Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

Posts tagged “River Test

Running over Rabbits

Rainbow Trout

“Turn onto the bunny”. These are the cruel words I was reminded of, as Ray and I strained into the rearview mirror to see if the rabbit had missed the wheels as it dashed in front of us on our route back from the pub to our abode on the Bell River. The words had been emitted by none other than “Matilda”, the ice-queen who delivers driving instructions from within the  GPS. She had been directing me to the River Test in Hampshire, where I was to meet with the keeper. I didn’t think she would lower herself to delivering doom to small innocent bundles of fly tying material.

As we contemplated the fate of the rabbit we had just passed over, we agreed that Jan would have had us stop, and would have subjected us to carrying the carcass around until he could find a pinning board, tacks and salt. But we were tired from a long day on the river, and mercy was not in our plan. We were not going to stop for the bunny.

Walking our socks off on the Riflespruit

We had walked our socks off, and we had doubled down on fine pizza, washed down with cold beer, with an enthusiasm akin to that with which the trout had been smashing our hoppers on the Riflespruit.

Those Trout displayed no mercy. Doctor Harry had passed by behind me, and then from the high bank ahead he directed me to a crack in the rock: a shelf over which the water flowed, and which would surely harbour Trout. He wasn’t wrong. The Rainbows were lined up there like troops, and they clobbered the hopper with gusto each time it drifted over the lip. I would immediately angle the rod low, to draw the thrashing fish downstream, away from the lie, so that I could fool another on the next delivery.

It worked.

I landed 6 fish from the spot. Each one came up as innocently as an ignorant traveller turning onto a small country lane.  They smoked the hopper and I landed them with impunity.

But as the cock crowed in the dawn, the tables would turn. A day or two later I missed fish after fish in a pool on the upper Bokspruit. Thinking back on it now, the fish lost  in that particular pool, numbered precisely six. One brut snapped me off after a spirited fight. The others just didn’t connect to the hopper. My mates standing behind me, taking videos, were swooning and swearing and ultimately taking pity on me for my bad luck. They offered me the best pools thereafter, as if to give me opportunities at redemption.

The best pools on the Bokspruit

It just got worse…I missed even more fish as the afternoon wore on. The situation was one bereft of all mercy. I felt like a run-over rabbit. If truth be told, I still feel that way. I have unfinished business on the upper Bok. In my dreams, I see the neb of a rainbow pop out of the jumbled current to suck down my hopper, as if in slow motion. Others cruise into the air and turn on their sides to land with a raucous splash. It is unclear if they take the hopper on the way up, or the way down, but either way, they smash it with a cruelty that seems unnecessary. As unnecessary as a flyfisher hauling in his quarry to photograph its spots before sending it back, panting and shocked like a rabbit that just missed a wheel.  

Things are not as they seem. “The Bunny” was a small country lane leading to a bridge over the river, where swans pirouetted in the current and Trout swam. 

My colleagues had said that my GPS wouldn’t find it, and they gave me a photocopy of the ordinance map. As it turned out the Ice Queen knew exactly where the bunny was, just like Dr Harry knew there would be Trout in that seam.   The Trout which engulfed bits of bunny fur used to represent the thorax of that hopper.  That hopper that didn’t work on the merciless, beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit.

The beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit

Cricket, Cards and Chords

I was impressed recently, by Alison Graham-Smith , a  Lead Advisor on conservation and Land Management for ‘Natural England’ in Hampshire, who had read Harry Plunket Greene’s book “Where the bright waters meet”. I was all the more impressed because she is not a fly fisher. I asked her how she had come to read the book, and why. In her reply she explained that it was important as a conservationist to have read the history and the descriptions of Hampshire, before she could claim to be equipped to restore that environment.

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Mark, Alison and Sam : Catchment sensitive farming advisors from Natural England, surveying the River Test at Leckford in October

Impressive, don’t you think?

The conversation swished around in my head on that trip, and so when I returned I re-read this old book, and I thought I would share some of it here. It occurred to me that a whole bunch of fishermen have probably heard of the man, and the book, but in an age where few people actually read, I suspect many of us know a lot less about the book than Alison does.  I suppose you could be forgiven for that:  There was a fair bit of flyfishing literature around at that time, as well as famous flyfishing personalities ‘on the go’, and besides, a lot of these books have lost their dust jackets, and they look faded and smell a bit funny.

But Imagine meeting a lady, who doesn’t fly fish, and have her trounce you in her knowledge of a famous fly-fishing book!

I thought I would rush to your rescue on this front, so here  are some interesting facts about the man and the book:

Within those dusty pages are some treasures, and you might find some of this interesting.

When Plunket Greene was born in 1865, GEM Skues was a 10 yr old boy, and FM Halford was 21 years of age.  When the Halford/Skues fued over dry fly vs nymph got going, Plunket Greene would have been in his late thirties, and had just moved from London to live in the village of Hurstbourne Priors on the banks of the Hampshire Bourne.  Unless I missed it, he doesn’t even give a passing mention to the feud or the two luminaries of the time!

Frank Sawyer had not yet been borne, and across the Atlantic Theodore Gordon of New York had been writing for ten years since  receiving a letter and envelope  from Halford containing his first dry flies.  It would be another ten years before George Le Branche   wrote “Dry fly and fast water” and Ray Bergmann’s “Trout”  would be written only 2 years after Plunket Greene’s death.

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Harry Plunket Greene

Plunket Greene writes in his opening chapter about how he discovered the Bourne. He goes on to write about the wildlife of the valley, and devotes a chapter to the “Iron Blue”. The crux of his message comes in the chapter             “ Tragedy of the Bourne”, in which he describes the overstocking of 1905. He opens the next chapter with the words “I prefer to pass over 1906 in silence”, giving weight to the tragedy which he experienced. He writes too of the demise of the original genetics, and of the trout with black backs, a condition he believed they obtained from the tar that leached off the newly tarred roads into the stream. He laments the loss of the silver fish. But his fishing stories do continue through 1910 and beyond, covering days on the Kennet and the Test, and of course the Bourne, and Blagdon.

Harry didn’t tie flies, but he was somewhat obsessed with the Iron Blue Dun.

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The Iron Blue 

He did fish Blagdon reservoir quite extensively, and people don’t mention that when talking of this book. In fact who knew that Blagdon existed in 1905!  Commentators are inclined to make out that it is a purist tome dedicated to the Hampshire Bourne.  It is that, but it wanders off into discussions about introducing lawn tennis to Germany, running over dogs, card tricks, games of cricket, and lots of singing.

Singing was of course Harry’s career, and the stories of his touring and putting on “gigs” are scattered about the book.  He talks a great deal about his companions on the river, and elsewhere, and it is clear that he was a gregarious fellow. In fact he enjoyed a hot crowded room, and lots of onlookers!

He was a large and imposing man, and reading of him, it could be said that he was “showy”. But here is a quote from his book which speaks to an underlying authenticity in that showiness, and which I think, warrants much thought:

“…..true magnetism and playing to the gallery, though they may have a common ancestor, are as far as the poles apart in the ethics of performance. The one is unconscious, compelling and incomparably precious, the other studied,opportunistic, cheap and nasty” 

In reading the book, I sense he didn’t suffer fools, and he makes some cutting remarks about people with questionable intentions. 

He was also a nostalgic, and was possessed with an acute and biting appreciation of the countryside and the environment.  And this was in 1924! Not unlike Frank Sawyer, Plunket Greene acknowledges that he was complicit, even if reluctantly so, in the stocking his trout stream ( the Hampshire Bourne in his case, The Hampshire Avon in Sawyer’s) , with introduced fish, which displaced the wild fish.  He berates himself for the stocking, and is scarred by the guilt of having done so, having learned that the preservation of the natural environment was, with the wisdom of hindsight, the true solution.

What was ironic about this aspect, is that while I was in the UK this year, news broke of how many TONS of trout are stocked into the Test annually. Remember that the Hampshire Bourne is a tributary of the Test.

The Hampshire Bourne

The Bourne, a tributary of the Test

So what this tells me, is that while fly fishermen wax lyrical about “The Bright Waters” and leave fly boxes at the grave of Harry Plunket Greene, we seem, as a collective to be obsessed with catching fish, even at cost to the environment, and  oblivious to his message and his pleas.

Considering the era in which the book was written, it strikes me that he writes with such nostalgia about “The old days”. It also strikes me how environmentally aware he was.  In my opinion there is much to be gained from these old books. It places modern fly fishing and conservation topics in context, and it also serves to remind us that not a whole lot has changed.  Reading this stuff might also help us to avoid repeating old mistakes, be they ones relating to trout stalking, or how to care for our streams and the trout in them.

I end with the last lines of this lovely book:

“But somewhere, deep down, I have a dim hope that one night the fairy Godmother will walk along the tarry road and stop on the bridge and listen, and send a message to me in the dark; and that when the mists begin to lift, and the poplars to shiver and the cock pheasants crow in the beech-woods, the little Bourne will wake and open her eyes and find in their bosom again the exiles that she had thought were gone for good – the silver trout, and the golden gravel,and the shrimp and the duns- and smell the dust of the road, and see the sun once more, and the red and white cows in the grass, and the yellow buttercups in the meadow and the blue smoke of the cottages against the black elms of the Andover hill –and me too, perhaps, kneeling beside her as of old and watching the little iron-blue, happy, laughing, come bobbing down to me under the trees below the Beehive bridge on the Whitchurch road.

 

The end”

Post script from the fairy godmother:  Well Harry….a message for you …..take a look here…River restoration….


The River Test: a chance visit

Readers might have noticed that I have started doing some video work (aka Vlogging) .  To up my game I have been teaching myself some much more complex, bit of course much more capable software.  In many respects the complexity has meant that I have taken 2 steps backwards. Trying to get this package to do what I want it to has been a challenge to say the least. Old dogs, new tricks…

So do bear with my amateur attempts. Hopefully the offerings will get more slick as I progress.

This video covers a visit to the River Test in England.  It was beyond my wildest dreams that I would actually get to fish this fabled stream. I had resigned myself to the prospect of just looking over the rail of the bridge at Stockbridge, when suddenly, out of the blue, I received an invitation.

This was truly a blessing and the experience was something I will treasure for a long time to come.