Fulling Mill’s US Technical Manager, Eric Kelley, recently returned to fly fish one of the greatest, gin clear chalk streams, the UK has to offer, the Itchen!
“October. Oranges, yellows, and reds. Intermittent cloud cover and rays of sunshine through the trees. The smell of limestone is a familiar one to me as is the sight of willow trees and their almost depressive looking limbs, sagging towards the vibrant green grass below, I must be on the Itchen. Yet again I find myself on this fabled river, my previous visit still fresh and vivid in the back of my mind. What would this trip produce? Stay tuned…
On my bi-annual trip to the UK for work related business, I am fortunate enough to be invited to fish on some world class rivers in the south of England. Given my background on English trout flies, spiders, small nymphs, and the methods used to fish these flies by the men who devised these patterns on the chalk streams, I always find this a surreal experience. In the days before I spent a lot of time at the vise over tying and over thinking about patterns that might produce the goods.
A morning in early October, my colleague, Steve Carew of Fulling Mill UK and I drove from London to Winchester in the hopes of stumbling upon some excellent fishing. As the seemingly endless traffic zipped by on the M3, we had talked about how our families were doing, cars, fishing gear… all the normal things. I haven’t seen him since April and it’s always a treat getting to fish with one another and chatting about fishing experiences since our last meeting. We were looking forward to having a crack at some nice Grayling as they would definitely be abundant and as always, willing to eat. I was focused on the potential brown trout that we may happen upon, after all this is the Itchen we’re talking about.
Steve had arranged for us to fish on the Fulling Mill beat (upper section), close to Abbots Worthy outside of Winchester. The last time we fished together was on the adjoining Orvis UK beat (which was absolutely on fire in April). We hopped off the M3 and slithered down some picturesque English countryside roads that were adorned by thatch roofed houses and high ivy-covered walls. I knew we were getting close to the river when I rolled down the window and the chalky scent of limestone rushed into the car. An unmistakable smell if there ever was one to an angler. I was ready.
Upon parking the car, we geared up two rods each. A dry/dropper rod and our tight-lining light weight “Euro-nymphing” rods. Walking to the beat we passed over a small section of the Itchen that splits off from the main stem and we immediately noticed four very nice brownies on the feed. This obviously made us feel very good about the day ahead. We continued on and made our way to the main fishing hut to drop off our lunch.
These little fishing huts adorn many of the beats on the chalk streams and are safe havens for anglers who get caught in the rain or just want to take a break and have some coffee, tea, and chat about the days findings. Standing in these dainty little abodes sends your mind reeling, wondering who was here before you and what they may have discussed about the days fishing. Oddly enough, there was a couple of fishing logs dating back to the year 2000. I flipped through them and noticed some serious fish were caught from the stretch that we about to fish. One being a pike that was almost 20lb!
As we left our little shelter we immediately saw a splashy rise, being that it was the start of the day we figured, why not try a dry fly. I rigged up a klink & dink duo with a small olive flash back grub about 18 inches off the back… no takers. Steve had a go with his rig but, without any success. We decided to just move on as there was a lot of water to explore.
Not far from our starting point we walked through a gated brick archway that was covered in ivy and in front of a willow next to the river was a lovely colored brownie. Steve gave me the first crack at him. I tossed the dry dropper aside and went for the trusty nymphing rig.
Keeping tight to the bank I flipped my two-fly rig upstream about 2ft in front of the unsuspecting brownie, as my flies got closer I slowly lifted the rod tip and watched the fish move slightly to its left to intercept the nymphs… fish on! After a bit of thrashing around the beautifully colored brownie made its way to my net and quickly settled down. It took my point fly which was a white beaded flash back hares ear grub with a glo-brite #5 hot spot collar. What a mouthful, literally! A quick picture and back into the cold flow of the river, lovely way to start.
After a bit of chuckling, we crept upstream keeping our eyes peeled for anything suspicious on the river bottom. The river at this time has a good amount of weed throughout and sometimes the tail-end of a Ranunculus plant swaying over a pebbly shoal makes for a good impression of a large fish. Shortly after we spotted a few nice grayling cruising around, likely candidates for some harassing. Steve worked his way through them as I watched, the odd little brownie was ever present and we continued upstream after terrorizing another likely hole.
After a while Steve spotted two excellent browns hanging around a school of grayling. We picked our way through them and gave our best to pick off the browns but, they were wise to what was going on. After watching them cruise around they must’ve spotted us and quickly bolted upstream… obviously we gave pursuit and followed them into a deep hole that was covered by streamside vegetation and the ever-present willow tree. This was good, as I could make my way into the river without making too much of a commotion. This is where good polarized glasses come into play, and thankfully I had mine with. Under the depths, hugging the bottom was a chunky brown. This wasn’t one of the fish we were chasing but, nevertheless I wasn’t complaining since he was unaware of my presence. I peeled the leader off the reel and made a bow and arrow cast under the branches well above where this fish was positioned in the water. Tungsten beads are a necessity when sight fishing to fish in deeper water, that extra weight can make the day… and in this instance, it definitely did. First cast, first drift, eyes on the prize… It felt like an eternity watching that fish move into position to inspect my offering. I felt my heart racing when I saw the fish open its mouth and noticed my indicator go tight. Fish on… this fish peeled off my French leader and was into my actual fly line. This was quite a feat since I usually keep my drag cranked down, I shouted to Steve to come help with netting this guy and he quickly came downstream. I ended up netting the fish which was nearly too large for my net! We laughed as Steve snapped some pictures, I removed the fly and carefully put this fish back into the water. We watched it swim off unharmed and disappear into the blanketing weed beds on the river’s bottom. What a fish, I’ll never forget that experience.
After climbing out, laughing a bit more and showing Steve which fly was the business (again the same as before) we set off for the final section of the beat. At the head of the beat is a nice plunge pool from the adjacent beat. I remember looking downstream at this stream from last year thinking “Man that far side looks so damn good”. Well, here was our chance. My colleague quickly re-rigged his two-fly setup with some 3.8mm tungsten beaded nymphs for the plunge pool and spent no time dissecting this stretch. He proceeded to trick two very nice browns and a healthy amount of grayling from this little pool. I had my turn at it and produced a couple of nice grayling but, no browns that were of notable size. We had our fill for sure.
Looking at the time, we decided to head back to the fishing hut, have our lunch and call it a day. Between the two of us I would say about 25 fish were caught, netted, and released. I couldn’t find a fault with the day we had. After all, we just spent most of the day one on of the most beautiful rivers in the world, sight fishing to sizeable browns and grayling using our preferred methods of fishing and coming out on top. It doesn’t always work like this but, when it does… there’s no better feeling.
A note on the flies and methods that were used for this outing;
The white beaded hares ear nymph will be available for purchase in our catalog next summer. French Nymph jigs were used with success on grayling as well as the ambiguous grayling bug. All fish were caught using tight lining methods with flies presented upstream and allowing the current to carry said flies into likely looking lies. This ever-popular fishing method is so addicting as it forces the angler to be very methodical in his/her approach to presenting flies to sighted fish and targeted areas of the river/stream you’re fishing. It is well worth putting in some time researching French leaders and fishing methods. Ever since I picked up this method I’ve dramatically upped my catch ratio’s.”