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Fly Fishing: Getting Your Feet Wet In England

Personal Business: Outdoors


In the eddies near the river bank, rainbow and brown trout are clearly visible, their mouths plucking insects from the gently moving water. As I step forward for my first cast with a fly rod on the Test River, one of Britain's most fabled trout streams, I recall the emotions that our guide, Jim Haddrell, warned would sweep over us novices: a desire to catch all the fish, then to catch just the biggest, and finally, the realization that fishing should be fun and relaxing, never mind the quarry.

Relaxing? That's not what comes to mind when the flyline that is supposed to drop the nearly weightless fly onto the nose of the feeding trout is, instead, looping behind me and getting caught in the dry underbrush. Never mind. I didn't really expect that years of spin-casting in lakes and oceans would equip me for fly-fishing. But with two days of intensive instruction from Haddrell and his young associate, Robin Gow, I'm determined to crack this mystifying, yet alluring, pastime.

For the novice, a couple of days of lessons is the best introduction to a bewildering array of fishing paraphernalia, the selection of flies, and technique. Ever since moving to London nine years ago, I've been fascinated by fly-fishing lore and have heard much of the special attractions of southern England's chalk streams--rich in vegetation and pure habitats for trout. The Test meanders through 40 miles of rolling Hampshire countryside, dotted with thatched-roof houses, that's no more than two hours southwest of London. It has been said that the Test's waters are clear as gin, and its fishing rights make it four times as expensive.

Thanks to a 40th birthday gift from my wife, I signed up with the British arm of the American outdoors outfitter, Orvis (44-264-781-212). Orvis offers six weekend classes from April to August that consist of lectures in a small hut next to a millstream and fishing on the Test. The price is $380 per weekend (9 a.m.-6 p.m. each day); equipment is provided. Other recommended two-day courses on the Test are given by Fishing Breaks (44-71-281-6737) for $285.

For this little adventure, I'm joined by one of my oldest friends and fishing mates from New York, Andy Cowherd, and six Brits. Early on, we learn about presentation. To present the fly properly to the hungry trout, we must know basic knot tying, linking the fly line, which comes off the reel, to the leader, and then the leader to the fly. If you don't do it right, as I later discover, the fish will snap the line. Classroom work also takes in the entomology of the fly, the intricacy of fly-tying, and how to locate the fish.

Then there's the cast. The idea is to have the line gently unfurl over the water, with the fly touching down first. We start with the basic overhead cast. "If you hear the rod swish," Haddrell says, "you're working too hard." (At the millstream, and later at the Test, I find myself working too hard, too often.) We also learn the roll cast, a sidearm version to be used if tree branches are lurking overhead or tough winds are blowing.

NO WHOPPER. The conditions are perfect for our weekend: hot sun and a slight breeze. On the riverbank, Haddrell stresses patience. "If the fish are feeding, you ought to be able to catch them," he tells us. The trick, as we discover during several hours of rocking backward and forward with our casts, is to place the fly as close to the fish as possible so that the current carries it right to its mouth.

Almost as if planned, with our session about to end on Sunday, a trout strikes my fly. Following our earlier instructions, I keep the rod tip high and pull the line in with my left hand, not using the reel. Surprisingly, the fish comes with it. This rainbow is no whopper--about the size of my extended hand. But I'm satisfied that it has all come together. A week later, Cowherd and I make our commitment to fly-fishing: We load up on $300 rods and reels on sale at Orvis.Rick Melcher EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN

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