River Test at Timsbury

Fishing the popular chalkstreams can be challenging for the solo angler because many of the beats operate a minimum two-person booking policy. In the dog days of summer when fishing action is often sluggish, that policy is sometimes loosened, with attractive discounts on the usual rates to boot. I took up one such opportunity to fish the River Test at Timsbury, an estate on the boundary of what is considered the middle and lower Test. My first and only other fishing visit to the River Test was over a decade ago, and I had looked forward to a return to the grandest of chalkstreams. 

On the route there I spotted a dead otter at the roadside. The unfortunate creature was seen where the A303 drops down from the M3 into the valley of the Test, near Micheldever Station, and was notable for being the only otter I have seen dead beside the road. I wondered if they are more intelligent than the usual victims - foxes, badgers and deer - or simply less prone to crossing roads. Why traverse a road when you can swim beneath it? I suspected the answer was probably a little of both. I hoped that this otter hadn't left any kits behind.

Just past the village of Timsbury, heading in the direction of Romsey, I turned off down a potholed track and arrived at my beat. I knew that I'd be sharing the beat with others and was pleased to find the car parking space empty. I walked a short distance across a crystal clear and fast-flowing carrier, which I'd later fish, to the beat's hut and a marquee tent beside the main river Test. 

The carrier meets the Test

The gorgeous carrier

My beat ended upstream of where the carrier spilled into the main river, forming the most sumptuous of pools where I happened to see a large trout leap clear from the water. A pity that such fine water was out of bounds to me.

The main river and King Solomon's lie

My attention was quickly diverted by several large trout in relatively shallow water within a casting length from my bank. As I watched them like a fox appraising a henhouse, the nearest of them rose and took something from the surface. I hurried back to my car and put together the slightly odd combination of a 9 foot 6 weight rod and a little reel holding 3 weight line. The night before, when checking and cleaning my 6 weight line, which I hardly use, I found it cracked and peeling from the inner core of braid. I had been forced to use the mismatched combination once before when fishing a chalkstream in Yorkshire and it had been perfectly usable. The extra length of rod would be needed to reach across reeds, the extra power in its spine needed to send the line further than I would normally cast. The Test here was very wide. I tied a #18 parachute Adams to 6x tippet and eagerly returned to the riverbank.

I sent out my fly to the feeding trout, landing it softly three feet in front of its lie. My pulse quickened when the trout languidly lifted to intercept it. I held my breath, primed to strike, believing it to be an easy game. Instead of consuming the fly as I willed it to do, the fish held its snout a mere inch away from the dry fly and scrutinised it interminably whilst drifting rigidly in check with the fly. The inspection lasted for a full three feet downstream before the trout decided against committing to the enterprise, and returned to its lie. This fish had obviously been caught before, perhaps several times, which made sense given that every angler arriving at this beat would start their day by casting to it. I added a length of 7x tippet to my leader and ran through a series of smaller dries, emergers and nymphs, which were all ignored by this King Solomon.

I elicited a rise from another trout within range of the bank but it came at the fleeting moment when a rise upriver had taken my attention away. I struck rather desperately and too late, to no avail. I moved upriver to where a jetty cut through the reeds to the water, where the water was now deeper and the river even wider. I dropped to my knees to keep concealed and spied three trout within a cast from the jetty. I watched them for a while and saw that two were contentedly feeding on nymphs. I flicked a #14 Hare's Ear into the water. I wasn't using an indicator because the trout were in full view. When one of them took the nymph, I struck, and we tussled for a few seconds but the hook-up was weak and the trout escaped. The commotion put paid to the other trout which routinely ignored my nymph from that moment forward. 

True to the poor morning forecast, it began to rain intermittently. The people who I would share the beat with - a husband and wife - had by now arrived and the husband was fishing up behind me, the wife spotting at his shoulder. I said hello and they overtook me and went upriver. I counted six anglers on the opposite bank, where a fishing hut stood. It was approaching noon and they began to gather to enjoy their lunch at the tables and benches outside the hut.     

An alder overhangs the river

An alder tree hung low over the water on the far bank, and in its shade a trout rose. I turned to my chalkstream banker when casting to fussy, rising trout: a #20 Griffith's Gnat. It was a long cast and tightly coiled fly line which has hardly ever seen the light of day began to swish through the air. The trout beneath the alder wasn't tempted by my fly, but when I let it drift a little further downstream I was rewarded. I watched a trout rise up vertically from the dark depths. Its tail swept from side to side, propelling it upwards. Unlike the previous trout, this one was committed. It had moved a great distance and seemed intent to claim its reward. The trout opened its white mouth and swallowed the fly. I waited a full second or two whilst mouthing 'God save the King', allowing the fish to turn downwards, before I lifted my rod, jubilant when the extreme length of line held firm. The trout showed impressive spirit by running relentlessly until I could reach down and snare it in my long-handled net.  

Of all the great fly fishing rivers in the world, none attains a higher plane of reverence in my mind than the River Test. Henry's Fork in Idaho provides a close challenge but the Test, more intimate and romantic, and closer to home, steals it on account of its longer association with fly fishing and arguably its greater influence on modern fly fishing principles. Flush in the capture of a trout from its venerated waters, in challenging conditions, the moment was spiritual. 

The couple ambled over and asked how I had achieved my success. I showed them the little dry fly and the man remarked that he had nothing so small in his box. I felt a little bad that I couldn't give him a fly, as it was my last pattern. In any event, I soon lost the fly when a trout took it, again on the far bank, about 20 metres upriver. I struck a little too exuberantly into what was obviously a sturdy trout and my leader came flying back towards me sans fly.

I sat on the grass beside the river, now in sunshine, and ate a sandwich. A strong wind rustled the leaves of the trees on the opposite bank. After lunch I made my way up to the end of the beat without any notable incident, except that a trout I was targeting on my bank fled when two of the anglers on the opposite bank, their picnic lunch over, walked downstream. I was impressed by the trout's sight because the river was wide, and once again reminded that stocked trout when ingrained with the perils of the wild are by no means easy to catch.

A sweeping u-bend in the main river

I returned to the bottom of the beat by following the small, fast flowing carrier. With a bed of bright gravels, sumptuous ranunculus and the opposite bank left wild, the carrier held a lot of interest to me. I fetched my 7'6" 3wt rod from my car and made my way back up the carrier, catching three fat wild trout which all came up quick as a flash to take a parachute Adams.

It was now early evening and I returned to the bottom of the beat to give the main river one final go. The couple had already left and I hoped that they had enjoyed some success. A cheerful man with a flat cap and waistcoat was fishing the wonderful looking pool at the top of the downstream beat. We exchanged greetings over the gushing sound of the  carrier between us. He said that he'd had a successful day, catching ten trout with nymphs, all of them large with the best around 5 lbs. On hearing his news I inwardly chided myself for perhaps not fishing as efficiently as I might have. But then he showed me his set-up which was a team of nymphs beneath an indicator, saying that the method was necessary to reach the required feeding depth. The rules of the fishery - and of almost every chalkstream - permit only a single fly, information which I kept to myself rather than crack the man's cheerful disposition. I then watched him fish his team of nymphs downstream through the junction pool, another contravention of the rules. I felt a little better about my more modest success.

By now the anglers on the far bank had all gone home too. The wind had dropped and a quiet calm descended on the river. It was lovely to enjoy the Test in isolation. I cast a nymph to a brown trout beneath an overhanging willow tree, and another trout, until then unseen, raced forward and snatched the nymph. To my surprise, it was a rainbow trout, and a very fat one at that. It fought well and when I had it on the bank I spontaneously decided to keep it. I don't particularly enjoy the taste of trout. It was well over a decade ago that I last kept a trout, but I have grown keen to teach my young son about the source of food, and he was very excited when I returned home and revealed it. I cleaned the trout before going to bed and cooked it on the braai the next day with lemon and fresh tarragon.

My relationship with the Test is complicated. I enjoy interacting with the river by visiting the charming town of Stockbridge on its banks, with its two fly fishing stores, pubs and other speciality shops. With a sense of nostalgia I enjoy reading of the exploits of the anglers who have fished the river before me, including the likes of J. W. Hills, E. A. Barton, Oliver Kite and, of course, Frederic Halford. But I'm not drawn with any real fervour to fish the Test because it is heavily stocked. I accept the model works for the Test - there is much demand to fish it, driving up prices and also expectations to catch trout. Many livelihoods are sustained by the river too. My dipping of toes in the Test after more than a decade was very enjoyable and a timely reminder that even stocked trout can present the most exacting of tests.         


  1. Great read! Sounds like a day to remember, finished with a good old braai.

  2. Justin
    What a rewarding trip! One needs to be a seasoned angler to succeed on the Test, and you, my friend, are a seasoned fly fisherman. I enjoyed the read, and thanks for sharing.

    1. That's very kind of you to say, Bill. Thanks!

  3. Wonderful reading. So happy to have discovered this while sitting in a Las Vegas hotel on a business trip. Please keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you! Your feedback makes the time spent writing feel more worthwhile.


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