Chalkstream fishing on the River Test and River Dever: ‘You have to be as surreptitious and precise as a sniper’

Our fishing correspondent David Profumo ventures to England for a series of forays on venerable chalkstreams, where he bags a few brown trout and a lot of nostalgia.

My Perthshire loch trout had only just taken off their winter-ice crash helmets and were limbering up with some springtide exercises (incentivised by a few koi-carp pellets) when, in early May, I headed down for the first of several visits to the southern streams.

After an unprecedented two-year interval, the six members of our Bundha Club reconvened on the banks of the Dever. This bonsai paragon of chalk country offers an ideal counterpart to the Highland glens, being deliciously gentle, bucolic and willow-girt; the water is perfect for my favourite pastime of fish-spotting and, indeed, at times, the trout almost seem to be swimming in ether. Lockdown psychic baggage was soon unpacked, together with my lovely new Helios 3 fly rod, which I had just collected from those nice people at Orvis. Time to open the season.

Despite the yobbish weather — waterwitches, pitchforking rainy squalls — things gradually came together and, although the trout were as leery as bonefish, by lunchtime, I had managed a modest ‘basket’ of brownies (all but the first being returned) and encountered some socking great grayling — Luke ‘Killing Eve’ Jennings grassed one of nigh on 3lb. In the bankside marquee, we toasted our fellowship with a flinty Sauvignon and gave thanks that God made us anglers.

Next day, I drove to the storied Bourne Rivulet, the topmost tributary of the Test, through villages where even the bus shelters are thatched and past the Longparish edifice, former home of that redoubtable Regency sportsman Col Peter Hawker, who once accounted for 243 starlings with a single blast from his punt gun. My host was the engaging William Daniel (of Famous Fishing fame), who has been helping to nurture the fragile Bourne for some 30 years.

“I did take two small fish, but was outsmarted by the larger specimens. I felt this delightful little river realised I was not quite classy enough for it.”

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This water was immortalised by the towering Anglo-Irish concert singer Harry Plunket Greene (HPG), in his genuinely classic, effervescent memoir Where The Bright Waters Meet (1924), wherein he describes the place in its heyday. In 1904, although only three miles in extent, the Bourne yielded 1,000 trout; but, thereafter, suffered from overstocking, pollution from road washings and watercress beds that ‘scarred her face and marred her beauty for ever’. Today, wild fish of more than 2lb are not uncommon (it hasn’t been stocked since 1997) and, in Mr Daniel’s words, it is ‘managed for fish, rather than for fishermen’. The experience is a challenge, the secret-seeming stream enchanting.

As I do, HPG favoured hot, still days — but, in the event, we got a chill, breezy one, with crepuscular light (these are my excuses). His preferred fly was the dark Iron Blue Dun, but it was perhaps a little early for them, so we started with a miniscule Parachute Adams, on 12ft of leader tapering to a 3lb point. I promptly whipped it from the jaws of the first obliging wildie and my performance grew steadily more dismal as the day progressed.

Credit: William Daniel / Famous Fishing

You have to be as surreptitious and precise as a sniper here, as the trout lurk in holts and hidey-holes and, unless your back-cast is perfect, your delivery will fail and you generally don’t get a second chance. I had plenty of opportunities and hooked many branches. Mr Daniel (an expert guide) was generally forebearing, despite the occasional ‘oh no, David’, and, in the end, I did take two small fish, but was outsmarted by the larger specimens. I felt this delightful little river realised I was not quite classy enough for it.

Because of HPG, anglers come from around the world to visit the Bourne, as well as the spot where he lies nearby, in a graveyard some 1,200 years old, with his son at his feet.

Later, I had an eventful day at the mayfly on the Windrush, in nicely muggy conditions, followed by a memorable visit to the Wylye on a sensibly un-barbered stretch near Steeple Langford, as a guest of Charlie Jardine — fly-fisher extraordinaire and one of the most popular figures in our sport. Stealthily, we waded up small canopied runs and pools, picking off wild browns, sometimes needing a bow-and-arrow cast and not infrequently entangling foliage. In one smooth glide, my Kaufmann’s Stimulator was snaffled by a trophy-sized fish, but the loose fly line snagged on a root and we became uncoupled. As the poet Schiller wrote: ‘Against stupidity, even the Gods themselves fight in vain.’

Mr Jardine — who is the selfless and ever-enterprising driving force behind the excellent Fishing 4 Schools charity — has been a good friend of mine for 41 years. I can date this precisely, because we first met when he was a lean and hungry guitarist with the rock band The Rats and worked as a guide for dry-fly supremo Dermot Wilson, who had invited Mrs Reel Life and me for a day on his beat of the Test as our wedding present. It may fairly be said that, in the intervening decades, Mrs RL has not spent quite as much time with rod in hand as has your correspondent, but, for me, it was something of a milestone.

In late June, I was back on that same stretch of the Test — now the Orvis-owned Ginger Beer beat — to participate in the inaugural ‘Fish in the Reads’ literary festival, held alfresco on its banks one glorious and sunshiny evening. The brainchild of Claire Zambuni working with Orvis, there were readings from fellow authors Mr Jennings, Charles Rangeley-Wilson and Simon Cooper, all nimbly compèred and co-ordinated by that estimable Cambridge don Dr Mark Wormald. It was an unusual setting for such an event and the gin cocktails were excellent.

David (seated) on the River Test with a celebrated flyfisher, Charles Jardine (l) and Mark Wormald.

The authors’ perks included a day on the beat itself and, to my delight, Jardine himself joined us — the first time in all those years that we had fished together there. It was an historic moment for me. He soon proceeded, in his typically modest way, to show us all how it was done, although I’m glad to report I caught four brace before luncheon, using an orange shrimp from the Macedonian vice of Igor Stancev. ‘Oh, I didn’t realise we were allowed to use bait,’ quipped Mr Rangeley-Wilson, as he examined it.

I hate to think how much water has flowed beneath that footbridge since Mr Jardine and I were callow youths. Now, we are both hoary-headed grandads and, even if we fish on into our nineties (like Canon Greenwell), we’d better not leave it quite so long before we arrange our next reunion.

For further information about fishing on the Bourne and other exclusive stretches, telephone William Daniel on 01722 782858 or email David Profumo’s memoir, ‘The Lightning Thread’, is published by Scribner. He lives up a mountain in Perthshire with Pompey, a spaniel who only understands dog Latin.