A bit of a do in Dorset

My love affair with Dorset and its chalk streams started over a decade ago when I fished Richard Slocock’s day ticket waters on the Frome and the Piddle.  I was splitting my time between home and wife in the North of Scotland and working down south and staying with my sister.  To pass the time and take my mind off things I looked around for somewhere to fish.  All the local clubs had long waiting lists and the prices for the Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire chalk streams were a bit steep for me.  Richard had been a founding member of the Wild Trout Trust and one of their Conservation Officers suggested I gave him a visit.  It seemed a long drive down that Saturday in September 2005.  I remember feeling nervous knocking on the front door, but Richard immediately put me at my ease as he led me across to the little shop where he wrote out my ticket and gave me directions.  Richard was very generous with his time, his local knowledge and expertise.  Feeling much more confident I made my way to the beat.  Looking back in my Fishing Journal those first few visits were very challenging.  Warm sun and bright skies made for difficult fishing.  But the Frome and Piddle were generous to me and I wrote fondly of my visits.  The good weather brought out the beauty of Dorset.  Broad river valleys, rolling chalk hills, ancient bridges spanning sedate rivers and streams running over clean gravels with swaying ranunculus, picture postcard villages with quaint names such as Puddletown, Piddlehinton and Piddletrentide.  I tittered in a Benny Hill kind of way as I drove the Dorset lanes.  The drives down never felt long again.

The Frome - photo 1
The Frome

When my marriage fell apart and I moved back home permanently I joined Richard’s syndicate.  My catch returns are evidence of halcyon days on the Dorset chalk streams.  Ample hatches, good water conditions and free rising fish.  Catching wild Brown Trout to three pounds off the top was heaven to me.

A beautiful Frome trout - photo 2
A beautiful Frome trout

It was a wrench to give up my place on Richard’s syndicate.  The long drives down were getting to me and I was offered a place on a more local syndicate.  It was a tough decision.  But I didn’t fall out of love with the Dorset chalk streams.  It wasn’t goodbye, simply au revoir.

It was John Aplin and two good friends who rekindled my love affair.  I can’t remember how it came about but on a cold December day I found myself with Charles and Denise listening to John as he briefed us on his little bit of heaven across the fields from the Dairy House.  I’d known of John for some time, but I think this was the first time we’d actually met, and there was nowhere more perfect to meet him than on his Home Beat.  We had a wonderful day stalking the big ladies that haunt John’s bit of the Frome.

Three happy anglers - photo 3
Three happy anglers

Since then I’ve met John many times and we’ve become firm friends.  I’ve fished his beat, been hosted on the Dorchester Fishing Club waters he keepers, got drunk with him at the Monnow Social, enjoyed many a pre-fishing sausage sandwich in the kitchen at the Dairy House and even helped him clear weed from a pond in the grounds of a five-star hotel.  When John started the Little Syndicate, I was one of its first members.

John Aplin with a nice Grayling from his Home Beat - photo 4
John Aplin with a nice Grayling from his Home Beat

John is one of those rare people who quietly gets on and makes stuff happen.  One of the things that John has been quietly making happen since September 2012 is The Dorset Chalk Streams Club.  John Aplin came up with the idea of a Dorset Chalk Streams Club in 2011, to allow likeminded people to sit round a warm fire on a winters night and chat about chalkstreams, Dorset chalkstreams of course.  The hope was to present guest speakers from all areas of chalkstream fishing and habitat improvement.  Subjects ranging from fly tying, chalkstream fishing, fishing destinations and the flora & fauna of this wonderful habitat.  They got off to a grand start with the first speaker being Charles Jardine who talked about the history of fly fishing, fishing destinations and fly-fishing methods, together with lots of great humour thrown in.

Chares Jardine at the first evening - photo 5
Chares Jardine at the first evening

Since that first meeting the Dorset Chalk Streams Club has gone from strength to strength.  It meets once a month though the winter at the village hall in West Stafford.  There is no charge as The Dorset Wildlife Trust through the Dorset Wild Rivers Project very kindly sponsor the hire of the village hall and the heating and website is sponsored by the West Dorset Foodie.  Those attending either bring a bottle or buy a pint from the Wise Man pub, rather handily located opposite the Hall.

A fabulous buffet - photo 6
A fabulous buffet

Everyone is asked to bring something for the buffet that is heartily tucked into after the presentations.

Enjoying the post presentation buffet - photo 7
Enjoying the post presentation buffet

John works hard to put together a great programme of presentations each winter which both entertain and edify the assembled throng.  Each year sees a mix of subject matter, with fishing always on the agenda.  As well as regular Charles Jardine, Alex Jardine has come to talk about the delights of fishing the Ribnic & Pliva rivers in Bosnia and catching big Grayling on the chalk streams.  Glen Pointon, supported by the Wet Your Know Crew came down from Staffordshire to talk about hunting big browns on the Wye and Dove and his goal to create THE Dry Fly that transcends all others.

Glen Pointon on hunting big trout - photo 8
Glen Pointon on hunting big trout

Local David Burton has talked about his early years as a fly fisherman and his steep learning curve into a fisherman that now catches some fine-looking trout from our local rivers. Richard Miller & John Thorpe have talked about their holiday fishing on the Mykel and Knoydart, up on the west coast of Scotland.

River ecology is always a popular topic. Dr Rasmus Lauridsen from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust kindly gave a talk on the activities of SAMARCH a major EU-funded programme that will provide vital research on rapidly declining salmon and sea trout (salmonid) populations.

John Aplin and Dr Rasmus Lauridsen - photo 9
John Aplin and Dr Rasmus Lauridsen

Bill Beaumont from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is a regular updating the club on the latest studies into the River Frome salmon. Angus Menzies fascinated everyone with how invertebrate life is being used to assess river health and identify incidents affecting fish and anglers. Jacob Dew from the Dorset Wild Rivers Project introduced this major restoration project. Fiona Bowles, Water Environment and Catchment Specialist, very kindly gave an update on the Poole Harbour Catchment Initiative whilst Jon Holland has talked about a year in the life of a Fish Health Inspector – fascinating just how much goes on behind the scenes to keep the UK with one of the healthiest stocks of fish.

Writers are always popular. Dr Tony Hayter (Author of FM Halford and the Dry Fly Revolution and G.E.M. Skues The man of the nymph) has been a regular visitor talking about the life and times of Halford and Skues.

Tony Hayter on the Life and Times of FM Halford - photo 10
Tony Hayter on the Life and Times of FM Halford

Sometimes it is the more esoteric contributions that fascinate. Michael Heaton talked about water meadows, their history and their value to anglers whilst the ever-entertaining Ian May has told the club all about carved and painted fish.

Ian May on carved and painted fish - photo 11
The late great Ian May on carved and painted fish
Grayling by Ian May - photo 12
Grayling by Ian May

The club has even had PCSO Tom Belching, Rural Engagement Officer of the Dorset Police Rural Crime Team, talk about rural crime in Dorset.

Sometimes the club goes on tour. In May 2015 twenty-five members visited the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s, Salmon & Trout Research Centre at East Stoke. This has been monitoring salmon & sea trout since 1973, using various ingenious fish counting methods.  Bill Beaumont who has been working at the Centre since he arrived in 1971 for a three-month trial showed everyone around.  You could tell that it was all his ‘baby’ as he enthusiastically explained all the methods used by his team to count the smolts out and the adult salmon back in.

Bill Beaumont showing the Club around - photo 13
Bill Beaumont showing the Club around

Attendees are encouraged to bring along any old tackle they are looking to sell, in case any of the others can be tempted and the Club meetings have attracted a number of tackle, flies and fly-tying suppliers to offer their wares whilst people are enjoying the buffet. Thank you to Chevron Hackles, Funky Fly Tying, Tom Regula, and Harry Wallace for the support.

Chevron Hackles - photo 14
Chevron Hackles

So, if you are at a loose end this winter why not pop along to The Dorset Chalk Streams Club, meet some new friends, enjoy a pint and some great presentations and have a slice of cake.

Sarah Williams best chocolate cake ever - photo 15
Sarah Williams best chocolate cake ever

 

For more information and details of forthcoming meetings checkout the Dorset Chalk Streams Club website:

http://dorsetchalkstreams.co.uk/

Or follow the Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/DorsetChalkStreamsClub/

 

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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.

 

If you fancy falling in love with Denford you can find more information on their website:

https://www.avingtonestate.co.uk/day-rod-fishing/

Or you can follow them on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/AvingtonEstate/