I don’t know about you, but I happen to remember the place and moment in time, when I decided that fly-fishing was my thing, and that quite frankly, from that moment on, it would be a lifelong pursuit.
If that sounds a little like a religious experience, then so be it.
I was standing on the path leading to the school hall. It was junior school.
I had probably caught my first Trout in 1979. My second had been on a school trip to “Mc Dougall’s dam” on Strathaven in Underberg:
It was now 1981.My classmate Murray and I were hotly contesting the “Hudson-Bennett” natural history prize with our respective displays in the school hall. Mine was a sort of “trifle” of maps and pictures and information around the farmer’s conservancy in the Dargle. His was a collection of sea shells. We stopped on the path and had one of those schoolboy, “Mine is better than yours” conversations, and somehow the topic of my fledgling hobby of fly-fishing came up. It was a hobby for both of us. I was convinced that Murray would win the prize, and guess I must have been questioning what my “thing” would be; what I would focus on when I lost at other things. I don’t remember what was said by either of us, but I do remember that moment of decision as I stood there under the plane trees.
I won the “Hudson-Bennett” prize (I still have the book prize).
The only other prize I won that year was one for an essay. The essay included some fly-fishing. Back then I had no idea that it might be a sign!
Murray went on to become a very wealthy man. I am told he fly-fishes a bit when he has time between jet setting about the globe.
I will never possess his wealth. I wish him well (no schoolboy contest or sarcasm in that one).
I have my fly-fishing, and I have many sweet memories.
I am a happy man.
(Petro and I at the surprise book launch party that she arranged for me: 21 Sept 2015)
The eighties, if I am not mistaken, is or was, referred to as the Jet age. Some or other more recent decade, possibly the one we are currently in, is referred to as the information age, in think-tank circles.
It gets me thinking what age we are currently in, in terms of fly fishing. I would have to limit myself to the local South African context here, since I am not qualified to comment on a global basis. (Actually I am not qualified to comment on anything) But local is lekker. So let’s have a look at the theme or defining developments of local fly-fishing through recent decades.
From my perspective it goes something like this
1970’s: Tackle came from Farlows in London. Everything had an overly British influence. I was a youngster, so I don’t really know what was going on, but I know that the Natal Fly Fishers Club was established in 1972, so there must have been some stirrings of local fly fishing comeraderie, and some awakening of the local scene. Jack Blackman’s name was on the lips of many a flyfisher here in KZN.
Books published that I remember, and still own: “Trout fishing in Natal” by Bob Crass; “Life in the Country” by Neville Nuttall; “Introducing fly fishing in South Africa” by John Beams; “Freshwater fishing in South Africa” by Michael Salomon.
1980’s: I fished myself silly in the eigthies…This fitted in from my high school days to the end of my varsity and army times. Fly fishing seemed to be in a big growth phase here in KZN, certainly in terms of public accessibility. Anton Smith reminded me that a lot of farm dams were built at this time, so stillwaters really came on the scene. Roger Baert brought in the first float tube. The fly-Fisherman shop (the first specialist fly shop in Africa!) opened in Pietermaritzburg. The American influence really started to come in strongly. Tom Sutcliffe’s first book was published (after the newspaper articles that preceded that). The first fly magazine started. Tom Sutcliffe and others got us all going on upstream dry fly and nymphs. It seemed to be “heydays” stuff, even then.
Books: “Trout on the veld” by Malcolm Meintjies; “My way with a Trout” by Tom Sutcliffe; “Flies and flyfishing in South Africa”, by Jack Blackman; “Trout in South Africa” , by Bob Crass.
1990’s: Perhaps it was Tom Sutcliffe moving to the Cape and continuing to write and publish that did it. I don’t know, but we in KZN became aware of the Western Cape, and its fast flowing streams, and for my part this decade saw a swing away from the very much stillwater focus here in KZN towards streams. Having said that, I was rearing kids, and some years I fished as little as once a month, and while I dreamed rivers, mnany of those days were in fact stillwater days. Graphite rods, having been introduced in the eighties now became the affordable norm. Later in the decade the Eastern Cape Highlands were opened up to me as a destination for us KZN anglers.
Books published: “"Tom Sutcliffe’s “ Reflections on Flyfishing”; “Hooked on Rivers”, by Jolyon Nuttall; “SA Flyfishing handbook” by Dean Riphagen; “A Mean Mouthed, Hook Jawed , Son of a fish” by Wolf Avni.
2000’s: There seemed to be a big swing towards salt water fly fishing as well as fishing for other species beside Trout. I vaguely remember that this is when Roger Baert told me that the Fly-fisherman shop was selling more saltwater rigs than anything else. I also think there was a drop off in the popularity of fly-fishing generally. Perhaps I should say it didn’t seem to be growing as fast as it had before. Conoeing and thereafter cycling became the rage. The Flyfisherman shop sadly closed its doors here in KZN.
Books published: “Hunting Trout”, by Tom Sutcliffe; “Reflections on the river “by Andrew Levy; “Getaway guide to Fly-Fishing in South Africa”, by Nigel Dennis.
2010’s: The current! Firstly, it has to be labeled as the decade in which the “Trout wars” reached a pinnacle! It also seems to be part of the information age. With facebook, and blogs, online magazines and e-books everywhere, there is almost information overload. On the positive side there is a great connectivity between fly-anglers. We have platforms to discuss and argue and meet one another. Apart from the widespread information, it seems to me that this has sprung us onto the international stage, in that such media know no boundaries. As a result, fly fishing in South Africa is popping up in international groups, discussions, and books like never before. Competitive angling seems to have come to the fore too.
I get a sense that the sport is in another major upswing!
Books published: Peter Brigg’s “Call of the Stream” ; “Shadows on the Streambed” by Tom Sutcliffe; Duncan Brown’s “Are Trout South African”; …………I wonder what else is on the way!
* Note: The list of books published is by no means extensive. For an excellent reference on all the South African fly fishing books ever published, look for Paul Curtis’ book “Fishing the margins”, and the recently updated version “Fishing wider margins”
* Another note: The above is by no means an exhaustive or authorative discourse of developments, but rather a personal, and KZN province biased recollection of how things have come along in each decade.
But apart from trying to look back, with all the imperfections of one’s biased and flailing memory, what of the future?
Trying to guess the major themes of flyfishing in the future is risky business. Maybe some of this is more of a wish-list than a prophecy, but here goes.
I hope that in the next decade, (and it may only be the one starting after the rollover of 2020), the following might predominate:
- South Africa comes to be considered an international destination, and not only for “African species”, but also for its Trout fishing. And then, not because the fish are bigger or better or more willing, but because it is a cool place to go to, and has a good package deal to offer.
- And allied to that, I hope that mainstream conservation and flyfishing might join hands. That anglers will participate in widespread river clean-ups, and that pristine or restored catchments will hold high value. Some of that happens here and there at present, but I am talking on a bigger scale. Perhaps stretches will be worked on with donga gabions, removal of alien plants, relocation of soak pits and washing areas away from streams, etc, etc. I think I am picturing something along the lines of the “thousand mile project” in the USA. If I just glance at KZN and consider how many kilometres of trout stream flow through farmland or tribal land below the Drakensberg world heritage site, that could do with some TLC, and a bit of fanfare and organised access of some sort, to put it on the map, and make it worth caring for in more pairs of eyes……….
I can dream, right?
Ok “Bru”, here’s the deal. I really don’t know why, but when it comes to the upper Umgeni River as a Trout stream, I am a bit obsessed.
I am obsessed with getting it back to, or maintaining it at, its former glory as a premium Trout stream. I have had this obsession since I was a varsity student. I conducted a sort of study of, and evaluation of the Umgeni as a prime fly fishing stream, when I was conscripted in the army. I visited farmers, asked them about their view of the river as a “trout asset”, photographed it, and wrote some or other report under my blankets at night in an army bungalow in far off Potchefstroom. In 1996, on a long car drive to a fly-fishing festival in Somerset East with Jack Blackman, Jim Read and others, I remember boring them all with my dream of the Umgeni as a well organised, conserved and revered fly fishers destination.
In years gone by I have put landowners and fishing clubs in touch, and put conservationists in touch with conservation minded farmers along the banks.
I am still not letting up.
Last year the Natal Fly Fishers club organised two work parties clearing wattle and bramble from river banks. Trout SA made a short video clip. Also, over the last year or two the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) has been working in the catchment to reduce the number of water sapping wattles. It seemed to make sense to get alongside that initiative while there is groundswell. Then at the same time Penny Rees and her DUCT team did “River Walks” blog about their walk from the source to the sea.
Penny has since walked most of the major tributaries of the Umgeni and journalled of her experiences on the blog. Like me, she is passionate about restoring this important river, her for her reasons, and I for mine.
This Saturday the NFFC is holding its third cleanup day. This time the club has thrown some serious resources at the task, hiring in a crew of professional tree-fellers, and with the landowner on board with tractors and staff. Here is a short clip on that: Video.
I have used the opportunity to create a hashtag (do you launch one, or create it……I don’t know. Maybe you hash it!)
Blue Ribbon Umgeni
What is it all about? It is about recognising and valuing the upper Umgeni River as a trout fishery. In this way we hold it up as something that has value. People look after the things that they value. So my “shout-out” is to fellow flyfishers here in the midlands of KZN to go and fish the Umgeni, catch its stippled beauties, photograph them, and tell people about it. Attend the NFFC work-party on Saturday 12th September, or the one on the 17th October, or next year’s ones.
While the internet has rightly been accused of ruining good fishing spots, I am going out on a limb here and guessing that there are few enough river fishermen in South Africa, that those we do have, practice catch and release, and that sharing my favourite fishing spot with them will do a LOT more good than harm.
So #BRU is also an invitation:
Come and fish the Umgeni with me bru!
I am also going to ask you for some money soon. Money towards wattle removal. But you will get something in return. More on that in coming weeks.
I recently remarked to someone, and I can’t remember who it was, that big river Trout are often caught in riffle or rapid water in close proximity to a good pool. I expanded the theory a bit. “Fleshed it out”, as one tends to do with a good fly fishing theory. Big “peachy looking” pools often disappoint. You expect that you will get a lunker out of there, only to be disappointed with a tiddler or two. Then your best fish of the season comes out of some shallow run, or frothy white water, with just an inkling of a pocket in it, You often hear “I would never have said there would be a fish in there, let alone such a good one !” . And I got to thinking about some of the better fish I have pulled out of such thin or fast water, and it dawned on me that there was often a monster pool close by.
Graeme Steart raised some good fish one day last season, on a fast stretch on the Mkhomazi.
He failed to hook them, but I was watching, and they were GOOD Trout. I got my best ever river Brown in a shallow run in the river, that was just above a very deep hole. Some of the better Browns on the Umgeni come from the rapids at “The Bog” which is above the longest pool I have ever fished. I could go on.
Then lo, and behold: I was reading Dave Hughes’ excellent book “Trout from Small Streams” the other day, and I stumbled upon these words ”my only guess is that the trout view the depths of the nearby pool as a bomb shelter and stay near it so they can dive into it when they come under attack”. This is in a paragraph (Page 99 in the second edition) wherein he describes rivers with good looking pools that turn out to be barren on account of their featureless rock bottoms, and where trout are more plentiful in the fast water between pools.
He describes how a pool may contain very little by way of sand, mud and gravel that sustains insect populations, and how a trout that may choose the pool for its depth and sanctity, may need to venture out to find food in more fertile spots. So like all good theories, I was certainly far from the first one to come up with the idea.
Looking at some local permutations of this: On the Umgeni, in a severe drought, pools like “Three quarter mile pool” always have plenty of water, and the area seems to act as a nursery for fish, from which the water is “re seeded” when flows return to normal.
Deep pools lack the degree of sunlight shining through to the bottom that more shallow stretches of water enjoy. Re-flooded shallows always seem to offer terrestrial food turned water borne food, and therefore attract both insects and things that feed on those insects. We all know this in the stillwater context, but I wonder if we think about it much in the context of rivers?
The other aspect that might be worth a thought: Often a pool contains one lunker, and several little chaps of similar size to one another, but considerably smaller than said lunker. If you are a little guy, and you leave upstream on a bug hunt, when you get back you may be way down the pecking order, and lose your spot at the tongue of current up front, and have to fight your way back. If you are the lunker, you can go on a veritable safari, and when you get back, the little guys shove off in respect for your size, and you can merely take up station at the front of the dinner queue when the current delivers morsels to you first. So a really big fish, might be more inclined to move about, secure in the knowledge that he can return.
With these things in mind, it makes sense to fish just above and below deep pools with the greatest of anticipation, and all the stealth and care that comes with that. This may be an even more highly recommended practice after a normal dry winter, or after a drought has been broken. The theory would be that the grandpa of the pool is hungry, and heads out into more fruitful waters to hunt and re-gain his summer condition. He can go back to deep water and snacks when he feels the need.
I don’t know why, but I sense this is more likely to be a practice of Brown Trout than Rainbows. Maybe it is something I once read, or perhaps it is just one of those things that has sunk in over the years. It could be drivel too! All I know is that the season starts this week, and I live in Brown Trout country.
Maybe all this is more the stuff of dreams than pure science. It is more fun than trying to decide whether to fix ones mortgage rate though.
Of that I am sure.