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At the foot of our stretch Grant and I stood talking. I took in the terrain and already I felt daunted by the obstacles to casting a line. The water was too deep to wade; besides, wading, even where possible, is something that isn't done here. One fishes from the bank. Along each bank of the Itchen are footpaths just four feet wide. Behind one path stretches a barbed-wire fence. Behind the other path, the one on which we stood, rises a wall of weeds eight feet tall. It would be possible to widen that path and, by cutting back the weeds, make casting easier, but whatever makes fishing easier makes it that much less sporting.
We talked on, Grant seldom looking my way but keeping his eyes on the water, while he politely but positively laid down the rules to me. I began to wonder when we were going to start fishing. I didn't know this at the time, but we were fishing, doing it according to the custom of the country.
On this river in particular. Grant explained, trout fishing is "a waiting game." Here one casts only to a fish that one has seen. If in the course of the day one sees no fish, one goes home without having made a cast. The mere thought of casting to the water, blindly, at random, in hopes of connecting with some unseen fish, as we Americans do, is abhorrent to the English angler, disgraceful—about like cruising in the dark for a streetwalker. An English angler waits and watches, and while he waits he faces, as fixedly as does the trout, upstream. He would no more think of facing downstream than a Muslim would pray to the west.
From all this it follows that on these waters the wet fly, the promiscuous, undiscriminating, chuck-it-and-chance-it wet fly, which is always cast downstream, is anathema. It was for using a sunken fly that Skues was banished from here. He fished the nymph, that transitional stage, neither wet fly nor dry fly, which represents the natural insect in metamorphosis on its way up from the streambed to hatch on the surface and take wing, and he fished it most sportingly, always upstream and always to a fish he had seen; still, it didn't float, and in those days of the dry-fly dictatorship—1938—that damned it, and him.
The dispute between Skues and the dry-fly purists was Low Church vs. High Church. In the end Skues won, posthumously, and fishing with the nymph is not just tolerated on the Itchen nowadays, it's widely practiced; but this is the only deviation from the dry fly that is permitted. That. I'm convinced, is because once they had overcome their antipathy and tried it, the purists found that fishing with the nymph is not easier but rather harder than fishing with the dry fly. That would make it acceptable.
Wild-sounding though my words may seem, I do not exaggerate the aversion felt by British anglers toward any method of trout fishing other than to an individual fish, upstream, and with either a dry fly or a nymph. That one does not fish for trout with spinning lures or with live bait is taken for granted, along with toilet training. This is not the law—there are few laws governing outdoor sports in this country, where fish and game are not common property but belong to the owners of the water and the land—it's a gentleman's and sportsman's code.
The fish of the Itchen are almost all wild fish, stream-bred. And, save for a rarely caught rainbow, they are all brown trout. Any salmon, I asked? A few. Every effort was made by the owners to keep them out, but yes, the odd one did manage to get in. Imagine regarding salmon as undesirable! I've known a good many trout snobs—I'm something of one myself—but for singleminded devotion to the fish, that takes the prize.
As if they had punched a time clock and come on their shift, trout began to rise, poking their heads and shoulders out of water. None before; now, one minute later, here, there and everywhere rose fish, any one of which, if only we could have landed it, you and I would have sent to a taxidermist.
Grant picked a fly off the water. It was so minuscule I hadn't even seen it. I wouldn't have known what it was in any case; I have trouble enough recognizing my fellow-American insects. Grant identified it as a Pale Watery Dun. Then, of this least of nature's creatures, but one of importance to trout, to him and to me, he said, "Poor little thing! It's dead." Another person might have been amused at pity so incongruously misplaced, but I had a moment's illumination, a sense of the oneness with his world that a dedicated fly-fisherman can feel.
The insect known as the Pale Watery Dun is imitated by the fly known as Tup's Indispensable, so called because it was originally tied with hair from the ballocks of a ram, or tup. (See Othello: Iago to Brabantio, "Zounds! sir, y'are robb'd; for shame, put on your gown; Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.") I turned out to have a Tup's Indispensable among my newly bought English flies. Grant found it for me and said, "Have at that fellow rising just there. I know him. He'll go four pounds."