H2O Magazine

THE CHARM OF THE CHALKSTREAMS

The chalkstreams of Great Britain is the place of origin of fly fishing
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THE CHALKSTREAMS OF GREAT BRITAIN

The chalkstreams of Britain are the birthplace of fly fishing and are steeped in a long and distinguished history. Along their courses the tactics and skills that have since grown into our modern day sport were devised and perfected, transforming fly fishing into the sport that we now recognise.

The UK contains 85% of the world’s chalkstreams, a very valuable and limited resource both ecologically and financially. These streams, mainly of southern England, provide some of the finest dry fly and sight nymph fishing anywhere in the world.

MODERN TACTICS ON A CHALKSTREAM

Although the same basic river equipment is used, the clarity of the water means that our method and approach has to be very different. It is usual to only cast to either rising fish or those that we can clearly see feeding subsurface on nymphs. The tactic is to start at the bottom or downstream end of the beat and work slowly upstream, stopping frequently to scan the immediate area in front, but also being aware of any movement further upstream.

On well managed beats benches are often placed at reasonable distances along the bank side, usually in positions that give the angler a good view of the water ahead. These are not placed there to rest weary limbs, but to encourage the slow pace of this type of fishing. While sitting quietly and carefully studying the stream, many other aspects of the countryside can be witnessed; the bank side flowers and the birds singing in the bushes are all part of the chalkstream fishing experience.

THE EQUIPMENT

Rods of between 7 ½ and 9’ rated from 3# to 5# lines are the norm these days, the shorter rods for small brooks and streams with the longer and slightly heavier on wider stretches of the river Test and Avon.  Leader length is governed by the size of fly and wind conditions prevailing, but as a generalisation nothing shorter than 9’.

Fishing pressure on the larger popular rivers means that there is usually some form of artificial stocking of mainly brown trout although a few fishery owners on the River Test system still supplement with rainbow trout.

“God did never make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling”. (Isaac Walton)

REFRESHED

Fly fishing on the chalkstreams gives a person the opportunity to get away from the pressures of modern life and return refreshed at the end of the day, whether having caught fish or not. It restores the human spirit and prepares us to deal with everyday life. If catching fish were the only goal, fishing would lose is fun and excitement and become just a chore. Stealth, observation and pinpoint casting will result in success.

The old military maxim of “time spent in observation is never wasted” is very true when we are fishing the chalkstreams. Those that can be patient, watching, waiting and by casting infrequently will always be the most successful.

Fishing the dry fly on our chalkstreams can be very challenging; firstly spotting a feeding fish, next selecting the correct imitation to match the hatch and finally presenting the fly accurately and without drag. These are skills need to be learnt to become successful and it is a method of catching fish that can be extremely rewarding, occasional very frustrating, but a truly sporting way of pursuing trout.

The rule “upstream dry fishing only” is not set in legislative law, it is merely an edict set down by almost every owner and manager of a chalkstream fishery to which every angler who fishes the water has to comply.

THE PRINCIPLE CHALKSTREAMS IN SOUTHERN ENGLAND

RIVER TEST

The Test must be the most famous trout fishing river in the world, not only for the quality of the fish, but also for the past literary history and characters. By far the biggest of all chalkstreams 30 + miles as the crow flies from source to sea it offers over 100 miles of fishing.

Over the centuries man’s manipulation for irrigation and milling purposes have resulted in a braided river system of many carriers, most of which are fishable. The literary heritage is probably the richest of any river, with the writings of Peter Hawker, Plunket Greene, John Waller Hills and probably the most famous of all F M Halford.

From the source ½ mile to the east of Overton at Ashe, the river flows west to Whitchurch before turning south to continue the onward journey. Primarily the Test is known as a trout fishery, but at Testwood before the river spills into the Solent double figure salmon and sea trout are caught regularly.

 

The river is joined by four main tributaries of the Bourne Rivulet, Dever, Anton and Dun and some lesser streams including the Wallop Brook and Blackwater. Another notable to the river is William Lunn who was appointed in 1887 as river keeper to Houghton Club and devised some forty artificial fly patterns, some of which are still in use today.

The most famous are the Lunn’s Particular, Houghton Ruby, Sherry Spinner and Caperer. When William retired his son Alf took over as head keeper followed by his son Mick who continued until his retirement in 1992.

The majority of fishery managers open their trout season on 1st May through to 31st September with limited grayling fishing until the end of the year. For any avid trout fly fisherman the river Test is a “must do” at least once in a life time, to walk in the foot steeps of those that so influenced our sport is almost an epiphany moment.

RIVER ITCHEN

The River Itchen is formed by the streams Candover, Arle and Titchbourne coming together just west of New Alresford. The Itchen to Winchester is some six miles in length and must be considered as some of the finest trout fly fishing but also for the serene beauty of the countryside through which if flows.

The valley in this part has remained fairly untouched, unlike the urbanisation of motorways and airports which has occurred lower down the river system. The river between source and Winchester is mostly run by private clubs and syndicates, very occasionally day rods
become available.

There are many notables that have fished the Itchen over the years including G.E.M. Skues. Skues fished the river mainly at Abbotts Barton for 56 years where he developed the theories of nymph fishing writing to classic books (Minor Tactics of the Chalkstream, 1910 and The Way of a Trout with a Fly, 1921).

Viscount Gray of Falladon who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916 would also frequent its banks. Grey would travel down by train on Saturdays leaving London on the 6 am train and be on the water very early after walking from the station via his cottage to collect his fishing tackle.

This is all described in his classic book Fly Fishing first published in 1899. F. M. Halford also fished there, along with the enigmatic figure of G. S. Marryat, who it is believed greatly influenced Halford’s ideas and thinking. Apparently Skues was not very complimentary about Halfords choice of gut. Good fly hatches can be expected but, mayfly hatches are generally lighter than on the River Test system.

RIVER AVON

There are two headwater streams that feed the Avon, both rising in the Vale of Pewsey; the West Avon stream rises in greensand whereas the East Avon comes from chalk. Because of the west arm the Avon cannot be considered a true chalkstream in the strictest sense of the word and sometimes can become a little coloured after persistent heavy rain which usually clears after a couple of days.

Below the confluence just above Upavon the river runs through chalk, down the valley to Salisbury and beyond. Named the Hampshire Avon, the river actually flows for the majority of its length through Wiltshire.

The river Avon trout season starts on 1st April in time to catch hatches of Grannom and Large Dark Olives and continues through until 15th October. The Upper reaches of the Avon, at Netheravon, was home to two more of fly fishing’s greats, Frank Sawyer and Oliver Kite.

It is from their observations on the river here that led to numerous creations that continued to shape fly fishing around the world. Consistently good fly hatches, especially Mayfly (Greendrake), make the Avon a firm favourite for fly fishermen.

RIVER KENNET

The Kennet Catchment stretches from the upper reaches of the Winterbournes above Avebury west of Marlborough in Wiltshire, to Reading in Berkshire where the Kennet flows into the Thames.
The catchment is defined by the chalk uplands of the Marlborough and Berkshire Downs to the North and the Hampshire Downs to the south.

Much of the area falls within the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The river is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) from near its sources west of Marlborough down to Woolhampton, between Newbury and Reading.

From Newbury downstream the river starts to run through clay and has to be classed more as a coarse fishery rather than trout. There are many small tributaries that feed the Kennet but only the Dun and Lambourn can be considered as trout fisheries.

Once again we have to thank the water engineers of the eighteenth century that created over 80 miles of fishable water although it is only some 22 miles from Marlborough to Newbury by road. The river below Hungerford near Kintbury usually experiences massive hatches of mayfly to rival and surpass anything that can be seen on the Test or Avon systems.

RIVER WYLYE

The river Wylye is one of the three true chalkstreams in the Avon catchment. Rising in the Deverills close by to the Longleat Estate and Warminster and running for 22 miles through the chalk valley before joining the Nadder just south of Wilton, three miles from Salisbury.

In the late 1980s and early 90s the river suffered badly after a succession of low rainfall years and heavy abstraction. Fortunately there is now much less abstraction and with weather patterns returning to something more normal during the last decade, the river has bounced back to its former glory.

Excellent natural spawning conditions on the upper reaches including the winterbourne tributaries of the Chittern Brook and Till and careful fishery management will result in a self-sustaining wild trout population.

The Wylye is probably one of the most sympathetically managed fisheries giving good hatches of all the up-winged flies. The mayfly hatch is usually a week to ten days later than those on the Avon and Test. The trout fishing season officially starts on the 1st April continuing until 15th October although like other rivers, riparian owners and fishery managers can set their own seasons within this period if wished.

Fly fishing on the British chalkstreams is nothing less than walking in the footsteps of those that created our sport. Watching the mayfly dance along the rushes on a long summer evening and later, experiencing the thrill of a splashy rise as they swoop low on the water to carry out their life cycle is a thrill that every fly fisherman should experience.

The visual element that we love so much is the essence that makes the style of upstream fly fishing so exciting.  The history and tradition on so many of these beats remains, allowing one to make parallels from old texts and walk the same banks as those that came before us.

Bill Latham

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