European Temptations

Susan Brown is enticed to keep fishing through the colder months

In my area of Switzerland, the trout season closes on the first Saturday after the last Sunday of September. But fly-tying only gives you so much of a fix in those long months until the first Sunday after the first Saturday of March — the delightfully ruled reopening day. As an Australian and living here for nearly 20 years now, I’ve been gradually finding spots to add to my list of year-round options. Here are some local tips for happy hypothermic fishing during the days better started with a Schümli Pflümli (coffee with whipped cream and plum schnapps) and finished with a fondue. In the late 1800s, the Murgat family started France’s first pisciculture ponds in a cress filled swamp of natural siphons and springs near Grenoble. Three generations later their fish business was modernised and moved upstream, leaving the old 6 ha system of canals, iron sluices and footpaths to gently decay in the company of wild violets, ranunculi, forgotten plums and tangled briars. These days, in what could be described as a vertically integrated business, fly fishers are allowed into the ancient passerelles and for much of a foggy winter’s day I was the only humanoid in search of a salmonoid. I wasn’t alone. My temporary squad consisted of Helios, resident pooch and part time mole digger, two cheerful geese, a slumbering swan, some judgy ducks and a cat that looked about as smug as a cat can look when it is the only feline in a fish-filled wetland. Whilst these trouty ley lines are bountiful, the fish are also wary, so beware assumptions. The clarity of the water meant they could see me, but I could watch their behaviour and use the teachable moments to sharpen presentation and approach. There were many refusals, but I totalled six for the day, including my biggest ever trout on a white fringed wool fly, something I call a flop and mop. The strike was vicious, and the crocodile rolls and runs bent the rod hard. A humble brag — given its size and thanks to a wet, sloping clay bank, I nearly slid into the water trying to lift it out. Not far from Chamonix, the fabled Mt Blanc ski area straddling France and Italy, lies a dot of a village called Rumilly. You could be forgiven for not having heard of it, considering newspaper L’Equipe says the ‘greatest feat’ in its history is beating Toulouse in the quarter finals of the fourth tier of the French football league (spoiler: they lost to Monaco in the next round). There is a museum celebrating counterfeiting nearby, but trout availability in winter is no fake news. David, the manager of the Reservoir Peche Mouche at Rumilly tells me he dreams of fly fishing in Tasmania one day and he let on that Blobs (see p59) are the best flies as ‘something about the way they circle down intrigues the trout.’ Staff there are lovely and let me sleep in the carpark in my campervan so I could get an early start. The 5 ha lake is open 12 October to 31 March and has a number of fishing piers jutting out to make it easy, a disabled access pontoon, and there is ample space around the path for easy back-casting. Dinghy or float tube hire is available. Rumilly is regularly stocked. They promise trout from around 1 to 6 kg and while my catches were in the 1–2 kg range, I saw some monsters cruise past the bow of the boat and lost one which was an absolute cracker. It isn’t just the water which is clear, boating on the lake allows spying on other (rivals) probably very nice anglers. While you can’t see their flies, it does allow a companionable thumbs up when another fisher gets lucky. You can also observe technique, some of which is orthodox and some, not so much. Precise figure 8 work or regular or irregular pulls were unsurprising, but the guy standing on the plank seat pretending to surf whilst retrieving was unexpected. He used a slap down cast style and had a fag hanging out of his mouth as he hung 5, rocking the boat with his feet. After I’d put back a substantial trout, he rowed over to ask my secret. ‘A small black nymph,’ I replied. I didn’t add ‘and keeping fairly quiet.’ Later I saw him catch a couple of decent sized fish, so who am I to judge? If you’d rather not stoop to a reservoir, you can fish the banks of Lac Léman (also known as Lake Geneva) starting the second weekend of January. Trying for trout here falls into the category of go big or go home. In 1653 Isaac Walton wrote of their fabled 3-cubit length (around a metre and a half) and while for much of the year they keep to the depths and out of sight, there is a way to see them and to fish for them. By late October they start lurking around the river mouths, waiting for the November rains. A couple of days after the first big pulse of water, they start to move up, scraping their redds and doing what trout need to do to keep the species going. Each year I walk several local rivers to watch the migration and though I haven’t seen 3-cubit ones, I’ve seen hundreds of 1–2-cubit trout. While a number will die after spawning, there are enough heading back to the depths and enough late arrivals to mean January and February fishing along the lake banks and near the river mouths can be — as the locals say — interesting. By the early part of the year, the grey skies have cleared to sapphire blue, and with crystal-clear water lapping coloured stones, stark snow-capped Alps on one side and dark pine clad Jura on the other, it is a stunningly beautiful way to spend time. The Jura mountains are little known outside the region and my favourite fishing area in Europe. Perhaps it is because I live below their wild forests on their lower slopes or perhaps it is the way the clear, green-hued chalk streams and rivers erupt fully formed from fissures in the limestone, or it could be the interesting history and mythologies that can be unearthed. The Doubs River births through the cave of the Wyvern. Her eye is a jewel in her forehead, which she takes off to drink, and once a local lad stole it to heavy consequences. The Loue is a fabled place for giant zebra trout and there are blue trout on the Saine. Each summer I sneak to a wonderful fishy spot behind an old foundry near the source of the Ain. But the end of the river season doesn’t mean fishing stops. After 15 December, in the centre of Swiss watchmaking in the Jura valley, just 10 francs can get you a day permit to fish for trout in Lac de Joux. If you miss the trout, you’ll probably end up with quite a few perch or even a pike. Check conditions first, as every few years Lac de Joux can ice over. Now, on the principle that a bad day’s fishing is still a good day, I discovered it is possible to walk or skate, eat fondue and drink mulled wine on the frozen surface or have a meal at the local pub, suitably called the Trout. If you want to hedge your bets, reservoir fishing can be found at Le Martinet, a private 5 ha site at Champagnole in the French Jura — it opens in the first week of October. The day I made a quick stop to check it out, the two lakes were busily ‘inverting’, so fishing was closed, however, I had a good walk around the site and have it mentally marked for a revisit. My fishing buddy, Dennis, assures me there is great winter trout energy at Le Martinet. He caught around a dozen measuring 40–60 cm, mostly with size 6 Woolly Buggers. Afterwards the owners put on a raclette in a cabin Dennis described as ‘luxurious by fishing standards.’ Near the Swiss capital of Berne is wonderful summer river fishing in the Bernese Oberland, and I’ve had happy expeditions with knowledgeable guide Jean-Paul Kauthen for brook and brown trout or grayling along the Aare River system and near Meiringen. Jean-Paul points out that while he doesn’t guide in winter as he can’t guarantee a fish, it is still possible to fly fish for grayling along the Aare during the cold months until the end of the year season closure. Mayfly and sedge are still hatching during the autumn peak of September and October and I’ve canoed through clouds of them, but by November and December, midge imitations are recommended. On the Aare I’ve caught grayling (or ombre meaning shadow in French) with beautiful green or blue hues, and it is useful to know they are also a good eating fish, as catch and release is mostly illegal in Switzerland. Further upstream is my favourite Swiss fishing shop, Bernhard. Their Aladdin’s cave of ‘everything you never knew you needed and now want’ is strewn through a rambling farm barn. I’d highly recommend a side trip to stock up. If you are out of hours, a helpful vending machine out front dispatches tippet, bait and other essentials. Also in the Oberland and a cable car ride above Kandersteg, I’ve been summer fly casting for stocked rainbows in Lac Oeschininsee with Jean-Paul. He tells me for an unforgettable winter experience, the lake opens for ice fishing from 1 January to end March. Under a circle of stark and towering 3,000 metre peaks, you can cut a hole in the 30–50 cm thick ice and try for Canadian lake trout, Arctic char and stocked rainbows. Don’t bring your fly gear unless you are pretty accurate with a cast and not much interested in regular retrieves. Guide Daniel Kilian supplies regular rods and bait (whitefish or worms) but you need to bring your own warm clothes and waterproof boots.

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