Interpretation of Streams

Others may hold bigger fish and flow through scenery even more dramatic, but the River Test and its neighbors hold a very special place in the hearts of fly fishermen, reports Andrew Powell.

At the western edge of the English village of Stockbridge, just before the storefronts peter out and the fields resume, a simple bridge spans a clear, even-paced river, the clean stones of its gravel bed visible between long, swaying tresses of bright-green ranunculus weed. The River Test, which flows for 30 miles or so along a fertile alluvial valley before running into the sea at Southampton, is a trout stream that occupies a special niche in the collective imagination of fly fishermen the world over. For sure, there are rivers that hold bigger fish and many that pass through scenery more dramatic than that of the gentle English countryside. But the incomparably serene Test can boast a pedigree, having been one of the streams (along with the nearby Itchen) on which the techniques of fly-fishing were refined, back in the mid-19th century. (Although in its modern guise fly-fishing is a Victorian invention, its roots in England go deeper still. Izaak Walton published his classic, The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man's Recreation, in 1653, and today his tomb can be found just nine miles from Stockbridge, in the nave of Winchester Cathedral.)

I met my guide, John Russell, outside the Grosvenor Hotel in Stockbridge, which is the ground zero of chalkstream trout fishing in England. "Up there is where the Houghton Club holds its meetings," he said, pointing to a row of second-floor windows above the columns of the hotel's portico. Under English law it is possible to own fishing rights, and nearly all the chalkstreams are private property, so to fish there you either have to be invited or at least know the right people to ask. And no stretch of river is more jealously guarded than that part of the middle Test downstream from Stockbridge, sections of which are owned by members of the legendarily tight-knit and socially exclusive fraternity of the Houghton Club. Fortunately for the rest of us, with the help of someone like John Russell, who over the years has become acquainted with a majority of the local landowners, most things are possible with adequate planning. In fact, the chalkstreams are probably more accessible nowadays than they have ever been.

After a quick lunch in the hotel bar, we wandered along to the bridge to look for signs of activity, passing on the way the shop that was the headquarters of Russell's little empire from 1983 until 1996. Having begun his working life as a wine buyer, first with the London department store Fortnum & Mason, and then with sherry producers Gonzalez Byass, he switched careers in midstream, accepting an offer to found and subsequently manage a British offshoot of Orvis, the well-known sporting-gear company, on behalf of its American owners, the Perkins family. Thirteen years as a businessman proved sufficient, however, and eventually Russell decided it was time to pursue a less demanding lifestyle as a private guide. Today, members of the Perkins family are among his regular clients.

We stood peering over the bridge watching the trout below: dark shapes that hung in the current, every so often sliding sideways to suck in a passing morsel of food. Having fished on the chalkstreams for half his life, what, I wondered, was Russell's own favorite stretch of river? "Well, the place I never tire of is where we're going this evening," he replied. "For most people the middle Test, the stretch immediately below Stockbridge, represents the essence of chalkstream fishing: The river is wide and smooth; the flow is controlled; the weed is cut twice a season; the banks are mown once a week; everything is manicured. But for me, the Bourne Rivulet is what it's really all about. It's a tributary of the upper Test. Where I fish, the stream is about fifteen feet wide; the water is transparent and you can go anywhere in thigh waders. The fish are all wild brown trout and you have to stalk them, using fine tackle and, if necessary, very small flies. It's not the sort of fishing which would appeal to everyone. It's more difficult: Just a flash of sunlight reflected from a rod tip and you can put down every fish within thirty yards."

The English chalkstreams (which have equivalents over the Channel in Normandy) are found chiefly in the three southern counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Dorset, those furthest to the east being within two hours of central London by car. The major rivers are the Test and the Itchen, close to Winchester, and the Avon, near Salisbury, each of which has a network of subsidiary "carriers," often manmade and designed either to regulate the main flow or, centuries ago, to flood the surrounding meadows. (Flooding fields in winter protected the grass from frost so there was more food for the livestock in early spring.) In addition, there are significant tributaries like the Nadder, Dever, Wylye, and Anton, as well as numerous smaller streams such as the Bourne Rivulet. Chalkstreams are formed by rainwater filtering down through limestone until it reaches a layer of impermeable clay. When it reemerges through a spring, the water is both alkaline—which is good for insect life and hence for fish—and extremely pure. (As clear as gin and twice as expensive, as the English like to say.)

Russell parked his Jeep Cherokee in a meadow bright with yellow cowslips and we wandered over to the side of the stream. It was already six o'clock, but in England on fine evenings in late June it remains light until after ten. Initially there didn't seem to be much insect activity, so the trout were not much in evidence either. "Look at those sedge," Russell said, drawing my attention to the caddisflies, maybe 50 in all, engaged in their familiar aerial dance beneath the overhanging branch of a hawthorn tree. "It's far too early in the year for them. Must be climate change or something. There's even the odd mayfly still around." He pointed to an unusually large insect, with wings like the sails of a junk, drifting steadily downstream. It appeared extraordinarily vulnerable, but for some reason the trout showed not the slightest interest in this succulent free meal. I took this as a bad omen.

Classic chalkstream technique requires the fisherman to wait patiently until a trout rises and then, having identified precisely what it is feeding on, to present an exact imitation. Searching the water, or casting at random in the hope that a fish will rise to your fly, tends to be completely counterproductive. The water is so clear that the trout are easily spooked and the fall of a fly line, or even its shadow, will generally send them dashing for cover in the weeds. On a tiny stream like the Bourne Rivulet, however, the method requires some modification. "Here you have to sneak up on them," Russell explained. "Look carefully with polarizing glasses, and if you spot a trout, try to see if it's active. If it's on the lookout for food then it may well rise to an appropriate fly. But if it's just lying there, treading water, then you're wasting your time and it's best to move on."

Trying to remember all this sage advice I slipped gingerly into the water, which was approximately three feet deep, or about a quarter of an inch above my waders. Its clarity was astounding, and in fact it was only movement and reflection that rendered it visible at all. In recent years, farmers have removed many of the ancient hedgerows that make up the characteristic landscape of southern England in order to create larger fields that are more compatible with modern mechanized agriculture. As a result, runoff from the land has increased, and in places the chalkstreams are no longer as clear as they once were. The lower Test, for example, can nowadays be quite turbid and it's not very highly regarded by fishermen. This problem has been exacerbated by excessive water extraction to satisfy the thirst of nearby towns, resulting in a reduced flow and the consequent buildup of silt. Today it tends to be the upper reaches, or headwaters, of the chalkstreams that are most prized for fishing. Certainly on the Bourne Rivulet, just a mile or so from its source, I could clearly see every tiny pebble, every trembling strand of weed.

After an hour and a half, it seemed that the trout must have an equally clear view of me. Despite using an ultrafine leader and a tiny dry fly, as well as taking exaggerated care to remain hidden, nothing at all had happened. Even Russell's encouragement and words of friendly advice were beginning to seem mildly irritating. But in fact my dilemma did not require a complex diagnosis: Despite it being a warm summer evening, very few insects were hatching and the trout simply could not be bothered to stir themselves until there was sufficient food available to make the effort worthwhile. It was not until the sun had sunk to an oblique angle, so that it was shining directly in my eyes, that the trout began to rise with calm and steady confidence.

The advanced chalkstream fisherman is supposed to have a sufficient knowledge of entomology to be able to determine immediately what the trout are eating and match this precisely with an artificial lure. In reality, such esoteric knowledge is not mandatory, as there are six or seven generic flies which, if you know when and how to use them, will invariably catch fish under normal conditions. One of these is the Kite's Imperial, which is actually intended to represent a common upwinged fly—the so-called Ephemeroptera. At this late juncture, I was certainly not about to become too technical, particularly when my main concern was putting a large tree between myself and the sunset so I could at least begin to see what was going on. I eventually succeeded, just in time to see my fly being immersed in a deep and gratifying swirl. There really is nothing like two or three hours' complete frustration to intensify the pleasure of landing a trout.

The fish in the Bourne Rivulet are of modest size, generally around 15 inches long and weighing a pound, but there are certainly much bigger ones, and my first (of three) that evening was just an ounce or so shy of two pounds. On light tackle, in a narrow stream, this is large enough to provide a few moments of excitement and uncertainty.

Until ten or 15 years ago, the English regarded trout fishing as a "field sport" and hence, for some atavistic reason, felt obliged to kill everything they caught. Attitudes are rapidly changing, however, owing to greater environmental awareness, pressure on resources, and more enlightened habits imported from North America, to the dismay of the more traditional minded. As in the States, it is now customary to fish with barbless hooks and to return all wild trout to the river. (A debate continues about stocked fish, but the majority opinion seems to support killing them to avoid corruption of the wild gene pool.)

"That's one of the great things about this place," Russell said as we made our way back to the Jeep through the dusk. "All the fish are wild brown trout. No stock fish. No rainbows, which are an American species and shouldn't be here anyway. Just nature, the way it was intended."

Much of the world's best trout fishing, whether in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, or the American West, is to be found in wild, mountainous country, far from the comforts of civilization. As a result, fishing lodges tend to be rather spartan places. There are exceptions, of course, but the pattern is distinctly more functional than epicurean. In contrast, one of the pleasures of English chalkstream fishing, which is anything but a macho sport, is returning to a comfortable hotel at the end of the day, where a bathtub, double bed, and a bottle of Bordeaux await you. Lainston House, just ten minutes' drive from Stockbridge, is a late-17th-century mansion, constructed in the mellow red brick characteristic of the William and Mary style. Overall it is a building which seems to embody calm, order, and unruffled continuity. From the paneled bar at the rear of the hotel we strolled out onto a terrace and gazed down a majestic allée of lime trees, half a mile in length. A waiter arrived shortly with two glasses of Champagne, a plate of canapés, and the menu for dinner that evening. Just for a second I had a vivid recollection of another fishing trip, this one in Alaska, where I had slept in a leaky hut with damp bedding next to a smoking stove, the air outside opaque with mosquitoes. "When I was managing director of Orvis," Russell said, "I organized some fishing for former President Jimmy Carter and we put him up here. He certainly seemed to enjoy it."

Chalkstream fishing comes in three basic sizes: small, medium, and large. Having fished on a tiny brook, the Bourne Rivulet, our next day's destination was the Nadder, a major tributary of the Avon, which flows along an exquisitely picturesque valley just to the west of Salisbury, where medieval villages of golden stone tuck themselves tidily into clefts and folds in the land. After a drive of about 45 minutes, we pulled into the grounds of an estate and parked just short of a handsome stone bridge. Leaning on the parapet to try to catch a glimpse of the monster trout that Russell claimed lived in a deep hole directly beneath, I found my attention drawn in the direction of the adjacent Georgian country house. What kind of person, I wondered, had the outrageous good fortune to live in a magnificent 18th-century Neoclassical mansion with a private trout stream at the foot of his garden?

The stretch of river we were about to fish belonged to the landowner and is normally inaccessible to the public, but Russell's contacts were once more proving invaluable. The Nadder is a chalkstream of medium size, which means it is always possible to cast from one bank to the other without undue effort, but there are deep pools where it is nonetheless impractical to wade. Other than on small streams, where you may have to squeeze into an otherwise inaccessible position, wading is seldom necessary on chalkstreams (and is undesirable anyway as it's virtually impossible to avoid scaring the fish). While walking beside the Nadder, Russell ensured that we stayed at least 15 feet back from the edge, and when the time came to cast for a specific rising trout, I was instructed to crawl forward, remaining as low against the skyline as possible, using the available vegetation as cover. This was not at all arduous, as the major chalkstreams are regularly trimmed and manicured for the benefit of fishermen, and the grass beside the Nadder had recently been mown.

England is not wild in the American sense (parts of Scotland and Wales are a different story), the countryside having been shaped and improved for so many centuries that it is now effectively one enormous garden. And the chalkstreams are an embodiment of this process, being in many ways entirely artificial. Manmade weirs oxygenate the water; the banks are supported with timbers to prevent soil erosion and the buildup of silt; and at least twice a year the weed is ruthlessly cut back to ensure that the water continues to flow fast and clear. The idea that nature can be "improved" by judicious alteration is central to the English tradition of romantic landscape gardening, and there are times on the chalkstreams that you feel like a participant in some grand design of William Kent or Capability Brown.

Owing to a combination of conditions and circumstances which we never came to understand fully, the Nadder proved rather sullen that day and a great deal of effort was rewarded with just two brown trout, neither of which would have made much of a splash in the record books. Although years of experience had taught him to be philosophical on such occasions, Russell was clearly as disappointed as I was, the Nadder being one of his favorite streams and one which, he assured me, was invariably productive and contained a significant number of good-sized fish. It was now up to the Test to make amends the following morning.

Thanks once again to his personal acquaintance with the owner, Russell had secured permission for us to fish a half-mile beat of the river, just upstream from the water belonging to the Houghton Club. (Not all of the Test is the property of landed patricians, one particularly desirable stretch being owned by a member of the rock band Pink Floyd.) In its middle reaches, the Test has a character of unhurried grandeur, sliding through the Hampshire meadows at a stately pace, its surface unruffled except by flocks of swans and the rings of rising fish. A century ago it was a celebrated salmon river, but the annual salmon run slowly declined, and it subsequently developed a reputation as England's premier trout stream. Nowadays, thanks to a program of environmental reconstruction, a few salmon are beginning to return, but it will be many years, if ever, before they once again take precedence over the indigenous brown trout.

Unlike the nearby River Itchen, which flows down a parallel valley a few miles to the east, the Test has remained serene and inviolate, the central artery of a timeless Arcadian landscape. Although traditionally the fishing on the Itchen has been rated as least as good, if not superior, long stretches of that river now suffer from noise pollution from the M3 highway, the main route from London to Southampton.

Russell and I began our day sitting quietly on a wooden bench by the side of the river, studying the water and trying to decide what insects were being borne along by the current. Through polarizing glasses I could see two or three trout within easy casting distance, but they did not appear to be feeding and there was depressingly little surface activity. Every so often a fish rose, but almost never in the same place. Soon, frustration got the better of me and I began some speculative casting.

"It is amazing how selective these fish can be sometimes," Russell said from somewhere behind my left shoulder. "For example, if you use a generic pattern like a Kite's Imperial, or maybe a Greenwell's Glory, which is a fair representation of most kinds of dark and medium olives, then you're giving yourself a good chance. But if they suddenly start feeding exclusively on, say, black gnats, you haven't got a hope unless you realize what is happening and switch to the relevant fly."

Time passed, a heavy shower intervened, and still the trout remained stubbornly elusive. Eventually, there was nothing else to do but admit defeat and adjourn to a nearby pub for lunch. On our return to the river however, at about 3:30, we immediately felt that something had changed. It was hard to say exactly what, but there was now a palpable mood of expectation. The sunshine was a little less fitful and it had become much more humid. Sure enough, before long there were trout feeding enthusiastically all over the river, the only trouble being that it was impossible to determine on what. More from hope than conviction, Russell proposed trying a Houghton Ruby, a fly devised by William Lunn, a famous river keeper on the Test in the early years of the 20th century. Tied with flat wings, it is intended to sit low on the surface film and to represent the female iron blue spinner in the process of laying her eggs. Devoutly hoping that the trout had been studying the relevant entomology textbook, I selected a fish I could see clearly and which was rising consistently. Even kneeling down, several feet from the edge of the river, it was an easy cast. The fly landed in precisely the right place, and without the slightest hesitation the trout rose to the surface and took it effortlessly. It was a perfect Test fish, with deep gold flanks and crimson spots, about two and a half pounds. Having returned it gently to the river, I proceeded to catch three other similar fish in quick succession just before, for no apparent reason, all activity abruptly ceased.

Resuming my seat on the bench, I gazed across the now tranquil river and submitted to the prevailing atmosphere of profound and inexpressible calm. At such a moment and in such a setting it was impossible not to concur with Izaak Walton's 350-year-old assessment that fly-fishing is "the contemplative man's recreation." Certainly there seemed little reason to doubt that the chalkstreams will long continue to beguile new generations with their own particular and inimitable magic.