Winchester, Hants., England
Had no chance to phone before we left on this impulsive adventure, as you were vacationing on Nantucket. Hope you had better sport with the bluefish there than we've had so far with the trout of the River Itchen.
Impulsive, yet this trip actually began a year ago, in Princeton. As a Writer In Residence at the university there, I was asked to give a public reading—one open not just to faculty and students but to the townspeople as well. These are usually rather sober occasions: stories about the loss of childhood illusions or the miseries of married life. I decided to try for laughs. I read my little book The Spawning Run, which, as you know, though it's really about sex, purports to be about fishing in Britain. "The Itchen, the Test, the Frome: the fabled chalk streams of south England, where Dame Juliana Berners and Izaak Walton fished—here I am in the middle of them, it's spring, the season has opened, and I might as well be in the Sahara." Those are the opening words of the book, my lament that those waters are so exclusive, so expensive, as to be beyond my hopes of ever fishing them.
At the reception following my reading, a lady introduced herself and said that she was the wife of a Princeton physician—English born—that he owned, along with his brother-in-law, a mile of the Itchen, and that I was welcome to fish it anytime I pleased.
During this past winter, looking over my tyrannical typewriter at the fields and drifts of snow outside, I daydreamed sometimes about that. Pure fantasy, of course. Then one day about a month ago, as Dorothy and I were having a pre-luncheon sherry, the postman brought a card from the lady saying that she and her husband had just returned from a fortnight's holiday on the Itchen, that the fishing this year had been uncommonly good, and that she hoped we would someday accept their invitation. Ah, if only! However, it would be a totally irresponsible thing to do. But it was pleasant to imagine, even to have a second sherry on. What a change of outlook that second sherry brought about! An opportunity to fish the Itchen, Izaak Walton's very river: It would be totally irresponsible to turn down an offer like that. I phoned a fisherman friend in New York, himself English, to ask what the fishing was like over there in September. Good, he said, and added, "If you're going to fish the Itchen, why not the Test as well? I've got a cottage right on the bank of it that you're welcome to."
We prepared ourselves by practicing casting on the lawn. We needed practice. As I needn't tell you, the fishing near our home back in the States has been so poor, what with our long drought, that we'd given up on it. My casting had deteriorated through disuse, and Dorothy had all but forgotten how. To my horror, I found that she had reverted to the old bad habit of holding her casting arm close against her side (remember the now thoroughly discredited way they used to teach you, by making you hold a book in your armpit when you cast?) and flexing her wrist rather than her elbow. It took me until our departure to break her of that. Now here we are.
Trouble is, not only have we arrived in a dry spell and a heat wave, but we're having to unlearn everything we knew about trout fishing and start all over from scratch. The way it's done here is as different from the American way as is driving on the left side of the road.
Our first day of fishing on the Itchen was a Sunday, and in the narrow lane leading from the Easton village crossroads toward the river, the only place to park our rented car was beside the churchyard gate. We were joining our rods and pulling on our Wellingtons preparatory to breaking the Fifth Commandment when the parishioners in their Sunday best came to the summons of the church bells. But we got no censorious looks from them. Maybe we were saved by our accents, Colonial souls being lost beyond redemption. However, down on the river there awaited us a fishing catechism as strict as any church's. It was to be a series of Thou Shalt Nots.
You know how it is with us. Rod rigged, suited up, we go down to the water and study it for a moment, hoping to see fish on the rise and the hatch of flies the fish are rising to, identify the fly and match it with our artificial, or come somewhere close to a match. That's our hope, but it's one seldom realized. Most days on our insect-poor mountain streams there are no flies to be seen coming off the water, no fish rising. I seldom ever see a trout—until one has seen me first and been spooked and gone dashing away, not to feed on anything for the next hour. So when we study our stretch of a stream we are studying the water itself, its currents and eddies, looking for likely places for a trout to lie. Then, there being nothing visible on the surface, we select a wet fly, or rather, because there's no knowing what the fish are feeding on, we don't select one; we take the first thing we find in the box, wade in and start casting downstream, covering all the water from bank to bank.
Whoever performed such a standard American practice here would have committed four, no, five, no, half a dozen unpardonable sins against the British code of trout fishing. By evening of the day of his sinning, the fellow's notoriety would be such that he would probably not be served a drink in any pub in this valley. Certainly he would find no other patron willing to drink with him. For perpetrating just one of the above infractions, G.E.M. Skues, the man who, if he didn't exactly invent the artificial nymph, certainly perfected the use of it, was forced to resign his rod on the Itchen after having held it for 45 years.
Here every stretch of trout stream has its hut to shelter in from showers. At ours, we were met that first morning by Grant Wolstenholme and Pat Fox. Grant is the aforementioned brother-in-law, the resident co-owner of our water, and Pat its bailiff. We paired off, Grant and I going one way to fish and Pat and Dorothy the other way. Too late I noticed that the weeds, as thick as fur, through which our path wound, were nettles. I was stung not only on both hands but right through my trousers.