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'.