Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

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Just walking, just looking

The other day I had the privilege of being on the river for work reasons (again). I know that it is not an infrequent occurrence, but I still consider it a privilege. Anyway, I took a break while the crew were having a lunch break, and I went for stroll. The light was brilliant, and the water was as clean as it gets. I didn’t have a pair of polarised specs, but the angle of the midday sunshine, and the east flowing stretch of river just aligned in a way that it made no difference…I could see everything! Flow was pretty decent, since we had rain all the way into early May this year. So in summary it was perfect.

At Picnic pool, I spotted a small fish come up to take something near the head, where the water rushes in. It was a small dark shape, that snatched and ran. Above that pool is a big shallow bedrock tail-out, but the run gets deep on the south side, and runs with just a bit of a ripple under overhanging grass. I saw nothing there. Surprisingly.

Above that is a piece of water that holds deep memories for me. The river runs over shallow rock, but it divides, such that there are 4 river banks in all, and they are covered in clumps of huge cascading grass tufts. Despite the shallowness of the water, and the bedrock, I have often seen, caught, and spooked fish here.

It started way back on the 18th of April 1999…… I was fishing with a pal (since departed), and we came upon fish here. I didn’t know this part of the river well back then, and after we had caught, seen and spooked several fish here, I asked “Are we at the top boundary yet”, as I peered into a tunnel of offending wattle trees upstream of us.

My colleague replied that we were very close to the end of the beat, and so we gave up for the day and headed out. I now know that he was not entirely right. There was about half a kilometre to go.

Anyway, I spotted a fish here again. I spooked it in fact, and saw it shoot away in panic.

Just above the next rapid, I was passing between two big clumps of the same riverside grass, when I saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. (Did you know that your peripheral vision is more alert to movement than your direct gaze?) I stopped to process the image my brain had received. I am often fooled by a shadow of a bird flying overhead, and I need to stop and analyse as I now did. Was it a little too quick to have been a fish? Was it moving in too straight a line? Was its path of movement strangely inconsistent with the features and obstructions of the river bed? I stared at the water as I thought these thoughts. I decided it was just a bird. But as I was about to avert my deep-thought (and doubtless unblinking) gaze, I noticed something.

It was a Trout’s eye.

Strange to find a Trout’s eye right in front of you, on a bare rock riverbed, barely a rod’s length away….

I blinked and “zoomed out” in my minds eye, and blow me down, it turns out that what I had seen was attached to a motionless fish!

It didn’t move a fin, so I guess my peripheral vision wouldn’t have picked it up. It was my blank stare that did it for me.

I had a camera with me, but the battery had gone flat, so I very carefully pulled my phone from my top pocket and switched on the video camera.

What a treasure to see, watch, video, and appreciate a decent sized brown on this water.

It is at times like this that I don’t really need a rod at all. Sometimes I can just walk; just look.

Mounting campaigns

“There are big trout here, but not many, and they are not the kind you simply fish for; they are the kind you mount a campaign against” Ted Leeson

My favourite places are either unknown by many flyfishers, or alternatively they are known, but considered second rate. As my friend Pete Tyjas said to me once “Yes, Andrew….I am a salmon too”, by which he meant that he swims against the current. The remark was in reference to a statement I had made along the lines of that above, coupled with our discussion about Pete stopping a successful online magazine to go into print. That is ballsy!

And so is creeping around on some forgotten stream somewhere in the brambles, trying to find that enormous trout that exists only in your imagination. At best it existed fifty years ago, and in your imagination its progeny have retained the ability to grow big, and are fit and well despite all the hardships thrown at them for half a century.

I enjoy launching that type of campaign. I am normally spurred on by a dearth of catch returns, or a complaint about how tricky it was to even get to the water, let alone cast! Maybe by an exaggerated tip off.

So perhaps it was less than coincidental that I so enjoyed Richard Baker’s piece in Fly Culture magazine (Spring 2021) in which he launches a campaign against the progeny of Wilson Dermot’s biggest ever trout, in the Bishop’s Sutton Stream in Hampshire. It brought back memories of staying at Stillerus cottage, being afraid of the Wildebeest that roam the vlei there, and trying to catch Neville Nuttall’s “Uncle George”. It was in the late seventies, and Uncle George had long since met his maker, but in our youthful ignorance and excitement we didn’t let that fact get in the way of a good campaign.

As one fisherman I know says “The truth is a rare commodity, and so should be used sparingly”. I think this comes into play with a lot of fishermen when they whisper to you in a dining booth or the corner of a pub, that the fish at such and such a place are ENORMOUS. What they are really saying is that there were enormous fish there, or it looks like there could be, or there should be. They are saying that the place is worthy of a campaign. The fish they are describing is not as big as the tale, but there is absolutely no reason why it should not have been that big. And in the fact that they are whispering this to you, they are inviting you, or perhaps challenging you, to mount such a campaign.

And who wouldn’t be flattered by such an invitation! And who are we to ignore their hot tip, and pay them the disrespect of going to fish at the popular, and known water, when this undiscovered gem lies in wait of our attentions. It is up to you and I to go and mount that campaign! We need to be ballsy about this!

(Perhaps while our erstwhile informant fishes the Thandabantu beat on the Bushmans and catches 23 inch browns, while we pick the blackjacks from our sweaty collars at some unnamed ditch somewhere)

A pretty scene

John Gierach

“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake

I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.

While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:

  • The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
  • The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.

Think on that.

Hopper time

Late summer and autumn, with tall grass stems about the river banks, always signals strongly to me that there could be hoppers on the water. Add a gusty wind, and I consider it a sure thing….in theory at least. Perhaps a “likely thing” would be more accurate, but either way, using a hopper as a prospecting pattern suddenly seems like a good idea. Not being one for standard patterns, I always try something new at the vice.

Here’s what I came up with this time:

That one is a #16. You can see the fluorescent colour of the yarn spotter as well as the thread shining a tad garishly. That is just because I included a UV torch in my lighting when I took these pictures.

Here is the #14 one, with no spotter….a bit easier on the eye, you might say:

For those interested, the materials on these things are:

Body: Kapok dubbing done in a dubbing loop (don’t try conventional dubbing technique with this stuff, it just reduces to a thin needle)

Under-wing: 2 different colours red CDC (the one is also fluorescent, so you can see that shining through too)

Bullet head, and wing: Deer hair

Legs: Sili legs (fine, barred)

I used the fluorescent yellow thread simply because anyone who has tied a yellow bodied fly with dark silk will know that when it is wet, it shows through like inappropriate underwear. By putting a bright colour under the “dirty yellow” Kapok dubbing, I hope it does something more appealing.

I look forward to trying these on the water.

Book-end ants

While packing up after three hours or so of frenetic ant hatch, it occurred to me that the last time I fished a stillwater, some four months ago, had also been a wild ant hatch. In between there was a baker’s dozen of trips to streams and rivers all along the berg…a wild ride between heavy rain and summer heat.  A time of wearing out the studs on my wading boots in the lush grasslands, and getting achy feet and small browns, all in fair measure. But either side of that chapter was a day in the sweetness of spring’s cool air on the one end, and this day in the glow of a slightly pale April sun at the other.

Two distinctly different days on two different stillwaters, but both marked by the excess of a ridiculously prolific hatch of little black ants.   The few hours prior were marked with frustration, as were my hours in early December.  Ants, ants, ants, everywhere you looked, and the Trout going absolutely dilly.

Ant

Of course as soon as I saw the ants, I pulled out my box and found an imitation. A small “E Z 2 C” ant with a cylindrical black foam body, with a white tip, which, for the life of me I couldn’t see out on the water, to a Mc Murray ant, to various of my own imitations.  I tried smaller ones (to imitate the males) and bigger ones (to imitate the females). I swiped my hand through the swarm and captured one or two, and I studied them, and pulled my fly box out again. As the sun passed above and moved westward, a shiny, coppery light reflected off ten million little wings on the water’s surface. The fish had so many specimens to choose from, that introducing my own exact replica was clearly an exercise in futility. I tied on three ants at once. Three times zilch is still nothing. Why would a fish eat any of mine, when they had thirty acres of water in which they could just about swim in a straight line with their mouths open, and stuff themselves like orcas on plankton?

I took to practicing my casting accuracy. It was strangely like clay pigeon shooting. Nature presented me with totally randomized targets, which appeared suddenly and demanded a “hit”.  I was getting quite good…bang…hit the ripples marking the extremities of the fish’s window at ten yards to the left….then a single pickup and hit twenty five yards slightly right. Strip that in, pick it up, and fire a 15 yard cast far right. Bang. Bang. Bang. It was fun, but I wasn’t catching fish.

Since I was aiming for “The edge of the dinner plate”, it occurred to me to put something different on. Something big and juicy. Something to persuade a Trout that it could eat something other than a damned ant! I chose a cased caddis on a #12 longshank hook…a sort of shiny, reed-like thing that was unweighted, and had an alluring little brown-headed, chartreuse  worm, sticking out the end of the reed-stem case.

A few casts later, it worked, and I brought in a fish of around two pounds.  I sneered at it and told it that I knew caddis were tastier than bitter ants.

Rainbow Trout

The ants carried on hatching and landing on the water, and the trout carried on eating them. It was interesting to observe the rises.  Some were splashy, but  others were clearly not surface rises. Were they eating ants that had sunk, or was there a blind hatch of  something else?  I scanned the margins, but all I saw was ants, ants, ants.  Millions of shimmering wings:  ants mating and dying on the water. Their affinity for nesting near a body of water, was claiming half their number, but the orgy of excess was such that it hardly made a difference.

I changed to a bigger, juicier distractor pattern, and landing it on the edge of the dinner plate with enough of a splash to make the Rainbow turn and look at it, I got another one.

Towards the end the number of ants on the water diminished as the hatch slowed, and a light breeze blew the carcasses into the reeds. The trout were still looking up now, but they were having to go looking for food. Sensing the cue, I changed to a dry bigger and tastier than an ant:  a DCD and deerhair beetle. Presently a fish rose, a full cast out in front of me, and still in clay pigeon mode, I swung around and with two false casts shot out the longest cast I am capable of. It alighted like thistledown, and the Trout ate it. Finally!  A Trout on the dry.   I landed the fish, clicked off a picture and returned it to the water, before reeling in and strolling back to the bakkie.

My obsession with the streams had been folded between two covers. I thought back to the streams, and to the December ant hatch as I drove home. Many happy hours on the water had passed in the first three months of the year. There were days in which I stuck diligently to the dry, and others where I never took off the heavy nymph. I had had water as clear as the proverbial gin (that we are now allowed to buy again), and days in milky, murky water, where that was all that was on offer. Neil and I had fished in the rain. Graeme and I in broad sunlight. 

I had blanked on the Mooi  with PD and then with Neil on the same stretch, had a field day on a particularly sparse parachute dry with an orange post.  There was that fish that had gotten Anton shaking at the knees, and the one Graeme got which I captured on video, from the approach, to the strike, to the release. There were all those fish I got on the #20 nymph, and the enormous fish that famously stole one such nymph, paying scant respect to my silly 7X tippet.

Back at my fly-tying desk, I pulled out some CDC in black and in white, and a few strands of pearlescent flashabou to try capture those sparkling wings, and I got tying one of Marc Petitjean’s ants, complete with wing sparkle.

I tried a few more, and then I substituted the CDC  wing with some white Kapok, and I held the result up to the light to study it. It looked good.

I will carry it out to the next ant hatch. And when I get there I will strap on a caddis, and I will catch me a Trout. 

But  perhaps I will fish a few more streams before I do that. Mix things up a bit you know…… Perhaps an ant on a river (on 5X tippet of course).

A River Runs Through It

It has been many years since I read “A River Runs Though it” by Norman Maclean. The story is of course famous, from Robert Redford’s movie produced in 1992, but I think few people are familiar with the 1976 book that inspired the movie.

A River Runs Through It

I say that the book inspired the movie, because what many seem to forget is that the movie differs from the written story.  In fact the movie brings in elements of two stories which appear in the same book, and to which the full title alludes. “A River Runs Though it, And other stories”.  So the movie is not, strictly speaking, just the story made into a film.

In re-reading the book recently, I developed a keen appreciation for the mastery of the movie produced by Redford. For example Redford condenses two scenes involving Neil and his “whore”, into one that captures the essence of it all. Two sets of sunburn; and of disappointment in his brother-in-law; and being at the brunt of the anger of the womenfolk in his wife’s family . And yes, Maclean does refer to the lady of the divided skirts as a “whore”, and in all three stories in his book, he displays a western coarseness which Redford delivered slightly more subtly, and in an aura of nostalgia which served to take the edges off.  Redford makes no reference for example of the two brothers chasing the self same whore down the street “kicking her in the ass”.  You will notice too, that I write here of Maclean’s wife, and brother-in-law, because the story takes place after they are married, and after his time in the forest service. The movie of course brings in the love interest by placing the story during Macleans courtship of his wife, and before his time in the Forest Service.

But quite aside from re-arranging the life sequence, you find many  lines in the book which you will recognize from the movie. In other words they are quoted verbatim. The parts not quoted are of course the descriptions of people, and landscapes, but Redford captures these beautifully in the movie.  Another part not repeated verbatim, is of course the subtlety of relationships and attitudes and outlook, and emotion, and herein lies Redford’s mastery. He somehow manages to capture these elements, which Maclean unpacks in detail in the written word, and does so by capture of light, facial expression, body language, background sound, and camera angle. The fact that I did a reverse analysis by reading the book after I saw the movie, and recognized these elements in the book, because I had picked up on them in the movie, speaks volumes for the skill of the movie maker.

As a fisherman, I delighted in some of the technical fishing detail contained in the written version. There was a little in there that would not have made it into a commercial production, seeking a broad audience, but which is of great interest to us technical flyfishing types.

In reading it again, I was struck by the unlikely  product of academia that Maclean became as a professor of English, given his Rocky mountain upbringing amongst men “as tough as their axe handles”. His language skills of course gave him the ability to tell his family’s story with a resigned dignity and reverence that has one sighing in a sad and appreciative compassion as you turn the last page.  Although I didn’t pick up on it when I read the book many years ago, as I came to the end this time around, I was left with a deep appreciation for this little masterpiece.

If you haven’t read the book, I can recommend it.

Density, Distance and Distractions

I started out the morning with a #16 ant pattern in the dropper position, on some 7X tippet, and trailing about two foot below that, a #20 Pheasant Tail nymph with  a small matt tungsten bead on it.

The flow was quick enough that the point fly didn’t sink the ant over a 10 to 15 foot drift and a fish went for the ant on the second drift. The problem was that I couldn’t see the ant.  When you can’t see the dry fly, the take surprises you, and that slows your strike time to the point where you will most likely miss the fish. I could have added a drift indicator (AKA Strike indicator), to help me locate the dry…a kind of reference point, but knowing these small fish, some of them would take that instead of the dry. I hooked a small fish on the very next drift on the nymph. I had managed to track the dry on that particular drift and its sudden disappearance was my signal to lift into the fish. But soon after that I got tired of trying to find  the dry on the surface, so I pulled it in and put on a parachute dry , tied with pale grey CDC halo hackle.

Since the fish were looking up,  and the parachute was on a barbless hook, I left the nymph on my fly patch for later, and just fished the parachute on its own.

That worked, and I landed several fish in the next two runs.  Then the fish began to ignore the dry. I switched to something with a barb, that I could quickly tie the little nymph back onto, with its piece of 7X still trailing from my patch. That was a #14 Ed’s Hopper, which I chose because it had a highly visible red wing, and because the breeze was blowing hard enough to imagine that a hopper might land in the stream. From mid-December onwards, there tend to be enough hoppers around that I can fish the Ed’s Hopper without feeling like I am fishing an attractor pattern.

The fish continued to ignore the dry, and I did begin to wonder if they might have had a go at the parachute pattern if I have left it on. I do that a lot: second guess and start to doubt the wisdom of my fly change. Anyway, I had some fish go at the nymph on the point. I missed two of them, merely seeing a flash below the surface. A flash that I think a great many anglers probably don’t even see, especially if they are diligently locking their vision onto the floating indicator fly. Then I landed a fish on the point fly. Soon after, I switched the dropper to a larger nymph (#14), lengthened the distance between the two flies, and put a yarn indicator on.

That larger nymph, a slightly different looking Pheasant Tail Nymph, was heavy in the hand, but in fishing it, I quickly realized that the point fly was sinking much faster, and that the larger and seemingly heavier dropper fly, was in fact not helping things and was staying high in the water column.

Let’s dwell on that a moment. If you closed your eyes and dropped first the #20 point fly into your palm, and then the #14 dropper fly, you would quite correctly say that the larger fly was heavier. It was. But it was less dense. In other words, the size/weight ratio didn’t match that of the smaller fly. In fishing these two, the difference in sink rate was remarkable. Both were tied to 7X tippet, but that point fly was plummeting compared to the bigger pattern.  The thing is, that the bigger pattern probably would have needed a 3mm tungsten bead on it to match the density of the point fly, and I didn’t want to be throwing a 3mm bead on my 2 weight outfit.  So I changed a few things.  I put on a more dense #16 dropper fly. I also started using a tuck cast, and I was careful to add enough slack in the cast by employing a bounce into the tuck cast. (Cast hard and stop suddenly so the fly bounces back, and at the same time end the cast with the rod high and tilt it down to point at the water from on high as it rolls out….it bounces back, and the flies enter the water column first) . So now I had two small, deep nymphs, fished under an indicator, light enough to throw on the two weight with pleasure. All set.

The problem is, I stopped catching fish. My colleague, who was employing different tactics altogether, also stopped catching. Learning that from him surely saved me from a time occupied more  by fly changes than fishing. It is useful to share some info with mates. So I settled into focusing on where to find the fish, and I concentrated on some concealment and reducing my false casting. I also played around with distance…standing further back and battling drag with longer drifts, and then later, getting in close with short casts, but kneeling in the stream behind rocks.

Before I knew it, we were five hours into the day, we had covered I think 2 km of river, and our agreed departure time had already passed.   Five hours of mental  absorption and puzzle solving, in clear mountain air, with cold clean water tugging at my legs, and without a thought of work, or the world’s troubles.

Total immersion and distraction, and fuel for several days of mulling and musing. Isn’t this flyfishing thing a glorious pastime!

Swollen Rivers

“There are two things that you must always respect,” said my aged uncle.  “the sea and the mountains”.

We were sitting atop Shada’s Ridge at the time….a spot suitable for the testing of peak names.  He would have us go from south to north, naming them one by one, ten cents a’piece:  “The Triplets, Red  Wall, Lesser Injasuthi Buttress, Greater Injasuthi Buttress, Scaly Peak, The Ape, Old Woman grinding corn………”

Drakensberg

Speaking of which, he didn’t mention his wife in that respect thing, and neither did he mention rivers. In his mountain name test, if you got one wrong, the clock went back to zero, such that you didn’t just lose ten cents, you lost everything.  Crossing your wife is a bit like that too. Come to think of it, so is crossing swollen rivers.  And while he had a special whistle for his wife, he really did respect her (If you don’t count that time he put rocks in her backpack). And notwithstanding the fact that I refer to him as my ‘aged uncle’, I respect him. He called himself the ‘aged uncle’ , and he called other things too, like when lightning was close enough to row the fishing boat to shore and pack it in, and when it was, and wasn’t safe to cross a swollen river.

I remember one time with him, when we were just kids, crossing the Injasuthi river, which was in flood. We were on a day long hike, guided by the ranger at Injasuthi, who was a family friend. I seem to remember that we crossed using a rope for us kids to hang onto. Perhaps we were tied to it.  After we crossed, the ranger regaled us with a story of a Durban doctor who had been washed away to his death at the same crossing. I remember being very scared, both by the crossing, and because I knew we would need to cross the river again to return to camp.

The Injisuthi River

I remember too that a discussion ensued about crossing rivers safely on horses. I asked why that was safer, and it was explained to me that horses have four legs.

Skip forward fourty years or so, and I remembered that when PD , a guide, and I were looking to cross the swollen Bokong River.  We were hiking back from a rain sodden trip, which was less than successful, if you were to judge it by number of fish caught. We looked at the river at one spot and decided it wasn’t safe. Then we walked downstream and looked there, and decided it was worse.

The Bokong River

We returned to the first spot, looked for makeshift wading staffs, and finding none, plunged into the river. It was then that the horse thing came back to me, and I suggested to PD that we go arm in arm….you know, his arm over my shoulder, mine over his. Cozy, you might say, but wow, what a difference it made. We really were twice as safe, having four legs between us. I guess it was kind of like a four wheel drive, or a vehicle with diff-lock. We crossed safely, and with ease and relief.

Some years earlier, my wife and I (and I respect her greatly), were crossing the Poachers stream at Injasuthi after similarly heavy rains, and thinking back, we should really have gotten more cozy, because it wasn’t comfortable at the time. I just didn’t think of it.

Poachers stream

“I just didn’t think” is the kind of phrase that accompanies stories of near drownings.

Ilan Lax writes in Dave Walker’s guide of the Bell River coming down in spate when he was on the wrong side. On our last trip to the North Eastern Cape, two mates had to make a dangerous crossing of the Vlooikraalspruit. I am sure you have your own stories too. The Bell river looked like a disaster zone just yesterday, and the KZN berg rivers were full before last week’s rain hit us.  As I write this, it is storming again.

Stop and think.

Remember:  The sea, the mountains, your wife, and swollen rivers.

I’m going to attribute  that edited wisdom to my aged uncle (and aunt).

Losing it

Funny how you can remember some stuff, while other things just slip your mind. I clearly remember Neil Patterson’s 1985 article in Trout Fisherman magazine entitled “Bring me a rod and make it snappy”. It was about his impressive string of breaking and losing rods, including one that he left at a café table in Paris on his way to have it repaired by its renowned maker.

Then last week I left my rod at the river. We were packing up. The others were quicker than me. They were climbing into their bakkie. It was raining. I pictured myself alone in the storm up there after they had gone. The notion may have felt a little forlorn. I may have rushed. An hour later I was driving along the base of Spionkop mountain when an unexplained chill entered my spine, and I revisited my packing up, and realized I had no recollection of snipping off the fly.

It was a night of restlessness and sore shins (yes…kicking myself). In the morning we drove all the way back up there. The roads were a mess after the storm. The rod was lying unharmed in the grass barely twenty metres from where we had parked. It just dropped off the cattle rails into the veld, along with my prized 1940’s Hardy’s lightweight reel.

The relief saw me babbling and rattling off amazing fishing stories all the way home.

Then there was the time I lost my net on the Sterkspruit. It was back when nets came in pretty much one size category, and that was “large”, especially when taken in the context of our small stream trout. I had spied an amazingly small net, ridiculously small, some might have said back then, behind the counter at The Flyfisherman in Maritzburg. Roger Baert told me it was a sample from a net maker. A novelty of sorts, and  a few months later, when it no longer served any purpose, he gave it to me. I screwed an eyelet into the handle and connected it from there to my belt. That day on Birkhall, it kept unscrewing, and all through the day I found myself re-screwing it. Until, that was, I became engrossed in the evening rise.

The Sterkspruit River at Birkhall

When we got to the Lindesfarne bridge, it was gone.  Dude, ever committed and loyal to the common cause, sprinted across the road, somersaulted over the fence into a patch of bramble and set off at a run to search for it. For hours! He never did find it, but that fence crossing is imprinted on my mind.

And speaking of Dude, there was that enormous fly storage box I handed to him one evening on the bridge over the Bell on the commonage water at the village of Rhodes.  When the sun had long set, and we were done frustrating ourselves with small picky rainbows that rejected everything we threw at them, I turned to him and said “Hey Dude, how about that fly box”. And the rest is history.

One day we packed up after fishing at Theuns and Joyce Botha’s place, and headed back down the valley to the house at Branksome where we were staying, and I asked PD to stop for me  to take a photo.

That’s when I spotted my very expensive Sage Click reel, lying on his windscreen wiper. Talk about a close call!

It was on Bhungane beat of the Bushmans that I stopped to take another photo, and removed my glasses to look through the viewfinder.

Back then I only needed the glasses to tie on smaller flies, so it was a couple of hours later that I was wiping my eyes to try understand why I couldn’t thread the fly, and the penny dropped. Fortunately I had a GPS running, and I used the ‘trackback’ feature to lead me straight to my specs about a kilometre back.

My Mate Anton has been fishing for years with a fly vest on which every zip is broken. I always looked at him and remarked that it didn’t look all that safe. The late George Forder always carried his ‘nine mill’ under his belt, fully loaded and with the safety catch off, and he used to say  “I know it doesn’t look safe, but……” and his voice would trail off. Anton’s retort was not dissimilar. The other day he got a spanking new vest with zips that do close, but it seems old habits die hard, and we were scanning the banks of a favourite small stream of his the other day, looking for a fly box. It was the same stream where I lost and found my rod and reel, and I felt a little bad when I phoned to revel in the fact that I had found mine and had to say “Sorry mate, no sign of that fly box”. That is the same stretch where my then teenage son lost his cellphone. In our detailed analysis of events afterwards, we concluded that it had in fact, evaporated. Here was no other explanation.  That river really does eat stuff!

Once, I pulled off the main road about ten kilometers down the road from Briarmains, which I had just left after a day’s fishing. I stopped to investigate a flapping noise that seemed to be coming from the roof of the vehicle as I drove down the road at some eighty kilometers an hour. It turns out it was my leather hat, which I had left up there, and which was right where I had left it.

Then there was the time I had just landed a good fish on the Bushmans, when my wading staff came off its magnet and started to drift downstream in the white water. Graeme was coming towards me with his camera at the ready, and asked me where my priorities lay. I said the staff had come off more than once that day, and that I would fetch it later. “Get the picture rather” I said.

I couldn’t find it that day.  But I haven’t given up hope. That was a good few years back.  It was my wife’s hiking pole. I have promised to go back and fetch it soon.

She thinks I’m losing it.

I think she may be right.

Photo of the moment (117)

These uMngeni Browns aren’t that plentiful, or perhaps its just that they are not co-operative. Either way, I keep going back for the few that I can catch.

Copper Tones

The video is blurry and the caption tells me it is 11 years old. The Good Doctor’s hairstyle hasn’t changed, but it seems his beetles have. A bit. I tie the originals anyway.

They look enough like the beetles I emptied out of my pestle and mortar set. I was about to make a mutton curry, and the tools of the trade sit under the light we leave on in the kitchen at night.  So if you want beetles, or if you are making a curry; its best to empty the stash from the mortar.  It is a wooden set which I bought from Kubela stores two decades back. They are aged, and emit a bouquet of rich spices.   

The beetles glow gold under the lamp on my tying desk, and I decide they are a little more shiny than the carcasses that lie beside them, so I give them a stroke with a brown permanent marker.

It does dull them, but some copper tones won’t go away; like the memory of the bottle label with the kid’s bikini pulled down by a pup to reveal the extent of the tan.

Some things aren’t cool any more. Like tanning, the original beetle without rubber legs, hairstyles and eleven year old videos that only ever got 400 views.  

But the glow of a copper tone lives within, like the soft warm light from a fly-tyers lamp. I note that I am tying under the same lamp as Hans was in that old video. I note that the trout are still eating copper beetles. My Pestle and mortar still work, and so will the beetle, even though I replaced the hackle with biot legs.

Beetles

Kubela stores isn’t Cabelas. It won’t ever have a website, and is still there, with bicycles and pots and bags of mealie meal. Last week I used that new, fangled Perdigon material from Semperfli to rib my Pheasant Tail Nymphs, but my curry recipe hasn’t changed. Nylon is ousting fluorocarbon for a comeback, and trout may yet be cool again.

Last night’s curry was superb by the way. It’s the same old recipe from way back. 

Leftovers heated up for lunch today were even better.  

I can’t wait to try the beetles.

Hot fishing

Sunday dawned hotter than all the rest. Hot and still.  I was up at five in the morning, and set out through the wet grass to look for rising trout, and it was warm then.  The sun was shining at a low angle across the water and my eyes ached as I scanned the water and tried to track my dry fly. A fish swirled here and there. Once or twice within casting distance. I changed dry fly several times: Beetles, para RAB’s, a DDD, and a midge, damsel and Copper John on the dropper.  I held my hand up to screen my eyes. Later I stood behind a small willow, merely for the relief its trunk gave me. I positioned myself directly behind the trunk, in its narrow shade, and then side cast my fly under the willow fronds, merely to escape the piercing rays. It was then that I realized I was grateful for the slender shade of the trunk, and at the same time that it was now hot. It was 6 am.

I walked back to the cottage. As I did, I noticed more swirls, and also the dimples of fleeing minnows, and the formula dawned on me. My fly box with minnows in it was back at the cottage.

Later, after a hearty breakfast, and time with our feet up, my wife and I decided to set up under a willow, with bottles of cold water and our books. I moved the deck chairs, put on sunscreen, took off my boots, and sighed at the prospects of a hot day. The three days prior had been cloudy and windy and stormy and misty: all changing and interesting, and cool. Weather as interesting as a broken landscape, and with patches of great promise between, when the trout would surely come on the rise. Periods of wind change, or calm after a cooling storm, or breezy with scudding clouds and patches of mist. Times that breathed promise and opportunity. But I had yet to hit it right. I had not connected. Sure, I had caught 2 or 3 fish:  one off the front lawn in near darkness on a dry fly. One on a dragonfly nymph just after the storm, that sort of thing. But I had missed fish, had takes, been broken off twice due to poor knots, and not landed more than two in any one day. On the Saturday I put in a solid six hours and all I had to show for it was a missed follow. You know the thing where you pull the fly out of the mouth of a following fish, and watch it turn as it sees you. And you curse your stupidity for hours thereafter.  And that had been it.

Now, as I put the chairs down and resigned myself to a day of waiting out the stifling still weather, I saw one or two last bulges. Last remnants surely, of the morning’s minnow gluttony. My wife was still busy inside, so I found the box with minnow imitations in it, and tied one on. She still wasn’t out of the cottage yet, so I quickly threw all my stuff into the canoe, and leaving my water bottle under the tree, and wearing an old pair of crocs, I pushed off.   Just off the front lawn I dropped an anchor, and started casting a minnow imitation in the direction of one or two more swirls I had seen. The water was a pea soup of food. There were midges, and ants, and corixae and damselfly nymphs. Dragonflies darted over the water, swallows swooped, and the sun beat down mercilessly.

Nature would surely take a break any minute now and sit out the searing heat of day as I was about to do.

Then a fish grabbed the minnow strongly, and set off for open water. I raised the rod tip triumphantly, gathered the loose line, and got my mind in gear to fight a fierce fish, which was pulling line. That’s when my knot gave in.

When I had finished muttering and swearing and analysing the errors of my ways, and tying on a new minnow pattern, I looked up, and saw more fish were moving. I threw the minnow out again. I retrieved in a manner as alluring and enticing as I could conjure in the dead calm sticky conditions. I sucked the minnow back in, just under the surface, there under a burning white sun. More fish were rising now. Porpoising. I had a take on the minnow….just a tug, and then it was gone. I threw it again, but fish were porpoising everywhere now, so after a few casts I changed to a midge. That was when fish started cartwheeling into the sky. I quickly rigged the other rod with a caddis, and threw that out before retrieving the one with the midge on. The next five fish porpoised. I tied a sunk buzzer below the emerger I had on the five weight, and when three casts of the caddis drew no result, I put that back out. Now the fish were swirling. I looked at the water. There were copper beetles. I took the caddis off and threw it into the canoe, and tied on a beetle imitation. The fish were back to cartwheeling. I threw the beetle. A hundred fish swirled. Twenty porpoised. A dozen cartwheeled. I looked into the water beside the boat. Caenis; hoppers; beetles (Black and copper); one or two winged ants, midges. I put on a tiny ant imitation, throwing the buzzer and emerger in the boat.  I cast. The tops of my feet were burning.  I threw off the crocs and dug in my vest for sunscreen, which I rubbed on my feet. I cast the tube aside.  Fish were getting airborne again. My leader was sinking. I pulled it in and coated it in silicone paste, threw the tub in the boat, put the caddis back on and cast. I readied the other rod with a larger ant. The caddis was being ignored by fish that were taking insects either side of my line.  There were a lot more winged ants around now .

winged ant
The winged ant that was driving the trout crazy

The fish were going nuts now.  I pulled in the caddis, and started tying on ants. I needed more tippet. Fish were rising right beside the hull of the boat.I was battling to see the fine nylon, and my hands were shaking. “Andy!   Look behind you”, my wife shouted from the shore. “To hell with behind me” I muttered. The fish had practically been splashing water into the canoe for the last hour. “I Know!” I said politely. “Yes, but that fish is just rolling around on the surface continually” she said. Said she had never seen anything like it. My hands shook. I finally got both ants on, tossed the tippet spools in the hull, and threw the team out. This leader was sinking. I had treated the other one. I pulled it in, and went scrambling through the junk in the boat searching for the silicone paste.  Fish started porpoising again, and my ants went unnoticed.  I rigged the other rod with a big black DDD, and a few minutes later I cast that, and then changed the small ant on the point to a little black emerger. Threw the ant in the boat. Pulled in the DDD . Tossed the ant team. Fish were in the air again. I stood on the sun cream. Sweat ran down my neck. My line wrapped around a discarded croc. I kicked it away and I retrieved and threw again. My feet burned. Fish rose. The sun baked.

And then it happened.

To the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” , sung by a choir of a hundred maidens, and with an orchestra in grandiose accompaniment playing in my mind, a small and gracious rainbow, porpoised over my large ant in slow motion. I raised the rod in celebration, the hook set, and the knot held.  My wife videoed from the shore. I took a photo.

The fish swam off. And the rise was over.

I paddled back, and tipped all the junk out of the boat to sort out later, and crawled gasping to the willow tree, croaking “water!”.  The lake  returned to the lifeless state of the past three days, The sun beat down hard,  and I sat under the tree, took off my sweaty hat and shook my head in disbelief.   

I wonder if this is what Isaak Walton had in mind when he said to “be quiet and go a angling”…

Verdurous evening glow

I have just been churning out a batch of damselfly nymphs.  Four bottle green ones and four of a more yellow/olive colour tied from a different batch of marabou. Then I did five of a different pattern, one from John Barr that uses a nymph skin down the back, and a mono rib, that looks particularly good.

Damselfly nymph

It’s not that I needed more flies. In fact I have all my fly boxes out on the coffee table at present, and that prompted my wife to ask, if I really do need more. She makes a good point, but in my audit, I decided I was dissatisfied with the damsels I had in stock. I needed more smaller ones, and I looked at the eyes on the ones I had and decided they were overstated. I could also picture damsels in the deep green water of summer, and a mental image started to build for next week’s trip.

It is a stillwater trip, because that’s where the cottage is. A river would have been great, because my stream trips have been made sparse by excessive flow. But then again, the rain is drumming down on the roof and rattling the gutters as I write this, and had it been a river trip, I might have stared at a chocolate brown torrent for five days.

As it is I managed to sneak in a few hours on a stream this week, and like last time it was clean, but flowing mighty strongly.  It was one of those warm, humid summer afternoons: totally clouded over, and with the air as thick as syrup. The prospect of rain hung heavily over the landscape. Baboon hill was dark and clear against a backdrop of charcoal skies, and somehow seemed closer. The bands of forest were as dark as emeralds in the shade, and the near hillsides were lit in light reflected under the canopy of cloud.  The grass had suddenly taken on a rankness that was not evident two weeks back, but it was lush in its summer hues, and not yet brushed in the golden tint of late summer when the plants become all stalk and seed.  Frogs leapt ahead of me in the veld, and I was mindful of snakes. The Black Cuckoo sung mournfully, the river rushed by in fine percussion, and the trill of crickets added treble. The air did not stir, but it was vibrated by peals of thunder that seemed nearer, and then further. Rain drops made their way down into the valley in a way that could have been the tail end of something or the start of something.

I threw flies into the quiet water along the banks, and discovered back eddies that weren’t there in the low flows of spring.  My attempts to avoid drag were challenging. I would get the fly into a seam for a few drifts and then it would be in the thalweg, and next it would spin out into side channels that were static and silty.  The stems of bankside grass were freshly combed by quick flows.  Rafts of detritus were washed up in the veld, and clung to branches and rocks, suggesting the passage of wild weather, and I couldn’t help wondering which of the recent storms had made passage there.   How fresh was that clump of sticks and ash and leaves? How did it get that high, since the grass wasn’t laid flat?  Was it wash off the veld, or did the river get that high?

My indicator glowed in the soft light, and I focused on its every quiver. I threw a fly into my favourite spot at the road drift, and tensed in anticipation of the take. It didn’t come. I tried a channel to the right, under a cascading plume of grass, which seemed more likely now than it had last time. There was now enough flow there to cover the back of a Brown. There hadn’t been last time.

Nothing.

The thunder got closer, and the raindrops seemed larger. I walked back to the bakkie, and as I arrived there I thought I may have retreated too early, but my thought was interrupted by a loud bang, and I took the rod down promptly and climbed into the cab.  It was sweaty and humid in there. In a few minutes the rain stopped, so I escaped the confines of glass and steel and set about making a cup of coffee. The rain started again. The stove sputtered.  Two donkeys watched me. The rain stopped. 

I finished my coffee and set the rod up again. I had another hour and a half on the water, making my way slowly up to boundary pool. With the high flows, the big pools fished like runs, and the normally shallow riffles suddenly seemed more promising despite the speed of flow. I whisked a fly through the pockets. The indicator kept glowing, and it shuddered as the fly scraped the gravel on the bottom, but it didn’t dart off anywhere.  The rain didn’t let up, so I stopped and put on a waterproof jacket. Even with the zip-pits fully open I started to sweat, so I took it off again, preferring to get wet.

As I reached the boundary pool, tendrils of fog started to come up the valley, and for the first time I felt coolness in the air. I plied my nymph in the slower tail-out, and then I switched to a small Woolly Bugger as a last resort. The fish sent no sign of approval.

The light started to fade, and more fog patches drifted between me and the hillsides to the south. I packed up, and strolled across the wet field, with my shirt clinging to my shoulders, and my wading longs clinging to my calves. My footfalls found sodden ground, that somehow brought back memories of summers past.  I became aware of a chorus of frogs that hadn’t been there a short while earlier, and my mind turned to next week’s time beside a full lake. I could see the water level so high that I will have to leap over waterlogged grass to reach the start of the jetty.

 I can hear the evening frogs, and am starting to look forward to the long hours after the storm but before dark, when the world is quite. When the inky water surface looks like it will bulge and ripple at any moment. When the light takes on the verdurous evening glow, and the Diederick’s cuckoo calls.      

The landscape swells

“Place and experience become reciprocal touchstones, each authenticating the other. The landscape swells with the meaning of what has been lived there, and the shape of that living has, in turn, been molded by the place. The landscape no longer exists as a backdrop or setting but as a medium of experience, a material from which the occasion is fashioned, a character in the story of life” Ted Leeson, Jerusalem Creek.

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