Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Grand Fishing Tour

As you read this I will be heading down the narrow country lanes on Dorset en-route for the most westerly chalkstream on the planet. At my side will be my American photographer friend, Ken Takata. 

Regular users of the Fishing Breaks web site, readers of this newsletter and various of my magazine articles will be very familiar with many of Ken's stunning images as for five of the past seven year he has spent two summer weeks with both rod and lens here in the UK. 

Together we have covered many thousands of miles but he will, at this very moment, be gripping the passenger door handle as if his life depended on it for he still cannot get his head around English roads that are only wide enough for a single car. He is right, of course. It is a very bizarre concept to hurtle along roads designed for the days of horse and cart, relying on hope and instinct rather than any highway code.

River Bure - Norfolk

Ken has finally stopped asking 'what happens when we meet another car?' I think he has given up on my convoluted explanation of that careful etiquette country drivers regard as sacrosanct: i.e.  whoever is in closest reversing distance of the nearest passing spot gives way to the other.  Of course this tends to collapse when met with some huge piece of agricultural machinery or an Ocado van driver who took the day off on the How to Reverse a Van section on the induction course, thus rendering even the shortest backward movement too painful to watch. In the end it is easier to trade quarter of a mile in your own reverse gear than see another Iveco van gearbox being ground to oblivion.

Upper Seine - France
Today marks the last leg in our Compass Tour; 1700 miles on the road stretching from the Yorkshire Wolds to the Champagne region of France, all in an attempt to fish the geographical extremes of the chalkstreams. 

At a later date I will tell you how we outwitted the Yorkshire trout of the Foston Beck, East Anglian wildies in the River Bure, their Gallic counterparts on the Upper Seine and hopefully we will fill the card on the River Bride but regardless of success or failure today the past ten days has cemented my belief in the total wondrousness of chalkstreams.

I am beginning to think Frederick Halford, the man to whom we owe the concept of modern day fly fishing, was one of the greatest pushers of all time.
Steelhead fly fishers like to say the tug is the drug. Well, if that is true (it is) then dry fly fishing is the crack cocaine of our sport. I know there is great artistry in a well executed Spey cast. I understand the sublime beauty of azure saltwater flats. But that moment when your perfectly presented floating fly is engulfed by a mouth from below is a high like no other. 

For a fraction of a second you are a total master of the universe. Add all those fractions of a second together even across the most successful fishing lifetime and the full measure will be no more than a minute or two. The transient nature of success matters not. It is the manner of the success and it's very fleetingly nature that draws us all back to the river bank time and time again. Bad trips (pun intended) are wiped from our memory just as soon as we have the next good trip.

We are addicts to something few understand; probably better it stays that way.


The Otters' Tale has struck something of a purple patch as May morphs into June. 

Firstly, Country Life magazine gave me a glowing review Michael Wigan described the book as "This scrupulously accurate, limpidly written book is that rare thing: it teaches, inspires and entertains" I have to admit that the word limpidly sent me scurrying to dictionary corner a little worried that it may not be an entirely flattering word. But all was well, as it means in a clear and lucid manner

A few days later the PR guru at publishers Harper Collins sent me an email of high excitement; Otter's Tale had been reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, the publication of record for the print trade. I am not sure I have ever read the TLS in my entire life but since they described my book as "The best popular account of the lives of otters written so far". They now have a subscriber for life.

Could it get any better? Well, actually yes. The following day yet another email from publishing HQ that I had been nominated for, and on the long list for The Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize. This annual award, in association with the National Trust and BBC Countryfile celebrates the very best books published each year in nature and travel writing in the UK.

With £5,000 up for grabs and plenty of attendant publicity, including the announcement being filmed by the BBC at the COUNTRYFILE LIVE event at Blenheim Palace August 3 it is just wonderful to be in contention. The current longlist of twelve is to be whittled down to a shortlist of six, the half dozen finalists announced on June 27. 

I will keep you posted.


Things are moving on apace with CHALK - we already have seven days of filming under our belt, with another thirteen to go. George Browne at Fishing TV is posting regular updates on our Kickstarter page; here is the latest.

If there's one thing the chalkstreams are famous for it's the fabled 'Duffers' Fortnight' that usually falls around the end of May. It is the time of year when the mayfly hatch en-masse, and the trout go crazy - the name means that any fool should be able to catch. 

It is only fitting, then, that when Chris Cooper and Leo Cincolo (the filmmakers) headed down to the River Dun in the third week of May they were greeted by what the owner of the beat described as 'the biggest mayfly hatch [she] could remember.  The guys took full advantage of this natural phenomenon, capturing some really exciting, stunning sequences.

Last week the chaps were out on the river bank again - on the River Test - this time in the company of our first two groups of guest anglers. On Tuesday we were joined by John and his wife Carole, and by Mike, all keen fly anglers and excited to be taking part in the day. John and Carol have been fishing the chalk for ages, and John even brought his beautiful split-cane rod with him, as well as the latest volume of the fishing book that he has kept for decades. When Carol's not fishing or the fish aren't biting she likes to do sketches and drawings on her tablet.

For Mike, on the other hand, it was only his second chalkstream experience, and his first at mayfly time. He had to wait until quite late in the day, but he got to fish the hatch in the end. Wednesday saw our second group of guest anglers. This time it was Graham, a South African now living in the UK, and Digby. Both are regular chalkstream anglers and had a wealth of great stories to share with us, and Digby also brought along the second split cane rod of the film so far - I wonder how many we'll see by the end of filming.

At the end of the week Chris and Leo met up with another guest angler - Chris -and Damon Valentine, aka "The London Flyfisher" for a shoot on one of the more unusual and interesting chalkstreams, the Wandle, which flows through London. You'll have to watch the film to find out if they've located a trout in this river that's slowly being restored to former glories.

To everyone's great relief we have some really important shots and sequences in the can already, as well as some lovely drone footage so things are progressing nicely. Chris and Leo are out and about quite a lot over the next month or so.

In other news, we're in the process of finalising a venue for the premiere - we've got a great place lined up, so watch this space for further announcements. Anyone like Sloe Gin?



The June weed cut is in its final few days; by early next week all the rivers will be back to normal.

Mottisfont Abbey - River Dun beat
Bit of an odd year weed-wise. On some sections definitely a below par season thus far, with the weed growth never making up for lost time after a dry winter. On the other hand tributaries of the Test such as the River Dun were overwhelmed. We had to deploy a team of four to break the back of the Dunbridge beat; normally a leisurely team of two will crack through it.

The photo was taken by National Trust Mottisfont Abbey river keeper Neil Swift who is justifiably proud of his handiwork on the Dun beat. This is a textbook example of what we call a chequerboard cut. That is to say the white squares are cut clear of weed, to create a zigzag flow pattern that speeds up the current, which is great for both trout and bug life, whilst optimising the holding spots for fish.

You will sometimes see the weed cut in bars stretching across the full width of the river. This is a great way to preserve water depth, but not quite so good in other respects as it can encourage silt build ups and offers fewer opportunities for the angler. 

If you'd like to follow Neil via Instagram here is his link


The longest day and shortest night coming up, so get your Druid outfit out to head for Stonehenge.  A few celestial questions  to match the upcoming summer solstice - it is just for fun with answers at the bottom of the Newsletter.

Where is this?
1)  What is a tropical year?

2)  How long (in hours and minutes) is the longest day on June 21st?

3) King Arthur Pendragon (Druid Party) who lists his address as Stonehenge, Wiltshire stood in the recent parliamentary election to become the local MP. How many votes did he get?

4) The summer solstice is not always on June 21st; it is occasionally on June 20th or 22nd. The last time it was on June 22nd was 1975. When will be the next time?

5) This watercolour from 1900 was featured in the Sunday Times over the weekend. Which River Test beat is it?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers:
1)  The time it takes the Earth to orbit once around the Sun. It is around 365.242199 days. 
2)  16 hours and 38 minutes. 4.43am - 9.21pm. 
3)  415 (0.7% of the poll) which was down on his 729 in 2015 
4)  2203. Not exactly one for the diary ......
5)  Whitchurch Fulling Mill

Friday, 2 June 2017

My top 10 flies

Lenin once wrote "there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen". I don't ever recall history denoting the Russian leader as a fly fisher, but in his quote there is a grain of truth for us fly fishers.

Once the frenetic excitement of the Mayfly is over it does sometimes seem that there are days when nothing happens. Commonly you will hear it said that the trout stop feeding, lapsing into a post-Mayfly torpor. But this is something of a myth. Like us they can't go more than a few days without food. The difference is that they revert to type: selective, picky and suspicious.

For a while this can be frustrating, but working on the adage that hell is a fish every cast June is the month to roll up our sleeves, double down on basic entomology and take the challenge. I can't promise I have all the answers but over the years I have tried to hone my fly box down to fewer rather than more patterns. I have to confess that I like to have a wide range of sizes of these favoured few, from the standard 14s to some tiny 24s. Of course the latter spawns all kinds tippet issues, not to mention tying on in dim light, but it is all part of the aforementioned challenge.

So, here are my top 10 flies for the chalkstreams. I am grateful to The Field magazine for allowing me to reproduce the text from the original article that I wrote for the recently published May issue:
"Estimates vary, but there are something in the region of 6,000 fly patterns tied just to catch trout. Your job as a fly fisher is simple: to assess the conditions in order to bring that boggling array down to just a single pattern for a given fish at a given moment. Since few of us carry a suitable Google algorithm around in our heads, this process is at best imperfect. But there is hope.

If you are looking for guidance probably the worst ploy is to stop en route to the river at the local fly store. Not that this isn't fantastic fun; it is part of the ritual of any fishing trip. But as they like to say in the tackle trade, 'flies are tied to catch fishermen, not fish'. You have been warned. The truth is you probably already have the perfect fly for the day in your box; it is just a question of knowing which it is.

Trout, especially chalkstream brown trout, are creatures of habit. Unless something momentous invades their space they will live out their three to five years of adult life within a few yards of the spot they were spawned. In that time they will progress from eating almost microscopic invertebrates to a positive smorgasbord of aquatic delicacies. When we consider what trout eat 'flies' are part of a wider story: snails, shrimps, ova, infant crayfish, caterpillars, grubs and moths are just a few of the other items on the menu.

At this point perhaps I haven't helped you much. I've widened rather than reduced the array of possibilities, introducing whole new vistas of food groups to which you hadn't given much consideration in the past, but don't despair. The process of elimination is easier than you think.

Firstly you need to consider the life of a trout, which is in truth, a pretty simple one. When not thinking about sex or survival trout's only real concern is food and this dominates just about every moment of every daylight hour. A trout has to consume vast quantities of food each day, but, and this is both its strength and weakness. For every item it eats, it will reject or ignore dozens of others.

As the angler, this is the biggest problem you face: your offering will be up for close scrutiny, compared and contrasted against the more numerous naturals. The quality of the cast, the drift, the thickness of the tippet and much more all come into play but ultimately it is your fly that will be the deciding factor. Of course we have all seen the trout that has a rush of blood to the head, grabbing without discrimination as something passes, but that is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part trout are methodical and measured. That is where you will win.

If you watch the evolution of a hatch on a river it is always a progressive affair. If the insects are ones you recognise it is a mistake to instantly start casting at every trout in the vicinity with your imitation. You are right to match the hatch, but you are wrong to think you might goad the trout into action. They like to take things steady, eyeing up the stream of insects before finally sampling one. The second rise will come more easily, as will the third and so on. Once the fish has the taste of the naturals and has become emboldened by them, your imitation is more likely to be taken. That is how you win.

As an aside I have often wondered why, when a river surface teems with the real thing, a trout would ever deign to consider a man-made fly, however perfectly tied. After all, you can easily spot the difference from 10 metres away as your fly drifts downriver, so at much closer range, surely it's a pretty simple analysis for the trout? I can only assume that they react a bit like us humans when presented with a bowl of chips - you just can't resist the one that looks a bit different.

If I were of a mathematical bent and were creating an equation for fly selection, the biggest factor has to be the season. The food in and on the river varies with the time of the year so you need to carry that basic bit of knowledge around in your head as to what hatches and when, if only for purposes of elimination. You can make it easy on yourself - I organise my flies in separate boxes for April, May, June and so on, then I have a generic box for those that work across the season. That is how I arrive at my top 10.

It is hard to overstate how attuned trout are to the changing of the seasons; the famous mayfly, Ephemera danica, is a good case in point. You would think that after three or four weeks of gorging on these huge morsels, the mayfly would be firmly lodged in the memory of a trout. But cast one to a trout any time outside the mayfly period and it will be plainly ignored. Trout might not have a mighty brain but they are not daft; they need the comfort of familiarity.

So, after matching the hatch to the season, what else do you need to consider? The great delight of chalkstreams is that you are able to observe trout feeding, so adjust your tactics accordingly. Some people maintain that seeing a rising fish is the best thing you'll ever see on a chalkstream. I disagree. It is spotting a fish that is about to rise. You can see that they are quivering with latent energy. Books describe it as 'on the fin'; a fish just beneath the surface, with its body angled slightly upwards, fins flexing and ready to rise when the moment demands it. This is the time for a dry.

But fish don't feed on the surface all the time. In fact they probably obtain 9/10ths of their food elsewhere. Watch for the other signs. I know it sounds blindingly obvious but if the fish is moving left and right in the stream, mouth opening and closing, it must be nymphing so use a nymph. Similarly if it is kicking up the gravel with tail, head or body it is dislodging shrimps so the answer should be obvious.

Observe and you will quickly eliminate everything but the possible. That is the moment to delve into your fly box to tie on the pattern of choice.

Here is the content of my fly boxes. You can't possibly cover every contingency, so keep it simple, stick to these reliables and you'll rarely get skunked."
Black Gnat
This is your all-purpose midge or gnat imitator. Along with some of the others in my top 10, have this in the smaller sizes as well. Sizes 12-18; April-September. A size 12 will double for the Hawthorn in late April and early May.
Blue Winged Olive
This is the classic chalkstream fly that is the most widespread of the summer olives. Handily the Pheasant Tail is a good imitation of the nymphal stage and the Parachute Adams the emerger. Sizes 14-18; June-September.
Cinnamon Sedge
There are over 30 different British caddis species but the ones trout are interested in are all fairly similar so this one pattern will suffice. The smaller size will do when the April grannom hatch is on and the Klinkhammer imitates the emerger. Sizes 10-14; May-September.
Daddy Long Legs
Not a river fly at all, but these terrestrials (also called Crane Flies) are so commonly blown on to the water that trout go mad for this big mouthful. Best fished in the surface film, so not too much floatant. Size 8-12; July-September.
Iron Blue
When the conditions are cold, wet and blustery in May, September and October this deceptively delicate fly is the one to turn to. Iron Blues just love to hatch in these conditions. Sizes 14-18; May, September and October.
This is the most modern fly of the 10, created by Dutchman Hans van Klinken in the 1980s. Very versatile, easy to see and will work all season. Imitates an emerging caddis or sedge, so classified as one of the two emergers in my selection. Choose the colour you wish, though grayling like red. Sizes 12-14; all year.
Parachute Adams
The original Adams was invented by Leonard Hallady from Michigan, USA in 1922 who named it after the first person to catch a fish with it, Judge Charles E. Adams. I have to confess that the Parachute version is my 'go to' pattern every time. It floats like a dream, will take lots of punishment and is easy to see. Sizes 12-20; all year.
Pheasant Tail Nymph
Without a doubt the most widely used fly in the world; you will find a variant in the fly box of just about every freshwater guide around the globe. It was created by Frank Sawyer during his time as river keeper for the army on the River Avon in Hampshire from 1928 to 1980. It is simple and effective, imitating all manner of chalkstream invertebrates. If you are not sure what to use sub-surface, this is your default. Have weighted and unweighted versions, sizes 10-18; all year.
At certain times of the year shrimp, or gammarus to be Latin about them, account for 80 per cent of a trout's diet. Ignore them at your peril. Pink or green. Weighted and unweighted versions. Sizes 12-14; all year.
Thomas Mayfly
A monster of a fly but the most effective Emphemera danica imitator of them all. Sizes 8-10; May and June.
Fly box


Does God like to taunt us fly fishers? In April the southern chalkstream region was dry, the rain total just 19% of LTA (long term average). Come the third week of May, when every inch of every river was occupied, we were trending at 110% LTA, with most of that in that third week with some colossal thunderstorms. Plenty of us were drenched.

Strangely the Mayfly seem immune to heavy rain; one of the best days the guides reported for fishing was one of the worst for weather As for the hatch itself? It could well turn out to be one for the record books with plenty of shrewd observers saying this was the best in living memory.

I am pleased to say the winner of the Fishing Breaks snood for May is Mrs. Davies who fished here at Nether Wallop Mill. It is in the post today. Everyone goes back in the draw at the end of October for the tactile Abel TR1 reel. Hard to not want to win that one!


Alec Douglas-Hume. Left himself plenty of time for fishing .....
Within a week of reading this we should have some idea of the make-up of our new government. 

So, a few parliamentary questions to keep us ahead of events It is, as ever, just for fun with answers at the bottom of the page.

1)  How many Members of Parliament are there?

2) How many Prime Minsters have there been since the end of World War II?

3)   Who had the longest and shortest tenure?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers:
1)      Currently none (they all lose their seats on the dissolution of Parliament) until the new Parliament is formed with 650.
2)      Fourteen. Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson each served twice.
3)      Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) and Alec Douglas-Hume (1963-64)

Friday, 19 May 2017

The mystical, magical Mayfly


Well, I finally cracked on Tuesday. The reports of Mayfly were too much. Calls, emails, social media postings - you were all alive with news as to how the river was alive. That odd freak of nature we crave so much, the mayfly, was on the move. The numbers were not great nor was the hatch intense. In fact sporadic was the most commonly used word. But it was happening. That was enough.

I don't exactly know why I resisted for so many days. Maybe anticipation is a pleasure in itself? So off I headed late in the day, arriving at the river just before 6pm.

From the bridge I could see a few fish were rising, at least three within casting range, with one taking mayfly for sure. But the lot of a river manager is not without some sacrifices. I don't expect you to feel my pain but one of the downsides of fishing your own water is that you are always doing a sort of audit in your head: are there seats that need repair. Should we trim back that overhanging branch? Why is there a discarded can lodged in the silt? So, inevitably, any trip of mine involves an element of work (are you still not feeling my pain?) so I eventually picked up my rod closer to seven than six.

I hardly dare count back of the number of years I have watched the Ephemera Danica hatch but for all that I have never lost the awe for another Mother Nature masterclass. It always confounds me, that despite a prior winter or spring that can range from benign to some of the worst on record, our little insect buddy arrives bang on time every year. Climate change? Nobody has told the mayfly.

And then there is that moment when our scruffy, gangly nymph sheds his underwater persona to become the most amazing insect on the wing. How is it they even know how to fly? Just a few breaths of fresh air, a few moments stretching those newly minted wings and ping, off in the air. And everyone one of those millions, maybe billions, of danica knows his or her role in the brief hours of life to come. The males gather along the banks, forming in columns beside bushes and trees, fluttering up, then drifting down. Fluttering up, drifting down. It seems an odd way to attract a mate but maybe it is the entomological equivalent of a disco. Regardless it works, as females dive in from the side-lines, grasping onto the chosen one to perform congress mid-flight.

There is no post-coital pillow talk; let's face it if you don't even have the ability to eat (mayflies have mouths but no stomachs) time is not exactly on your side. The male slinks off; he'll be dead by morning. For the female it is a choice of an immediate return to the river for egg-laying or resting up overnight. Whichever path she follows the tableaux is the same, dipping down to touch the river with her abdomen, letting the surface tension to draw out long strings of eggs in a series of ever shortening dives until eventually she rises no more, collapsing in a heap of twitching tails, body and wings until she either drowns or is sucked down by an opportunistic trout. But the deed is done. The sticky egg strings drift towards the river bed, attaching themselves to stones and weed. In time they will hatch into tiny nymphs that will evolve to complete the circle of life almost to the day, two years later.

On Tuesday evening there was no sign of the spinners, the females laying eggs. It was strictly newly hatched duns, still something of a novelty for the small, wild browns who leapt clear of the water to grab the mays mid-flight. Such youthful enthusiasm - give them a few days to discover easier ways of capturing supper. But I was kind to them. I stayed my cast; it seemed unfair that such exuberance should be snuffed out with the painful realisation that all that floats is not all it might appear.

Instead I headed for one of the hatch pools where the big, lazy trout hang. It is one of the features of the early weeks of the mayfly hatch that fish cruise. You don't absolutely have to be saucer accurate with your cast. More or less is enough. If the fish like what they see they will come to you. Treasure that moment. It will not be the same later in the season.

And so I cast my line and let the turbulence of the pool take the fly where the current dictated. Regular mends to the left and the right kept it in the feeding zone until with that slow deliberation of a fish that knows it really doesn't need to try that hard, a head broke the surface and slurped down the fly. The two fish that quickly followed, to the precise same tactic, more than sated my mayfly desires, so I shambled towards home happy to ignore all other rises, which made me feel rather noble. But it could not last.

As I write this late on Thursday I have to confess that the fever is back. I have checked the fishing diaries and spied a few gaps. I have left Sunday conspicuously clear of domestic chores and family commitments. I have a feeling the magic and mystery of the mayfly will draw me back to the river before the weekend is out.


I am reasonably certain that I have many disturbed night ahead of me this summer. The maternal star of The Otters' Tale, Kuschta, is back again with a new litter of pups, this time numbering three.  They disturbing on two levels.
Grooming for the camera

Firstly, and most obviously, noise. A family of otters cannot move anywhere without eeking to one another. And believe me it is not just the occasional eek. As they arrive in a raggedy convoy the one at the back will eek to the one ahead, then the next in line will do the same to the next and so on in regular five second rotation.  On reaching our relatively small lake you'd think that would be it, but no, on and on goes the eeking. It only stops when they have finally eaten, settling down to groom and rest. And that is, of course, the other disturbing thing knowing that somewhere between the noise and the silence they will have created mayhem in the trout lake.

I do try to track their antics with a night vision camera and by way of 'disguise', knowing where they like to play, I have rolled in a log to which it is attached. Fool proof? Apparently not. Having played and groomed for the camera last night, they clearly took umbrage at the intrusion, proving themselves able to undo the tensioned strap, tear the camera from the log, abandoning it and the housing on the grass.

Why? I have absolutely no idea. Maybe I am going to need a camera to monitor the camera or simply pay the otters image rights, but you'd have thought all those fish were payment enough.


I found the school calendar incredibly frustrating. Did nobody in academia realise that the Mayfly hatch was long over by the time the school gates finally closed for the summer holidays? I did try to point this out to my headmaster once, but having long written me off as a hopeless case, he failed to rally to my cause for a radical shake up in term dates.

However, on the plus side I pretty well had my patch of the River Meon to myself. The men with grand cars and large cigars had vacated the river banks for the fleshpots of Ascot, Henley and the Riviera. Their loss (I doubt they saw it that way...) was my gain.

Sure, it was all rather unkempt, but some of my best memories are still of those long summers beside the stream. To slightly alter the words of Ratty in Wind in the Willows to Mole, 'Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in rivers.'

So, in that vein, though (I hope) considerably less haphazard than my own summer we are running a three day river camp. It is a chance be a river keeper, help on a restoration projection, and learn the rudiments of being a fishing guide, all interspersed with lots of fishing.

River Camp
Takes place on the River Test near Stockbridge, Hampshire daily 10am-5pm for three days. Suitable for children 12-16 years. Fully supervised with all tackle and equipment provided. £275/child with 10% discount for siblings. July 17-19.

Kids Fish Camp
Run at Nether Wallop Mill near Stockbridge over four mornings (10am-1pm) and one full day (10am-3pm) over a week. Suitable for 8-15 years. Full tuition and all tackle provided. £250/child with 10% discount for siblings. July 24-28.

For more details click here .....


You will see all four of these fledglings on or near the river at this time of year. What adult will each the grow into? It is, as ever, just for fun with answers at the bottom of the page.

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: Top left: Swan. Top right: Moorhen. Bottom left: Mallard. Bottom right: Kingfisher