The British weather just loves to confound this nation, or at least me. Two months ago I was sitting here perched like a pimple as the Wallop Brook came within inches of flooding The Mill. Today you would barely know the ‘extreme flooding event’ as the Environment Agency like to call the wettest winter in over a hundred years, ever happened. As I go around the rivers making final preparations I find myself scratching my head as there are various markers I have lodged in my memory that record the height of the rivers in previous years. Commonsense would suggest that every marker should be surpassed but, and I know this may be hard to believe, but currently the Hampshire rivers are a lower than they were this time last year and much lower than in May 2012.
Dunbridge (River Dun) Hampshire
A bit of me feels slightly smug as I was always confident that the rivers could open on time, though plenty of naysayers said otherwise. However, I am conscious that pride comes before a fall and that I really have nature to thank getting us in such a good place. Firstly, don’t run away with the thought that low equals bad. Far from it. The velocity of the water is terrific and the huge filled-to-the-brim chalk aquifers will keep the streams in prime condition all season. The current height is down to two factors; monthly rainfall and weed growth. Last April was record wet, as was the previous May whereas both March and April this year thus far have been dry. More significantly the ranunculus weed took a battering in the winter floods and has taken a while to recover, especially further down the river systems. On the headwaters where the
Teffont Stream, Wiltshire
water remained fast, clear and shallow even through the worst of the floods it has grown better than ever, but further down when the depth and murkiness of the water kept sunlight off the roots the winter growth was stunted. As a result that bulk of weed growth that raises the river height and acts like a million weirs is not there for now. But don’t despair it is recovering; some sections of the river will look bare for a while but I am sure by the time we get to the June weed cut we will be cursing the volume of weed under our breath.
Middleton Estate (River Test) Hampshire
As I travel around everyone has their own opinions about the floods but beyond the immediate and obvious difficulties that the huge amount of water caused the two concerns that stand out are for the fly life and the spawning. The consensus is that both have and will suffer, but somehow this didn’t chime with me so I did a little research. You will not be very surprised to hear that there is nothing to be gleaned in the form of scientific reports on the topic of once-in-a-hundred-year chalkstream flooding events so that avenue proved a dead end. However, in counties with hydro dams, notably Sweden and Canada, the effects of sudden water surges are well documented and I am happy to say to those that are worried, you don’t need to. The news is good for both fish and fly.
The fish do well because the survival rate of the eggs, both salmon and trout, increases dramatically with the heavy water flows. The gravel beds are loosened by the flows allowing more eggs to become captured in the gravel and once safely lodged each ova gets more and better oxygenated water. More hatching eggs equal more fry and more fry equal more juvenile fish and so on. Expect to see a spike in the wild trout population 2-3 years from now.
The fly question looked more complicated, but actually the insects are smarter than we give them credit for by adapting very quickly as they sense the onset of the floods that
force them to find safe habitat ahead of the worst of the rains. In fact their lives to a certain extent get easier as the range of habitat is vastly increased as the water floods thousands of acres of meadows. Mayflies and sedges do well out of floods, positively thriving. As I navigate my way around the vast array of damp ditches and still full carriers of the long abandoned water meadow systems I can see how this makes perfect sense. Every day there are huge hatches of olives out in the fields and it can be no coincidence that the wildlife like the owls, water voles and field mice are having a heyday. However it is not all good news. The gammarus or freshwater shrimp are definite losers. I guess finding refuge was not easy for them and the population will take some years to recover from the winter of 2013/14.
On balance, for all the difficulties it has caused, if you like your chalkstreams to thrive a good flood once in a while looks like a good thing.
If you are anything like me that first ever trout will be seared on the memory, right up there as one of the best ever moments of your life. Occasionally I re-visit the exact spot where I caught mine and more decades on that I care to recall from that blustery April day the river is precisely as it was that day.
The River Meon in Hampshire is not up there in the pantheon of chalkstream greats. It doesn’t get many mentions by the giants of fly fishing nor does it feature much in where-to-fish directories or magazines, but it is, even though I am biased, a perfect small stream. Fast, not very wide, with great weed growth, wonderful hatches and about 10 miles to the east of the Itchen it is, petty well to all intents and purposes, an all wild trout river. In its lower reaches just up from the Hamble where it joins the Solent the sea trout are prolific and salmon used to run up as high at Wickham Mill.
I have not visited the Meon on the opening day of the season since I was a teenager; so on Thursday (3 April) the official opening day I determined to turn back the clock. Opening my fly box I was transported back to that first day as the April array of Dark Olives, Grannom, Greenwell’s Glory, Hawthorn and March Browns winked back at me in the afternoon sun like old friends. I genuinely felt excited and nervous tying on the Grannom, deliberating ignoring those modern day interlopers the Klinkhammer and Parachute Adams.
Sight fishing is not the general mode de la jour for the Meon. It is one of those streams best fished by speculatively casting in the margins, along the current between the weed and into the open spaces. In the fast water and with all that weed the fish are too hard to spot, so unless you see a riser nine times out ten the first time you see a fish is when it comes up your fly. Ring rusty after months away from the rivers (well that is my excuse) I missed the first fish of the day who boldly came straight up to the Grannom from under a trailing branch alongside the bank. The photographer asked whether it was normal to swear so much. Giving up on the Grannom which was ignored by a couple of risers I switched to the Dark Olive, but against the gloom of the dark clouds it was too dark to track on the water. So sacrificing tradition on the altar of practicality out came the Parachute Adams. Much better.
Upstream we went, prospecting in all the likely spots with no success but just being able to track the fly on the water and get some satisfaction from well executed casts was something of a pleasure in itself. The photographer got out the hyper-zoom to take some line and fly on the water shots. At one particularly tasty looking eddy behind some woody debris I pinged in the fly, came up dry on the first cast and as I fired it back in I turned to the photographer saying, “Canyou believe such a perfect spot does not have a fish?” It is no credit to me that the photographer pressed the shutter on the rising fish before it even occurred to me to strike. But no matter, it was one of those kindly fish that hooks itself and, for me at least, a new season is now officially christened.
I was fishing at Exton Manor Farm on the River Meon in Hampshire. Clickhere for more details.