An early morning on the river

I am not immune to the vagaries of laziness and the inability to arise from my warm bed before dawn. However, when I go fishing on a summer’s morning I tell myself that I will never remember the morning that I slept in.
My mornings on a river are however unforgettable.
On Saturday I went out before dawn and made my way up to the Umgeni as I am inclined to do from time to time in the summer.

I wasted no time in tackling up and walking down through the pastures a short way to the river’s edge. I did not pause to make a cup of coffee from my flask, as I was too eager to make it onto the water. After an absence from the water I feel the desire to experience the symmetry and rhythm of the fly cast. There is simply something magical about kneeling there in the wet grass and working out a tight loop of line over the water. Feeling the pull on the rod as it absorbs the weight and force of the line, and spring loads in your hand, begging for you to respond at the given moment with the forward cast. The familiarity of it all is an anchor of the senses. A small but significant delight. A pleasure akin to that derived from a purring cat on your lap on a cold winter’s night.
As a child I derived this sense on a bicycle as I circled repeatedly in the driveway for what seemed like hours on end. Feeling and experiencing the sense of balance, the gravitational pull about the axis of the bike. Throwing the handlebars this way and that and feeling the bike and my own pedalling respond automatically. The repetition of it was not dissimilar to a trans-like state, induced by a steady flow of endorphins in my brain.
Then it was a bike, but ever since it has been a fly rod.
Some of us are inclined to get bored with a hobby or pastime, but for me the circling in the driveway is sufficiently infrequent for it to hold its appeal. Fly fishing is also so much broader than that childhood bike experience, and one must also consider that there are few who tire of a good rump steak. And so it is that my fly-fishing is home to me, and so it was that morning.
Like the sport, this stretch of river is one that I know intimately. In fact I have drawn this map of the short stretch that I so often fish before breakfast.:
On this morning I started down near King’s pump. The river is deep and moody there. You can only detect the flow by watching your fly line and various flotsam snaking past you without a whisper of a sound. The fish often do not rise at all in this part of “three quarter mile pool”. Instead they appear out of the depths and snatch at your fly, in an attempt to take it back down to their world below. I lost such a fish that morning as I lifted the rod tip at the end of the retrieve.
Fishing on up, one comes across the rapids opposite “the bog”, which greet you with their sweet chuckling sound. Such a welcome change from the long sullen stretch below!
The corner above that was more inaccessible than normal that morning as a cursed Wattle tree had fallen into the river. It is in an awkward spot, and I think that attempts to remove it may frustrate the good farmer who tends these river banks so well. We shall have to wait for a great big flood.
In this day and age waiting for a flood is a concept imbued in frustration and absurdity. More and more we expect to be able to fix things when we need to and without delay. We seem to have lost perspective and lost sight of the truth that not all things can be fixed. I was bemused when a life insurance man recently suggested that a colleague go and get his medical problem fixed so that he could reduce his life premiums. Wham-bam fixed, just like that. The possibility that his client may have to live with his lot, was not in his realm of possibility.
I wonder if a big city type who enjoyed this river as I do, would wait for the flood. I suspect he would throw his wallet at that tree. It is an invader I suppose so such an initiative should be welcomed, but it is the attitude that goes with it which leaves me cold. I am one of very few who fish our Natal midlands trout rivers. I wonder to what extent the “fix-it –quick” mentality has made me a rare specimen. I suspect that fewer fishermen are prepared to wait for a good river season to come along, than was once the case. I think that there are many who would choose the comfort and cleanliness of a colour coded float tube and waders over the wet grass seeds stuck in the hair on their legs, that this river offers up. Walking a couple of kilometres up a river searching out a good spot, or having to phone around to find out the water level and colour is just not for everyone. More so, writing off a whole season due to a flood or a heat wave and waiting for next year requires true patience for those as passionate as I am about my fly fishing.
Moving on up I peeked in at “the glides”. They were a little low. This stretch is really only at its best with a good flow of water. March two years ago, (or was it three?) it was cooking and I took a good fish here. It seems I may have to wait for later in the year, or maybe it will only be right next year. (Or the year after! Patience man, patience). Above “the glides” comes siesta pool .
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This pool has a large silt bank across the middle and a steep bank on the near side, so the way to fish it, in my view, is to avoid the long cast from the tail end, and rather fish it from the bank up towards the head of the pool. Here you can get to the waters edge. Modern convention will tell you that to fish across a tongue of current like this is just not on, but hear me out. I throw a loose line, with a sharp upstream mend, and a heavy beaded fly on the end. This set up goes drag free for most of the length of that tongue of water, and then when drag sets in, its passage has slowed anyway. Then I just draw it up and back slowly along the drop off of the bank of silt I mentioned earlier. On this morning a fish chased that fly as I pulled it back, and smacked it before my very eyes. Then it raced across the pool and made a flying leap. So who says brown trout don’t jump! The fish threw the fly and was gone in an instant.
In a moment like this, does one curse?
I probably did that morning, but I ask myself why. I would have returned the fish anyway. It was only about half a pound. As it was I got to see his speckled flanks flash in the sunlight, just as I might have done if he lay gasping in my hands. The moment that he was airborne was an uplifting one, if you will excuse the pun, and I was that little bit richer for it. In any event, the herd of curious Holstein heifers that had gathered behind me seemed immensely impressed. They all leaned forward, presenting me with their black wet noses, and breathing their vapours at me almost breathlessly. I greeted them all by number and invited them to join me as I continued up-river. None accepted. When you are alone on a river you can do such crazy things, and its much safer than singing in the car, because there is no chance of being seen.
Above siesta pool are the Nkonka rapids which are too shallow to hold a good fish. However, if you like a good splash in the river I can recommend them. The river bed is made of fine gravel, that crunches as you walk, and the giggling water scurries past your feet and ankles barely trying to hold you back at all.
At the corner pool you once again are forced to use the across and down thing, due to a large fallen tree that cuts across the pool. This water looks so deep and good, but in all honesty, I don’t recall ever catching a fish here. I fish it every time I pass it though, in the hopes that one day I shall hook the leviathan whom I am convinced lives in its inky depths.
On this particular morning it became hot and windy at about that point. So I had a few furtive casts in the “canal” before hauling up the steep hill to my pickup. There I lowered the tailgate, and using it as a seat, I enjoyed some cereal and coffee while I admired the view. The lush ryegrass waved in the wind below me, and a dove streaked across the river valley between the pockets of shelter. The valley was deserted and the solitude was not even broken by an antelope or a herdsman. There was just grass, and hillside, and wind, and I.
When I returned that morning I was asked as usual: “so did you catch anything?”
And in response to my reply I received the usual sympathetic sigh. “bad luck! Jolly bad luck”.
Well, if that’s bad luck, I hope I get to have a whole lot more of it in this lifetime.


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