The paintings say it all. We’ve got Landseer, they’ve got Manet. We’ve got breathy stags, they’ve got breasty bathers. Take a look at Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and eventually, after you get past the porcelain boobs, you’ll see a meandering, tree-lined stream in the background. Put a rising trout or grayling in it and who wouldn’t swap that scene of easy Arcady for the peat bogs and temperance of the British alternative? In France it’s hot enough for the girls to take their kit off and dry enough to eat outside. And to eat, well, there’s wine, olives, pâté and fromage – all sorts. Over here we’ve got 15 layers of clothing, rain that goes sideways and midges. To eat? Haggis, pasties and battered Mars bars.

The first trout I ever saw was hooked in a stream in Normandy. I was 10 and we had eaten a picnic in a field by a river, where we were sat without the permission of the farmer who came to see us, not to tell us to get off his land but to give us a couple of bottles of his cider. We trotted worms through his river and that is how I met my first trout. I formed the idea that it should always be like that. But, in the years since, I have taken rods to Brittanny, Normandy and Correze and caught very little. You see, the fishing in France – if you discount the topless baigneuse, le vin and le soleil – is, er, ’ow do you say… rubbish. It’s public, a lot of people like fishing and they all keep what they catch. So there are hardly any fish. Even so, I still go there just hoping to find the stream that puts the rising trout into the background of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. And if ever I do I will have found fishy paradise.

Mid-August and the French landscape slides past thousands of feet below, a seared patchwork of drought-yellow fields, the rivers arteries of white rock and sand. Vicky and I have stolen a week away, leaving the kids at home with Granny, to fly down to Provence and do nothing much at all. I have a fly rod in the luggage but, looking out the window at a landscape on the edge of combustion, I feel that its presence might be even more futile than usual.

It was hot enough to fry the devil. A furnace of a heatwave seemed to press the air hard into the ground. We walked to a restaurant in the nearby hilltop town of Roussillon and the route took us a over a bone-dry river-bed. Later a dry electrical storm flashed purple and yellow along the mountains to the north, suggesting a relief that never came. So we spent our days falling from the breakfast table into the pool or meandering round steep, labyrinthine streets, and it was a while before I even thought to migrate towards L’Isle sur La Sorgue on the trail of my trout stream – a spring-fed river I’d read about but suspected might not even be there right now.

A FRENCH RIVER WITH FISH IN


The path was a thin, dusty furrow through dry grass. The river ran below. Tall oaks and beeches towered over the water from either bank like the buttresses of a cathedral. The sun trickled in as if through a stained-glass window, lighting up billowing clouds of green weed, the gravel shining in amber patches between. With everything around so seared and burnt out La Sorgue was an oasis. Later we discovered the springs, a cavernous well in the escarpment of the Massif Centrale so powerful and endless that even Jacques Cousteau failed to explore its depths. But for now it was just an inexplicable miracle. I leaned against one of the trees and peered into vodka-clear water. Tucked under the shade of the bank two large grayling were moving like flickering candles.

We had a picnic but I wasn’t waiting. I waded in. The water was sharply cold. Moving slowly upstream I realised that I’d found it: in every pool, trough or gap in the weed I could see grayling shimmering in the current. And from a deep hole under roots along the far bank I spooked an enormous, striped brown trout. This was what I’d been searching for all these years – a French river with fish in it.

ALWAYS WITH ANIMATION


I tried a few casts. But before long I heard shouts coming from upstream and getting closer. An orange canoe appeared. Two teenage boys paddling hard. More followed until the river was a tide of luminous plastic spiralling downstream. Kids screaming, splashing. “Avez-vous attraper un poisson, monsieur?” They peeled either side of me while their guide feebly entreated them to be careful of le pêcheur. He smiled as he passed. I didn’t smile back. The water was now a choppy mess. I waited for it to settle, resigned to the idea that my idyll had been smashed within minutes of finding it, but when the river calmed the grayling were still there.

I chose a small gold-head nymph and cast at a good fish. This was going to be easy. I was ready for a quick strike but the fish stiffened as the fly passed it. I tried again. At the third attempt the grayling slid under the weeds. Ten minutes later more canoes appeared. And so I waded from one pod of fish to the next for an hour or so, while the gabbling, high-octane flotillas came at intervals of 10 minutes, like an invasion. Finally, as a kind of ironic tweak to the whole Arcadian fantasy, a girl in a bikini waded in from downstream and started walking around in front of me right through the pods of fish, trailing her hands in the water and looking all wistful. I watched her and thought “so near and yet so far”.

M Arnaud, the owner of the tackle shop in L’Isle, suggested that Cyril, a fishing guide, might just unlock these inscrutable grayling. Cyril agreed to meet me by the picnic ground at 10am in two days’ time. Standing by his Peugeot estate in tight little khaki shorts and plimsolls, he didn’t cut the swarthy figure wreathed in Gauloise smoke I had been expecting. His English was poor, my French little better. So in the international sign language of fishing I told him I had tried for the fish here already; that I had seen them all over the place, but that they were impossible. “Non,” he said, correcting me, “très difficile, mais pas impossible.”

He took a look at the tapered leader I had on. “Non, non, non. Vous avez fluoro?” I shook my head. “C’est très, très importante. L’ombre est impossible si vous n’avez pas fluoro. Bien sur….” He took one look at my flies and reached for his own. “Pas bon?” I asked. “Non. Trop, trop grande. Absurde,” and smiled like I was going to appreciate his sense of Gallic superiority.

He shook a minuscule nymph into his hand and tied it on. A large grayling hovered mid-current in a hole in the weeds. “Regardez!” The rod was raised and hammered down, the fly following fast behind, entering the water like a tracer bullet. Quickly Cyril flicked more line loose on to the surface before raising the rod and tickling the nymph up and down in the water as it passed the grayling. “Animation!” The grayling lifted for a moment and turned back – the first sign of any interest in a fly. “Comme ça,” he said, grabbing my arm and entreating me to move from one grayling to the next, right up beside them, and send the fly down on a direct line. “Toujours avec animation.” And so we move on, always with animation.

I’m trying to hammer the nymph in, but it merely arcs up behind and drops in front like a tethered ball. Once in a while I get a cast to fall at the right speed, but never on target. Cyril is impatient. Suddenly a cast lands where it should. The fly drops towards the fish. I try to track it, but lose sight of it and move the rod too slowly. “Non.” Cyril grabs my arm and speeds it up, pushing it high. He lets go as the fly tickles past the grayling. But the fish ignores it. “Animation!” I try again. I lift the fly too early, too late. I slow it down. I drag it sideways. We move from one fish to the next – they are in every dip in the river-bed. One nods at the fly. Cyril shouts “Oui”; I miss it. Merde. I don’t tell him I was looking in the wrong place.

This is the torment of Tantalus – everything otherwise so utterly perfect. But then Cyril tells me that the French fly-fishing team (consistent world champions) practises here because these are the trickiest fish in France, and I understand why they are here in abundance; they can’t be caught.

WONDERLAND CAT IN WADERS


By the end of the day I’m desperate. Cyril has eroded my confidence with Gallic scoffs and shrugs. We are under an ivy-clad wall by a deep, sandy pool where a pod of grayling shifts in the current. My eyes and arm are exhausted. But I focus everything on getting it right. The nymph thumps into the water and drops fast. Up goes my arm, reaching out as far as I can. I’m watching the grayling, the line, the fly. Three places with only two eyes. But I can see the fly and as it drops into the contact zone I tickle the rod up. A grayling darts quickly and, guessing, I strike for the hundredth time that day. Suddenly, as if it was only ever inevitable, the grayling is gyrating in the water, silt kicks up in the struggle and the fish is thumping on the end of the line. I hold that fish for a picture: a Wonderland cat in waders, grinning like an idiot with the most impossible fish on the planet. However, the raven-haired girl in the bikini is nowhere to be seen.

IN SEARCH OF THE HOLY GRAYLING

Fishing permits can be purchased at Le Sourgett tackle shop.

Le Sourgett,

18 Route de Carpentras,

84800 L’Isle sur la Sorgue,

tel 0033 04 9038 23 02,

email Eric or Gilbert Arnaud (in French) or visit the website.

Accommodation

La Masion sur la Sorgue: a 17th century Hôtel Particulier in the historic centre of L’Isle sur la Sorgue a few steps from the basilica and the River Sorgue.

Maison sur la Sorgue,

6, rue Rose Goudard,

84 800 L’Isle sur la Sorgue,

tel 0033 490 207 486,

email or

visit the website.

Domaine de la Fontaine – an old farmhouse situated on the outskirts of L’Isle sur la Sorgue.

Domaine de la Fontaine,

920 Chemin du Bosquet,

84800 L’Isle sur la Sorgue,

tel 0033 490 380 144,

email or

visit the website.