Four days in September
Opening day. I seldom fish it. It is normally dry and lean and often still wintery, even if only in a vaguely cold and dusty way. Algae is the norm. Pools take on a sedentary look, and it is not attractive. But this year felt a little different. Winter snow and rain supposedly comes in the middle of July. I say supposedly, because I can’t remember when mother nature last stuck with that nice, neat formula. In recent years we have had no decent snow at all. Then this year, like a late gift, it arrived, accompanied by around an inch of rain just about everywhere, and it did that in the week before the Trout river season opened. So the Viking said to me that if I was serious about my stream flyfishing; if I was properly committed to the cause, then I would fish a river with him, notwithstanding the fact that it was a work day. “OK”, I said “I’m in!”, and we agreed to leave at 8 am.
We arrived on the water around 2:30 pm. What can I say: work got in the way of us both. The upside was that Dave joined us. We strolled down to the river under slightly dulled skies, but in high spirits. I will concede that there was a slight sense of occasion being out on opening day. We started in at King’s pump, and plied the slow, moody looking water there, leapfrogging upstream in a sort of loosely plaited arrangement. It all seemed rather still and lifeless, despite the decent water levels and clarity and the apparent absence of any algae. As the afternoon slid by, I confess that my concentration began to wane, and the boyish enthusiasm with which we set out was converting to a more realistic temper.
At some point, at a big bend in the pool, I lifted my rod and drew the fly from the depths near my feet, and then I jiggled it a little to see how it was swimming. It was a small Woolly Bugger. In fact I suspect it was the very same fly that I caught a lunker on in the Bushmans two seasons back: my biggest river fish ever. I lifted it and dropped it. It looked good. Kinda tadpole like. I did it again. The fish that shot out from under the grass clump at my feet to grab it took me totally by surprise! I leaned back, and probably gasped, and in so doing drew the fly out of the water. The fish turned, looking… hunting, for the fly. So I lowered it back in, and it took it. That put a smile on my face. The first fish of the season. It was a pretty little brown. I photographed it, and returned it, and I was happy.
Later I took a phone call (why did I do that!), and for a long time I stood there with my rod in one hand, fly hanging a few inches below my thumb and forefinger which grasped the tippet, saying “yes” and “um”. Dave took the opportunity and, hearing from The Viking that I had landed a fish, he cut in and fished the pool, as he was well entitled to do. When he hooked his fish, I was trying to enjoy the moment with him while remaining focused on my phone call, which had already gone on way too long. I should explain at this point that it was a video call, and that I was having a time of disguising that I was out on a Trout river with my buddy landing a trout right there beside me, ducks flying overhead, and kingfishers dashing by.
Later, as dark drew across the landscape, we stood almost side by side and fished Siesta Pool.
At some point a trout slashed at my caddis imitation at the head of the pool, and the others heard it, but I didn’t connect. Walking out through the lush ryegrass pasture in the low light, I was reminded that The Viking had earlier challenged us to a dare in which the one who didn’t catch a fish should take a plunge in the drinking trough near the gate. We were drawing near the trough, and having earlier rejected the challenge, I now suggested that we might invoke it. He was having none of it.
I tried several mates to see who wanted to join me. This one was working. That one was busy. Another had an invitation to some fancy syndicate water. It was starting to feel like a “rent a crowd” situation, so I stopped trolling my phone list and just went alone.
There was a heavy grey sky, and there were patches of mist hanging below the line of hills to the west, making them seem closer, more imposing, and somehow grander than they are in bright, tame sunshine. I tackled up, and set off along the base of the krantz, past the second pumphouse and beyond, to a willow lined section of river.
It was sullen water. The depth was difficult to determine on account of the silveriness of the day. It was all reflection, and muted surface colours of nchishi green, and mud-bank brown. I imagined it to be deep. I conjured up levels of faith in my piscatorial success which defied the apparent chances.
Then I had a take. Right there in between the logs, in the grey-green water right in front of me, and the fish swirled straight after I saw the tippet tighten. I was now wide awake. Perhaps the fish were “on the prod”.
There was no action in the big pool above that, and with the bow and arrow casts I executed through the multitude of bare willow branches covering another deep slot, were not successful. But they did prove to be “on the prod” that day. Above the drift a lively 14 inch fish took my fly with gusto, and came to the net.
Not long after, and in the same pool, a fish came out from under my own bank and smacked the same little Woolly Bugger with such aggression, it surprised me. So did the size of the fish! After tense moments in which the fish moved up and down the pool at pace, shaking its head, I lifted the net on a truly lovely trophy, and I confess, I was shaking just a little (and uttering little exclamations of pleased wonder and smug satisfaction for some time too). After a one handed photo, I slid the beautiful big cock fish back into the depths at my feet, and sat in the grass for a long moment taking in the scene, and letting things wash over me.
Just casts later, a solid 16 inch fish took the fly, and I was in heaven.
While I had been working that pool, a fish had risen at a spot just above a log jam. At first, I thought it was a duck. Then it rose again and I knew it was no duck. They were not small rises!
As I reached the spot, I resolved to have a good look at this fish; to take it slow, and to hunt this thing properly. With my earlier success, my want of fish had relaxed into a need for the ultimate sight fishing and stalking experience. I waited over twenty minutes for the fish to rise again. Then I covered it with a single cast, and not achieving a successful or pleasing drag free drift, I decided to try a different approach. The log jam above was forcing me to cast up along my bank, and let the fly drift down way off to the fish’s left side, as well as drawing the fly off the water with messy drag for fear of the fly going into the logs. Rather than risk putting the fish down with another cast that would surely be identical to the first failed attempt, I resolved to backtrack, walk around the spot in the ryegrass pasture and approach the bank from above for a quartering downstream cast.
As I approached the river again, I saw that I had been gifted with a large clump of sword grass, behind which I could crouch. I slid down there with my fly at the ready and waited. It was another twenty minutes or so, and the fish rose again. A thumping, unabashed walloping gulp of a rise, performed with impunity. It got my heart racing, but I held my composure long enough to change to a beetle imitation (because with no hatching flies evident, it could only have been a terrestrial that it took, and it was too early in the season for a hopper). The beetle drifted over the spot without result, and I retrieved the fly and line to wait for more signals. At this point, lying there in the grass behind my clump of grass, I had a chat on the phone with PD to share news of my success. Phoning people while fishing is not something I do, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary here, but I was still bubbling over with the news of my big fish, and I wanted to share it with someone who would get it. After a good while on the phone, with my rod lying beside me in the grass, another a fish moved in a different spot, and I quickly ended the call with “Gotta go!”. The fish had risen below me in a spot that I could easily reach from my previous approach. There was nothing for it…I leopard crawled out, circled back around, and presented from the earlier spot. Nothing. It occurred to me then that this was probably one of those fish that was not holding position, and that in fact the few rises might all be the same fish, moving about. He would be in a rotation about the pool. My only chance was to try spot him, and predict the path of his route, so as to drop a fly in the spot he was approaching, to avoid lining him in these glassy, silver conditions.
I returned to my clump of sword grass and sat it out. There was another rise, but I couldn’t see the fish, so I didn’t cast. I decided that the rise was sub surface, so I changed to an emerger in anticipation of the next one. I craned my neck and rotated my polarized glasses but I could not see through the silvery slick. I sat it out for more than half an hour, and during that time I relented and made one blind cast….just on the off chance that my good luck of the day would repeat itself.
When the fish rose again, it was in a different place, and this time it was definitely taking off the surface, but since I couldn’t see any insects, it must have been something small. I changed to a size 18 F-Fly, and waited. Little breezes riffled the water at times. The sprinklers in the field trilled and clicked and thrummed. Cloud patches continued to drift across the gloomy grey hills to the west. The ryegrass pasture was lush and short and pretty behind me, and the willows were all gaunt and bare and full of sticks. It was quiet. Then, after another fourty minutes a tiny miracle unfolded. A shaft of sunshine poked through the cloud and lit the water in front of me. It was like a screen being lifted. Suddenly I could see the secrets beneath the previously shiny, reflective surface. The pool was not deep at all. It was a bed of intricate, golden stones, strewn about the place, with lots of feature and lots of holding water. And there in front of me, finning away was the Trout. Exposed! Presented to me on a plate. It was beautiful. I reached for my camera, switched it over to video mode, adjusted the polarizing filter to cut the last remaining glare, zoomed the lens in and just before I raised the eyepiece, I looked at the Trout to get my aim right. As I did so, the fish swam confidently forward, and I craned around the sword grass to see it rise to something off the surface, and then it sank away and the sun disappeared and pool was silver again. The ghost was gone.
Later, the weather grew heavy, and I strolled upstream, peering into holes under the gaunt willows, and delivering the odd hopeful cast blindly into deep green lairs, pitted with raindrops.
Presently I wound in and strolled back to the bakkie. As I climbed the hill to leave the drizzle stopped, and two fish rose in the slow water behind me. I stopped and watched the ripples of their rises subside, and I smiled.
The weather forecast had predicted winds of 5 to 7 metres per second. As I drove up the Dargle road I looked at the tops of the gum trees and saw no movement. Perhaps it would be perfect, and I would be spared that nasty, hot, blustery berg wind.
I arrived at the bottom of the valley to gusts of wind, and was met by detritus on the water, and great swirling wind ripples brushing the surface of the enormous pool. I was in shirtsleeves. It was warm.
Fish number one was six inches long: a pretty little Brown showing signs of its Loch Leven heritage: tiny black pepper spots, silvery and with just a sprinkling of red splotches down towards the tail.
The next thirteen fish eluded me. Yes: Thirteen! I started to mutter and swear. Some were those little dashing takes of small fish. A sort of grab and go thing, where the lift of the rod is plainly slow and ineffective. Others were on for a few moments. Two of them came off at the rim of the outstretched net, and one was a good solid fish that lunged at the fly, just as it landed millimeters from the reeds on the far side. It thrashed on the surface as Browns often do, and then it was gone. I checked the hook. It was a long pointed, ultra-sharp, wide gaped jig hook. OK, it was barbless, but thirteen misses! I ask you, with tears in my eyes! Sure, some were downstream of me, and my strike may have been too quick to allow them to turn downstream, but I adjusted for this once I had had that thought, and some I didn’t strike at all. Since the fish were eating the fly in question with gusto, I chose not to change it. Fish number fourteen through twenty one all held, so I ended the morning on a count of seven. I think. All the counting was getting confusing. One was a fish which came up at my feet while I was watching for the fly to come into view. I saw the fish first, watched it while it turned in slow motion, and as it began to sink away, I lifted, believing it must have taken my as-yet unseen fly. I was right.
It was a strange day. The wind howled, and stopped, causing my gust-adjusted casts to slam into the river. The sun burned down, leaving my face reddened. The Trout ignored a stripped fly, and pounced on one drifted slowly with little sudden twitches. They were like kittens….excited by feigned lifelessness, interspersed with enticing wriggles, and it was a mental picture that helped me master the day’s technique. After a bite to eat, I decided I had had my fill, and I drove happily back down the valley.
The following day was windless. I illogically concluded that it would be even better than the awful berg wind. It was hot. It was slow. The water measured just shy of 15 degrees C, and it ran clear in the pretty little tributary. The other two guys were exploring upstream of me. I had pointed them to the big pool where I caught a Trout last year, and I was brimming with confidence for them. I made sure they had a camera with them and asked for pictures of the Trout when they caught it, and I wasn’t just puffing. I really meant it. I put a little North Country Spider through several runs and I leaned forward in anticipation. I had this place nailed now. I new what success looked like, and it was just a matter of time.
A little further up, I stepped onto a small island and planned my route into the pool, on the other side. I put my foot on a matt of dried bramble, and plunged four foot through it , coming to rest with my hands and elbows in the unforgiving thorns. I extracted myself painfully. It was a merciless process. Yesterday’s fall into a hole had given me a wet foot and some mud on my longs. This was different.
Plucking thorns from my skin, I regained my composure, and returned to fishing. “shaken but not stirred” I told myself.
Repeated perfect drifts were ignored. I was joined by Tim, who reported that he and Anton had not encountered anything yet. I was surprised.
We moved down to the main river, and strolled up the banks, recounting past experiences at each bend, riffle and pool we came across. Anton threw a little dry. I tried an emerger. Tim was satisfied to just walk, try to spot fish, and watch us. The water was like gin. The air was still and hot. The river-bed was strewn with sticks and the willows were thick about us. There was some algae. I clambered in, enjoying the cool water against my legs, and I threw my fly up into the willow tunnel ahead of me.
Up at Picnic Pool, Anton and I tied on heavy flies and we plied the depths of a place that is as close to a sure-thing as you get on our river.
Above picnic pool I crept to the river’s edge in several spots where I have spotted fish before, and I strained my eyes, sure that I would spot one again. Anton looked at his watch and mumbled something about the rugby game starting soon. We strolled back through the short-cropped pasture, with the birds signing in the trees, and the river sliding silently past beside us, and sweat trickling down our collars. “Where did you say you got that fish?” Anton asked doubtfully. And I smiled.