since I was dripping wet, chattering with cold and in deep need of being instantly guided to a large cognac.
That was because I had just emerged from the Tarn, a beautiful, spiteful, glacial trout river in southern France that falls steeply from the mountains of the Massif Central in the department of Loz�re and dashes through wild gorges before it levels off and joins the Garonne. The water is green glass broadening out into wide riffles with deep runs under the bank that you instantly recognize as perfect wet-fly water.
I had come across such a run on the afternoon I arrived at the ch�teau and I couldn't wait to put a team of flies across it. I waded in calf deep at first, covering the near water in case the trout were lying in the rough shallows, but I hurried over that section, certain that most of the fish would be lying beneath the deeply undercut far bank. As I waded further, the pull of the stream got heavier but I could see that for 20 yards ahead there was no great depth.
I was quite wrong. The Tarn is treacherously clear. The water was deeper than it looked and, snow-fed from high altitude, its power increased with every inch of depth. As soon as it was over my knees I knew I had to turn back and that it was also necessary to turn upstream. I had waded bad rivers before, notably the Wye in Wales with its rock gutters, but I had always had a steel-tipped wading staff. I hadn't thought it necessary to bring a staff to the Tarn.
The water took me when I was halfway around and swept me very quickly into the deep run I had been trying to reach. Then I was merrily away downstream in deep, icy water, my boots full and holding me down. For the record, I did not see my past life unroll before me. Outraged disbelief, as if a total stranger had shouldered me to the ground in the street, was my first reaction. But a calmer part of my mind recalled clearly what I had once read in a book on Scottish salmon fishing. If you are swept away by the river, the author said, don't try to swim ashore, just concentrate on keeping upright by dog-paddling. Fast, rocky rivers being what they are, you will keep going in spite of your boots and eventually you will be cast up on a pebble bank or a shallow shore.
He was entirely right about going along with the river, but the haven I found was a willow bough that I grabbed in one of my brief shoreward excursions. For a short time I streamed out from it, gathering strength, then I got a better grip, hauled myself some way along it until I could grab some bank. It was a little longer before I could drag my great dropsical boots up on the grass and lie there panting, having traveled roughly 300 yards, an alltime record, I would bet, for boatless navigation of the Tarn. I was also rodless, the delicate little Hardy Riccardi split cane having disappeared in the early stages.
I emptied my boots, then my canvas fishing bag (I had wondered what was dragging me back as my boots tried to drag me under) and squished back to the Ch�teau, in the gardens of which I first made the acquaintance of M. Bugarel in his unsuitable boots. He was sniggering, too, and holding a spinning rod. Only a man in boots like those, I remember thinking, would have the lack of taste to throw hardware across a perfect fly river like the Tarn. Our relationship might have deteriorated further had he not replaced his grin with a sympathetic "tsk, tsk" and escorted me to the bar for immediate treatment. As the cognac lit its small fires through my body I recalled what a similarly saturated Irishman had said to me as he drained his flask on the banks of the Bandon. "Inside and out," I told the uncomprehending Louis, "I'm as wet as a trout."