The Itchen is regarded as one of the finest English chalk streams and anglers from all over the world are attracted to the river for the quality of its fly fishing.
Rising from the upper chalk near New Cheriton the river has a catchment area of 280 square miles and an average rainfall of 34 inches. From its source, where it is known as the Tichborne Stream, the 28 mile long river first flows north to New Alresford where it is joined by two spring fed streams - The Alre near Sewards Bridge and a little further downstream by the Candover Brook at Borough Farm to become the Itchen.
From there it flows west past Ovington, Itchen Abbas, and Easton to Abbots Worthy, then south through Winchester, Twyford, Brambridge and Eastleigh to Woodmill where the Monks Brook joins the river on the outskirts of Southampton. Below Woodmill the river is tidal and flows through Southampton to join the tidal reaches of the River Test at Dock Head on Southampton Water.
For most of its course the river is divided into many man made channels running parallel to each other and both water levels and flow are regulated by a series of weirs and sluice gates on each channel. In the past the water was harnessed for milling, navigation and irrigation and a network of water meadows.
Although milling and navigation are no longer an issue the practice of irrigating the water meadows continues to the present day for the cultivation of watercress. The system also includes the now disused Itchen Navigation system that connected Winchester to Southampton.
Designated as a SSSI and candidate 'Special Area of Conservation' the river system is noted for its high quality habitats and it supports a range of protected species from the otter to the tiny brook lamprey.
Fishing on the Itchen
In common with the Test there are many prime fisheries on the upper Itchen that are retained by the owners for personal use whilst others are syndicated and access to these fisheries is virtually impossible for the casual/day ticket trout angler.
These upper river fisheries are coveted by anglers and the various channels or carriers are maintained to provide optimum conditions for both wild and stocked brown trout. In pre environment agency days the Hampshire Water Authority introduced grayling into the system and over the years these fish have flourished and they now offer a useful alternative to trout fishing along with extending the fishing season into the winter months. The river keepers regularly cut weed during the spring and summer when rapid growth occurs to maintain levels and river flow. Rods should be aware that during these periods angling is suspended.
The river is rich in insect life, and in excess of three hundred species of invertebrates have been recorded on its main channel.
Like most other chalk streams this is fish stalking country with angler first having to locate trout rising to floating terrestrials or feeding on subsurface nymphs, and without scaring them, cast their imitations upstream to them. Success can depend on stealth and concealment, accuracy of the cast and a fair amount of luck.
It is difficult to put a date on when the method of upstream dry fly fishing first came about on the Itchen, perhaps it dates from the 1880s when Frederick Halford first devised, perfected and then wrote about it on the Test. Some years later GEM Skues pioneered the method of fishing a nymph upstream to trout that he could see feeding just below the surface, and although he was vilified by the dry fly purists for many years, fishing the upstream nymph to trout and grayling is now an acceptable practice.
The river below Winchester supports a good stock of coarse fish with roach, dace, perch, pike and bream featuring in catches during the winter months.
There are also runs of migratory fish. Very few fish run as far upriver as Winchester and most fish are caught by rods spinning lures or fishing the shrimp or prawn. fishing with worms is prohibited. Some years ago the Hampshire river keepers were keen to fish the fly for salmon and they developed a method of fishing a gold headed nymph type fly known as the Hampshire Hog. On spotting a fish the fly was cast upstream and fished down in the same manner as Czech nymph fishing. They had good results with the method at that time, and it is possible they still do. The salmon season opens on the 17th January and closes on 2nd October. In recent years runs of migratory fish have sadly depleted and as a conservation measure all salmon caught, must be returned unharmed to the river.