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Fishing on the Frontier Part 57 - Idyll in French Chalk

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A lovely grayling from l'Aa A lovely grayling from l'Aa

Jeremy Lucas is back ‘Fishing on the Frontier’ after spending much of the summer fishing in the Artois region of northern France.





Fly fishing frontiers still exist. Lots of them; in terms of technique and location. They might even still be out there in England, perhaps among the currently fashionable urban streams that are protected from the agricultural damage that is destroying our wild rivers, even in the less populated northern counties.  And yet one does not have to travel far into Europe to find fly fishing that is either technically demanding or outstanding in pristine habitat, or usually both. I have spent most of this past summer in the Artois region of northern France, and here is a fly fishing frontier in any and every sense of the word.  Certainly it is technically challenging, while the beautiful streams that lace this massive chalk deposit, part of the Anglo/Paris basin, are an idyll that have largely survived the ravages of modern, industrialised farming.

It is a popular, English, rural myth that most of the world’s chalk streams are in southern Britain, extending as far north as Yorkshire. While we have a lot, however, there are more in France, extending from Normandy northward through Picardy to Pas de Calais, and east to the Ardenne-Champagne; a colossal area with untold chalk stream wonders of which I have gained but a fly fishing glimpse, mostly in the Artois. I am blessed to have experienced them. As an Englishman, I find myself in envy, as well as wonder, of these French chalk streams. Even though we do have many in England, we should not have any conceit in the possession of this geographical freak of nature. Rather shame. I well recall our chalk, of fifty years ago, before unsustainable abstraction and agriculture (and management as commercial trout fisheries) began the process of ruination. I wish they had survived. My memory of them is cherished. It is a part of the myth, exaggerated by government spin, that English rivers are doing very well, but one has only to cross the Channel to see the French chalk streams to know that ‘spin’ is all it is.

Crowfoot on the upper Canche

I spent most of last summer fishing in northern France, sometimes by myself, and at other times with both French and British companions, and it has been an overwhelming experience, oddly so late in a fly-fishing life.  I have explored right to the limit of my own technique and, frankly, ability; made necessary so often by the extreme challenge of the wild fish in their truly natural environment. I believe that the French chalk has actually changed the way I fish, at least in terms of approach, centred on the over-riding idea of presentation, and to have this so absolutely right in the ever-changing circumstances of the stream. It has also left me disturbed at just how wrong or ineffective are conservation measures on English rivers, and it has also shown me just why it is that the French are generally considerably more subtle river fly-fishers than the English.

Controlling sluice on la Ternoise at Auchy Les Hesdin

All the many Artois chalk streams are fairly, or very, overgrown through the summer months, some of them almost impenetrably so for long lengths of river.  They are left not for famers or fishermen, but for the natural habitats for which they are so immensely valuable. You might think that a short, western-style fly rod would give the best casting opportunity, but I have found that even 9’ is usually too short.  10’ or even 11’ is better in allowing the angler to keep control of the line, and keep it clear of bankside foliage.  Tenkara, at 12’+, with a fixed leader and tippet, set a little over rod length, is usually best of all. As for fly line, then a three weight should be seen as a maximum, ideally with a long, tapered leader, though again, the comparatively disturbance-free presentation of a leader, as in Tenkara, is usually superior. Wading is usually permitted after the last Sunday in May (a measure taken to protect the substrate and grayling spawning), though it is almost always better to stay out of the water if at all possible.  Spooking fish is very easy around here, where the joke is that they hear you close your front door!

There is comparatively little stocking on most of these rivers, and mercifully few rainbows, which have devastated so many of our English equivalents – all for the sake of some easy fish to catch; our fault that, as fly-fishers.  Generally on French chalk streams one is fishing for wild fish, mostly brown trout (la truite fario sauvage), and the highly revered and protected grayling (l’ombre), and in most cases one finds lower fish populations than on English rivers.  This, and the pristine environment, along with the more demanding fishing, make it instantly and persistently more interesting; ultimately rewarding beyond one’s ability to express.

A fish from la TernoiseOf course, being Europe, there are problems that tarnish the idyll. Catch and release is comparatively new in France, while bait fishing also persists.  There is, however, an ever-increasing movement towards no kill and fly only sectors. In any case, I have learnt to come to terms with seeing bait fishermen about, because almost everywhere, one observes the fly to be the more effective approach, and where the rainbow trout (truite arc-en-ciel) are stocked - as magnets to the bait fishermen - it strikes one that the rivers become deserted once the ‘diminishing returns’ syndrome sets in, after the capture and removal of most the fresh stockies. You will usually find really good fishing at this time…for wild brown trout.

The season is long, from the beginning of March until early October, though unfortunately we cannot fish for grayling through the winter months on the ‘Category One’ rivers (those containing salmonids), and generally the ‘Category Two’ waters (some of which have grayling) are not good for fly. Since the formation of the nationwide federation, known as AAPPMA, access to fishing throughout France is vastly easier than used to be the case. One can purchase what is effectively the national rod licence, la carte personne majeure, online.  This allows fishing on the waters of reciprocating associations at no extra cost, and on others within the federation umbrella at very low cost for a day permit (journalière).  Weekly (hebdomadaire) and holiday (les vacances) permits are also generally available.  Maps and fishery regulations are also published on the AAPPMA website.

Wild water on la LysAnd now, the long, idyllic summer is over, and I am haunted by images of rising trout on la Lys, and grayling on l’Aa; the almost impossible nymph feeders on la Ternoise at Monchy Cayeux and the glorious sunlit gravels of la Planquette at Cavron St. Martin; all blending into the perfect storm of French memory space… I am fishing Tenkara on Eden, which is spectacular right now with pale watery hatches, and rising fish on almost every feed lane, and this is sure to persist into the darker, shorter days of the year. I have just returned from a Slovakian adventure with fishing friends in the Tatra mountains, and on the ‘river of dreams’, the San in south-eastern Poland, with the day-long patina rising of trout and grayling. I cherish it all and yet every sinew of my fly-fishing being strains and yearns for the Artois chalk streams.


A magnificent fish from la Ternoise at Anvin

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