Long Term Love Affair

I was born and raised in rural West Berkshire, between Newbury and Reading.   Back then fishing on the chalk streams was beyond my reach and imagination.  Fishing for me was sweetcorn nicked from mum’s store cupboard under a float on the local estate lakes for small Carp, trotting maggots for Dace and Roach on the canal or ledgering for Tench on the ponds deep in the woods that I’m pretty sure dad didn’t have permission to fish.  My friends and I would ride our bikes, nets tied to the crossbar, to the ford on the Pang but in those upper reaches there were only Sticklebacks, Minnows and Bullheads.  Mum once dragged me along to one of her clients houses to help her hang some curtains.  It was next to the Kennet and I was spellbound watching the shoals of Barbel grubbing around on the gravels, but they never offered me the chance to fish there.

When I went up to do my A Levels at St Barts in Newbury I got to know people who lived on the other side of town from me, along the Lambourn and Kennet valleys.  The lads and I would cruise the villages looking for pubs that didn’t ask too many questions about age and I’d stroll the river banks with girlfriends looking for a quiet spot for a kiss and a cuddle.  In doing so I saw the fly fisherman casting delicate dry flies to brown trout hanging in the current over golden gravels amid swaying ranunculus.  Those moments must have stuck in my mind because when I went back to fishing later in life it was fly fishing that dominated my thoughts.  Unfortunately, I was living ‘up north’ by this point and therefore my early days where spent on the Wharfe and the Aire, not on the chalk streams.

Early days on the Aire - photo 1
Early days on the Aire

When I eventually moved back home it took a while before I fished my local chalk streams.  My initial forays were to the Dorset and Hampshire chalk streams, the Frome and Piddle, the Test and Itchen.  I found it very difficult to find day ticket fishing on the Kennet and Lambourn.  And then someone tipped me off about a fishery on the Kennet where you could fish for winter Grayling and summer Trout, the Kennet at Denford.  Back then the fishery was run by Nigel who had the house at the top of the fishery.  You gave him a ring, booked yourself in and picked up your ticket from the house.  My first visit was a decade ago on a cold misty day in December.

A misty morning on the Kennet at Denford - photo 2
A misty morning on the Kennet at Denford

It was a beautiful day to be on the river.  The cold took my breath away as I climbed out of the car.  The meadows were etched with a hard haw frost.  The river ran low and clear under a gossamer veil of mist.  The skies were clear and azure blue.  It was love at first sight.

The meadows in winter - photo 3

Charles was outside the hut putting his gear together when I arrived.  Both new to the fishery we took some time to study the beat map.  The beats at Denford are largely carriers but include some of the main River Kennet stretching over two miles just to the east of Hungerford.  We decided to walk to the bottom of the fishery, have a look at the main river and then work our way back up the northern carrier that runs parallel with the A4.

Denford Fishery Map - photo 4
Denford Fishery Map

We were amazed at the water clarity, every fish could be clearly seen hanging over the bright gravels, and individually targeted.  Back then most of my fishing was dry fly and I lacked confidence fishing the nymph.  Despite my lack of competence, I finished the day with three nice Grayling under my belt and a determination to be back soon.

Despite my strong desire to fish Denford again it took me a year before I was back on those verdant banks staring into her mesmerising waters.  But this was to be a very different day.  Under Nigel’s ownership winter trotting was allowed for the Grayling.  Whilst fly fishing is my overriding passion in life I still hark back to my childhood and the simple joys of fishing a worm or maggot under a float.  I’d never tried trotting on a chalk stream, so I contacted Dave Martin, fishing guide and then Area Secretary for the Grayling Society.  He suggested Denford and I jumped at the chance.

The weather couldn’t have been more different to my last visit, mild with occasional showers.  The very dry summer had left the river very low, not ideal for trotting, so we also put up fly rods and Dave said he would see if he could help me improve my sight nymphing.

Middle carrier - photo 5
Middle carrier

We concentrated on the middle carrier this visit. Half the width of the north carrier it had a much more intimate feel.  It was wonderful fishing with someone who had so much experience and the ability to share it.  We caught fish on small unweighted nymphs fished under a klinkhammer from the faster runs, where we knew there would be fish, but they couldn’t easily be seen, and on a single nymph from the flatter glides.  But the best fish of the day came to the trotted maggot, Grayling of 1lb 6oz and 1lb 8oz, although we saw much bigger fish.

Lovely 1lb 6oz Kennet Grayling - photo 6
Lovely 1lb 6oz Kennet Grayling

Dave’s tutelage built my competence but also filled me with confidence and I returned several times that winter to catch beautiful grayling on the trot. But there was a new itch I needed to scratch.  Now I wanted to catch a wild brown trout from Denford on the dry fly, for me the pinnacle of the sport.  But it would be sometime before I’d have the opportunity.

During my visits to Denford I got to know Peter who looked after the fishery and the small syndicate that fished it during the summer, alongside the day tickets.  I’d persuaded Peter to donate a day trotting at Denford to the Wild Trout Trust Auction, with me hosting.  One day I got an email from Peter saying that Nigel at sold Denford to the neighbouring Evington Estate, but not to worry as they were happy to still donate a day.  The only problem was that they were no longer allowing winter trotting so would it be okay if the auction day was during the summer for the trout.  Not a problem at all I said.

That year’s luck winner was journalist and presenter Matthew Wright.  It was torturous being there watching fish rise and not being able to cast a line, but I enjoyed getting Matthew into some nice fish including a few of the big rainbows that are lightly stocked alongside the wild Trout and Grayling.  They really led Matthew a merry dance on light tackle.

Matthew Wright on Kennet at Denford - photo 7
Matthew Wright on Kennet at Denford

When Matthew left there was still a few hours light left so I decided to scratch that itch.  I put up a rod and wandered up stream from the hut.  At the top of The Hideaway the river widens below the narrow hatch and footbridge.  It’s a well-known fish holding pool.  As I approached I could see fish sitting all across the pool with a few rising along the main current.  Sitting and watching for a while I decided they were taking something small stuck in the surface, so I tied on a small CDC F Fly.  That didn’t work so I tried a small Sparkle Griffiths Gnat.  That didn’t work either.  Neither did the Olive Emerger, Sherry Spinner, Spider or Sawyer’s Pheasant Tail Nymph.  The fish kept on rising and I was starting to get frustrated.  In my frustration my back cast dropped too low and caught a cow parsley flower head, part of which snapped off on the forward cast and was sent sailing out across the pool landing with some considerable splash.  To my amazement a large brown trout moved a good ten feet across the pool and took the cow parsley.  I slumped back on the bank rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t, still can’t, believe what I’d just seen.  Then I started to think, how do I imitate a cow parsley flower?  I took out my terrestrials box and took out a huge hopper pattern that I’d picked up in Montana.  It was a humongous concoction of foam and feather with rubber legs wriggling in all directions.

Big hopper - photo 8
Big hopper

Beefing up my tippet I tied it on, cast it out and second try a big brownie smashed it.  Just when you think you know the rules and you’ve cracked the code, worked it all out, those bloody fish go and move the goal posts.  A useful lesson learnt though, sometimes going big when fish are on really small flies can do the business.

Since Avington took over Denford they have made a lot of improvements, mainly driven by the River Keeper Toby Hudson.  Early work concentrated on stabilising the banks that were damaged by burrowing Signal Crayfish.  In recent years Toby has been working hard to re-meander the channels, creating more fish holding features, encouraging ranunculus growth and generally improving the habitat for the invertebrates, wild Trout and Grayling.  His work is paying real dividends, as evidenced in the excellent Riverfly invertebrate counts.  This year they have made further improvements to the facilities with a toilet plus tea and coffee making in the hut.  All the mod cons.

The hut at Denford - photo 9
The hut at Denford

Most of my visits to Denford these days are hosting Wild Trout Trust Auction lot days or guiding days with clients.  But I still love every visit I make and especially introducing new people to this most beautiful fishery.  When my colleague Charles asked if I would help him learn to fly fish, Denford was the obvious place to go.  We decided to make a proper day of it, so we met in Hungerford for breakfast before making our way to the fishery mid-morning.  Last year Avington added an additional section of main river to the Denford Fishery.  This is the perfect beat for a beginner.  The pool below the hatch is wide and deep holding lots of fish.  There isn’t too much to worry about on the back cast and no marginal vegetation to get caught up in.  It’s a bit of a walk through the meadows and reed beds but well worth it.

Charles fishing the hatch pool - photo 10
Charles fishing the hatch pool

Charles picked up the basics of casting very quickly and was soon covering the water well but despite rising fish his dry fly went ignored so we switched to a nymph under an indicator.  The indicator wasn’t really necessary as you could see the fish going for the nymph in the gin clear water, but it gave Charles some added confidence.  It wasn’t long before Charles was into his first fish, a good Rainbow, and very pleased with it he was.

Nice Rainbow for Charles - photo 11
Nice Rainbow for Charles

Fishing through the afternoon in 32ºc didn’t appeal so, with a couple of nice Rainbows in the net we decided to decamp to The Red House at Marsh Benham for a couple of pints.  I was very pleased with our decision as they had Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, my favourite beer, on tap.  We sat in the garden under an umbrella out of the fierce sun and reflected on the morning’s sport.  Charles was rightly very proud of his two fish and I was glad that he liked Denford as much as I do.  He kept saying how beautiful it was.  Sometimes when you get familiar with a place it can lose its shine, its sparkle.  “Familiarity breeds contempt”.  I’ve never found this at Denford but it’s always nice to know other people love it as much as I do.

Revived we returned to the river to fish the evening rise.  I thought the best chance of a fish off the top would be on the main carrier and sure enough we found some fish rising under the trees below Troll Bridge.  We were fishing an Orvis Superfine Glass and an Orvis Helios 2 Mid Flex, perfect for short range casts in tight spots and for cushioning fights at close quarters.  Charles coped well with the tight casting under the trees hooking one on a nymph and one on the dry, unfortunately he fought them a little too hard and lost them.

Orvis artillery - photo 12
Orvis artillery

As the evening started to fade the river keeper Toby and another local keeper and guide Stuart Tanner joined us to fish last knockings and gave us a masterclass in catching Kennet brownies before we retired to the old Pavilion at Avington for a kebab and a cold beer.  Perfect end to a perfect day by the river.

As I reminisce about my many visits to Denford over the last decade I realise that my love affair with the Kennet at Denford is as strong as ever.


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