“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed” ……..
”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him”
The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.
Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.
Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.
In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.
In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass. It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record. I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.
My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers. My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”. I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black. We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.
What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.
Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music. Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:
And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:
A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago. I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!
It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….
I ignored him.
“Hey Larnie” ..he tried again. And then, proceeding to the assumption that I was in fact listening he added “How menny feesh in da sea?”
He had spotted the fly casting decal on the side of my vehicle, and he abandoned his task of selling fruit at the roadside to connect with me as a fellow fisherman. I shouldn’t have been so rude, but he wasn’t reading it right. Neither was PD when he replied “60 fish…..hell I can’t remember when last I caught even 10 fish!”.
“Easy tiger” I replied. “It was 20 fish, over 3 days, and the biggest was 60 cms” I guess its easy to get the wrong end of the stick. The bull by the udders. This is what Paul Schullery reckons we have done when we interpret the term ”fine, and far off” as coined by Charles Cotton . In his book “Fly-Fishing secrets of the Ancients” he says” Cotton’s admonition had nothing to do with double hauling across the Delaware”. He explains that in Cotton’s time (over three hundred years ago), they didn’t have the fly lines of today and could really only flick and let the wind do the rest.
That made me feel better, because often all I am capable of is flicking and letting the wind do the rest. I have just been asked to teach fly casting at an event next month. Boy are they in for a surprise!
But of late I have been doing OK in the catching department, despite going with a notion of casting only so far as I can do with some measure of perfection, minus 20%, to ensure perfection a good deal of the time. And I am speaking here of stillwater fishing. Coupled with a stealthy approach, I have had some good fun. I won’t say I am catching more fish, but having a big rainbow take your fly in ankle deep water just in front of you is an experience that has a lot going for it. You will be surprised how many “feesh deh are in dat sea” ! That close in zone can be a diamond mine!
Speaking of which, I have been listening to Jonah Tolchin recently.
Some good stuff. Including this track: Diamond Mine (Spotify link)
But just in case you thought I was talking about a different type of beat: The lower beats of Reekie Lyn are looking great. Andrew Savs tells me that he and his mates were able to stroll up and fish a few spots down there that previously had to be approached on hands and knees, and with roll casts. Its not that the fish have gone blind, its just that the wattles have been felled, thanks to the efforts of a bloke named Gwamanda, and now you can stroll up to the river’s edge and scare the trout that way.
Last Sunday I couldn’t scare the fish. That is because I was obscured from their view by a layer of detritus on the water’s surface, left there by the howling gale. I was fishing a slow pool on Brigadoon…in line with Cotton’s suggestion that it is less windy there. Pfft……! My problem was that I could barely cast in the headwind. Cotton’s flicking thing wasn’t doing the trick. If I waited for a lull, and managed a cast, my little delicate nymph (another suggestion of Cotton’s) got caught in all that scum. So I did what any tactical, sophisticated fly fisherman would do. I put on a fly large enough and heavy enough that I could throw it in the wind, and it was sturdy enough in build, to break through that layer of grass seed and leaves and the like. Far off perhaps, but not so fine. When it plopped through there and started to sink, I suddenly realised that it would snag on the bottom quickly on account of it’s 12mm tungsten bead, so I did what any tactical, sophisticated fly fisherman would do, and I stripped that 1/0 Woolly Bugger back to safety as fast as I could. It wasn’t my fault that a big angry brown of 18 inches grabbed it along the way.
Graeme asked if I had any pictures. “Hell no Larnie!” I replied “It wasn’t pretty”. Besides, Cotton wasn’t pretty, and he didn’t take pictures either. (He also married his cousin……just saying….)
But in case you thought “beats” referred to something else, I can give you some news on this river beat:
That there is my movie making friend Zig, behind the lens. He and I were on the forest section of Furth Farm on the Umgeni last week, getting some pics of this lovely stream in a spot where it runs deep between rocky banks, shaded by a forest that now comprises only indigenous mistbelt species. Post the stream restoration efforts, it really is looking great. Next time I am up there, I am putting a Copper John through that deep water for sure!
As far as beans go, I have been grinding some “end of the month” stuff….that is to say, some of the cheap stuff. It’s a gentle brew like Steve’s song….easy drinking with easy listening….. and it’s really good, especially in a common run-through filter.
On the reading front I have just re-read “Stillwater Trout” by John Merwin, and then on a cold lazy Sunday, post the cold front, I tied up some Copper Johns, and to be sure I had it right, I referred to the book “Barr Flies” by the inventor of the Copper John himself, John Barr. As I was collecting the materials to start tying I stumbled on my “Daddy long legs” material [Hareline], and being one who struggles to follow a recipe, both in the kitchen, and at the vice, I used this material for the legs instead of the feather fibres, as laid down by the originator of this pattern.
I like how they turned out. The Copper John is arguably a bit heavy for our streams before the summer rains set in, but it is good to be prepared for those stronger flows.
With the snow and rain over the week-end, I rather thought that we might have had a lot of moisture, but when we bumped into a farmer friend on the Kamberg road, where he was attending to a stuck milk lorry, he said they had had only 4 mm of rain. Further along the road, my bakkie threw up a bit of dust, and the illusion of a good start to spring was dashed. But the Giant was resplendent in snow, and the air was crisp and clear, and that was good enough.
Ever had some amazing experience and said “damn….where was my camera when I needed it!”. We all have. But then there are times when you didn’t have the camera, and somehow in re-thinking the day, or the event, it was fitting that it never made it into the vault of evidence.
As a schoolboy, I remember the master wishing I didn’t have a camera with me on the fishing trip when I took this photo:
(Note the towel strategically covering the name of the school in question)
There was the time I went on a flyfishing festival many, many years ago, with a group of guys which included the “grand old gentleman of fly-fishing”. Let’s just say that the old gentleman, bless his soul, lost the plot a little at the closing dinner. I do believe it was a good single malt that did him in. I took a picture of him taking a pee in the middle of the main street of the town. I may have had a little of that single malt myself. Thank goodness it never came out when the film was developed!
Then there was a time when my buddy and I hiked into a very remote, very steep valley, on an illicit fly-fishing adventure. In the excitement, I forgot the GPS and the camera. It shall remain off the record books forever.
There was another trip up to Game Pass when it was still a mess of wattle trees, when I DID take my camera. I hiked up there on my own. I was single at the time. At some point I set the camera on a rock and took a “selfie” with the wattles in the background. You know…for the record. My buddies asked suspiciously “who took the photo?”. They still look at me in disbelief when I try to explain that it was on the self timer, and that I WAS alone. I could have saved a great deal of postulation on their part and a great number of proclamations of innocence on mine, if I had left the bloody camera at home!
Then there was this one, where Anton sent me into a cold pool half naked, to retrieve what he swore was his fly with a brown still attached amongst the logs. Turned out the fish had long gone. He knew that, just wanted his fly back, and was taking pictures. Bastard!
And then there was the more recent one, where my buddy punched a Trout to death. With his fist. Yes. Punched. To death. No…he didn’t use a rock…I don’t know why.
Damn, I wish I had had my camera for that one!
Saturday was number one of five.
That’s the number of berg winds you have to have before you get decent spring rains. The rains won’t come until you have had five of them. So says my Dad. In August 2015 we didn’t have five berg winds. Remember that drought?
To qualify, a berg wind must occur after the 1st August. It must come from the North or North East or North west, but either way, it must be strong enough to bend a gum tree, such that it shows the silver underside of its leaves. And it must be hot, (It was 28 degrees on Saturday), and last the better part of a day or day and night.
Fly fishing in berg winds is impossible. Several epic attempts spring to mind.
Some older ones:
11 August 2001: My son and I ventured out to Lake Zonk. He paddled his fibreglass canoe around. I paddled a float tube. It was dusty and warm, and the whitecaps were on the water. He got blown downwind, and couldn’t manage the paddle back to the car. I had to do a mid water maneuver whereby I transferred from my float tube to his canoe, and then attached the tube to tow it back. I remember being irritable. We didn’t catch any fish.
21 August 2001: PD and I on Crystal Waters. It was hazy and smoky. We holed up at a restaurant in Underberg for a while and had a few cups of coffee first. When we had convinced ourselves that the gum trees were bending a little less, we headed out. When we were rigging up, our float tubes blew away across the veld. After that we stood with one foot on the tube while rigging up. We paddled across the dam to a so-called sheltered spot. PD swears that I disappeared from sight in the waves from time to time. We were paddling twenty foot away from one another. PD landed one suicidal fish. The Coles refused to take our money for a day ticket. They said anyone crazy enough to fish in that wind, didn’t have to pay.
And then some more recent ones:
15 August 2015: Dave Prentice and I on Uitzicht on the Kamberg. My journal says “horrible berg wind. We hunkered down behind the wall and threw flies out into the chop. Nil!”
9 August last year: a private dam. Roy sat on a lawn chair up the bank behind me. The wind howled from the North. I hooked one fish, but it came off. In my journal I wrote “ I had so hoped I could hook a fish and run back to Roy in his chair and let him feel that tug one last time”. Alas. It never happened.
So here’s to the next four horrible, bad-mood-inducing, filthy berg winds. May they come quickly.
Someone keep count please.
I don’t exactly make a habit of picking up rocks and bones and bringing them home. I have heard of a guy who makes a habit of carrying rocks in his backpack (big heavy ones) and placing them back on mountain tops, as his way of countering erosion everywhere. That sounds like even harder work than bringing them down off the mountain to put on one’s fly tying desk. I have done that very seldom. Three times in fact (if memory serves). These three idiosyncratic items serve to centre me in an obscure metaphorical way. There are three of them you see, and they come from locations far from one another, and that fact lends them perfectly to triangulation. Thinking about it now though, they all come from higher altitudes, so I do wonder if that triangulation thing would work….me being down here and their collection points being “up there”. Maybe it would prove uplifting. In a lucid moment I will of course deny ever having written this weird stuff. Here they are:
Clockwise from the top centre item: Top of Inhlosane Mountain: KZN Midlands; The dipping tank: Bokong River, Lesotho; The Lammergeier ossuary above Gateshead cottage: NE Cape.
“But every angler who experiences bad fishing fears, above all else, that he’s the only one who’s experiencing it” Ted Leeson, Inventing Montana 2009.
When we were under the shadow of magnificent Ha Ha Lamolapo; when we were camped where the rushing water of Angel falls filled our ears at night; when we were spooking an 18 inch brown in the pool at Rooiwal in the driving rain; at all those times, we didn’t feel hard done by. We may have felt a bit bleak when the brown James swore was 30 inches long, would not open its mouth. I did swear just a little when a large brown spat out my Chief Nymph as soon as I tensioned into it up there between “Spooky Wagons” and “Opportunity Lost”. And we did set out on our last day on the river with a mild underlying sense of “now or never boys!”. But on the whole we were blissfully happy to be blanking up there in the mountains on our big trip.
The trouble started when we returned.
One friend knew the score before our drive home was over. He hastened to tell the others.
“You what!” friends said incredulously when we reported the tally. Sometimes before. They were not asking. Just damning us to eternal condemnation, at a place visible only down there off the end of their noses. A place where us lesser mortals wallow in the pity that comes with going to a fabled location and duffing it completely.
Then someone caught a 24 inch brown in our local water just up the road. I recognised the pool from the rocks in the background in the picture. It was 3 days after our return.
I landed a brown of 21 inches less than five months ago in a pool a couple of hundred yards above that spot. It happened on a day when I was not imbued with confidence. I just drove down to the river for a few throws on that hot humid afternoon, because it seemed wrong not to. I strolled upstream a distance shorter than a roll cast and caught my Trout, plus two other good ones, and then I drove home again.
Our big trip, on the other hand, involved 18 hours of driving, 70kms of hiking, and a whole lot more conquering, endurance, effort and most importantly, joy.
Joy in the wildness, the remoteness, the connectedness, the experience of it all. The big trip, and opportunity lost are joyfully etched in my memory forever.
In the early eighties, or thereabouts, the government of South Africa was handing out subsidies to farmers to build farm dams. It was all about building infrastructure, and I guess on some level about food security in an isolated, alienated apartheid nation.
Farmers in our neck of the woods (KZN midlands) built dams. Pretty ones. Some had London planes planted next to them, or liquid ambers. There were concrete benches, and braai places built. Trout were stocked. Some irrigation happened, but I don’t think there was as much of that as the then government expected or hoped.
Those Trout grew fat.
In my youth our fly-fishing very quickly became all about big fat dam fish…bigger fatter ones than any river fisherman could have dreamed of. Trout fishermen strapped on big “Walker’s Killers”, and went and dragged them around dams in boats, or flung them in from the edge, and the results were spectacular, even if in hindsight we acknowledge that the path to those results was somewhat less refined and challenging than what river fishermen had been used to.
In his 1974 booklet “Introducing Trout Fishing in South Africa” John Beams writes “ For me there are really only two reasons for for fishing still water. Firstly , there is always the chance of a big fish, and secondly, if the rivers are muddy……”, but that book has pictures of big fish that outnumber those of small fish and streams put together. Also in Bob Crass’ 1986 book “Trout in South Africa” he confirms John Beams own comment elsewhere in his book, that he “transferred his business activities from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg largely, so he led us to believe , because he enjoyed catching the big trout to be found in Natal dams.”
In contrast, books like “a Trout fisher in South Africa” by Kingfisher (1922) and “Trout Fishing in South Africa “ (1916) contain no references to dams or stillwater at all, but boast exceptional fish of two to four pounds in weight, with a skinny five pounder being worthy of a lord.
When I came into flyfishing in the early 1980’s, there was a fair amount of chatter about stream fishing, both in Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles (that were to become his first book), and in the fly-fishing books that one could buy at the newly launched “Flyfisherman” (Africa’s first fly fishing only tackle shop…est 1981) . But to be honest, outside of that, I really didn’t encounter all that many people who actually fished streams, or certainly not fishermen who preferred streams, or spent more time on them than they did on dams.
If I look at my collection of flyfishing books, which is nearing some 300 titles in total, even now, I am only able to identify 3 titles that cover stillwater flyfishing specifically.
One of those is the American book “Stillwater Trout” edited by John Merwin (1980). In this book Merwin’s very first line is “Ponds and Lakes are the poor sisters of American Trout fishing”, and he goes on to describe how “our quiet waters have remained quiet” and how American anglers, spoiled for choice in rivers, battled to get to grips with fishing still water, when they had been brought up on streams.
This ironic, discrepant state of affairs persists to this day. Stillwaters hold favour here, but the fly-fishing literature, and quite honestly even the South African literature is weighted towards streams. Even Youtube videos and Facebook bear the slant of the printed stuff.
But here is the thing: Those dams that our Dads and Granddads built on the farms, are starting to be used extensively for irrigation. Some have levels that fluctuate so much nowadays, that they are no longer stocked with Trout. It simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, dams are sadly becoming overrun with bass. Two or three dams seem to fall to this fate almost every year in this neck of the woods. At the same time, the environmentalists have quite righty identified the lack of wisdom in building dams, so very few new ones are coming on board. Added to that, the government environmental authorities are hell-bent on putting legislation in place that will enable them to shut down hatcheries at will, which means dams (where Trout don’t breed) may not have a source of stocked fish in future years.
Then consider that considerably more than half of the new members joining our fly fishing club here in the midlands either claim to be stream fishermen, or express a desire to get into stream fishing. I recently put forward to my colleagues in the local club, that we had been offered access to another stretch of stream, but that I questioned whether we should pursue it, because the stretches immediately upstream and downstream of it, are very seldom fished. The guys around the table were unanimous: “sign it up” they said. They said that we need to look to the future, and secure access and custodianship to good river water, regardless of the here-and-now usage statistics.
Add to the picture above (am I joining the dots adequately for you?), that there is only a finite number of kilometres of Trout river out there. In fact, if we think about it, it is finite and shrinking with the effects of population on the planet and the landscape. There are rivers mentioned in Bob Crass’ 1971 book “Trout fishing in Natal”, that are quite simply, no longer trout streams. Writing in a chapter he titled “First aid for rivers” in the book “My Way With a Trout” (1985), Tom Sutcliffe says that “the time is over for excessive irrigations, over-grazing, ploughing too close to the banks, allowing wattle to choke the life out of the river, and cattle to crumble its banks.” He goes on to say: “most of the fishing areas in this country [he is writing about rivers] need , or are soon going to need, this sort of special care and attention”
So, in joining the dots a bit further, we have more people resuming their interest in streams, and now we have fewer streams, or fewer kilometers of stream viable for Trout. And to coin Malcolm Gladwell’s term, I foresee a tipping point at some future date, where suddenly a lot of flyfishers will be rocking up on the same streams on Saturdays and finding less elbow room than they once enjoyed. Suggesting they strap on a big Walkers’ Killer and go tow it around a bass dam probably won’t sway them.
At least we may have more river fishermen to digest all the appropriate literature out there.
Maybe some who know me and are a little puzzled with the river conservation bug that has bitten me, will offer a small nod of understanding? Or perhaps they will merely continue to humour my obsession with killing bass and wattle trees.
It was just really bad luck. That’s what I told my buddy, after he showed me his fancy dragon fly imitation, and I gently rolled it around in my hand to admire it. And the eyes just fell off. Just like that.
He had bought it. It was an artwork. And now it was an eyeless artwork. His glare met with my shrug. What do you say? It was just bad luck.
We had bad luck that week-end too. Well, I did anyway. I landed just one small Rainbow, and that was on hallowed waters, where trophies and numbers are supposed to be the order of the day. I thought I had fished well. By that I mean I had gone off across the dam to interesting spots, and there I had tried inching tiny imitations just under the surface, and dredging the depths with something that was not much smaller than the canoe I was fishing from, and most things in between. I dropped tippet diameter for the clear water. I varied my retrieve and depth. I tried a pattern in different sizes, and I stayed out later than anyone, navigating the canoe trip back with the aid of the evening star and the silhouette of the boathouse roof against the moonlit night sky. But I must have just had bad luck.
You don’t read about that much in the literature anymore. It seems we haven’t left much space in the lexicon for lady luck. We have ousted the concept of chance in favour of complex analysis, in which we assume that every “fishing problem” has a scientifically valid solution. Reports of a day out from your fishing pal reflect that he slayed the fish on that new buzzer pattern. The fish just couldn’t leave it alone. (In reality he was out for five hours and he caught 4 fish on it.)
I can’t say I have had a pattern that they “couldn’t leave alone”. Not recently anyway. Maybe way-back-when there might have been an incident or two, where the cobwebs of memory are thick enough that I might be allowed to claim that it was “radical man…just radical”. And even then, the stretched story, even when diluted back down to reality, was in all likelihood just a visit by the banished Lady luck. But with Lady Luck being about as PC as an apartheid icon, we just don’t mention her anymore. She would be a little embarrassing. She would only serve to undermine the clear understanding that there is now good science that can explain both good fishing days and bad. Explain with comforting logic, which is heavily laden with the concept that we are in control, that with a bit of clear thought and a little observation, coupled with concentration on what the sage on the stage said, we could have cracked it. We will next time, we tell ourselves. We will fish better.
The next morning something in my soft scramble egg went crunch as I bit down on it, and it hit the sensitive spot on a left tooth, and hurt. I don’t know how something hard got in there. It must have just been bad luck.
Or maybe it was two dragonfly eyes planted in there by some mean spirited bastard.
My brother gave me that coffee pot. Solid silver and as heavy as a boat anchor. The lid is bent too. There is little point in making the coffee, then pouring it into the ornate pot, and then pouring it into a cup. But I do. On cold days, with a good book.
Speaking of which, Jerry Kustich has written some fine stuff. I don’t yet have his latest one ( “Holy Water”) , but I am re-reading one of his early ones (2001) “At The Rivers’ edge”, from which I take this quote:
“The older I get the more it seems that every river I fish is a mere fragmentation of one great flowing ribbon of consciousness where the limitations of space and time have no meaning”.
No 100 has some significance. It shows a cleared section of the Umgeni, which is very close to my heart. It shows Inhlozane mountain, which I grew up within sight of, and it was taken on a day when we caught browns in numbers markedly higher than before the place was cleared. That’s Rogan in the the river…all-round great guy and son of my late river clearing and flyfishing pal Roy. Call me sentimental!
This cuppa was brewed up in the mountains, when the rain and cloud and wind didn’t look like letting up. Waiting this stuff out is infinitely better with good coffee.
And on the subject of waiting it out: Ted Leeson’s writing continues to delight me in a way that has me laying the open book down on my lap, after reading a particularly erudite and poetic piece, and clucking and shaking my head in awe of his ability to capture a moment or concept, with which I identify immeasurably.
“Much of the technical fly-fishing literature at which anglers have suckled for over a century possesses acutely hallucinogenic properties. Ingesting it produces weird distortions, and never more so than in the matter of hatching insects and rising fish, which generations of recreational users have been induced to believe are the default condition of the average trout stream and a routine component of the ordinary angler’s experience in fishing. While never nakedly advanced, this gravity defying assumption hovers so invisibly in the background that it verges on a form of corruption.”
Leeson continues in this vane, in what is probably the my favourite chapter in “Inventing Montana”, called, so aptly and cleverly “Wading for Godot”.
If you identify with the message that Leeson delivers in this chapter, then you could rightly mothball most of the fly-fishing books in your personal library, but you would do well to keep this one out on the coffee table:
It deals specifically with those times when trout are NOT rising to a hatch. (i.e. 99% of your time on the water)
Rogan and I were discussing the nature of flyfishing as a sport while we walked along an overgrown river bank recently. Our topic is difficult to define, but I don’t think Rogan would disagree if I said that we were both bemoaning the low number of entrants to this thing who are able to embrace the ordinary, the uncomfortable, the companionable, the day without winners, and the less than glamorous. People happy to embrace adventure complete with failure and no social media exposure. People content to learn by trying instead of waiting for a Youtube video. People who fashion something from a stick with a pocket knife, make another for their pal, and use it for twenty years. What would you call that?
In an attempt to define the topic we were circling, Rogan described how he stopped to help a cyclist recently, and gave him a spare tube to get him back on the road. The rider tried to pay him for it. “No!” protested Rogan “You go buy a spare tube, and next time you see a guy with a puncture, you give yours to him” , and he told him to put his thirty bucks away. “That’s how cycling used to be” he said. We discussed how concepts like that are less than common in all sports, and that sadly, flyfishing may have gone that way too.
Then in a thoughtful moment, Rogan suggested that the Comrades Marathon maybe hadn’t gone that way. I am no runner, but I have heard enough stories to think that may be true. Certainly among the ordinary runners just trying to complete the thing. Rogan then recanted the story of his late dad Roy, and how he was once helped along the route by the great Alan Robb, and how in later years, he had an opportunity to help Alan in return, when he looked like he had gone to the wall, and may not make the finish line. “That’s where the red socks came from” he said.
Roy always wore red socks with his wading boots.
Earlier this season, Rogan and I fished this same river, and Rogan wore his Dad’s red socks. I wrote about that, not knowing the significance of it (LINK}
I Googled Alan Robb and his red socks. It turns out he once got them out of his Dad’s drawer too, wore them to run a comrades, and then adopted them as his thing, and only ever wore red ones from then on.
Roy was inspired by Robb and wore red socks. Rogan is inspired by Roy and wears his red socks. I am inspired by Roy and his tenacity in running as many Comrades marathons as he did, but also his “one twig at a time” approach to our joint passion for clearing a river. Rogan inspires me with the same unpretentious joy that his father carried in his soul.
The river is busy healing, and the aftermath of the wattles is a sea of blackjacks that crowd your socks (no matter the colour), your eyebrows, your gloves, your strike indicator and heaven knows what more.
Perhaps 10 more years of grassland management and follow-up work will serve to diminish the autumn “prickle”. In the meantime I am embracing the uncomfortable and the ordinary. Sometimes the soft light of setting sun and a little tiredness together with scratched skin, serves the onset of some sentimentality, and with it comes a picture or two that make it all look glamorous.
Don’t be fooled.
Rogan and I caught a few small fish. We didn’t keep count. Neither did Anton and I when we fished the same river a few days later. And when Sean sent me a video clip of two great Browns spawning on the gravel beds of the Umgeni, I forgot to ask him how many fish he caught, and he didn’t say. I was too excited about the spawning and the big cock fish! You never would have seen something like this two years ago! Roy would have celebrated that with me. He also would have smiled as I fished “Roy’s pool” on worker’s day, and struggled to get a fly in under the NchiShi bush, and caught nothing there.
No glamour. No winners. Just a couple of little challenging Trout.
Enough to Inspire you ?
The donkey launched itself up onto the river bank and made its way to near the small circle of rocks that was our fireplace, where it stopped and awaited the unloading of the bundle of sehalahala from its back.
The sky was darkening somewhat more than the progression of the afternoon suggested it should, and it was cool. It would be wet, and the evening fire would be warranted, and whether or not we were high enough to source leholo or lekhapo, sehalahala is best for wet conditions. So said Martin the muleteer, and we were not about to argue with him. Martin may have forgotten to bring his mealie meal on the trip (necessitating a 26km round trip on a donkey to fetch it), but somehow I still got a sense the he was the kind of guy who would keep you alive on a fishing trip this far into the mountains, if ever it came down to that.
Martin and David were our smoke makers. They would construct a pile of sehalahala each evening that would billow white smoke for long minutes before anything else happened. They typically stood in that smoke, as though bathing themselves in it somehow had a cleansing effect. I would have coughed out my left lung, and developed vicious red rings around sore eyes. Not them. They stood there with the heavy rain wetting their balaclavas and their Basutho blankets from above, while the sehalahala burst into flames, spewing sparks, and dried them from below. I guess if you were dry above your waist then you knew your fire was stronger than the rain. If you didn’t have red eyes, you knew you were a Basutho. If you were worried about a wet blanket, then you were a foreigner. Us foreigners just knew we were cold, and we lay in the back of the kitchen shelter, while supper bubbled on the gas stove.
The day had been cold and windy, with a few rain showers. Those rain showers had sent us up onto the ridge where we sheltered, as best one can, in a ruin with no roof. We made coffee there on the camp stove. At some point it brightened enough that we should have run back down to the river to see if we could spot another big brown. Good spotting light should not go wasted. But we knew that the light would be fleeting, and our legs were sore from hiking.
We were not wrong about the light. You have to decide on these trips how much chasing you are going to do. It is not difficult to overdo it. Tomorrow was another day, and maybe; just maybe; it would be a bright day, and we would have several good hours of looking down into aquamarine pools onto pale bedrock and fine gravel, where twenty five inch browns would stand out like the white flecks in the rock all around us.
We would cast out long graceful loops and land our select few, well aimed casts exactly where they needed to go. Maybe the Trout would eat, unlike the big one yesterday. Maybe the fly would hold, unlike it did the day before.
We thought of these things as we lay there in the damp grass beneath the canvas, and watched the pot boil, and watched David and Martin in the rain making smoke. We did not think about how bedraggled we looked. We didn’t think about the comments that would meet our news of blank days. We were on a trip, and there were no mirrors up there asking us to evaluate how we were doing. That would come after our return.
For now there was just smoke and rain in that happy place in the mountains.
* Sehalahala : Erica or Erica like plants that burn when green, and are used extensively in the Lesotho highlands for making a fire. Leholo and Lekhapo are variants with slightly different fire making properties.
I often grind some cardamom (elaichi) with my beans. It is something I read about, and which is not uncommon in the levant. My local coffee shop once offered a “copperccino” , which claimed to be cardamom coffee, but I was disappointed to discover that they scattered a few pinches of powder on top of the milk foam. I say go big. Throw a few pods in the grinder…say 3 in a double shot, and taste the stuff. It gives it a warmth and smoothness which is difficult to describe.
Warmth and smoothness is a fair description of the feeling I get when I sit down with my cup of coffee, open the pages of a book by Ted Leeson, and relish in the richness of his writing.
From “Inventing Montana” on the subject of fishing being a form of play:
“Modern angling is uncomfortable with the idea and prefers to regard itself more along the lines of modern medicine, as an acutely specialized body of knowledge dispensed by a priesthood of of experts. It tends to operate in the oxygen-depleted atmosphere of high gravitas or, more recently, in the overstimulated public displays of cultivated fanaticism. Those deficient in the requisite intensity – who fail to mount a sufficiently strategic angling campaign, do not whoop in ecstatic wargasm as the battle rages or pump the air with a victory fist at the climactic moment of conquest – are left to marinate in the unpleasant secretions of their own inadequacy”
Me: Hello Shiraz!
Me (puzzled): Shiraz….?
Me (incredulous): You can’t be called Bob…you are wearing a taqiyah…Bob’s don’t wear those! You don’t get Muslims called Bob!
Shiraz: No…you Bob.
Me:…Ah!…No, I’m Andrew.
Shiraz: Oh! Hello Andrew..how are you?
Me: Hello Shiraz!
I was in Shiraz’s shop arranging a repair to my twenty nine year old fishing kit bag. Actually it’s a South African army “balsak”…that’s how I know how old it is…it was a special gift from Magnus Malan. All I had to do was give him two years of my life. “Ja…you guys went off leaving your mothers crying at the train station” said Shiraz. It was his way of putting a stop to any macho army stories, just in case I had had any of those in mind.
In the end Shiraz re-built the bag for me in a fabric that more befits the new South African flag. He said he also had some landing net bags that someone commissioned him to make, and then never came back for. I said I would take one home and see if I could use it.
I like to do business with Shiraz…he has made some great, personalised canvas goods for me.
I had an old net frame. It was a net I found beside a dam, and in the days before Facebook I was at a loss to try and find its owner, so I did what I had to do, and took ownership myself. Someone had to do it. Like some of us had to do national service.
I used it a few times, but it was one of those collapsible things that….well….they collapse. It also had a scratchy knotted nylon bag. Later I removed the frame from the collapsible handle and the bits lay around in my garage.
Then last year I was about to throw out an old aluminium and plastic canoe paddle, and I fell upon an idea:
I think of it as a boat net, and I might just use it as that. It now has a good soft catch and release bag, a handle that doesn’t collapse, and an original old country feel to it. I might even take it along the Umgeni in April, when the bankside vegetation is high and getting to the waters edge on those steep banks to net a Brown can be tricky. Carrying it will be a lark.
I was back in Shiraz’s shop a few days later to collect my new “balsak”.
“What price we say?” he posed, followed by “You paying cash?”.
“Yes..I thought we said 550” I said “and there is the net bag too”
He scribbled on a piece of paper and said “800”.
Ah, yes…the net bag. I forked out the notes.
I like Shiraz. He likes my money. I like the quality of his work. I like my “new” net, and my de-politicised balsak. I think of it as more than a business transaction. It is a cultural exchange.