How to fish Chalkstreams

river itchen, Winchester
Image by neilalderney123 via Flickr

Chalkstreams are fast-flowing, crystal clear and support a rich variety of plant and animal life. At their best they constitute an ideal environment for many species of fish.

Fly fishing for trout is the greatest growth area in angling today. During the last 15 years, Stillwater trout fisheries of all sizes have been opened throughout the country to meet the demand. During the same period Britain’s few chalkstreams have been ravaged by pollution and water abstraction. Yet, strangely enough, the growth of fly fishing as a popular sport has produced more opportunities for the Stillwater trout fisherman to obtain a day’s fishing on a chalkstream.

The reason for this is that several chalkstreams have been redeveloped and stocked with trout. This is an expensive business, so many fishery owners have been forced to open their waters to the public to finance these operations.

The average Stillwater fly fisherman has more than enough skill and knowledge to catch chalkstream trout—provided he applies himself to an understanding of their different life-style.

The unique nature of a chalkstream is a result of its water supply. Other rivers are fed by waters which run into them directly off sur-rounding high ground. Much of the rain which falls on chalk hills—such as the Salisbury Plain—slowly seeps into the chalk, and filters through to form a reservoir of extremely pure water. It may take several months before the water eventually reaches the chalkstream. Not only is the water pure, the flow is exceptionally stable. The fly fisherman can therefore expect a reasonable height and flow of clear water even when there has been no rainfall for several weeks. Chalkstreams are also less prone to violent flooding and will stay clear longer.

In normal conditions, chalk-streams are fast-flowing, crystal-clear, with an average depth of 2-3ft, a considerable bankside vegetation and a fair amount of weed in the water. The pure water, combined with calcium nutrients from the chalk, can support a rich variety of plant, animals and insect life. The main food available to the trout will be freshwater shrimps, snails and some of the larvae, nymphs and adult fly-forms of olives, sedges and mayfly which inhabit chalkstreams. While shrimps and snails are available to the trout throughout the year, the number and proportions of the various fly life-forms varies not only through the year but during the course of a single day.

Indiscreet trout

The Mayfly is the best known of chalksteam dry flies, even though the natural fly is not found at all on some chalkstreams. ‘Duffers Fort-night’ is the affectionate term for the two to three week period which starts towards the end of May when the adult mayfly hatches, overwhelming the natural discretion of trout which charge around slurping the succulent mayfly from the sur-face of the water.

The mayfly hatch usually starts mid-morning, but many good fish rise to an imitation before the natural appears on the water. The dry fly is also effective for many days after the hatch has finished for the year and the Mayfly Nymph is a useful standby on difficult days throughout the season.

Olives are seen on a chalkstream in all but the coldest months of winter. During the summer, the number of adult flies increases towards dusk and the evening rise regularly accounts for the kidney-shaped rise patterns made by trout as they take olives from the surface. As the adult flies of olives are so common, there are virtually always olive nymphs available as food for the trout.

Although you may regard the sedge as a Stillwater fly, they can hatch all day long on a chalkstreai performing their familiar dance on the water towards dusk.

The fast flowing stream brings food to a feeding trout just like a conveyor belt. To get the best share of the moving menu, and using up the least energy in the process, the trout positions itself at constrictions or confluences of the current where the food supply is most concen-trated. Pay particular attention to fast channels between weed beds and runs beneath the banks, spots where the stream shallows and quickens away from a pool, and to stretches with overhanging trees and bushes, from which an extra tasty morsel can fall.

These spots may be difficult to fish, but remember that the stret-ches of water that are easiest to fish will contain the most wary trout as they may have been fished almost continuously for days. In addition, the bigger trout will bully their way into the feeding places which usually have some good cover nearby where the fish can retreat.

The feeding trout faces the cur-rent and has to move quickly to in-tercept its food. It has little time to pause and inspect what is moving past its nose, so the correctly presented fly may well be taken. If the trout shows little or no interest in your offering but is not scared away, don’t continue to cast over it. Give it a rest by retreating from the bank and changing your fly. Fish for a few minutes elsewhere, before returning to your quarry.

It is easy to observe trout when they are feeding on the surface because you see the rings of their rises. If there is no sign of surface activity, the chances are that they must be feeding lower in the water. Polarized sunglasses are a great aid in spotting the flashing flanks of a trout as its moves from its lie to seize its prey below the surface.

These glasses, however, can be the fisherman’s worst enemy. There is no more certain recipe for a blank day than to stride up and down the bank peering into the water looking for fish that are not there. Of course, fc they were there up to the second that the fisherman scared them off but it is easy for such a person to become convinced that there is not a single trout on the beat.

The golden rule on chalkstream is to remember that the trout are in a very peaceful environment. Any unexpected movement on the bank and they are away to cover and off the feed. As the fish are feeding . headed upstream, approach them from downstream. Use the utmost stealth and stalk your fish, using bankside vegetation as cover and getting down on to your hands and knees if necessary. Go quietly as you fish, because vibration is as sure a warning to trout as the sight of the fisherman.

Before fishing a chalkstream for the first time, try to get a map of the water which shows you the major features of the beat. If you can find someone who knows the water well, pump him for all the information you can on his favourite techniques, which will usually include dry flies, leaded and unleaded nymphs.

When you get to the water, a few minutes’ observation can save hours without a fish. If the fish are showing on the surface, don’t charge up the bank waving your rod with the first fly you can pick out of your fly-box. Think like the trout; look in the water or on the bankside vegetation and try to identify the most prolific fly. Then, look in your fly-box and select the matching fly. If you can’t identify the natural, pick out a fly that most closely imitates the natural size, shape and colour tone.

Get a copy of the fishing rules of the beat, because different methods of fishing and certain types of fly may be allowed or forbidden as the season progresses. Prepare for your day by taking a selection of all-purpose nymphs and specific dry flies to match the food supply to which the trout are accustomed.

Salmon run up some of our southern chalkstreams, and the lower reaches of these rivers are often given over to salmon fishing. From mid-summer, sea trout run these rivers, with a few of these great fighters running to 10lb and beyond. Some of the largest grayling in the country are in chalkstreams, and with the recent review of the Grayling Record Weight, it is quite likely that a British record grayling will be taken from a chalkstream.

There are some wonderful coarse fish available in chalkstreams, which together with grayling are often removed by electro-fishing. Coarse anglers are sometimes in-vited to these fisheries—out-of season and free of charge—to rid the water of the ‘menaces’.

With the rich supply of food available in chalkstreams, specimen pike, roach and dace are not at all uncommon. And the Hampshire Avon has, perhaps, some of the best barbel and chub fishing available anywhere in the country.