Patrick Tillard

Tight lines on the Test

Patrick Tillard
Tight lines on the Test

Addiction is a dangerous thing. While it evokes thrill and unbridled pleasure, once inhibited it causes pain, tortuous torment and frustration. Ask the devout meat eater on a vegan diet, the chain smoker giving up nicotine as a New Year’s resolution, the adrenaline junkie rendered bed-bound by a broken leg, the kleptomaniac given a jail sentence, or the fly fisher forced into hibernation during winter months.

Ignoring addiction ignites cold turkey. It begs for the quenching of a thirst, eventually leading to the bursting of a pipe that has leaks. For the foodie and smoker, however, this equates to failure. For the adventurer, further injury. For the criminal, a longer term behind bars. But for the fly fisher, there’s a cure, a remedy to winter blues: grayling.

Known as the Lady of the Stream, these freshwater fish are something of an enigmatic species, often overlooked by anglers who collapse their rods as the mercury dips into single figures. But while the salmon is the King, the brownie a brute and the UK rainbow a sluggish shirker, the grayling is Alicia Vikander: beautiful, petite, reticent and not yet as hounded as the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz. Grayling are fly fishing’s best-kept secret.

Having dust cobwebs from stowed kit, Marina Gibson re-awakens dormant muscles and throws a neat upstream line into the riffled pockets of the Ginger Beer Fishery on the revered River Test. Although a fishing monomaniac – the UK’s answer to April Vokey – this is Marina’s first time pursuing grayling.

Downstream, twins and adventure guinea pigs Hugo and Ross Turner are trying their luck in the Home pool, bouncing a Czech-nymph in the current using the latest Orvis iterations, while adopting a low profile to keep disturbance to a minimum. (Saying that, the art of introverting and employing muted voices isn’t the brothers’ strong suit – stalking grayling in the quintessential Hampshire countryside is light-years away from scaling Greenland’s Mt Elbrus or rowing the Atlantic.)

Methodically working the water a few feet from the grass bank, under the adroit eye of Richard Banbury, who has been involved with the beat’s management since 1982, Marina lifts her tip into the first fish of the day. The ¾-mile Kimbridge stretch is also host to a healthy number of stocked trout (now out of season, although still hungry) and therefore recognition of the fish is by no means instant. Only when it tires, after a series of short, aggressive runs, does the characteristic dorsal fin cutting through the silky chalkstream surface give its identity away. This is no trout.

Once cradled in Marina’s hands the true beauty of the Lady is patent. The fin is an artist’s palate of vibrant reds, purples and yellows, while the body has a distinctive saffron shimmer. Grayling are anything but grey. The smile plastered across Marina’s face, as she slips the fish back into the water, suggests that the Lady is a more than suitable drug to stoke her addiction. It is to be the first of a precious handful caught and released.

And to think it is mid-December, the alleged close season...