Duffers’ day out
E need green wellies for negotiating the traditional water meadows lining the riverbanks. But we have to make do with our runners, which are stained buttercup yellow as we squelch across the spongy grass. Something moves and circles ripple across the water’s surface. It looks and sounds like a sizeable trout but a few seconds later a dabchick surfaces and we realise we have been duped.
We are on the River Test in Hampshire, recently voted England’s second favourite county in a survey by
magazine. Along with the nearby River Itchen, the Test is regarded as one of the world’s premier chalkstreams for fly-fishing. The estuaries of both rivers meet in Southampton Water, where they flow to the sea.
It is mid-May and the surrounding landscape is abundantly verdant and alive with the chatter and buzz of wildlife. Sedge warblers flit between the reeds, their song strident and metallic compared with the flute-like song of the blackcap which, like the cuckoo, we hear but don’t see. Herons strut their stuff, orange-tipped butterflies flit about, yellow irises dot the banks and electric blue damselflies hover.
But we are here for the mayfly, a creature that spends most of its life as a nymph at the bottom of a river before hatching out of its larval case and taking flight during May and June. The embodiment of carpe diem, mayflies live for just one day, during which they must mate and lay eggs to complete their life cycle. When you factor in hungry fish, it’s a precarious existence.
Once mayflies hatch, they dance across the water like butterflies with long tails. With such easy and abundant prey, the fish are known to behave a little recklessly, which in turn makes them easy prey. So much so that the period from mid-May to early June is known affectionately as duffers’ fortnight or duffers’ holiday, when even the most inexperienced angler is deemed capable of catching a fish. Although there is some truth in that, it’s not quite as simple as it looks. First you must choose the right type of fly pattern. There are more than 51 species of mayfly and the trick is to imitate the one the fish are taking. But most of all, you need patience. Even in May, the mayflies can be slow in coming forward: sometimes they don’t hatch until the early afternoon or evening.
My mother and I are the ones in the once-white runners. My father, the fisherman, has been fishing these waters since 1957 and is suitably attired with wellies, a tweed cap studded with flies (Tup’s Indispensable, Iron Blue and Grey Wulff are all there) and a waistcoat adorned with useful bits and bobs: scissors, spare nylon, a small magnifying glass and more flies.
Owned by the John Lewis Partnership retail and supermarket chain, the Leckford Estate manages 18km of fishing on the Test. Divided into 14 beats, running from the Mayfly Inn in the village of Testcombe to just north of Stockbridge, it is immaculately maintained with mown paths, the vegetation cut back and the river kept free of weeds and fallen branches.
We’re at beat two on our first morning and it’s pretty quiet, at least as far as the fish are concerned. A kingfisher darts to the opposite bank in a flash of turquoise and bronze, swans and cygnets paddle upstream and moorhens gather weed for their nests. Framed by poplar, willow and ash, the translucent waters of the river thread their way past reed-lined banks, under wooden bridges and past thatched huts.
The hours drift past and we decide on a barbecue (we have a small disposable one with charcoal briquettes) and head into the nearby town of Stockbridge for provisions. An old Roman town, meaning bridge across the water, Stockbridge sits at the heart of the Test Valley between Andover and Romsey. The wide and attractive High Street has everything you might expect to find in a country town, plus two well-known outdoor sport and fishing shops.
Less predictably, it’s also home to Robinson’s, one of the best butcheries in England. With sides of pork cured from pigs reared at nearby Longstock and smoked over oak chippings, Robinson’s is for people who like meat and game that has been well hung. We buy some lamb chops, but our chief mission is to get some Robinson’s famous pork sausages, made only with pork shoulder.
Back on the bank, we find a spot out of the wind and in the patchy sun. As our meat sizzles, we open a bottle of rose and set about slicing tomatoes. A husband and wife team, both dressed in country green and with all the right gear, pass by on their way to beat three. They compare notes with my father about what strength of nylon he is using and what flies might be successful.
About 3pm the tempo changes as the mayflies start to hatch and it’s time to do some serious fishing. Mother and I follow my father up the riverbank, net at the ready to land any catches. Clearly not a duffer, my father is an elegant caster (getting the wrist movement right is crucial) and he casts upstream to a sizeable feeding fish. A whoosh of water signals the fish has taken the fly.
He hands me the rod and encourages me to play the fish. It fights hard and I struggle to keep the tip of the rod up, letting it take the line out and reeling it in again, until at last the fish begins to tire and we can get it into the net. It’s a handsome rainbow and weighs 1.8kg. We spend the next three hours stalking up and down the riverbank and our efforts are duly rewarded; by 6pm our final tally is four gleaming fish.
The next morning holds an unexpected delight. With no sign of mayflies, my mother and I investigate the Longstock Park Water Garden. Adjacent to beat 13, the gardens are screened from view by mature beech hedges along one side and banks of azalea and rhodedendron on the other. They are open to the public only on the first and third Sunday of the month during summer, but we manage to talk our way in and keep a discreet distance from a private tour.
Created by the founder of the John Lewis Partnership, John Spedan Lewis, in the 1940s, it’s a riot of colour: azaleas in shades of scarlet, yellow, fuchsia, apricot and cream and rhodedendrons in a range of pinks and purples are grouped around ornamental lakes dotted with waterlilies. Beds full of crimson primulas, blue irises, hostas and hellebores contrast with less formal areas where native wildflowers such as the southern marsh orchid bloom among the buttercups. It’s as if we have entered Narnia.
Back in the real world, my father is listening to the cricket in the car and it’s getting close to lunchtime. We make a trip into Stockbridge and pick up sandwiches at the Langtry Tearoom. Edward VII used to bring his mistress Lillie Langtry to the races at nearby Danebury. They stayed in Stockbridge in separate houses on opposite sides of the river with a connecting footbridge.
After a quiet start to the afternoon, it suddenly gets busy on the river as clouds of mayflies yoyo across the water before dropping to be snapped up by rapacious fish. We catch three fish in half an hour. Now I know what they mean by duffers’ fortnight.
The chalkstream region of Hampshire is 120km southwest of London, less than an hour by road from Heathrow or Gatwick airports. There is a regular train service from London’s Waterloo Station to Winchester, from where it’s a short cab ride to Stockbridge. To book fishing on the Leckford Estate, contact the fishing secretary at the Waitrose Farm Estate Office, Stockbridge, Hampshire S020 6JF. Phone: +44 1264 810 634. Upstream Dry Fly offers fishing on the Test and other rivers in England. More: www.upstreamdryfly.com. Fishing Breaks of London arranges fishing on stretches of the Test. More: www.fishingbreaks.co.uk. Fishing tackle can be bought at the Orvis shop in the High Street, Stockbridge. More: www.orvis.co.uk. Longstock Park Water Gardens near Stockbridge is open on the first and third Sundays of the month from April to September inclusive. More: www.longstockpark.co.uk. Recommended accommodation in the area at Highfield Country Guest House, Steepleton Hill, Stockbridge. More: www.highfieldcountryguest.co.uk. Susan Kurosawa’s column returns next week.
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