There are Great Fish in the Rhone Canal

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Daily Star/June 10, 1922

Geneva.—In the afternoon a breeze blows up the Rhone valley from Lake Geneva. Then you fish upstream with the breeze at your back, the sun on the back of your neck, the tall white mountains on both sides of the green valley and the Ay dropping very fine and far off on the surface and under the edge of the banks of the little stream, called the Rhone canal, that is barely a yard wide, and flows swiftly and still.

Once I caught a trout that way. He must have been surprised at the strange fly and probably struck from bravado, but the hook set and he jumped into the air twice and zigged nobly back and forth and toward every patch of weed at the current bottom until I slid him up the side of the bank.

He was such a fine trout that I had to keep unwrapping him to take a look and finally the day got so hot that I sat under a pine tree on the bank of the stream and unwrapped the trout entirely and ate a paper-bag full of cherries I had and read the trout-dampened Daily Mail. It was a hot day, but I could look out across the green, slow valley past the line of trees that marked the course of the Rhone and watch a waterfall coming down the brown face of the mountain. The fall came out of a glacier that reached down toward a little town with four gray houses and three gray churches that was planted on the side of the mountain and looked solid, the water­fall, that is, until you saw it was moving. Then it looked cool and flickering, and I wondered who lived in the four houses and went to the three churches with the sharp stone spires.

Now if you wait until the sun gets down behind the big shoulder of the Savoie Alps where France joins on to Switzerland, the wind changes in the Rhone valley and a cool breeze comes clown from the mountains and blows downstream toward the Lake of Geneva. When this breeze comes and the sun is going down, great shadows come out from the mountains, the cows with their many-pitched bells begin to be driven along the road, and you fish down the stream.

There are a few flies over the water and every little while some big trout rises and goes “plop” where a huge tree hangs over the water. You can hear the “plop” and look back of you up the stream and see the circles on the water where the fish jumped. Then is the time to rewrap the trout in Lord Northcliffe’s latest speech reported verbatim, the reported imminent demise of the coalition, the thrilling story of the joking earl and the serious widow, and, saving the Bottomley case to read on the train going home, put the trout-filled paper in your jacket pocket. There are great trout in the Canada du Rhone, and it is when the sun has dropped back of the mountains and you can fish down the stream with the evening breeze that they can be taken.

Fishing slowly down the edge of the stream, avoiding the willow trees near the water and the pines that run along the upper edge of what was once the old canal bank with your back cast, you drop the fly on to the water at every likely looking spot. If you are lucky, sooner or later there will be a swirl or a double swirl where the trout strikes and misses and strikes again, and then the old, deathless thrill of the plunge of the rod and the irregular plunging, circling, cutting up stream and shooting into the air fight the big trout puts up, no matter what country he may be in. It is a clear stream and there is no excuse for losing him when he is once hooked, so you tire him by working him against the current and then, when he shows a flash of white belly, slide him up against the bank and snake him up with a hand on the leader.

It is a good walk in to Aigle. There are horse chestnut trees along the road with their flowers that look like wax candles and the air is white and dusty, and I thought of Napoleon’s grand army, marching along it through the white dust on the way to the St. Bernard pass and Italy. Napoleon’s batman may have gotten up at sun up before the camp and sneaked a trout or two out of the Rhone canal for the Little Corporal’s breakfast. And before Napoleon the Romans came along the valley and built this road and some Helvetian in the road gang probably used to sneak away from the camp in the evening to try for a big one in one of the pools under the willows. In the Roman days the trout perhaps weren’t as shy.

So I went along the straight white road to Aigle through the evening and wondered about the grand army and the Romans and the Huns that traveled light and fast, and yet must have had time to try the stream along towards daylight, and very soon I was in Aigle, which is a very good place to be. I have never seen the town of Aigle, it straggles up the hillside, but there is a café across the station that has a galloping gold horse on top, a great wisteria vine as thick through as a young tree that branches out and shades the porch with hanging bunches of purple flowers that bees go in and out of all day long and that glisten after a rain; green tables with green chairs, and seven per cent dark beer. The beer comes foaming out in great glass mugs that hold a quart and cost forty centimes, and a barmaid smiles and asks about your luck.

Trains are always at least two hours apart in Aigle, and those waiting in the station buffet, this cafe with the golden horse and the wisteria-hung porch is a station buffet, mind you, wish they would never come.

(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)

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