Travels with a fly rod in the Pyrenees ...
- by Mark. D. Williams -
Extract from an article published in The Angling Report of September 2001
The Angling Report newsletter -serving the angler
who travels- is an outstanding American monthly fishing publication. It recommends and turns thumbsdown on specific
fishing lodges... critiques good and bad guides... and tells you honestly whether you should or not pay good money
to visit a given area. Each month are coming news and where-to-go information on the American West, Central and
South America, The Caribbean, Alaska and Canada. It also provides an excellent coverage on fishing in the rest
of the world - namely Africa, Russia / CIS, Europe and more.
Flyfishing the Western Pyrenees
Angling for Brown Trout in Spain and France
By Mark D. Williams (copyright Mark D. Williams)
These are among the wildest, most scenic trout streams in Europe, flowing under the sentry of the imposing peaks
of the Pyrenees, set amongst the first race to populate Europe, the hospitable but mysterious Basques in a land
so medieval, sheep-herding is still a viable and common way to make a living.
This is the land of which Hemingway wrote in his classics, The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon, the land
where both Papa and his characters drank hearty red wine, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, watched bullfights in
ancient Roman arenas and caught brown trout in the still unspoiled Irati River. Navarra. Aragon. Bearn. These are
former homes of Kings.
In the French foothills, just out of the Pyrenees, flow the Gave d'Oloron and Gave de Pau and they hold big salmon
and sea-run trout as well as brown trout (although the salmon populations have seriously declined). The wine country
of Bordeaux lie to the north, and pilgrimage destination of Lourdes sits in its foothills. Castles stand as silent
fortresses atop dizzying cliffs, guarding against ancient memories of attacks. The Pyrenees remind me of the lay
of the land in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico with its arid, high desert foothills approaching the
mighty mountain range from the Spanish side, and the craggy alpine peaks and valleys, waterfalls and rushing streams
of the highlands across the French border. The Basques call these primeval mountains, Auniak.
More than most any other area of Europe, flyfishing for trout in this isolated pocket of Old World Europe doesn't
cost an arm and a leg. Much of the best water is public and the stretches that are not can be fished for a small
fee. Licenses to fish public water are inexpensive (although confusing).
Fishing the Pyrenees is less about the size of the fish or the deciphering the prevailing hatch and more about
the substance of flyfishing in a land that hasn't changed since knights rode about on horseback. To be sure, anglers
will find the freestone streams full of chunky browns, some fairly sizeable. And the scenery is as magnificent
as any in western Europe.
But you fish here for the ambience and history and culture and food. Digs are cheap despite the high quality
of lodging and the incredible regional cuisine these hotels serve (often as part of the price of the hotel). Most
nice hotels run from 30 to 70 dollars a night double occupancy so dinner for two is often worth what you're paying
for the room alone. The Pyrenees are only a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Paris or Madrid so any angler on a
trip with the wife or family, or on business would find getting
to these ancient mountains extremely do-able.
My wife Amy and I visited the Pyrenees in June for two weeks of fishing for brown trout (with the perfunctory
adjunct side trips of shopping and general tourism thrown in for good measure). We knew we wanted to get a full
sampling of the range of rivers in this area, ranging from tiny high country streams to the big, slow lowland rivers.
The choices, even for a small section of the northern Pyrenees, are overwhelming, so much so, we chose to hire
the services of www.gourmetfly.com to help us set up our trip. In my searches on the internet for info about this
area, I found this website had the most data on flyfishing Spain and France of any free site out there.
We began by emailing the propietor/flyfishing guide/travel guru named Nick and describing our
basic travel desires. We knew we could spend about $3000 on the whole shebang, from airline tickets to food to
hotels to guides to car rental. We wrote Nick that we wanted to fish small and big and everything in between. We
wanted to see the countryside, stay in clean hotels. Amy wanted to make sure all of our rooms had a private bathroom
and toilet. I just wanted to be close to the river.
Nick was honest with us about some of our plans. He would tell us "this drive is too long from that town to
fish those two rivers in a day. No, you don't want to take the train from Paris. You won't have time to drive into
Pamplona." That sort of thing.
Don't think you can look at the map and see 60 miles from one town to the next and believe you can get there in
an hour. You can't. There are no straight roads in the Pyrenees. And when you factor in your lazy lunch at a sidewalk
café and a two-hour four-course meal, you won't have time but to fish one river a day anyhow.
Nick and www.gourmetfly.com provide info about which roads to take, where to turn, how to find the hotel, the
best restaurants in the town. He secures rooms at these hotels without you needing to put down a deposit. Nick
fishing licenses which are waiting for you at your hotel. He provides a detailed itinerary with directions and
instructions of the rivers you will fish, tells you about local and regional history in the area, suggests techniques
and fly patterns and equipment --- he even provides adjunct trips in case the weather is bad or the water is high.
We paid a little over 300 bucks American to get a two-week itinerary, secured hotel rooms, twenty-plus pages of
detailed fishing information, history and culture. He even set up
our itinerary with plenty of alternate plans, hoping to fish as many as 10 rivers, but with runoff and season rains,
knowing that we might only fish 4 or 5. Our trip had us circling from Biarritz to Pau to Ainsa to Sarvise to Garralda
to Navarrenx and back to Biarritz. We could not have done the trip without his preparation.
France, Valle d'Campan / The Adour River and Tributaries
Our first destination was to fish a high altitude stream for wild browns about an hour-and-a-half east from our
hotel located near Pau (a very English city of some 100,000, the largest of the northern French Pyrenean towns).
We got lost going through Lourdes because we stopped in the centre ville to get some breakfast and couldn't
figure out how to get to the other side of town. There are few stop signs and no stop lights in this part of the
world. They use circles where four streets or more intersect and curve around to reach the other section of the
same street. And these guys drive fast ! Keep your eyes peeled.
Being lost in Lourdes and driving still too slowly like an American tourist, we no doubt nearly caused several
wrecks but we finally struggled out of town and made it up the scenic valley to the village of La Seoube and three
hours after we left our hotel, we pulled into the front of the hotel. We were told the drive was about an hour
and a half but 1) I was not used to driving under
Indy 500 conditions with the narrow roads and hectic traffic 2) everything just takes longer in Spain and France.
You end up planning around it.
We met up with our guide Mariano and immediately hit it off with him. He is exactly what we needed for our first
foray into the French high country. Spanish-born but having lived his life in this valley in France, and having
watched enough American television, his three languages allowed him to converse with us and anyone else we met.
He spoke Spanish (with an Andalusian accent which was fun for me, because I have a Tex-Mex Spanish accent when
I speak Spanish). We communicated easily
but he always made a point to help Amy understand what we were saying. He is witty, too. And he spoke enough English
to bridge the gap. We spent til late evening with him fishing the Adour, the Adour-Payolle, and a secret perfect
stream I am not allowed to name or he gets to kill me. The rivers were knee-deep, cobble-bottomed, clearing from
runoff and cold. We could see trout holding but they were picky and the casts needed to be precise. The hatches
were sparse that day although Mariano told us that the mayfly and caddis hatch throughout the warm months. We caught
many browns, nothing of great size, on mostly generic nymphs on droppers below dry flies but we were amazed at
the incredible scenery, reminiscent of many spots we fish in the West. We decided that it was in fact more beautiful
because it is in Europe (this is where we fell in love with countryside Europe by the way). Mariano took us to
a bar/cafe at the top of the mountain (so it seemed) for a very Pyrennees-style lunch of cured canard breast, cured
ham, olives, and a meal of ternera and frites (rare steak and French fries). Despite the pool of sangre, the meat
was delicious and we savored the lunch and the fishing. Mariano was the perfect fishing and travel guide, helping
us understand the cultural differences and helping us decipher the clear streams and wild browns.
The cost for two people to fish 8-12 hours with Mariano on these public and beautiful streams is about $150 American
(but you must pay now in Euros and the currency exchange varies but it was roughly 153 euros). A two-week fishing
license costs about 23 euros (roughly $25 per person).
Mariano doesn't provide lunch or flies but does have rods and waders you can use. He also guides for trout in
northern Spain. Guides in France and Spain tend to fish with you which to some, might be distracting. Just let
them know ahead of time. We wanted Mariano to fish with us so we could watch his techniques, watch where he put
the fly. And you won't start fishing at
daybreak rather in the late morning --- but you may not finish until just before dark.
Aragon, Spain / Rios Cinca y Ara
We had car trouble that next day and Budget Rental Europe earned no points in my mind, with their quarrelsome,
inffective manner. We limped across the border, going back up the Valle d'Campan, and after being stranded in the
mountains a couple of hours, we stayed in Bielsa that next night (nicer than most American hotels and it has a
great view over the river and cost only $30 for the night). We took off the next morning, apprehensive about traveling
with a troubled car through some wild country.
We stopped in for a couple of hours, an 11th century fairy-tale fortress standing guard on the promontory village
overlooking the junction of the Rio Cinca and Rio Ara. This is a must-stop side trip to get the real feel of Old
World Europe. The Rio Cinca was brown-tinged from runoff and rain. The lower part of the town holds little interest
so by pass it. We stopped on the way to get our licenses for Aragon and Spain as well as secure a permit to fish
private club water.
The drive along the Rio Ara is as scenic as any we have in the United States. High mountains, frontier ghost-towns,
thousand-year old churches. The river was high and blue, too high from recent rains and runoff to fish comfortably.
We stopped a couple of times to take pictures but left the car running (not taking any chances).
We reached our hotel by early afternoon, enough time to get settled in and take the rods to the river. But the
river was so high and the sky so blue and the day so hot, the trout were uncooperative. We caught two small trout
the entire day. The river has few riffles, mostly chutes and runs and pocket water with some huge pools. We saw
some big browns holding in the middle of the river, trout that might have gone close to 2-4 pounds, but too far
away to comfortably reach with our casts since the river was up and fast. But we enjoyed the beauty of it all and
walked all the way to the village and back. We would like to return to fish the Ara with a guide and when it's
not so high.
We stayed at the charming and folksy hotel, a magnificent building with an interesting history (rebuilt from photos
it was destroyed by the government in the Spanish Civil War). The food we took each night was delicious but I liked
the house red wine better than Amy did. (The best wine we had on the trip was in the Bearn country in France, an
inexpensive local red but we also liked the Jurançon, a sweet white, very much.) Like most of the hotels
on our trip, you eat at their restaurant for
two reasons. First, there are few if any other choices in towns so small the sheep outnumber the residents. Two,
the food is as good as anything you'll get in bigger European cities. A double room cost us 6,500 pesetas per night
or around 35 dollars American. A fishing license for Rio Ara was 1,287 pesetas each (less than 10 bucks).
Navarra, Spain / Rio Irati, Rio Urrobi
We drove through Jaca the next morning, through all kinds of different-looking countryside and enjoyed the often
desolate vistas. We also took a side trip into Pamplona. That was a mistake. We had no idea traffic and congestion
was so bad in that town (now a city I guess with 200,000 people or more). We couldn't find any parking anywhere
(we were not yet accustomed to the European way of parking on sidewalks or anywhere that is open).
We left without stopping and took N135 northeastward to N140 into Navarra. Along the way, we began to see Pelegrinos,
sometimes walking 3 abreast in the road. Bicyclists, sometimes very old men, were also performing the pilgrimage.
An amazing site to see so many dedicated worshippers. We zipped right past them, in and out of them zooming like
a good European --- I was beginning to drive and think European at this point.
We had eaten food that we thought we would never eat --- we had duck breast, we ate goat cheese and cheesecake
made from goat cheese, we tasted foie gras, we ate boar venison, we ate ternera so rare it mooed at me. But we
loved it all. Even with all our difficulties, only halfway through our trip, we were already claiming this as our
best trip ever. We made it into our hotel, having seen the houses change to the Basque style for over an hour.
This hotel became our favorite of the trip, and Angel and Noelia, both Basques, our favorite hosts. Every man born
into Angel's family since his great-grandfather and his brothers had been born in this house. The couple worked
so hard to please us, communicated so eagerly, spent time teaching us about their culture, that they were the perfect
We fished the upper reaches of the Rio the first evening after a lunch of tapas (chorizo sandwiches and frites).
We caught many plump 6-10 inch brown trout and I had one heavy trout probably 13 or so inches take my fly but break
off in the submerged limbs. We sight-casted to these trout and they would hit any perfect presentation. Any drag
or shadow or ripple of water from wading and the trout would shoot off for cover.
We took the traditional late Spanish dinner and I enjoyed more ternera but especially enjoyed the verdura soup
(a thick vegetable soup) and roasted red peppers appetizer. When I got a phone call early on the morning of the
9th, I thought it would be my mother since it was the morning of my 41st birthday and she always calls me. But
it was my travel guide Nick checking up on us and our trip, making sure everything was going well.
A double room cost us 8,500 pesetas per night, around 45 dollars per night with tax. Our bill for two nights
of sleep, two breakfasts and two full dinners added up to around $180 American.
By midmorning, after eating breakfast in a panaderia (Spanish for bakery) in Auritz, we fished the tiny meadow
stream, Rio Urrobi at the intersection of N135 and N140. The trout are very very small but as we fished up to the
ivy-covered ancient bridge, the water got deeper and the fish got bigger. I caught one fat little trout about 10
inches, the biggest we caught there.
Gray duns and Red Quills were hatching everywhere and the water was spotted with rises. After a lunch in Roncesvalle,
at a castle not far from where the great warrior Roland had fallen, we hit the middle sections of the Rio Irati.
We drove past the cottage where Ernest Hemingway used to stay when he fished the river. We found two different
ways to the river near, two small villages, complete with white square houses and colorfully-painted shutters with
Basque names over the doors.
One of our highlights in Navarra was seeing the beret-wearing sheepherder drive his herd through main street and
into a pen in the middle of the afternoon. You just don't see that sort of thing everyday. The river has a tea-colored
tint to it but is so very clear, with such long, still pools, that the fish were awfully skittish and it took patience
and long leaders and skillful wading to even draw a rise. We moved up to the runs and ends of pools and did better
but with such a clear sky, fishing was difficult. Around 4 or 5, the clouds moved in, (some of that rain that had
been in the area but had yet to hit us), and the insects started hatching (an amazing variety of stoneflies, mayflies
and even some caddis), and we started landing more and more trout. These were nice-sized, heavy-bodied fish, stuffed
from eating insects, especially the 1 ½-inch long golden stoneflies that were landing erratically everywhere.
Just before dark, we drove back up to the upper reaches of the Rio Irati and descended into the canyon where I
had missed the fat fish the previous day --- he nudged two offerings and when I put on the golden Stimulator, he
it and dove for cover under a rock then threw the fly when he ran upstream through a waterfall. He must have been
15 inches and for such small water, he was gargantuan. I will catch and land him next year.
A long dinner of filete de ternera (and for Amy trucha y jamon), a great bottle of Navarran wine, some brandy
and the strongest coffee in the world, and the great day was complete.
Food barrier: The food is different. If you are squeamish or finicky or stuck on fast food, get over it.
The meat choices are about the same at all the eateries: lamb, salmon, steak, fish (hake and trout the most common)
and duck. Appetizers run the gamut from frois gras (enlarged goose liver) to olives. Breakfasts are light, usually
a croissant or bread or pastry with coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Lunches are also often light. But dinners
are a different story. In France, the restaurants we ate at usually didn't begin serving until 8 pm, and in Spain,
even later. The meals consisted of several courses and almost always included desserts. These dinners often last
two hours or more. Know that the coffee is not like American-style coffee and is strong. Because there are no fast-food
joints, we kept groceries with us in the car.
Telephones, faxes, computers: We never had a phone in our room except in Navarra. That would have made it
difficult for someone with a laptop in need of an internet fix. Public phones are far and few between. We found
one public phone in every town, usually near the plaza. You will need a calling card for that country to make calls
and deciphering the numbering system to make a call is tougher than a physics lesson. Leave your computer and cell
phone and beeper at home. Your American cell phone won't work here anyway and besides, you don't need the bother.
Remember, you're in Europe where everything takes hours or days to get done. Relax.
Stores: Do you need band aids or shampoo or cough syrup or batteries? Get'em in Paris or bring'em from home.
There are few stores that carry those types of things (except in the big towns like Pau and Lourdes). You buy meat
at the meat market, bread at the bakery, cheese at the fromagerie.
Hotel quality: These are large old homes, sometimes several hundred years old, converted to hotels. The
rooms are often oddly-shaped and have a strange assortment of period furniture. The bathrooms in all of these hotels
are very small (as are the Europeans of this region we met). If you like hotels with personality, rooms with character,
then you will love staying in these
hotels, looking out shuttered windows, flinging them open each morning to see a fog-covered field with a sheperd
tending sheep, the mountains all around you. If you like Paris or New York style quality, this may not be your
Driving in Europe: They don't drive on the 'wrong side of the road'. That's Great Britain. But they do drive
fast and pass a lot and have no fear. We rented a compact car that was upgraded to a van, an Opel SUV contraption,
which was half van and half sports car. It cost us about $300 unlimited for two weeks and got great gas mileage.
I mean diesel mileage. Traffic signage is usually clear but you have to pay attention to the arrows.
Airfare, airports: We found round trip airfare in coach from Dallas to Paris for about $400 each. The round
trip fare from Paris to Bayonne/Biarritz was about $200 apiece. The trip takes 9 hours from Dallas to Paris but
coming back fighting the wind, takes 11 hours. The food and service on Air France does not compare to British Airways
in my opinion.
Currency: We didn't exchange enough of our traveler's checks into local currency before we hit the road.
Each town of any size has a bank or a shop that converts currency but you have to find the perfect hour when they
open each day. And the currency exchange rates are not good. And we found out the hard way that some banks don't
work with American dollars or traveler's cheques, and are willing to only change either pesetas or francs. The
guides don't take credit cards and most of the restaurants in these little towns don't either.
Runoff / Timing / Seasons: May and June are the time of runoff in the Pyrenees but like the southern Rockies,
you can always find a stream just finishing runoff or in pre-runoff.
Guides: In these Pyrenees, don't expect the same services you receive in the United States. You won't get
lunch. You won't get flies supplied. You also don't pay as much with most charging about 150 American dollars for
two persons. Half day rates are usually available. We found our guides to be knowledgeable, courteous, friendly,
eager to please, and excellent anglers, useful almost as much as tour guides as fishing guides.
Language barrier: I speak Spanish fluently but neither Amy nor I speak French. In Paris and Biarritz, this
was not a problem. In the French countryside, it was a humorous problem, nothing serious, nothing that some hand
gestures and patience couldn't solve.
Gear: Any travel rod less than a 6-weight will be fine. If you fish the big rivers, like the Gave d'Pau
and Gave d'Oloron, an 8-9 foot rod of 5 or 6-weight is ideal. For the smaller rivers, I recommend a 7-8.5 foot
rod for 3-5 weight outfit. Tippet equivalent in France & Spain 9X= 0.08, 8X= 0.10, 7X =0.12, 6X= 0.14, 5X=
0.16, 4X= 0.18, 3X= 0.20 mm. It is usually expressed in 100's, ie: 0.14mm is said 14 centièmes (In French).
I used 6X exclusively there. Wade wet or wear lightweight waders but make sure to have felt soles. It doesn't hurt
to have a wading staff in these slippery streams.