Romsey, Hants., England
No two trout streams are ever quite alike, yet when they're separated from each other by no more than a few miles, you don't expect the differences to be very great, certainly not what they are between the Itchen and the Test. Water equally clear, equally cold, flows in both over the same dense growth of watercress, starwort, Ranunculus, mare's tail, crowfoot. Ducks nest, swans cruise on both—we have a resident pair just outside our cottage door. It's as obligatory on the one river as it is on the other to fish to a seen fish, upstream, and with either the dry fly or the nymph. There similarities cease. The differences between the two are in the attitudes and the approaches of the regulars who fish them. Those of the Itchen are Roundheads, those of the Test, Cavaliers.
For Pat Fox the Test may be easy—not for the likes of me. But it is easier than the Itchen. It's easier because, first and foremost, there are more fish in it to be caught. There are more fish because the Test is stocked with hatchery fish, stocked heavily and often. These learn soon enough to earn their own living and to be wary of handouts, but they are never as farouche and unapproachable as stream-bred fish. And in the Test there are abundant rainbow trout as well as browns. Rainbow trout are not fools, but they are naturally a bit more trusting and a bit less finicky than their cousins. On the Test wading is resorted to only when there is absolutely no other way to reach a fish, but it is not forbidden. The killing of an occasional fish is allowed on the Test, thus not all become too experienced to be caught again, whereas on the Itchen each fish is put back, thereby adding another wrinkle to its brain and possibly to those of its offspring. In sum, the less puritanical, more relaxed and permissive approach along the Test allows some hope for a fair fisherman like me; the Itchen is strictly for experts.
Dorothy and I moved over here the other day. We're settled, several miles outside the town, in my friend's cottage on the bank of the river. Downstream from us a few hundred yards there's an island of about half an acre in midstream. Footbridges link it to both banks. We've been invited by the owner to fish all her three miles. From down at the foot of this stretch, looking across water meadows in which Henry V assembled his troops before sailing off to Agincourt, you can see the roof and tower of squat old Romsey Abbey. Its bells peal to you as you fish the evening rise.
I believed it was impossible ever to get a rod anywhere on an inch of this river, and already owners along it whom we've met have one and all invited us to fish theirs. Our first day it was upstream from here, at Mottisfont, the setting for that excellent book, John Waller Hills's A Summer on the Test. The weather—which has since changed most decidedly—was still clear and hot then. So clear and so hot that the water bailiff, pulling a long face and shaking his head as he put us on our stretch before returning to his tractor, said, "I'm afraid you're wasting your time today, sir."
You know my dismal record well enough to know that were I to report catching the world-record fish it still wouldn't amount to boasting; it would just be luck. Well, that morning, fishing an English fly called the Beacon Beige—which I chose only because it reminded me somewhat of my old favorite back home, the Gray Fox Variant—on my first cast, before the bailiff had reached his waiting machine, I hooked a two-pound trout.
Fishing is the life and the talk of this valley, and word of my prowess quickly spread through it. The bailiff reported to the owner of the water that this American bloke had hooked a fine fish on his first cast on a day that defied the world. The supposition, which I did nothing to dispel, was that I could do it every time. Other invitations to show my stuff have followed this exploit of mine. In fact, we've been offered more fishing than we can do.
Yesterday—still clear and hot—we fished at Kimbridge, between us and Mottisfont, at the invitation of the owner. Buoyed by my change of luck, I found myself not only casting better but actually believing in the possibility that I might catch something.
As might be expected, a bridge crosses the river at Kimbridge. About 100 yards below the bridge I spotted a fish rising regularly just off the opposite bank. So wide is the river there that wading is a must. But the water is so choked with weeds, even though they are scythed down several times a year, as to make wading extremely difficult. The nearest I was able to get to my target would still have been too far away had I not had my new long rod. I cast to that fish without putting it down through seven changes of flies. The eighth, an Iron Blue Dun, was what it wanted, and for the first time I had the satisfaction of deceiving, with a match of the hatch, an English trout. About two pounds and full of fight—a fish to make my season back home, here run-of-the-mill.
Later that day, upstream from that spot, just below the bridge where the river widens into a big pool, Graham Finlayson, taking pictures of me from the far bank, pointed to the water at his feet and held up his hands two feet apart.
I yelled across to him, "I can't cast that far."