I rarely begin writing about an adventure before I actually embark upon it, but this time I think it may be necessary You see, after returning from any of my previous trips that have involved the lower Itchen fishery, I have found myself almost speechless. The reason I often find myself lacking words is simply due to a fishing daze. Just half a day early in the coarse season and you ultimately feel like you have been blasted with angling shot gun.
I told Andy, who is on his first visit with us this time, that the only way to describe how good the area we were going to fish is, think of the best river fishing he has ever had, take away all fear from the fish, and times it by three.
The reason, I think, for this above exceptional sport is quite simply a lack of pressure. This highly prized and protected stretch is, for most of the year, the premise of the Salmon and trout angler. So for the entire summer the numerous residents that are not targeted by the fluff chuckers do not supplemented in any way. Come the end of the game season and copious amounts of maggots suddenly sink slowly through the water; the fish gorging themselves on the bounty.
Obviously given time, the fish acclimatise and realise that the bounty comes at a price, thus becoming wary. But for the first two weeks of the season it really is pure heaven and could well be a reflection of how fishing all over the UK was once. Luckily for us we happened to be going in the honeymoon period when coarse fishing is allowed.
But before we got to the main course we had arranged an appetiser session on the Dorset Stour, where we hoped we stood a chance of connecting with big chub or roach on a stretch that Keith and Jeff had fished earlier in the year.
Men our age shouldn't get as excited as we had, and upon rendezvousing at Andy's early Saturday morning, we were all noticeably twitchy. Though excited as we were, there was a cut of reality about the mood. We had all heard the previous two days weather report for the south. Combine this with the spiking river level on the Stour and we where unsure of what we would find upon arriving.
Journeys in good company rarely drag by, and the constant conversation lubricated the passing of time till we finally crossed the old bridge spanning the Stour. The sight we caught fleetingly in the half light was not good. Unlike our sluggish local rivers I believe the Stour has a respectable flow even without 24hrs of rain filtering into it. On this occasion I think the best description of the flow would be raging, rising and possibly rapidly.
A quick walk of the stretch and it was agreed that we were here now and we would fish, then see how we got on by lunch time when the decision would be made to abandon session or stick it out.
To me the main channel of the river looked horrendous, but several slacks on our bank seemed the best option to maybe tempt something seeking sanctuary out of the main flow. So I set up next to nice looking spot where the bending river caused the flow to shoot out diagonally from my left leaving a nice crease and subsequent slack for me to fish.
Maggot, we had been informed, were the bait for this bit of water, but whacking shed loads of maggots into it didn't feel right on the day. Luckily for me in the bottom of my bag was a bait tub full of lobworms which I had chucked in as a back up bait. The idea that the rising water would wash any unsuspecting worms into the river was enough for me to stick with them all morning.
A split lob cast into the crease weighted by little lead swung into the slack and bites came quickly. Six small perch succumbed in quick succession before a felt a solid fish on. Although I felt it and was sure it was a fish it doubt it felt the searing bite of my hook at all.
After this the worm line petered away and the river rose. I had already moved back a foot or so but the river constantly crept towards me lapping at my feet and after four moves I found myself six feet further from the river than when I started.
I was just considering a fifth move up the bank when my two companions arrived to discuss what to do. With the river rising fast, the fishing was getting harder and we were all suffering. The decision was made to head over the the Itchen to give the free stretches a go and see how the water levels had been affected, in anticipation for the main event.
When we arrived the river looked to be higher than normal, with that constant bank to bank flow associated with chalk streams, but held a very muddy colour, which I for one had never seen on this river. Honestly it didn't look too bad to me. The locals on the other hand seemed a little worried about it. Comments such as "oh it ain't been this high for ages" spilled constantly from their mouths as they seemed genuinely concerned that an impending flood approached. For those of us that live near to river such as the Avon, Trent and Severn are used to the water being over its banks, and a bad flood is when caravans come flying down the river smashing into bridges; not when the there is some danger the water may reach the top of the bank.
We did however fish and of all the things that made the fishing hard, I think be far the biggest factor was the lack of clarity in the water. Although I must say that in my experience the free stretches of any river get hammered senseless. Hence the fish ain't stupid!
Lined along the banks with the locals we gave it our best shot and for my part an hour in I hooked a good fish which I suspect was a trout, but whose teeth severed my light line moments after I hooked it. I stuck with my line running along the opposite bank and fed constantly with maggots, and as I nattered to Jeff who had just arrived, I hooked a good chub which held on the opposite bank and thumped away until the hook pulled. That second loss really hurt, especially as I knew those bites were at a premium right now.
I plugged away all afternoon until my arm ached from repeating the same cast time and time again. Andy and Baz ambled along the bank as I approached the last few pouches of maggots. The time for the off neared and tired from my constant casting, I offered my rod to either of them whilst I had a smoke before packing away. Andy took the rod and began casting whilst I fired out the remaining baits. Would you believe only moments after I fired the very last few of grubs into the water and stated that was the last of the bait, Andy called out 'fish on'. After a decent fight in the powerful flow and instructions being called from many sources the net was slipped under a nice looking chub of 2lb!
Day one had been a real test for us, fishing two out of sorts venues. But things were looking up. Adjacent to my swim was a level board and as I fished away I noticed that not only had the water level fallen by several inches, but I could also see the numbers below the water as the river cleared.
A little dejected we headed back to the digs to freshen up for a nice meal and a few civilised tipples before getting to bed early in order to get a good nights sleep ready for day two.... After waiting an age for our meal we did finally enjoy some hot food, and then when all the others arrived at the pub the couple of beverages turned turned into a serious session, with the drinks were going down like lizard eggs, leaving every member of the rowdy group drunk senseless. One at a time we fell away. Keith had unusually fallen silent in a stupor in the corner. Jeff especially was a sight to behold at two in the morning with one eye open and the other shut, gargling away in some seeming strange tongue that sounded a little infant like. After making generous contributions to the Irish economy Baz disappeared after the single word statement of 'bed'. And as for Andy, the best we could figure was that he was locked up in a dungeon under the main house wearing a gimp mask by now.
Less than fours hours later alarms sounded and some very peaky looking chaps fumbled around attempting to get sorted as they muttered away to themselves. A cooked breakfast plus aspirin later we found ourselves standing at the bottom of the lower Itchen fishery, still looking a little worse for wear.
The main concern for all though was the state of the river. It had dropped by close to a foot overnight and seemed to be clearing, but all of us still had apprehensions after hearing Sash's tales of woe from his session here the night before.
After we all went our separate ways I strolled upstream towards a ugly swim which has on every previous visit produced the goods for me. This time I fished it from the opposite side of the river to avoid the full force of the river smashing into my lines. A couple of exploratory casts with an empty feeder confirmed the rig would hold on the edge of the main flow. The next cast went out with a baited hook and feeder full of red maggots. Instantly the tip rattled with the attentions of hungry minnows then fell still before smashing round violently.
The fish held deep before beginning what has to be one of the most insane and heart pounding fights I have ever had. It shot upstream zig zagging, before turning round and ploughing down the current in a run than hammered the clutch on the reel into an inaudible sound, before exiting the water shaking its head side to side. After several smaller runs across the river I was treated to the fish tail walking against the flow. The whole time this was going on I held on for dear life attempting to keep it away from every patch of streamer weed and all other weed beds it ventured near. After two failed attempts I finally slipped her into the net, gathered my breathe for a moment and let her rest before I pulled out the net to feast my eyes on my fish of the trip and a new PB.
The fish it would seem were feeding and straight away my worries that the trip could be a total wash out were quashed. A steady stream of small grayling and gudgeon followed before another big fish thumped my rod tip. This had to be a good chub and it did what chub do best and bored its way straight into the closest weed bed. Even with a huge open bank to walk in and attempt to change the angle, I could not shift it from the dense weed and inevitably the culprit escaped as I tried to free the rig.
A couple of more aggressive bites ended in my hook being severed from my line and I knew it would only be time before a trout came my way. And they did in the form of three small 1-2lb brownies who had fallen under my maggoty spell.
It may sound odd as I was catching, but I forced myself to leave the first swim. Quite honestly I could have sat there all day but more swims beckoned, and the next intended swim I had heard on my last visit was reputed to hold some very big roach. After tossing a few handfuls of bread mash well upstream I squeezed in and flicked in a small pinch of bread. Twanging bites came instantly and after one false strike I hooked a small roach not more than 6oz.
Two more followed but after that the bites evaporated; on this fishery its just a case of moving onto the next swim to plunder different fish instead of waiting for bites to come again.
I headed up to the mid reaches in order to met up with the others for lunch. Arriving an hour early I settled in a fast run close to the hut. Every cast of the feeder I reeled in a small grayling. I must of landed twenty plus fish but not one was more than a pound in weight.
When the others arrived it was evident that the previous nights debacle had taken its toll and everyone in our little group looked knackered A brief and quiet lunch consumed we again went our separate ways. Myself and Jeff strolled back down the river where we both fancied the weir pool.
I stuck it out all afternoon on the maggot feeder hoping a constant stream of grubs may entice first the smaller residents, and maybe signal any barbel to the presence of food. The small chub, gudgeon and grayling did arrive but the nothing bigger showed at all and by mid afternoon I was running on empty as was everyone else.The day drifted away as did the fishing and in hindsight stopping in the middle reaches would probably been a better afternoon choice but I made my choices with a very tired brain.
It was well before dusk when the idea of leaving early was thrown into conversation and we all agreed sticking it out till the bitter end seemed fruitless considering how the fishing had declined through the the day.
Truthfully the weekend did turn out to be a slight anticlimax for a lot of us. Though I must say that in my opinion we all may have got more from the second day if we hadn't gone so mad the night before, ending up fishing with half our brains turned off.
For me though the trip had been more than worthwhile with me knocking chub off left right and centre and even with hard conditions to contend with, still catching loads of grayling and small trout. Oh and of course that PB.
After so many run ins and losses with this species on this venue, I finally at long last, with the help of my John Wilson Avon quiver rod, a bit of luck and after a very memorable fight, landed my first proper size Atlantic salmon of a little over 9lb, using a method which would have most tweed clad salmon anglers sneering from behind their handlebar moustaches. But I don't care because it was an amazing and truly beautiful fish that I felt privileged to hold in my hands