THE French fisherman is full of the lore of stream and canal — his country is crisscrossed by a great system of barge waterways — and he knows, or believes he knows, the habits and even the thoughts of every species of fish, some of which he credits with many tricks and unholy deceptions.
He carries his tackle in a basket or wrapped in an old newspaper. The basket is the more convenient container, for along with the tackle and bait can be stowed a bottle of wine of the region, a hunk of bread, and a bit of the local cheese.
The man who is off to the smaller, swifter, rocky streams, particularly in the Auvergne Mountains, carries as well a hoop net with a short rope attached. This net is sunk in the stream with a small piece of meat in the center, usually horse meat snatched from his own dinner table. If the fish are not biting he discards his shoes and wades the water above and below the net to stir up the crayfish and allow the net to rest till the crayfish begin feeding on the meat. I have seen a fisherman lake home a gallon of écrevisses, which are transformed by his wife into a bisque that, flavored with thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, and a good old sherry, is a celebration for any palate.
Gudgeon is caught by strictly following the rites, done from a flatboat anchored to a sand bar, preferably in the middle of a river. The really
serious fisherman has nailed a pair of shoes to the ends of broomsticks. When he “walks” them along the sandy bar, the gudgeon obligingly rush in great numbers to see where all the commotion in the cloudy water comes from.
Fishermen whose thrifty wives will not permit the sacrifice of shoes bring along an ordinary homemade broom of willow or poplar twigs bound together. This, too, works with gratifying results on the curious gudgeon. Apparently forgetting to look for the point of the small hook, they quickly take the bait, though threading two steamed grains of wheat on a hook is no job for an impatient man. (“But only two grains on each hook, mon ami, but two grains only. And do not split the hull and not the least bit of the point of the hook must show, for le goujon has the very sharp eye and also he is most wary.”) They are cooked like whitebait —toss them into a pan with plenty of olive oil or fresh unsalted butter or, best of all, peanut oil.
For the week or ten days preceding the great day when Gallic ingenuity is to cope with piscatorial cunning, a sheep’s head lias been hanging in the sun from the low limb of an apple tree — at considerable distance from any house. An apple tree is favored because the fisherman says more houseflies and blowflies buzz through it than in any other kind. Beneath the sheep’s head is a pan containing bran. Into the bran fall the overfed maggots and these are carefully hoarded.
A handful of unground wheat must be steamed till soft; a handful of cherries or strawberries must be chopped, not too fine, for color; then a half round of overaged and highly odoriferous Camembert cheese must be brought out of hiding. (In France the soft cheeses, such as Camembert and Brie, are sold only between October and May, and last year’s cheese has a fragrance never wafted by any perfumed breeze of Araby.) Angleworms are added to the collection of materials, and a few pounds of clay.
These ingredients are painstakingly mixed and molded into balls about the size of a tennis ball. They are the amorce, the lure expected to bo taken by any fish in any running water.
The fisherman visits his stream at sundown, finds a spot where the water flows deeply along the bank. The amorce is carefully lowered into the water over a considerable distance. Where American salt-water fishermen chum the fishing pots, in France the fresh water is chummed, for to amorce a fishing pole is to chum it. The current is trusted to disintegrate slowly the balls of clay; the fruit and cheese and angleworms float downstream. It is presumed that the fish, coming upon all this food headed downstream, take out upstream to meet the least. Having reached the source of the amorce, the fish halt for the night.
After depositing this banquet, the fisherman leaves his pole lying on the bank to notify all Comers that the spot is engaged for the next day. And he will happily hurry back there next morning with full assurance that his pole will be where he left it and with the hope that fish of many species will have swum upstream to greet him.
However, amorce, like some other things in life, does not always pay off. It sometimes happens that another fisherman will have planted his farther upstream and lured the fish farther upcurrent. This is regarded as a very dirty trick and exceedingly unsportsmanlike.
I used to go fishing at Pont-surYonne, southeast of Paris, an ancient country town on the Yonne River, one of the confluents of the Seine. I lodged there at a little inn across the river from the town, often occupying the room once inhabited by the then obscure painter, Toulouse-Lautrec, He paid for his room and board with what would now be a great fortune in pictures; and following the traditional fashion, the landlady moaned her distress at not having preserved a single canvas.
In addition to serving fine fare from her kitchen she was her own barmaid in her bistro and a hostess of local renown. She would gather on the night of my arrival the town’s fishermen — the tender of the lock which lowered or lifted the barges past the Yonne River water chute, the canemaker, the weaver of tin funeral wreaths, the mayor, the cobbler.
They came to inspect my American and British tackle. I owned one fourounce bait-casting rod, made by my ovv n hands, that was a piece of jewelry, and I also carried a few plugs, spoons, spinners, and flies and my No. 4 Louisville reel that still runs like a great Swiss watch. The French, good mechanics, appreciated the perfection of this splendid reel but they laughed loudly when I exhibited my plug. They warned me that no fish under the Tricolor was fool enough to attempt to eat a block of shiny wood.
1 usually fished as they did, with their tackle, admit ling amiably that ihey knew more about their fish than I did. But one day 1 carried my own equipment, chiefly to gratify their curiosity as to how it was managed. The tackle included a single plug, a black floating-diving lure with which I had taken some pretty good muskellunge and northern pike in remote spots of Wisconsin and Michigan. After fishing with the wreathmaker and cobbler with their tackle for an hour or so, I remarked that there should be some patches of rushes on the inside shallow curve of the river about a quarter mile downstream. We all went down. They decided to try my tackle.
After a stiff lesson in casting for half an hour, during which neither of my companions had succeeded in getting the plug more than five feet from the bank, I took over. “There should be pike in those rushes,” I suggested. I made my first cast downstream to straighten my line. On the second cast I laid the plug beyond the rushes and brought it back at moderate speed about three feel from the growth. Around fifty feet from shore I had a swift and heavy strike. The water boiled. I brought the fish past the rushes to the screamed advice of the two, who ran up and down the bank as if crazy, grabbing sticks and rocks with which they bombarded the water. The cobbler slipped down the bank and then tried to grab the pike by the tail. The pike would have none of him. I finally landed my catch.
This was a very nice pike, weighing just under fourteen pounds. Its capture ended that day’s fishing. The wreathmaker caught it in his arms and started for the town on a run, unreeling my line and dragging it after him. The cobbler prayed for the right to carry my plug. We all made the mile to the inn in nothing flat.
It was the largest pike ever caught in those waters. Everyone admitted that. Leaving their vermouth-cassis, they all gathered around. The plug shared attention with the fish. “It is true, myself I saw it,”the cobblerdeclared. “The American triumphed over our pike with this piece of wood!” The wreathmaker sustained him.
When I handed the prize over to the landlady to be cooked, everyone gave her voluble instructions. She prepared it with a bread dressing, flavored il with a dozen herbs, and baked it in a pitcherful of the tangy white wine of Beaune. Then when it was nearly done, she larded it with bacon. There was a white sauce with a base of Beaune, picked up with chopped anchovies and capers and ripe olives.
We were all just sitting down to it when the mayor arrived. He had hustled over to the inn on hearing the news. The plug was shown him and the magic it had performed repeated.
He took it and weighed it in his hand. Then he put it disdainfully down on the table. “Mes amis,” he said, ”it was an American deception, that, practiced on an innocent and trusting French fish.”