On this my third visit to that southern wonder the river Itchen, I was again filled by the trepidation that I had felt on my first ever visit. On my second trip down I felt no such worries as I had total confidence that the abundant fish population of this amazing river had forgotten how good maggots tasted over the long fluff chucking season, when the likes of me are not permitted on this sacred beat to commit carnal acts of maggot murder.
This time however we were not visiting in those first heady days when you could trot a sketch of a maggot through and a pound plus Grayling would gobble it up before it passed by. But instead we were making pilgrimage at the end of winter in that worrying awkward time when trips like this can go either way.
My role as the heathen of the group I knew would be cemented when my compadres bore witness to my rod quiver. In a blatant and possibly ill founded act I had made the decision to take no float rods. During my first visit I trotted so much that I began to develop a serious case of repetitive strain injury leaving the elbow of my rod arm aching for two days afterwards. On the later part that same trip I spent the last few hours fishing the maggot feeder which opened my eyes totally.
Yes it's idyllic and beautiful to watch a hand made float glide through gin clear chalk stream as a few hundred pounds worth of precision engineered centre pin effortlessly peels line off, controlled only soft caress of your thumb. But for me the ruthless efficiency of the tip rod sorts out the proper ladies of the stream from the trannies of the trickle. So it is a simple case of art verses efficiency and as I am only here for one day I must therefore be as succinct as possible; hence my quiver was packed with three rods of ascending power.
Light feeder - To fish tiny maggot feeders or equally as small cage feeders should the bites be so subtle that only a rod capable of detecting such hints will do it.
Medium feeder - Essentially the same as the light feeder but with more grunt and much stiffer blank. This helps if the flow is heavy and more lead is needed to hold bottom whilst still retaining sensitive bite detection, and will double as a possible float rod if I became desperate.
Light Barbel rod - I know this river holds both barbel and big chub and last trip I gave the barbel few hours, to no avail. But this time water conditions should be just right for a possible barbel encounter and certainly for a chunky chub or two.
The night before we left I did one last idiot check to confirm nothing was forgotten before taking a final look at my three rods just before I went to bed. This was probably a silly mistake as I lay in bed thinking what I would do on the bank and it took me ages to get off to sleep. My alarms were set to go off at 3.45am which would give me a few taps of the snooze button and still enough time to get up grab a brew and stare vacantly at the TV until Baz arrived to pick me up.
In actual fact I initially woke at 2.30am and then turned over and went back to sleep before waking again two minutes later. This was repeated for the next forty minutes or so until I was eventually unable to get off again lost my rag and got up at...
Getting there never seems to take long and after Baz picked me up we chatted all the way south and finally arrived, as did the rest of the group a full hour early. Standing next to the river waiting was killing us as we nattered about the days plans. It never takes much too build anglers excitement at the best of times, but this was torture.
We did eventually get going and I as normal went for what I consider to be one of the best fishing and certainly the worst looking swim on the lower Itchen fishery.
Still unsure of what to expect I began swinging small feeders full of wriggling red grubs towards the far bank. To my relief bites came straight away, though they looked suspiciously minnowish! Fifteen casts, thirteen minnows and two tiny grayling later I was getting concerned that my suspicions were right - that was until my rod nodded in a very positive way before bending seaward. My strike was met by solid force, followed by a zig zagging upstream towards me on my own bank. Moments later in the clear shallows a I spotted a fresh run spring salmon which seemed to be attached to my line just before it really went berserk snapping my two pound hook link like baby hair. A repaired rig was swung out and the next bite snapped me off too.
This was war! The medium rod was put away and the light barbel rod came out. With the suspicion that the second fish was not a salmon. I winged a decent size chunk of bread into the run.
I had to wait for a while but it eventually went round and my strike met solid force. I honestly was not sure what was on the end of the line, and the fish just seemed to hang in the water before slowly succumbing to the pressure. When I first saw a thick golden side roll in the middle, I thought I'd hooked one of the Itchen's rouge carp. That was until a massive white mouth appeared near the net and the culprit became clear.
My first Itchen fish of this trip was not quite the six I'd hoping for the past few weeks, but at 5.12lb this chub was a very nice start. Albeit a bit not the best looking chub in the river.
After the chub the swim died and rather than waste precious time I moved on to another swim which the bailiff had tipped me off to contain some nice roach and he was spot on with his advice, proving you should always listen to the bailiff on these kinds of rivers. With my light rod and the smallest feeder know to man I deftly flicked my rig under a tree and got an instant reply. A slew of amazing clear water roach cued up to eat my flake bait. I landed eight before this bites stopped as the roach shied off the feed. The best one came out at 1.2lb. And although I know they weren't to monsters these southern chalk streams are renowned for, they certainly could be one day.
The middle of the day proved a testing time for myself. I fished no less than eight different swims over the entire bottom beat of the lower Itchen fishery with what could only be considered poor results. Over lunch with Jeff and Baz (Keith was not present as he sent word that he would not come down stream until a good grayling was in his net). We mulled over our options. Jeff went up and Baz and myself went down as since making my way up river the fishing had declined for me. So I headed back to the devil I knew.
After having a few casts at the southern most swim of the entire fishery without a single bite, I moved up the weir run, fishing a couple areas until I dropped onto a spot Sash had plundered first thing. Things seemed slow all round, so I stuck it out looking for a big roach by casting a small bread feeder into the flow and letting it find its own crease in the slack water at the edge of the run.
Whilst I waited patiently, I noticed a tame bird had stopped by for a free feed, something it obviously did daily. Now I have fed tame robins, ducks and swans. Hell, I even feed a Heron a dead bait once. But never before have seen such an unlikely fishery pet as this, and only a southern chalk stream would have one.
A tame yellow wag tail.
Be it a he or a she this little bird defended this area venomously. And you can understand why! This area is where most visiting anglers stop off at on their way home and should they have a lot of bait left over then hand fulls must come this little birds way.
Whilst I sat staring at a motionless rod top I remembered I had put a cigar in my bag to celebrate my certain recapture of the record gonk. Which never happened I should add.
When I finally found my celebratory stogie it was residing between a carton of Five Alive and a bait box and was quite simply busted.
Half was sent off to the Solent and I puffed away on the remaining half as I filled the weir in with bread and the air with pungent smoke.
My persistence paid off and coupled with me rotating hook baits from bread to maggots the bites turned on again as the afternoon wore on.
Even though I had come specifically searching for grayling I had kind of written them off by this point, as the best I had managed all day was a paltry six ounces. But fr the final few hours they came on the feed. After a run of Ladies around a pound I finally hooked something bigger which swirled like a dervish in the powerful weir before I slipped the net under plump southern grayling of 1.10lb that made my day.
Desperate to make the most of the dusk I nipped back to the roach swim I had fished earlier in the day to chance for a monster as the light went. Although I did land a couple more roach, they generally seemed nervous on this second visit and the twitchy bites were hard to convert into fish.
Although this first winter trip was not as hectic as my previous October sessions, it did still produce some great fish and I will certainly look forward to my return later in the autumn to try and beat my grayling PB.