Here at Fish and Fly we realise that our rivers are at a crossroads. Never has there been as much water demand from industrial, agricultural, and domestic usage. Never has abstraction been such an issue. Insidious pollution is on the rise. Predation is seen as a threat by every river expert. Invertebrate numbers are crashing in many rivers. Numbers of canoeists, boarders and free swimmers grow annually. Poaching is a largely untackled problem. Numbers of wild fish, game species, and coarse, are in decline in many places. Faith in the Environment Agency is at an all-time low. Conservation post-Brexit is in the melting pot. Yet, there are reasons to be cheerful. In our travels UK wide, we meet river anglers who are doing sterling work and keep the faith in the future. In this series, we talk to those whose lives revolve around rivers and river fishing. These are the true experts, the men and the women on the river bank, day in, day out. It is upon these people, and scores like them, that our wild river fishing depends. This, we hope, is their platform. 

We begin with James Buckley, an under keeper on the Wherwell beat of the Test. James is 20 years old and that in itself is proof that our rivers can attract the young and that the future is not necessarily bleak. We met up with James on a glorious early winter grayling session on this historic river.

JAMES, HOW DID YOU GET INTO ANGLING?

The proper way! By that I mean I fished ponds with my Dad for years and served an old-fashioned apprenticeship. Dad and I would go and feed the pheasants on our shoot and afterwards I’d have an hour catching rudd and crucian carp from the pools in the wood. I then caught a 3-pound carp and that was it-an angler for life. When I was a young teenager, I filmed a series of Fishing In The Footsteps Of Mr Crabtree with John Bailey and that moved my fishing onto another level. Now it is in my blood. It defines who I am. I couldn’t be a happier man for it!

HOW DID YOU GET THE WHERWELL JOB?

As I was finishing my Diploma in Fishery Management at Sparsholt College, I saw the job advertised on a countryside website! Where would we be without the internet, eh?? I was invited for an informal stroll down the river here and the conversation flowed. I think I got across that this would be my dream job and that I would give it my all. Anyway. It worked and here I am, absolutely loving it!

WHAT DOES THE JOB ENTAIL? 

I did think about staying on at college to do a degree but I’m glad I didn’t. I’m very much a hands on bloke and the work here suits me perfectly. I’m always on the banks doing lots of tree work and maintenance. Pest control is a part of it but constantly improving the spawning redds is central. We all know there is stocking along the Test but equally we all want healthy stocks of wild browns. That is key and that is what our life is largely about. Every time I see a fin perfect pounder, I think “job done.” Weed cutting is huge, especially between June and September. Of course, we have allocated days now so that all the estates cut in a rota. This means that we can advertise those days when floating weed is a problem so everyone knows where they are. And , of course, talking to the anglers is mega. I’m out on the banks from dawn to dusk and I’m always on hand to advise and encourage. It’s all part of the experience for our anglers to feel welcomed and looked after. I think Wherwell is a really happy place. 

WE HEAR YOU HAVE HAD A BIG POACHING PROBLEM THIS YEAR?

Frankly, it has been terrible. There have been car chases, physical confrontations, threats, out and out danger. It’s not simple fish poaching and we are looking at every aspect of rural crime here. In the last three days, there have been 17 break-ins down the valley with strummers, chainsaws, and quad bikes being nicked. Illegal hare coursing goes on and deer are targeted in the woods. We sort of accept that we will lose some stocked fish but it is the taking of our precious wild browns that hurts. The poachers batter the river with nets and spinners and take everything, destroying fences and gates in their wake. They just don’t care what they do, who they hurt, or what they destroy. These are people without any concern for nature and damage and destroy it at will. All my colleagues and I have faced real physical dangers in 2020 and in all truth, we could do with far more help from the police. We’ll get through this but it is the one part of the job I could do without!

JUST WHY IS THE TEST SO SPECIAL?

It’s a chalk stream obviously and you don’t need me to spell out what that means. We are lucky here at Wherwell because we are well upriver and the water is shallow, quick, and almost always gin clear. The gravels we keep shining clean and the weed growth is spectacular. The invertebrate life is off all scales of measurement and shows no sign of decline. I never forget that I am working in a cradle of angling history. I think we all feel the shadows of Halford and the greats of the sport all around us. We get a lot of Czech anglers here for the grayling fishing but what really reminds us of the river’s reputation is the amount of US anglers who come here. The Orvis beat is close by and because they are an international company, they see loads of foreign anglers to whom the Test is hallowed, biblical! All the seriously accomplished anglers we host are after the wild browns. These are the heartbeat of what we do. 

WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL TEST ANGLER, JAMES?

I’m going to emphasise what we all know but often forget in the heat of the moment. You get to the river, the sun is up and you see fish everywhere. It is tempting to go crazy and fish like a headless chicken but don’t!!! Take your time. Watch the river. Watch what flies are coming off the surface. Think how you imitate those-essential for the wild browns, the real prize! Spot fish you want to target. Watch where they lie, the extent of their territory, the exact spot they like to to take a fly and prepare your attack plan. If you strategise carefully, chances are you can pick off the fish you want first cast. I rate that a real triumph. Right place. Right fish. Right fly. Right cast. 

Think gear. You need to fish light in crystal water but you must land a fish you hook. Keep everything light but strong and in harmony with your rod. Check and double check knots. Polaroids are critical. Get the best. No point spending hundreds on the fishing and not being able to see the fish in every telling detail. 

I’m not one for rules for the sake of it but etiquette here is important to me and to all of us who work on the river. The Test is special, it is world-class. A day on it is a privilege whoever you are. Fish upstream dry fly, if you can. Get into the spirit of the river, its past, and what it means to all of us who love it. You have asked about my own personal future? I know I am blessed to get a job like this straight from college but if I work here all my life I’ll never tire of it. It’s just great to play a part in a team dedicated to preserving the greatest trout river in the world and I’m proud every day I work here. Even when it’s snowing! 

(You can contact James on j.p.buckley@outlook.com. His guided days on this special beat are especially memorable.)

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