Overwintering as a fly fisher in the United Kingdom can be depressing, tangled between grey overcast skies, short daylight hours and less than enthusiastic fish. My fishing buddy and I had managed only a single trip out to a lake in the Cotswolds so far, but it just didn’t feel right to be casting into a man-made lake towards stocked trout released from an adjoining hatchery. We needed more to satisfy our fishing needs and we had to get out of London on the weekend, instead of spending another afternoon in the pub. We had spent time fishing the reservoirs and lakes in the southern UK, so we started our search for moving water and a chance, perhaps, to find prey that was different to what we’d encountered before.
Our research took us to the chalkstreams of southern England, which are favourably placed in proximity to London for a day trip. The chalkstreams spread across southern England from the River Ouse in Sussex, to the rivers Itchen and Test in Hampshire, the Kennet in Berkshire, the Avon, Nadder and Wylye in Wiltshire and the Frome and Piddle in Dorset. There are a little over 200 of these systems in the world, with over 80% of them in England alone, with the gin clear waters flowing through what are some of the most unspoilt water meadows, farmland and countryside in England.
Chalkstreams are spring fed systems characterized by shallow channels and due to the filtering effect of the underlying chalk their waters are crystal clear and alkaline. The river bed generally comprises small angular gravels that originate from the natural flint deposits found within the chalk. The stable flows and water temperatures (10 degrees C/50 degrees F) rarely fluctuate annually, so they can have good water quality and limited fine sand sized particle movement.
These stable conditions provide fertile ecosystems supporting an abundance of aquatic vegetation, including crowfoot and starworts in the channel, along with other aquatic plants such as watercress and water-parsnip along the riparian margin. The abundance of these plants are an artefact of the stable flows, clear water and availability of nutrients for growth.
This in turn provides habitat for a diverse community of stoneflies, mayflies, caddisflies and other aquatic life like snails and shrimp, among others. It is these invertebrates that provide a source of food for the recreational fish species, including brown trout, grayling and Atlantic salmon. Rainbow trout have also been stocked in some systems to enhance the fly fishing experience.
The chalkstreams in Hampshire have been significantly modified by humans over the millennia, beginning with the Romans who used the rivers to power their mills to grind flour. In later years an intricate system of carriers and millstreams were established on adjoining floodplains to power mills and flood farmland to improve productivity. Today the chalkstreams are privately owned by various ‘riparian estates’, who manage the aquatic and riparian vegetation to maximize habitat diversity for the resident fish and angler access, respectively. Stocking programs are also used to maintain the fish stocks, especially for brown trout. We negotiated a day’s fishing on the River Test near Wherwell, just before the start of the brown trout season to target the resident grayling.
The Test is generally regarded as one of the birthplaces of modern fly-fishing, with the famous Houghton Club in Stockbridge records to dating back to 1822. The resident population of brown trout and grayling have long been regarded as the ultimate quarry in this river. In addition, great fishers such as Sawyer and Skues, along with entomologists such as Halford and Lunn, started their work in the Test and other nearby chalkstreams. The techniques they pioneered and the natural history they learnt were a precursor to the fly-fishing methods that we all know and use today, like dry fly and nymph fishing, along with the upstream method of fishing. The River Test originates near the village of Ashe in north Hampshire and if all the backwater, carrier and feeder streams were combined, there is nearly 140km/90mi of river fishing along its length. In some sections there can be up to four carrier streams running parallel to each other, all of which are fishable.
The aquatic vegetation in the Test like other chalkstreams, generally grows close to the river surface. This encouraged the early flyfishers to develop techniques that kept the fly and line on the surface and free from submerged vegetation. However, this wasn’t to say that wet fly techniques didn’t evolve in the areas with limited aquatic vegetation, much to the distain of some of the early dry-fly purists. Nonetheless, given the prolific mayfly hatches that occur on the Test during May and June, along with the abundance of aquatic vegetation, dry fly fishing remains the preferred technique.
The chalkstream systems differ from the rivers I fished during my formative years in New Zealand, which included the river draining into Lake Taupo, along with others in the central/lower north Island. Spring fed streams in general were simply not part of my fishing repertoire, although there I did fish a few spring fed streams back home. The action of casting a fly, the anticipating of the strike, the joy of seeing the beauty in the fish and the surrounding environment, is something I will never tire of regardless of how cold my fingers get, or how many flies I lose.
In contrast, Matt grew up fishing for pike and largemouth bass within lakes of the north eastern United States, mainly with spinning tackle. His Grandfather got him into fishing early on, so Matt was a recent convert to fly-fishing and hadn’t fished a river seriously before. Given that he had previously lived in Vermont, California and Washington State, there’s not a day goes by that he wishes he hadn’t picked up a fly rod sooner.
Neither of us had seen a grayling before, let alone targeted one with a fly, so we spent breakfast discussing fishing tactics and the plan of attack with some local anglers. We found out that grayling are from the salmonid family and often referred to as the lady of the stream, or the shadow of the river. Grayling are omnivorous and feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans and molluscs, along with smaller fish and aquatic plants. As it was mid-winter we decided that nymphing would be our primary approach for the day, although we had the odd dry fly just in case a resident fish decided to rise in the afternoon sun.
With stomachs full of bacon and eggs we spent the first hour fishing on one of the carrier streams of the Test near the club house. It was a small channel approximately five metres wide, with limited aquatic vegetation, and although wadable we opted to wander along the manicured grass banks to minimise the risk of spooking the resident fish. The grayling we found were feeding sub-surface, and given the local advice, we tied heavily weighted pink shrimp nymphs to the tippet, with a trailing hare and copper nymph dropper. This set-up allowed the weighted shrimp to bounce along the bottom of shallow runs, while the hare and copper drifted higher in the water column.
By lunchtime we had covered a fair amount of water and landed several fish in the 1-2lb size range, and although grayling put up a good fight once hooked, they didn’t strike with the usual vigour of other sport salmonids. I usually rely on a strike indictor to assist in identifying a take, so it meant maintaining a keen eye for the slightest twitch to the indicators path down the stream, or to the flash as the fish moved to take the fly. Nonetheless, once hooked grayling are good fighters for their size and easily compare to the fight given by trout of a comparable size.
After lunch we decided to head over to the main stem to enjoy some of the sunnier and more varied sections of the river. The mainstem channel had more aquatic vegetation in general, but provided a larger area of water to cover and wider stream channels to lay our casts. Thus, due to the aquatic vegetation we decided to change to dry flies. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any grayling in the mainstem and since the brown trout weren’t rising to the dry, we decided to head back to another side channel where we had seen a number of grayling feeding along shallow run. After an hour or so with limited success back nymphing we returned to the reach we had fished in the morning, and quickly landed multiple decent sized grayling.
The day was over far too quickly, but the clear skies and favourable fishing conditions meant the river came through with enough action to remedy the winter doldrums. It was the perfect day to take a day out from London and enjoy the fresh air and stunning environment in the area. However, most of all we enjoyed learning a about the heritage of these waters and the fishing techniques that were developed here all those years ago. Being able to fish in the area where many of the modern fly fishing techniques were developed was a privilege, made ever better by the scenic waters and surrounding countryside, and success with the lady of the stream.