In The Footsteps Of Izaak Walton

(But one step ahead of the swans…)

I have never had such a cool refusal. The brown, hanging motionless in the air clear water, nosed up to the drifting parachute Adams. Its snout gently broke the water’s surface a hair width behind the fly. For several feet, the snout and the fly seemed glued to each other. They moved as a unit and I fought back an overwhelming urge to set the hook, impatiently waiting for the fly to disappear. But it never did; the fish slid away and resumed its original position.

This happened on the River Test, just outside of Winchester, England. I was on a hiking and sight-seeing trip to Great Britain and naturally had to sample the fishing. I knew that English chalk streams, which are similar to American spring creeks, had figured prominently in the history of fly fishing. There was no way I would pass up an opportunity to actually fish them. The requisite Google search led me to Simon Cooper’s “Fishing Breaks”, a company that books people onto chalk streams all over England. When asked for a recommendation, Simon replied, “If you’re just fishing for one day, go for the best – the River Itchen or the River Test.” The River Itchen, it turned out, would be closed for weed-cutting during my time window. Without weed cutting, chalk streams tend to turn into slow-flowing swamps and become almost impossible to fish. Nevertheless, he suggested a few River Test beats for me to peruse on his website.

Fishing logistics in the U.K. are a little different from those in the U.S. A national license, about the price of a typical non-resident state license, is first obtained. Then access rights to an individual stretch of river, or beat, are procured. These access rights are called day tickets and are usually controlled by local angling clubs or land owners. Some cost as little as a typical cab fare; others make a Paradise Valley rod fee look like cab fare.

Silver car driving down a narrow road

So, after pouring over descriptions on the Fishing Breaks website, I settled on a River Test beat at Bullington Manor. Simon supplied me with a detailed map of its location and some solid advice regarding fly selection. The morning of my date on the River Test, I threw my fishing gear in the rental car and headed out into the English countryside.

The drive to my beat was through rolling farmland that changed to dense forest in the river valley. But driving on the left through several roundabouts and down narrow lanes flanked by stone walls made it more of an adventure than your typical drive to the river. I soon found what I was looking for – a small grass parking lot with a sign that read “Bullington Manor Beat 3.”

Fly rod and fishing net lay against a fence

Gearing up was pretty quick since wading was not allowed on this particular beat. I just strung up a 3 weight, grabbed my small chest pack, and hit the path to the river. Since I would have to stay out of the water, a long handled net trailed from one of my belt loops. Very shortly, I saw the sign that marked my beat and got my first look at the River Test.

It was glass clear and perhaps shin deep. One bank was thickly overgrown and the other was cut back for access and, more importantly, back casts. Tall reeds lined the manicured bank and served as a buffer between it and the river, which was perhaps 50 feet wide. Long strands of weeds waved gently back and forth in the current. The weeds were thick across the whole river except for a narrow band near the cleared bank. The bright gravel bottom almost seemed to shine wherever the weeds were not growing.

Dale fly fishing in England

I stood back and surveyed the whole situation. A few pale forms occupied the weed-free lane, moving ever so slightly. Fish! They were quite small but I was thrilled at the chance to do some sight fishing. Nothing seemed to be hatching so I took Simon’s advice and tied on a #16 Parachute Adams. Keeping in mind that another local rule called for upstream presentations only, I crept into position behind the reeds.

My first target scooted off while the fly was airborne. The next vacated just as the fly hit the surface. It was time to lengthen the leader. Magic! The next drift saw me net a 6 inch grayling, not the largest fish in the world but quite hard to come by in North America. I decided to move down the river and see if I could spot something larger.

Dale holding a fish he caught in England

I moved along the manicured bank, well away from the river and constantly scanning the water. The river soon got knee deep and the weeds were scattered about in patches. And there were dark shapes scattered here and there as well. The dark shapes were definitely trout and they were all far more substantial than the grayling I had caught. I made a mental note to return later but kept walking to a place where the water was about thigh deep and the weed growth was even more scattered.

Eureka! In a 20 foot stretch of river there were dozens of trout. I stooped over and cautiously approached the reeds beside the river. It was time for some serious sight fishing. And just plain observing. It was a bit like my personal trout aquarium. There was not another soul in sight and I could see the slightest fin twitch of every fish in front of me. All I had to do was stay hunkered down behind the reeds and not blow any casts.

Fish swimming under the surface

Most of the fish were like statues. A couple against the far bank moved slightly in random directions as if they were feeding. Very occasionally, one of the statues would get territorial and chase away a tiny grayling that got too close. I started casting to the nearest statue and then gradually reached out further. It was a bit of a logic puzzle, figuring out which casting angles would make the fly drift past the most fish. Or figuring out which fish had to be ignored because the line would drag over several others.

Most of the time, my fly simply drifted over the statues without them moving. Sometimes they would turn towards it; just enough to get my heart rate up, and then go back to being statues. Sometimes my line would get too close and they would move off a few feet; at that point there was no doubt they were out of the game. I would generally make 3 casts to a fish and then move on. It was probably about the tenth fish that put its snout on the fly and kept it there without actually eating.

That trout made me dip into the fly box and try some different patterns. They all generated zero interest. I even tried a nymph under a tiny indicator but the indicator seemed to be coated with trout repellant and made fish move away from it. Eventually, I went back to the Parachute Adams because it generated interest, if not eats.

However, with the very next cast, I connected. Instead of turning and turning back, a fourteen inch brown turned and slurped. My first English brown trout! I have to admit being disappointed in the fight it offered. It ran about 4 feet and then basically gave up, perhaps acting the part of a proper English gentleman as I slid it into the net and then released it.

Dale holding a fish he caught in England

I then moved a little further downstream to another concentration of fish beneath a large tree that hung over the river. I hoped that these fish might not see as many flies as their more accessible colleagues. I knelt in the reeds right beside the trunk of this big tree and tried to cast to where its branches extended over the water. It was not pretty. First, I would sidearm a crude roll cast down the shore – not the water! – and stretch about 15 feet of line along the grass. Then I would sidearm the line out onto the water, desperately trying to keep it underneath all the tree branches.

I snagged my share of branches but somehow avoided spooking the trout. After a few half-hearted looks and outright snubs, my second River Test brown took the fly solidly. This fish was a solid 15 inches and no gentleman. It thrashed and dashed back and forth until I finally netted it.

Dale holding a fish he caught in England

The commotion seemed to put off its immediate neighbors, so I shuffled back to my original spot. And so it went for quite a while. Casts. Looks. Snubs. A solid take but no hook up. Back and forth to the tree. Snags on the branches. My knees were getting sore because I was on then most of the time. I even had another spectacularly long nose-on-the-fly follow. Nevertheless, the odd spirited brown did wind up in the net. After three of them, I decided to chase the scattered fish noticed earlier when I first arrived.

At this point, the swans became an issue. They looked idyllic in the distance. Two adults and two youngsters bobbed along. It was interesting watching them crane their long necks down into the water as they fed. They were working their way upstream towards me.

Then I remembered how a few innocent gulls can shut down the fishing on a bonefish flat. There was no way these swans were going to help my cause. Instead of methodically picking my way through the scattered fish, including a couple of submarine-sized specimens, I almost jogged up the river and fired as many casts as I could. Needless to say, I was not successful.

Swans floating on a river in England

Eventually, the swans caught up with me. I stood back and watched how the trout reacted to them. The fish seemed pretty impervious until the foraging birds got within a few feet. At that point, most trout quietly moved off for a few minutes and then resumed their spots. Only the odd fish would panic and bolt for parts unknown.

By now the shadows were starting to get a little long and I decided to explore the entire remainder of my beat, which was probably a half mile in length. I started walking, always looking at the water. Much of it was shallow and weedy but there were several other deep spots that held trout. I made sure to get a few casts in at each spot. I actually saw a few scattered rises as well, which was something that had been missing from the day up to that point. No more fish made it to my net, but I did miss a couple of solid takes underneath yet another tree.

River in England

Although I was really starting to like trees at that point, a pool where the current barely crept along is what really stands out in my mind. Silt had covered the gravel bottom and given the pool a dark, mysterious look. I tied on a scud and inched it by a throng of dark shapes. And one of the dark shapes, maybe the biggest I saw all day, started to track it like a bonefish after a Crazy Charlie. I stopped the retrieve. Then I sped it up. Nothing would make the fish eat. It followed the scud right to the rod tip and then slunk off. Another cast led to the exact same thing.

I thought about sitting on these fish and working them until I got a take. The lure of a big trout was strong. And I could see the purple edges of some BIG grayling fins in the pool as well. Nevertheless, I was actually quite satisfied with watching a big trout almost eat my fly. Actually, the whole day had taught me that what you see can be just as much fun as what you catch. So I headed back to the car and packed up my rod.