Article - Game

A Pleb, and a Wild Brown Trout

By Danny, added on 03/09/2009

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A relative novice at fly-fishing ˗ I took it up last year - I had, until this May, caught a mixture of stocked rainbow and brown trout, and one grayling. The grayling was caught last year from The London Angling Association’s stretch of the Avon just below Salisbury. It had taken some sort of gold-headed nymph bumped repeatedly against its snout until, rather resignedly, it decided to put me out of my misery and become my first wild fish caught on the fly.

After this episode I have come to the conclusion that grayling are not the most intelligent of fish. I was stood in about three feet of crystal clear water, and if the fish couldn’t see me it could only have been because it was blind. It took about ten casts - if you can call lifting the nymph from the water and dropping it a couple of feet in front of the fish casting - before it proved itself to be a bigger duffer than me. Though I was pleased at the time, I always am when I catch a fish, I realised that this wasn’t a classic piece of water-craft, and neither did it show my prowess at casting a fly.

Wild brown trout have a certain mystique about them; there’s this inference in the fly-fishing world, fermented by the press, that you’re not a ‘proper’ fly-fisher until you’ve caught one. They may not actually say as much, but there’s this distinct impression that you’re a bit of an outsider; you’re somehow slightly inferior if you haven’t caught a ‘proper’ wild brown trout on the fly.

Though wild brown trout are indeed harder to catch than stocked fish, I think a lot of this mystique is linked to the fact that fly-fishing over the last hundred years or so, particularly on those most evocative of waters - chalk streams, became a past-time of the upper classes. It still remains prohibitively expensive in places, and this is highlighted, conversely, by the yearly proclamation in leading fly-fishing and country pursuit magazines, of ‘Chalk stream fishing for under a tenner!’ Chalk streams may not be quite the exclusive playgrounds of the upper classes that they once were, but attitudes are slow to change, and the commercialisation of fishing, and the fact that it is now an ‘industry’ are also helping keep some of our best wild brown trout habitat in the hands of a few privileged land-owners and their ‘clients.’ I was determined that my plebeian status wouldn’t prevent me from catching one, and so under the pretence of a weekend away - you know, just the two of us - I took my girlfriend to Wilshire for a long weekend.

After much internet trawling I had found a pub just outside Salisbury that had a short stretch of the river Wylye at the bottom of its beer garden. As this was free fishing, on a genuine Wessex chalk stream, three nights in late May were duly booked.

After the usual A303 traffic, we found the pub on one side of the A36, and the river across the road behind the car park and the beer garden. Though my girlfriend knew I would be doing some fishing, and I hadn’t exactly had to smuggle the rods in the boot, I realised I would have to play this one carefully to maximise my opportunities. So I resisted the urge to get the waders on as soon as we got out of the car, and after a quick look at the river we took our bags across and booked in.

That quick look had been more than enough to get me excited though. Some old stone steps led into the cool, clear waters; gravel runs intermittently revealed themselves through the emerald green of the ranunculus teased back and forth in the current. Overhanging willows, trailing in the current like straggly, unkempt beards, created deep bank-side shadows and I could picture the lusty trout that must be lying hidden within them. A few hundred yards downstream the river widened and an old stone bridge split the stream into three channels and made for a very pretty backdrop; upstream, promisingly, I glimpsed someone mid-river.

Later that evening after something to eat we took our pints across the road, and sat on the stone steps in the spring sunshine. The river, the trees and the meadows lining the opposite bank were glowing in the evening sun funnelled down the Wylye valley. The river seemed alive, and a pregnant air hung over the landscape. As we watched, a mayfly lifted from the surface and fluttered its rather feeble flight skyward, emerging from its previously furtive, hidden life of stone-clinging and darting amongst the ranunculus fronds.

As its maiden flight gained height the sun picked it out against the green of the landscape: a glowing yellow sprite dancing for joy at its escape from the Wylye’s icy flow. Others danced further upstream, and through and under the willows they went, dipping and rising like a whole flock of Tinkerbells.

Fish were rising confidently to the hatch. Sometimes merely dimpling the surface, but other times splashing eagerly. Just in front of us a fish had risen several times, and I spotted a mayfly floating, spent, downstream toward it. I pointed it out to my girlfriend, and as it reached the fish’s shadowy lie, right on cue, it rose and slurped the fly from the top.

The next day dawned full of spring sunshine like the previous one. We spent the morning in Salisbury, and got back to the pub in mid-afternoon. When we got to the river the mayfly were hatching again, though this time, because the sun was higher, there wasn’t quite the same magical air, and the mayfly seemed almost jaded in comparison with their fairy-like cousins of yesterday. I waded out from the stone steps wondering if they had been built for exactly this purpose; I couldn’t imagine the river ever being navigable.

The river’s life-force becomes more apparent when you start to wade: it seems to have an urgency, a sense of purpose that you don’t feel from the bank. The normally cold, inevitably dispassionate flow of the current seems to take on a new meaning, and you feel very small when you think about the years the river has spent rushing and gushing from its source in the chalk downs.

You also soon realise that you’re not meant to be there. Waders, which on land feel cumbersome, and make you exaggerate your steps like there’s less gravity than there actually is, at first feel like they’re being grabbed from behind by a mischievous stream-sprite when you lift a foot to take a step forward; the beautiful waving weed fronds entangle the less wary like the Sirens of legend; seemingly firm footholds disintegrate as the gravel seems purposely to move aside, and sudden changes in depth can lead to a shiveringly sharp shock down the thigh.

I had tied on a size twelve Greenwell’s Glory, and now I flicked a short cast upstream into a long gap between the ranunculus. The fly floated oh-so-enticingly back toward me, but obviously not enticingly enough for nothing rose to it. I tried the same cast again several times, but to no avail.

Mayfly continued to hatch around me; not exactly in their hundreds, but every couple of minutes or so there was another nugget of yellowy gold that rose to meet the sky.

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About ten feet ahead of me, and slightly to my left, something caught my eye. Against the gravel my polaroids revealed four or five grayling holding themselves against the flow. I made another short cast ten feet upstream of them. The fly came downstream on the perfect line, and a fish rose from the gravel almost lazily to pluck it from the surface. The fish came to hand easily, only half a pound or so, but half a pound of outrageously beautiful wildness; the silvers, purples and mauves like holding a handful of sunset. I pulled the fly from the corner of its mouth, and held it upstream with the cold water flowing up my wrist. The grayling gave a little wriggle and darted straight back to join its shoal-mates. This was proper, dry-fly chalk stream fishing, just like I’d read about: spot a fish, cast to it, rise it and catch it. I caught another couple of grayling that afternoon, but once more the wild brown trout kept their mystique, and their distance.

The following day, despite seeing fish rising, I couldn’t seem to interest one into taking my floating fly, and I have to confess to feeling faintly foolish for my confidence of the day before!

As the dry fly wasn’t working for me I changed to a Hare’s Ear Nymph. I spotted a fish rising far enough ahead of me to necessitate a proper cast. It was working a run between some ranunculus and the bank, rising every couple of minutes: sometimes it dimpled the surface, and sometimes it seemed to porpoise just under the surface. My first cast was not the greatest, but luckily it was too short and not too long so it caught on the opposite side of the ranunculus to where the fish was feeding. If it had been too long it could well have caught the bank or the trees and that would surely have spelled disaster.

The next cast was pretty on the money, but the small un-weighted nymph didn’t penetrate the surface film and floated downstream just like a dry fly. A splash, a lift, and an obviously better fish than the grayling of the day before lunged for the protection of the weed. For a moment I thought it had dislodged the fly because there was that all too familiar solidness that you feel when a fish, somehow, transfers the hook from its mouth to something more substantial. But after a little, gentle sideways pressure the fish emerged from the ranunculus and surged upstream. A few more spurts and darts later the grayling turned into the very thing I had come here seeking: a wild, chalk stream brown trout. I lifted the rod high and eased the trout into my grateful hand.

All the clichés about wild brown trout came back to me: the gorgeous yellow belly; black spots tinged with red all up its flanks, gill covers and head; scale and fin-perfect.

Then it occurred to me; I’d caught one, I’d caught a wild brown trout from a classic Southern chalk stream. There were no fanfares, no fireworks, no cheering crowds; I’d just, simply, caught a wild brown trout on the fly. I was pleased, but I didn’t feel like I had reached Nirvana or achieved my life’s work; the moment was appreciated but it wouldn’t go down in history.

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To be honest it hadn’t turned out to be that difficult. I’d taught myself to cast, found a stretch of river containing some wild brown trout, and caught one after about three hours fishing. If I was playing computer chess I would probably rate myself as ‘novice’ when it comes to fly-fishing, but I had still managed to catch one without too much trouble.

My advice - for what it’s worth - to anyone wanting to take up fly-fishing and catch some wild fish, is not to get too hung up on wild brown trout. If you read all the guff - of which this is probably more - written in the press, and encouraged by the ‘industry,’ and to a certain extent by the several associations involved in fly-fishing, you will think it is essential to spend hundreds of pounds on top of the range tackle, have lessons from an APGAI approved instructor, and spend hundreds more on a day ticket on the Test with an ‘experienced guide.’ Or you could get a half decent outfit, whatever you can afford really, teach yourself the rudiments of casting by watching any television programs about it, and utilising that great leveller the internet, and just go and catch one.

Danny

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