Chalkstream fishing for Salmon

Salmon fishing in the UK has always seemed to me to be a most elitist form of flyfishing; something the old rich families or Royals do on large rivers in the north and in Scotland, where guides are called ‘ghillies’ and the dress code is strictly tweed. The normal fishing outfits are long double-handed rods and Spey casting must be learned to have any chance of success.

With the sad occasion of travelling back to Hampshire in the UK for a funeral, I planned on spending a couple of weeks there with family, while also seeing what fishing I could find at that time of the year (September) on the chalkstreams.

As per previous visits, Howard and Anna Taylor of ‘Upstream Dry fly’ had several options, and in a long phone call with Howard about what was possible and the fishing conditions after an exceptionally hot summer, we agreed a day salmon fishing the lower River Test could be interesting.

So, on a slightly overcast and cool morning, which promised to brighten up later, I pulled the hire car into the fishing lodge carpark and was met by the river keeper Charlie Bull, who would be my guide for the day.

The stretch of river allocated to me was The Nursling Little River beat, which consisted of several hundred metres of bank, a couple of gated barriers which channel the water, and a millpond.

The lower Test is not what many people would recognise as salmon water.

Before we got started, Charlie gave me a good briefing on what to expect. The river below had many small timber groynes angled at 45 degrees downstream, which created deep holes where salmon would lie. Other likely spots would be in the main flow where the salmon use their tails to brush aside the weed and create small clear patches in the gravel to rest on during the day.

Fishing for these Test salmon required a very heavy fly and highly accurate casting to entice a take. The cast needed to land some distance above and beyond the fish, enabling the fly to sink close to the bottom at just the right moment, before lifting the fly up and away from the salmon’s nose in a steady movement. The fish would then (hopefully) make an aggressive lunge at the fly and hook up. This technique was relatively easy under the rod tip when fishing a short line from above a groyne and down to the lie behind it. Unfortunately, and to Charlie’s genuine surprise, we did not see a single salmon in the groyne lies as we walked downstream.

This is a very interesting part of the Test. The water is clear, as it is further upstream, but deep and powerful and the gates and groynes support the river bank during the regular winter floods. While the river banks are surrounded by fields, industrial parks are located not far away, the Southampton docks are visible from the lower part of the beat, and the top of the beat is the M27 road bridge. Yet in the middle of all this industry is a few miles of peace and quiet.

The lowest part of the river is tidal, and on the walk down the tide was at its peak. The banks were sodden and the clear water had a tinge to it which made visibility challenging. Nevertheless, we saw plenty of fish, just not a salmon!

I managed to catch a few smaller species, including a good 3 pound chub took a small hare and copper nymph, as did three beautiful grayling. One hole had a decent head of perch (redfin) which aggressively took a weighted nymph. We saw some good size mullet and bass a couple of double-figure barbel as well but couldn’t tempt them. There were sea trout too: highly sensitive and spooky. I simply couldn’t get a cast to a fish without it darting away. Apparently, the way to tell the difference between a resident trout and a sea trout is simple, if you cast to the fish and it flees, then it’s a sea trout!

Charlie trying hard to spot me a salmon!

Finally, towards the bottom of the beat, we saw a salmon, or more accurately a ‘grilse’. This is a young salmon of single digit weight which has returned to the freshwater after only one winter at sea. It is therefore much smaller than some other salmon with two, three, or even four years at sea. Unfortunately, this fish was moving quite erratically on the far bank and while every fourth or fifth cast was in the right area, the salmon was constantly moving. After watching it for a while, we decided to move on.

Coming back to the lodge for lunch we regrouped and decided to head upstream, fish around the mill and then head up the main river.

The millpond experience was something I will never forget. The water rushes into the pond before sliding away through some gated runs and off downstream. Charlie had warned me that there was a big salmon in this pool which no one had been able to catch. Sure enough it was there, moving quite strongly around the river bed and not resting for more than a few seconds in one spot. And it looked huge, twenty, thirty pounds maybe? I couldn’t believe it, and while I made a few attempts to cast down to it I really was happy enough to just watch this river monster in its environment.

As we headed up to the main river we started see more salmon. They were generally sitting on the bottom, in their little gravel clearing, out in the middle of the river. Getting the cast just right, with the depth, cross current, mending and drift was one of the most technically challenging things I have done in my fishing life. And when the cast was perfect, stopping the fly and dragging it upstream just as it appeared in front of the fish, added another layer of complexity.

Several times the salmon clearly moved to the fly, left or right, or up slightly but without taking it; really exciting stuff. After casting to so many fish and just not getting it right, I must admit I was starting to feel slightly dejected. But, as is often the case, something eventually goes right…

I was casting to a fish slightly closer than most and beyond a thick weed bed off the bank. After maybe twenty casts without soliciting more than a slight movement, the line suddenly went tight and I instinctively lifted the rod to into what I momentarily thought was weed. Then the ‘weed’ started to peel line off the reel. I yelled out to Charlie, who had gone to look for more fish and he came running back with the net. The fight was strong, particularly on my 6 weight rod (I had rejected the use of a 7 weight which in hindsight was probably the correct rod weight to use), and after a few heart-stopping runs, the fish came to the net, a lovely grilse of 5 or 6 pounds. Success!

Finally, a Test salmon!

There were certainly larger fish in the river and with the pattern of repeated casting and eliciting a few responses, I did manage to get a take which I duly missed (luck was levelling itself out) and towards the end of the day I hooked a much bigger salmon just above some channel gates. I managed to turn the fish away from the gates (going through them would have guaranteed losing it) and kept it out of the riverside weed beds. However I couldn’t stop it running into a mid-stream structure and weed mass. With that, the fish was gone, but what an exhilarating few minutes.

While time was up for Charlie’s guiding, I was allowed to keep fishing until dusk, so I headed back downstream where the tide had run out and the water was now much lower and clearer. The coarse fish were mainly absent, as were the salmon from below the groynes, however with the water much clearer I spotted a couple of fish lying deep in the middle of the river. The first fish spooked quite quickly but the second fish, resting near where we had seen a quite active salmon earlier in the day, was sitting in a good spot to fish to. After a couple of fly changes, a purple nymph elicited a take and I was pleased to land another lovely grilse on my own; this fish a bit longer and skinnier than my earlier catch.

And another.

With this salmon landed and released it was time to leave and as I walked back to the car, I reflected that it really was a fascinating day’s fishing. The young river keeper Charlie was an excellent guide. Not only did he have a wealth of knowledge about the fish, but also about the river in general which he was keen to share; including how he was looking forward to the winter pike fishing season on this section of river. Maybe next time….

If you are in the south of England after the main trout activity is over, then a day spent salmon fishing is an experience to remember.

FlyStream Facts

Great was service provided by Howard and Anna at Upstream Dry Fly and details and videos on the Nursling and Testwood salmon beats are found here

The nymph used was a JW nymph (double head) from Fulling Mill and the best place to buy and talk all things fishing over there is with Alistair Robjent at his tackle shop in Stockbridge.

Thanks to Charlie Bull, experienced beyond his young age and a great guide and companion on his section of the river.