The River Kennet, Berkshire
There was a time before the Second World War when the River Kennet was rated a better chalkstream than the Test. Some still talk today of the "Big Three" of chalkstreams with the Kennet ranked proudly alongside the Test and Itchen. There is an enormous amount of glowing literature about the Kennet from the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, with many of the angling greats having fished it. My attention was drawn to the Kennet by the passages in Oliver Kite's diary and particularly the town water at Hungerford, where he occasionally fished. Sadly those halcyon days are long past for the Kennet is today a shadow of its former self. It's a sad tale but one which is illustrative of the wider decline of chalkstream habitats across England. Still, I wanted to fish the Kennet for a sense of historic occasion.
What could possibly have reduced this pristine and productive chalkstream of yore? Over-population, abstraction, an almost limitless discharge of sewage into the river and algal blooms induced by fertilizers were blamed by Gary Allen, the river keeper at the Park beat of the Benham Estate. The Benham Estate is at the lower end of what is considered the middle river, just upstream of the sprawling town of Newbury. The Kennet here is also hampered by another location specific issue, for a little way upstream the river briefly merges with the brown waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal. Gary explained that the motors of modern canal boats kick up blooms of silt whereas in the old days barges were pulled by horses, leaving the undisturbed canal to run clear. Unfortunately, I encountered a deeply discoloured river at Benham Estate that looked nothing like a typical chalkstream. Sight fishing was all but impossible in the chocolate coloured water. Notwithstanding the disappointingly dark waters, it was the mayfly period and I was determined to make the best of my day.
The author Atwood Clark wrote of a time when pollution was unknown on the Kennet in his book "Those Were the Days!". In the chapter entitled "Kennet Monsters" Clark wrote, "What a truly magnificent trout stream the Kennet used to be in the old days! It was good when I first fished it in the Seventies, but ancient friends who, throughout their lives, had cast flies to attract its giant trout assured me that until the beginning of the Sixties the only adjective which adequately described the Kennet fishing was 'magnificent'." Clark was, of course, referring to the 1860s and 1870s. The size of the Kennet trout mentioned by Clark is truly remarkable too. He declared the trout near Littlecote to be the largest in all the Kennet, growing to the size of big salmon with natural feeding. In 1870 he witnessed two trout from Littlecote weighing 15lb apiece and "More than twenty years later one of just under 17lb was caught (with a casting net) close to the town of Newbury. This trout lived, and was fed, at the back of a pork butcher's shop which overlooked the Kennet."
In the same chapter he wrote of the mayfly: "The whole of the Kennet from source to mouth could in those times be relied upon to emit vast quantities of mayflies within a day or two of 29th May. These were unlike the so often feeble hatches of later years, when a few hundred of the big Ephemeridae seen in the air simultaneously were greeted with wild excitement, and the news spread swiftly that there was a 'wonderful rise of fly'. Even in my own time the mayflies were sometimes so thick that it was not possible clearly to discern any object across the river's width." By coincidence I happened to visit the Kennet on 31 May, and wondered if I would find the river as predictable as it was over 160 years ago.
An acquaintance who is a fishing guide had fished the separate Wilderness beat at Benham Estate the day before, and when he wrote to me about "a very tough day with mayfly sparse until late on" I set my expectations suitably low.
|The Parliament Draft|
I arrived at 9am after an uneventful 2 hour tour of the M roads, first the M25, then the M3, then finally the M4. A member was rigging up a cane rod in the parking area and we exchanged pleasantries then settled on where we would each fish, so as not to get in each other's way. He elected to start on the main river, and I chose to fish a carrier called the Parliament Draft. Even at 9am the day was warm and bright and it felt like the first summer's day in an unusually slow starting year, weather-wise. I walked about a kilometre to the very downstream limit of the fishery where the carrier flows beneath the A34. The continuous sound of traffic had a white noise effect similar to an air conditioner and wasn't an issue. Along the walk downriver I had watched the water for any sign of a rising trout, but there had been none, so I tied on a nymph. After a couple of drifts with the fly in the first pool, I snared a wild brown trout, which I was thrilled to catch. There was something quite reassuring in knowing that wild trout lived amongst their stocked brethren in this abused river.
In the following two hours, as the temperature noticeably began to rise, I worked my way up Parliament Draft, moving slowly and studying the water, but without any success. I did see two fish rising in a pool shaded by trees, but my casts to each of them with a mayfly dun seemed to put them down as neither rose again. My acquaintance's mention of a "very tough day" began to ring true.
I eventually returned to the road where a bridge spanned the river, with a very enticing looking pool just downstream of the bridge. A brown trout of about 14 inches caught my eye in the shallow tail of the pool as it rose to feed on an emerger. At last, a fish I could target, offering some semblance of chalkstream fishing! As I watched the trout, a much larger shape moved about a metre in from the opposite bank, where reeds grew. My eyes settled on the shape of a trout in the deeper water, obscured by the water's tinge. It too rose in the water column to take something about 6 inches beneath the water's surface. A deer hair mayfly emerger was ignored in successive casts, so I resorted to a small olive nymph, which was confidently taken by the trout. As I lifted the rod into the fish I was immediately struck by its mass for I was using a 3 weight rod. The fish put up a fight so typical of brown trout, as it searched for depth and bankside shelter, and then it spilled over the tail of the pool into the fast water below, where I could net it.
As I was releasing the trout I heard a quadbike approaching and a gentleman alighted and ran over to me, asking if the trout was struggling. The trout had swum away strongly but I had remained crouched down in the reeds to watch it in the water. Once properly introduced to the keeper, it was very evident that Gary felt protective about 'his' fish and he expressed himself in typical Yorkshire forthrightness which is an attribute I enjoy. We spoke for over 20 minutes about the Kennet and its decline and many other things. Gary told me that the mayfly action wouldn't start until 5pm and that I shouldn't leave early. He also said the pool I had just caught the trout from is known as Duffer's Pool, because it offers beginners the best chance of catching a fish on the entire estate. I thanked Gary for completely undermining my sense of achievement after a hard morning's slog!
|Where the River Kennet flows beneath the A34|
After lunch I walked down to the very bottom of the main River Kennet. It was hot and to bide time my plan was to walk slowly upriver on the lookout for rising fish, paying particular attention to the shaded sections of water. As it transpired I saw none, but near the downstream limit of the beat I saw a strange fish holding immediately downstream of a tree log in slack, shallow water adjacent to a maelstrom of choppy water entering a pool. I saw it too late and watched it melt into the murky current. It was very pale with pink fins and I assumed it was a rainbow trout. Gary had told me that rainbows are not stocked at Benham but find their way downstream. I thought I'd try my luck so I tied on a heavy nymph and lobbed it into the bubbles. After several drifts my indicator checked ever so slightly and I lifted my rod into the pleasing resistance of a living lump of weight. When the fish surfaced I could see it was a chub, and the largest chub I have caught to date by some stretch. I took a quick photo before watching it swim away from my net into the sanctuary of the depths.
I returned to the hut at about 4.30pm and drained the remnants of my water bottle. I was tired from the heat and rested a few moments before walking upstream, hopeful of a hatch of mayfly at any minute. For a while, there was nothing, but near a stand of willows on the far bank from which a cuckoo was calling, I heard the welcome sound of a noisy splash. It was the excited, energetic splash of a trout snatching at a mayfly before it took wing. I looked at the time and it was 4.53pm. This was the first occasion I had fished during the mayfly period on a chalkstream and I didn't know what to expect.
|The mayfly were soon to put in an appearance|
The wild tales of "Duffer's Fortnight" suggest it is an easy thing to fool a trout feeding on mayfly. Perhaps it is easy when the trout are fully committed - you tell me - but I learned that it wasn't simple. Some fish were feeding on nymphs and emergers and some were taking the adult. I ran through various patterns including the Mohican, Flyline, CDC, French Partridge and a crippled emerger, which all went ignored, until I hit the jackpot with perhaps the simplest and most unassuming pattern of them all - the Grey Wulff. To my non-trout eye, the Grey Wulff looked the least like the naturals on the water but simplicity is often the best inspiration for a successful fly pattern. Suddenly and very unexpectedly the Grey Wulff was snatched by a large brown trout which I had watched feeding on duns in a bubble line next to my bank. It felt tremendous to finally join the chalkstream mayfly club.
Once I had found the winning pattern, I sent it into the dissipating rings of a recent rise a little way upstream, and took another trout, but this one responded very differently when hooked. It stripped line from my reel and leapt from the water, when I could see it was a rainbow, and a very large one too. I enjoy catching rainbows and do not harbour the distaste others do for them in Britain.
|A lump of a rainbow|
The air was thankfully cooling as evening descended. I moved upstream to where another trout was rising, and the Grey Wulff was duly taken again, but only after something like the fifth drift. This fish very nearly stripped me to my backing. As I furiously reeled in line in a way Orvis never intended for its smallest Battenkill reel, I surmised the fish must be a rainbow. My suspicions were soon confirmed by a flash of rose petal pink. The current was swift and when the trout got downstream of me my 3 weight rod bent alarmingly under the strain. I worried that it might break, a bittersweet thought that has never crossed my mind before.
And then, with the flick of some unseen switch, the rise was over by 5.50pm. A calm descended upon the water. Intermittent mayfly still floated down the seams and currents and lifted from the water but they were ignored by the trout. I had the feeling that even in the magic hour, the trout weren't yet fully committed to the mayfly. The rises had been sporadic and the vast majority of the mayfly escaped unharmed. It seemed to support what Gary had said to me earlier, that this season is running about 10 days behind schedule. The best was still to come for those lucky to have made a later mayfly booking.
|Looking back down Mayfly Alley|
Mayflies rhythmically danced in the warm evening sky beside the water as they fulfilled their brief destiny of procreation. There would be a fall of spinners much later on in the evening, but it was time for me to leave for home. I had a long drive ahead.