Friday, 15 June 2018
Saturday, 2 June 2018
It sometimes takes a lot to get me out on the river. I'm a bit like (without drawing too many comparisons ...) one of those ski bums you meet in a mountain bar who only ventures out for the freshest powder on the emptiest of slopes. But oftentimes I get my piscatorial kicks simply by being there. Seeing the hatch. Watching others make a perfectly executed cast. Share in the collective joy of the fish that rises to the dry fly.
Crippled Mayfly is in the middle compartment, bottom row
So, it has taken until this week for me to finally venture out with a rod with a Mayfly specifically on the end of it. As has been much mentioned the arrival of the 2018 Mayfly season has been a very slow burn. The Allen in Dorset, a river we usually expect to be in the vanguard of the Ephemeral hatch, is two weeks late. Likewise the River Test, though the tributaries have not been quite so far behind. The River Itchen was probably the closest to being 'normal' but even then it took a while to get going.
I must admit I was going to sneak out a bit sooner but I'm currently in the throes of writing a new book which is, as The Spectator columnist and general literary provocateur, Rod Liddle once described it, a bit like having perpetual homework. My routine is this: each week I set my target at 2,500 words. That is 500 words a day. My writing week starts on a Sunday. So potentially I have two spare days, but life/work often gets in the way of that plan. So, most days I am not released from the bonds of the word mill until the daily count is satisfied. And that doesn't always come easy. So, being the diligent type I type instead of cast. But this week I played hooky.
We didn't get to the river until five o'clock on Tuesday evening. The storms that had flooded Birmingham over the weekend were now in Hampshire. It had rained most of the day. I could see the river colouring and rising before us. But any thoughts that the evening might be a bust were dispelled as, even from the car park, we could see a fish leap to a fluttering Mayfly and hear that satisfying 'gloop' as another disappeared somewhere around the corner.
I am not one ever to complain that the fishing is too easy. Those days come around too infrequently in life to even hint at a complaint. When the fishing Gods smile on you, smile back as one day, very soon, they will take it all away. Deities are as fickle as fish. But on a scale of one to five, with five being most difficult, this was most definitely a one. That said, even in the two hours we were there, the scales tipped one way to the next. From a river that was alive with Mayfly and rising fish, to a quiet period when nothing much flew and nothing much rose. In the trees the Mayfly did their merry dance, the columns of males rising, then falling, displaying their wares until a female darted in from the side to grab her chosen partner.
On the river I did set myself a particular challenge: once a fish was caught I would cut off that fly and try another. I did cheat once, recasting my all-time favourite the Thomas Mayfly, only to feel guilty when I caught a second fish. Pretty soon I was five for six. In case you ask: Grey Drake, Thomas, Gray Wulff, Flyline and Parachute. As a final hurrah I dragged out of my box a Crippled Mayfly. Everyone has particular bogey flies and this, in the Mayfly, spectrum, is mine. Everything tells me it should be good - easy meat for a greedy fish.
Now for some reason I have always assumed this is a fly that should be fished au naturel - after all it does have a bit of foam it in. How could floating be a problem? So, as I have always done in the past I didn't bother with floatant and it didn't disappoint. Nothing. I decided it would join that special compartment in my fly box; the one I point to when people I don't like ask me for a fly. But I wasn't quite done. Every other fly had worked, so why not this one? Floatant. For once I tried some floatant. And from across the river (to a particularly poor cast) surged a fish to grab the Cripple first time.
At seven for six I decided to call it time on the evening and resolved to put the Crippled Mayfly in the fly box I share with friends.
River Itchen photo shoot
It was a great pleasure to finally meet Chris McNully whose articles I have read for many years in many publications.
Chris had arrived on the Kanara beat with photographer Richard Faulks for one of a pair of articles about wading the Hampshire chalkstreams. That day it was the River Itchen; the following was to be at Exton Manor Farm on the River Meon.
I turned up to just say hello. I did offer to buy lunch but my arrival coincided with a slow trickle of Mayflies and this rather fine fish (a 1.5lb wild brown), the first of the day, was rising to a Mayfly and obliged when offered a large Yellow Humpy.
At that point all thoughts of food where forgotten, so I left them in peace but I have subsequently heard both days came up trumps. I am afraid you will have to wait until next spring to read Chris' articles in Trout & Salmon.
I know many of you will be reading this whilst away on Half Term. Who was that member of officialdom who organised the academic calendar to time this slap in the middle of Mayfly? Clearly they didn't have children or no interest in fly fishing.
So, if you have been unable to persuade your partner or children that the river should beckon more than the beach it is probably time for some indoctrination. Our summer Fishing Camp might just be the thing.
This will be the third year we have run it; four days based here at Nether Wallop Mill where we range out to cover all sorts and aspects of fly fishing on both lake and river: casting, knots, fly tying, entomology, gutting fish, nymph vs. dry and much, much more.
Date: July 16-19
Location: Nether Wallop Mill & River Test
Fish Camp: £195/child for 4 days or £75/day (min. 3 days including the first day). 10% discount for siblings.
Ages: 12-15 years
Price per child £195.
Monday-Thursday 10am-1pm (Wednesday 3pm).
Includes all fishing charges, tuition, licences and tackle.
To book or for more information call 01264 781988 or email
Photo of the Week
I know it is all about Mayfly this week, but the Crane Flies on my kitchen window last week are a reminder that different hatches are ahead of us.
I hear there is a new colour variant of the Robjents Daddy in the store .....
More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect. Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page.
1) What date is England's opening match in the World Cup and who do they play?
2) After which Roman god is June named?
3) Who wrote:" In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them."
Enjoy the weekend.
Founder & Managing Director
1) Tunisia on Monday June 18th
3) Aldo Leopold
Friday, 18 May 2018
The old hippy in me is tempted to misquote The Eagles Hotel California: we haven't had that water here since nineteen insert any year you like. I'll hazard you'll never see chalkstreams during the Mayfly in quite this good a condition again in this life or the next.
As you know I beseech the rain Gods every winter and this year they listened; the rivers are fast and full. It is not unalloyed good news, so sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. River keepers are mowing with strimmers not mowers having mired a tractor or two in an unexpectedly wet patch of bank. The lower reaches don't have the clarity we'd like and the brown trout, who are lazy at the best of times, have been hiding on the bottom rather than swim against the flow. Many a feedback form has used the word 'doggo' to describe their lack of feeding.
How has this impacted on the hatch? Well, Ephemera danica has been hatching along these banks for millions of years so without the benefit of a calendar the start/finish of the three week frenzy does slide around. The general consensus is that, despite the burst of super-hot weather, is that we are late this year. If you came last week you will have surely seen a few hatching, caught some on Mayfly imitations, but there is no doubt the start of duffers fortnight is not yet upon us.
If you are tempted I'm sure there are a few dates still to be had. Use the Date Checker to take a look.
If you don't get enough of me via this bi-weekly blog/newsletter you'll be pleased (or run screaming for the hills) to hear I am now a regular columnist for
Trout & Salmon.
I must admit it did all rather come out of the blue. Something I never thought I would ever do and my sincere thanks to Editor Andrew Flitcroft for giving me the opportunity for not one, but two sentimental reasons. Firstly, as a schoolboy, confined to institutions far away from the chalkstreams Trout & Salmon was my monthly fix of escapism. A few of us who shared the same passion even managed to gang up on the librarian to convince her that our cause was as a valid as that of the rugby and cricket aficionados so she included the magazine on the library shelves.
The other is to do with Dermot Wilson, who once lived here at Nether Wallop Mill. This year marks the 50th anniversary of him setting up shop and by way of some celebration (more of that later in the year) I went to interview his widow Renée who lives not far away on the banks of the River Ebble just outside Salisbury.
For someone who was so good with words it always surprised me that Dermot only wrote the one book Fishing the Dry Fly but he was a regular columnist for Trout and Salmon. Renée tells me that though he did the occasional piece for Country Life, The Field and so on, they never had much appeal to him and it was his writing for Trout & Salmon that he held most dear right until his death. It is strange how the wheels of fate have turned and I am truly privileged to be able, in some small way, to follow in his footsteps.
Source of much refreshment
I am not sure why this is but chalkstreams are, all of a sudden, seen to be offering not just great fishing, but the inspiration and source for refreshment as well.
Refreshment for mind and body .....
For many years we have had Hildon Mineral Water drawn from the aquifers of the Test valley, which you will find in some of the best hotels and restaurants. Then last year a cider maker sprung up in the Meon Valley with a range of three pressings matured in oak barrels that were named respectively Chalkstream, Brown Trout and Dragonfly. At the confluence of the Anton and Test the Cottonworth Vineyard is making sparkling wines méthode champenoise in both white and rosé.
So, where might you ask, is the beer? Well, don't despair as it has arrived in the form of four enthusiasts who have set up shop behind The Greyhound pub in Broughton, the next village downstream of Nether Wallop, on the Wallop Brook. The first brewing is Wallop Gold (what else?!) which we will be sampling here at the fishing school and at our fishing lunches.
April feedback winner
We have kicked off the monthly feedback draw little late this month but I'm pleased to say the winner for April was Robert Smith who fished Avon Springs on the opening day.
Regular users of the feedback facility (thank you all) will notice that I have introduced a star rating to summarise your day. I know it is something of a blunt tool but once we have sufficient responses I am hoping to use the ratings to rank the fisheries.
The Fishing Breaks snood is on the way to Robert and he, like everyone else, goes into the end-of-season draw for the Simms pliers.
More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect on beer, reading and music. Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page.
1) When was Trout & Salmon magazine first published?
2) In which country is beer said to have been first brewed?
3) When was the record album Hotel California released?
Enjoy the Mayfly!
Founder & Managing Director
2) In what is now known as Iran, some 7,000 years ago
Friday, 4 May 2018
There are not many things that keep me awake at night but the draw for the One Fly does. There was a time when it was all very relaxed. On the Saturday prior to the competition we gather for the Guides briefing and way back when we started on 2008 we used to draw both the beats for the guides and the contestants. How we would laugh and josh as the names came out of the hat, safe in the knowledge that any snafu could be rectified away from public gaze
Jason Askey-Wood with his winning fly
Now in this age of transparency (dreadful word) and in a bid to notch up the drama, it was decided that we would hold the contestant draw on the morning of the One Fly itself. Oh, how I live in fear of it going wrong. In 2016 I peered into the hat to pull out the 36th and last name to see nothing. Looking up I saw 72 expectant faces eager for the starting gun. Piers Morgan's Stockbridge Christmas lights disaster had nothing on this, though I am probably one of the few to feel his pain. Back in the hat I ran my finger under the sweatband that dislodged the final bit of paper. Crisis averted. This year, I am happy to say, no such heart-stopping moments as the draw dodged the first of many heavy showers that were to typify the day.
This wasn't going to be an easy year. We have had a wet, wet winter and I haven't seen the chalkstream aquifers pumping water this high and fast since the floods of 2013/14. In some respects it is actually more pronounced. Back in 2014 the volumes were receding by April; this year they were still on an upward curve though the peak is now past. So anyone on the lower beats would have to cope with lots of water, fish still hiding out and in some cases poor clarity. But that is the challenge of the One Fly; you draw your beat and you adapt accordingly. And plenty adapted very well.
A well tied winning fly after 18 fish.
Top billing is really shared by Jason Askey-Wood and Grant Harrower, though Jason shaded Grant to the overall title by just 10 points, which is simply the difference of one fish being one inch longer. Or in Grant's case hanging onto his fly (worth 75 points) which he lost with still ninety minutes to go. But hey, that's why we call it the One Fly. Regardless it was a pretty amazing fishing day by both of them with 41 fish between them, Jason with 18 on the River Kennet at Benham Estate and Grant on The Greyhound beat catching 23. In all the three dozen anglers caught 217 fish between them, all of which were released, with everyone bar three catching at least one fish. The biggest fish of the day was by the guide/fisher combo of Michael Jacobsen and Kris Kent who landed a monster 24" brown on the Orvis Ginger Beer beat at Kimbridge.
It was a great day. We came. We fished. We got wet. And we marked the start of a new chalkstream season, in the course of which we raised over £2,500 for the Alex Lewis Trust. In ending I have to give special mention to the winning Guide Gary Allen to accompanied Jason Askey- Wood, donating his £500 winning cheque to be split equally between the Alex Lewis Trust and another cause close to the heart of his family. Thank you Gary.
Click here to see the photos from the day.
Stockbridge: shopping valhalla
Plenty of us who live within easy striking distance of Stockbridge have concluded that with the ubiquity of internet shopping all our consumer needs are now met online and by the occasional foray into the fly fishing capital of Britain.
Elaine Sperber. I'm sorry, I made her do it .........
I understand those of you who live in more metropolitan parts might think of us, to use that Del Boy term, as carrot crunchers but we are happy with our butcher, baker, greengrocer, florist, post office, two chic delis, coffee shop, wine store, a whisky shop on the way .... well, I won't go on but we jam a lot into one single, and relatively short, High Street.
However, we have been deficient in one important area: a bookshop. Amazon is all very well but there is nothing like browsing the shelves, reading the back covers and flicking through the virgin pages to unearth a new author or rediscover one you had long forgotten. Well, I am delighted to say The Bookmark now has to be added to my list above.
The shop has been opened by Elaine Sperber, an American who long ago came to our shores and lives in a village not so far away. For most of her professional life she was in the TV and film business, Head of Drama for Children's BBC, where she commissioned 53 series including hits Tracy Beaker and Stig of the Dump, with a whole raft of other independent film and TV producer credits to her name.
After decades of reading scripts and books for a profession Elaine has a massive fund in literary knowledge and this is reflected in the diverse and fascinating books she stocks. Give her your literary brief and in a flash she'll have a selection that will open new reading doors. The Bookmark is handily located a few doors down from Robjents and directly opposite Orvis.
The Feather Thief
I don't really like to cut and paste entire articles; it seems a bit of a cheat. But below I have reproduced in full Maggie Fergusson's review last week in The Spectator of the Kirk Wallace Johnson book The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century.
The truth is I haven't had a chance to read the book, but even if I had I could not better the Fergusson review. I suspect you, like me, as you read the piece will wonder where it is all going but for anyone with an interest in fly fishing, and fly tying in particular, it will suddenly hit you right between the eyes.
"They don't look like a natural pair. First there's the author, Kirk Wallace Johnson, a hero of America's war in Iraq and a modern-day Schindler who, as USAID's only Arabic-speaking American employee, arranged for hundreds of Iraqis to find safe haven in the US. In the process, he developed PTSD, sleepwalked through a hotel window, flung himself from a ledge and plunged, nearly, to his death. Then there's the stranger-than-fiction Edwin Rist, a brilliant young flautist who, on a pitch-black night nine years ago, in pursuit of an obsession with rare bird feathers, risked years in jail in one of the most brazen and bizarre museum heists ever accomplished. Yet Johnson and Rist are made for one another. Within pages I was hooked. This is a weird and wonderful book.
On the evening of 23 June 2009, Rist, then a 20-year-old Royal Academy of Music student who hoped one day to play principal flute for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performed in a concert of Haydn, Handel and Mendelssohn. Then, having taken his bows, he gathered wire-cutters, an LED torch, latex gloves, a diamond-blade glass cutter and what must have been a tardis of a wheely suitcase, and caught a train to Tring in Hertfordshire. From the station, he walked to the Natural History Museum, once the private repository of Walter Rothschild, the highly eccentric second Lord Rothschild, who rode about in a carriage pulled by zebra. Gifted to the nation in 1937, the museum is home to one of the finest collections of stuffed mammals, ornithological specimens, reptiles and insects in the UK.
Breaking a window, Rist hoisted himself into the museum. He had originally planned to be swift and selective, but as he began to fling open the white steel cabinets of dead birds he was seduced into a kind of feeding frenzy. It would later be some small comfort to the museum curators that Rist bypassed Darwin's sizeable collection of finches, and the skins and skeletons of the Dodo and the Auk, concentrating instead on birds that appeared more colourful and exotic: Resplendent Quetzals, gathered in the 1880s from the Chiriqui cloud forests of western Panama and nearly four feet in length; 14 skins of the Lovely Cotinga; 37 Purple-Breasted Cotinga; 21 Spangled Cotinga; 37 Birds of Paradise; 24 Magnificent Riflebirds; 12 Superb Birds of Paradise; four Blue Birds of Paradise; 17 Flame Bowerbirds, and so on. When he finally dragged himself back outside, there were 299 birds stuffed into his suitcase.
Many of the birds Rist had stolen had been collected by one very remarkable man: Alfred Russel Wallace, a self-taught naturalist from a humble background who, in the mid-19th century, worked his way deep into the gloomy forests of the Malay Archipelago, hunting down mammals, reptiles and birds, funding his expeditions by selling off duplicate skins. He lived on a diet of alligator, monkey and turtle, and was prey to malaria, vampire bats, serpents and pirates, all the while collecting creatures of otherworldly beauty, many of which had thrived undiscovered by human beings for more than 20 million years.
Killing birds in pursuit of the study of natural history has, perhaps, some justification. But in the wake of Wallace's discoveries came a late-Victorian rage for incorporating them in women's fashion. In what became known as the Age of Extermination, hundreds of millions of birds - parrots, toucans, quetzals, snowy egrets, ospreys - were killed mainly, though not exclusively, to adorn hats. One merchant peddled a shawl made from 8,000 hummingbird skins.
As the birds' numbers dwindled, they became worth more than their weight in gold. When the Titanic went down in 1912, the most valuable and highly insured commodity in its hold was 40 crates of feathers. Not surprising, then, that when Rist hurried back towards Tring station, he was carrying $1 million worth of feathers. He had been in the museum three hours. The security guard, glued to a football match, had failed to notice the alarm indicator blinking.
Johnson is a master of pacing and suspense. We learn the details of Rist's crime at the very beginning of the book, but for a good few chapters we are kept wondering whether he'll be caught, and, if so, how; whether Johnson will get to meet him, and whether he is now behind bars, or out free in the world playing his flute.
The other burning question, of course, is what inspired such an outlandish crime. Edwin Rist was brought up in Claverack, a small town north of New York City, and home-schooled by parents who bred labradoodles for a living, and who devoted themselves to nurturing enthusiasms in their two sons. Edwin was just 11 when he caught by chance on television a demonstration of how to tie a fly for trout fishing. He was instantly captivated - and very soon as preoccupied with fly-tying as with his flute. He befriended a retired ornithology professor willing to sell him bird skins on the cheap. A zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo sent him feathers from the autumn moult of the Macaw, Spoonbill and Tragopan. He took a job chopping logs to fund his new addiction, but the rarest, most gorgeous feathers - and therefore the most elaborate flies - remained, financially, out of his reach. Meantime, what had begun as a hobby had become an obsession.
Over the internet, Rist became part of a shady 'feather underground', a community of (all-male) fanatics who had no interest whatsoever in fishing - 'People don't actually fish with this shit, right?' one tells Johnson - but who would go to almost any lengths to lay their hands on exotic feathers to tie flies. 'God, Family, Feathers' was the motto of one, while another described fly-tying as 'like a drug, nothing else matters, nothing else compares'.
Rist's new cronies were a disparate lot: a blacksmith, a retired detective, a dentist (what is it with dentists and endangered creatures?). But they had in common a breathtaking hubris: a belief that they could slice apart some of the most beautiful creatures in the natural world, and put them back together to make something more beautiful still. Dyed feathers just wouldn't do. 'The knowledge of the falsity eats at you,' Rist tells Johnson when they finally meet for an eight-hour hall-of-mirrors encounter during which Rist tries to persuade Johnson that he is not a thief, and that by snatching the Tring birds he was actually saving the lives of birds in the wild.
And how did Johnson become so obsessed with Rist? As he struggled to overcome his PTSD, he took up fly-fishing as a therapy. One day, as he stood waist-deep in a river in northern New Mexico, his fishing guide told him of Rist's crime. Johnson knew nothing of rare birds or salmon flies, and had no experience of tracking thieves; but, like Rist himself, he became fixated - as tenacious in his pursuit of truth and justice as any fly-tyer in pursuit of feathers. His ambition: to find out whether it was really possible that Rist worked alone, and to restore to Tring all 299 of the stolen birds.
There's no great climax to this tale, but it's a tribute to Johnson's storytelling gifts that when I turned the last page I felt bereft. The odd, but obvious, solution? To seek out his first book, To Be a Friend is Fatal, a memoir of the Iraq war."
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson is published by Hutchinson. £20.
More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect. Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page.
1) After which saint day on April 25th is the Hawthorn fly sometimes known?
2) We have just celebrated Beltane, the day halfway between spring and summer. When is it?
3) When were the first Bank Holidays officially granted by law in the UK?
Have a great holiday weekend!
Founder & Managing Director
1) St Mark's Day
2) May 1st, May Day.
3) The Bank Holidays Act 1871