Fly Fishing England’s renowned chalk streams

31st of July 2022

The archetypal perception of English fly fishing is of streams meandering through southern lowland meadows, rich in foliage.

Even for those with no idea that it’s chalk over which those waters flow, the countryside in which England’s fabled chalk streams sit has become a rural icon whose fame extends well beyond the bounds of fly fishing.

These streams are a paradise for fly fishers, just have a look:

Chalk directors cut - the River Test

Chalks streams: an underground movement

While rivers elsewhere in England surge or falter depending on how much rain has recently fallen, chalk streams are fed by springs that draw on deep underground aquifers. 

These are huge ‘reservoirs’ of rain which has soaked into the ground and collected over many years in spaces between rocks. The relationship between rain and river is still there; it is just not as immediate.

As a result, there is an enviable constancy in the water quality of chalk streams. The network of springs maintains stable water levels, temperatures and even rates of flow. Even when sweltering temperatures are switching fish off elsewhere in the UK, it remains largely business as usual on the chalk streams.

In southern England, the water percolating into the aquifers brings ‘added extras’. It soaks through chalk on the grassy hills known as the English Downs, gathering calcium, phosphates and other nutrients as it does so. These eventually show up in the chalk streams via the springs.

The result is a perfect playground for fish, vegetation and aquatic insects alike. One that is the talk of fly fishers around the globe:

  • Clear, pure water
  • Rich in sustenance. Weed beds dot the gravelly river bed, providing shelter for fish and insects alike
  • Stable water quality
Gin clear water and gravel bed bottom
Gin clear water and gravel bed bottom

Fish with care

This Garden of Eden has its drawbacks, though. The water clarity means that fish see you as readily as you see them. A stealthy approach is essential here.

  • Wear clothes in subdued colours
  • Save that bright, sparkly new reel for another time
  • Wade very slow and carefully, step by step
  • Conceal yourself behind any reeds, trees or long grasses if available

Study the water well before you move and before you cast (polarized sunglasses that block glare are essential when stalking fish).

Finding chalk stream trout

Where trees cast their protective shadow over the water; where gravelly alleyways separate weed patches on the stream bed, allowing the passage of nymphs and shrimps downstream; that’s where you’ll find trout, waiting to break cover and pounce.

Those trees make their own contribution to the food chain: many a land insect that wants nothing to do with water will tumble from the branches and into the stream. 

Work your fly close to undercut banks, too. That’s another favourite trout ‘den’. And if there’s a weir pool on your beat, don’t leave without fishing it: even in stable streams like these, trout love the oxygenated water that tumbles from a weir.

Trout can often be found in the shallows in the evening, while bigger fish favour deeper ‘holes’.

A brownie that was hovering steady in a deeper hole in the gravel, caught on a nymph
A brownie that was hovering steady in a deeper hole in the gravel, caught on a nymph

What chalk stream trout eat

The insect life on most chalk streams includes a thriving population of mayflies, sedges (aka caddis) midges and smuts. Try and establish which one fish are focused on and then put the best imitations you can in front of them

Most of the time, it will be dry flies fished upstream. That is the rule on many chalk streams, indeed, with nymph fishing permitted only in late summer. Just as you wouldn’t ride a motorbike through an English cathedral, don’t fish one of these revered English waters until you know exactly what is and isn’t allowed at the time of year in question.

How to fly fish for chalk stream trout – the gear

In reality, no one should ever complain about having to fish a single dry fly upstream. Most people are drawn to fly fishing by two visual pleasures – a well-executed cast and the thought of a trout taking their fly off the top of the water. The latter is a form of pure theatre that many coarse and sea anglers will never know or experience.

Here's what you need:

  • A 4wt or 5wt rod of 8ft in length, although 9ft may be preferable if you need to clear a lot of streamside foliage with your casts. Go for a rod with a medium-action (not too stiff) as it will be easier to load if you are casting relatively short distances.
  • Floating line. You could go for one weight higher than the rod’s weight (e.g., 5wt line on a 4wt rod) as this also helps load the rod quickly with fewer casts, making it less likely to get your fly stuck in the trees behind you.
  • 10-11ft of 3lb leader (6lb if fishing big Mayfly or Caddis/Sedge patterns).
  • Waders with rubber-soled wading shoes if wading is allowed.
  • Wet and dry flies. Examples of flies follow but make sure you have some in small sizes (18 to 20). There are some tiny insects on the chalk streams and even big trout won’t automatically turn their noses up at them.
  • A rubber mesh landing net. It's a good idea to get one that you can fasten behind your back (to your waders or back pack) using a magnetic net release. This way you can quickly reach for your net, but it will be out of the way while fishing. Example from Orvis here.

How to fish for chalk stream trout – the technique

Studying the river as previously advised is essential because you want your dry fly to drift directly above where a fish is lying. 

There is a balancing act to be performed as the fly starts drifting back towards you. You need to retrieve enough line as it does so that, if a fish takes the fly, you only have to lift your rod tip to pull the line tight and drive the hook home.

At the same time, if you retrieve too much line as the fly drifts downstream, the line will tighten prematurely, dragging the fly across the surface. This unnatural movement will almost almost scare fish off. Note that this is also true if you're fishing with wet flies!

Start with short-range casts and cast a little further with each re-cast. That way, the fly is falling on water that hasn’t previously been disturbed by your fly line landing on it, which may spook trout.

One last pro tip: if you manage to find a bigger trout that's hovering on the gravel bed in a steady position and you catch it, fish the exact same spot again using the same fly. Often a smaller fish will directly take the same position once the big fish is gone, because they know the big fish have the best positions.

To rise or not to rise – when trout give you a clue

If you can see a fish eating at the surface, two boxes are ticked. You know where it is and you know it’s hungry.

Now you must figure out what it’s eating and, just as importantly, what stage of its life cycle the insect has reached, as the trout devours it.

Sometimes, for example, the fish will be interested solely in those insects that are struggling to break through the water’s surface and complete their hatch. They represent easy pickings and if they are out there in numbers, trout will home in on those bugs half-in and half-out of the water and ignore those that have completed the hatch and are sitting on the water, drying their wings.

Your fly will therefore have to be an emerger pattern; half of its body showing beneath the surface. A dry fly sitting on the surface might not get so much as a second glance.

And if the fish aren’t rising?

Well, now you have some walking to do, fishing blind by drifting what’s called a ‘searching fly’ over all the likely fish-holding places you find on your beat. 

Searching flies are big, irresistible patterns that fish generally can’t say ‘no’ to. If there are fish down there, a proven searching pattern (examples below) will bring them up.

Try to work your fly at different angles so that it drifts downstream on a different current with each re-cast, giving any fish in the vicinity a good look at it.

Chalk stream fly fishing – a bucket-list thing

So embedded in the fly fisher’s psyche have England’s chalk streams become that fishing them has taken on the air of a pilgrimage. Something you must do.

But there are drawbacks. Such is their popularity that the price of fishing their best beats can be prohibitive, particularly in the county of Hampshire, home to the Rivers Test and Itchen and the historical epicentre of English fly fishing.

Nor will the rules be to everyone’s taste. There are some places, for example where emergers and searching flies are forbidden and you may cast only to rising fish with a dry fly. For some this increases the attractiveness, sport and magic of fly fishing for trout, for others it's a turn off.

If you want our recommendation: do try it. Because of for most, it's positive memory that will stay with them forever. 

A beautiful place to fly fish
A beautiful place to fly fish

Chalk stream flies

These are the flies that work well well when fly fishing the chalk streams:

Dry flies

  • Blue-winged Olive
  • Black Gnat
  • Walker’s Red Sedge
  • Grey Wulff (Mayfly imitator)
  • Yellow Drake Mayfly
Yellow Drake Mayfly
Yellow Drake Mayfly


  • Klinkhamer Special

Nymphs (when and where permitted)

  • Pheasant Tail Nymph
  • Shrimp
Pheasant Tail Nymph
Pheasant Tail Nymph

Searching flies

  • Daddy Longlegs      
  • Elk Hair Caddis
  • Foam Beetle
Elk Hair Caddis
Elk Hair Caddis

England’s chalk streams

Fly fishing for trout on the English chalk streams should be on every fly fishers bucket list. It's already a relaxing experience being out in the British country side. But once you've caught a trout on the fly there, you will have beautiful dreams for the rest of your life.

Tight lines!

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