I suppose that right now I should be regaling a tale extolling the virtues of fishing a pristine chalk stream using a beautifully crafted centrepin reel and of how the line flows from the spool like silk, before my vintage style hand made topper float is pulled from sight by a lady of the stream. But I can't! I simply can't, as the truth is I tried to fulfill this romantic notion that I had created in my head and failed dismally. It wasn't that I didn't try and it wasn't that the fish weren't there, because they were. It is just a simple case of I am no trotter! and the worst of it is that I have the technique and the skills to send a float sailing down stream smooth as I like.The bare fact is that after very little trying on my part and only a few finger sized fish, I discarded the artistic and embraced the vulgar. Within an hour of arriving on the river Itchen my float rod was set aside and a forty two gram block end feeder crashed into these hallowed waters shattering the tranquility forever.
By playing to my strengths and fishing a way I felt more comfortable I turned what I felt was going to be a bad morning on its head instantly. I picked a swim no angler trotting in their right mind would fish, loaded an almost gross feeder full of wriggling goodness and let rip. Straight away dividends was paid; every cast the tip rattled round attached to one of the hordes of grayling nailed to the opposite bank.
I think to say the water was shallow and clear was an understatement. As I was fishing a deeper gully on the exit of a bend far across the river, I had a huge shallow mound no more than a foot deep which extended so far from the bank that I reckon not many anglers would have bothered with this one. But temptingly all across the shallows if you looked hard enough you could see small to medium sized grayling holding in indents and behind patches of weed.
I was happily enjoying regular sport from grayling, but I knew it was only a matter of time before another interloper shoved in, so I wasn't disappointed when I struck and something silver shot from the depths like a cruise missile. Every time I see this happen I am always amazed. Trout anglers pay a fortune and invest huge amounts of time to chase sea trout on rivers throughout Wales and the South, often failing to catch one for huge amounts of time, and here I am lobbing maggots out wholesale and the damn things can't get enough. Six of these deranged fish took my baits in the first swim alone and everyone made such a fuss it was unreal.
"The worst day on the Itchen is like the day of a lifetime on any other river" someone said to me the other night regarding this river and he is exactly right. This was exactly why we upped sticks and left an area that was producing constant bites and insane amounts of fish. We hadn't travelled all this way to just catch loads of average sized grayling and a few sea trout. We wanted to catch something special and with the Itchen setting such a high bar for what is special, it was a case of getting onto the area that is capable of producing such a fish.
With that in mind we dropped down to fish the gin clear run off the weir pool. I have fished this area a few times before and have only ever caught trout and grayling, but I do know from other sources that it contains some very special fish. Though what I already knew hardly prepared me for what I saw. At the tail of the run where the bottom shallowed towards the surface, a shoal of two to three pound chub hung in the flow. Two to three pound chub aren't that special you will think, and you're right, but they provided a handy point of reference against which to size the other inhabitants of this area. One of those monster chub looked to be at least twice as big as the little two-pounder, so was maybe five to six pounds. The other one was markedly bigger than the other! So conservatively could have been seven plus even in late summer condition and it wasn't even the chub which were that shocking, it was the roach.
Three roach all over two pounds repeatedly circled along a very specific route, stopping behind various clumps of weed to rest intermittently. At first I thought they were immature bream like the ones that were hanging out in a slack upstream but soon enough their red fins became obvious and they morphed into roach. It was Andy that bagged this swim and as we watched the roach and chub, two huge koi carp rose from the weeds to make our eyes bulge even more. Not wanting to possibly detract from what Andy hoped to do I headed off above the weir to fish what I consider to be both the best and worse swim on the entire fishery.
The M27 swim is where the oasis-like feel of the Itchen and reality collide. It is by my own admission the noisiest swim I have fished ever. The east bound carriageway thunders constantly over the river on the fish-able side and between the sounds of wailing engines and truck sidings flapping in the wind, you can barely hear yourself think. Add to that the fact that every truck that passes by quite literally shakes the ground for hundreds of feet and you have a very strange experience involving a beautifully river and the UK transport network.
Though as bad a place as it is, there is no doubt that it is a fish magnet. My theory is that the constant thunder of traffic, shelter of concrete and deep run all serve to make a very safe haven for resting salmon and shoals of everything alike. Once ensconced the feeder was dutifully filled and swung into the flow. The first fish to oblige were just mediocre grayling, but soon enough the tip hoofed round and a real dirty fighter was on the line.
This very long and lean chub did everything it could to get into every weed bed in the entire swim but patience wore it down and eventually it went into the net, where it did the oddest vibrating I have ever seen from a chub. That fish released upstream I again cast to the exact same spot and this time I never got the rods on the rest. If the bite was savage and sharp the fight was unbelievable. I at first thought I'd hooked another salmon but an amazing cartwheel jump revealed a big brown trout was the culprit.
After the trout the swim seemed to die a death, though this did coincide with the sun being at its highest. It was around then that I got the call from Andy who had been persevering with those infuriating chub and roach. He had on the float hooked and lost the biggest of all the chub in the weir run off. I know the feeling he just gone through only too well. You hook a huge fish in very pacey flow and the damn thing just holds flank on, with the whole pressure of the river on it before flicking its tail and sticking far too much strain on your very light outfit.
Not long after this I too dropped down to the weir and fished above him. Though honestly I should have known better with all the bream around in the swim. From the moment my rig went in those dammed bream knew the food was around. Their whole demeanor changed and I watched time and time again as they circled round my bait picking up freebies. It was not them that I wanted but the single large roach that had broken away from its companions and joined up with the bream. But that was never going to happen! The moment I looked away the rod was nearly wrenched into the river by a rather dozy bream. It was however very interesting to see what happened when the hooked fish panicked. The shoal broke up flying in all directions, only to reform and wait off down stream the roach included. By the time I had unhooked the bronze bugger and released it away from the swim, the damn things were back on the spot, head-down like nothing had happened.
By late afternoon I was done trying to avoid the bream whilst picking out a single roach and was a bit lost for what to do. I was tempted to fish the barbel swim but not having any gear suitable I gave it a miss. With only an hour or so left I decided to just return to the motorway swim and sit it out for another chub or a big roach on the bread feeder. Putting my bank sticks back in the previous holes I settled into the worn swim thinking it would just be a case of whiling away my last hour watching a motionless tip in a used up swim.
First cast the feeder touched down on hard bottom and I put the rod down. Moments later the tip slowly bent round as if a huge clump of loose weed had snagged on my line. Anyone who has ever fished a chalk stream will be familiar with the massive chunks of weed which randomly come down like icebergs through the day and dislodge your rigs constantly. Picking up the rod I gently began to haul back my rig only to find the weed hugging the bottom and moving up stream some serious intent. It was a little surprising that my weed clump had suddenly turned into a mystery fish. Having seen carp in this swim before and from it's laborious fight, I suspected I was about to get turned around and spanked when a carp woke up, but no it just plodded around until it saw a weed bed, where it dived straight towards. Even more surprising was the fact that could stop it and my five pound line held. Maybe it wasn't a carp after all. With no salmonid acrobatics and it being far too big for a roach, identification was simple. It was a chub and a good one at that judging from its length when it rolled on the surface. With nothing but clear water between me and it the result was a forgone conclusion. With another decent chub in my net is was made up but when I went to lift it over the reeds the net pole began bending worryingly and I soon found out why...
This chub was in a different league to the first. It was around the same length but with a head bigger than my fist, shoulders to match and it seemed twice as thick as the other one. I think the term I used to Andy when I gave him a call to come help photograph it was 'Goliath'. Seeing the size of it I was shocked to find it only weighed 5.7lb but like all the fish we had caught it was very lean and still in summer condition.
From examining the fish we both agreed where it was lacking body mass was in its stomach. This one like the other had a lot of feeding to do before winter, which makes sense as for months now it had only been non nutritional fly anglers on the beat. Given the overall size of this chub I think realistically that it could easily pack on a pound to a pound and half before Christmas. Which could make its top end weight close if not seven pounds.
The pictures we took didn't really do the fish justice but that was down the fishes poor behaviour. I'd rested it for a good while before the photos as it seemed very dazed and that consideration came back to haunt me as you can see from my top behind the fish.
The chub was a fine way to end an already productive trip back to the Itchen, but I wont deny that the sight of those giant chalk stream roach is burnt into my mind and I still can't believe that neither of us came remotely close to hooking one. It is as I said before, the Itchen like many Southern chalk streams, set such high bars for what is a good fish that a fish of a lifetime back home is just an average fish on these wondrous rivers.