A luscious mountain landscape faded in my rear view mirror as we approached the region of Lot. I was somewhat sad at the timing of our departure because it coincided with a very productive period. I had caught several fish over 50lbs and I was sure some of the really big ones would show. Having already spent several weeks on the bank, Caroline (my partner at the time) planned for us to volunteer on an organic farm. I had begrudgingly agreed, knowing that it was only fair, although in reality all I wanted to do was be by the waterside.
We gave ourselves two days in which to complete the 700-mile journey along twisting roads and lanes, which passed through some of the most breath-taking scenery I have ever seen. As the sun descended on the first day of driving we found a place to rest for the night at the bottom of a deep valley, where the trees converged at a small shallow river. The night was void of life and eerily calm. I woke to a flicker of sunlight refracting through the scratched plastic windows we had salvaged from an old caravan. I climbed out of bed and stood at the back door, peering out over the river as a fine mist danced above its rippling surface. Rays of gold poured through the tree canopy illuminating thousands of wavering lime green leaves. It was an incredible spot we had chanced upon. It was totally uninterrupted by man, machine or aircraft. Only the rustling of leaves serenaded the morning birdcall and the lapping of the river against the reed beds.
Stepping outside, I walked to the water’s edge and shook off my sleepiness in the warmth of the new day. Out the corner of my eye I saw a dark shape moving in the shallows to my left. The river seemed only fit for trout but there I was faced with what appeared to be a carp, a mid-thirty moseying around in half a meter of flowing water.
Excited by the prospect, I hurried back to the van and grabbed a rod. I approached cautiously, crouched behind some dead reeds, cast the bait on the edge of the gully where I had seen the fish and waited. Time eased by with the deliberateness of a lone summer cloud allowing my attention to drift. The mesmerising trickle of the river, the serene greens of new foliage, and the aroma of bruised water mint were divine. As I meditated on all this, a distant yet familiar sound snapped me back to reality. My drag! I grabbed the butt of the rapidly disappearing rod as the fish’s tail slapped the surface. I laughed to myself in astonishment. It assumed its position out in the middle kicking against the flow where the water was at its deepest. It quickly tired until it wallowed just shy of the net. A plump mid-twenty mirror trundled over the mesh and I couldn’t help noticing just how elated I was to catch a fish in such circumstances. Happy as could be, I slipped it back and went about packing down the van for the rest of the journey.
We were late, not least as a result of my fishing urges and so I tried my best to make up lost time. We drove mile after mile through dense woodland without a single sign of human habitation as we approached the Lot. After navigating a labyrinth of tiny lanes in the dark, we arrived at a wooden house in the middle of a forest surrounded by poly tunnels. A weathered yet friendly face assured us we had come to the right place. We parked in a small clearing and retired for the night, knowing we would be up early the following morning to avoid working in the heat of the day. The deal was we would work four hours a day in return for accommodation, breakfast and lunch, but after a look around the accommodation we opted to stay in the van. I had to remind myself it was what Caroline wanted so I best just get used to the idea. Despite my lack of enthusiasm I found myself interested in learning aspects of true organic cultivation. Ironically, this is how all farming used to be until industry came along with its big ideas.
For the first two days I spent my afternoons scouring the internet for interesting places to fish. At the time my knowledge of French waters was practically non-existent, having spent most of my days reading BB, Yates, Sherringham and the like, which were all brought to my attention by the film A Passion for Angling.
After a conversation with a friend back in the UK I decided I should try the infamous river Lot. I liked the sound of more river fishing and so one afternoon I took the truck and headed off in search of potential spots.
Following what had been an exceptionally hot day I diverted from searching in favour of a much-needed plunge. Passing across an old iron bridge and down a small track I met a grass-covered embankment adjacent to an eddy in the river. Lowering myself into the cool water I slipped amongst the weedbeds with just my eyes and nose above water. I surveyed the surface, eyeing small holes amongst the wavering weed tendrils. Amongst a myriad of thoughts it occurred to me that this was as good a place as any to start. I felt the presence of carp, despite not seeing any.
As the hours passed, columns of mist began to rise from the mercurial surface, by which time I had placed two rods just visible through the pine and oak trees that stood like guards on either side. The light began to fade and my attention was directed to a weighty crashing on the far margin. I stood poised as sizable waves circled in its wake. My confidence grew but my lines did not move that evening.
Two days later I returned to the river with Caroline, but this time I decided to fish a lovely looking stretch just west of a large town. It had been another blazing day that left us with little choice but to leap straight into the sandy margins before we considered doing anything else. The fresh water revived us and enabled me to go about shouldering my gear down the unstable path that led to the water’s edge. Only small fish flittered as the cerulean sky became vivid oranges and pinks. I lowered my bait into the surprisingly deep water, triggering a ripple of confidence to ebb through me.
That evening a vast overpowering star-filled sky apprehended our gaze as we watched from the high banks of the river Lot. The kind of sobering sight that inspires wonder and thought provoking conversation. It became apparent that we were being devoured by hoards of ravenous mosquitoes so we took shelter, quickly drifting off to sleep. In the early hours I was jarred from a deep slumber. Negotiating the steep bank I pounced on my emptying spool feeling somewhat disorientated.
I lifted into the fish as it powered towards the right of the swim with astonishing haste. I sped out into the middle of the river in my boat, away from the peril of the snag-laden bank sides, but it was too late. The fish had got itself around my other line; it throbbed away under the rod tip momentarily and then was gone. An eerie silence caused my ears to ring in the wake of my departed fish. I sat back for a few moment sulking in the darkness, slowly drifting downstream.
It wasn’t until the following morning that my reel screamed me out of bed, down the steep bank and into the boat once more. After an electric fight, a long pristine common slid into the net. I had just caught my first Lot fish and I felt victorious.
Not soon enough we returned to the weedy meander in the river that I had discovered some days earlier. As we lay on the long grass following our dip alongside the water boatmen we gazed into an immeasurable sky dotted with cumulus clouds and buzzards that soared in and amongst rising thermals. Sensing that the carp were nearby I positioned my rods close to a spot I’d been baiting in between mornings working on the farm. I almost felt an air of confidence having seen a few fish crashing during my subsequent visits.
The bells of a nearby church chimed 5 o’clock as I found myself walking backwards to prevent a mighty fish from thrusting towards a submerged tree. It turned slightly, enabling me to gain some line pinning it metres from escape. It changed tack, driving harder and harder towards the weed-swamped bay to my left. With my heart in my mouth I applied more pressure than I would have dared, forcing it back in front of me where the riverbed shelved off several meters. Approaching the shallows, turning on its head, it then passed back into the deep water beyond the drop off. It felt more like a tug of war than it did a duel with a fish. By the time it started circling in front of me in shallows I was beaten. Tirelessly, the fish continued to plough away back and forth until I succeeded in coaxing it into the net. It was monumental and remains my biggest fish from a river to this day.
As the day grew old, cauliflower clouds towered into the sky engulfing the sun to the West. Aware of what was about to befall us, I repositioned my rods and sprinkled a few handfuls of bait throughout the swim. We waited and watched the heavens open and wind roar, pelting rain against the windows of the camper. Continuous forks ripped through the air with a deafening bowel shaking intensity. Surely the carp would be doing back flips in such conditions?
A stillness preceded that was as deafening as the storm itself. Thousands of tiny ringlets rippled the surface all along the margins as the last of the rain made its way into the muddied river. It looked faultless for a bite, I thought, as distant rumbles echoed through the hills. I stared down at my rod and then over my spot intently. Several lines of bubbles were trailing away towards the barrage; my eyes widened intently with anticipation, switching my gaze back to my rod tip. It momentarily bounced and then swiftly hooped over. I grabbed it and walked backwards as before but there was hardly any resistance. I reeled in a mid-thirty mirror, which effortlessly made its way over the mesh. I’m not sure it knew what was going on and I suppose there was a good chance it had never seen a hook. The rigidity it adopted when lying in the mat only added to my suspicions. I hastily submerged the creature into the flow of the river watching its gills flex and fill with oxygen rich water. Through my hands it passed, gently nosing between the tendrils of weed until it disappeared out of slight.
Over the proceeding days I caught several other carp. Each was unique and in exceptional condition. I’m sure the fish must have sensed my presence because they melted away with an abruptness that had me heading West along the narrow winding road once more. We found a new spot just as the sky was turning an apocalyptic fire red. It unfolded into purples and dusty greys before the crackle of fire bellowing from the Kelly kettle claimed our attention.
In the middle of the night I woke to several bleeps on my right-hand rod. Springing out of my sleeping bag I slid over the dew soaked grass landing on my arse with a thud at the rods. My rod bounced rapidly under the slight tension of an immaculate baby common. Quickly slipping the hook I placed him in the margins and he was gone.
When dawn broke, the river had risen considerably. My lines were clogged in weed where they met the increased surface flow. Halfway through breakfast cornflakes rained down on the ground all around me as my reel jammed up against my bite alarm. Jumping into the boat I made my way out through the weedbeds toward the fish. It stayed deep in the current, convincing me that it was one of the bigger fish. It plodded lethargically for a few moments before arriving at the surface in the form of a pristine torpedo common.
Both Caroline and I confessed we had a strange, indescribable feeling that we were no longer welcome. The trees towered over us, conversing together in the breeze and I for one could feel their contemptuous energy. We decided it was time to make ourselves scarce.
Heading along the winding road adjacent to the river we ended up at a small swim just outside a dilapidated village. The river was flowing fast so I decided to fish into the middle, preventing my hookbaits from being dragged downstream in the passing clumps of weed. No sooner had we settled down, than a large group of people marauded down to our tranquil setting for a barbecue and a swim. They dived all around my rods from the small gravel beach making a ruckus while I tried to maintain a friendly composure. Thankfully after what seemed like many hours the sun slowly slid behind an approaching blanket of cloud and sent our friends packing.
As the last car left the wooded landscape behind us, my rod lurched over with a sudden force that had me crashing down the steep bank. The fish hit the surface travelling downstream amongst boulders and blonde shingle. All that ruckus went in my favour after all.
Boiling away below the dappled surface a bar of bronze and gold formed. I did the usual praying for the hook to hold as it made a final attempt at escaping. Soaked through, the only thing on my mind was a cup of tea, and perhaps a hot shower. Luckily both those things were an option because the truck was close to the swim. When constructing it I had made sure I installed a decent shower allowing me to collect water and heat it via a gas water heater. It’s a real luxury, one that I am very grateful for.
As my confidence grew after a further two captures, the carp reminded me of their unpredictable nature and it was time to move once again. Not really knowing anything about which sections contained big fish I could only go on what little experiences I had. It wasn’t until much later that I met a local angler by the name of Guy Holman who kindly imparted some useful knowledge over a beer one sunny eve, by which time it was much too late to implement.
It was almost three-months since we had left the UK; time had raced by. What’s more, I couldn’t imagine returning, not even for a visit. The freedom that surrounded us was just too good to be true. If I was living in a dream world then waking up was in no way an option for me. I was fully converted at that point and to this day, over a year and half later, my orientation remains unchanged.
Nymph hatches danced and gyred in the twilight as I looked across the water at Cierens. Somewhere amongst the wavering weed cables beautiful monsters swam. The morning’s attempts were fruitless but some hours later I landed a lovely dark chestnut common from underneath the willows on the far margin. The spot I was fishing had very little in the way of snags, which made for a relaxed atmosphere and enjoyable angling.
I caught two more lengthy commons before midday. Instead of lifting the first one up the steep bank, I placed the fish onto the mat in the water beside me. I unhooked it and Velcroed it in. I turned my back, placed my rod to one side and heard an almighty splash behind me. An empty mat greeted my returning gaze. Caroline fell to the ground in fits of laughter while my face resembled that of a five-year-old losing an ice cream to a swooping seagull.
By noon it was unbearably hot. I went for a plunge in the cool water to prevent an almighty headache from rendering me out of action. It was a good moment to reflect on the first few months of Operation Freedom. We were soon to be leaving for another locale that Caroline had in mind. Before we departed I convinced her that we should visit a few spots my new friend Guy had mentioned, which would also allow me to meet him face-to-face for a good chinwag about the Lot.
We settled in an accommodating swim tucked away down a bumpy track at the edge of a small farm. To the left of the swim there were two large bridges, which I liked the look of very much. To my right was plenty of open water lined with snag-laden margins. Guy dropped by just as darkness fell, brandishing a large bottle of beer. We chatted for hours in to the darkness, our conversation ranging from Paleolithic cave art, corporate-funded agendas, impending doom and large river carp. I wished that I had managed to meet up with him much earlier in on during our time fishing the Lot.
In the night my bonus rod screamed off, jousting me out of bed into the boat and up to the bridge arch where my hook had been left in a submerged tree. Cursing my way back to shore was surprisingly therapeutic. In the morning, even though there had not been a drop of rain all night, the river was a wash out. My alarms woke me with their insistent bleeping as huge balls of weed clustered around my lines sweeping them downstream. Bugger, I thought to myself, that’s blown my chances. Other than the local pastries and the education Guy gave me, that last little stint left me with a sore soul. We said our goodbyes to one of France’s most stunning rivers and plodded off for pastures new.