Chalkstreams possess a certain charm. Orvis ghillie Graham Wood prepares you to tackle the clear waters of such fine rivers.
The origins of our chalkstreams lie in the “upper cretaceous” period when northern Europe remained under water. Over millions of years the shells of sea creatures deposited on the sea bed turned into chalk. Later earth heave brought these chalk layers of rock and flint to the surface this strata forming the bedrock of Southern English chalk rivers. The rivers are spring fed and due to this fortuitous accident of nature the chalk plate collects winter rainfall. This in turn accumulates in underground aquifers that through the year produces clear filtered, alkaline, earth warmed/cooled spring water that feeds our beautiful Chalkstreams of today.
Gin clear, the alkaline and even-tempered waters of English Chalkstreams promote diverse weed growth and a rich insect life. This provides a pristine habitat for fish, and a delightful, if challenging, place to fish.
Thus, chalkstreams are unique and a day on a beat will be different from any other river fishing experience; so to make the most of your opportunity and to help you enjoy your opportunity to the full, a little preparation is necessary and also part of the fun.
What equipment do we need? Beware you stillwater anglers, do not “over rod and line” the river with your 7wt. as this will make things more difficult for you in delicacy of presentation and rod loading. Heavyweight tackle causes presentation problems, particularly at short range, fish will spook and this will mar your day a little.
Paul Procter picks his way up a run.
Starting with tackle, a 4 or 5-weight rod of 8'6" or 9' is perfectly adequate for most Chalkstreams. This type of rod forms the core of the Orvis rod offer, and there are many to choose from— from Clearwater through to the new Zero Gravity—with actions to suit everyone.
On the lowest reaches of the Test or Itchen, you might want to consider a 6-weight outfit, but no more than this as delicate presentation is still important.
The Orvis Superfine Rods are particularly well suited to the delicate presentations required for successful dry fly fishing. A Superfine or WF Trout Wonderline in the olive dun shade, is my preferred choice loaded on to the dependable Battenkill Large Arbor reel. At the business end, 9ft leaders designated 3X (8.5lb.) or 4X (6lb.) should do the trick. For forming the final tippet section, a spool of Superstrong in 4X (6lb.), 5X (4.75lb.), 6X (3.5lb.) and maybe even 7X (2.5lb.) should be considered. A vest with plenty of pockets is useful to accommodate all your fly boxes, spare leaders, fly treatments, snips and other equipment (best not forget your camera!).
An iridescent grayling tail shimmers just beneath the water's surface.
Taking into account water clarity, the trout and grayling will be highly visible and, of course, so will you! Therefore, clothing needs careful consideration. Opt for subdued, neutral shades that blend with a number of backgrounds. Chalkstream beats tend to be “no wading” areas (establish this before you fish), so normal walking boots or wellies are fine. Don’t forget essential eye protection. Polarized dark glasses are great for spotting difficult fish through the reflective surface film. For landing your catch, a net with an extending handle helps overcome the high banks.
With regard to flies, establish whether nymphs and other subsurface flies are permitted before you commence. Quintessential of Chalkstreams, where possible, I highly recommend that the more challenging and rewarding dry fly method be adopted. My favourite flies are usually drab and principally a combination of pale grey/black or olive/brown colours. Be sure to take CDC (Cul de Canard) dressings in light and dark olives including Adams, Greenwell, and black gnats. This assortment should stand you in good stead on most days of the season.
Aim to carry these in sizes 16-22, whilst these appear small, the trout don’t mind one bit. You will also need a method of drying your flies (traditional Amadou works very well), and keeping them afloat. There are many powders and potions to choose from that achieve this, such as Orvis Hy Flote gel.
To help establish what flies are hatching (mayfly, caddis, various olives, or terrestrial falls) why not contact a local keeper, guide or tackle shop for an update a few days in advance? Equally, on arrival at the beat, study the area for clues as to what fly life is emerging. As tempting as it is to cast a line, I advise you that walking the entire beat before fishing often pays dividends.
Chalkstream fish are firmly territorial and await food carried to them on the current. Remember that, after being disturbed, fish generally return to their lie sooner than you think. Keeping well back, progress slowly, observing the water and surroundings. In particular, look for shadowy shapes or the flick of a fin that might betray an otherwise invisible fish. When using the fringe vegetation on your approach, seek evidence of any recent hatch that might influence your choice of fly.
Catching a Brace
Finally, a few words from an old hand: Absorb the whole countryside and its wildlife—the voles, kingfishers and dragonflies. Enjoy the verdant fingers of weed that sway in tune with the gentle flow of the stream. Hopefully, you’ll observe fish stationed over the gravely substrate, traversing this way and that as they feed. Try to savour the moment and study your quarry before making a cast. Above all, relax and remember that catching a fish is a bonus and a brace is a real privilege.