during my recent UK stint big buddy and today’s special guest blogger Mark Surtees invited me to fish two historical southern England chalkstreams; the Avon and the Wylie, both part of a handful of rivers in the Salisbury area that where some of the play and testing grounds for all the famous chalkstream fly fishing authors/forefathers: Skues, Sawyer and Halford the Weird just to name a few that still mostly established our manner of fishing as we see it today . although there’s a lot to learn from the past, i tend to not get all gooey when it comes to visiting historical places but i’ll have to admit that the day was a bit of a fishing highlight and i left it with yes, a certain mushy yet very pleasant aftertaste: the good kind, the kind that says mmmmmm… and brings a smile.
i’d heard of these famous waters all my life and they and their inhabitants, keepers and fishers have often been subjects right here on TLC but for one reason or another, never got to grace their exquisitely manicured banks.
i was lucky to just catch the tail end of the Mayfly season, the ‘real’ mayfly as it’s often considered in England, the big, milky-yellowish Danica. as another treat, the ranunculus where still flowering and we where able to enjoy them just in time as the weeding started just the next day. there’s a certain irony to this culling as the water weeds are a great breeding/hiding ground for all the insect groups the fish love to eat but these slow-flowing waters can get completely covered with the stuff making it unfishable. although i was an invited guest, keeping in mind the exorbitant prices it costs to fish one of these beats, i guess it’s understandable that fishers prefer to cast their flies on water instead of catching weeds on every cast. they do make life a bit difficult drift-wise…
i’m realising that my intended short introduction to the main event of this post is turning into a tirade… but i have to add a little more. hopefully you’ll consider my words as an appetiser or foreplay for the main course ! but since these rivers have special rules, and that’s what all this ‘tradition’ stuff is about i’ll be quick.
i didn’t get to keep the booklet that was allotted to me for the day but it basically goes like this: fishing from bank only (pretty cool not to have to wear waders) with either dry flies or nymphs (i’m equally cool with that specially that there was a decent amount of bugs flying here and there and fish where feeding happily on or near the surface) and the really weird and very unnatural one to me: upstream only.
from a practical point of view, considering the above rules, the slowish water with no special currents, the mowed paths above water level and easy casting space, my go-to approach would be my usual across-stream presentation while keeping a low profile. it’s by far the easiest and most efficient manner to get a great drift. if the fish takes the fly, great ! and if it doesn’t we can easily try another presentation or several without ever lining the fish or spooking it by lifting the line to recast. etc, etc, etc.
we had a good talk about the whys and what-fors with not only Mark but several other friends we met along the banks during the day and no other could come up with any other explanation apart from Tradition…
“It is traditional, when discussing the southern English chalk streams, to speak, or even to write, in a tone of thatched and rose bowered wistfulness. It seems impossible to talk of these beautiful rivers in anything other than worshipful whispers. They represent an angling wormhole, a time passage back to the days of horsehair, cat gut and silk. Places where an angler, too twisted and tight wired by modern living, can kneel amongst the meadow flowers and cast at fat trout rising in the pale flint knuckled channels between the ranunculus beds, romancing across the years with the saints of the chalk streams who kneeled on these very same banks a hundred years ago.
Sadly, such a communion is beyond me because my knee isn’t up to bending much. This is due to a nasty “improperly ironed trouser turn-up” incident which caused me to whack it on the corner of the kitchen table last Saturday. Not being able to kneel and, with the added disadvantages of middle age and considerable bulk ruling out any possibility of demonstrating how to make oneself completely invisible behind a buttercup or a handy clump of meadowsweet, the prospects of a wistful riverbank commentary on the joys of chalk stream angling with a Frenchman seemed somewhat limited.
Via his book, Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, Frederick Halford had an enormous influence over the regulatory framework for chalk stream fishing. For example, whilst some rules can seem a little odd to the uninitiated, it remains the case that fish in these waters have to be approached with some discretion or they will leg it in to the safety of a weed bed or under a reedy bank. They are exceptionally easy to spook. Applying a little common sense will tell you that in this kind of environment, if you stand upstream of a rising fish, wave a stick about and hurl a string at it, then it will generally clear off.
It is commonly believed that this perfectly rational thinking is the root of the “upstream only” rule. Astonishingly, it seems not, this more subjective analysis, scornful of the wetties, probably is:-
“On one point all must agree, viz., that fishing upstream with fine gut and small floating flies, where every movement of the fish, its rise at any passing natural, and the turn and rise at the artificial, are plainly visible, is far more exciting, and requires in many respects more skill, than the fishing of the water as practiced by the wet-fly fisherman.”
Mr Halford is also very firm on another matter, that of dress. He advocates that one should only ever fish these rivers in elastic garments made of wool. Stockinette stitched wool to be precise. Our Fred had an entire suit constructed from material which must have been a form of exceptionally hairy Victorian Lycra. It cannot conceivably have been comfortable, warm summer evening spinner falls must have been a distinctly tickly affair and it surely caused some significant difficulties with “unnecessary dampness”.
So, whilst his view of upstream casting remains influential and an amusing irritation to French visitors, his proclivities with respect to itchy elastic body wear have been discarded over time, no doubt due to irritation of an entirely different nature.
However, interestingly, a stockinette stitch is used in some forms of compression bandage and this would obviously be extremely useful for my knee. So, by channelling the spirit of Halford as my sartorial guide, and accepting that modern technology can better the fabric, I propose to have made a full body Lycra fishing suit decorated with butter cups and meadowsweet.
Although it may present some minor difficulties in the pub at the end of the day, or on the bus home, this will provide injury support and offer a perfect blending with the bank side vegetation. In fact, because it will make me all but invisible to the fish, I may even be able to cast downstream.
Just like Marc… *
”vive la revolution”
and just to show that Mark is somewhat of a rebel himself, here he is performing a Traditional Downstream Grayling Release (untraditionally known as the Grayling Flop) on one of those very hallowed upstream-only chalkstreams…
* you’ve probably already guessed: i was fishing slightly upstream to a semi-regularly rising trout when all of a sudden a nice big boil happened straight downstream on my side of the bank no more than two rod lengths away. close to fifty years of instinct/habit/reflexes (and you can add every other knee-jerk reaction action to the list) instantly kicked in and i thoughtlessly did a Snake roll and placed the fly dead centre of the still small ring and had an instant take from a beautiful golden-bellied brown and i don’t feel the slightest remorse from my heinous crime…
thanks for such a lovely day, Mark. it’s always a treat to see you but this was really special.