Childhood fishing exploits in the moat of a French castle lead to midnight forays hunting glass eels.
Guy de la Valdène writes about the finer points of tickling rainbow trout in the streams of Normandy, fishing and diving in the Bahamas and fly fishing for sailfish in Central America in On the Water (Lyons Press, 2015), and along the way meditates on water, nature and growing older. The following excerpt is from “La France.”
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Sixty years ago, when France was still reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, and when Allied bomb craters littered the forests of Normandy, I lived in a seventeenth-century castle that had been constructed on a man-made island situated between two rivers in the southeastern region of Normandy. Built of pink brick and mortar, the castle was on sunny days reflected in the water of the moat that surrounded it. Originally designed to beautify the appearance of the castle, the moat had also provided nominal protection to its inhabitants against the wolves and bandits that roamed the French countryside.
Water released from the bordering rivers irrigated the rocky soil of the land I was raised on, and over time it had chiseled a warren of brooks and streams that flowed into the moat and the water gardens, the ponds and basins, and fed the weirs that water engineers had designed hundreds of years earlier.
The moat that surrounded the castle extended outward to include to the west a large gravel courtyard where horses and later cars deposited their charges, and to the east a square of mowed grass, shaped yew trees, and flower beds that stretched farther than the flight of an arrow. North and south of the castle, two rectangular basins, permanently shaded by the lean of centuries-old oak trees, had been carved into the black earth of Normandy.
When I was ten years old, my father stocked the southern basin with trout for the enjoyment of his guests. He referred to the fish-filled basin as “Le basin des couillons” (couillon loosely translates into “numbnuts”). Anything dropped into the water, including a bare hook, was instantly set upon by the pellet-fed, soft-to-the-tongue rainbow trout imported from les Ameriques, trout known for their hardy nature and undiscerning appetite. A typical guest, much like a character in a Moliere play, would, rod in hand, dance in wonder on the banks of the basin and after each catch invariably thrust his chest forward and with marvel spilling from his lips say things such as, “C’est formidable!”
My father had fought and been wounded in both World Wars. In the First he was shot off a horse, lance in hand, during an ill-conceived charge against a cavalry of Germans who cleverly dismounted and fired at the storming French Dragoons. The bullet grazed my father’s temple but caused no damage other than a lifelong dent in his forehead. He was wounded a second time twenty years later by a German pilot during a single-engine air combat over the town of Évreux, fifty miles west of Paris. This time he spent eight months in hospital before escaping and making his way to Great Britain via Gibraltar in a repossessed German submarine hunter. Understandably, my father did not eat sauerkraut or listen to Richard Wagner.
When the politicians finally called a halt to the killings and carved up the lands they deemed valuable, my father, like the many thousands of other men who had fought for a cause and withstood the atrocities, was confronted with the numbing reality of normalcy. An engineer and keen storyteller, he prized the ridiculousness of men who took themselves seriously, and defined ego as a reflex of ignorance and delusion.
In those days, with the notable exception of Charles Ritz, few Frenchmen were accomplished fly fishermen. Casting was engaged entirely from the wrist, with uninspired twelve-to-two repetitive energy. The results lacked style and substance: Flights of feathers and hair twirled around the shanks of small hooks rose and dipped ungracefully in a medium of air and hope, and invariably landed far from the mark. However, since the trout my father had stocked in the basin would rush at any and all disturbances, unless they hooked themselves or each other, his friends always caught fish. At the dinner table, in recognition of the physical demands, not to mention the mental stress imposed by the sport, my father would raise a glass of wine and toast his friends’ accomplishments.
I didn’t care about the sport of it. A fish was a fish, and I liked all fish, the bigger the better. The pale renditions of the rainbow trout that did not die of infectious maladies nor were caught by my father’s friends were large fish, and I took to tickling them, an art taught to me by an older man with long arms who drew pleasure in delighting fish and women, in that order. He pointed to where I should lie on the grass next to the sluice gates and demonstrated the correct angle my hand should be inserted into the water to feel for quiescent fish. Even though the blood of their wild antecedents had been bred out of their genes, the basin trout nonetheless sought the whisper of moving water. Somnambular in its contentment, a napping trout would allow me to run my fingers along its flank, past the feathering of its fins, and entertain it into a condition of misguided abandon. When my fingers reached the gill plates, I would close them and yank the fish out of the water and onto the bank.
Tickling stocked rainbow trout in the basin was but a prelude to my later attempts to hand catch the warier brown trout that resided in the rivers and streams that threaded through the property. I spent hours of my youth lying on grassy banks trying to avoid the stinging nettles, my head cocked to one side, my eyes closed, feeling for a slick, cloudlike, almost imaginary body lingering on the edge of the current. In contrast to the domestic fish that swam above the mire that coated the bottom of the shallow basin and ate the residual chicken pellets dispersed daily by the gamekeeper—which blanched their character and flesh—the odd wild trout I managed to tickle in the cold, clear water of the river was rushed to the kitchen and cooked au bleu. The recipe demands that the cook insert the trout, fins aflutter, moments after removing its guts, into a court bouillon. Traces of white vinegar in the broth turn the trout’s skin a lovely transparent shade of blue. The wild river fish was served alongside a lemon-butter sauce, its pink flesh evidence of its taste for freshwater shrimp, its firmness a tribute to a species that has survived without assistance for millennium.
The moat and its channeled extensions were six feet deep and filled with fish. On the castle side, a brick-and-cement wall protected the building; sixty feet away, on the open side, grass banks rolled up out of the water to meet graveled pathways. The small fish exploited the shade of the walls and bridges for protection; the big fish made use of the shade as a stage from which to initiate their offense. The eels that shyly retired by day into the soft, dark mud at the bottom of the moat were caught by a worm-baited trotline set at nightfall. The imperative to this method of fishing was that the line be retrieved in the dark. At sunrise the eels would start fighting the hooks until they ripped them out of their stomachs.
The innocuous roach fish that lived in schools and waved orange-colored fins were caught on cane rods outfitted with bobbers and tiny golden hooks baited with miniature bread balls. Small roach were occasionally fried, but since each one had to be cleaned and scaled, it was rarely worth the effort. In any case, they tasted like every other little fish in the world cooked in hot oil.
The perch, a percentage of which reached a pound in weight, were fighters. They chased speckled spinners or took small, energetic red worms. Once hooked, they showcased their strength by pulling line off the spool of the reel. Fillets of perch were sautéed in butter and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice and minced parsley. If caught in a current of water—water that flowed in or out the nearby streams and rivers—the meat was sweet and tasty. Caught in the dormant waters of the moat or its adjoining basins advanced the flavor of inactivity imbedded in its tissues.
Small schools of chub, black tailed and vegetarian, often swam just beneath the surface. They could be enticed to strike an imitation black housefly by landing it on their nose. Chub were oily and not good eating. Thought by French river keepers to be damaging to the health of other more palatable fish—a false notion based on the hubristic concept of managing nature by purging the competing or subordinate species—all chub pulled out of the water were left flopping on the bank, free lunch to crows and magpies, who plucked out their eyes to access their brains.
Pike were the main piscatory and culinary attraction. The largest ever caught in the moat weighed twenty-three pounds and survived in a yellowing picture that I discovered in my father’s library. The date reads May 18, 1896, and the photo features a grinning, bearded, middle-aged man wearing a cap and suspenders buttoned to high pants. He is holding the beast at waist height with his left hand inside its gills, and gripping his bamboo rod with his right, the butt end planted into the ground next to his feet and the tip shoved out a stiff arm’s length away from his body. The gills of the lifeless pike flared like the pink hats of ladies on derby day.
The methods of catching pike varied, and some were more successful than others. On summer days those fish that rose to the surface of the moat to bask presented tempting targets to one inclined to shoot a .22 long rifle. Shooting pike was a practice I indulged in for a few weeks after I received a gift of a real gun from my father, when, for a moment in my life, I shot everything, including fish.
After that moment passed, I learned to cast big silver and gold spinners into the shadows thrown by the walls of the moat, and gaudy wooden plugs brought back from America. Once I learned to cast a fly, my favorite was a white deer hair and Mylar streamer. But no matter how much effort I exerted, neither the plugs nor the flies worked with the consistency necessary to build confidence.
Before a storm, when the clouds bowed low, or sometimes when it rained and the light was gray, something big and determined would push across the water and take the lure. With the taking, the fish would change direction and try to pull the rod out of my hands. If I did all the right things, I would win the fight. But more often than not there would be no fight, because the shadow behind my lure would come and go without me seeing it, or, worse, I would miss the strike and instead be left staring at an insulting swirl of water.
Pike are by nature moody creatures with difficult dispositions. Often I would see them as a shape of something that didn’t belong, or catch a glimpse of an outline, a shadow, the beat of a tail. Other times they would sun, inches under the surface, and I could count every scale on the fish’s back.
I learned to work on stratagems, setups (which often involved crawling on my belly to the side of a bridge or behind an oak tree in order to stay hidden), casting angles, and retrieves. Then one summer I swam a live bait a foot in front of a pike—a technique learned while saltwater fishing in the Bahamas—employing a small perch in such a way that it came into the sight of the pike seemingly wounded. The free meal proved irresistible. The largest fish I caught in the moat using live bait weighed fourteen pounds, but I caught many six- and seven-pound pike, whose size delighted the cook.
A big man from Burgundy, the cook liked to present them whole to the table, poached in a court bouillon made of white wine and water, a dash of red wine, a carrot, an onion, some shallots, garlic, salt, peppercorns, and a bouquet garni: a bunch of parsley and thyme and a bay leaf tied together. First he brought the broth to a boil and simmered the poaching liquid for thirty minutes. Then he added the pike. When the fish was tender, he removed it, drained it, and wiped the skin off its body, exposing the delicate off-white flesh. The cooking liquid was reduced and clarified and then encouraged to congeal with the addition of gelatin. Before the liquid had time to cool, the cook stamped thin slices of lemons or truffles up and down the back of the pike for decoration and poured the broth over the fish to mask it. When the broth chilled, it formed a thin gelatinous film that highlighted the trimmings. He served the pike on a platter alongside a cold remoulade: a simple homemade mayonnaise to which he added capers, minced shallots, chopped pickled gherkins, and mustard.
Because the cook and my mother and father voiced their approval of my contributions to the table, I came to believe by the age of twelve that my fishing misadventures were sanctioned. This led to further adventures into a world that increasingly and mercifully spared me the interest of my parents, or so I thought. The high points of these activities occurred at night when I would slip out of my bedroom to meet Michel, a friend from the village. We would rendezvous far enough from the castle so that the light from the beam of our flashlights was masked by the ancient trees that cast colossal night shadows on our fishing grounds. Full moons dropped puzzling light on the floor of the forest, but we preferred new moons, when our flashlights were a traveling necessity.
Michel brought our weapon—a narrow, four-pronged gig—and a gunnysack that we used to house our quarry. We hunted eels. We hunted them in ponds and on the edges of eddies and miniature oxbows where the mud had settled. Taking turns, one of us would aim the flashlight a few feet from the water’s edge while the other carried the six-foot-long spear at the ready. Our sneakers gurgled water as we looked under the surface for the telltale motion of what we knew to be ferocious brown bodies led by spade-shaped heads, wide grinning mouths, and tiny black eyes. The eels cruised the edges of the shorelines and hunted for worms and frogs, baby ducks and crayfish, smaller eels, tadpoles, and fish, all the while keeping their menacing, undulating bodies between their prey and the safety of deep water. Eels are fast strikers; tenacious, short, vicious apparitions that even when dead and limp terrified my sister, her friends, and many of my father’s guests.
It was preferable to strike an eel while holding on to the gig with both hands, but if the target was out of arm range, we would throw the harpoon like a spear and follow it into knee-deep mud. The eels, often three feet long and as big around as our arms, were solid chunks of meat and muscle. When harpooned they would contract and coil, open mouthed, around the gig’s wooden handle. Neither of us was ever bitten, but each time we went in the water after them, we thought about the eel and its small teeth closing on our flesh with the same conviction it displayed when, impervious to pain, it ripped an offending hook out of its stomach in an attempt to detach itself from a trotline.
On a good night we might gig three yellow-bellied eels. One was the norm.
Michel and I knew that mature eels left our rivers each fall for the Sargasso Sea, south of Bermuda, a three-thousand-mile swim across the Atlantic Ocean. Once they reached their destination, they mated and then died. We looked every year for what had been described to us by old-timers in the village as legions of bodies slithering across the fields and meadows of France en route to those rivers that would carry them to the sea, but we were never privy to such a sight.
The delicate and delicious flesh of the eels has inspired men to study them. Aristotle incorrectly declared that like worms they “Grew out of the guts of wet soil.” In fact eels are a catadromous species, fish that mature in fresh water but spawn and die at sea. The larvae conceived after their arduous journey know to follow the currents of the Gulf Stream and return to the rivers of Western Europe. A similar but shorter journey applies to the eels that return to the rivers on the East Coast of the United States. By the time the European eels enter fresh water, a one- to three-year swim from their place of birth, the larvae have developed into glass eels, so called because of the transparency of their bodies.
Glass eels are netted by the millions in the rivers of Europe and sold to the Asians for astronomical prices—up to five thousand dollars a kilo in Hong Kong. It has been said with debatable verisimilitude that Japanese men insert baby eels into their urethra to combat impotence. This demand on eels, like our other gluttonous claims on wildlife, has depleted the stock worldwide. In the United States, glass eels are usually smoked; in Great Britain they are jellied and potted; and in Spain they are fried in olive oil at five hundred dollars a plate. Parasites and diseases caused by uncontrolled aquaculture have added to the demise of wild eels and greatly diminished the numbers of strange and sinister creatures my friend and I would stare at in wonder as they emerged from the mud on those dark summer nights in Normandy half a century ago.
My parents loved winter eel stew, an enduring example of Burgundy comfort food. The cook would hang the eels alive from a wooden beam outside the kitchen and, using a funnel, pour white vinegar down their throats, a purging operation he insisted cleaned them of an otherwise lingering odor of mud. Once the eels were dead, he would make a circular incision at the neck of each one and peel its skin off in one fluid, downward motion. He cut the pink meat into sections and marinated it in red wine and herbs for a few hours before dusting it with flour and sautéing the roundels in butter. It was then simmered in the marinade alongside carrots, small potatoes, and previously blanched salt pork.
The cook, an opinionated man under the best of circumstances, rejected eels that had been pierced by prongs, even if they were alive when I handed them to him. “Je ne veux pas voir de trous dans mes anguilles,” he would say loudly, “I do not want to see holes in my eels.”
I learned how satisfying it was to reply, “Oh, go fuck yourself,” behind his back and under my breath.
Reprinted with permission from On the Water: A Fishing Memoir by Guy de la Valdène and published by Lyons Press, 2015.