Saturday, 25 September 2010

The River Test, Hampshire

I doubt there is a more famous fly fishing river than the River Test anywhere in the world, certainly none more steeped in fly fishing tradition and history. It had been a lifelong ambition of mine to make the pilgrimage to Hampshire to fish at least one of its chalkstreams, and I figured the pre-eminent Test would be a good place to start (that and the fact that some of its beats are a lot more ‘affordable’ than any I could find on the Itchen). I booked a day on the 800 yard Home Beat of the Middleton Estate which flows through the village of Forton, a little way downstream of Longparish. It’s a 2 rod beat but it transpired that I had the beat to myself for the day, allowing me total seclusion and the freedom to roam the banks unhindered. I was drawn to the Home Beat for a number of reasons. The rod fee was within my range, and with that important box ticked the advertising material appealed to me, describing it as a ‘perfect blend between wild and manicured fishing’. The smaller size of the upper Test appeared more intimate in the photos than the wider stretches downstream of the village of Stockbridge, heading towards Romsey and beyond; and the percentage of wild fish to stocked fish is said to be 50% which is relatively high compared with some of the other beats on the Test. I fail to see the logic in paying over the odds to fish for pellet reared fish.

Hampshire is one of my favourite counties. If you take the time to leave the motorway you find a different world of wheat fields, hedgerows and forest glades set in gently rolling hills that hide quaint villages of thatched bungalows and historic country pubs.

I have yet to see a river run clearer than the Test. I had never seen a chalkstream before and the clarity is at first astonishing. The river meanders gracefully in the gentle gradient of the Test valley with hardly a riffle, as smooth as a sheet of glass making it incredibly easy to spot fish. I was also surprised at the sheer number of visible fish, both brown trout and grayling and even a mean looking pike, all boldly holding without any cover in water between 1 and 3 feet deep.

I rigged up my 8’6” 5wt rod with the kind of fumbling anticipation you only get in clear sight of sizable fish. At times during the day I wished that I had brought a smaller rod with me given some of the bank side vegetation, and I could see why the beat description had suggested a perfect balance between the extremes of wild and manicured - shaped lawns, clear banks and such things - but the riverine foliage offered challenges that I probably enjoyed more so than if it had been too easy. It was the Test after all so I went with a dry fly first, tying on a Parachute Adams the river keeper had recommended I try when having a look over my fly box. Frederick Halford, the 19th century dry fly only protagonist who formulated and honed his theories fishing on the Test, would surely have been proud.

The fish, however, were disinterested in my floated offerings. I changed dry fly patterns several times in an hour, without even the slightest interest. Well, I did ‘land’ possibly the tiniest grayling in the entire beat quite soon into the day, albeit in dubious circumstances. I lifted my line from the water to re-cast to a fish upstream when I felt the slightest weight on the end of the line in my back cast (akin to the weight of a size 12 bead head fly), heard the sound of a small disturbance in the bushes behind me, and then the frantic flapping sounds of a fish out of water. The grayling, all 4 inches, had taken my fly just as I lifted it out of the water and had come off the hook in my back cast. I quickly located it in the long grass and returned it to the water to grow a little bigger.

A hatch of small blue winged olives lifted from the water at 11am, finally rising the trout and sending them into a single minded feeding frenzy. The only barrier to what should have been fishing heaven was that I had no blue winged olive imitations in my fly box and the trout frustratingly ignored every pattern I threw at them, drift after drift through the boiling pot of feeding fish. Some of the fish energetically moved at least 6 feet in heart stopping bow waves to sip in hapless mayflies less than a hand’s length from my fly. An hour and a half into the hatch I did entice a fish to rise to a size 18 Large Dark Olive, but I struck too soon and pulled the fly from the fish’s mouth. I had the foreboding sense of the little grayling being my best and only fish of the day and I felt a break, and a change of tactics was required. I moved upstream of the hatch and in a move that would have warmed the heart of Halford’s arch rival and sub surface fly proponent, G.E.M. Skues, I tied on an olive PVC nymph and first cast hooked and landed a 3lb brown trout in beautiful condition.

My second cast with the nymph resulted in a large, dark coloured 1½lb grayling coming to the net, only my second ever grayling and my personal best by some distance. My third cast was ignored but my fourth yielded a 2½lb brown trout. Three fish in four casts instantly wiped out the disappointments of earlier in the morning. Moving upstream I hooked another brown trout on the same PVC nymph, which by now was starting to look a little the worse for wear. It was the only one I had but its dishevelled state still seemed to be hitting the right chords with the fish. By the time I reached the upper limit of the beat from my starting point at the mill race flowing under the Turbine Barn, which roughly splits the beat into two, the 3 good sized brown trout and the large grayling had added some respectability to my morning’s fishing, after a very slow and testing start.

In the afternoon I fished the slightly shallower, faster flowing section below the mill race. The water here is slightly more weeded making it a little more difficult to spot fish. Near the bottom of the beat I spotted two fish holding over a gravel break in the weeds in the centre of the river, contrasting sharply with the light coloured bottom. The larger fish chased away the smaller fish whilst I tied on a blue winged olive nymph, which it greedily took on my third cast. A little further upstream I caught another brown, this one a really long and thin, wild looking fish with an unusually oversized tail. The fishing had in the meantime become a little more difficult, perhaps because the sun had emerged from behind the clouds and also because the river was only a foot deep in most places. The fish were easily spooked by any erratic or fast movements.

Reaching the deep pool caused by the water gushing from the narrow mill race I spotted a large fish holding just outside the frothing current. I tied on a bead head Caddis Bug to get the fly down and watched my indicator closely as my line travelled through the turbulent water. A barely noticeable dip in the line signalled the take and I lifted the rod into a fat fish of 3½lb. It didn’t fight as hard as a fish this size should and I noticed its fins were in poor condition, almost deformed looking, most certainly a stockie.

At day's end as I stood on the bank of the fabled river bathed in a momentary warm burst from behind the clouds of the setting sun on an otherwise chilly evening, I felt a sense of 'mission accomplished'. A sense of achievement only slightly countered by the disappointment of not having had any success with the dry fly but, overall, one can’t argue with a late season haul of 8 brown trout between 2½ and 3½lbs and a decent sized grayling from a river of the Test’s renown. The little things are also easily savoured in the state of complete relaxation a good day's fly fishing brings, the little details you might ordinarily miss: the golden red rays of evening sunlight filtering through the trees casting dappled shadows on the moving water; the rabbit warily foraging along the river bank before bounding away in startled fright at the sound of a fly line whispering in the air; the brilliant turquoise blue flash of the wings of a tiny kingfisher flitting up river to roost. The wildlife and the picturesque, typically English countryside surroundings certainly add measurable value to the experience of fishing the Test.

Chalkstreams are ideally suited to fly fishing and I envy those that can afford to fish the Test and Itchen with any frequency. But that begs the question, just why is it so expensive to fish these rivers? In some beats the fish are entirely stocked, mostly rainbow trout too. If I wanted that I’d head down to the nearest concrete bowl still water fishery for a fraction of the price and none of the snobbery. But for a ‘once in a lifetime’ day out on a river with a palpable sense of history, I couldn’t have asked for more. It’s a rite of fly fishing passage.

Incidentally, if you ever find yourself in Hampshire, think about visiting the Fisherman’s Chapel in the Winchester Cathedral, where you will find the grave of Izaac Walton, the famed English writer best known for his treatise, The Compleat Angler. The reverential fishing themed stained glass windows make the trip worthwhile.

A version of this story was published in the December 2010/January 2011 edition of the South African magazine 'Flyfishing'.


Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Snowy Mountains, Australia

When I think of Australia one of the first images that springs to mind is the vast expanse of the Outback, and that immensely spiritual red rock, Uluru. It’s a dry continent, the driest on earth and not one you would readily associate with trout. Ask any local about trout and most will forlornly shake their heads and mention the drought they have experienced for the last 20 or so years. But  the trout are there, clinging to life against the odds - if you know where to look. Leaving aside Tasmania, the severe shortage of water in mainland Australia has made the trout’s existence extremely tenuous, shrinking their range to all but the smallest areas and leaving former trout hotspots such as Cooma in New South Wales completely barren of trout.

I asked about trout when passing through the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, and again received the same sad shake of the head in reply, but I did find them in the Snowy Mountains. Being December the mountains weren't snowy at all but they made a nice change from the drab eucalyptus plains of the goldfields in the state of Victoria. I had stopped at a tackle store in Jindabyne, and was relieved when the store assistant confirmed that not only were trout growing to large proportions in the lake, they were also to be found in good numbers in the Thredbo River, which flows through the Kosciuszko National Park, past the winter ski mecca of Thredbo, before emptying into the lake near Jindabyne. The best stretch of the river to fish, I was informed, is about a kilometre above the hatchery “but watch out for the snakes!”

I drove to the river late in the morning, excited by the prospect of fishing. I had been looking forward to fishing for trout in Australia, perhaps because I had found very little information on the internet, making it an unknown quantity. I had watched a movie starring Gabriel Byrne called Jindabyne, in which he and his pals went on a camping and fly fishing trip in the Snowy’s, catching bags of trout before the fly fishing scenes ended all too soon and my interest waned. That movie made up the bulk of my research.

It was a fine, hot day with hardly a hint of cloud or wind, and surprisingly few flies. If you've visited Australia you will have a good idea how annoying the flies can be, boldly buzzing about the corners of your mouth, nose, and eyes, but thankfully they were few and far between on the day. Well, not the biblical proportions you encounter in the Outback that have you running for your fly head net (or "tourist hat" as some of the habituated and disapproving locals call them). But just enough to have you squinting every now and again to keep the flies from the moisture of your eyes whilst concentrating on your dry fly drifting down a likely looking run, using your only free hand to strip in the fly line bobbing back to you on the current. I wonder how many trout have been spooked by the pale palm flash of an irritable fly swat?

It was a fair walk from the hatchery to the public access water and on the way I met two fly fisherman who were walking back to the car park, having called it quits for the day. They reported catching a “little fella” between them and overall didn’t seem too impressed with their morning’s fishing. Other than that I didn’t see a single other person the entire day and I had the river to myself. It’s a beautiful, secluded valley that the river flows through, thickly forested with bush and trees, with some of the eucalyptus trees eerily white without bark and leaves, like skeletons. The river made a pretty picture, running over silt and boulders with a brown tinge. The first pool where fishing is permitted is long, deep, flat and slow moving. A couple of trout were rising in the pool, only ‘little fellas’ by the look of the splashes, but they were clever little fellas too because they had enough brains to feed where the riverside bush made it impossible to cast. I lost a few flies trying before moving on.

A similar thing happened a short way upstream. In a run too deep to wade a trout was rising consistently at the head of a pool, near the far bank. Frustratingly, it too was holding a position impossible to cast to thanks to a well positioned tree. As I said, these were smart trout.

A little further up I hooked a fish on a bead head Hare’s Ear but it came off easily after a second or two. I started to think that it might just be one of those days when things don’t go your way, and I kept thinking about the two nonplussed local fisherman I had met earlier, formulating my excuse that the river hadn’t exactly been cooking in trout for them either. I moved to the edge of the river and then up on to the bank, and froze. I was about a metre away from the ugliest snake I have ever seen, which had been moving in my direction before it froze too. We eyeballed each other for a fraction of a second. I think I might even have emitted a high pitch yelp and the snake may have flicked out its forked black tongue in reply before it slithered off into the nearest bush. I don’t know what it was, but it looked lethal. It was pitch black down the entire length of its metre and a half long body, had black eyes, a mean looking coffin shaped head, a black tongue and its underside was a bright lime green. After taking a few minutes to recover I moved up river, putting some distance between the snake and me, except this time I was deliberately stamping my feet hard as I walked to scare off any of its friends.

Very much at odds with the wild feel of the river and valley, I came across a large pink double story house, set in a large garden with a tennis court and manicured lawns running down to the river bank. I had been told by the store assistant to look out for it, that the house owner apparently owns ‘half the town of Jindabyne’ and that it was OK to walk through the lawns to get to the river upstream. If it wasn’t for the snakes I’d quite fancy living in a house just like this, on the bank of a trout stream (although I’d paint over the pink).

Just above the house I came to a delightful looking run that had trout written all over it. It was starting to get late and I didn’t fancy making the long walk back in the dark with snakes around, so I gave myself 10 minutes to fish the run. A few casts went untouched before, on my last cast of the day, a feisty little 8 inch brown trout took the #16 bead head PTN, and I got it to hand to admire the brilliance of its spotted scales in the setting sun before it swam off without even a breather, as little fish seem to do. Any fish, even a little fella, can lift your spirits after a hard day on the river and instantly turn a bad day’s fishing into an enjoyable one.

On the walk back to the hatchery, the sun set at my back, turning the sky and water orange and then pastel shades of pink and blue. It’s a beautiful thing, fly fishing.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

South Island, New Zealand

I visited New Zealand in February and March this year (2010) amidst an 8 month ‘round the world’ backpacking trip. New Zealand is a breathtaking country, with rugged snow capped mountains, imposing glaciers, picturesque turquoise lakes, and best of all, trout streams made in heaven. The south island, in particular, has trout streams in abundance and many of them hold extremely large trout going well into the double digit range. This is hardly new information, New Zealand has long been known as the ultimate destination for sight fishing to trophy sized trout and much has been published on this topic. But therein lay the cause to some trepidation on my part. I am a ‘river rookie’ so to speak and had some doubts as to my ability to successfully fish to the notoriously wary trout of New Zealand. As a kid I remember reading a few books on the subject - “Stalking Trout” by Les Hill and Graeme Marshall was fashionable reading in South Africa a decade and a half ago - and the book described how locals would sand the gloss off their rods, use dull coloured fly lines and stalk trout on all fours, all leaving me in no doubt as to the enormity of the challenge.

For these reasons I decided to hire a guide for a day and quite by chance I was introduced to Michael Scheele who has guided on the Ahuriri River for 15 years. Michael is a man of many talents, being a well known fly fishing artist and a lead singer in a local rock band back in the 80’s. It turned out that Michael and I share similar philosophies on fishing and conservation, and I couldn’t have asked for a better companion on the river.

The Ahuriri River is a world renowned fly fishing destination. But leaving aside its famed piscatorial inhabitants it is, in its simplest form, a beautiful freestone river in a flood plain of sun whitened boulders. It flows through a wide, flat pastoral valley, a rich emerald green watered by the irrigation sprinklers I could hear in the adjacent dairy fields. The lush valley starkly contrasts with the dry, barren brown of the surrounding corrugated mountains. I fished the river very near to the town of Omarama, equally well known for its perfect gliding conditions. The lower reaches of the river, before they empty into Lake Benmore, are generally shallow and fast flowing whilst the upper tussock-lined reaches where they enter the valley from the hills are wider, deeper and slower moving, quite the opposite of a standard river’s character. The usual rules obviously don’t apply here, as equally surprisingly, the further you venture upstream, the fewer the fish become in number but the larger they become in size. These are the really big, intelligent fish, genetically loaded with an overdose of survival instinct which has allowed them to grow to such extreme sizes, perhaps quarry for the next time I visit New Zealand, hopefully a better and more experienced river fisherman.

To really set the pulse racing, Michael told me on the drive over to the river that two weeks earlier a local angler had caught and released a double figure brown trout in a stretch of the river just above the town bridge. Michael had seen a photo and he estimated the fish at close to 13lbs. He also mentioned that late February/early March is when cicadas emerge from the ground and, helped by the wind, find their way on to the water sending the trout into a single-minded cicada feeding frenzy. I sometimes buy a lottery ticket in the hope of an early retirement but at that very moment in time I would have passed up a six figure jackpot hoping for a cicada hatch in the vicinity of an unfussy 13lb trout.

I rigged up my Orvis Helios 8’6 5wt, after some discussion about whether Michael’s 9’ 6wt was more appropriate. It can blow quite hard at times in New Zealand but the day was calm with clear skies, and besides, I’d carried my rod half way across the world and I wanted to use it. Michael tied on a size 14 Humpy Blowfly (or Bluebottle as it is also known) with a Copper John size 16 tied to the hook shank of the dry, in the New Zealand style. The Bluebottle became my “go to” fly in New Zealand, imitating an ordinary bluebottle fly and the trout seemed to rise to these freely at times. I was expecting a long leader to be employed given the bright conditions and the general hype surrounding the awareness of New Zealand’s trout but we went with a standard 9’ leader with about 2’ of tippet to the dry fly. The water was crystal clear and fishing is generally by sight however we also covered the likeliest holding areas with speculative casts in the event the trout‘s camouflage got the better of us, especially as some of the deeper runs are a little harder to see into. We worked our way up the river in this way, pausing only to watch a pair of Black Stilts, New Zealand’s rarest wading bird, busying themselves at the water’s edge. Within twenty minutes I was into a fish, a 1½ lb brown trout which took the nymph. It was on one of the speculative casts, and watching the dry coming down the eye of the pool, just outside of the faster current, we both saw it dip under the water ever so slightly and I set the hook. It was my first New Zealand trout, and as I released it I sensed Michael was relieved. I can’t imagine the stress a guide faces to ensure his client doesn’t go home fishless. Michael was happy, not just because I had ‘got off a duck’ in cricket speak, but because the trout promised a good day ahead. In fact, Michael was so confident, he quipped that I wouldn’t catch anything smaller that day.

And the next 5 fish I caught whilst steadily moving upstream were all much smaller rainbows between 8 and 10 inches. It’s funny how life just has a habit of working that way.

We later came to a promising looking pool where Michael spotted a fish lying up against the left bank. Michael said it looked 4½lbs but I had no way of telling as I couldn’t spot it. Trout are underwater chameleons as far as I’m concerned, and spotting fish is something I’ve realised I have to work on if I’m to become a more successful fisherman. I guess it’s a skill that will come the more time I spend on the water. A pair of polaroids might help too and I’ve recently bought a pair. At least Michael could see the fish and he directed me where to cast, 20 feet upstream and 3 feet from the bank. There’s a certain pressure you feel in situations like this when one bad cast can send the fish packing up river and putting it off food for a day or more, but I sensed Michael was happy with the cast and within 2 seconds of the dry drifting back on the current it dipped and I set the nymph. It could have been a nuclear submarine for all I know because without ever showing itself it took off upstream with such ferocity it surprised me. In that moment it dawned on me what a good fish this must be when the tippet suddenly snapped and the fish was gone. The fish had stripped the loose line back on to my reel in no time at all in much the same way a bonefish reacts when hooked, and the fly line had wrapped around the butt of my rod bringing a sudden end to the connection between leader and tippet. It’s hard to find positives in moments like that, but I was happy with the execution of the cast, and pleased that the fish was convinced enough in the presentation to take the fly.

It was a long pool and we carried on fishing it up to the head where I got a lovely 2½lb brown on the dry. I was beginning to realise that the trout fight hard in New Zealand and this particular one didn’t lack for energy. I eventually coaxed it into the net and released it just a little sad that I had left my camera on the opposite bank for what turned out to be my best fish of the day. The brown trout in this part of the world are a distinctive colour, a mix between olive green and caramel, adorned only with plain black spots. I’ve caught brown trout in Slovenia with Smarties size orange spots on their flanks, and brown trout in Wales with deep red spots but there’s something ‘raw nature’ about the look of New Zealand brown trout that makes them striking in their own unique way.

We had been enjoying ourselves so much that we hadn’t kept an eye on the time. It was about 4pm, and as we headed back to Michael’s truck to get our lunches, we came across a 6lb brown actively cruising a shallow side tributary fed by a trickle of a stream. We had spied it from the top of a bank, about 3 metres above the pool, and this time given the size of the pool and the depth of the water I could see the trout with ease. There’s something about a 6lb trout in a plain view which gets the heart rate going. Michael tied on a size 20 nymph and I crawled down the bank out of sight to approach the trout from behind while Michael stayed hidden on the bank to call out casting directions. This trout had obviously seen the likes of me before because no matter how gently I cast into the pool, it steadfastly refused my offering despite first having a good look at the fly before casually swimming to the deepest part of the pool and thereafter refusing to budge. There’s a reason why trout like this get this large, and in hindsight, given how easily we could see the trout, the smallest movement by me must have been magnified to the trout. It was fun trying though.

We jumped in Michael’s truck for a 30 minute drive to the upper section of the river for an evening session on a public access section of the river. Disappointingly though, two other fly fisherman had just fished the entire beat. Not only would they have set trout alarm bells ringing throughout the beat when they passed through, they also told us they had not so much as even seen a trout. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Michael tied on a cicada pattern, hoping to rouse the trout from their slumber with the promise of a cicada feeding spree. But it was not to be. I was content just soaking in the secluded atmosphere of the river in this section, nearer to the snow clad mountains slowly turning a dark shade of purple as the sun sank beyond them in a golden shower of light, rather like an African sunset.

I was happy with my introduction to fly fishing in New Zealand. There weren’t any magical fish of over 8lbs, the type you see in glossy magazines and books and dream about, but I learnt more about rivers and how to fish them thanks to Michael’s guidance. I was happy to catch what I did, to fool others I didn’t succeed in netting, and to be totally outsmarted by some as it’s all a valuable lesson in the end. I was happy being out on the river.

A few days later we were driving along the scenic road to Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s premier tourist destinations. Along the way, before you get to the tunnel, you drive along the Eglinton River for some distance. The valley here is narrow with steep granite mountains hemming you in. It’s a pretty little river too, as clear as glass and with just a hint of turquoise blue, the type of blue you get when snowmelt adds to a river’s volume. It’s hard to take your eyes off the river as you drive along the road following the river’s course, despite the other outstanding scenery on offer. I found myself sizing up all the likely looking runs whenever the road joined the river. We stopped along the way for lunch, and while it was being prepared I couldn’t resist putting my rod together and having a few casts.

I had no hesitation in tying on a Bluebottle and a Copper John below it. The water was running fast and strong, kicking up a strong riffle over the rocks. A powerful wind was blowing straight down the valley and I struggled to cast into it with even the tightest of loops. Getting nowhere, I decided to take a break and I ate my lunch on the river bank, frustrated at my proximity to a wonderful looking trout river but not being able to cast effectively into it. Just as I was about to leave, a fish rose on the opposite bank with an audible splash, just outside the main current. I bit off the nymph and contemplated my cast. Not only was the wind a factor, but I had to cast over the strong current and avoid any drag long enough to cover where I had seen the splash. I moved to a point almost parallel to the fish and I cast low into the wind hoping to get under it. The fly was quickly carried over the spot and as I lifted the fly off the water to repeat the cast a large, dark shadow rose up from the depths to the point where my fly had been only moments earlier, before returning to the river’s bottom. I couldn’t believe it! Had the fish been spooked and my chance blown? I flicked the fly back and again, almost in slow motion, the trout rose up from the depths and sipped in the fly. The fish had a power in it that I could instantly feel transported all the way through my cork rod grip and into my arm as it fled downstream. Whilst the current was strong and helped it along its way, it soon stripped me into my backing, the first fish other than a bonefish to do so. It leaped and ran, leaped and ran again, until I eventually got it to the side of the bank after what felt like a lifetime. It was a thick-shouldered rainbow trout of about 4½lbs, my record on a river and one of my favourite catches since I started fishing, made all the better for doing it all on my own. At that moment, watching the fish swim away, I understood the poetry of fly fishing.