I recently came to the realisation that I have something of a penchant for fishing waters other than the "blue ribbon" ones. That is to say that I end up exploring lesser known waters or waters that are passed over by others as being second class.
I can’t quite work out why I do that. Maybe on some level I dream of re-discovering a long forgotten gem. Or maybe it is because these streams are less likely to be occupied by other fishermen. While we seldom encounter other fishermen on the river here, there is something to be said for the river bank without paths or well trampled grass. Perhaps it has something to do with my secret belief that one day I will catch a lunker from under everyone’s noses.
Or perhaps I am naturally a supporter of the underdog. The poor cousin of the great Trout stream. The waters that are forgotten by everyone else.
What I do know is that this inclination of mine sees me hiking more, and catching fewer fish. I do fish the good waters, make no mistake, but just as often I will be crawling through the undergrowth trying to find the water, while many others have their fly in a perfect drag free drift on a premium stretch of the Mooi or Bushmans.
Many of these visits, maybe you could say most of them, end in at least some disappointment. Yes, I will clock up some more exploring miles. Put little red squiggles on my GPS map, see some wildlife, or spot a new bird. But when I return fishless, albeit a little wiser, with blackjacks stuck to my clothes, I will think "maybe I should have stuck with my favourite stretch of the Mooi". And yet a few weeks later you will find me out there crawling through the undergrowth, or fishing water that may (or may not) contain Trout.
Just last week I dragged two fishing buddies on a hike that well exceeded ten kilometers. A week earlier some guys had been catching eighteen inch Browns on the main river. Logic said we should have been there, but instead we were on a virtually unheard of tributary. We had explored the lower reaches but, inspired by deceptively attractive Google Earth images, I lured my mates ever higher into the hills. Near to our furthest point I hooked and landed an unidentified minnow of microscopic proportions. It was the only piscatorial event of the day.
"This is a long way to come to catch a mudfish!" commented PD.
Hours later, having hiked back to within site of the pickup, he spotted a Brown that he reckoned would have gone two pounds. Thank heavens he didn’t catch it. I would never have heard the end of that.
I was on the Eastern shoreline of a small lake that we sometimes fish. For my last minute day off from work, I had been blessed with mild sunny weather. It was April, and the blue sky was dotted with drifting puffy white clouds. There was a slight Northerly breeze. Just enough to ripple the crystal clear water.
The fish were small. Tiny in fact. Last year’s stocking had clearly been a success, and as a result we would have to put up with these ankle biters until following seasons, by which time the fishing would no doubt be superb.
For now, I was content. So what if the fish still had parr markings. They were ‘on the prod’, and the alternative would have been to be at a desk with a computer and an incessantly ringing phone.
The fish were feeding for sure, but I was getting more “bangs and wriggles” than I was Rainbows. I had on a #12 Red Eyed Damsel which the fish were chasing for sure, but they were really only connecting with it when I stripped it back fast. It reminded me of the method I had deployed the evening before go get my daughter’s kitten to chase a pom-pom. The fish were of similar size and disposition! But this was no way to fish a damsel imitation, or anything else for that matter.
I reeled in and walked on down the pretty rocky shoreline. This place has the look and feel of a Scottish loch. It is as good a place as any to take a stroll to unwind on your day off. Further along, I sank into the thick grass and busied myself with the connection of a little dry fly. A “DHE”. I greased it up well and then teased the deer hair fibres apart again, to restore it’s buggy spiky look.
Then I sat back in the veld and waited for a fish to show. A few fish had been showing on the surface, but certainly not many. It was a fair wait. Fifteen minutes perhaps. Fifteen unwinding minutes of not casting, and just taking in the view. It was exactly what I needed.
Then a fish swirled. I covered it quickly and landed it, returned it, and sat back in the grass to dry the fly. No casting.
After a further ten minutes another fish moved, and I repeated the single cast regime, with the same result.
I can recommend it.
Do you remember that scene from “a River runs through it” where the camera swoops across a rocky ridge, and reveals the two boys running across the open grasslands?
Here in the KZN midlands, our landscape, notwithstanding its beauty, is lined and dotted with trees. Not only trees of course, there are fence-lines and farmhouses and roads too, but the trees are significant. Early writings by explorers in this area reveal the extent to which this place was a sea of grass.
A world with the dew still on it: there are still patches to be cherished.
I read somewhere a report from a delegation who travelled from Maritzburg to Underberg to survey that area’s suitability for farming back in the 1800’s. Their most significant comments related to the lack of trees, and the endless expanses of grass. In the context of their report it was a complaint. “No firewood” they said, and they concluded that the area was without charm, and had a low potential for agriculture.
The lucky bastards! I was born in the wrong era! What I would not give to be one of them: to venture out there and see this world with the dew still on it. Forget for a moment all the wildlife they must have encountered, and just imagine the grasslands. The dense grass cover would have stretched for as far as the eye could see. Successive ridges of just pure waving grass! There would probably have been no erosion. I assume that even the lowland rivers must have run clean most of the time.
So, OK, there were no Trout at that stage. (and an obscure group of pseudo environmentalists want us to believe that the Trout came along and ate entire populations of species which have never been recorded), but even without the Trout, what a place it must have been.
I confess, I dream about it sometimes. I lie awake at night like a little kid, and try to be that camera swooping like an eagle across vast expanses of grass….on and on, until I fall asleep.
I have seen a brochure somewhere for a lodge on the steppes of Mongolia, where one can travel to experience such vistas of nothingness. Nothingness as a tourist attraction! I like it.
We can’t put the KZN midlands in a brochure advertising an escape to nothingness. We have lost that. We have lost it to overgrazing, dongas, wattle trees, groves of gums, roads and development. We have lost it to environmental degredation. We have replaced it with a tourist route boasting coffee shops, and jewelry. Rugs, art shops, and clothing outlets. We have rows of holiday homes, and tarred roads. We think pine plantations and encroaching alien trees are pretty. Most visitors don’t know the difference between a wattle plantation and a patch of indigenous bush. Most don’t notice the bare earth drains running off the road into the now silted river. Most don’t know the difference between a kikuyu pasture, an eroded hillside of “mshiki” and “Ngongoni”, and a patch of decent “rooigras”.
We keep expanding too. Ploughing up remaining pieces of grassland, subdividing into smaller and smaller pieces of land, and approving more and more developments after ever more rigorous “EIA’s” . We have wattle trees encroaching into the greater Drakensberg heritage site, and have built dams that wouldn’t be necessary if we fixed the leaking pipes and stopped having babies.
Wattle trees, unchecked, encroaching a river bank in the Drakensberg
And what are we doing to stop all this.
We are banning Trout. Banning Trout and angering one of the most conservation conscious groups in the country.
Forgive my depressing tirade. I am not normally given over to politics and lobbying: Just common sense.
On Friday, as I lowered the back door of the aircraft, turned and reversed down the steps onto the tarmac, I felt cool dry April afternoon air swirl around me and lift my spirits.
I had come home. Home to Southern mountains, to prospects of winter frost, to Trout, and good coffee.
I had left behind sticky Mozambique, with it’s potholes, humidity, train ambushes and sugarcane. I had left behind Tanzania’s red earth rivers, it’s bribes and mosquitoes. I had left behind Lusaka’s dust, incomplete buildings, and broken machinery. We had retreated to the place with good freeways, neatly laid out farms and towns, and familiar faces.
Returning home made me contemplate the uniqueness of this Southern tip of the continent. For a week we had emersed ourselves in flat humid places. Places with rolling hills at most. Lush places of brilliant green foliage against a lot of bare red earth. A LOT of bare earth! We had flown over them, conversed with their people, and experienced the vastness of what lies to the North of us. Something more vast than the whole of the USA in a sense: where you can fly for an hour and find yourself two days drive from where you were, and listening to a completely new set of languages in a place ruled and governed completely differently from where you had breakfast. A great big dusty, muddy, overgrazed and degraded landscape. Heavily populated in the sense that the populations of Africa spew across the land like something spilled there. Their occupation hap-hazard, devoid of planning, and the impact on the environment always evident.
Back home, the pollution is piped below the surface, the people live in neat rows, and the bugs get nuked with frost in winter. There are more higher plateaus where one can escape thorn trees and tropical looking bush. Trout plateaus. Something that does not exist at all across Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique….. the places we were returning from.
A week or two earlier I had struggled to convey these differences to two Canadian travellers who are planning a fly fishing trip overland from Tanzania to the Western Cape. In my own mind it was fairly clear. They would see bush and big rivers with Bream and Tigers (which I know so little about) for thousands of miles through indigenised Africa, and then they would emerge down here needing less money for bribes, a small stream stick, a couple of dry flies and some warmer clothing!
I get a sense that we really do live in a cocoon down here. One that is under threat of being burst by things like global warming, the banning of Trout, and the rise of corruption.
I need to get my feet in a cold Trout stream soon to re-visit some of my sweeping statements above, and to give this all some more thought.