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Wattles, apathy and good cappuccino.

Some days will always be slow ones. There will be those days where a long week will catch up with you, and instead of heading out at 5 am, you will put your alarm on snooze, get up at 6:30, and have a decent breakfast, complete with a cappuccino.  Driven as one might want to be to get out on the water, sometimes fishing days will turn out that way. The rigors of a business week will catch up with you, and your body will rebel and tell you to “chill”.

On Sunday, I obeyed. Egg, bacon, beans, toast, ended off with a good coffee and a resigned but satisfied sigh. The river would have to wait.

When we did get up to the Umgeni, it was off colour. We paused at the bridge where the tar road ends and inspected it. Unlike the slate grey of a mountain stream in spate, we got cheap weak instant coffee colour. As always, there was hope that further up it would be better.

Arriving on the farm we met Russell. “It was crystal clean yesterday” he said. There had been a storm. He didn’t get it, It happened up there. He gesticulated in the direction of the source.

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We went down to the river anyway. We crawled under the electric fence and went down to the water’s edge. It was still cheap coffee coloured. Damn!

I always peer into dirty water, normally along a protruding stick or log, to try to get a sense of how far into the water I can see, and therefore what the visibility will be for the trout. This time the dark shades of a wet branch disappeared within a few centimetres. Not good. Often the Umgeni appears a little ginger beer like, but this was nothing like that. I always wonder how much muddy water a Brown Trout can tolerate through its gills in a season. There must be a red line somewhere.

We strolled down the river, looking into each pool as though we expected, against all odds, to suddenly find a clean one.

I pointed out the log jams of wattles, and explained how these and other alien trees were the major contributors to the water colour we were seeing. Not only do wattles (Acacia mearnsii) contribute tannins, which give the Umgeni its yellowy brown hue on the best days  (see What makes rivers different colours), but on the worst ones like today, it is the clearfells and Allelopathy that give rise to erosion.  Years of apathy have lead to widespread patches of wattle, and they are especially prevalent on the farms of absentee landlords, and in road reserves. They also predominate on farms where licensed commercial timber is grown, but where there has been scant effort to contain plantations within the approved plantation blocks.  The farm opposite us that morning is one managed by a corporate poultry concern. Their lack of veld burning and the absence of cattle to devour small wattles has lead to a wasteland of weeds and increaser species (the precursors to afforestation which are associated with poor basal cover).

We walked back to the car, and drove up river, stopping at another spot higher up.

Furth (1 of 1)

I pointed out a recent clear-fell on the hillside in the distance. The commercial timber plantation there had been felled. It is a very steep slope, and it could be argued that no timber should ever have been allowed to be planted there. But the deed is done, and now we should be looking at how to minimize the damage. When last I was up there in the clear-fell last year, I noticed that the timber trash had been laid in windrows lying straight up and down the hill. An opportunity to use that trash as a soil holding device, by laying it along the contours, had been missed. I shudder to think how many tons of topsoil this caused to wash into the Umgeni river!

The section of river we were looking at there within sight of the clear-fell was dirty too. No surprises there. The banks at that point are planted to pasture. The pasture land extends too close to the river bank, if one is to follow the law to the letter, but one has to be pragmatic about these things. The cows grazing in the field near us have devoured any small wattles. The ground is also secured by a mass of grass roots that bind it all together, and there is no sign of erosion on this well farmed commercial enterprise.

Driving further up the river we passed onto the tenement above. While it is now owned by the same farmer, its history is different. Maybe no cattle were around to eat the emerging wattles many years ago. Maybe a fenceline kept the cows from the river bank, which on the face of it is a good thing. I do know that this piece of land was not owned by a man whose elderly father was a fly-fisherman. On the farm below, where we had just been, this was the case. Derek used to run a tractor down near the river with a mower, so that his ageing dad would be able to fish it in the late summer without undue effort. Twenty years later, it shows! The farm below is relatively clear of wattle. The one we were looking at now has a ribbon of big wattles running up the river banks. They are big trees now. In my estimation the cost to remove them would run to about….let’s see:  A conservative estimate:  R500,000 ($50,000). That would be to remove them properly: cut, pull from the river, stack, burn, and do some follow up management. On second thoughts, my figure is way too low, and that is just for a few kms of river. There are many more kms above this farm with the same problem.

My mood turned. I became dejected. It was not because I was not getting to fish on Sunday. Sure, that was a pity, but it was bigger than that. It was about our apparent collective apathy in handling this conservation problem. The same type of apathy that had me ignore my 5 am alarm clock, is the very thing that is at play here.

In recent years I have witnessed wattle infestation high up berg rivers, and in other places, where no one has noticed, and no one is doing anything about it. In many places those trees are already large and the job of removing them seems insurmountable. In other places the trees are still small, but no one has noticed. The passage of time alone will surely multiply the extent of the problem to something beyond our grasp.

On the way out I witnessed freshly felled wattles along side streams, where a WWF initiative is underway. At other spots I saw an absolute mess where a contractor appears to have pillaged the useful timber and done a runner with the money, without finishing the tidy up job he was employed to do. It was an emotional see-saw in which I tried desperately to interpret the mixed results as an overall win. I am unsure if we are going backwards or forwards in this river valley at present.

We stopped for a beer and a pizza at il-Postino to cheer us up.

Beer & coffee (2 of 2)

It worked. It was a relaxed Sunday, and it was pleasant to sit on the porch of what was our local trading store in my childhood. From there we pulled in at Steam Punk, a simply superb coffee shop in the most obscure of places, where I had a “Coppucino” ( a cappuccino made the Syrian way, with Cardamom, just the way I like it).

It is easy to just enjoy the beer and the coffee and forget about it all.

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Getting done in 1st prep

I was coaching my daughter this afternoon on getting her homework done and over with quickly. As all “old farts” do, I related my own school experience, and the memories came flooding back.

At boarding school. we had early prep, which must have been somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes in duration, followed by supper and thereafter “long prep”. In early prep we were all showered and dressed, but many were still red in the face from the exertion of the afternoon’s sport, and spirits were still high. Little work was done. Most procrastinated, figuring they still had long prep lying ahead of them like  a vast and miserable desert.

What does this have to do with flyfishing?

There was one bloke, who worked like a machine in early prep, in an attempt to get it all done in half an hour. That was me. 51% would do. (I didn’t tell my daughter that part.)  And that was because, if I got it all done in first prep, I could tie flies for the whole of “long prep”.

1984 (4 of 6)

After supper, in the prep room, the vice was out, and I was churning out DDD’s by the dozen, while my mates did maths. There were several of us who fell into this pattern.

1984 (1 of 1)

Some of the slower learners (and I was by no means a fast learner), were also keen fly-fishermen, and they too tried this. Unfortunately their marks plummeted, and the result was that fly tying during prep was eventually banned at the school. What a bummer!

1984 (1 of 6)

And speaking of slower learners:  There was one fellow, who shall remain nameless, who provided us a lot of entertainment. He was one of those gangly, uncoordinated kids, who fly fished, but couldn’t quite get fly tying right. He was inclined to bind his fingers to the hook or suchlike. So I sold him a few flies.  Another chap witnessed this, and concocted a plan. He snuck in through the dorm window, and stole the flies that had just been bought. Within an hour he presented them for sale to the same fellow, claiming that they were tied much better than mine. The plan worked. What’s more, he did it several times, each time stealing exactly the same flies and re-selling them!  After a while guilt set in, and we came clean with the fellow, restoring his pocket money , but denting his dignity.

I can’t help feeling that we must have done him a service in some way, and contributed to his education, because I bumped into him a few years ago, and he is now a captain of industry.  But someone must still be taking money off him, because he still doesn’t tie his own.

So, my advice to my daughter:  Get it done in first prep, (and learn to tie your own flies, so that you won’t be had).

The timelessness of a river

“..the river moves on and on ; the heart follows, willingly, always glad to be Hunter, discoverer.”   Harry Middleton

We describe rivers as living beings. The concept resonates and it allows for the attachment of a personality to a thread of water in Trout country. That seems appropriate. Yet rivers, if they are to be living things, are an anomaly, because they never die.  Sure, in the lowlands, some factory may dump waste and the river “dies”. But even there, look at the Thames and its tributaries now compared to how they were in the industrial revolution!  When man has burned out and imploded in millennia to come, I suspect the Thames will still be there, and I suspect it will have a healthy run of salmon.

A berg stream, will in all likelihood have a an easier go of things. Up there in a steep sided kloof  there is a more evident timelessness. A recent rock fall: a fresh slab of white sandstone, skidded to a halt half way down the mountain, is still fresh thirty years on. The word “recent” takes on a new timeline. We can go back up there and throw a fly as we did half a generation ago, and it is still as it was. 

In a pretty run of water a small trout will be finning, as it was back then. Its presence and purpose there as meaningless and beautiful as a dazzling brushstroke on a canvas.  As one can stand in an art gallery and contemplate a work of art, in order to discover its meaning, so too, one must hike into the mountains and watch that finning Brown. In so doing you will give it meaning, but you will not be able to describe it, and every man will find his own meaning. You have to go there for yourself.  Years on, you will need to go back there again to place another dot on the map of life. Two points on the page set the trajectory. They point you to where you are going.

1984 (5 of 6)

Above:  1982

…..thirty two years later:

Below:  2014Game pass (1 of 1)

My photographic equipment improved in the intervening years. I aged (a bit!). My fishing improved.The farm got expropriated. The government changed. The tree grew.

And the river stayed the same.

Terminal Chancer

When two publishers turned James Gilbraith down, he showed them the finger, and published his book himself. 

Terminal chancer (1 of 2)

I am thankful that he (through his highly esteemed “Guild of Reason”) did that, because had he not done so, I would have been deprived some snortingly good laughs. These typically happened in public places like coffee shops, where other patrons looked at me sideways.

That would be fitting, since in his book, Gilbraith manages to touch on, and fittingly describe, many of those thoughts that we have, but  which we somehow don’t feel we can express publicly. It is no coincidence that this is the trait of many a comedian, and this little gem of a book is a comedy of note!

“Boo” as he is known, cleverly describes a single Salmon season, but does so in a way which gives you plenty of background, and lore, and build up to this point in his fishing life. He and his fishing buddy “Lamont” have an annual award, which is bestowed on whichever one of them manages to catch a Salmon while ducking some or other responsibility. The art of mastering sick days from work is key to their mischief, and these two average guys bring colour to life, by throwing themselves at the quest for Salmon. It is a deeply ingrained addiction that many of us identify with, but in this little book it is described like you have never read before.

Gilbraith is delightfully self deprecating and reckless and crude, as only the British can be. Moreover, he is not some snob, producing a catalogue of theory and advice. He merely has a good chuckle at himself, his mistakes, his blank days on his home water, and his frustrations. There are no high end exotic locations, and there is no name dropping. Almost all of his adventures take place on a good old common, “second rate” water: The river Ribble.

Add to that his outlandish descriptions and expressions, and you have a truly delightful tale. You will read it inside of two days, and be disappointed that it has come to and end so quickly.

Here’s hoping he writes again soon!

Buy here:

Terminal Chancer: Silver seasons, Atlantic Salmon by James Gilbraith           2014, 170 pages, Published in Great Britain by The Guild of Reason.                                ISBN 978-0-9930771-0-4

Or here:

Amazon & Kindle

Good Indications : Indicators , depth, and the fly zone

I often read about “hanging a fly under an indicator”. I don’t get it. If the fly is hanging, it must be heavy, and if the indicator is holding it up, it must be HUGE. Maybe its just a turn of phrase. I did however try casting a thingamabobber the other day. That would hold a fly up. It was the smallest one you could get.

strike indicators (1 of 1)

It was like trying to throw one of those practice golf balls. It made a lot of noise, and went nowhere. When it did land it was with a great big PLOP. No thanks.

I like my indicators small. PD says you need binoculars to see them, and that it kinda defeats the object. He is right.  I know that because I am using the New Zealand strike indicator tool and system, and I don’t put enough yarn, so it doesn’t wedge on the leader, and instead slides up and down. “Short and stubby” I keep telling myself.

Strike indicators

 

Put more yarn, but still trim it short enough that PD will shake his head. Then it will be delicate for presentation purposes.

If you are struggling to see it, try using two contrasting colours, like chartreuse and orange. I find that works a treat after mid day when it gets silvery on the water. That is when the orange comes into its own.

strike indicators (6 of 8)strike indicators (1 of 8)

If the indicator is sinking, even though you have pre-treated it with “waterwhisp” and greased it heavily, then consider that maybe the fly is pulling it under.

Rather than lowering yourself to a thingamabobber, try moving it further up the leader. In this way your fly will be banging along the bottom, and all that the indicator will be supporting is the tippet.

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Remember that a light tippet will generate less resistance in the current, and that a drag free drift will be further cause for the indicator to stay on top.

Of course depth varies all the time, so if you are not changing the position of your indicator all the time, you will be getting this formula wrong on just about every drift. I move mine at just about every change in the water type. In other words when I go from a tail-out to a deep pool, or from a pool to a rapid, to pocket water.  This is why the latest indicators are such a great thing:  you can move them with ease, and so long as you use enough yarn, they stick where you put them! I also find that by having to consider where the indicator should be, it causes you to focus on the water depth. I estimate the depth in a run, set the indicator position, and fish it. Then I wade on up through that run, and get to see how deep the water really was. This goes into that computer they call my head, and with a bit of luck, I get better at estimating depth.  When the fish are hugging the bottom, as they so often are, guessing that depth right is an important part of fish catching.

Perhaps a more important part of fish catching, is not focusing on the strike indicator alone. That is more difficult than it sounds. Typically after a day on the river, I fall asleep with the rhythmical images of the same strike indicator floating back at me time and time again.

Game Pass  (3 of 5)

If that dream occupies most of your night, you may need to shake out of this bad habit, like I need to.  I think it was Tom Sutcliffe who wrote about trying to watch the fly (or the fly’s zone) and the indicator simultaneously. It is a lot like looking through a microscope with one eye, and keeping the other one open to do the sketch. Guys who did Biology at school might remember being taught that skill. In the “fly zone” you are looking for movement of any kind. An opening mouth, a darting shadow, a ripping tippet. It could be anything. If it is subtle you might not strike. If it is definite, you will. If it is subtle, but the indicator moves in a subtle way too, you will likely strike into a fish that you might otherwise have missed. This is all a bit like those dual garden beams of mine, that require a signal from both sensors before triggering. This avoids birds. We don’t want birds either. We want fish. And if your dream is of the indicator drifting undisturbed towards you every time, then you haven’t been catching fish, have you!

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