Despite staying up to watch the Olympics opening ceremony, my fishermanâ€™s alarm clock didnâ€™t let me down, waking me half an hour before I needed to be up. And with the possibility of salmon, sea trout and brownies on the cards, I was perhaps a little more excited than usual.
Word of my fly fishing obsession had obviously spread. Howard Taylor, whose company Upstream Dry Fly has the fishing rights on the Testwood and Nursling beats of the River Test had kindly invited me to have a go at their grand slam â€“ all three native salmonids, on the fly within 24 hours. This is a bit like inviting a very hungry man to The Waterside Inn, Le Gavroche and Le Manoir Aux Quatâ€™Saisons for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To the avid fly fisherman, invites simply donâ€™t get any better.
I arrived an hour early, and with clear blue skies overhead, a light veil of mist on the water and some coffee in my flask, I meandered my way downstream. It was sheer torture â€“ within minutes I had spotted a decent brown sipping dries on the far bank, a good sea trout had cruised past me on the incoming tide and a spanking fresh grilse had shown in the tail of the pool. I simply couldnâ€™t contain myself and sent a text message to my host, letting him know of the pain I was going through.
Thankfully Howard is a sympathetic man, because minutes later the beatâ€™s riverkeeper emerged from the Georgian mill-house which overlooks the main Testwood pool. A man after my own heart he obviously recognised the look of madness in my eyes, skipped the pleasantries and cut straight to the chase. â€œHi Iâ€™m Peter Farrow. Shall we go and try for a salmon before breakfast?â€ he asked. The finest introduction Iâ€™d ever heard.
The plan was to focus our attention during the day on Mr. Unpredictable, the salmon, and then target sea trout at night. And if all went to plan, weâ€™d either have the early evening or first light the following day to try for a brownie.
And so Peter and I set off for the far bank where he briefly demonstrated the unconventional local method of fishing for salmon. Rather than fishing down and across with a traditional salmon fly, as is the norm, a very heavy tungsten-beaded Testwood â€œnymphâ€ is roll cast no further than a few feet upstream, allowed to sink to the bottom, and then gently drawn to the surface by lifting the rod tip. A bit like Czech nymphing at very close quarters, this really is a novel approach to Salmo Salar. â€œAnd you wonâ€™t feel the take,â€ said Peter, â€œyouâ€™ll see it.â€ He certainly had my attention.
A few casts later I discovered exactly what he meant. As I watched my fly lift through the water column, my eyes were suddenly drawn to a large and ominous shape that had risen from the bottom of the pool. Mesmerised, I watched as a salmon of at least 10lb suddenly darted forward, grabbed hold of my fly and then promptly spat it out. â€œErm, you might want to strike a little earlier,â€ observed Peter, head in hands.
Visually, this is salmon fishing on a level I had never experienced before – and itâ€™s about as exciting as fishing gets. One of the reasons I love New Zealandâ€™s rivers so much is because their gin-clear water is like a window into the troutâ€™s private world. Itâ€™s the ultimate fly-fishing classroom in which you get to observe first hand how trout behave in their natural environment and react to your presentations and every move. But never before had I experienced the luxury of watching a salmon react to my fly at such close quarters.
Admittedly, I did have some composure issues to start off with â€“ by breakfast time I had missed three takes due to a lack of appendage control â€“ but after a croissant and a cup of freshly brewed coffee, I felt I was ready for round two. â€œItâ€™s all about line control,â€ advised Alistair Robjent, a River Test expert whoâ€™d come along to assist me with my task. â€˜And self-control,â€™ I thought to myself. â€œIf there is any slack in the line,â€ he continued, â€œyouâ€™ll never set the hook in time. Youâ€™ve got to be lightning quick.â€
With renewed focus and salmon in our sights, we returned to the river with high hopes. But with the sun now directly overhead in an azure sky, we felt our optimism begin to wane as the temperature rose. Indeed, by lunchtime Mr. Salmo Salar had still eluded us. Alistair had managed to land a nice little brownie and Iâ€™d had a perch and a pretty little finnock that was so small we decided weâ€™d only count it if things got really desperate. I also had a brief encounter with a really good trout that had thrown the fly after just a few seconds.
But as we languished over a barbecue lunch and a glass of ice-cold Pimms, a bank of cumulonimbus started to build in the west. â€œThatâ€™s just what we need,â€ observed Peter as we once again made our way over to the far bank. â€œAs soon as the sun disappears behind that, weâ€™ll be back in business.â€ It was as though someone had flicked a switch. Within minutes, I had not one, but two good fish follow my fly and turn away at the last second. â€œRight, get ready,â€ said Peter as I rolled out my next cast, â€œweâ€™ll have him this time.â€
As my fly appeared out of the opaque green depths, a fresh run salmon was suddenly right there, a foot behind my fly.Â This time I was ready. As soon as I saw its mouth open and gills flare I struck solidly, my rod immediately doubling over as the fish bore down into the pool. Fish on!
Several minutes later, after Peter had expertly wielded his net, a wave of relief and euphoria washed over me as I cradled the fish in the shallows, preparing it for release. â€œRight, you can relax now,â€ laughed Peter. â€œThe pressureâ€™s off â€“ youâ€™ve done the hard part â€“ all we need now is a brownie and a proper sea trout.â€
Talking of proper sea trout, as we sat around the dinner table later that evening waiting for darkness to fall, Howard reminded me of a fish weâ€™d both seen a few hours earlier. I had mistaken it for a large salmon as it cruised past us with the sunâ€™s last rays reflecting off its bright silver flanks. â€œNo, no, no,â€ Howard corrected me, â€œthat, my friend, is a sea trout.â€ It must have been close to 20lb.
And so, as I stood in the silver moonlight some time after midnight, I couldnâ€™t stop thinking about that fish. I kept imagining that my fly, somewhere out there in the inky black pool, was being watched by one of the riverâ€™s leviathans. But an hour later and the festivities of the previous night began to take their toll. A little more than half awake, I gave in and crouched down on my haunches, allowing my heavy eyelids to close as I absent-mindedly tweaked my fly across the pool.
Suddenly, the rod bucked violently and was almost wrenched from my hands and for a brief moment I thought I might be dreaming. But the sound of my screaming reel and a surge of adrenaline brought me to my senses. Alistair soon appeared out of the gloom with a net and a grin on his face. I could hear him chuckling as the fish cartwheeled across the pool, backing peeling from the reel at an alarming rate.
A tense ten minutes later, and with my heart in my mouth, Alistair slipped the net underneath my biggest ever UK sea trout and hauled it onto the bank. A smidgeon under 7lb, it was a bar of silver and a thing of beauty. â€œNow that,â€ said Alistair, â€œis a proper sea trout.â€ Utterly exhausted, I decided to call it a night. Alistair decided to fish on into the small hours, landing another two cracking fish while I snored contentedly from the comfort of the fishermanâ€™s cabin.
Again, my angling alarm didnâ€™t let me down, stirring me at first light and with less than two hours to complete my Testwood grand slam. I pulled my 5-weight from its sleeve and scanned the pool for any movement. As if on cue, just as the sunâ€™s first rays reached the pool, a trout showed in the tail of a gentle glide. Prompted by the subtle rise-form, I tied on a #16 parachute emerger and put a slack-line cast a little upstream of where the fish had last shown. Without hesitation, it was sipped from the surface and my Testwood grand slam was officially complete.
I was just about to start packing my gear away when Peter emerged from the mill house. â€œSo, shall we go and try for a salmon before breakfast,â€ he asked once again. It was a rhetorical question. â€œIt would be rude not to,â€ I answered. Peter got one on the very first cast. I got another on the third. Iâ€™d had a sea trout, a brownie and a salmon since midnight â€“ indeed, Iâ€™d had a grand slam before breakfast.
Image courtesy of Richard Faulks