Peter Lapsley catches up with John and Veronica Hotchkiss, a husband and wife team whose lives are both entwined in their passion of fly fishing
It must be 20 years since I first met John and Veronica Hotchkiss. We were introduced by a mutual friend and enjoyed a pleasant dinner together. Soon after that, John rang me to ask if I would go to Swedish Lapland with him to make a film about Arctic grayling fishing. In busy employment, I simply could not find the time, so suggested he speak to Neil Patterson, a close friend, an immensely skilful fly fisher and, importantly, a successful creative director in the advertising industry who knew how to prepare story boards and make films. The rest, as they say, is history; John and Neil made about a dozen of John’s films in the series, The Take, and Neil wrote the voice-over scripts for all of them, of which more anon.
Since then, John and Veronica’s lives and mine have run in parallel. We have not met often, but I have always enjoyed it when we have, and I have been as aware of Veronica’s role (as Veronica Kruger) as The Salmon & Trout Association’s (S&TA’s) Communications Manager as of John’s expertise as a fly fisher and film producer.
Everyone I have met who knows them speaks of them warmly – of their friendly dispositions and of the expertise they deploy in their respective fields. So it occurred to me that it would be good to catch up with their news and find out a little more about them. We met at the pretty and beautifully-managed middle-Itchen fishery on which John has had a rod for many years. Over coffee, and only occasionally distracted by trout rising enthusiastically to an early-May hatch of iron blue duns, John told me that he had been born in London and brought up near Kidderminster in Worcestershire. After leaving Bedstone College in Shropshire, he went on in 1962 to study drama at the Birmingham Theatre School.
A couple of years later, he embarked upon his career as a professional actor, using the stage name John Wreford, spending two years in Repertory before moving into television. He played, Jonathan Mortimer, in Crossroads for six months before going to the West End to take over the lead, Harold Crompton, for a year in Bill Naughton’s hit comedy, Spring and Port Wine. Numerous television guest appearances followed and in 1967/68 he was cast as PC Jackson in Z Cars, appearing in the role for a year. He then worked and co-starred with Malcolm McDowell and Tim Dalton in ABC’s hit series, Sat’day while Sunday. His film appearances included Daleks Invade the Earth in 1966 and The Class of Miss McMichael in 1979.
John and Veronica married in 1976, living in London until 2002, when the call of the chalkstreams drew them out into the country, to Upavon.
Veronica was born, brought up and educated in Johannesburg before winning an American Field Service Scholarship for a wonderful sixth form year in Chicago. She was the youngest of four children, one of her two brothers having been Rayne, the distinguished historian who wrote Good-bye Dolly Gray, the seminal history of the Boer War, and who was married to Prue Leith for over 30 years. He died ten years ago but was a huge influence on Veronica’s life, inspiring her to become a journalist and, in part, (as he had moved here after the war) giving her a reason to come to London in the mid-1960’s. Here, she was able to develop her career as a freelance journalist and was eventually appointed London correspondent for a weekly news magazine, The Point.
She then became editor of a trade magazine for the cosmetics industry until, in 1978, both she and John felt their careers could do with a change, so they started Hotchkiss-Kruger Associates, a PR consultancy, which they still run.
In 1997, John’s fly fishing and television experience, led to his invitation from by a Norwegian film production company to produce a fly fishing series, The Take for worldwide television distribution. Over the next five years, he and his team produced 23 half-hour programmes, filming throughout the world – for salmon and trout in Norway, grayling in Sweden, char in Greenland, salmon in Russia and Iceland, bonefish in Cuba, and trout in New Zealand.
The series was a huge success, being screened on Sky Sports in the UK three times, on terrestrial TV2 in Norway and on most Scandinavian channels, in France and in many other countries, from Australia to Russia.
I asked John how he had begun fishing. He said his first forays, aged six onwards, had been with porcupine floats, maggots and bread paste for roach, chub, perch and tench in local ponds in Worcestershire and on the River Severn. He was greatly helped and encouraged by Noel Jordan, a friend and neighbour, then in his twenties, to whom he owes a considerable debt of gratitude. Noel was a skilled fly fisher, too, and it was he who took John to Blagdon to catch his first fly-caught trout. Although Noel is now in his eighties, they fish together to this day.
Others who have influenced John’s fishing have included Hugh Falkus whose writing he much admired and with whom he spent many happy hours, fishing and learning from the master. Bo Ivanovic – the finest all-round fisherman John knows, as happy to fish for grayling as for salmon; Tarquin Millington-Drake, who runs the travel company, Frontiers, and is a superb caster and fly fisher; and Anthony Luke, a terrific salmon fisher and a guide in Iceland for many years, who now runs a successful operation on the Orkla in Norway. All of them have taught him a great deal over the years
Authors who are good friends and fishing companions, and whose work John much admires, are FF&FT contributor and the author of Chalkstream Chronicle, Neil Patterson; Tom McGuane, who wrote The Longest Silence; and he consumes the writings of David Profumo and Chris Sandford avidly.
Although John has been able to fish wonderful rivers throughout the UK and the world, his ‘home waters’ are the chalkstreams of southern England. He has been privileged to fish almost all of them, as well as many other UK rivers. He has also fished for salmon on most of the major rivers in the UK and abroad, including seven in Iceland and at least as many in Norway.
With such an extraordinary wealth of experience, I asked John which his most memorable trips had been. His reply was unhesitating – wild brown trout fishing in South Island New Zealand, which he visited before filming there. It taught him an enormous amount, and he was fortunate to catch the fish of a lifetime – a wild hen brown trout of 16½lb on a size #14 tungsten-headed Pheasant Tail Nymph and a 4lb tippet. The fish took him a mile downstream, took 50 minutes to land and was then weighed and safely released. From the pictures that John Gendall his guide took, he has a carved wooden replica proudly displayed in his Wiltshire home. Without Gendall’s expert guiding, he added, he would never have caught the fish.
John has fished the Alta in Norway twice. On both trips he caught large salmon, the highlight being a fish of 30lb – not big by Alta standards but immensely exciting. On another Norwegian adventure, this time to the enchanting River Aa, he hooked a very large salmon in the bridge pool and played it for over half an hour only for the hook to come out at the last moment. The battle was witnessed by most of the village’s inhabitants watching from the bridge, and by John’s fishing companions, all of whom estimated the fish to have been well over 40lb. Its loss remains indelibly engraved in his memory.
Another outstanding fishing experience was a trip to fish for steelhead on the Sustat River in British Columbia. The party was very successful and John was astonished by the fighting qualities of the four fish he landed, two of which were just shy of 20lb.
John places Iceland right at the top of his list of wonderful places to fish. Thanks to the generosity of Bo Ivanovic, he has regularly been invited to fish his favourite river of all, the Haffjardara, where he has had some tremendous days using his favourite method, the riffle-hitch.
Having completed the filming of The Take, John decided to fulfil a long-held ambition to form his own fly-fishing company, Hotchkiss Fly Fishing. Believing strongly that those looking for tuition should seek it from a qualified instructor, he embarked on the CCA course and qualified as a Level 2 CCA Instructor. He is also a member of the Game Angling Instructors’ Association, GAIA.
His company offers trout casting tuition, guided chalkstream days and corporate days on the chalkstreams, and salmon fishing in Iceland, Norway and Scotland. The company’s speciality is Iceland where he hosts and sends parties salmon fishing on a number of the finest rivers.
I asked John how game angling had changed in the 40-odd years he has been involved I it. He said he had seen great advances in rod technology, reels and fly lines. Many flies which are now fished successfully simply didn’t exist 40 years ago – for trout, flies like CdC Emergers, Klinkhåmers, parachute patterns and new caddis dressings for trout; for salmon, riffle-hitch flies popularised in Iceland are now essential for all serious salmon fishers. Norwegian- and Russian- influenced flies like the Brook’s Sunray Shadow and a range of coneheads have been significant developments.
On the other hand, John is acutely concerned by the alarming decline of fly life in the chalkstreams; by the proliferation of salmon farms in Scotland causing untold damage; by mixed stock netting in coastal regions; and by other barriers to migration. He also mourns the shortage of youngsters taking up fly fishing.
Over lunch, I asked Veronica how she had become involved in fly fishing and with the S&TA. She said that the fact that she fishes is entirely down to John. It began with a discussion as to where to spend their honeymoon. John waxed lyrical about unspoilt islands, marvellous silvery-sanded beaches, not a soul about and friendly natives. Veronica assumed the one thing that was missing – warmth and sunshine. It was October, and the islands – accurately described – were the Uists. They spent the two weeks not lazing on the beach, but in rowing boats on a series of very choppy lochs, fly fishing, with the incomparable Donald McQuarry as their gillie, and their evenings in the public bar of the Lochboisdale Hotel.
Veronica caught her first fish there, a 5lb grilse, John becoming so excited in netting it for her that he almost knocked Donald overboard. Veronica was hooked. She soon found dapping to be her fishing method of choice, and most of their annual fishing holidays thereafter were spent at Loch Maree in its glory days. They returned to South Uist and went to Delphi soon after Peter Mantle opened it, Veronica memorably taking a 5lb sea trout and an 8lb salmon on the dap right in front of the house, on a stormy, overcast day. She would be sad if I they were never to go back. But Loch Maree, when its sea trout fishing was at its peak, was a very special place indeed. They had countless lovely days and caught innumerable fish there over the years, Veronica’s almost always by dapping.
Veronica was recruited by the S&TA in 2003 to help promote the Association’s centenary and thus to raise its profile and had stayed on thereafter as communications manager, a role encompassing media relations; all online and E-communications – E-News and the website being the most important; stakeholder and member communications, to which editing and co-ordinating the production of Gamefisher, the Association’s twice-yearly magazine is central.
I asked Veronica what she sees as the S&TA’s chief challenges and opportunities. Her response was unhesitating. Fish farming as it is presently run is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges because it so clearly threatens the future of the Atlantic salmon. The S&TA has been at the forefront of the campaign to highlight the huge problems it has caused. However, it also offers real opportunities. Closed-containment fish farming is now making great strides in Canada and elsewhere, and represents a golden opportunity for the industry to continue to supplying affordable fish by using far more sustainable and equally cost-effective fish-farming techniques. The S&TA is campaigning for the introduction of closed-containment farming as an industry standard.
Then, of course, there are the questions surrounding the health of our rivers, especially the southern chalkstreams, which suffer from the combined effects of drought and over-abstraction; sedimentation; diffuse pollution; predation; global warming and climate change. The opportunity here is to work with other agencies in highlighting the problems and pressing for change in the way we live, e.g. conserving water. This is a long-term programme but it is gaining traction. Further down the line, the Sustainable Building code, which includes water conservation measures, is now being translated into law.
The S&TA is also part of a pressure group, the Thames Tunnel Now Coalition, which strongly supports the constructing of the Thames ‘super sewer’ to handle the raw sewage and road runoff that enters the Thames each year and causes ecological devastation.
Veronica pointed out that game angling has seen a number of major changes, of which the S&TA is very supportive. They include the growing acceptance of catch-and-release when salmon fishing in the UK. She noted also the way in which game angling has changed more generally and internationally, bringing new people into the sport and making it far less elitist than it once was. There has been growing recognition of the importance of game angling as therapy and for social rehabilitation, and of its positive impact on local economies which have caused (and been caused by) growing acceptance of the sport among the public at large.
Finally, she said, there are still far too few anglers who actively support bodies like the S&TA that promote and protect their sport and the environment in which it must thrive. Many anglers still believe that, having paid their rod licences and their fee for fishing the water, they’ve done their bit for the sport. They have not. Clubs having club membership of the representative bodies does not absolve individual anglers from their responsibility to join as individual members; to fail to do so is to freeload on the far too few who are prepared to dig into their pockets to provide the resources for those who protect and enhance their fishing.
Hear, hear to that!
INSIDE JOHN HOTCHKISS’ FLY BOX:
John Hotchkiss (Hotchkiss Fly Fishing’s) website is at: www.hotchkissflyfishing.co.uk
John can be contacted by email at email@example.com and by telephone on 01980-630717 (mobile: 07894-226700).
The Salmon & Trout Association’s website is at www.salmon-trout.org. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and by telephone on 0207 285 5838