Jim continues his travels, visiting some iconic trout waters in England and then America.
When my flight from Kenya landed at Heathrow, Barry Unwin was there to pick me up – or should I say he was stuck in a motorway traffic jam and was an hour away. Instructions came via text message get a coffee and relax.
As reported last issue, it was Barry who had finally convinced me to visit Africa. He had spent most of his working life in Kenya managing firstly his father’s small fly-tying operation, then buying it and building it up to a size where it supplied many of the major buyers of trout and saltwater flies around the world.
Barry had arranged with the Orvis Company for the two of us to have a day fishing their half mile or so of the River Test. This came about because Barry had supplied them with a large part of their fly requirements over the years; and possibly also because of an exaggerated view about my early start with Orvis in Australia. Either way, they kindly ‘donated’ a day on this famous water, not far from Stockbridge, for the two of us to enjoy.
I suspect if a flyfisher has any interest at all in the history of flyfishing and has read the wonderful books by Halford, Skues, Hills, Grey and of course Walton and Cotton, it is hard not to have a day or two on the legendary chalk streams of southern England on the bucket list. These waters are really the foundation stones of flyfishing and names such as the Itchen, Kennet, Test and others are all synonymous with trout fishing with a fly rod.
Today these rivers have remained clean, clear, weedy slower-flowing waters with annual mayfly hatches. Although fishing pressure requires them to be stocked regularly, it is still something special to walk the freshly-mown banks and fish rivers with so much history. You’re aware of those who had fished these exact places a hundred years or more before, wearing coats and ties and casting greenheart and split-cane rods.
As a young man nearly fifty years previously, I had been to Winchester Cathedral to pay a visit to the tomb of Isaac Walton. I had named my business after the famous tome he’d written some 365 years before. As of halfway through the last century, The Compleat Angler was the third most printed work in the English language after the Bible and Pilgrims’ Progress. Back then, I’d even managed to have an afternoon on the River Itchen that runs through the town and had always yearned to return.
Barry lives nearby with his wife Mandy, close to Andover in a tiny hamlet called Lower Chute. Like me, Barry would describe himself as a ‘feather duster’ as we both retired from the fishing tackle trade a few years ago. He has a son living in Sydney and Mandy has a son living in Perth, so they are frequent visitors to Australia and annual guests of mine in the highlands of Tasmania.
Our day on the Test was wonderful. We picnicked on the manicured lawns beside the river, devouring English pork pies washed down with English ales, on a warm summer afternoon that yielded few insects and only a few rising trout. It was however quite sultry and we did manage half a dozen trout to about a pound and a half each, all on dry flies.
We drove back to Lower Chute, passing a crowd inspecting the ancient structures of Stonehenge. On we went through a maze of country lanes, dodging a pheasant or two on the way to pick up Mandy. Then we parked and walked across a very English town square to an old fifteenth-century thatched-roofed pub for a few quiet ales and dinner with some locals to end a memorable day.
Ducking under ancient beams and peering at old photographs, prints and paintings made me feel quite at home. Joining the local inhabitants was all the more enjoyable for being served good food and good beer. A local English setter muzzled up to say g’day and it made me wonder why we in Australia have become so conservative in recent years, not allowing dogs into our pubs or taverns.
A day on a local reservoir was cancelled due to a long heatwave that had hovered over England for a month or more, bringing with it consistent reports of poor fishing. Instead we went south to Portsmouth to visit Lord Nelson’s Victory where he died after the battle of Trafalgar. We looked over the Tudor ship the Mary Rose, which had keeled over in the Solent in 1545 and was raised from the mud in 1982, some 437 years later. Lastly, we had a look around the Warrior, which in 1861 carried over 700 crew and was the biggest warship in the world at the time; although it never saw battle. A deep sense of British history and the huge Empire was not lost on this visitor to the ‘old country’.
Time in England had passed far too quickly, my last night in England being the wedding of another old friend Peter Veniard (of fly tying material fame) and his new Brazilian bride. It was a night to remember and next morning it was back to Heathrow, farewells and a flight across the Atlantic to New York for the last leg of the trip. Here I met up with a favourite cousin Rosita and her partner Simon in Greenwich, Connecticut. After a day to settle, Simon and Rosita had arranged an evening in downtown New York. We started in a small cocktail bar run by a more distant cousin and ending up at Madison Square Gardens to see Billy Joel’s 100th concert there. With a surprise performance by the ‘Boss’ Bruce Springsteen, the roof was lifted off the house as only a New York crowd of some 25,000 can. The sounds of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ and ‘I’m in a New York State of Mind’ will stay indelibly printed in my memory.
The next day, a drive through upstate New York brought us to the Beaverkill Trout Club – more than a century old. Sitting on the bank of the river on the first night, I reflected on Theodore Gordon’s hallowed water as it gurgled from one pool to another in the twilight. I thought back to Lee Wulff and his 90-plus year old widow Joan who has done more for the cause of women in flyfishing than possibly any other. She lives only a few pools upstream and son Doug, who still today heads up Royal Wulff Products, resides a few miles downstream at Livingstone Manor. How could I not tie on a Royal Wulff at last light for the rising trout on this legendary river?
The river gave generously too. A Trico hatch on dusk meant every fish in the river rose until it was impossible for this old flyfisher to tie on another fly. Even so, quite a few trout did come to the net to be released. The next day in bright sunshine, the fish were extremely well educated but could be seen in every pool and only a size 18 fly could tempt the odd one to take. It was a memorable couple of days, spent around a rustic pair of clubhouses, again steeped in a long history of flyfishers that had passed through and had fished these pools before.
Then finally, I was homeward-bound via a Hawaiian stopover that saw me sipping an evening mai-tai at Waikiki Beach, reflecting on a lucky life and a trip well spent. I also found myself dreaming of the forthcoming summer in the highlands of Tasmania, where there are still wild brown trout and waters that don’t need to be stocked weekly or monthly, and where one can still find a place to be alone on a river or lake.