By Marcus Janssen for The Field
Friday, 18 March 2011
Casting for trout in the Pyrenees is a hidden gem in Europes fishing crown
Running in a fairly straight line from the Bay of Biscay in
the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, the Pyrenees Mountain Range is
sandwiched between Spain in the south and France in the north, with Andorra
making up the garnish in the ‘pancito' or ‘baguette' -depending on which side
of the border you're standing on. I spent five days in July last year fishing
both the rivers and lakes of the central and western region of the Spanish
Pyrenees, a mere stone's throw from the French border, and a mere amble from
Andorra, and if the truth be told, I really didn't know what to expect.
Now it must be said that when it comes to beautiful scenery,
I am bit of a polygamist, and a pretty shallow one at that. I just can't help
myself, I seem to fall in love at the drop of a hat, and I'm afraid that for
me, looks are everything, especially when
it comes to rivers. Lead me to a river that is discreetly tucked away amongst
majestic, snow-capped mountains, its banks and foothills sprinkled with wild
flowers like hundreds-and-thousands on a fairycake, its waters running as clear
as mountain air over a freestone bed, and the first exciting throes of a new
love-affair will instantly render me useless for anything that isn't fishing
related. Go one step further and reveal to me the spectacle that is a hatch of
mayflies, and a suitably rising trout, and I am as good as infatuated.
And so by the time the sun dipped behind the western peaks
at the end of my first day in Spain, I was already beguiled by the stream in
which I stood and the 360-degree panorama of Pyrenean splendour that surrounded
me. The following four days of guided fly fishing in search of wild and
indigenous brownies only served to crystallise my feelings towards this
relatively unknown trout fishing destination.
Salvelinus Fishing Adventures is a well established fly fishing outfitter based in the village of
Santa Cilia, a small picturesque farming village, set on the banks of the
Aragon River. With a total population of less than two hundred residents, most
of whom enjoy daily afternoon siestas, to say that the village has a somewhat ‘sleepy'
feel to it would be an understatement. The lodge itself, once home to 15th
century monks, has now been converted into a very comfortable and well
thought-out fishing lodge, its attractive stone walls and floors and wooden
shuttered windows giving it a typically Spanish feel.
When it comes to lunch on the river, I'm typically one for
wolfing down a sandwich between false casts and gulping down a quick drink of
water whilst applying floatant to my dry. My attitude was changed somewhat
however, when I was called to lunch on the first day. Set in a small ravine
where a cool breeze ruffled the checked tablecloth and legs creaked under the
weight of the spread on top of it, the lunch that awaited us was like a
photograph taken from a country cookery book. I'm not sure whether it was the
Mediterranean pasta salad or the accompanying fine bottle of local Rioja that
did the trick, but my fishing definitely improved after lunch, leaving me
thoroughly converted to this continental style of fishing where eating is an
event in itself, leaving you enveloped in a warm epicurean fuzz of Huescan
flavours and spices.
Talking of spices, variety, the proverbial spice of life is available in great abundance too, and
when it comes to the fishing, this is perhaps the biggest Pyrenean draw card.
There are over 1,000km of fishable river and over 300 enticing mountain lakes
within a 50km radius of Santa Cilia, and all are inhabited by native brown
trout. In addition to the brownies, the upper reaches of several local mountain
streams are also home to Salvelinus Fishing Adventure's namesake, the North
American brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalus) whilst other rivers and lower reaches hold both wild
and stocked populations of rainbows.
The remote mountainous upper-reaches of these stunningly
picturesque and gin-clear streams offer wonderful opportunities to catch feisty
little brownies and brookies in quite astounding numbers, almost exclusively on
dry fly. One particular mountain stream I fished was narrow enough in places to
be forded in no more than three steps. And yet, in pools no bigger than a large
bath, were incredible numbers of fin-perfect and achingly beautiful brook trout
of up to 14 inches. A sociable little fish is the brook trout; they seem to
enjoy each other's company and tend to hang out in groups of five to ten fish.
Hence when a dry-fly is presented to a hungry pod of these voracious fish, you
might as well strike immediately as every fish in the pool perilously competes
for your Royal Wulff. Perhaps it's a security in numbers thing, but on several
occasions, I managed to land no less than half a dozen trout in so many casts,
and all from a pool the size of a Ford Fiesta! In the same way that a mother
worries that her child might be bullied at school, I tend to worry that fish
this easy to catch might be taken advantage of by indiscriminate anglers who
think that all fishing ought to be like shopping from the fish counter.
Presented with the choice between river and still water, it
would have to take a pretty special pond or lake to get my vote over water that
gurgles and purls. The Pyrenees however, is one place I've been to where this
dynamic is turned on its head, and spectacular high-mountain lakes take
precedent, in my books, over their flowing counterparts. These are truly
magnificent flooded glacial valleys set against a backdrop of rugged alpine
wilderness and filled with sparkling waters as clear as crystal. Griffon and
Bearded Vultures soar both above you in azure skies and below you in deep
glaciated valleys as you trek your way along cliff edges and through narrow,
wooded ravines that are a natural larder of earthy forest mushrooms, chives,
garlic, mint and wild strawberries. Deeper into the towering mountains, and
above the 7,700ft tree-line, you emerge from the Mountain Pine forests, the
valley opening up before you to reveal a lake of vivid turquoise fringed with
haphazard wild flowers of almost every colour imaginable.
Before you've had a chance to string up your rod, good-sized
browns are spotted from higher ground as they languidly cruise along lake
margins and drop-offs making for perfect sight-fishing fodder. Carefully
presented and well placed terrestrials like hoppers and beetles tend to be met
with aggressive and assertive takes displaying no evidence of any scepticism or
alarm, which unsurprisingly suggests that these lakes experience low fishing
Indeed by lunchtime I had brought several good fish (1.5 - 3
lbs) to the net, all of them giving a very respectable account of themselves.
Although there didn't appear to be vast numbers of fish in these high mountain
lakes, the breathtaking scenery, low fishing pressure and sight fishing
opportunities far outweighed the sometimes-lengthy periods of inactivity
between fish. Normally accessed by helicopter, our six hour hike into and out
of the lake valley was an experience that I would happily repeat - with or
without a fly rod, and despite the respective shortfall in my Spanish - and my
Patagonian guide Marcello's Pidgin English - he was nonetheless great company
on the long hike and a skilful and adept guide when we finally got to the lake.
Later that evening, having hiked back out of the valley,
Marcello and I somehow managed to stumble across a grubby little pub with a
bedraggled garden a few hundred yards from our agreed pick up point. Despite
the obvious language barrier, I'm pretty sure that Marcello could tell that I'd
had a good day as I sat on the grass with my head resting against my pack, the
last of the evening sun on my face, an ice cold San Miguel in my hand and a
maniacal grin plastered from ear to ear. "Ah... Halcyon days" I uttered as I
took a sip from my frosted glass. "Si," responded Marcello with a smirk on his
face, "a hell-of-a-days."
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