I recently became the custodian of some classic fly fishing tackle. That is to say, it was not given to me, but circumstances dictate that I must look after this stuff for a while, (and I am not saying any more than that!)
Petro and I opened the heavy and elegant, but battered box on the lounge floor the other night over a good bottle of red.
The box was engraved, and inside, apart from the Palakona cane rod, Hardy’s leaders in muslin inserts, reels, tiny trout flies, and the like, were two fishing permits.
So from this, and the tarnished plaque on the front, we know that the box belonged to one Henry Antrobus Cartwright, a military man during the second world war, and stationed in Berne, Switzerland when things were pretty damned hot.
Cartwright was a distinguished military man, famous for his five attempted escapes from German POW camps in the first world war, and for his book “Within Four Walls”. * Cartwright illustrated that book with humorous sketches, so he was clearly a multi talented man. In the second world war, he was a captain in the British army, a Colonel by 1945, and a brigadier before the war ended. Following some research I now know that he received the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) on the 14th June 1945, and that on the 18th of June he went fly-fishing.
The story goes something like this:
Cartwright had links to SIS and MI5, and his job was debriefing returning prisoners of war, escapees, and other military personnel getting out of the spotlight, and passing from Germany, back through Berne in Switzerland, (where he was stationed).
My Google search turned up these snippets:
“Switzerland, along with SIS stations in fellow neutral countries such as Portugal and Sweden were to become the major collection points for Allied intelligence about the Axis war plans in Europe.”
“Count Frederick "Fanny" van den Heuvel, the epitome of a perfect old time diplomat, tall, courteous, an excellent linguist, had been educated in Berne and could speak fluent Swiss-German. He had also gone to school in England and had once been a director of "Enos" Fruit Salts. He had worked for the SIS during WWI but had been compromised. He was appointed Station Chief SIS Geneva, while Victor Farrell was appointed a "Press Attache" at the British Embassy in Berne, where he joined the Air Attache, Air Commodore Freddie West, MC, VC and the Military Attache, Colonel H.A. Cartwright both of who had previous links with SIS.
The various Naval, Military and Air Attaches were the main intelligence gatherers for MI5.”
So it seems that Cartwright was a man who got to learn some war secrets, and as a result he was a marked man by the Germans, who were trying to get eyes on him. He must have been a nervous man, because back in August of 1943, he erroneously dismissed a man named Kocherthaler, a middle man, to a noble German “traitor” named Fritz Kolbe, and in so doing missed an opportunity to set up an intelligence chain that may have ended the war that little bit earlier.
Read the story of Kolbe, Kocherthaler and Cartwright HERE.
But despite all that , we see that he was promoted quickly through the ranks towards the end of the war, so he must have been a high powered fellow, with some successes about which we may never know, and a man with a whole lot more stress than someone sitting in an office nowadays.
And from my research I discovered that The King’s Birthday Honours 1945, celebrating the official birthday of King George VI, were announced on 14 June 1945 for the United Kingdom and British Empire in which Cartwright received his “CMG”.
Now look at the date his fishing permit was issued:
So, in a nutshell, he escaped, he snuck around gathering secrets, served his country well, got promoted right to the top, made the king’s birthday list, and then he went fly-fishing to celebrate.
What a man !
So how did I end up with his tackle?
Well, I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.
“Opening Day – 1 September 1990”
After a winter of repeated tackle cleaning, fly tying and general pent-up abstinence, fly fishermen, myself included, seldom miss an opening day of the season.
It was the first day of spring and we were to have the privilege of fishing a small stretch of the upper Umgeni River. The old Merc bumped, lurched and scraped its belly down the stony track towards the farm “Knowhere”, with its large house overlooking the bend in the long pool and the downstream flats along the southern bank of the river dotted with grazing sheep. We parked by the side of the track near the top of the hill, briefly admiring the idyllic setting below us, then opted to walk the last few hundred metres to the farmhouse rather than risk doing serious damage to the underside of the car.
After exchanging courtesies with the friendly landowner and fending off three large, overenthusiastic farm dogs, we were at last free to stroll down to the river bank to see what condition the water was in following some early spring rain two days before. The river level had risen and, while slightly off colour, was just clean enough so one could see the fly in the water and just discoloured and turbulent enough to allow fishing from the high banks without being spotted by the wily browns that live in this stretch of river.
I rigged up a five-weight outfit for my girlfriend Jacqui and a three-weight for myself. The leaders were topped with small, bright orange foam strike indicators and the light tippets finished off with a freshly tied “Peacock Woolly Worm” on the five-weight, and the three-weight with my favourite “Wezani” nymph. The Wezani is a somewhat simple, but very effective, olive green and black seal’s fur nymph that Paul de Wet and I had developed and refined on several trips to the forested streams above Weza in southern Natal. The Wezani is best tied well weighted with wine bottle lead, or with plumber’s lead if you don’t drink wine. These flies seem to improve after catching a couple of fish when they become more tattered around the thorax.
Within the first hour or two of the morning’s fishing I caught and released a number of small, feisty browns around half to three-quarters of a pound. They were typical ‘geni browns – beautifully coloured and healthy. The fish were eager and hungry after the long winter but, as usual, tricky and evasive.
Approaching midday, I wandered over to the high bank from which Jacqui had been casting to hear that she had just hooked and lost her first ever brown trout. She appeared to be taking it quite well and wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have been. I sensed that I would only be getting in her way and that any offers of consolation or tuition would not likely be welcomed, so I continued a short distance downstream and squatted down behind a clump of bush to continue the steady rhythm of casting and drifting the nymph slow and deep along the bank.
The foam strike indicator dipped once more, but this time more decisively, and disappeared into the green depths. I lifted the rod gently and struck hard. A large, brightly speckled brown more than half a metre long flashed its long flanks, writhed and then dived to the bottom of the stream. The soft little rod bucked hard and my road arm trembled as the fish thumped and knocked against the stream bed and then dived headlong into some submerged reeds against the opposite bank. It showed itself on the surface one more time and then sounded again.
Almost half an hour later after a dogged battle interspersed with powerful runs, we beached the grand old fish into a clump of weed about a hundred metres downstream. As I reached down to slip my index finger into its gills, the small fly shot out of its mouth with an audible “ping”. I jumped into the water up to my thighs and, using both arms, scooped the exhausted monster onto the bank. With some sadness, I reluctantly administered the Coup de Grace. It was well beyond reviving after the unnecessarily long fight. I had not come prepared for fish this size.
The old cockfish was long and wiry with a large head, a pronounced rounded snout and a hooked jaw. His big, round spots were charcoal-coloured, with some bright red ones surrounded here and there by large silver rosettes. It was stunning. Measuring 57cm and weighing 3lb 15oz., it was my largest brown and by far the biggest stream fish I had ever seen, or had ever hoped to see on any trout water.
Those of you who have fished this stretch of the Umgeni River will probably agree that its landscape and the very long, slow pools around its middle section are quite unlike other classic ‘berg and midlands waterways.
Under normal water levels, this section is typically slack or at best slow-flowing and there are no riffles or fast water to impart movement and action to your fly, or to excite the downstream angler. The high banks demand a stealthy, upstream approach and the fish, while fairly plentiful, can at times be a real challenge. A good measure of patience, concentration and sharp reflexes are required as you crane your neck watching your barely moving leader, waiting and begging the strike indicator to stop and dip into the murky depths. And then you pick up the line and repeat the exercise, cast after cast.
Strike indicators are a matter of personal preference. I don’t mind them and in situations like this I like to use a small polypropylene yarn or a stick-on foam indicator at the very top of a short leader, typically 7 to 8 foot long. Just about any small nymph will do the job, but after several trips to this part of the Umgeni I can vouch for a generic Peacock Woolly Worm in sizes 10 and 12 as a confidence-boosting, backup pattern when the water is dirty, and a well weighted Wezani (or similar) nymph in sizes 12, 14 and 16 to cover various depths to structure when the water is on the clean side.
The beautiful early spring day was capped off when Jacqui eventually landed her first Umgeni brown late that afternoon after several frustrating near-misses. Around sunset, we trudged wearily but contented back up the steep hill and turned the car homeward to “sticky troutless, Durban”* (with sincere apologies to Neville Nuttall).
On the drive home, my thoughts inevitably returned to the day and it was only then that I remembered the 3lb 10oz. fish that Paul de Wet had caught on a nearby stretch of the Umgeni the year before and the apparently much larger fish that our friend Conrad Raab had lost earlier in the 1988 season. While the Umgeni is certainly better known for its browns of half a pound or sometimes up to a pound if you are lucky, 2 pounders are not unheard of and, as we now know, a trophy fish is never out of the question.
This is indeed a special and very different stretch of river and only a small part of a much larger, diverse waterway that demands our time and exploration.
Brett is an old friend, who now resides in Australia with his wife Jacqui.
Photos supplied by Andrew are more recent, but were all taken on the stretch of river in question: “Knowhere”, which is now NFFC club water.
My Uber driver the other day, wanted to know what brought me to Cape Town. His name was Eugene. He was a clean shaven and decidedly Caucasian looking guy who mixed his level of social sophistication and intelligence with that delightful and unmistakable accent of the Cape Flats. I can’t help striking up a conversation with these guys, just as a means of listening and perhaps, if I am lucky enough, to gain one of their quotable sayings, that they come up with regularly.
I told him about the fly-fishing expo I had just attended. Eugene wanted to know what this fly-fishing thing was all about. I explained. The weight in the line not in the sinker or lure….you know the drill. He got that instantly, and my explanation tailed off, leaving me feeling that I hadn’t got the essence of it all into the discussion. So I added bits about us fly-fishers being totally different from the bait and lure guys. I think I said something about finesse in tackle, and probably compared baseball with cricket.
“Ah, so yoo okes shmokes beeg cigaars” said Eugene.
“You nailed it!” I said, and he smiled.
But as we fell into silence, I pondered afresh how our big cigars hide some home truths that we don’t readily confess to.
I had just heard fears the day before, how an expo attendee, having bought a ticket to enter this prestigious event, could just lift some merchandise! I would never do that! So I got to thinking what I would do, and finding that page in my mind particularly blank, I resorted to considering what I have done.
There was the time we all fooled our varsity mate “Donkey” (yes, he is from East Griqualand) into believing that one of us, who had hooked into a massive lump of weed, was into a good fish. The fishing being rather slower than the flow of beer, we had no qualms in making the “fight” last for a full 25 minutes, complete with a running commentary to Donkey about the ever increasing estimates as to the size of this thing. We worked him up to a fever pitch of excitement and jealousy before nonchalantly declaring, “Oops, sorry, must have been this here weed”.
Then there was the time we like to think we fooled Conrad, who was the last one out on his float tube fishing, into believing the widening rings behind him were rises, and not the product of our pebble throwing. By the time the pebbles had grown in size to missiles that could cause grievous bodily harm, and our mirth had caused our aim to deteriorate to a point where he was actually in danger, he lost his cool, as any respectful, sincere, and dedicated fly-fisherman should. Sorry Conrad! I promise…we have grown up since then.
The other day I was tying minnow patterns and it got me thinking about the time I was stocking a dam with fry. I knew that the big trout in the dam would make a feast of these hapless fellows, and as early as the night before, I had planned my approach. I would stock. Then I would make coffee. Then I would fish a minnow pattern. I could barely sleep that night, as I manufactured in my mind, the story of the success I would surely have.
Imagine my cursing when I arrived at the dam to find it occupied by a fisherman, standing in the exact spot where I had dreamed of launching my Kent’s baby Rainbow. I commenced with the stocking. It didn’t take long for Popjoy to wander over and enquire as to my activities. “Stocking!” I proclaimed, adding “First time in years…I feel bad for not having stocked this dam, when we stocked that other one over the hill so very well all these years”.
It worked a charm. He was gone, and over the hill in minutes!
After coffee I put up the minnow imitation and, taking my time, so as to keep the dream in tact, I wandered over to the previously occupied spot, and executed a long and gentle cast. The whopper took the fly on the first strip, and surged for the horizon, breaking me off in the process, and setting off a chain reaction of scattering monsters. It was mayhem, and it would be many hours before things settled down again. Poetic justice I suppose.
One of my fellow fly anglers, who is a whole lot more competent than I am, and likely to empty a river stretch of fish in front of your eyes, has been tying up a storm and gearing up for the new river season with single minded determination and with the honing of skills like you have never seen.
It is quite worrying for those of us who are destined to fish up a piece of river behind him.
Now certain “Uriah the Hittite” type allegations have been leveled at me, but to set the record straight: It is pure coincidence that I employed this man last month, and have sent him off to work on a project in a very far flung country, with limited leave.
Ok, yes, he does leave on the first of September, but……..
Oh to hell with it. Pass me one of those big cigars Eugene.