The Most Scenic Place to Fly-Fish in Southwestern France
They come for the wine. And for the foie gras, the confit, the scenery, the chateaus and the black truffles. But increasingly, visitors to the hilly, castle-packed department of Dordogne also come to fly-fish its namesake river and its many tributaries.
The Dordogne River, France’s fifth longest, flows west for more than 300 miles from near the hot-springs spa town of Le Mont-Dore through many gorges, valleys, and villages until reaching the Gironde Estuary just north of Bordeaux, in southwestern wine country. It’s a wide, fast river, especially in its upper reaches near the towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, where it’s more reminiscent of western U.S. fly-fishing destinations such as Montana’s Madison than of France’s northern rivers, like the slow-moving Andelle of Normandy. As the English angling writer Charles Rangeley-Wilson wrote of France’s northern chalkstreams: “These are rivers that Eisenhower, Hemingway and Ritz fished.”
And of course they flow through French countryside, French villages, past cafés and restaurants and, in the case of the one where I’m sitting right now, the grounds of a private manor where you can stay on the top floor with views to the silent woods all around, and be absurdly well fed, wined, and watered.
A trip to the Dordogne Valley offers equal or better opportunities to be well fed and well wined; there’ll just be fewer Brits around when it happens. Not that the Dordogne is tourist free. It’s far too beautiful for that, and also too close to Burgundy’s wine country. Still, like most of France, the farther you get from Paris, the less touristy it becomes.
If you like to combine fly-fishing and food, then France is a logical choice. But for hardcore destination anglers, the country may sound like little more than a vacation trade-off—a way to appease the spouse’s desire for luxury and a good pinot, while still providing the angler an opportunity to “wet a line while you’re there.” But don’t be mistaken; France has a strong tradition of fly-fishing and fly-fishermen. I witnessed both firsthand as guide to the world’s most decorated competitive fly-fisher—France’s three-time World Champion Pascal Cognard—in the 17th World Fly-Fishing Championships, held in 1997 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Cognard and his comrades have excelled in world competitions ever since, in part because they simply have a lot of exceptional home water in which to practice, including the Dordogne.
The mainstem Dordogne is big water, and if it were in the U.S., it would undoubtedly be fished from a driftboat. But in France, it is most often accessed by wading, walking the banks or by renting a canoe. “Most fishermen on the Dordogne chest-wade and do ‘the heron,’” says Nick de Toldi, owner of Gourmetfly, a French field-sports tourism company, referring to an angler who stands in the water and waits motionless, like a heron. “The strong current prevents you from covering big distances while wading. No one floats here in boats like in America, but some guide friends of mine have done it while visiting Montana and came back impressed by the technique. They spoke many times of adapting it here, but it remained a mere project.”
Perhaps American driftboat manufacturers should look at expanding to southwest France. In the meantime, canoe rental operators along the Dordogne Valley provide a popular alternative. “A reader once asked me, if I were to bring a spry, 73-year-old grandmother to Europe, where would I go?” famed Europhile Rick Steves once wrote. “My response: I’d take her for a float down France’s Dordogne River in a canoe. I can’t think of a more relaxing way to enjoy great scenery while getting some exercise. And you can pop ashore whenever you like.”
Like Mr. Steves, fly-fishers have figured out that canoes are the tool of choice on the Dordogne. “Taking canoes is very common, because most companies allow you to rent upstream, drift down and get picked up by the canoe rental people to take you back to your car,” de Toldi says. “My brother has done it several times with a fly rod, but more to stop under cliffs of otherwise difficult access points than to fish as the boat drifts down.”
As the most famous waterway in the region, the main Dordogne can get crowded with canoes and kayaks in the summertime. Hitting one of its many smaller tributaries offers a more intimate angling experience, with clear, spring-fed runs surrounded with hatches of various mayflies and caddis. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy rivers to fish.
“You could compare the upper Dordogne to the Henry’s Fork [of the Snake River in Idaho],” says Cyril Kamir, founder and manager of the popular French online fly-fishing magazine, Le Mouching, who has fished the Dordogne region several times. “It’s a broad river, up to 120 feet wide, with many weeds and big trout. Due to the many little currents, you have to fish with very long leaders—16 feet is not unusual. The Dordogne always has a lot of fish, but they are difficult to catch, partly because there are a lot of water-level variations from the dams upstream. But it’s a good way to improve your fishing. I love it best in early and late season, when there are fewer people and lots of grayling and trout.”
According to Kamir, many French fly-fishers consider there to be two Dordognes. “No one fishes the lower Dordogne,” Kamir says. The anglers’ Dordogne is the upper or “Haute Dordogne,” near the charming, riverside towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. This area includes the Vézère River, a 130-mile fly-fishing-friendly tributary of the Dordogne that is home to 25 prehistoric cave systems containing numerous cave paintings dating back nearly 20,000 years. Both the Vézère and the Dordogne are home to several medieval castles along their banks, and UNESCO recently named the entire region, all 15,000 square miles of it, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site.
Within this area, you’ll find three of the Dordogne’s most famous tributaries—the Cère, the Maronne and the Doustre. The Cère flows 75 miles through the departments of Lot and Corrèze, entering the Dordogne on river left near the town of Bretenoux; the Morrone is a small stream with good mayfly hatches and big trout that could be mistaken for a river you might find in the Adirondacks of New York; and the Doustre is a small, sometimes technical river in a gorgeous setting. All three have dams, so anglers must be careful to keep a watchful eye on flows.
Mayfly hatches on all Dordogne Valley rivers start with March browns in spring and generally end with the last caddis hatch in September. Browns, rainbows and grayling are the main species, though several area lakes also have pike and carp. As for techniques, most rivers are great for dry flies by mid- summer. In early season, streamers are effective, but many Dordogne locals consider streamer fishing to not be fly-fishing, so be prepared for that discussion if you are a diehard streamer fisherman. Sight nymphing is not easy in most places because of the weeds, but usually works fine with an indicator.
What better way to celebrate that symbiosis than with rod in hand and wine in belly, doing “the heron” along the Dordogne River?
There are two important UNESCO sites in the Dordogne region and both are worth a visit. The first is the Vézère Valley, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979 due to its vast collection of vivid, colorful cave paintings. The Lascaux Cave, near Montignac, is easily the most famous of the valley’s 147 sites, with numerous large-animal paintings that are thought to be more than 17,000 years old. An 18-year- old discovered Lascaux in 1940, but visiting the caves became so popular that they were closed to the public in 1963 and a replica containing the main sections of artwork (Lascaux II) was built less than 700 feet away.
The second UNESCO designation occurred in July of 2012, when the entire Dordogne River basin was designated a Biosphere Reserve, the largest such reserve in France. The designation came largely because of socio-economic aspects, the beautiful scenery, the balance between economic development and conservation, and the extensive plant and animal biodiversity found there, including its 39 different species of fish.
The rules for fishing in France are complicated and ever evolving, but no more so than in parts of the U.S. Each of the country’s 101 departments (roughly equivalent to counties in the U.S.) sets its own laws, so for the most up-to-date info, it is best to contact one of the major fly shops, such as La Maison de la Mouche, which has operated in Paris since 1934. No matter where you fish, you’ll need a license. A full-season license costs around 70 euros, and a weekly (sometimes called a “Holiday License”) costs around 40 euros. In 2007, many regions also started selling daily licenses, but those often didn’t allow fishing until after May, and you’ll sometimes need another license if you move to another region.
Trout season in France begins the third Sunday in March, and generally closes by the third Sunday in September, except in and around some of the mountain regions, which remain open through mid-October. After this, you can still fish for grayling or other “course fish” (carp, pike, bass, etc.— basically, anything other than trout or salmon). This late- season fishing is especially popular and productive in the Dordogne and parts of the Massif Central in south-central France.
Lastly, waters in France are divided into First Category (lakes or rivers dominated by trout and salmon, where only one rod is allowed), and Second Category, which are lakes and rivers dominated by anything else. Second Category waters allow up to four rods, and up to two hooks each.