Monday, 8 October 2012

Itchen Grayling & Roach — Upstairs Downstairs

It rained rather heavily in the South Friday night. I think the whole party of seven were really looking forward to a nice clean Saturday on the Dorset Stour then a day's easy trotting on the Itchen Sunday, but it looked like we might very well get neither because by early Saturday morning river levels for both were skyrocketing fast. Half the party had set off for the Stour for dawn, were experiencing difficulties there by the time Keith and I set off from Coventry at 11am and by the time we were half way down the M40, they'd thrown in the towel and retreated to the free stretch of the Itchen below Gaters Mills for easier conditions and hopefully a half chance of some decent fishing.

Hanging about on a street corner hoping for a pick up...

When we arrived the river was edging into the marshy fields on the far bank, its colour was that of flash ditch run off and about as brown as a chalk stream can ever get.  It looked frankly impossible for trotting, and the volume of weed coming down made ledgering a matter of two minutes or less with a bait on the deck before the line accumulated debris enough to make a recast necessary. Now that's not so bad when roach fishing when they're biting well — two minutes, bite or not, being my recast rate anyhow when that's the case — but they weren't. So, trotting was the only viable way forward, which wouldn't have been such a problem if the fish were biting, but again, they weren't.

Keith & Sash and thick brown water
The mill race carrying the same...
Saturday was written off as a waste of time by mid-afternoon with the river past its peak height and falling slowly. I'd had one half pound roach, Keith had the same, but no-one had caught better. I think everyone but myself was worried more about Sunday's prospects than anything, but I'd fished this river through flood once before, when the river rose a foot in four hours and dropped the same over the next four. I was certain it would be just fine, and not only would it be fine, but fined-down too by then. 

Sunday morning, I was badly hung over. I'd set a strict limit on my drinking, in fact I'm so incapable of measuring capacity after the first two pints and so prone to knocking them back till insensibility renders me pissed, prone and penniless that I'd calculated my pocket money in advance to make certain I'd run out of cash before that could happen, and left the plastic where it belonged, which was not in my wallet. However, I failed to take into account the generosity of friends... I was billed next day for my excess (drinking buddies seem never so far-gone they'll forget the tally!) and paid for it double on the bank with a groggy sense of things when I'd planned on sharpness.

I began my day beautifully, by stepping off a pallet bridge across swampy ground into what looked like ankle deep mud only to plunge thigh deep in crap! Ah well, it'd be a sunny day, so I'd live without a change of strides.

As predicted, the river was fining down and three-feet clear. Remarkable rivers are chalk streams! Andy, whose first day on the game stretch this was, had had his expectations dampened by the previous day's disaster and despite assurances that the river would fish well, had not a touch on his first thirty or forty trots down what looked a perfect glide.

We'd gone up to the very top of the fishery, where I was planning on just the one thing — to beat my personal best for grayling — and intended to stay put till it came, and all day if necessary. My first thirty or forty trots produced nothing either.

Undaunted, we both moved downstream. Bingo! Andy was soon into his first trout of the day following up with four or five more and a grayling in the next half hour, while I worked a deep run, near bank for just one missed bite. My plan was going according to plan though, because I believed from experience that trout and grayling don't mix and that the biggest grayling will be where the trout aren't pestering you, and I wasn't pestered by bites let alone trout, therefore I was in the right place.

An hour into the day, I finally hooked a fish where none had seemed to be. I'd persisted just because it looked right to my eye and resisted the urge to move along. It was that new PB grayling, which considering the hours I've put into this fishery and the vast quantity of grayling caught over those hours but with not one going even an ounce over a pound, seemed remarkable, even though at a pound and a half, it wasn't a remarkable grayling by any means. Nevertheless, target set, and achieved!

With no urge to top such a fish now that I could go home with at least something in my pocket, I did move, but not before exhausting that run after the chance of better, because you never know...

Tench fishing on the Itchen!

I wound up in a curious swim. It's a pool formed by an impenetrable steel revetment, The river approaches down a long glide, hits it, and turns back on itself at an angle less than 90 degrees. This creates a great back eddy where a float will slowly wander about at the dictates of unpredictable currents. I let it wander aimlessly, and it was more like tench fishing than trotting, but banked a pristine four-pound chub who gave a fine impression of the perfect lift-and-glide tench bite.

About lunch time I'd planned to go after roach if I hadn't had a good grayling by then. I had, wanted nothing better, and made my way downstream. On the way I found a nice looking deep run that I couldn't pass by and had another couple of one-pound grayling there, before spotting a trout laying up in shallow water over chalky gravels. I had to have a go, shortened up, and flicked a turmeric yellow maggot across its nose with the inevitable result of an immediate take and a fat brownie on the bank.

They can't pass a morsel by can they? No wonder fly fishing was invented to give trout anglers a hard but interesting life because by fishing maggots under a float I could have tricked twenty trout out those same shallows — they were everywhere to be seen and launching themselves at free offerings as if a shower of gold sovereigns were raining from above. One was quite enough, though. I come here for tricky silver-flanked cyprinids not suicidal butter-bellied salmonids, so I left the trout well alone from thereon in.

Now that does look roachy...
Afternoon was spent hunting roach. After three years and six return visits to the Itchen in high-Summer, mid-Winter and Autumn, I've come to the inevitable conclusion that roach are rare where salmonids are not.

Downstairs in the grubby basement of the free stretch, roach are much easier quarry because they are commonplace in the inevitable absence of top dollar restaurant fodder such as voracious wild brown trout and grayling. The annual runs of 'silver tourists,' who mostly don't eat much with sex on their minds, hardly affect the larder — therefore it supports quite a head of roach and small chub with twenty pounds or more of either or both, easily possible.

Upstairs in the palatial gilded hall of the game stretch, things are so different it may as well be another river so marked is the difference the padlocked door of mill and weir makes between them. The adipose finned, both resident and tourist are to be found everywhere, consequently the larder is shared between the lot and the coarse fish live like lodgers amongst them. The roach suffer worst from competition from trout and grayling who eat exactly what they prefer to, which is caddis grubs and the like, so they are not common at all. They are there, and they run big too, but they are in small shoals which are not at all easy to find, and then catch from. 

I found myself a roachy looking smooth glide of water five-feet deep and just the ticket for a lazy evening's long trotting. It was best fished from the opposite bank and took some getting to, but it proved perfect when plumbing up with fifty yards of uninterrupted progress downstream from a position at the head of a long slow bend to my right made possible and with the float simply dropped off the rod top and set to go with the flow. In went two handfuls of red maggots to kick start things, and off went the baited hook. Twenty-five yards downstream it ducked under and a fish was on. A spanking roach of a pound or so.

Oh yes! This is going to be fantastic. One trot, one nice sized roach... An hour later and without a second bite in all that time, it was time to move along. Such a swim, which down on the Costa Nada would have continued to produce roach regularly, up here on the Costa Mucho had once again failed to. The only course of action now, was ledgering.

I found myself in position and casting bread across a big slack eddy to faster water where I immediately had bites. They weren't roach bites though, which was disappointing, just fish bites. I hooked one and it was a grayling around the pound mark, a welcome fish, but not what I was after. It was five O'clock and getting to that time of day when things get really interesting where roach are concerned. 

That's when Keith arrived at my swim and informed me he'd packed up, was jaded, and ready to depart at five thirty a full hour before dusk and the best hour of the day. I thought he'd lost his fishing marbles in the margins, him a man who usually needs to be prized off the place with a crowbar, but seeing as I wasn't about to catch a train home having just two quid in my pocket and no card in my wallet, reluctantly agreed to meet in 30 minutes time at the mill. 

With just half an hour left I fished like a man possessed and at the last, hooked what looked just like a roach bite, but was a grayling four-ounces heavier than the last. This was the biggest grayling I'd ever caught from the slower reaches at the downstream end of the fishery and would have been a PB in its own right if I hadn't already that in the bag. Of course it went belly up on return, as they often do should the head-first plunge return that forces oxygenated water straight back into their gills fail to be spot on, so I had to nurse it back to health rested in the net till it turned over and then swam off to the bottom.

When I got back to the car park, Keith's engine was running on idle. Ten minutes late, but the grayling was returned to my satisfaction so at least I was able to sleep that night. If it hadn't, then I'd have had to have killed and eaten it just to stay within Keith's patience and my own moral bounds, fishery rules notwithstanding. Then again, I think my time at the Lower Itchen Fishery might well be over, so a lifetime ban wouldn't have mattered very much to me. 

I just can't see the attraction anymore when the roach fishing it offers, which once held me in the thrall of what I believed were well-grounded expectations of great things to come having caught a near two-pounder first time there, seems lacklustre now. The gilt banister on the way upstairs has rubbed to the brass, and to be frank, I know I'm better off downstairs with the tin pots and copper pans of the basement, where really, I belong.


  1. Always hard to sign off properly. Downbeat, I think, but it was the truth about things, Monty. Strangely, I'm already thinking about my next trip, so don't take my word for it! It's a great fishery and worth all the money it rightly costs. I will be back, despite my own temporary misgivings