Duf­fers’ day out

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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.

Check­list

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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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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