TINGING NETTLES, it turns out, look a whole lot like mint. I figured this out the hard way when I ripped a fistful of them out of a Hampshire sheep pasture along England’s southern coast and mashed them to my nose expecting the smell of wintergreen.
My English friend, Pete McLeod, was still stringing up his rod when he saw what I’d done. He let out a laugh as his forgotten fly line slipped back through the guides. These nettles have a toxin akin to the acid that fire ants use to light you up in Florida or south Texas. I didn’t expect the soft English countryside to pack such a punch.
I’d taken the train down from London to fish the nearby chalkstreams, and the fishing was fantastic. When Pete and I, along with his enthusiastic black lab, Basil, disembarked in the sheep pasture, both in our knee-high Wellies, the trout were already rising. Pete’s travel company, Aardvark McLeod, leases a beat in emerald-green Hampshire, on the west bank of the Hampshire Avon near the tiny town of Upper Woodford, a five-minute drive from Stonehenge. When I facetiously asked if we were going to fish near Shakespeare’s house, Pete explained that there are several River Avons in England (because “avon” was the Celtic word for river). Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, was, unfortunately, in Warwickshire, far to the north. I allowed that I could probably make due with Stonehenge.
The Hampshire Avon contains browns (a native species, but also stocked), as well as grayling. Our first march up the beat was entertaining but unspectacular. Hard gray skies obscured visibility, and it had been a long time since I’d attempted to use the refined skill of dry-fly fishing with cul-du-canard (AKA “CDC” or “duck-ass”) midges. We both landed browns and grayling, but Pete’s favorite section of the beat was being thoroughly frothed by a flock of 16 contentious swans, which, under English law, are the protected private property of the Queen. Though gorgeous, they are also aggressive, territorial, and much larger than even their goose cousins. We conceded the field for the time being, and withdrew to the warm low-ceilinged refuge of the Bridge Inn pub.
On our way out of the eatery, I spotted a large fish finning close to the bridge that marked the boundary of our beat. I initially thought it was a carp, but Pete laughed at me again and said it was a brown, though a tough one to target. This fish, along with several others of similar size, lived across a wide pool from Pete’s side of the river, next to a bank where no one was allowed to fish. Getting a cast to the spot would be hard enough, not to mention avoiding enough drag to coax a rise.
Still flush with steak-and-kidney pie and a couple pints of local bitter, I asked Pete if we could try anyway. “Of course,” he said, handing me an enormous mayfly. Everything about this bug was ridiculous, starting with the fact that it was six months out of season—though we had spotted a couple errant mayflies that day. The imitation resembled a Michigan Hexagenia pattern, two inches long and an inch tall, pale and speckled, with a foam body. It was highly suspect and impractical.
I tied the fly on anyway and carefully stripped out a large amount of line. My first couple casts fell well short, with the shooting line tangling in the tall bankside reeds, crashing the fly midway across. But the next cast sailed true, fluttering the huge mayfly comically across the pool. It would have landed with a fat splat, had the big brown not launched itself out of the water to intercept it. Astounded, I didn’t even think to set the hook. “Cast again, cast again!” Pete yelled, motioning with his arms. He had seen the fish tracking back and forth, trying to find another flying hamburger. I quickly repeated the delivery, only this time I was ready, and minutes later we landed a chunky three-pound brown.
My day would have been complete right there, but five more fish fell victim to our increasingly bedraggled mayfly, with Pete and I taking turns teaching the trout to be more discerning. My largest fish approached six pounds—a female, which Basil anointed with a slurp of the tongue before we returned it to the river.
Pete is in his early forties, sandy-haired and hiker-fit. He’s traveled all over the world, particularly in the Indian Ocean. When he left school, he worked in London’s oldest sports shop, Farlows, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2016, He became a skilled wingshooter, and still participates in posh annual pheasant shoots, but his specialty is chalkstream fishing—so-called because the water that feeds them filters up from the aquifer through layers of chalk, which regulate the temperature, the flow, and the acidity level, making for almost perfect insect-growing conditions. This may be the last place left in the world where you can describe the waters as “gin clear” without cliché, because the Bombay Sapphire distillery sits not far upstream of where we fished.
Fishing culture here is definitely on the lavish side. At a local fly shop in Stockbridge, called Robjents, Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hats are stacked up for sale without the slightest hint of hipsterism. There are also full suits of tweed available, many now lined with Gore-Tex in a concession to modern times. The opposite bank of the river from Pete’s beat is the territory of the Piscatorial Society, an angling club founded in 1836 that is known for its strict requirements in “bank etiquette”—all-important in the chalkstream game.
An example: all casting—whether with dry fly or nymph—is expected to be upstream. There is no need for waders, because anglers are not allowed in the river. Early in the season, when the mayflies are hatching profusely, all fishing is dry fly only. Only later in the year is nymphing permitted (despite Frank Sawyer inventing the pheasant tail along the Avon, where he served as a riverkeeper for more than 50 years). Yet no one would dream of using an indicator. Above all, there is no blind-casting; anglers are expected to cast only to spotted fish (ideally, rising ones), and benches are placed at regular intervals to facilitate stream-watching. Chalkstream fishing is a sedate game.
These rules may sound ridiculous to American ears, but they actually have very rational underpinnings. The river is private property, and the landowners forbid anglers from entering the water in order to protect stream habitat and water quality. Likewise, casting only to spotted fish encourages robust fish growth in a prolific habitat, since anglers will naturally target the largest fish. Most of the other “rules” are all about increasing the level of difficulty. There is an appreciation in England that fly fishing is a game, with rules like pool or chess that the players agree to accept. Moreover, if anglers were all to adopt more aggressive tactics (say, big streamers or night fishing), the rivers would soon be stripped bare.
The next day we fished the famed River Test. Pete had arranged for us to fish Beat Five of the Leckford Estate—true hallowed waters in British angling circles, with manicured pathways on both sides of the river, thatch-roofed huts to keep warm or dry as the weather demanded, and finicky, technical trout. On the Test, riverkeepers will hang lengths of board downstream from bridges, letting them softly waterski on the stream’s surface, just to give the aquatic insects more real estate for breeding and hatching. We were quickly back to tiny CDC patterns and 6X tippet (which Pete considers heavy for these waters). Micro-drag, entangling underbrush, errant puffs of wind; this was the dry fly fishing of my nightmares. We managed a fish or two—trophies back home of up to three pounds, but not particularly remarkable here. At one point we found a tight window through the trees that seemed likely to allow a lengthy cast to a pod of large, “safe” fish. Struggling to repeat the big mayfly trick of the day before, I slowly lost my composure, with cast after cast finding branch or bush.
When I fight a big fish I get superstitious, refusing to believe that I have hooked anything remarkable until the evidence is recovering in the net.
After finally calming down, I spotted a trout with thick shoulders feeding against our bank. I asked Pete if he had any hoppers. He did, and my cast fell with a plop right on the trout’s nose. There was no hesitation; only pure perception-reaction as the trout assaulted the fly, then took off upriver.
When I fight a big fish I get superstitious, refusing to believe that I have hooked anything remarkable until the evidence is recovering in the net. That way, I won’t be too disappointed if the fish pops off. But Pete knew we had a good one. After a couple of long runs, the fish rolled on the surface. She was all but finished. We paused to let a mowing crew work past us (where else would this be an issue?), and I brought the fish to a standstill against a thin strand of weeds, just beyond reach of the net. When the trout wouldn’t budge, I knew something was wrong. A minute later she popped off, leaving my fly attached to the only strand of leftover monofilament along the river. Still tired from the fight, she did us the courtesy of holding for a moment in a patch of sun at our feet; all twenty-six inches or so, plainly visible, before flicking her tail and sailing out of sight.
I watched her go with an even mix of regret and admiration. I came to England expecting refined technical dry-fly action for smallish runts, and I wound up air-dropping crates of protein on heavy, feisty, proper brown trout. In Hampshire, where many of the rules were first laid down for this game we all love, the fishing is especially fine.