Hunting Glass Eels in Normandy

Childhood fishing exploits in the moat of a French castle lead to midnight forays hunting glass eels.

| April 2015

  • Eels
    European glass eels spend one to three years swimming from the ocean where they are spawned to the rivers of Western Europe, where they mature.
    Photo by Fotolia/Rafael Ben-Ari
  • On the Water
    "On the Water," by Guy de la Valdène, is a shimmering collection of essays meditating on water and nature, fishing and growing older.
    Cover courtesy Lyons Press

  • Eels
  • On the Water

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!”

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