It is all too easy to picture Britain as being filled with tweed-clad anglers casting to impossibly difficult wild brown trout on gin-clear chalk streams, but, for better or worse, that has never been true of more than a tiny fraction of our fishermen. The chalk streams occupy a large space on the bookshelf, but a small space on the ground, being more or less confined to the country of Hampshire in the south of England. The area is densely populated and although Hampshire is idyllic, it is within easy reach of several major cities, including London, and so the fisheries can charge more or less what they like, and most surely do. If you have read any of the wonderful books written about the chalk streams in their glory days, like Edward Grey's Fly Fishing published for the first time in the 1899, Where the Bright Waters Meet by Harry Plunket Green of 1924 and A Summer on the Test by John Waller Hills also published in 1924, then if you visit England, you will be very keen to take a day on one of these famous waters, but be aware that things have changed. It is estimated that at least sixty-four million people live in Britain, at a very similar population density to Italy, so we face much the same problems that Italian anglers do, perhaps worse, because up to a million Britons fish. Because rod and line angling has been popular in this country since at least the XVII century (there were fishermen here long before that, of course), there isn’t a single square metre of water in the land that hasn’t been fished at one time or another and so it is well known which rivers and lakes are the most productive. Since just about every single piece of land in Britain is owned by someone or other, this means that the only way to get fishing is to rent it off an owner who knows exactly what it is worth, which in the case of the chalk streams, was a great deal even in the 1890s, when the dry fly craze was only just getting started.
Today, it would be easy to pay €550 for a single day’s guided fishing on the River Test. When anglers like the Reverend Durnford, Colonel Hawker and the members of the prestigious Houghton Club fished the Test in the early XIX century, the majority of fish weighed less than a pound, sometimes much less. No-one saw any problem with this, the Test having abundant wild trout in those days and some very large fish were caught from time to time. The technical difficulties inherent in late season fishing meant that few of the Houghton Club members bothered to fish at all after the mayfly season was over, which meant that the river hardly saw any rods after the middle of June, leaving the trout population plenty of time to recover. Until the early 1870s, the majority of fishermen favoured the blow line method, using gently hooked live Ephemera mayflies which were dapped on the water using six metre rod and a very light floss silk line that blew away from them, skipping the fly on the water and compelling them to fish downwind. Then the dry fly method came along, which greatly extended the trout season on the chalk streams, because it made it possible to catch fish on small patterns presented on the surface. The technique became steadily more popular after the 1850s, although it only became common to see anglers using it in the 1880s and 1890s. The dry fly method presented a new problem to fishing clubs because the whole object of the technique was to make it easier to catch trout and to fish right through the season. As more and more anglers took the method up, trout populations came under serious pressure and catches fell. Very conveniently, fish cultists came up with the answer, which was to rear trout artificially and so, from the 1850s onwards, the chalk streams began to be stocked with trout that had been hand reared on horse meat. The practice was widespread by 1870 and had become more or less standard by 1890, and has remained so ever since.
The cover picture shows the river Test in Wherwell, photo courtesy of Fabio Schincaglia.