Saturday, 24 October 2009

Scratching the Itch - Imperfect Cadence

A fabulous fishery...
A month ago I was invited to join Keith and a group of friends on a trip to the River Itchen in Hampshire, an offer I accepted of course, and accepted without a second thought, I might add.

Because to my mind the words 'chalk' and 'stream' when they come together mean only the one thing...

Huge roach...!

We set off early Friday morning on the two hour journey to Southampton and arrived at an old mill where we were to meet up with the other anglers before setting out to fish. On arrival only one of our party was on site, Sash, who turned out be mine of information about the river and what kind of fishing we could expect to have. Loads of grayling, sea trout, brown trout and salmon in the upper beats and coarse fish in the lower, with, I was very happy to hear, a few hard to find roach approaching and some well exceeding the specimen bracket.

He regaled us with a tale of a day spent after these roach on legered breadflake that was 'plagued by sea trout'.

Plagued by sea trout...

Me and Keith nearly spat our teeth out!

We had a look into the water and I fancied that I saw a big fish laying up below the weir, I wasn't sure what it was as the water was a little too turbulent to be sure, but it was pretty big. I had a look into the shallow main river where it approached the mill and it looked full of absolutely nothing whatsoever, not a thing moved there, at least nothing that I could see.

The others had got lost en route and were now somewhere North of Southampton and desperately trying to find their way to the fishery by Sat Nav. Something had got muddled and they were going the wrong way back up the road toward the Midlands. We decided to get in our cars and drive up river to the first fishing hut, which was to be our base for the day, and set up our tackle. I was, how shall we say, just a bit keen to get there and visibly so, but Keith was visibly itching in his pants!

Early morning on the Itchen

As we drove through the gloom beneath the road bridge and entered the fishery proper, neither of us could believe our eyes! The banks manicured, the grassy verges mown, the reed beds cut down to size and all impediments to the backcast of a fly line either removed or managed, and the river between them a ravishing meander of crystal clear water smokey with early morning mist running over blanched gravel and verdant fronds of gently waving weed. This really was no ordinary fishery, this was a thoroughbred, a prime piece of British sporting turf, an anglers heaven on earth.

But it looked fishless!

Even when we stopped and decanted our tackle, set up our trotting gear and took our first good look into the waters of the Lower Itchen, we still could not see any fish whatsoever despite it having such perfect water clarity that any fish swimming would be easily seen, you would have thought. The others arrived and set up too, we split up and chose our first pegs, Keith and myself starting out along a long shallow glide no more than two feet deep in places.

I was fishing with a ten foot three piece cane rod that I'd purchased from Cash converters for a fiver some time back, a rod that came out of its bag without any decals or marks that would have given away its origins or pedigree, though I think it is an Avon of about a pound and a quarter test, and one that had not been properly tested by a good fish as yet. I'd teamed this with my trusty Okuma Centrepin filled four pound camouflaged line from a spool off the front of Angling times, where else?

First trot down I had a bite on my double maggot and then Keith was into his first fish, a grayling of half a pound. Next trot down, my float ran swiftly down the near bank and as it passed through the particular place where it had dipped before it shot away to one side and I struck into my first ever grayling, a lovely steel grey fish of the same stamp as Keith's.

First grayling

It proved quite a difficult fish to grapple with, tensing in the hand and writhing with all its wiry strength to get free of my grip, but the hook came free with little trouble and it was returned gently, by net, to the river where I was horrified to see the fish go belly up and float to the surface!

Oh crap, I'd killed my first grayling...

It made a few pathetic gasps floating near dead in the slack by the bank for a whole minute before suddenly, and amazingly, righting itself and dashing away as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This happened again and again until I learned the right way to return a grayling...

Don't slip them back carefully, no matter what the experts might advise or the TV producers might depict in their airbrushed, sanitised versions of fishing reality where all fish for the pot are cut away from before the priest is administered, and all fish released on screen cosseted like babies taking their first faltering steps in case some sensitive soul might take self righteous offence. No, you must give this particular fish a rush of oxygen by dropping them them back into deep water head first and from some height! This is the only way that guarantees a safe and swift recovery every single time, as the Bailiff was to confirm later on in the day. Non-PC TV it may make, but in reality it makes for best practice.

When I'd stopped 'killing' grayling I really went to pieces, as often happens when a still a little too groggy to attain the state of harmonious ease that fishing with a pin requires ( I screw it even when wide awake! ) making bad casts, producing tangles, et al. Then, as I was busy retackling after a shocking tangle around the bulk shot and float caused by going well under the trotting golden rule of always having the bulk well over half way down the the line from float to hook, Keith hooked into something that was putting a proper bend in his rod.

Keith attached to a fish

I ran over with my long handled net to ghilly for him, but when I finally spied the fish was worried that I might not get it in the little pan I was offering up to it! I pushed it under the water and waited as Keith steered the fish toward it remembering the technique of professional ghillies I'd seen landing notoriously net spooky salmon for TV fishing celebs on TV.

As the fish tired out and came to the lip of the net, I swiftly ducked it and scooped the fish into the mesh, first try!

Phew! That was lucky!

Keith should have knocked me dead on the spot if I'd screwed it for him and on this kind of fishery I believe he would have been well within his rights to do so!


What a fish ! Must have been around four pounds in weight I'd suppose, marked like a tiger, lean and hard to the touch, with silvery spotted flanks. We had no idea what it was, salmon or sea trout, neither of us ever having caught either before, and are still not exactly clear about its correct attribution. Keith returned it and it swam straight down the the bottom of a depression in the gravel and lay there quite motionless (it was still there an hour later).

I went back to my swim and proceeded to catch steadily and up to my tenth grayling and each of the same stamp and then my fist ever salmon, well, actually a salmon parr in all its painted miniature glory...

Salmon parr

...before we both decided a move down stream was in order. By this time I had started to be able to actually see the fish against the creamy gravel, and could make them out all over the place, grayling mostly, but also a few brown trout too.

I chose a lovely looking peg with staging nailed atop a salmon groin, sat down and trotted maggots through a deep pool run beneath a bend. A few grayling appeared and then a fish that hooped the cane rod over, bored deep under the groin then powered upwards to somersault into the air beneath me. Brown trout, no doubt! I got it in the net and brought it to the bank, a fish all silky smooth, buttery yellow through chestnut brown, flecked and spotted perfection. My first brownie since Thirlmere, 1979.

First brown trout for thirty years!

By now the sun was up above the trees and had burned away all trace of the morning mists. A clear calm day was ahead of us, a day by all common rules the worst of all kinds for a river so clear and low as this and yet all of us were catching a steady flow of grayling of a stamp between six ounces and twelve that by now Keith had dubbed the 'Itchen Standard Grayling' or the ISG as they will be be rightly known as, henceforth! Others had also taken trout we heard, but that big grayling that the stream does contain (fishery record is an impressive three pounds one ounce) and that everyone had studiously fished after all morning, had not appeared as yet.

Before lunch we had a few hours to put this right and so Keith chose a new swim above the first track bridge and fished the deep slack water below a midstream concrete pile that seemed to have been orphaned from whatever it once belonged to and I chose a swim in a narrow deep run between reeds running downstream into a big pool, a swim that felt and looked just about as perfect as a swim ever could. First cast and a long trot down to the pool the float ducked and another ISG came to the net.

The river was, it occurred to me then, playing from some score sublime, and these beautiful little grayling were its pulsing pizzicato...

Above the pool

Then after yet more ISG another more thrusting force juddered through the cane to my hand; that big grayling perhaps? but it was off again before I got to know it. Yet more ISG, then once again a powerful surge and the deep boring and spectacular acrobatic lunges of a trout. This was better fish than any I had hooked thus far and I grimaced as I tried to coordinate net and rod to come together as one at the critical moment and not give this unpredictable fish even the half chance it needed to throw the barbless fourteen.

In it came in, and in the net it went, and without trouble; I hoist it in the air and set it down upon the soft mown grass behind. What a fish! A proper test for my old cane! Was it a sea trout, a brown trout? I had no real idea of the difference but this fish was harder, steelier than the first trout, and its flanks were somewhat silvery and scales more 'metallic' in both appearance and feel than its predecessor's so I guessed it have been to sea at least the once in its young life, though I'm really not certain...

Second trout of the day

A couple of pounds I'd guessed, before slipping it gratefully back to the water.

The rivers tune had come to a premature closing note, the second trout of my morning a suspended chord suggesting incomplete resolution for the moment, but far more to come later...

An imperfect cadence...

Time for lunch!

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