THE RIVER TEST — A pilgrimage to the fabled waters of an English chalkstream — by Justin McConville

I DOUBT there is a more famous flyfishing river in the world than the River Test, certainly none more steeped in flyfishing tradition and history. It had been a lifelong ambition of mine to make the pilgrimage to Hampshire to fish at least one of its chalkstreams, and I figured the pre-eminent Test would be a good place to start (that and the fact that some of its beats are a lot more “affordable” than any I could find on the Itchen).

I booked a day on the 800 yard Home Beat of the Middleton Estate which flows through the village of Forton, a little way downstream of Longparish. It’s a two-rod beat, but it transpired that I had the beat to myself for the day, allowing me total seclusion and the freedom to roam the banks unhindered.

I was drawn to the Home Beat for a number of reasons. The rod fee was within my range, and with that important box ticked, the advertising material appealed to me, describing it as a “perfect blend between wild and manicured fishing”. The smaller size of the upper Test appeared more intimate in the photos than the wider stretches downstream of the village of Stockbridge, heading towards Romsey and beyond; and the percentage of wild fish to stocked fish is said to be 50%, which is relatively high compared with some of the other beats on the Test. I fail to see the logic in paying over the odds to fish for pellet-fed fish. Hampshire is one of my favourite counties. If you take the time to leave the motorway you find a different world of wheat fields, hedgerows and forest glades set in gently rolling hills that hide quaint villages of thatched bungalows and historic country pubs.

I have yet to see a river run clearer than the Test. I had never seen a chalkstream before and the clarity is at first astonishing. The river meanders gracefully in the gentle gradient of the Test Valley with hardly a riffle, as smooth as a sheet of glass making it incredibly easy to spot fish. I was also surprised at the sheer number of visible fish, both brown trout and grayling — and even a mean looking pike — holding in the current without any cover to speak of in water between one and three feet deep.

I rigged up my 8’6” 5-wt rod with the kind of fumbling anticipation you only get in clear sight of sizable fish. At times during the day I wished that I had brought a smaller rod with me, given some of the bankside vegetation, and I could see why the beat description had suggested a perfect balance between the extremes of wild and manicured — shaped lawns, clear banks and such things — but the riverine foilage offered challenges that I probably enjoyed more so than if it had been too easy. It was the Test, after all, so I went with a dry fly first, tying on a Parachute Adams the river-keeper had recommended when having a look over my fly-box. Frederick Halford, the 19th century dry-fly-only protagonist who formulated and honed his theories fishing on the Test, would surely have been proud.

The fish, however, were disinterested in my floated offerings. I changed dry fly patterns several times in an hour, without even the slightest interest. Well, I did “land” possibly the tiniest grayling in the entire beat quite soon into the day, albeit in dubious circumstances. I lifted my line from the water to re-cast to a fish upstream when I felt the slightest weight on the end of the line in my back cast (akin to the weight of a size 12 beadhead fly), heard the sound of a small disturbance in the bushes behind me, and then the frantic flapping sounds of a fish out of water.

Read the full story in the December 2010 issue of FLYFISHING.
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