Mid-September, Friday Morning. 5am Alarm. I jumped out of bed and quickly departed for the 3 hour drive to the famous River Test in Hampshire UK. Much written about, it is regarded as the finest chalk stream in the world and the birthplace of fly-fishing. The forecast was pretty good, with gentle breezes, a relatively warm September Day, with sunshine and the occasional shower. Needless to say, I was very excited!
A couple of days before a friend texted. “I have a rod on the River Test at Compton for Friday and I can’t make it! Would you like to go?” I should say so!
At precisely 9am, I rolled into the Bottom Beat at Compton Manor to find the most quintessential piece of British countryside and riverbank – complete with its own thatched fishing cottage!! The river was between two and four foot deep, pushing through at a reasonable pace and, as is usual for chalkstreams, it was gin-clear. You could see everything – and of course everything could see you. Some quite large shadows flickered about – fish much bigger than you would expect from a stream of this size. It was time for some quite technical light-line small-fly upstream dry !
The first couple of hours were frankly a bit of a struggle. The rain started, the wind picked up and I was struggling with my 1938 Nine foot Hardy cane rod – just a bit too big for a beat with tight trees, I was spending too much time fishing my fly out of bushes and trees! I had certainly not come to the Test to fish for squirrels! And despite a few rising trout, not one was showing any interest in a series of dry flies.
So, at lunchtime I adjourned to the thatched hut for tea and to read the fishing rules again. They were quite clear – after the June weed cut, you could switch to upstream nymphing provided “only traditional nymphs were used”.
Hmmm, “only traditional nymphs” – I imagined the Syndicate members frowning sternly as I looked through my flybox. At the back, I found a small pheasant tail nymph, size 16 by the look, a very simple fly and one of the first flies I had ever tied. 1958, I muttered. By Frank Sawyer, himself a British river-keeper. Surely traditional enough!
I switched to my 4 weight Orvis Helios 8ft rod and was immediately much more comfortable. I could roll this modern rod across the river with almost no back cast, no more squirrel fishing this afternoon! As I worked up the bank, I came to a tree overhanging a deep pool. Within it, more fish than I’d seen all day, active too with regular rises. A difficult position to cast into but very promising. I rolled out my first cast and almost immediately had a take. The fish jumped twice and then….. the line twanged back towards me as fish and hook parted company. Cursing silently, I looked at the pool again – would they be spooked? Initial signs were good, I’d taken the first fish at the head of the pool and he’d run away upstream so most of the fish at the back seemed unperturbed. And some of them looked rather large!
After five minutes quiet waiting, I cast again, watched the line run though the pool and then right at the end, the line tip hesitated. I struck and the water erupted! It was clearly one of the bigger fish and it put up a stiff fight, up and down the pool – every other fish cleared out – leaving just me and my catch. I played it carefully on the 3lb hooklink and finally after one more surging run, it came to my feet and I netted it.
I was looking at a 5lb prime River Test Brownie. Clearly a veteran fish, and the best fish of the day. By Sunday, it had been home smoked and made up into ten River Test Oak Smoked Brown Trout Pate dishes. Delicious food and a delicious memory of why we all fish. And a reminder – the simplest of flies – a pheasant tail nymph – can still be deadly!