Monday, 24 March 2014

Why do we fly fish?

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire, England

March 24th 2014
I suspect like me, you know in your heart of hearts that fly fishing is possibly the most inefficient way to catch fish as yet devised by man. If we had to capture fish to survive, the fly fishermen amongst us would be the thinnest and hungriest of the population. But we persist and indeed it’s a profession I choose to make my living. So in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of F. M. Halford’s death – the man who can be said to have invented modern-day dry-fly fishing – I sometimes feel compelled to ask, what draws us back to the river time and again when the odds are so stacked against us?
F M Halford
F M Halford
Halford was a driven man, some might say obsessive. He was a wealthy industrialist who, at the height of the Victorian era, had the time and the means to pursue his beliefs in an era when downstream wet-fly was the standard in fly fishing. Nymph fishing was as yet a twinkle in the eye of G. E. M. Skues, its invention still 25 or more years in the future. Halford set his bar very high. Not for him random or blind casting. His belief was that a true fly fisherman should first find a surface feeding fish. Then, through observation or deduction, they should identify the fly on which that fish was feeding and tie an accurate imitation of that fly to the line. Then, and only then, should the angler take up position and make a cast. Halford’s perfect day would be to spot four rising fish feeding on a different fly each time and catch all four with his first cast.
In the context of a time when fly tackle was rudimentary – silk lines, greenheart rods, cat gut leaders and spade hooks – this economy of effort makes a certain amount of sense. Goodness knows even with all our hi-tech modern kit it is easy enough to lose a fish and exasperating to re-tackle after a snagged back cast snaps off your fly, so one can only guess how long it took in Victorian times. That said, angling was a far more leisurely affair. For many of us a day on the river is a snatched treat, shoehorned into busy lives and often subject to complex family negotiations, but no such matters troubled Halford. He took a cottage on the banks of the River Test in Hampshire for the season and decamped to his beloved Oakley Stream at Mottisfont Abbey for months at a time. There he honed his dry-fly creed on a chalkstream where fish like to rise to the surface fly like no other.
F M Halford's Oakley Hut on the River Test
Halford’s Oakley Hut at Mottisfont Abbey
I know that plenty of people will take me to task for crediting Halford for ‘inventing’ dry-fly fishing. It is true that before the birth of Christ the Macedonians were doing something similar, and angling literature from the sixteenth century onwards, including Izaak’s Walton’sThe Compleat Angler, makes reference to floating flies. There were also contemporaries of Halford’s who were pursuing the same line of thought. But what Halford did with two books published in 1886 and 1889 was codify dry-fly fishing, drawing together ancient and modern strands of thought and practice to make sense of a style of fly fishing with which most anglers were unfamiliar. Halford’s second book, Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, elevated him to super-star status in the fishing world. He became a brand before the concept of branding was really invented, with rods, reels and all manner of other angling paraphernalia carrying his endorsement. At his thatched hut on the Oakley Stream he daily welcomed visitors who came from far and wide to pay homage to a man who revolutionised the sport.
But Halford succeeded in establishing the popularity of dry-fly fishing for two reasons: when the conditions are right it can be mighty effective and it is exciting. And on the chalkstreams where he put his theories into practice it has become one of the most exhilarating ways of catching fish. There are few other places in the world where you can survey a gin-clear river that is barely knee deep and spot half a dozen fish or more holding on the current all within the distance of one easy cast. Approached with care these brown trout are not skittish – they have confidently chosen their lies so they may eye up the food that is carried down towards them at their leisure. You, like the fish, watch the progress of the insects on the water. Maybe a Hawthorn in blustery April. A huge Danica Mayfly during Duffer’s Fortnight. A pretty Blue-winged Olive on a tranquil summer’s evening or a clumsy Sedge in September. Whatever the month chalkstream trout are choosy because they can afford to be. There is more food in these rivers than you can shake a stick at and therein lies the skill of the dry-fly fisherman. Luring these trout demands a perfect imitation, presented in the correct way, at precisely the right moment.
Put that way it sounds like an impossible task but what Halford did was to open the door to the possibility of success, describing new patterns and techniques which have been gradually improved in the hundred years since his death. Man-made materials for tying, precision hooks, factory tapered leaders and even Polaroid sunglasses are just some of the many advantages we have over the anglers of his day, but the same basic principles apply. Locate. Identify. Cast. And when it all comes together there is that sublime moment when you know you have made all the right choices. The fly lands on the water, drifts towards the fish and in that split second between the fish seeing the fly and rising to the surface to take it you may revel in both anticipation and success.
So the next time you tie on a dry fly offer up a small moment to thank Frederick Halford; we owe him a mighty debt.
This article is in the current edition of the Irish Country Sports and Country

Friday, 14 March 2014

What a difference six months makes

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire England
Friday 14th March 2014
What a difference six months makes. This little bit of chalkstream perfection was not soDSC_0070perfect six months ago when it was completely dried up, but today it is a very different story. This is the Teffont Brook, in the chocolate box Wiltshire village of Teffont Magna where the cottages are thatched, built in the buttermilk coloured Purbeck limestone hewn from the surrounding hills. All along the main street (pretty well the only street) the stream flows in front of the houses, where the doorstep is often a bridge.
DSC_0064The Teff as it is locally known, must be one of the shortest chalkstreams in the world, joining as it does the River Nadder just 1.7 miles from the source which in turn joins the River Avon, the longest of all the chalkstreams. It is a salutary thought for anyone who cares about the precious water of the chalkstreams that in less than 24 hours time, after a journey of just 40 miles this pellucid water, which I’m happy to drink from the stream, will be washed into the English Channel in Christchurch Harbour.
DSC_0067For chalkstreams anoraks like myself the beauty of the Teff comes in many forms. It is what is called in the jargon a ‘perennial stream’ where the water quite literally gushes out of a fissure in the ground about a hundred yards up from where this photo was taken. In a normal rainfall season it will flow continuously year round, but after protracted dry spells (like that of 2013) it will stop for a while to return once a decent amount of rainfall returns.  The purity of the water is a sight to behold in itself and better still after months of filtration through the chalk seam beneath the Wiltshire down land it is heaven for the ranunculus weed that thrives in the clear, cold, oxygenated water.
All in all it is a harbinger for a great summer ahead.
PS If you want to see the Teffont Magna location here is the Google map link

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The chalkstreams: how bad is it?

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire, England 6th March 2014

The chalkstreams: how bad is it?
Well, actually surprisingly good. This week I have done a tour of the Itchen, Test, Avon and Dorset stream catchments. I have definitely seen rivers this full and water meadows this flooded twice before in the past two decades but the real difference is how long the water is laying and the carnage to the trees.

I really cannot believe how many trees are down; not just spindly ones but huge trees and especially poplars. There is a section down on the Allen that looks positively lunar with the huge craters alongside tree trunks that all lay in exactly the same direction clearly felled by a vicious spike of wind that blew through. Poplars were a bit of a cash crop in the 1960's and 70's planted and harvested for matchstick production, but when that stopped they were just left to grow and are now vulnerable being well past maturity. Fortunately these particular trees have fallen away from the river, but elsewhere we are having real problems with trees. Usually with the help of farm machinery we can get out even the biggest trees but our difficulty at the moment is that no tractor can get near the river without getting stuck. So, it is with winches, grim determination and heavy duty waders plus a good dose of ingenuity that the keepers are gradually clearing the rivers. Firewood anyone?

Whitchurch Fulling Mill March 2014
River Test - Whitchurch Fulling Mill

On a more positive note you will see from the photos that generally the rivers are back within their banks and what has struck me is how clear the water is, albeit pounding through at many times the normal rate. Even on the upper reaches where you'd normal wade nonchalantly you need to think twice before getting in. As for the fish well they don't care; after the winter spawning they are very active and far more visible than in a normal year. The mild weather is encouraging the reeds and plants along the margins to shoot early and there have been staggering hatches of olives. On the Wylye I had to swat away clouds that were almost choking me. 

Avon Springs March 2014
River Avon - Avon Springs
So, what's the verdict? Well, as far as the fish and the ecology of the chalkstreams everything is as it should be - this is how the water meadow system was designed to cope. But as for us anglers things are trickier. The real problem at the moment, and I suspect until into early April, is getting along or to the banks. All are waterlogged to some degree, with plenty of places were the water is still Wellington boot deep . With every day the worst is receding and I expect everywhere to open on schedule as planned, but if you are venturing out wear waders (even for bank fishing) and take a long handled net. If it is a wading beat go carefully especially getting in and out as it is often hard to tell where the bank ends and the river starts.

I know it is tempting to look on the bleak side of the floods, but it is worth casting our minds back two years this week to when I attended a crisis drought summit in Berkshire. The media had been filled with TV reporters standing in the dried up River Kennet at Hungerford and we were told that it 'would take generations' for the flows to return. Mother Nature always, but always has the last laugh.

If you have a date booked or are in any doubt before booking, do ping me an email for an update.

River Nadder - Compton Chamberlayne

River Allen March 2014
River Allen - Wimborne St Giles
Bullington Manor March 2014
Upper Test - Bullington Manor