Rambling of a Catskill fly fisher

Winter on the River Test

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 12/29/21

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to visit England with a good friend for the Christmas holiday. So a on a cold December night, we boarded a TWA 747 for our flight from Kennedy airport to …

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Rambling of a Catskill fly fisher

Winter on the River Test

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Many years ago, I had the opportunity to visit England with a good friend for the Christmas holiday. So a on a cold December night, we boarded a TWA 747 for our flight from Kennedy airport to Heathrow. Before we left, I spoke with my friend Lee Wulff, who recommended we plan a trip to Hampshire in the West Country, with stops at Stockbridge and Nether Wallop in the River Test Valley. Lee said when in Stockbridge, we should lunch at the Grosvenor Hotel, home of the Houghton Club. He also suggested we plan a stop at the Nether Wallop Mill, to visit Dermot Wilson, the proprietor of a fly fishing shop there. The Mill is on Wallop Brook, a tributary to the River Test.

It was was a chilly, gray morning when we landed. My friend’s “mum” and other family members met us at the airport and whisked us off to the nearest pub, I guess for an “eye opener,” after our six-hour nighttime flight.

After dining with the family, taking in the Christmas service at St. Paul’s, shopping at Fortnum and Mason, and stopping at Alfred Dunhill’s to check some pipes for my friend Frank, we headed to Hampshire.

When we arrived in Stockbridge and checked in at the Grosvenor Hotel, I inquired about the Houghton Club. The man I spoke with explained that the club was founded in 1822, when it had 12 members. It now has 25 and owns the exclusive fishing rights to 13 miles of the River Test. Only the wealthy landed gentry, such as earls and lords, are allowed to join; there are no openings.

Based on some background, I was able to learn that the annual membership fee in 1951 was £31,000, or about $41,000, based on today’s U.S. dollar/pound exchange rate. A detailed web search found very little information about the Houghton Club; there is no website. My guess is the wealthy members want it, like it and wish to keep it that way.

Next morning we took the short drive from Stockbridge to Nether Wallop. At the Mill, we were met by a young man who advised us that Dermot Wilson was away. When I explained that Lee Wulff had recommended we stop in, the lad said he would speak to us and provide a tour of the facility. He went on to explain that the Nether Wallop Mill was the first fly-fishing shop to offer mail-order sales in Hampshire. I purchased a deer horn “priest” for my friend Frank. A priest is a small, weighed device, used to quickly dispatch a trout, for those anglers who do that.

The River Test is considered the birthplace of fly fishing. It is a chalk stream, which means that it is sourced from underground springs that percolate through “chalk,” or calcium carbonate. Chalk streams are rich in vegetation and aquatic invertebrates, because they have a tendency to be on the alkaline side, with a pH of around 8. They are also known for their cool temperature and excellent hatches.

The Test was the river fished by Frederick Halford (1858-1914),  considered the father of modern dry-fly fishing. Halford was the author of several books, including the “Modern Development of the Dry Fly,” which sells for considerable sums. He had a profound impact on fly fishing in America, because he corresponded with Theodore Gordon, the father of American fly fishing. Gordon had a home on the Neversink River, in a reach that is now under the Neversink Reservoir. Gordon and Halford exchanged fly patterns which resulted in the invention of the Quill Gordon dry fly.

The River Test was also where G.E.M. Skues (1848-1959) developed a series of nymphs and authored several books, including “The Way of a Trout with a fly.”

Over the years, there was competition between Halford and Skues. Halford promoted the benefits of fishing the dry fly, while Skues promoted nymph fishing. The rivalry between the two appeared to get contentious at times, with each man espousing that his method was best. Somewhere in the literature, I found this quote: “This Chalk Stream Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us,” referring of course to Halford and Skues. It has been said that competition breeds excellence, so we can thank these two pioneers for the contributions they made to the sport of fly fishing, despite their differences.

During our trip through Hampshire, we stopped at several points along the River Test, to observe this serene and pristine part of England.

Much of the countryside and the Test itself remain as they were when Halford and Skues roamed the river’s banks, waiting for the evening rise those many years ago. I obviously did not have the opportunity to fish the river when in England; it was winter.

Looking back over my life as a fly fisher, there are few regrets. I fished all the important Catskill rivers, most of Montana and the Henry’s Fork and Salmon River in Idaho. And while I had the privilege to see the River Test in winter, and learn about all the angling history there, the fact that I never cast my flies during the time of the mayfly is something I will always regret. The River Test, like the Beaver Kill, is Mecca, and all fly fishers that have the opportunity should go there; cherish the beauty and tranquility of this beautiful and hallowed land and cast their flies. I’m truly sorry that I was never able to do that.

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