I was driving home having done most of the Christmas food shopping. It was a bright chilly day and the sun was dropping in the sky as I came up over the downs. The hedgerows were brown with the occasional splash of red of Hawthorn berry. Then a flash of silvery purple caught my eye, the sun lighting up the berries like tiny Christmas baubles. I knew immediately what they were, Sloes.
Pulling up on the verge I grabbed a bag and made my way back down the road. One short section of hedge was laden with Sloes, some a dark black blue, others dusted a pale baby blue. I set about gathering them being careful to leave a few for the mice, thrushes and waxwings. The berries looked perfect, plump and touched by the morning frost. Perfect for making into Sloe Gin.
Foraging was a feature of my childhood. We grew a lot of fruit in the garden but would often walk the hedgerows to supplement our Apples with Blackberries for an apple and bramble pie or crumble. Dad would drag me out of bed early to wander the fields for mushrooms. When we visited family in Norway, we would always head up in the mountains to pick Blueberries, Lingonberries and the much venerated Multer (cloudberry). In the last few years I’ve got back into foraging. This part of Hampshire has produced Rowans, Walnuts, Crab Apples, Blackberries, Sloes and Mushrooms for me this year.
Back home I washed the Sloes. My hands were ripped to shreds by the Blackthorns and stained back and red by juice and my blood. As I picked over the berries ready to freeze, I recalled a memorable autumn day in the Frome valley.
The early morning showers faded away as I turned off the main road and took the narrow lanes dropping down onto the Frome flood plain. The plan was to fish the Little Syndicate beat on the North Stream before heading over to John Aplin’s for the Dorset Chalk Streams Club meeting. Pulling off the road a broad blue sky stretched out over the valley.
The long hot dry summer had left the North Stream running low and clear. The beat is one of two halves. The lower section is steeper, fast and mostly shallow, perfect Trout water. The upper section is deeper, slower, gravelly with a shallow gradient, perfect Grayling water. As the Trout season had closed, I headed upstream.
The low water had concentrated the Grayling in the deeper pools. They were easy to spot in the gin clear waters. One was even rising steadily in under the trees. Finding them was easy, catching them was another matter. The smaller fish were unusually spooky in the low water and would scatter at each cast. The larger fish were calmer but turned there nose up at whatever I offered them, even the rising fish. In the end I decided they must have been taking midge and that my offerings were just too large. You live and learn. Need some micro midge patterns for next year.
The day was ebbing away, and it was time for me to start heading back. I feared I was going to leave the river empty handed. As I waded down stream looking for an exit point, I spotted a Hawthorn growing right on the river bank. The Sloes weren’t numerous, but they were unusually large. Having it’s toes in the water obviously made for good fruit. They were too good to pass by, so I slipped off back pack and found the carrier bag that my lunch had come in. An hour later I climbed out with a good three pounds of plump fat Sloes. I hadn’t blanked after all.
Everyone makes their Sloe Gin slightly differently. Old recipes instructed you to prick each fruit before it was steeped in the gin. This always seemed like a lot of hard work to me. So instead I freeze my Sloes, this helps to break the skin and fruit down a little so that as much of the juice, colour and goodness is released during the steeping. Freezing them also allows me to wait until there is a good offer on the gin, usually in the run up to Christmas. I steep the berries for six months before bottling and try to leave them in the bottle to mature as long as possible. I’m currently drinking the 2010 vintage and it is superb.
The other aspect of Sloe Gin that attracts much debate is how much sugar to add. For me this is down to personal taste. I have a sweet tooth and like mine quite syrupy. Others prefer theirs a little sharper. My advice is to make small batches and adjust the amount of sugar in each batch until you find the level that best suits you.
The recipe I use is actually my sisters.
Siri’s Sloe Gin
500g unrefined caster sugar (adjust quantity to taste)
Like a lot of anglers, I started as a small boy fishing maggots, worms or bread flake under a float on my local ponds and streams. I grew up close by the West Berkshire chalk streams, but they were outside my reach both socially and financially so for me it was free sections on the Pang, Kennet and Lambourn that nobody cared about, the canals or a few old estate ponds hidden in the woods just near home. When I got older dad would take me fishing on his days off. We would get up early, drive into Newbury, park up in the Wharfe and pick up some bait from the tackle shop near the Kennet Centre. Dad would sort out the maggots, to supplement the worms he’d dug up from our compost heap, whilst I gazed longingly at the shiny reels and wiggled the latest rods. All I could actually afford would be a float, but it was nice to dream. We would spend many a happy hour wandering the canal tow paths or sitting on the banks of some hidden away pond. Mum would have made us a flask, packed us some cake and some sandwiches, although most of the bread would get fed to the fish. It instilled in me a deep love of water and for fishing.
When I came back to fishing in my early thirties it was to fly fishing. Dad kept all our kit and in his old age would still wander up to the pond to try and catch the fish that were no longer there. When he died I found everything dusty and rusty, tucked away in the garage. As a fly fisherman my real passion is the dry fly. I will fish wet fly, spider and nymph or strip a streamer, when conditions dictate, but my heart is never really in it. The reason I love the dry fly is because it is so visual. Watching the fly drift down on the current. Seeing the fish stir, turning to take the fly from the surface. The fly disappearing as the fish dives back down. I think this goes back to those early days, me and dad intent on the float, watching it trot off, waiting for it to dip away out of sight.
Ten years ago I was in Alnwick for The Wild Trout Trust Annual Get Together. On the Saturday night we had a fabulous dinner at Alnwick Castle, accompanied by far too much red wine, and I fished the Derwent with the legendary Stuart Crofts on the Sunday. The Get Together itself was held on the Saturday at the Hardy site in Alnwick. It was the usual mix of entertaining, educational and elucidating presentations interspersed with coffee and stimulating conversation. Whilst we were there Hardy said attendees could buy anything from the shop at a generous discount. I didn’t need telling twice. But whilst everyone else was eyeing up the 9’ 5 weights and Perfect reels my gaze settled on a Marksman Float Rod and Conquest Centrepin. Hardy had recently gone back into coarse fishing tackle and I remembered reading some very positive reviews in the press. Out came the wallet and £600 later I was the proud owner of a 15’ float rod and a 4½” centrepin. I would have to wait six months for the end of the trout season before I would have the chance to christen my new rod and reel.
I spent the trout season, when I wasn’t fishing, looking around for coarse tackle to compliment my new trotting outfit. I’d need line, floats, hooks and shot plus lots of other bits and pieces. I would also need somewhere to go fishing. The line, floats and hooks were straightforward. There is an excellent little tackle shop near Tadley where you get a cup of tea whilst you browse the store. The place to go fishing proved a little harder. You needed to be a member of a club to access fishing near me and there were waiting lists for all the better clubs. There was very little day ticket water on the chalk streams. Then someone put me onto Barton Court. Bob Bailey ran a beat on the Kennet near Kintbury and you could fish there during the winter for a few quid. Whilst a managed to catch a few fish on that first outing what I realised was that trotting on the chalk streams was a whole different affair to the canal and ponds of my youth. I needed some help.
I’d recently become a member of The Grayling Society, so I got in touch with my Area Secretary and they suggested I buy a copy of Reg Righyni’s magnum opus ‘Grayling’. Paul Morgan at Coch-Bonddu sourced me a copy and I set about soaking up Reg’s wise words. The then Chairman of The Grayling Society Steve Rhodes gave me some advice and also suggested a spend some time with his partner at Go Fly Fishing, Dave Martin. A few weeks later I met Dave at The Denford Fishery on the Kennet near Hungerford. Back then they allowed trotting for Grayling during the winter months. I couldn’t believe that we would be able to trot the Kennet. The river was gin clear and thin, I felt sure the fish would spook.
Dave taught me so much that day and it has influenced my approach to this day. We fished small floats, light tippets, tiny hooks and employed the stealthiest of approaches. And it all paid off. We caught lots of feisty Grayling including a right lunker for Dave.
Since those first few trips on the Kennet I’ve also had the chance to go trotting with Steve Rhodes, Chris Lythe and Bob James plus some of The Grayling Society grandees. I’ve honed my technique and now feel that I’ve got it pretty much nailed, albeit that there is always more to learn. I now have a selection of the Hardy Marksman float rods in various lengths to suit different sized rivers and various different centrepins to match them. As with fly rods I will always fish the longest rod I can get away with. Longer rods allow better line control
I tend to favour the Adcock Stanton centrepins. They are simple in design and solidly built. They have a low start up inertia and spin freely, but purposefully. I load them with braid. Braid has almost zero stretch and is very strong for its diameter. When long trotting at range you want to pick up line and set the hook quickly and effectively so the less stretch the better. In my back pack I carry a wide selection of floats, in different sizes and of different designs to suit different waters. Small clear plastic chubbers, avons and bobbers for the small chalk streams, larger wire stemmed stick floats with long sighters/antennae for the lower Itchen or Test. I use a small rubber to attach the float at the top and a long length of silicon tubing to attach it to the stem. This helps to stop the line below the float hinging during casting. For hooks I use the Drennan hooks to nylon which I loop to loop to the end of my braid. When your hands are cold the fewer knots the better. Drennan make a huge range of these hooks to nylon in different styles and sizes with different strength breaking strains. Shoting patterns depend on conditions. If the river is low and clear I’ll normally keep the majority of the shot under the float to cock it quickly whilst allowing the bait to drift naturally. If the river is up and coloured, and the fish are hard on the bottom, I’ll load the shot near to the hook to get the bait down quick and keep it in the feeding zone.
For baits I always have some mixed white and red maggots and some small worms. The old boys will tell you that the big Grayling will take a worm over a ground bait of maggot. It’s certainly worked for me on more than one occasion. I also keep a small tin of sweetcorn in my pack just in case, although it doesn’t often come out.
Lots of my fishing buddies think that float fishing lacks skill, “anyone can do that”. Please excuse my language but, that is a load of bollocks. Like any fishing method, to trot well and effectively requires skill and practice. The key is line control and effective presentation of the bait. When trotting you need to be able to strike into the fish quickly, especially with Grayling that will spit out the bait in the blink of an eye. So that means ensuring there is no slack line between rod tip and float. Mending line is key, and where a longer rod helps. Success is also dependent on the bait being presented just ahead of the float. Holding the float back, so that it drifts slightly slower than the current, ensures this. The float is slowed by applying a little pressure to the rim of the centrepin with the thumb. Occasionally stopping the float during the trot causes the bait to swing up through the water column, a little like an induced take when nymphing, and can be deadly.
One of the joys of trotting is that you can never be quite sure what you are going to catch. Ask most people what they think of when you ask about fishing on the chalk streams and they’ll talk about casting a dry fly to rising trout on a warm summers evening. But the chalk streams, particularly in their lower reaches, are excellent mixed fisheries. When out trotting for winter Grayling I’ve caught Perch, Roach, Dace, and Chub. I often get Pike chasing the worm as it’s batted back at the end of a trot.
A couple of years back I decided to fish a bit of the Kennet just above Newbury. It’s a free section but the access isn’t easy, so it doesn’t get fished much. I had to beat my way through shoulder high nettles to get to the river and scramble down a steep bank to get in. I started trotting the margins on my bank and picked up small Perch and silver fish straight off. As the takes slowed down I cast further out to see if I could find some fresh fish. I was feeding a few maggots each cast with a red and a white on the hook. As I started to catch a few Grayling I switched to a worm on the hook. Third cast the float slid away purposefully and kept going as I lifted into the take. I was met with solid resistance. As I applied a little more pressure the fish realised what was happening and didn’t like it. It set off for Reading with a sense of urgency. Applying as much pressure as I dare I managed to slow the fish down. It then decided that Hungerford might be a good alternative destination and shot by me in the opposite direction. I held on for dear life. When it eventually slipped into the net it turned out to be a chunky little Barbel. My first.
In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to trot on a number of the chalk streams thanks to some of the more enlightened clubs. I was a member of the Cotswold Fly Fishers that gave me access to the Windrush. Membership of Salisbury & District Angling Club gives me access to the Nadder and Avon and friends at the Wilton Fly Fishing Club have invited me out on the Wylye. There are also a number of free sections on the Itchen, Kennet and Lambourn that offer very good winter Grayling fishing with float or fly. So, if you love your fly fishing but fancy something different why not try trotting.
The Grayling Society has a network of Area Secretaries that can offer advice on trotting for winter Grayling and they sell a range of floats in their shop. Members also receive The Grayling Anglers Guide is full of information on where to fish for Grayling.
A few months back John Aplin asked if I would head down to Dorset and present at the first meeting of this winters Dorset Chalk Streams Club. I was more than happy to oblige. I’ve attended a few of these meetings over the last couple of years and always enjoyed them plus I’m greatly indebted to John for his help and support in getting Chalk Stream Dreams off the ground. It was also a great opportunity to fish one of the Little Syndicate beats beforehand.
So, on Friday morning I got up early and headed for Waitrose in Salisbury. The store is a short detour from the route to Dorset and a good place to pick up some lunchtime vittles. I also needed a foodie present for Henry. He is a fellow Little Syndicate member, a Dorset Chalk Streams Club regular and I’d noticed on Facebook that it was his birthday. A lovely box of Happy Birthday chocolate cupcakes were just the thing. Leaving the store with a couple of bags of shopping and a free cup of coffee I was ready for the remainder of the journey.
It is a tradition on trips down to Dorset to stop for breakfast en route. There are a few places to stop between home and Dorchester. Various cafes, farm shops and layby eateries. My personal favourite is the humorously titled ‘Ooh Nice Baps’ just outside Milborne St Andrew. It was already busy as I pulled in, so I had a to wait whilst my coffee and sausage and bacon bap were freshly prepared. I sat eating my bap in the car, out of the cold and drizzle, listening to Radio 4 and trying to avoid dribbling ketchup down my shirt. Not a success.
I arrived at the Watery Beat just as the showers eased and the sun came out. Sitting on the bridge looking up and downstream I could see that the North Stream was running clear but very low. The mild weather meant there was still a lot of weed in the river, with only narrow bands of fishable water pushed left and right by the vegetation.
Pulling on my waders felt good. A barrier against the cold and the anticipation of getting in the water. Whilst the middle section of the Water Beat, down to the bridge, is quite open the Grayling water at the top runs under the trees so I went for an 8’4” 3 weight rod. Nice and soft for the short casts, flicks and lobs necessary on this tight water. Slipping into the river just where the gradient steepens I eagerly scanned upstream in the hope of a hatch and a rise or two. Nothing stirred. I could see every stick and stone on the river bed, even four or five feet down, but I couldn’t make out any fish. Progressing slowly and steadily upstream I peered into the water in the hope of a glimpse of a Grayling, ghosting in and out of the shadows. But nothing. Then all of a sudden something broke the surface up under the trees four rod lengths ahead. It was a swirling rise, rings dispersing across the glassy glide. At first, I thought it was a trout but then it happened again, and I could clearly see the pewter back and rainbow fin of a Grayling. My heartbeat quickened. It looked a good fish. The only problem was getting a cast over it. The trees between me and the fish hung low over the water and there was no real back cast. Tricky. There was also a nasty, cold downstream wind. Trickier still. I decided to climb out, jump ahead of the fish and try a downstream presentation. As a dropped back in I could see two good sized Grayling holding station midstream. They saw me too. One dropped back out of sight whilst the other headed upstream. The rising fish was wandering to and fro across the pool, dropping back to where I had first seen it before moving up into the head of the glide. Knowing where to drop the fly wasn’t going to be easy. Each time I cast to where I expected the fish to be it would pop up somewhere else. When I did get a good drift over it the fish studiously ignored my fly. A klinkhammer, an Olive Emerger, an F Fly, a shuttlecock pattern, a Retirer Sedge and an IOBO Humpy all drifted by unheeded. In hindsight I think the fish was probably taking midge pupa just under the surface, but I didn’t have a suitable pattern.
Having taken an hour and half to focus on this one fish, with no luck, I decided to rest the pool and have some lunch. The theme of my presentation for later was Fishing Food so it only seemed appropriate that I had a good lunch. Waitrose had come up trumps with a fine Saucisson, a Melton Mowbray pork pie and a chorizo and red pepper scotch egg, all washed down with a fiery ginger beer. Very nice.
Reinvigorated I returned to the pool to find the fish still on the fin. I tried another selection of flies. The fish seemed untroubled by my presence and my efforts. Eventually I lost heart and retreated, beaten but not broken. Living to fight another day.
On my way upstream, I’d spotted a Blackthorn laden with inky black sloes hanging over the water. So, as I retreated to the car I stopped to fill my backpack with foraged fruit. Not the catch I’d hoped for but not a bad alternative. Steeped in gin for six months and left to mature for a further six they would make a nice warming tipple for a future visit to the Watery Beat.
John was already home when I pulled up in front of The Dairy House. He welcomed me with a warm smile, a hand shake and an even warmer coffee. Time was creeping on so having enjoyed catching up over a coffee we decided that we better head over to the village hall in West Stafford and get set up. It didn’t take us long to put out the chairs, set up a few tables and get the laptop and projector booted up. We were all ready when the attendees started to trickle in fifteen minutes before kick-off.
I was nervous to start but the warm smiles of the audience and a pint of ginger beer helped to reduce the tension. The hour flew by and the laughs from the onlookers suggested that the presentation was going down well. Having reached the end of my talk I had one last thing to do before we could all hit the buffet. I asked Henry to stand and we all sang him Happy Birthday before I gave him his cupcakes. He seemed touched and very appreciative.
Listening to me talk about fishing, food and friends seemed to have given everyone an appetite and there was a stampede for the buffet. A wonderful selection of pies, quiches, meats, breads, pâtés, cakes and sweet temptations. A great opportunity to catch up and chat about the Dorset chalk streams.
Lots of people came up afterwards and offered me positive feedback so I felt pleased with my efforts. Whilst the fishing had been tough it had been a lovely evening in wonderful company. Can’t wait to see who is presenting next time.
For more information and details of forthcoming meetings checkout the Dorset Chalk Streams Club website:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Everyone is asked to bring something for the buffet that is heartily tucked into after the presentations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information and details of forthcoming meetings checkout the Dorset Chalk Streams Club website:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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: