“In the corner of a smokey bar
She’s singing Hallelujah
All the fools are shouting over her
But she keeps singing Hallelujah”
From the song ”I hear your song, Sweetness”, by George Taylor
Keeping with a musical theme, who remembers Feargal Sharkey ?
I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that Feargal Sharkey is now a champion of the environment in the UK. More specifically, he is the champion of England’s beleaguered chalk streams. Sharkey is doing a whole lot to publicise the abuse of these unique and beautiful streams, that are in many places almost beyond rescue. Who would have thought, that in a first world country, there would be government sanctioned abuse at the levels that Feargal Sharkey has been exposing. Countless streams pumped permanently dry, others pumped full of raw sewage, or used as a dumping ground for overflowing sewage works in times of high rainfall. With his profile, there is a lot that he can,and indeed, has been, doing about the situation. I have listened with delight to his radio broadcasts on BBC, and I follow him on Twitter, with a view to broadening my education on matters environmental.
There has to be a lot to learn from countries and catchments who have been there before. So in a similar vein, I follow the happenings in the Driftless area of Wisconsin in the USA, where trout stream restoration has been happening on a scale that I can only dream of. And I follow the WWF and countless other local environmental groups.
So what have I learned from my reading, and twitter following, and from Feargal Sharkey, and what are the implications for the conservation of our river catchments ?
Well, I think I have learned that :
- Many people, with varying strengths and attributes can bring a variety of much needed skill, publicity, lobbying, money and drive to the work that is required in the environmental field.
- I have learned that the field of environmental restoration and preservation is burdened by conferences and acronyms and strategic framework modeling, and the like that is so expensive and slow moving that it threatens to sink the entire progress ship.
- And in a similar vein, that on-the-ground real practical work, is happening in some wonderful and deeply encouraging examples, but that there are not enough of these to ever reach a sense of elation or victory for the environment on a large scale.
- I have learned that there is, in most cases, a huge gap between business,on the one hand, and environmental work on the other. The unquenchable thirst of man for profit at all costs, is so strong that meaningful funding is not forthcoming. That which is, is often channeled to humanitarian causes, and in any case is limited to that which earns CSI points.
- It is proving difficult for organisations to monetise environmental gains that they are trying to package as “eco-system services” and “natural capital”.
- I have learned that the majority of fly-fishermen, sadly, are not truly environmentalists at all. ( they like wearing that badge, but they don’t give up a day’s fishing easily)
- I have learned that the national spend on environmental work comes out of the top end…the overflow….the luxury portion, and that in hard times it is the first to go. This is not just true of South Africa.
- Real, high level, large scale, and step-change environmental gains are likely to be expensive, uncomfortable, and unpopular. …..Unpopular amongst all those cappuccino drinking, self proclaimed, environmentalists with ‘save the rhino’ stickers on their big luxury cars…..(like me).
So, in summary: In this field of stream restoration and care, there is both cause for despair, and a need for unparalleled bravery.
My observations are impressions and generalisations. Some of them may prove to be untrue or unfair. Most of them will be cause for consternation and offence. As a quiet spoken, conservation-minded recluse, I seem to have an uncanny and newfound propensity to offend. That propensity has accelerated in direct proportion to my alarm at the degradation around me, and my conviction that some luxuries need to be sacrificed to get things done.
And there is so much that needs to “get done”, that one needs to carve out a small niche, put your head down, and do your bit in your chosen area, and hope that someone will take on the other bits. I have chosen the niche of some upland streams and catchments in KZN. I hope someone has the hinterland and the beaches, and a whole lot of other streams.
So as George Taylor sang “Keep holding on”
“It is old, old fishing landscape, scarred with its human contacts, familiar and friendly and kind to the frailties of anglers.” Howard T Walden. Upstream and down. 1938.
The colonial idiosyncrasies of our heritage have us leaning to a tamed and manicured world. A conquered wilderness, which we celebrate as “wild” but enjoy for its comforts of stonemasonry, or footpaths and trimmed briar. I for one hanker after the quaint, the named, and the iconic. Do you revel in relating the story of your catch, replete with the name of the pool? Do you inwardly sigh with nostalgic affection at the sight of a stone arch over a river? Do you take your wilderness complete with a puff adder that will bite you, or do you prefer to savour the golden glow of the leather box, as you fold back its lid on the tailgate of your truck, to reveal a fine whisky and two glasses at fishing’s close?
I am told that a taste test uncovers the truth in coffee. The declaration is that we like it strong, but the taste test says otherwise. Strong coffee is the stuff of cowboys and those who have no fears to conquer. The smooth flavours of a mild blend are what strokes our true satisfaction.
Would you be the one to take down the signs that show the way to the beat, or would you revel in creating the timeless logo with which to adorn it.
How about a footbridge. A fencing stile perhaps?
Too tame a river?
“His system was to attach a split shot sinker well above a nymph, and fish it on a short and fairly taught line with a colourful leader and a little sleeve of orange marker. His success was phenomenal …….” Charles F Waterman, writing of George Anderson fishing the Madison some time in the 1960’s. From “Mist on the River” Published in 1986.
The outrigger technique : “The upstream, dead drift, tight line, high rod, weighted nymph technique” ….Chuck Fothergill in The Masters of the Nymph 1979
An old American fly fishing technique, by Al Simpson
On the four eight line, like any others, you needed to ask the exchange for a connection. But within the party line there was a whole lot of connection. Like hearing Mrs Ras talk in Afrikaans to her mother, who lived on the other side of the railway line at the Dargle station, or Mr Smith. Once someone said to the bloke on the other end that he would tell him all the details when he next saw him, because Mr Smith was listening-in on the party line, to which Mr Smith retorted loud and clear over the phone that he was not listening!
On Saturday we were out on Justin’s dam. It was dead calm, and the morning sun had warmed the air to the point were we were good in shirt sleeves. That despite the ice remaining in the shade of the steps that cascade down through the veld to the crisp water’s edge.
We were battling for a connection. The odd fish rolled lazily every fifteen minutes or so, but you couldn’t call it a morning rise, and there was no hatch to match. We were asking the exchange for a connection. We moved about a bit. We tried different depths. Nothing.
Neither of us had had enough sleep the night before. We fished close to the bakkie, which stood, door open on the knoll behind us with our tackle spilled about it. We retreated to the base and ate a banana and made some coffee. Sleep was definitely an option.
After coffee I put on a #18 zebra midge under a black DDD and threw it out far into the mirror on my bigger rod. Then I sat in the veld and yawned.
As recently as the year 2000, you could call the exchange in Barkly East from the top of the pass, and the tannie would enquire as to the weather up there.
The old black handle crank phone with 4822 written in my Dad’s handwriting under the clear glass label holder , still sits on the farm. Dad is mastering Whatsapp now. On Father’s day I showed him how to send a photo , and then we had tea and he reminisced about how they only had one tractor on the farm. It was an “International” with steel wheels, that had bolts at intervals on the tread, kind of like the studs in my smooth felt-soled wading boots. For the rest they used wagons. I grew up playing on those old wagons, and the International, under the trees where they lay abandoned behind the sheds.
Dad’s phone buzzed.It was my brother sending him a whatsapp . He said my brother wouldn’t know why he wasn’t replying and that he had better tell him he would message later after we had left. But I told Dad that my brother knew that already since we were connected. Its kinda like a party line Mr Smith.
A Hen fish took the Zebra midge and the DDD disappeared. I struck.
Graeme was fishing on the shale and in due course he picked up a fish on an egg pattern. I joined him there and tried my own egg pattern. I got a lot more strikes than he did, but I wasn’t connecting much. I offset the hook, as suggested by Gary Glen-Young the other day, but my hook-ups didn’t improve much.
Graeme and I were standing shoulder to shoulder chatting and throwing long lines in the clear water. We were connecting. Just not to fish.
We debated the hook-up issue, and Greame suggested that the materials of the pattern were obscuring the gape a bit. I listened and thought about that, and added that it was an old fashioned barbed hook. Despite having flattened the barb, the point was heavy, and it lacked the long fine point of a modern barbless hook. Graeme was nodding. He must have been listening (I don’t think he would deny that). I pulled it in and had a look. It’s shank was an angular material , with clean rib lines running down the curve of the hook. It kinda reminded me of the moulded lines of that old matt-black telephone. I had better tie up some new ones with the material up on top, away from the gape, and on a fine-wire barbless hook. But what will I do with all these old ones that look perfectly good? Sometimes its hard to let go….to shake off the old and get the thumbs working, and even when you do, you keep the old stuff. Some things stick in your psyche.
Like two shorts and two longs. 4822.
Many forays from my home waters to the streams of the North Eastern Cape highlands, have got me thinking about the differences between those waters, and the ones nearer my home.
The climate is drier up there, and the veld can be positively scrub-like compared to our lush, humid midlands of KZN. The rivers also flow southward or south westward, whereas all the home streams flow towards the east. We have a lot of Brown Trout streams here at home, whereas around Rhodes and Barkly East, the waters are mainly Rainbow waters. Our rocks, especially in the lower reaches, are black, angular and slippery, whereas the NE Cape has sandstone bedrock or fine gravel for the most part, making for easier wading.
But here is something that perhaps sets the area apart:
In KZN, our streams tend to flow down from the Drakensberg in a relatively straight path, and quite quickly descend below the 1200m contour, BEFORE they are joined by their neighbouring streams. What I mean by this, is that there are relatively few junctions of major rivers within the area that can sustain trout.
The significance of this, is that the KZN trout have limited (Very limited!) opportunity to travel down one valley and up another. This means that the genetic make up in one valley could arguably be completely separate and potentially different from the next valley.
Another aspect to consider, is that when a stream dries up in the North Eastern Cape, it’s Trout population can be restored from another artery when the stream begins to flow again. This is very seldom the case in KZN.
The situation in the Cape is as a result of a jumble of mountains, with rivers and streams that cut through them in a variety of directions, and with the land sloping off to the plains very gradually. This allows rivers to meander and intersect at higher altitudes.
I suppose this makes our trout in the KZN rivers more vulnerable. If a drought or pollution incident were to befall the trout of one valley, it might not quickly receive some fresh bloodlines to re-populate it from another. In the NE Cape, after the severe droughts of 2015/6, we all saw photos of the Sterkspruit so dry that not only did it cease to flow, but the puddles started to dry out. A visit to the area this year, revealed that the streams are again full of countless small trout. It really is quite miraculous! This miracle is no doubt aided by the fact that just a few trout had to survive in 1 or 2 of the streams, and the re-population of all streams after the drought would surely happen given time.
Confluences of trout rivers are an important feature…..
“There are not many men who can fish all morning without seeing or feeling a fish and not suffer some deterioration in care or keenness that is likely to retard their reaction when at last the moment comes.” Arthur Ransome, Rod and Line, 1929
Who have you have lost a fish, because you weren’t expecting it? A fish chased you fly at the end of the cast as you lifted off, and you were not focused enough to halt your rhythm and leave the fly in the water.
A fish took your dry, but you had allowed such a bow in the line since last casting that you couldn’t connect.
You walked up on a pool, and realised too late that there was a lunker in the tail end, as you saw him scoot off.
You were holding the line tight against the cork grip in your left hand, and something hammered the fly so hard and so fast that you didn’t have time to let go, and your tippet parted.
Do these things sound familiar?
It seems that they were familiar back in 1929, but we all still do them.
Solutions? Well, I think you have to beat human nature. Accept that this is something you WILL fail at.
Here are some ideas that might make you fail less often:
- Change fly, tippet, or strike indicator, just for the sake of doing it. We all refocus and elevate our expectation when we put out a new offering
- Take a rest. Our sport is one of concentration, but I am guilty of hardly ever just sitting on a rock to rest. Try it
- Begin with the end in mind. You end goal is to catch a fish. Don’t forget that. When you start enjoying the curve of the line and the pull of the rod tip in the cast, you have probably gone all esoterically mushy on yourself. Cut it out!
- Imagine a fish following your fly, as often and as long as you can. That’ll fix it!
- Mix things up by casting into “crazy places”….like 2 inches from the shore, in behind the cattails, in a side pocket smaller than a side plate. If you are fishing a Brown trout water, you may be in for some surprises. Even if not, your next cast, into more obvious water, will carry more hope. Hope = concentration.
- Slow down. Stop. Think. Re-work a minor strategy for each spot you arrive at, rather than moving faster and faster, and ever more mindlessly.
“I’m guessing you are standing in a river right now”
“Naa……at the tyre shop. You?”
“At my desk”
“DIY and a birthday party”
“Friday late morning…how about it?”
“I’m dead keen, let me see how much I can get done on Thursday”
“I’m in the same boat….lets chat Thursday”
“You blooded that new net yet”
“No…..soon, I promise….soon!”
The other day my friend Dr Harry took an expensive flight, and hired a car and drove 5 hours, following some pretty dodgy directions to a place he had never been to before, to join us for 3 days of fishing. Every time he saw the camera pointed at him he did this:
Be like Dr Harry!
A friend made a valid point the other day. It seems obvious now, but consider this:
When you fish a stillwater, there is a very good chance that for at least a portion of the day, you will stand there, or sit there in your float tube, and think about work, or some domestic trouble. Now think back to the last day you spent on a river or stream. You scrambled up banks and slid down into the water, and waded over uneven rocks, and slipped and slithered , and hiked, and focused and cast and watched the dry fly or the indicator….all day long. I wouldn’t mind betting that you came home beaten…..I mean really physically tired….and mentally refreshed. I wouldn’t mind betting that you didn’t think about the mortgage, or that idiot at work either.
(Ted Leeson describes the concept of a “vacation” , and vacating the mind in his superb book, “Inventing Montana”…its worth a read!)
Maybe you got some Browns?
If you are a stillwater fisherman…..consider the streams….. Think of it as a “vacation”.
As I drove into work the other day I observed a bumper sticker that said “How do I drive?”, and I thought it was a bit late to be asking for such guidance.
In front of me was a truck full of waste. I wondered if it was headed for recycling, and then I spotted a punnet of rotten fruit pressed against the bars of the load-bed. It had a supermarket sticker saying “50% off”. It looked to be 75% full.
Then an armoured vehicle labeled “Asset protection” violated just about every traffic rule I know, pulling across the traffic, and a solid white line to push in front of me. I wondered how well, with actions like this, he might be protecting those assets…..
All this helped me to appreciate the levels of cynicism building within me after a long week dealing with the drudgeries and stupidities of business.
It made me think of a Shakespeare line quoted in Tod Collins’ recently published book: “I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed” , and I imagined when I might unleash that one on a colleague….
All of this , I mean the cynicism and penchant for unleashing cruel and derogatory comments, signals the need for time spent “just being”, and that is the topic for the aforementioned book of Tod Collins. He called the book “The Art of Being an Awful Angler”, but the title is a clever self-effacement, behind which sits a solid argument for the carefree, for the arcadian, and for the tranquil. In the book, Collins, by example alone, builds a case for the untroubled, sedate and contented state of an angler with no point to prove. The exploits on which he reminisces, are by no means dull or unadventurous. On the contrary, his tales are spread across continents, and situations and they bear testimony to an intrepid spirit. They are however mixed with both nostalgia, and a broad interest in all outdoor matters that one encounters as a fisherman. That being people, and places and birds and everything in which an observant and appreciative angler of modest intellect might immerse himself. He throws in references to literature and history while he is about it. The fly-fishing obsessed who have little regard for life beyond their tackle and their quarry will be skipping pages for sure. I am reading most pages twice. The stories are laced with people and places which I personally know, to the point that he mentions a few people by first name alone, and I know exactly who he is writing about. Coupled with the fact that I know many of these people, is that he relates to them with a decorum and civility that you would expect from their doting headmasters of yesteryear, and their family vicars.
In a world of fly-fishing literature, videos, blogs and magazines, in which angling pursuits are conducted in either environments pristine or exclusive , or in which everyone is cool (or trying a little bit too hard to be cool), this tome of bygone hue is as refreshing as it is unique for goal-driven times.
And I haven’t even finished reading it!
If I survive the retribution to my Shakespearean aspersions on my colleague’s wit, I will complete the book (slowly, and reading each page twice), and continue my praise in due course. In the meantime, and fearing damage to my typing hand, I thought I should punt this lovely publication.
As a kid we visited and fished Kamberg a fair bit.Many of us did.
I have fond memories:
- Jumping out of my skin when concentrating on a rising fish, in my own little world, when a ranger came up on the river bank alongside me unnoticed and asked “Liseeence?” Followed by the rattling off of every Trout fly that he knew. He knew a lot of them!
- Booking Stillerus beat number one, and being excited at being offered beat two in whispered tones by the lady in the office, as no-one had booked it that day. I felt so privileged!
- Mown paths along the course of Stillerus, with beat markers.
- Smartly dressed guards at the gate, with gleaming boots, snapping to attention for every car.
- Creeping through wattles and brambles on Game Pass, trying to get to the river.
- Lots of fishermen.
I could go on.
Now, alongside the broken down Trout hatchery, and having entered a crumbling, abandoned gate house, you will encounter this:
The grass is not mown, and the picnic table is toppled and broken. No guards. No salutes. No picnickers. But notice the ring-barked tree. And notice how on Game Pass you don’t need to go creeping through the wattles. I find wilted, sprayed (treated) bramble there quite often. And no other fishermen, apart from a very small band who extoll the virtues of the stream on Facebook.
So things fall apart. But not completely. Conservation is still taking place, it just is not being offered on a plate to paying guests. Interesting. Money is being spent on conserving nature, but the source of income to fund it has been abandoned.
Stillerus is wild and unkempt, and the authorities have moved their own staff into the cottage there, that one could once hire, so that there is no longer accommodation for visitors. The fishing is still excellent.
Heard any news on how Stillerus is fishing lately?
I thought not. You have to know someone now. In a sense it is more private. You definitely will not encounter other fishermen there. Try Googling it. You won’t find much, and what you do find is outdated. Did you hear about the four pounder that was caught there this season?
You need to know someone.
But it is still there, and it is available to those who seek it out.
Whoever seeks it out might have to get involved in spraying the bramble at some stage, or ring barking a wattle tree, or engaging with the authorities to partner on getting it done.
And while we are in this phase of a return to wildness (I am looking forward to Duncan Brown’s new book!) , restaurants have proliferated lower down in the catchments. Country restaurants, which people drive out to, and at which they while away the hours on a deck overlooking a mountain or a river. When Kamberg was in its prime, people didn’t have access to such things, but they would pack sandwiches and go for a walk or some flyfishing in the country. Kamberg is empty. The restaurants are full. And the one who hikes up to the very upper Mooi to see how far up he can find Trout, is an intrepid explorer, but one who will claim to “go there all the time”, when in fact he was last there three seasons back. The place is empty, and it is there for the taking by a shrunk band of flyfishers. A band, which I believe are more proficient fly fishers than the droves of casual fishermen who used to visit Kamberg, and fill the coffers of the conservation funds.
Maybe it lends itself to a guide, and there is an opportunity there for the “resort” to be accessible again in that way…….. but experience shows that there are not enough visiting fly-fishers to keep a guide in business in these parts.
So it is wilder, arguably unkempt, in a way that doesn’t matter, but possibly at risk of a lack of environmental management. One could get philosophical about what the desired outcome is.
Where to from here? I don’t know. I have been blamed for giving away “secret spots” like this one, but having done so, it still is not crowded. And if someone called for volunteers to spray the bramble on Stillerus, I wonder how many would put their hands up?
On running out of flies on the river:
“I had to go home and be in time for supper, an astonishing mishap, breaking all precedents”. From “Rod and Line” by Arthur Ransome…. 1929
(This little book is a delight! It is poetic in its delivery, modern, adventurous, and upbeat in its content, and not the stuffy armchair stuff that you might expect to be hearing from a Brit between the wars.)