Ants, Spring and Baldock’s Reach

Exploring a favourite river stretch, and planning for the coming Trout river season.

“The old man raised his rod and a fat sixteen inch brown fought angrily under the trees. Wentzel had taken six fish in a few minutes.

They sure like your ants! I said admiringly.

Bob McCafferty developed them first, Wentzel corrected, but the trout in Penns Creek really do like them!

How do you fish an ant? I asked.

Tight against the bank with a dead-drift swing, he answered.



Ernest Schwiebert: Trout

Ant water

I don’t know why, but my mind is on ants. It could well relate to the azalea blooms and warm air. I have no doubt that Ed Herbst’s influence is in there too.  Perhaps it may have something to do with the fact that I was on Sheardown farm two days back, and we were speaking lumber and removing the excessive quantities of it from the river a few years back.

Wood ants.

This is how theories of hope and intrigue are born. Ants live in old dead wood, and there is a lot of that lying around on Sheardown.

Ant pattern
imitation of an ant

I recall several years ago taking a video on my phone. I looked for it the other day, but it is long lost. I had walked a recce of this stretch. I was alone. It was a week-day, and I was inspired. “It looks a bit scrappy” I remember recording in the narration to Graeme. “Pockets of wattle….mainly small, but with enough big ones in there to make me realise this won’t be easy. But it can be done” I said.

Fast forward a number of years, and here I am thinking about ants in Baldock’s reach. The timber is long gone, and the river runs clear: something I am  reminded of daily when I switch on my PC and see the screensaver. Grassy banks; bubbling clear water; Baboon Hill and Fowler’s Folly in the background; and a mounting memory-bank of good solid Browns from this section.  The stumps are still evident in the bankside grass, crawling with ants perhaps?


Baldock’s reach starts with a long slow tail of a pool, where the fish can see you approaching from a mile off. I get a sense that I have never stayed up there long enough into the evening, or approached it quite stealthily enough to nail the experience of rising fish in the broad water.  Well, maybe I did once or twice, but that isn’t enough to count. 

“In the long run, fishing usually amounts to a lifetime of pratfalls punctuated by rare moments of perfection.”

John Gierach from Grave of the unknown fisherman.

Mid way up there is a log under the water on the right and a willow opposite it, and the whole band is well above waist deep. It is one of those places that you wade into casting with all the care you can muster, and at some point realising that somehow you can fish the left under the willow well, or the right beside the log, well, but not both. I don’t know about you, but I need some water parallel to the piece I am targeting, where I can meter out the length of my cast, lay a line on the water to test the shepherds crook of my tippet, that sort of thing. This is certainly true of flat water. Pockets of white water are different: there I can dust a fly left and right with equal expectation, but on flat water like this I need a duffing lane off to the side. Or is it a practice lane? A place over which I can flash a few false casts as I muster all the finesse I can for the main show.  I did that last season for what turned out to be a small Brown. It was a fish which Noel said he couldn’t catch, and he set me up for the challenge. I did a few practice throws off to the left, and a few dry fly changes for the main act, the last of which did the trick. Man, a small fish can make me grin when I catch it like that!

The thing is, I have previously spooked good fish from both sides: more than once when trying to spot for a friend from the high right-hand bank (and offering less than any real value in the process!), and once I flushed a real beaut out from under the willow on the left, where there is a less obvious deep spot. Less obvious, but just so sweet on account of the shade afforded by the overhanging willow.

Once you have waded through the deep spot, where you find yourself standing on your toes, and sucking in your breath as the cool water first your sensitive bits and then your belly, you emerge on a shallow gravel bed, with the sweet top section of the pool laid out ahead of you. Oh so sweet!  This is classic water. The small cliff on the right extends all the way up to where the water enters the pool, leaving an enticing band of shade beneath pretty moss covered crags. The flow peals out over broken rock and gravel, with a classic thalweg cutting a fine deep trough down the centre. Even in low water, this place screams “Trout”, and there is no dishonesty in that.

Maybe it is the nostalgia born of an off-season interlude here at the keyboard on a sunny Sunday morning, but in the words of  Roger Whittaker “…. I sit and let the blues roll over me. I let the breath of sunshine clear my head. And as I sit I wonder what I have done somehow to earn the splendid thoughts that come into my head”

Sheardown Thalweg

And those thoughts are of a duo of ants drifting through that current tongue, with yours truly, quivering with expectation behind the cork.  The ants are a sunk one on the point (a really small, but dense one…maybe a #20), and one on the dropper that tries to be a dry fly. I say “Tries” because in imitating the glossy black orbs of an ant’s body, we rob ourselves of much flotation, and they tend to sink in the rough and tumble of flyfishing unless you deck them out in too much cdc.  I will get a fish or two on an ant there in the spring….I just know it!

Up above the rapid is the tail of  pool which has produced a number of fish for me. It is just not as glassy and smooth and difficult as the one down below, and that makes it so much easier that even a blundering  fool like me will not be disillusioned with thoughts of landing a Trout there. Last season I twice got fish of around 15 inches from this spot. Once before (was it the season before that?), I hooked a fish which ran down the rapid, and I landed him in the pool below, with shaking knees. A 14 inch Trout that runs past me down the rapid still does that to me, notwithstanding the something like 40 years I have been at this. Hell a 10 inch fish does that, even when it doesn’t rush past me!

Sheardown beauty

That particular water demands some care when the flow is down, because there is a scattering of big rocks protruding off the bottom which snag a well sunk fly. They snag your shins when you wade through too! So there I might use a slightly lighter version of the sunk ant. Not a weightless one mind you, because there is a trough in the centre of this stretch with a drop-off where the Trout lie in wait, and you will need to get the fly in there. The steep right hand bank persists here, and I always run a fly through the band of shadow there, figuring that a light-shy brown might favour that spot, particularly if there is a chance of food falling off the slope above. An ant perhaps?

In my childhood the Baldock family frequented the local tennis club, and the stock sales, and whatever other gatherings farming folk gravitate towards. But if the truth be told, I never knew that they had owned Sheardown. I discovered that on top of Inhlosane mountain a while back, when I realised that the familiar-looking lady I was chatting to was none other than a Baldock from the recesses of my memory. At around that time I was having difficulty recalling whether this reach consisted of two or three pools. I could have sworn that it was once three, but it is definitely now two. My theory that it once was three is not unrealistic: around The Viking’s Corner above this, there was definitely a short run above that pool, which, after a flood, became one with the pool below. So rivers, including this one, do change. History does not, but it is at risk of being lost. So there and then I decided to group whatever pools there are along that straight piece of river with its steep south bank, call them a “reach” (in the fashion of Neville Nuttall who used that term for a section lower down on Chestnuts) , and capture some history while I was at it. There you go Jenny! 

Go softly by that riverside

Or when you would depart,

You’ll find its every winding tied

And knotted round your heart.


Rudyard Kipling


“For one thing we learn how necessary it is to fish a long piece of water thoroughly, not skipping even the shallow sides and unlikely places’

Theodore Gordon 1906


The head of that piece of Baldock’s Reach is a gem too. The main flow, like the one below, is again hard against the steep right hand side, but it is a deceptive one. It is shallow. Much more shallow than the one below. But here’s the thing: off to the left is a smaller inflow, and that looks really shallow. But when you slosh around in this thing, doing your shins on the aforementioned rocks, as I have done, you discover that this left hand one is not half bad. There is enough water in there, and enough of a slot to cover the back of an unpredictable Brown with ease. An ant-eating Brown, I wouldn’t mind imagining.

Above this is a shallow sweep of water that fans out across the bedrock. Off to the right is a spring that bubbles out of the steep slope, where you can pause to drink that lovely water, and while you are at it, you can watch the Viking catch Trout after Trout at his corner.  I wonder if he is getting them on an ant, or if he is persisting with that goddam Parson’s Glory?

“And when at evening you meet a fellow angler with but one trout in his creel you are not to be misled by the pulling of your own shoulder strap into offering consolation, nor to show disbelief if he offers you his trout. It may well be that his heart’s creel is overflowing, his sensibilities restored afresh by one of the sweetest days of his life.” 

Frank Mele, from Small in the Eye of a River.

Now ER Hewitt is alleged to have eaten some ants to try discover why the Trout liked them. I don’t know that I will go that far, but perhaps I can persuade the Viking to give it a try. In the meantime I am stocking my box a bit better in the ant department, because, like I say , hope and intrigue demand it of me.

Sheardown Brown
Baldocks Reach


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One Response

  1. Gee, I’m looking forward to the river season, Andrew!! Maybe, just maybe, I can get one of those 15+ inch fish??!! I’ll be giving it my best shot anyway – a day on the river is never in vain!

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