Back in 1984 it was all about boats and big Walker’s Killers. We were fishing Hopewell in a big wind (and 2 storms), and the water was off colour. I fished until 7 pm, and didn’t touch a thing. Looking back on it now, I can only imagine how badly we fished!
The following year I caught a fish in the pitch dark at 7:15 pm on a DDD, and it was at “Mick Kimber’s dam”, which as you probably know is where the DDD made its Stillwater debut just a few years earlier. That trip was an eventful one, and looking at what we caught, and on what tackle, at that dam and Loch Maria, I can see that my fishing had come along a bit. We might have been using Black Woolly Worms, and fishing 3X, but some of the fish caught on that memorable week-end were in the tiny feeder streams, “caught on the lift”, and casting into a brisk wind. I had a sink-tip line at the time, which I used to good effect. I remember it well. We stayed at the old police camp house, that was destroyed in a tornado soon after. It was also where Zak recognised me from my features, after watching me closely for most of the week-end. He said I looked just like my father, and that they had played together as kids at Umgeni Poort in the late 1930’s!
On the 9th March 1986, I landed what was then my biggest Trout yet: a “five pound eight ounce” rainbow hen from Morton’s dam. That one was also on that sink-tip line, but this time on a 2X hawser. Mind you, in that weed, and with those strong fish, I would put the same tippet on if I were to fish it tomorrow. What I probably wouldn’t do tomorrow, is to use a Teal and Red, but yes, that is what I got that fish on! There was a bunch of us varsity students up there for the week-end. I didn’t record what the others caught, but I have photos, and all the fish look to be 5 to 7 pounds, and one series of photos shows a fisherman who shall remain un-named, out in his undies digging a fish out of the weed. Most fish are photographed with a good dose of riga mortis, and sized up against a ubiquitous bottle of Caste Lager. We stayed in the shed which was just through the pine trees to the south west of the dam. Funny….that one also came to a sticky end in a tornado. In the following year (1987) the floods would wash copious amounts of silt down the valley and put a permanent end to the self-stocking nature of that glorious stillwater.
But those floods were in September of 1987, and back in March of that year, well before that event, I was on the river for two days in the first days of the month. Once was at Stillerus. Interestingly there we met water of 22 degrees C, and my journal shows 21 degrees in a tiny tributary. I remember that: I had been reading Joe Humphries’ “Trout Tactics” book, and had suddenly taken a keen interest in water temperatures. Interestingly this temperature was a tad higher than the readings back in 1984 on Hopewell where it had been 17 degrees. The ‘87 trip was characterised by perfect conditions, in that the day was a comfortable 24 degrees, with sun and drifting cloud. PD got a one pound fish, and Brett got a two pounder which was full of well developed eggs! In March! At 22 degree water temps! I only managed one fish, and it was small, but I did return it…we weren’t total butchers…..
A week later at Glen Towy (Nuttall’s old place) we fished for the Rainbows of the Umzimkulu. But there we had a very full river, that was somewhat off-colour and a remarkable 24 degrees at the peak. None of us caught a fish. The weather was blistering hot, and it felt like mid-summer as March can so often do. (I am sitting here sweating as I write this)
1990. Mavela with George Forder (jnr) on the 4th of March. Hot water again (21 degrees +) Neither of us caught fish. But I take note of two things from my journal. Firstly we stopped on the bridge at Chestnuts to look over the rail at the uMngeni, something I have done every time I have crossed it ever since. (It was full but “cleanish”) , which is how I would have described it yesterday, by the way. I also fished the FMD…I think that fly had become a regular by then., and those who know me will tell you that it has remained a favourite ever since.
March 1993 saw the drought of that year finally broken, and I got to celebrate it on Lifton up in the Underberg district. That was before Sani Valley Lodge had been built. I got a strong rainbow of “two pounds” , but we only fished an hour and a half before dark. This had a lot to do with my host (Pete the Pirate) driving around the district, collecting a reel from that guy’s house, a fly box from there, returning someone’s braai to that place, and stopping to load some river rocks for his wife. What my journal doesn’t record, but which I remember clear as day, was that on the way in, we found a herdsman looking for a calf, which according to him, and in his broken English, had evaporated. Intrigued by this theory we couldn’t help but join in the search. I remember a lot of walking around in aimless circles, with the man proclaiming black magic. Then one of us looked at his feet, and there was the calf, curled up in the foetal position, in the bottom of a sinkhole in the veld. Now if evaporating calves and lost fishing tackle wasn’t enough, our fishing was then cut short by the third one on our party sinking a fly into his lip. I couldn’t believe it. We had finally got to the water, I had got one fish, and now a visit to the doctor threatened to end it all before we had even developed any momentum. Could we avert a trip to the Underberg doctor? Did I know how to remove a barbed hook painlessly? Hell yes…of course I had. (I had seen a step by step cartoon guide). It was simple. You sunk some heavy nylon along the hook shank and down to the barb, such that it filled the space behind the barb, lifting the flesh, and you yanked it out. Quickly. I had some 2X…that would have to do. I may have used the heel of my boot, I don’t recall. I just know that I was determined. I also know that when Grant Lindsay asked who had had a go at this bloke back at his surgery, I slunk behind the door and tried to look invisible.
In 1998, I was at a conference in the northern berg, and by hook or by crook, I managed to steal away and get in a few hours on the Mahai stream. I fished the fast white water with a bead-headed peacock herl fly on fine tippet, whisking it though the good brisk flow, and catching a mess of very small Rainbows. “Great fun. Ages since I did this” I recorded in the journal.
In the year 2000, I was so encouraged by the early signs of autumn, that I snuck away from work on a Thursday and got in two hours fishing on the uMngeni at Brigadoon. “River looks wonderful. Full and clean” I wrote, and on the same page the water temperature is recorded as 19 degrees, the air at 23. There were newly disced fields to accommodate the ryegrass planting, Inhlosane was resplendent in the slanting light of late afternoon, and “The Glides” were flowing just perfectly. That is to say they were gliding….smooth undulating flow which rattles the reeds either side of the channel, but is mild enough to step into and wade, while being deep enough to give the Browns confidence to move into this area of flat bedrock. You don’t often find it like this, so my exuberance was well-founded. It was also well founded because I landed several fish, amongst them a two-pound Brown on a DDD. That bigger fish sipped the fly gently, and then fought like a demon, making landing it without a net (I must have forgotten it at home), a real challenge. “I must do this again” I wrote. Indeed! I am fishing the uMngeni tomorrow.
The following year, PD was down from Jo-burg to get away from it all. We fished Brigadoon on the Saturday and Invermooi on the Sunday. Interesting. The uMngeni was a bit milky “but you could see your boots when waded waist deep”, the water was 18 degrees C , the day was hot, and we caught nothing. The following day on the Stillwater, the temp was 23 degrees, but crystal clear, and “It was like clubbing seals”. But they were stockies, and PD had to leave to get back to Jo Burg, and on the Saturday we saw otter, reedbuck, bushbuck, 3 types of kingfisher, storks, two types of duck “etc etc”, and no one was rushing anywhere…….
In 2005, I wrote on the 5th March “ The nights have been noticeably cooler in the last week. The mornings have the crispness of autumn”. And that they would, since my son and I were on the water at Colmonell in the dark well before 5 am, drinking coffee and waiting for civil twilight. When light did come, the fish started rising, but there was a veritable soup of insects, and we failed to match whichever one it was that they were eating.
In the same week of 2007 I had another 4am start, and fetched PD on the way to Qalaben. I can picture that early start as I sit here. We had been enduring a heat wave for 4 weeks, and the day before it had reached 48 degrees C in Maritzburg . That sounds dodgy…perhaps that was in a car left in the sun, but you get the picture. It just reminds me that early March may feel autumnal some years, but it can be damned hot others. Remarkably PD and I both got some good fish, which fought strongly. We had lots of what I call “nicks and scratches”, and there were fish rising until 11:30 am and then it went dead, and we paddled our tubes to the edge and reclined under the willow with cold beer.
In 2011, my friend Dave and I had another early start, no doubt because early morning was the time to be out since my entry records the weather as having been “hot and dry “. But the river was up enough that the water was gliding at the glides, and that is where Dave got a magnificent Brown on a bright green foam hopper. I remember passing Dave. He was standing down in the river channel, and said he had seen a fish rising. I remember hanging around for a while, with the camera at the ready. Dave was taking his time changing flies, and I got restless and moved off upstream. Dave stuck it out, took his time and got his fish, and presently he was hollering, and I was running back downstream fumbling for my camera.
In 2014, Roy Ward and I spent the morning working on the fishing club newsletter together, and then I took him up to a very special piece of small stream water in the Midlands, which only flows for a few hundred yards of fishable water before it goes over a waterfall. The water was warm, and as is typical of the uMngeni system at the end of summer, it was still brackish. The water was 21 degrees, and the day was warmer, with high humidity and a storm threatening off to the west. Roy and I mixed it up: he borrowed my Sage 2 weight, and I borrowed his 3 weight line to put on my newly acquired Thomas and Thomas rod. There was just one fish between us: a Rainbow of 10 inches, taken on the nymph, but there was somehow a sense of occasion which is firm in my memory and absent from the pages of my journal. I remember enjoying that afternoon immensely.
A week later PD and I were on Reekie Lynn on the Mooi. Although I hadn’t named it yet, the journal shows that I was testing the Troglodyte for the first time. That seems appropriate because that fly is designed to get down in heavy flow, and that s exactly what we had: heavy flow. I fished the Thomas and Thomas again, and I think I still had Roy’s line on loan. The record shows that I hooked quite a few fish, but only managed to land three of them. That was between the bottom boundary and scissors run, and Magic Pool was where I had success as so often happens. The record doesn’t reflect why, but we inexplicably chucked it in then, and hiked back up to the bakkie despite there being a few hours of daylight left.
Precisely a year later, I again had two consecutive river trips at either end of the first week of March. The first was another memorable trip with Roy, in which we explored the Bushmans down at Rockmount. The river was really dirty down there, and if memory serves me correctly, we didn’t even rig up. Instead we moved up and had a look at it at the clinic, where it was still very full, and slatey. So we went even higher, and started in just below sandmine pool. Roy got a small Brown on his very first cast. I remember that well. Roy so often didn’t catch, but was always as content as can be, and somehow that added a special dimension to the times when he did get something. I then went above Roy, and was fishing a spot where there was some slack water off to my right. It looked too shallow to be home to a fish, but I threw a fly in there anyway, more to test my accuracy than anything else. I had a few throws, seeing if I could get the fly in under a bush. It was merely a technical challenge, and I had no expectations of a fish. After each delivery I allowed the fly to drag out from under the bush and swing around beside me. Roy came up from below me, and sat on the bank to watch me. I turned towards him to chat to him (he lip-read..he was completely deaf). No sooner had I opened my mouth than he was gesticulating and mumbling something of apparent urgency. I turned to see a good-sized Brown chasing my dragging fly, and I moved the rod to slow the swing, and I was in! The fish fought well, and then evaded my outstretched net, and got below me, into the rapid of the swollen river, and was off down a chute of white water with me in hot pursuit.
A week later, Anton and I were up at Lotheni on a day which I described as “variously cool, cloudy, rainy & sunny, but never hot. Great fishing weather!”. I fished a Hopper Juan all day, and apparently, the fish wanted it. We had a whale of a time, both catching plenty of spirited Browns. My notes read “Anton kept skipping the best bits and leaving them for me”. He does that a lot! I seem to remember that he did that again when him and I were back in the same week in 2019. Interestingly on that day I couldn’t get the fish to take a dry. Immediately I relented and tied on a Chief Nymph, I started to have success. Anton did manage to get two fish on a hopper, but like me, the rest were on a deep sunk nymph. The river was flowing very strongly in 2019. My remark on that was “even the pools were runs!”.
In between those years, in 2017, I joined Anton and various family and friends at Highmoor on the annual re-opening day. That day was clear, sunny and windy, but the water was a lovely 16 degrees C. I landed three fish, and I and others were broken off, as so happens with the strong rainbows up there. The best fish of the day was a magnificent 24 inch specimen. Most of the fish were taken on midge patterns, given that there were midge shucks everywhere from an earlier hatch, and a sprinkle of classic midge rises throughout the morning.
In 2021 I had two trips in the first ten days of March. Both were river trips, both memorable, and both with good friends. One day was on the upper Mooi. Both were those perfect “bluebell days” with clear skies, and drifting, puffy, picture-book white clouds. We had a light upstream wind on both days. On the Mooi, the fish wanted nymphs, on the Lotheni they were looking up. On both days my companions caught magnificent fish. In Anton’s case, I didn’t witness the event, but he came back downstream to find me, where I was captivated by several Browns in a perfect pool. He was shaking his head and making declarations like “They aren’t supposed to be that big” . He was unsettled to say the least! He had taken it on a hopper. For the rest of the day he fished in a bit of a daze and as usual, offered up the best pieces of water to me. In Graeme’s case, he spotted the fish, I think somewhat miraculously. The water was a little milky and the fish was deep, but he had just come back from New Zealand, and I think he was on top fish-spotting form as a result. He let me have a go with a dry. The fish didn’t respond. It was Graeme’s turn…He ran a deep sunk GUN past its position and he was in! Both trips saw water temps around 19 degrees. I think the Mooi was running a bit more full, and I see I used 7X tippet there to help get that nymph down. A week later on the Lotheni I was using 5X . Those two days (4 rods) yielded over 25 fish and they ranged in size from 6 to 19 inches. All Browns of course and all returned. That was an early March season where the stars really lined up!
And I think that is how the first decad of March can be. It is often still too hot, but our senses are alerting us to vague autumnal feelings, and every now and then the stars line up. So we battle through some high flows, and hot days in the eternal hope that Autumn may be starting. And sometimes it does. I think that about sums up this chapter of the year for a flyfisher here in KZN.