Waters & words

Author Archive

looking for clean water in the Westcountry

My recent visit to the UK afforded me an afternoon on the Test (see my last video), but before that, I went hunting for clean water and willing trout in the Westcountry (Devon and Cornwall). Rain, and the calendar were both against me…..

(Oh, and by way of explanation….most sheep I saw on Dartmoor had red arses……)

 


The River Test: a chance visit

Readers might have noticed that I have started doing some video work (aka Vlogging) .  To up my game I have been teaching myself some much more complex, bit of course much more capable software.  In many respects the complexity has meant that I have taken 2 steps backwards. Trying to get this package to do what I want it to has been a challenge to say the least. Old dogs, new tricks…

So do bear with my amateur attempts. Hopefully the offerings will get more slick as I progress.

This video covers a visit to the River Test in England.  It was beyond my wildest dreams that I would actually get to fish this fabled stream. I had resigned myself to the prospect of just looking over the rail of the bridge at Stockbridge, when suddenly, out of the blue, I received an invitation.

This was truly a blessing and the experience was something I will treasure for a long time to come.

 


A sentimental fool, a book, and a trout stream

I am deeply fortunate to be able to able to identify the symphony and serendipity in ordinary things, or  perhaps I am fortunate in that overtly serendipitous things do in fact befall me more than others.  Either way, these things are not lost on me.  Far from it…I savour them.

So here’s one.  You tell me if this is a delightful chance, or if its just me being a sentimental fool:

So…I found myself in Stockbridge, in a fly shop, being served by a fellow South African. And the shop had a better collection of books than the one over the street. In fact I found myself with a pile of “must haves”  that would simply not fit in my luggage on the return trip, and I had the agonising choice of which ones to put back. One of those was a book called “The Healing Stream” by Laurence Catlow. It is a book I had not heard of before. 

The Healing Stream-1

I read a few pages, and decided it was on the “keeper” list, and by that night I was reading it. My decision was an unequivocally good one. The book is a delight and a treasure, with words that flow like pure prose.

A short way into the book, the writer starts to suck the reader into his love affair with one particular river. He rights lyrically.  I quote:

“….drive up  Garsdale to Hawes, where you turn left and head up through Gayle and over Cam Houses; then it is down to Oughtershaw and Beckermonds before following the beginnings of the river through Yockenthwaite, Hubberholme and Buckden, through Starbotton and Kettlewell and so, after the rough poetry of these northern names, down to the main beats of the Kilnsey Club.”

Those names washed over me as I put the book on the nightstand and fell asleep.

The next day, I found myself on a bus, travelling up a river valley in the Yorkshire Dales.  The purpose of that bus ride is the topic of another discussion, but suffice it to say that it was not directly fly fishing related.  The bus wound its way up a river valley in ever tightening bends, and over bridges that hardly seemed wide enough for a bus. As we progressed the valley became more and more lovely, until it started to literally take my breath away.  The rain spattered on the windows of the bus. That was an excuse not to take photos, but at some stage I took a decision not to attempt a photo, because the beauty was so stunning that I knew that a weak attempt to capture it all, would in this case, serve only to tarnish the memory of such a heavenly place.

As we made our way, I started to take note of names.  The village of Kilnsey.  Kettlewell. Starbotton. Buckden. Hubberholme. 

I am a bit slow, and putting something in reverse is sometimes quite adequate a move to fox me, but at this point I did awaken to the fact  that I was travelling the valley I had read about the night before.

Of all the valleys in that fair land, I was in the one I had read about the night before.  This freak event deepened my sense of appreciation for where I was. It awakened in me an awareness of how special this beautiful trout stream is to at very least ONE angler. An angler and writer, who I might add is brave enough to admit that his own sense of nostalgia and appreciation on the banks of this river regularly drive him to tears. He even comes a little unhinged.

Having seen his valley, I completely understand those tears.  The beauty of the Wharfe River valley in the Yorkshire Dales defies description and capture on celluloid.

It is other-worldly , and to visit it is an experience bordering on the religious, especially when you have by sheer chance read the paragraph describing it the night before.

Perhaps its just me?  My mates say I am a little unhinged myself.


A trilogy

 

I am delighted to now own all 3.

Derek Grzelewski-1


Stiles

If I haven’t posted for a while, its because I am trying a new style of things, and that meant I had to acquire some new skills. And speaking of Style….here’s the first V….log:


Classic literature in your pocket

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“Thus, Instead of spiking his rod when the morning rise is over, and taking his Walton or his Marcus Aurelius or his Omar Khayyam from his pockets, let the wise angler concentrate on the casual feeder; and if his reward be not great, there is every chance of it being quite respectable , and he may be saved the humiliation of an empty creel”.  GEM Skues, Minor tactics of the Chalkstream . 1910.

Now I don’t know about you, but I reckon if I took my “Omar Khayyam” from my pocket  while out fishing, I think I wouldn’t be saved any humiliation by my fishing mates.  Come to think about it, if I took along a creel, there would be significant ragging, and if I filled the thing, I would be crucified.

But aside from the fact that we don’t carry creels and classic literature on the stream (oh, and we don’t have those reversible spears on the butts of our fly rods), nothing much has changed since 1910.   “Minor Tactics” is a delight to read.  Skues drops in the odd “wherefore” and “thus”, but we will forgive him for that. The language is in fact sheer poetry in places, and his setting up of his argument for nymphs in the face of Halford’s doctrine of dry fly only, is so polite as to seem slightly apologetic. In fact the last chapter is named “Apologia”.   Only the British!

I hadn’t realised that my copy of the book is a first edition.  It’s a bit wasted on me, because I buy and own books for the words between the covers, not as items for glass display cases.  Having said that, its is quite novel turning these pages which are as thick as cardboard:  I keep thinking I have turned five pages at once, and am reminded after much thumbing that, no….that’s  just the way paper was back then.   I swear many of the pages are different thicknesses too.  I guess that back then, their hook sizes and tippet diameters were equally variable in their tolerances.  But I get the impression from reading this book that their sophistication, entomology, and finesse in technique  were not that different to today.  

While rolling all this stuff around in my head  I  thought I should accompany the occasion with something special, and given that I don’t smoke cigars, I cracked open this instead:

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Interesting stuff.  I googled it :  LINK  .  Fruit. I don’t know…sometimes I think my sophistication in taste is at the same level as my appreciation of first editions and literature by Khayyam and  that bait angler….what’s his name…..Walton.


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I hear your song sweetness

“In the corner of a smokey bar

She’s singing Hallelujah

All the fools are shouting over her

But she keeps singing Hallelujah”

From the song ”I hear your song, Sweetness”, by George Taylor

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Keeping with a musical theme, who remembers Feargal Sharkey ?

I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that Feargal Sharkey is now a champion of the environment in the UK. More specifically, he is the champion of England’s beleaguered chalk streams. Sharkey is doing a whole lot to publicise the abuse of these unique and beautiful streams, that are in many places almost beyond rescue.  Who would have thought, that in a first world country, there would be government sanctioned abuse at the levels that Feargal Sharkey has been exposing. Countless streams pumped permanently dry, others pumped full of raw sewage, or used as a dumping ground for overflowing sewage works in times of high rainfall. With his profile, there is a lot that he can,and indeed, has been, doing about the situation. I have listened with delight to his radio broadcasts on BBC, and I follow him on Twitter, with a view to broadening my education on matters environmental.

There has to be a lot to learn from countries and catchments who have been there before. So in a similar vein, I follow the happenings in the Driftless area of Wisconsin in the USA, where trout stream restoration has been happening on a scale that I can only dream of. And I follow the WWF and countless other local environmental groups.

So what have I learned from my reading, and twitter following, and from Feargal Sharkey, and what are the implications for the conservation of our river catchments ?

Well, I think I have learned that :

  • Many people, with varying strengths and attributes can bring a variety of much needed skill, publicity, lobbying, money and drive to the work that is required in the environmental field.
  • I have learned that the field of environmental restoration and preservation is burdened by conferences and acronyms and strategic framework modeling, and the like  that is so expensive and slow moving that it threatens to sink the entire progress ship.
  • And in a similar vein, that on-the-ground real practical work, is happening in some wonderful and deeply encouraging examples, but that there are not enough of these to ever reach a sense of elation or victory for the environment on a large scale.
  • I have learned that there is, in most cases, a huge gap between business,on the one hand, and environmental work on the other.  The unquenchable thirst of man for profit at all costs, is so strong that meaningful funding is not forthcoming. That which is, is often channeled to humanitarian causes, and in any case is limited to that which earns CSI points.
  • It is proving difficult for organisations to monetise environmental gains that they are trying to package as “eco-system services” and “natural  capital”.
  • I have learned that the majority of  fly-fishermen, sadly, are not truly environmentalists at all. ( they like wearing that badge, but they don’t give up a day’s fishing easily)
  • I have learned that the national spend on environmental work comes out of the top end…the overflow….the luxury portion, and that in hard times it is the first to go.  This is not just true of South Africa.
  • Real, high level, large scale, and step-change environmental gains are likely to be expensive, uncomfortable, and unpopular. …..Unpopular amongst all those cappuccino drinking, self proclaimed, environmentalists with ‘save the rhino’ stickers on their big luxury cars…..(like me).

So, in summary:   In this field of stream restoration and care,  there is both cause for despair, and a need for unparalleled bravery.

My observations are impressions and generalisations. Some of them may prove to be untrue or unfair. Most of them will be cause for consternation and offence. As a quiet spoken, conservation-minded recluse, I seem to have an uncanny and newfound propensity to offend. That propensity has accelerated in direct proportion to my alarm at the degradation around me, and my conviction that some luxuries need to be sacrificed to get things done.

And there is so much that needs to “get done”, that one needs to carve out a small niche,  put your head down, and do your bit in your chosen area, and hope that someone will take on the other bits. I have chosen the niche of some upland streams and catchments in KZN. I hope someone has the hinterland and the beaches, and a whole lot of other streams.

So as George Taylor sang “Keep holding on”


To tame a river

“It is old, old fishing landscape, scarred with its human contacts, familiar and friendly and kind to the frailties of anglers.”  Howard T Walden. Upstream and down. 1938.

The colonial idiosyncrasies of our heritage have us leaning to a tamed and manicured world. A conquered wilderness, which we celebrate as “wild” but enjoy for its comforts of stonemasonry, or footpaths and trimmed briar.  I for one hanker after the quaint, the named, and the iconic. Do you revel in relating the story of your catch, replete with the name of the pool?  Do you inwardly sigh with nostalgic affection at the sight of a stone arch over a river? Do you take your wilderness complete with a puff adder that will bite you, or do you prefer to  savour the golden glow of the  leather box, as you fold back its lid on the tailgate of your truck, to reveal a fine whisky and two glasses at fishing’s close?

I am told that a taste test uncovers the truth in coffee. The declaration is that we like it strong, but the taste test says otherwise.  Strong coffee is the stuff of cowboys and those who have no fears to conquer. The smooth flavours of a mild blend are what strokes our true satisfaction.

Would you be the one to take down the signs that show the way to the beat, or would you revel in creating the timeless logo with which to adorn it.

How about a footbridge. A fencing stile perhaps?

Too tame a river?

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Nothing new under the sun: Tight line nymphing

 

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“His system was to attach a split shot sinker well above a nymph, and fish it on a short and fairly taught line with a colourful leader and a little sleeve of orange marker. His success was phenomenal …….”    Charles F Waterman, writing of George Anderson fishing the Madison some time in the 1960’s.   From “Mist on the River”  Published in 1986.

The outrigger technique : “The upstream, dead drift, tight line, high rod, weighted nymph technique”  ….Chuck Fothergill in The Masters of the Nymph  1979

An old American fly fishing technique, by Al Simpson


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4822

Connections.

On the  four eight  line, like any others, you needed to ask the exchange for a connection. But within the party line there was a whole lot of connection.  Like hearing Mrs Ras talk in Afrikaans to her mother, who lived on the other side of the railway line at the Dargle station, or Mr Smith. Once someone said to the bloke on the other end that he would tell him all the details when he next saw him, because Mr Smith was listening-in on the party line, to which Mr Smith retorted loud and clear over the phone that he was not listening!

On Saturday we were out on Justin’s dam. It was dead calm, and the morning sun had warmed the air to the point were we were good in shirt sleeves.  That despite the ice remaining in the shade of the steps that cascade down through the veld to the crisp water’s edge.

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We were battling for a connection. The odd fish rolled lazily every fifteen minutes or so, but you couldn’t call it a morning rise, and there was no hatch to match.    We were asking the exchange for a connection. We moved about a bit. We tried different depths.  Nothing.

Neither of us had had enough sleep the night before. We fished close to the bakkie, which stood,  door open on the knoll behind us with our tackle spilled about it.  We retreated to the base and ate a banana and made some coffee. Sleep was definitely an option.

After coffee I put on a #18 zebra midge under a black DDD and threw it out far into the mirror on my bigger rod. Then I sat in the veld and yawned.

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As recently as the year 2000, you could call the exchange in Barkly East from the top of the pass, and the tannie would enquire as to the weather up there. 

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The old black handle crank phone with 4822 written in my Dad’s handwriting under the clear glass label holder , still sits on the farm. Dad is mastering Whatsapp now.  On Father’s day I showed him how to send a photo , and then we had tea and he reminisced about how they only had one tractor on the farm. It was an “International” with steel wheels, that had bolts at intervals on the tread, kind of like the studs in my smooth felt-soled wading boots.  For the rest they used wagons.  I grew up playing on those old wagons, and the International, under the trees where they lay abandoned behind the sheds.

old phoneox wagon

Dad’s phone buzzed.It was my brother sending him a whatsapp .  He said my brother wouldn’t know why he wasn’t replying and that he had better tell him he would message later after we had left. But I told Dad  that my brother knew that already since we were connected. Its kinda like a party line Mr Smith.

A Hen fish took the Zebra midge and the DDD disappeared. I struck. 

Graeme was fishing on the shale and in due course he picked up a fish on an egg pattern.  I joined him there and tried my own egg pattern. I got a lot more strikes than he did, but I wasn’t connecting much.  I offset the hook, as suggested by Gary Glen-Young the other day, but my hook-ups  didn’t improve much.

Graeme and I were standing shoulder to shoulder chatting and throwing long lines in the clear water. We were connecting. Just not to fish.

We debated the hook-up issue, and Greame suggested that the materials of the pattern were obscuring the gape a bit. I listened and  thought about that, and added that it was an old fashioned barbed hook. Despite having flattened the barb, the point was heavy, and it lacked the long fine point of a modern barbless hook.  Graeme was nodding.  He must have been listening (I don’t think he would deny that).  I pulled it in and had a look. It’s shank was an angular material , with clean rib lines running down the curve of the hook. It kinda reminded me of the moulded lines  of that old matt-black telephone.  I had better tie up some new ones with the material up on top, away from the gape, and on a fine-wire barbless hook.  But what will I do with all these old ones that look perfectly good?  Sometimes its hard to let go….to shake off the old and get the thumbs working, and even when you do, you keep the old stuff.  Some things stick in your psyche.

Like two shorts and two longs.  4822.


Lessons from the landscape: how low do they join

Many forays from my home waters to the streams of the North Eastern Cape highlands, have got me thinking about the differences between those waters, and the ones nearer my home.

The climate is drier up there, and the veld can be positively scrub-like compared to our lush, humid midlands of KZN.  The rivers also flow southward or south westward, whereas all the home streams flow towards the east.  We have a lot of Brown Trout streams here at home, whereas around Rhodes and Barkly East, the waters are mainly Rainbow waters.  Our rocks, especially in the lower reaches, are black, angular and slippery, whereas the NE Cape has sandstone bedrock or fine gravel for the most part, making for easier wading.

But here is something that perhaps sets the area apart:

In KZN, our streams tend to flow down from the Drakensberg in a relatively straight path, and quite quickly descend below the 1200m contour, BEFORE they are joined by their neighbouring streams. What I mean by this, is that there are relatively few junctions of major rivers within the area that can sustain trout.

The significance of this, is that the KZN trout have limited (Very limited!) opportunity to travel down one valley and up another. This means that the genetic make up in one valley could arguably be completely separate and potentially different from the next valley.

Another aspect to consider, is that when a stream dries up in the North Eastern Cape, it’s Trout population can be restored from another artery when the stream begins to flow again.  This is very seldom the case in KZN.

The situation in the Cape is as a result of a jumble of mountains, with rivers and streams that cut through them in a variety of directions, and with the land sloping off to the plains very gradually. This allows rivers to meander and intersect at higher altitudes.

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I suppose this makes our trout in the KZN rivers more vulnerable. If a drought or pollution incident were to befall the trout of one valley, it might not quickly receive some fresh bloodlines to re-populate it from another.     In the NE Cape, after the severe droughts of 2015/6, we all saw photos of the Sterkspruit so dry that not only did it cease to flow, but the puddles started to dry out.  A visit to the area this year, revealed that the streams are again full of countless small trout.  It really is quite miraculous!    This miracle is no doubt aided by the fact that just a few trout had to survive in 1 or 2 of the streams, and the re-population of all streams after the drought would surely happen given time. 

Confluences of trout rivers are an important feature…..


Concentration and attention

“There are not many men who can fish all morning without seeing or feeling a fish and not suffer some deterioration in care or keenness that is likely to retard their reaction when at last the moment comes.”  Arthur Ransome,   Rod and Line, 1929

Who have you have lost a fish, because you weren’t expecting it?  A fish chased you fly at the end of the cast as you lifted off, and you were not focused enough to halt your rhythm and leave the fly in the water.

A fish took your dry, but you had allowed such a bow in the line since last casting that you couldn’t connect.

You walked up on a pool, and realised too late that there was a lunker in the tail end, as you saw him scoot off.

You were holding the line tight against the cork grip in your left hand, and something hammered the fly so hard and so fast that you didn’t have time to let go, and your tippet parted.

 

Do these things sound familiar?

It seems that they were familiar back in 1929, but we all still do them.

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Solutions?  Well, I think you have to beat human nature.  Accept that this is something you WILL fail at.

Here are some ideas that might make you fail less often:

  • Change fly, tippet, or strike indicator, just for the sake of doing it. We all refocus and elevate our expectation when we put out a new offering
  • Take a rest. Our sport is one of concentration, but I am guilty of hardly ever just sitting on a rock to rest. Try it
  • Begin with the end in mind.  You end goal is to catch a fish. Don’t forget that. When you start enjoying the curve of the line and the pull of the rod tip in the cast, you have probably gone all esoterically mushy on yourself. Cut it out!
  • Imagine a fish following your fly, as often and as long as you can. That’ll fix it!
  • Mix things up by casting into “crazy places”….like 2 inches from the shore, in behind the cattails, in a side pocket smaller than a side plate.   If you are fishing a Brown trout water, you may be in for some surprises. Even if not, your next cast, into more obvious water, will carry more hope. Hope = concentration.
  • Slow down. Stop. Think.  Re-work a minor strategy for each spot you arrive at, rather than moving faster and faster, and ever more mindlessly.

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A quieted mind.

 

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Shrill summer frogs.
Black waves.
Shining jetty planks.
The mesmerizing arc of a fly line
replaced by flickering flames,
gleaming gunwales
and a quieted mind.

Life on hold ?

 

“I’m guessing you are standing in a river right now”

“Naa……at the tyre shop.  You?”

“At my desk”

“Week-end?”

“DIY and a birthday party”

 

          #

 

“Friday  late morning…how about it?”

“I’m dead keen, let me see how much I can get done on Thursday”

“I’m in the same boat….lets chat Thursday”

 

          #

“You blooded that new net yet”

“No…..soon, I promise….soon!”

 

          #

The other day my friend Dr Harry  took an expensive flight, and hired a car and drove 5 hours, following some pretty dodgy directions to a place he had never been to before,  to join us for 3 days of fishing.  Every time he saw the camera pointed at him he did this:

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Be like Dr Harry!


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Dances with snakes

My sister reminded me the other day of what may have been my first encounter with a Puff Adder. The damned thing was lying atop an old hessian sack, trying to make itself look like a hessian sack, so that it could take out a little blonde farm boy.  Since then I have stumbled on, jumped over, driven over and recoiled from these things more times than I care to remember.  There was the time a bunch of us came over the saddle at Gateshead on our way back down from fishing and found a cluster of babies. A “gaggle of snakes” as I call them.  Then there was a particularly orange specimen near the cattle feeding area on Reekie Lyn that got my heart pumping.  Then there was the one Rhett and I drove over in his landcruizer of the way down to the Ndawana to fish.  We drove over it repeatedly, but it didn’t seem to notice, heightening my suspicion that these things are deeply evil, and may actually be immune to death.

Aside  from Puff Adders, there were the Night Adders that lived in the ticky-creeper on the veranda steps of my grandparents farmhouse. Then there was the cobra that crossed the road in front of Petro and I on the Eerste River, with its head in the fynbos one end and its tail in the bush on the other side.  I don’t think I have ever see a bigger snake. The snake gaitors that Tom Sutcliffe had lent me on the same water a few days earlier suddenly seemed so hopelessly inadequate.

Tom Sutcliffe (4 of 22)

 

Then there was the trauma doctor friend of ours who told me to forget that the BS about hippos being Africa’s most dangerous animals. “Far and away …SNAKES” he assured me.   It probably lies in the statistics…….maybe more people die from Hippo encounters than snake encounters, but he was adamant that it was snake victims that filled the emergency room.

My friend Russell showed me the goose bumps on his arm after he related the story of his encounter with a Berg Adder last week. He was navigating some high country on a motorbike, putting his feet down all the time, like a kid on a scooter, when he saw the little terror right where he would have put his foot.

That reminds me of a berg hike we did as kids to Bannerman’s hut near Giants Castle.  We overnighted at the hut, and were to summit the pass the following morning, but alas, driving rain and cold drove us back to the hut.  Later the same day we struck out for Giants Castle camp, walking single file down the path at some speed.  It had by now turned hot and windy….perfect snake weather. First we encountered a Berg Adder that the lead hiker jumped over in terror, leaving the second guy at risk.  Then we saw two more snakes….probably “Skaapstekers”  By then us kids were all jumpy, so it was agreed that Keith Duane would hike in front. I was some distance behind him, when I came around a corner and nearly jumped out of my skin for the fourth time that day.  He was standing  next to the path, pointing down into the path with a straight finger and a piercing alarmed look. I followed the line of his arm…and saw……  a Shongololo!

MIllipede

There was the time at Roman baths that I spotted a Skaapsteker just before my foot was about to land on  its head.  Then we had a trip to Highmoor in April where the Skaapstekers were just EVERYWHERE.     There was the time I was pushing my daughter along on her little pink bike,  sans training wheels , when I kicked a grass snake. Hard.  Then the Jack Russel walked right over a Rinkhals without knowing, and when we noticed it, we were one side, the dog was the other side, and the snake was angry.

We have had snakes in the laundry basket.  Snakes in gumboots. Snakes on the windowsill.

This would all be fine, except that I am terrified of the things.

So last week when a puffy struck at my calf and got the fabric of my longs just millimetres from my skin, I sort of freaked out a little.

A few days later, rattled more that a rattle snake, wearing snake gaitors and probing the path ahead of me with a stick , I didn’t take too kindly to the occasional  innocent tap to my calf from my wife’s hiking pole as she walked behind me. I know she struggles to get me onto a dance floor, but this method of inducing dancing just isn’t cricket. (especially given the embarrassing girl-like squeals it tends to induce).

lower Furth

 

PS.  That Puff Adder that was immune to the Landcruizer tyres was crossing the road beside a large root that shielded it from the imprint of the tyre. I am still  very suspicious however, that something as evil as a Puff Adder may in fact be able to avert death through mystical means.

PPS.  I suppose the fact that I have thus far averted a snake bite, given the number of scary incidents I have had, itself borders on the mystical.

PPPS: I recommend you stay away from me on river banks.  I seem to attract the damned things.


Getting happily beaten

A friend made a valid point the other day. It seems obvious now, but consider this:

When you fish a stillwater, there is a very good chance that for at least a portion of the day, you will stand there, or sit there in your float tube, and think about work, or some domestic trouble. Now think back to the last day you spent on a river or stream.  You scrambled up banks and slid down into the water, and waded over uneven rocks, and slipped and slithered , and hiked, and focused and cast and watched the dry fly or the indicator….all day long.  I wouldn’t mind betting that you came home beaten…..I mean really physically tired….and mentally refreshed.  I wouldn’t mind betting that you didn’t think about the mortgage, or that idiot at work either. 

(Ted Leeson describes the concept of a “vacation” , and vacating the mind in his superb book, “Inventing Montana”…its worth a read!)

 

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Maybe you got some Browns?

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If you are a stillwater fisherman…..consider the streams…..  Think of it as a “vacation”.

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