7.03 to fly fishing paradise

The Dever Stream flows as clear as air and reaches in chalk filtration to brown trout suspended as if suspended over a layer of gravel. I watch, annoyed, annoyed only by the hum of a bullet train of a passing flapper crane.

These chalk streams around the famous River Test in Hampshire are dangerous territory for the writer, an Arcadia that has long tempted men with reckless noodles. The feathered feet of Evelyn Wu’s quest spout are never far away.

Yet here I am, the morning heat that raises the early dew, and from the willow-trees along the bank the cassette flies rise to shiver and leap in the frothy light. Some come down on the water to be swept downstream, but the dark-colored trout in their lie remain quiet (or, as Keats said: “Then in mournful chorus the little mosquitoes mourn / Among the pale river, high / or drowned while the light wind lives or you die “).

Rhapsody is the result of such flows that it provides a psychological ward for the restless or only the tired. Fly fishing requires focus, knowledge, skill, various levels of exciting tools, and for real commitment, escaping into the mind of a small fish.

Even the name of the main river, the Test, sounds perfect, evoking that other great summer pursuit of the Englishman, cricket. The two concerns are surprisingly similar. “It’s all about the line and the length,” my friend Robert Sloss told me.

But recently, fly fishing has expanded. Role models such as Marina Gibson, April Foki and Jelly Patty have encouraged more women. TV shows like Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gold Hunting, It was introduced by two beloved British comedians, and it sparked interest.

Testing is considered the pinnacle of this sport. But, in fact, this is unreasonable. The fish I see were put downstream by river managers tasked with entertaining paying guests. An uneasy American once described the river as “the longest stocked pond in the country”—which, believe me, is too snotty to say.

But so what? The river, which rises at Ashe near Basingstoke and flows through a network of streams into the waters of Southampton, is beautiful and very interesting. Here, on the Dever tributary, the stream is no more than 10 feet wide, and its gravel bottom is punctuated by a watery weed swaying in the thinnest currents. Wagtail wag through hawthorn, pheasant’s eye and chamomile prepare to bloom.

The trout rises to sip in the Don passing over it. I wait for the fish to settle down, and throw up.

There are many reasons to fish – visceral, ephemeral, cerebral, it’s not quite as boring as golf – but the one that increasingly dominates me is geography. The sport takes me to places few others see: British Columbia, Patagonia or Seychelles, but also the back roads of the home provinces.

So I find myself in London Waterloo, sitting furiously in Britt, waiting for a 7.03 ride to Rumsey. The reason for my mood is a normal urban thing: if I book 1 hour in advance, it’s 28 minutes, but because I haven’t, it’s about £50. By the time I cross the quirky romantic cranes of the container port in Southampton, my spirits have lifted. Soon I received the trees and out.

Hunting at Dever, a tributary of Test, at Bullington Manor
Hunting on the Dever, a tributary of the Test, at Bullington Manor © Ken Takata

An astonishing number of perfect flows can be reached by train. I’m here because the Fishing Breaks tour company has launched a series of “Fly Fishing by Train” excursions, to the rivers a mile or less from the station with accommodations in lovely English pubs nearby. It means that a happy escape to the river can easily be attached to a business trip to London, for example, or a more traditional tour of the capital’s sights.

From Romsey Station it’s a 20-minute walk to the fishing, through market town, past Boots and Bradbeers Store, and finally Cromwell Arms, where you can drop your bag.

For much of its length, the test is attached to the canyon troy canals, but I begin on the Broadlands Estate, where it clumps in preparation for the sea. The Broadlands is home to Earls Mountbatten, the honeymoon home of the Queen and Charles, and Fishing Breaks have negotiated exclusive access to its waters.

It feels so intense Brideshead, standing on the river in front of the perfectly proportioned Georgian facade of the house, the lawn extends to the river’s edge. If anyone appears on the lawn, I am told it is good manners to move downstream – but no one does.

Broadlands, a Palladian country house outside of Rumsey

Broadlands, a Palladian country house outside Romsey © Alamy

A man holding a fish he caught

Nicole at Bullington Manor with his catch: brown trout

The water here is dark enough not to reveal all of its secrets. The grounds are littered with cypresses and oaks, and just in case you were worried about being rushed out of town, a London plane. I’m looking for brown trout, which are minute creatures (as opposed to finoch, which is a boisterous Scotsman). There’s also the rainbow trout, the river labrador that eats anything, and the off-season grey, a gorgeous dragon-like fish whose presence shows the river is healthy.

Because the test is extensive here I’m going into the stream. Your brown trout will discard anything that does not exactly repeat what is fluttering at that moment. This leads fishermen into a whole new obsession of their own, the attempt at “slot matching”.

You can go under the surface, imitating a nymph to clear the river bed, although in certain parts of the class this is considered. Or use upward, as if the fly is preparing to penetrate the surface tension of the water. Or you can pretend that you are a fly that has landed on the surface of the water and is now trapped. And that’s all before you actually choose any fly.

fishing gear

Flies, rod, reel, and the all-important fishing record book © Ken Takata

Fishing waders hanging on the shelf

Waders: A Fly Fishing Essential Kit © Ken Takata

There is a lot to be obsessed with, and there are many chests to look into. My friend Sloss spent years carrying flies to his young children, asking them to name each one correctly. It seems not badly damaged.

Fortunately, I have a mentor, Malcolm Price, who has retired from the IT department to Riverside. It’s very early in the season, but an opening from the enclosure oozes over the river’s surface and small bulges form and then split in surface tension as the fish emerge.

Malcolm gave me a liquid that mimics flies floating beneath the surface layers of the water, and took brown trout. I quickly got lost in nature, the lonely hour a red kite circling, its tail forked, hunts above me. It already feels very far from London.

As dusk approaches, we walk back through mature woodland to Cromwell Arms, a few hundred meters away. A classic training lodge, with a lawn-ready marquee for weekend summer weddings.

Two men wading into the river

Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer in Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing © BBC/Owl Power/Parisa Taghizadeh

I check in. It may be the view of the parking lot, but the bathroom is luxurious after a day in the water. Then there’s the friendly bar and a pint of Gale’s Spring Sprinter, as fruity as a butcher’s pun.

Simon Cooper will join me for dinner. The owner of Fishing Breaks is a former bookmaker who has written books about chalk streams, otters and Frankel’s racehorse. He arranged 30-year fishing trips from his home (and flying fishing school) in Nether Wallop, which are supposed to make him a character in Jilly Cooper’s novel.

Over salmon in the inn’s pleasant dining room, talk about the variety of fish on offer, from fat trout by the lawns reserved for newcomers, to the very tough wild fish in small, overgrown streams.

He talks about progress in the life of a fly catcher. First you want to catch a fish, then you want to catch a lot of fish, then you want to catch a big fish, and finally you want to catch who – which Says.

He talks about dry fly fishing and testing. Hunting must have been one of the oldest pastimes, and fly fishing – the art of casting small, feathered baits using line weight – goes back at least to the Romans.

But dry fly art was developed in the 19th century on the southern chalk streams of England. FM Halford has developed a new technique that makes his dander float on top of the weeds that thrive here as summer arrives – then he talks about it outside a test hut in Mottisfont Abbey. Now grateful poachers from all over the world come and leave flies on Halford’s grave, presumably threatening the feather-footed search rats.

I wanted to try a place Simon rents on the upper test called Whitchurch Fulling Mill, which is easily accessible by train (fishing is a 20 minute walk from Whitchurch station).

I’ve been told it’s cool, clear and small, but in mid-April, despite the sunny days, it’s still early days. Instead, the next morning, Malcolm took me to Bullington Manor, a property halfway between Winchester and Andover (and five miles from the station in Micheldever).

The name Bullington evokes budding prime ministers who roam the pubs of Oxford, but it turns out he’s pastoral perfection. Each fish could be seen for 20 yards in place, noses facing downstream – which must have been nice for the herons who fluttered as we arrived.

Brown trout swimming in the river
Brown trout, a chalk game fish that fly fishing, was invented for fishing

We start downstream at a small crossing called the Venice Bridge and work again, zipping upstream until the flies drift again over the waiting trout. With a faint breeze in the reeds and the chirping of songbirds from the bush, the day passes in contemplation. With so few flies hatching, I’m often overlooked, the fish darting away as we pass.

But then I noticed the beautiful brown trout, fleshy and happy on the gravel bed. As Simon tells me, sometimes a whole day comes to one fish, no matter how many other fish you might catch. The cast is long and tough. Trees and shrubs everywhere wait to cut the line, branches dangle on the roof.

But the fly lands well. Drifting down amongst the bubbles in the waterline I watch the trout rise elegantly to receive it. I lift the stick and the fish runs.

On our way back, we meet the fishermen who hunt in the vicinity. Amazingly, they turned out to be Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse. Bob smiles and asks if I’m good, then shakes his head toward Paul, “He’s so good.”

We talk about hunting and fishing in general. I notice that there are no TV cameras to be seen. It turns out that they went hunting to escape the cruelty He went fishing.


Ruaridh Nicoll was a guest on Fishing Breaks (Fishingbreaks.co.uk); Two days of fishing at Broadlands and Bullington Manor, plus two nights at Cromwell Arms, costs from £490 per person (based on a two-person room subscription). The guide costs an extra £345 per day, including use of all rods, reels and flies

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