After a four year wait, I finally got the news I had been waiting for; I’d been accepted as a member of the Salisbury and District Angling Club. The Club provides chalk-stream fly-fishing for wild brown trout and grayling on the river Avon and its tributaries Wylye, Nadder, Ebble and Bourne. The club has 18 ‘fisheries’, most of which have multiple beats, and two stocked trout lakes around the New Forest. Most of the waters are 30-40 minutes from home and, more importantly, just 20 minutes or so from my office. The idea of hot summer evenings by the river after work, picking off obligingly rising trout on dries was very alluring.
Due to prior commitments, unfortunately, I couldn’t make it out during ‘duffers’ fortnight but I put my time to good use researching and tying my first box of river dry flies. I’d also purchased from the club an excellent book on Chalkstream Fly Fishing with contributions by several of its members.
My first trip came early in June and I was like a kid in a sweet shop. This would be my first foray onto a river for trout and I was hugely excited and, oddly perhaps, quite nervous. I mostly know what I’m doing on reservoirs now but this would be something completely different. I decided to try the main fishery at Durnford which offers access to 22 individual beats which you have sole use of once you have arrived and picked a token. The conditions were not the best with a strong, hot sun and a brisk wind but I picked a beat which I thought might offer some shelter from the wind. The club provide a very useful membership book with maps of each fishery but it still took me a while to find out where to go, figure out the logging in system and then find the access to the river. When I finally got there I made my way down to the bottom of the beat slowly, checking out the river as I went.
The first thing that struck me was how tricky the casting would be. I’m used to the open spaces of large reservoirs or cultivated small fisheries but although the bankside path is cut, the river is lined with reeds and lush vegetation and there were trees all around. Don’t get me wrong, this is exactly what you want from a chalkstream and its clearly vital habitat for the insects but I had not realised the practical implications. Nevertheless, I set my 5-weight rod up with enthusiasm and, not knowing any better, decided to start off with a black Griffiths gnat. I couldn’t see anything hatching and figured that would be as good a general option as any other.
I ginked up the fly, degreased my tippet and greased up my leader and started walking upstream, looking for gently rising brownies I could target gracefully. Alas, reality was not generous; nothing was rising and I couldn’t see any fish. We’d had some heavy rain the previous week and the water was deep and coloured. I wandered further upstream and finally found some lower water running through a gravelly section. My first sight of a wild brown was when one shot off upstream, clearly spooked by my arrival. I cursed my enthusiasm and size 11 boots and tried to walk more gently. I found a couple of small brownies sitting mid-water on a bend but the casting was too difficult with trees all around. A bit further on I found a larger brownie wallowing in the shallows in a more open space and had a crack. After a couple of awful casts I managed to get my fly in the right place to float over his nose with the current but he just ignored it. After a second decent cast was ignored, I changed to a hares ear parachute, with exactly the same effect. Unperturbed, I put a larger mayfly on and flicked it out. Unfortunately, I had too much line and managed to splash the fly line down right on top of him; bye bye trout.
Learning a quick lesson, I moved on further up the beat and spotted a couple of small brownies in a shallow patch. I tried the black gnat again without much luck and then noticed a couple of mayfly’s around. Suspecting (hoping) a hatch might be in progress I dug out my Match the Hatch book and tried a hares ear klinkhammer as an emerging mayfly. This caught their attention but not enough to get a bite, so I changed to a small, hares ear parachute and managed to get a decent cast out. As it floated over the nose of the nearest brownie, it shot up and swirled at my fly. Needless to say I was so keen that I lifted the fly out of its mouth before it had even got its lips round it. And that put pay to that, as the brownies disappeared quickly. More lessons learned.
It was early evening by this point and I hadn’t seen a fish rise yet. While there was still time, I thought I would try one of the other beats in the hope of more surface action. This beat was slower and deeper but a bit more open. I walked the length of the beat without seeing any rises. The colour in the water combined with the worsening light angle meant I couldn’t see any fish either, so I decided to try some blind casting (sorry, prospecting). I could see the odd mayfly hatching off the water but the only things seemingly taking an interest was me and the swallows who were happily swooping in and scooping up the poor insects as they rose into the air. Suddenly, as the light was failing I saw a single solitary rise and made my way gently upstream. I stuck with a mayfly imitation and covered the area I had seen the rise, hoping the fish might still be there. Two casts, nothing, four casts, still nothing, then suddenly a swirl, a strike and……you guessed it, nothing. I’d struck too quickly and too aggressively again. This was going to a tricky lesson to learn!
With the light fading it was time to pack up. So not the most salubrious start to my river fishing career but to the honest I hadn’t expected much. I can still remember starting out on the reservoirs and how long it took me to figure things out and get catching, so I was prepared to experiment and learn. To be honest, I was happy being out in the peace and quiet amid the stunning surroundings.