Les Truites Roses

Wherein we learn that it’s better to see than be one.

[by Joseph Heywood]

TO SET THE SCENE SOME 15 YEARS BACK: Oil and Water, Republicans and Democrats, Yeltsin and Gorby, early birds and worms, fly fishers and aluminum hatches, opposites presumed foes, as they often were and are.

I must confess: I have no significant hangups about canoes and their much-maligned hatch. Truth be known, neither do trout, but that’s for another time.

But let’s start even farther in the way-back, in the 1970s, when I was sitting on a razorback ridge on the banks of Michigan’s Pine River overlooking a deep, dark hole on a bend a half mile upstream from highway M-37, contemplating fish I hadn’t caught. At four in the morning there’d been a horrendous electrical storm and three hours of monsoon rain, which quickly turned the river the color of tea with an overabundance of cream. Only the most ignorant and unlucky trout would allow itself to be caught in such water, and thus I sat contentedly on my derriere-aerie, nursing a tepid beer, letting my mind go winder-wander, the simplest of tasks: my natural state.

A canoe with two couples wobbled around the bend to my right and banged onto the gravel bar piled with winter runoff detritus, my side of the river. They looked to be college-age kids. The two girls left their male companions on the trash pile and wormed their way into the wet underbrush, eventually reaching a point almost directly below me.

I coughed to let them know I was there.

Hearing me, they looked up, smiled, waved, and proceeded to undress, as the song goes, “All the Way to San Jose.” Having shed their wet duds, they milled around, striking various playful poses for my benefit, including a duet of jumping jacks that carried the sound of breasts slapping north and south.

After a few moments the clueless male companions began shouting impatiently from the trash pile. The girls quickly dressed in dry clothes. I gave them a round of silent applause, they curtsied politely, returned to the canoe, and primly continued downriver, never looking up.

Not long after this fun, my fishing pal Buck Berger came trudging through the woods with a resupply of beer rammed into his ruck.

“Catch any?”

I shook my head.

“See any?”

“Four,” I said.

He raised his eyebrows. “Browns?”

“Pinks,” I said. “Mostly.”

“Pink trout?”

“Oui, monsieur, il sont les truites roses.”

My first pink trout on trout water, and happily not my last.

In the autumn of 1997 I traveled to France a half dozen times to help my Swedish colleagues prepare for the global launch of a new drug. Three years prior, my company had merged with a Swedish firm in a euphemistically termed “marriage of equals,” but it turned out to be the kind of marriage where each of the equals sought to smother the other. Politely, of course. To the outside world, it was called inner corporate cultural conflict; inside, it was undeclared war and petty gamesmanship that damaged a lot of lives. Most of the conflict was at the top; down below we had work to do, which most of us did to the best of our abilities while ignoring the bullshit billowing like volcanic ash in the corporate skies overhead. African proverb: When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

As in my USAF-brat youth, when I learned to fit in fast, I found common ground with my new Swedish brethren. Sports had been the currency of my youth, and now it was hunting and fishing and the outdoor life that provided useful social glue. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Sweden look a lot alike, and the people in both venues share similar values and common interests. And last names, too, eh?

Each autumn our Swedish managerial team trooped en masse into the Swedish bush to hunt elk (their elk, our moose). During this time, it was difficult to get any work done, even though the Swedes prickled with cell phones, buzzers, and pagers alongside their scoped Sako rifles.

But elk hunting was nearly done, and we managed to gather most of the team at a cozy château hotel north of Paris, near Chantilly and Senlis. The place sat at the pinnacle of a steep, gumdrop-shaped hill, surrounded by the usual obsessively groomed European forest and grounds.

In such situations it was my practice to escape as often as possible for brief walkabouts. During the cab ride north from De Gaulle, I had seen the flash of water below the château, a quick glint through the yellow autumn forest, my eye always seeking water wherever I was.

Unexpectedly freed of an afternoon meeting, I made my way down to a pond of several acres, shaped like an amoeba with bays and peninsulas and grassy banks. Trees with creamy gray bark covered almond-shaped islands, their leaves claimed by the fall wind, a golden carpet on the ground against the constant green backdrop of pines. The pond’s shoreline was tame, almost sculpted, with no disorderly spiderwebs of monofilament line tangled in the grass or trees. Dotted here and there near the shore were picnic benches adorned with orange and gray lichen. It was a pleasant fall day, the rain having finished during the night and the sun, if not entirely out, suggesting it might soon have a peek at the world.

A trickle of a stream entered the pond and an outfall left, but I assumed the ponds were spring fed. The water was a bit stained from the night’s rain, but tolerably clear, so I searched for cruising fish, still-hunting around the shoreline, keeping back from the water’s edge. I saw several small rises and dainty sips, but no hatch in the air. The ground was soggy, the foliage still wet and spilling drops on the water.

Later I would learn there were five ponds in le forêt, and pushed by an inner beacon and luck, I had homed directly to the only one containing trout.

Bumppo-ing along, I began to see small mayflies in the air and trout cruising and lazily rising, suggesting the energy of pets feeding. The fish looked pale, chunky, most a foot or so long. Browns, I thought, but I couldn’t see well enough to know for certain.

Precisely at noon, under a clearing sky, I heard voices and saw dollops of color moving through the forest: two women in dark flower-print dresses, knee-high green gum boots, broad-brimmed fuchsia-colored straw hats, extended parasols bobbing like thin-stemmed toadstools in the wind, each carrying two bamboo fly rods. Trailing the women was a tall shaggy man loaded with baggage and wearing a black uniform as crisply pressed as an upscale undertaker.

The safari column eventually reached shore near the outfall, where the man in black unfurled a red carpet runner, perhaps 3 feet wide and 10 long, parallel to the bank, and patted it flat as the women removed their boots and replaced them with high heels. Très française; a surreal open-air drama arranged solely pour moi. This beat hell out of meetings!

The women were thirtyish-fortyish, with rounded faces, dark hair, and a vaguely shared resemblance. One sat on the picnic basket and methodically strung fly rods; they chattered with great animation, throwing back their heads with peals of laughter. An occasional eddying puff of wind carried flowery perfumes my way.

I was speechless and unnoticed, not more than 50 feet away, and in what I thought was plain view. What was this, Strip Trout?

Rods readied, the basket was then unloaded and a small white cloth placed over its top. Food was set out, a bottle of champagne and two bottles of red, four glasses, napkins, flatware. I heard the pop of a cork, watched the liveried man pour champagne into flutes, and then he departed stage left down the forest trail, not looking back.

The taller woman made a roll cast. The rod flashed. She twitched her fly, got an immediate take, set the hook, and line cut the water with an audible hiss. Two minutes later, as the fish splashed close to the grassy bank, the shorter woman captured it with a long-handled wooden net, turned orange by use and time. The women laughed, hugged, and gently slid the fish back into the dark water.

The smaller woman removed her hat, picked up one of the other rods, moved to the other end of the red carpet, and made her own roll cast, by which time the taller one was into another fish. This one resisted with greater vigor, but like its kin was eventually netted and released. The small woman laughed, waggled a finger, lifted her dress overhead, and slid it off. She then folded it neatly, placed it in the grass by the basket, poured more champagne into the two flutes. She wore red undergarments, severely cut with a minimum of fabric and a maximum of flesh.

Strange. Unexpected. Not to mention riveting.

Having shed her dress and handed Tall One a refill, she touched her flute to the first woman’s and giggled, their mov

ements reminiscent of wary cats. Little One got the third trout, dutifully netted and released by Tall One. Who took off her hat and sailed it into the grass.

A trend, I thought, though I knew it needed at least three data points to be plotted.

Tall One took number four. Little One shed her bra, placing it daintily on her dress.

Little One took number five, and Tall One slid out of her dress and set it, folded, on the picnic basket. Her pale yellow underwear was equally minimal.

I was speechless and unnoticed, not more than 50 feet away, and in what I thought was plain view. What was this, Strip Trout? And why not? This was France, where things are done differently and with élan, panache, savoir-faire, pick your own descriptor.

Both women stepped out of their shoes, no trout necessary, apparently, by a priori agreement.

Trout stopped rising momentarily. With the champagne finished, the women spread something on bread from a brown paper container, poured red wine into new glasses, and chatted with great animation while they chewed and drank, facing toward the sun and watching for trout to rise again.

I approached self-consciously .

They smiled demurely. No tan lines, I noticed.

“You zeke sa trouts?” Tall One asked in halting English, Americans being recognizable at first glance when outside our own habitat and yet, paradoxically, more difficult to identify within our habitat.

“I am observing,” I answered.

“Ah,” proclaimed Tall one. “Vou est voyeur de les truites, n’est ces pas?”

“Oui,” I said. “Et les belles femmes.”

“Merci, monsieur,” Tall One said, gifting me a smile.

I decided to turn toward technical aspects. “Quelle especie est les truites?”

Short One answered, “Ils sont les truites nu et glorieux.”

This dialogue, of course, is a bumbling re-creation of a bizarre conversation from more than a decade past, when I was 30 years past my high school French. And I haven’t asked an accomplished French speaker to clean it up now. I prefer to share it the way I think I remember it. What Short One said, I gathered, was that the trout in question were naked and glorious. As were, I thought to myself, the trouters.

I bade the ladies merci and adieu, and traipsed cross-country toward the château and duty. There was no sense in further exploration; I had found trout and much more.

When I got back to the château, one of my Swedish colleagues asked if I had seen trout and, if so, what species? I took a sip of proffered kir and champagne, thought about it, and answered, “Pink trout. Big, firm pink ones.”

That evening we were called by our corporate headquarters in Windsor and informed that the corporate offices, located in England since the merger, were now moving to New Jersey. The Swedes were devastated. I was dumbfounded.

One of my Swedish pals said, “At least it’s your country.”

I said with a sneer, “New Jersey ain’t in any country.”

That night before bed I replayed the day in my head. The French ladies were playing a harmless game that hurt nobody. Our corporate biggies were also playing a game, but one that eventually claimed a larger body count than a major firefight in Vietnam. The move was being made, as Corporate phrased it, “to put the corporation nearer to the epicenter of the global pharmaceutical industry.” Our CEO said there was “better talent available in New Jersey and that the move was being done to salvage the merged operation.” He didn’t mention that he and his wife had been long-time New Jersey residents before taking the job in Windsor. Rumor had it that wifey was très unhappy in Windsor, and I thought immediately of Shakespeare writing in Julius Caesar, “But when I tell him he hates flatterers / he says he does, being then most / flattered.”

In practice, theory is different.

The two corporations had merged, the senior management of each thinking it would erase the other under the rubric of equality, but the two CEOs who crafted the original deal had cleared out months back; the board brought in an outsider who had little use or regard for old blood and would soon be shedding heads in the interests of efficiency.

An analyst who first heard of the planned merger quipped, “You can’t get a Thoroughbred from breeding two dogs.” Less than five years later, the merged company was subsumed by another company, and the CEO and wifey (happily back in Joysee) received a rather large golden parachute. Few of the people from either company who were in France that day were around to see this ending, which the acquiring entity naturally billed as a beginning.

We fly fishers try to hurt our fish as little as possible, and it occurs to me that the trout are better taken care of than employees of many major corporations.

Four months later I gave notice. Two months later I departed. On May Day. That was 1998.

That night in the château I wished I had joined the strip trout game and spent the afternoon with the ladies. We regret only those things we do not do. Pink trout on two separate occasions, and no fiction in either instance.

Joseph Heywood is the author of 14 novels, a collection of short stories, a book of cartoons, and a fishing memoir.