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A view from the chalkstreams

By Gordon Mackie

Gordon Mackie traces how the chalkstreams around Basingstoke, Winchester, Marlborough and Southampton developed as game fisheries in the 1800s, and how clubs such as Hungerford were formed.

Winter grayling can be very picky and wary. Suddenly you'll need a variety of patterns in different sizes.
Winter grayling can be very picky and wary. Suddenly you'll need a variety of patterns in different sizes.

Tipping the scales

As dozens of fertile chalkstreams succumbed to industrial pollution, the newly opened rail networks enabled 19th Century Londoners to explore further afield. Fly fishing clubs formed along the main routes to Basingstoke, Winchester, Marlborough and Southampton, one of the first being the famous Hungerford Club on the Kennet. It was soon apparent, however, that like the middle reaches of other major chalkstreams it contained relatively few trout, no grayling, and was in fact better suited to coarse fishing. Indeed by ancient statute the club had to allow the local ‘Commoners’ to fish this way every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Francis Francis, angling editor of The Field from 1856 – 1887, brought his readers regular accounts of how the club, despite these difficulties, was transforming the water into one of the finest game fisheries in southern England.

Francis reveals that the length in 1877 “swarmed with coarse fish of all sorts … a war of extermination was commenced at once”. Many thousands were removed during the early years of the club’s tenancy, some 25% of them pike. At the same time over 900 takeable trout, 580 yearlings and 13,500 fry were introduced. Along with much improved survival rates among the resident trout, this produced tremendous sport by the early 1880s. One day Henry Collins, the Secretary, took four fish weighing 18Ib and Francis himself got two of over 5Ib apiece. Meanwhile, 30 mature grayling and 2,000 grayling fry were transported to Hungerford by WH Aldam. Within five years these had colonised the ten miles of water downstream to Newbury in such numbers that a large proportion were netted out annually. The aim was to ensure the trouts’ continued proliferation, while retaining ample grayling stocks to provide sport in the winter months.

Similar procedures were universally adopted across the central south as the means of creating quality trout and grayling fishing where little previously existed; and maintaining that balance by rigid population controls has long been the top priority. But today many are asking whether such measures are acceptable. In short, should we manage our chalkstreams principally for game fish, settle for mixed fishing, or return to the days before the advent of steam locomotion?

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