Kept indoors by the weather, I've been doing some reading, and it has changed my thinking about the regulations governing fishing here. They are not the arbitrary and snobbish refinements upon an already elitist code that I took them to be. Here they make sense. In fact, they constitute an admirable example of sportsmanship, consideration for others and a farsighted effort at conversation—things that make sense anywhere.
Wading: It muddies the water and spoils the sport for the fisherman just downstream from you. Here, in this small and thickly populated country, there always is a fisherman just downstream from you. Until recently, most of our American trout streams were never crowded enough to make this a consideration, but here they are—and they are getting to be with us, too.
Wet flies: To fish them is. in an arresting phrase of Skues's, "to occupy a selfish amount of water." And they are less sporting. You will often read that fishing the wet fly is actually harder than fishing the dry fly, and no doubt it's easier to strike and hook a fish seen rising to your bait than to develop that sixth sense that tells you when to strike an unseen fish. But it's also certainly true that casting the dry fly demands accuracy and delicacy, whereas you just chuck the wet fly and leave it to the current, and it's true, too, that with the dry fly some closeness to matching the hatch is required, for the fish has time to inspect your offering, while at something vaguely buggy moving rapidly underwater, it must strike without time to reconsider the matter. And, of course, trout do 90% of their feeding underwater, only 10% on the surface. Using the dry fly only is natural conservation of a limited resource.
Fishing only to a seen fish: The third and most different of the differences between our English cousins and us. Possible on these placid and pellucid chalk streams, rich in insect life; unadaptable to our fast and broken waters. But I couldn't have caught more fish casting wholesale than I've caught calling my shots, nor had as much fun doing it. Being more deliberate, less accidental, it's that much more gratifying. Studying your adversary individually, you get to know it better. It seems more like your fish.
The Test has been the laboratory of fly-fishing. Not much originated here; but—excuse it—everything got tested, and then hardened into intolerant dogma. It was here that the wet fly was definitely dropped or, to say the same thing another way, that fishermen turned around and faced upstream. It was here—too late for poor old Skues—that the long dictatorship of the dry fly was finally overthrown and the nymph accepted. Many of today's standard fly patterns were perfected on the Test. Most of these things were done on one stretch of the river, that belonging to the world's oldest and most exclusive trout club, the Houghton, in nearby Stockbridge. The club was founded in 1822, and for many years its membership has been limited to 22. Members and their guests have included Turner and Landseer, who left drawings of theirs in the club's record books. One recent guest: H.R.H., The Prince of Wales. Tomorrow's guest: Yours Truly.
We drove over yesterday, met the keeper, Mick Lunn, and were shown the clubroom. Entering this was the angling equivalent of opening King Tut's tomb. The furnishings were put in place on or shortly after the date of the club's founding and never moved, neither subtracted from nor added to, reupholstered nor re-finished, since then. The leather of the armchairs is cracked and split and soiled with generations of hair pomade. Wine spilt from toasts stains—and always will—the carpet, which any ragpicker would refuse. On the walls hang trophy trout, not mounted but mummified. No one but the members knows what the dues are, but this sort of sanctified shabbiness is very expensive. The would-be member waits until a place among the 22 falls vacant. Today's oldest active member is 93. Over 14 miles of water rights the club owns. An invitation to fish it is like being presented privately to the queen. Before I mail this I'll jot down how we do.
Alas, fisherman's luck. We were rained out.
cc: Al, Nick
Romsey, Hants., England
Our stay here draws to a close; this will be my last communication. Seasons on fishing here are not fixed by law but by the river owners. Or rather, by nature herself. It's getting to be spawning time for trout and time for men to turn their thoughts elsewhere.
But fishing goes on for a while yet—salmon fishing. Yes, there is something of a run of salmon in the Test, and here, in contrast to the Itchen, they aren't discriminated against but are made to feel welcome. Day before yesterday I was invited to try for one.
Picture not a rugged mountain tarn, nor a raging waterfall, nor a rocky, wind-and spray-swept estuary far from habitation. Picture instead a level lawn as carefully tended as a cat's coat. Picture a house of the Edwardian age, reflecting in its sprawl and ease that era of peace and privilege, the last glow of empire before the sun began to set over it. Picture neat flowerbeds and barbered shrubs, thatched gazebos, ivy-grown garden walls, a flower-filled conservatory.