Before the season ended I headed South with my mate Matt Liston, to fish surely the most famous river fishery in the country; a venue I first heard of through reading Mr. Crabtree Goes Fishing, probably two decades ago. The venue is, of course the Royalty stretch of the Hampshire Avon. Since first hearing of it, I’ve seen countless big fish photos in the weeklies and read various anglers gush romantically about its history and its uncanny knack for producing big fish. I have known of its legend for the majority of my angling life, but I have never challenged my childhood preconceptions of a distant, wild, unspoilt dream venue, which I’d vowed I must fish one day. I had naively put the Royalty on an almighty pedestal, which it could never have quite lived up to in reality.
The fishery is much more compact than I had imagined. I knew many of the famous beat names before I went, but I expected these famous spots to be separated by a fair bit of less productive – and therefore less worthy of a name – water, but they run immediately into one another. Whilst it’s far from an unattractive venue, it’s certainly not a wilderness either, with open fields on one bank, but a town within spitting distance on the other. It does get busy too, even midweek in February it was crawling with (mostly barbel) anglers! These things said, it is managed very well by Ringwood & District AA, it still manages to maintain an impressive number of really big fish and being a day ticket venue, it offers the chance of connecting with these fish to all anglers of all abilities. These three factors alone warrant the fishery being held in very high esteem.
Matt and I were spoiled for choice when selecting our targets, because over the years the Royalty has consistently produced specimen fish of many species, most notably barbel and pike. We both have aspirations to land a 20lb pike from a free-flowing river and there aren’t many such venues which offer us a better chance than the Royalty, so we decided pike would be the primary focus of our trip, but we also packed extra kit to allow us to fish for other species, should the conditions dictate.
For the first day we were booked onto the Parlour Pool, which can only be fished on day ticket if booked in advance, granting exclusive access for up to 3 anglers. The Parlour ticket also allows anglers to fish the pool after other anglers must head home, right up until midnight. Being a 4 hour drive away, this extra fishing time was a real bonus, so it swayed our decision. I arrived at the car park and took a stroll to stand at the famous railings above the Parlour sluice, to get my first glance of the hallowed waters and take in a little of the atmosphere. I realised immediately that although I recognised the features from countless photographs I’d seen of the Parlour, I had vastly over-estimated the size of the place. My heart sank just a little because I had looked forward to this moment for years, but I was slightly underwhelmed. Still, I hadn’t wet a line yet, so I excitedly ran back to the van to get my tackle together.
I decided to tackle the Parlour with a static deadbait fished close in to the sluices, setup on an alarm while I trotted a deadbait with the second rod. It was only just breaking light as I made my first tentative cast and by the time I’d set up the trotting rod I was wary of making my presence known, as the water was extremely clear. I’d found about 8 feet of depth by the sluice, so the trotting rig was set-up at a little over this, as I intended to bottom-bounce the bait through the swim. After a while of struggling to get my rig to work, I realised the riverbed rose quite sharply, just 12 metres or so from the sluice gates. In my attempts to avoid spooking fish, I had stayed back and failed to look into the water at all. I put on my polaroids and saw that most of the pool was a couple of feet deep at best, which was nothing like I had imagined the parlour to be. I knew it featured a shallow section which was thick with streamer weed in the Summer months – a haven for barbel – but in my head, the deep section stretched for a good 50 or 60 yards above this. With some colour in the water, the depth would not have been an issue; the sluice will be a magnet for bait fish year-round and with a tinge of colour, the pike and perch might hang back at rest in the shallower water, picking off anything which drifted past them, then move up to maraud the sluice dwellers when it suited them. However, in such clear and shallow water, a sizeable predator would either be confined to the deeper areas, lying doggo for most of the day, or they would hang well back – in the nearest slack or snag – only daring venture towards the sluice when they were sure the coast was clear. With two of us clearly visible atop the walls flanking the deeper water, the coast was far from clear! So I felt our only chance of landing a big fish from the Parlour was if it was already present down below us and either unaware or unperturbed by our presence.
I’d heard good things about Little Weir, which was running much more coloured for some reason, so after a while I gave it a shot. Little weir is a short, undulating, heavily featured side-arm of the river with a weir at its head. It all looked great, but I plumped for the weirpool itself and alternated between fishing two pike rods and fishing a pike rod and a bait-catching rod. Altogether I must have tried to catch livebaits for at least three hours throughout the day, but all I managed were tiny minnows, too small even for perch bait, and a solitary dace of about 3 inches long. I mounted this beneath a small sliding float and cast it toward some overhanging trees for a while, before taking it to trot around the Parlour for an hour, but it failed to provoke any interest. Matt went roving for the last couple of hours of daylight and was rewarded with a jack pike of around 4lb from a tiny slack near the railway bridge. Meanwhile, I heard another pike angler’s bite alarm sound and having had no luck myself, I went for a chinwag and to hopefully see my first Royalty pike. I got there just as the fish – which had the head of a low-double, but a hefty old girth – was being lifted from the water. It weighed just top-side of 20lb and its captor, local angler Steve Shorto, has kindly let me use the photo I took for him. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t do the girth of the fish any justice and you’ll notice its tiny head, but this was a serious fish and in top condition too. This specimen was Steve’s third different twenty from the river this year!
As darkness fell and we saw other anglers leave, Matt and I settled back onto the Parlour, one on each bank. Matt put out a barbel rod in the deeper water, but also cast a pike rod in the shallows, hoping to intercept any larger pike moving into the weirpool under the cover of darkness. I was hoping for a barbel or chub, so I setup one rod with a big, smelly bait, and put a paternostered maggot feeder on the other rod with bunches of maggots as hookbait. We fished on until midnight, but apart from a few more minnows, the only bite between us came to my feeder rod. I was feeling for bites in the darkness and out of nowhere I felt a solid pull round. I struck and at last felt something fight back a bit. It nodded around and felt half-decent, but as I reached for my landing net, the line fell slack as my unknown adversary slipped the hook. I guessed it may have been a chub, or more wishfully a roach, but who knows.
With the new day came fresh optimism, which we both felt on our journey to Davis Tackle to purchase our tickets. Having the more expensive Parlour ticket the first day made us want to stay on there to get our money’s worth, so for our second & final day we wanted to explore. We parked up by the House Pool where we bumped into Trefor West, who was rolling meat for barbel – more on that later – before taking our tackle downstream towards the extremely inviting Clockhouse Stream. There were so many features in this area that we opted to move regularly, to try and find some (hopefully large and obliging) pike. I first setup in the reedy mouth of the stream, just upstream of the A35 road bridge. I dropped one bait right beneath the rod tip and flicked the other slightly to my left. Matt settled in 80 yards upstream of me and also opted to fish the near margin. I had just sat down to savour a coffee from my flask when I noticed my float was bobbing away from me; a sight I’ll never grow tired of. Soon I was chinning out the first pike of the day and we’d only been fishing for a matter of minutes. This pike was far from the largest or prettiest I have ever caught, but to finally land even this 7lb fish came as both a relief and a huge confidence boost for our remaining prospects.
Over the remainder of the morning we fished various enticing features on Clockhouse, but in several hours’ fishing we had no further interest in our baits. True to our game plan, we moved on and headed back up to the House pool and roved between there and the Railway, again without success. I stopped to ask Trefor how he’d been getting on; he’d already extracted two barbel on rolled meat and landed another a few minutes later. The mild conditions certainly suited barbel fishing, but the lack of any colour in the water made fishing for them a tough proposition. I had always viewed rolling meat as a summer tactic; on my local rivers I can only recall one instance of seeing another angler using the method. On the few times I’ve tried it, I’ve generally been successful, but I would have never thought to try rolling on a February day. Intrigued, I asked Trefor what he looked for in a barbel swim when faced with such conditions, he replied simply that he didn’t let his bait rest in one position for any longer than 30 seconds, before gently twitching it back into motion; the key was for the meat to run through as naturally as possible with no sharp jerks or twitches. After about half a dozen runs through a swim he would move on, but didn’t rule out returning to the same swim later.
Trefor was far from the only angler rolling meat; the fishery was busy with barbel anglers, most of whom were roving and rolling with just one rod, a net and a shoulder bag. I had chance to watch many anglers patiently working their simple rigs and they all stuck to a very similar formula. Many of the anglers who were rolling caught fish and the largest I heard of while we were there weighed over 12lb. Seeing so many people rolling successfully has opened my eyes to the potential of what I’d previously regarded as a niche method. When the back-end of next season comes around, I think I’ll be giving it a try myself on the Dove or Derwent where, by my reckoning, it has been almost completely overlooked. With hindsight, Matt and I probably should have followed suit and switched our focus towards barbel, but seeing the big girl caught the previous day gave us confidence that the pike were also on the feed.
As the afternoon drew on, it started to rain and the roving approach began to lose its appeal, so we decided to decamp to Little Weir for the remainder of the day, as its recent pike form had been well publicised, with a static “bait and wait” approach bringing most success. We had the stretch to ourselves, so tossed a coin to decide who got pick of the pegs for our last stand, but it made no difference as a run materialised for neither of us and a day which had started off so promisingly, just fizzled out.
On reflection, it was enjoyable to finally fish the Royalty and even better to catch something, though it didn’t feel quite as special as I thought it would. I’d had a terrible run of results and had pinned a lot on this trip but expecting a red letter day on a new, pressured venue is quite unrealistic and I didn’t fish very well either! Experience should have taught me by now to suppress the excitable boy within when planning fishing trips, but I’m an angling romantic, blindly optimistic until reality finally hits once I’m on the bank. I don’t think I’d drive halfway down the country just to fish the Royalty again, but should I find myself in the area, it will be hard to resist another try.