As a kid we visited and fished Kamberg a fair bit.Many of us did.
I have fond memories:
- Jumping out of my skin when concentrating on a rising fish, in my own little world, when a ranger came up on the river bank alongside me unnoticed and asked “Liseeence?” Followed by the rattling off of every Trout fly that he knew. He knew a lot of them!
- Booking Stillerus beat number one, and being excited at being offered beat two in whispered tones by the lady in the office, as no-one had booked it that day. I felt so privileged!
- Mown paths along the course of Stillerus, with beat markers.
- Smartly dressed guards at the gate, with gleaming boots, snapping to attention for every car.
- Creeping through wattles and brambles on Game Pass, trying to get to the river.
- Lots of fishermen.
I could go on.
Now, alongside the broken down Trout hatchery, and having entered a crumbling, abandoned gate house, you will encounter this:
The grass is not mown, and the picnic table is toppled and broken. No guards. No salutes. No picnickers. But notice the ring-barked tree. And notice how on Game Pass you don’t need to go creeping through the wattles. I find wilted, sprayed (treated) bramble there quite often. And no other fishermen, apart from a very small band who extoll the virtues of the stream on Facebook.
So things fall apart. But not completely. Conservation is still taking place, it just is not being offered on a plate to paying guests. Interesting. Money is being spent on conserving nature, but the source of income to fund it has been abandoned.
Stillerus is wild and unkempt, and the authorities have moved their own staff into the cottage there, that one could once hire, so that there is no longer accommodation for visitors. The fishing is still excellent.
Heard any news on how Stillerus is fishing lately?
I thought not. You have to know someone now. In a sense it is more private. You definitely will not encounter other fishermen there. Try Googling it. You won’t find much, and what you do find is outdated. Did you hear about the four pounder that was caught there this season?
You need to know someone.
But it is still there, and it is available to those who seek it out.
Whoever seeks it out might have to get involved in spraying the bramble at some stage, or ring barking a wattle tree, or engaging with the authorities to partner on getting it done.
And while we are in this phase of a return to wildness (I am looking forward to Duncan Brown’s new book!) , restaurants have proliferated lower down in the catchments. Country restaurants, which people drive out to, and at which they while away the hours on a deck overlooking a mountain or a river. When Kamberg was in its prime, people didn’t have access to such things, but they would pack sandwiches and go for a walk or some flyfishing in the country. Kamberg is empty. The restaurants are full. And the one who hikes up to the very upper Mooi to see how far up he can find Trout, is an intrepid explorer, but one who will claim to “go there all the time”, when in fact he was last there three seasons back. The place is empty, and it is there for the taking by a shrunk band of flyfishers. A band, which I believe are more proficient fly fishers than the droves of casual fishermen who used to visit Kamberg, and fill the coffers of the conservation funds.
Maybe it lends itself to a guide, and there is an opportunity there for the “resort” to be accessible again in that way…….. but experience shows that there are not enough visiting fly-fishers to keep a guide in business in these parts.
So it is wilder, arguably unkempt, in a way that doesn’t matter, but possibly at risk of a lack of environmental management. One could get philosophical about what the desired outcome is.
Where to from here? I don’t know. I have been blamed for giving away “secret spots” like this one, but having done so, it still is not crowded. And if someone called for volunteers to spray the bramble on Stillerus, I wonder how many would put their hands up?
On running out of flies on the river:
“I had to go home and be in time for supper, an astonishing mishap, breaking all precedents”. From “Rod and Line” by Arthur Ransome…. 1929
(This little book is a delight! It is poetic in its delivery, modern, adventurous, and upbeat in its content, and not the stuffy armchair stuff that you might expect to be hearing from a Brit between the wars.)
When I was a youngster, my Dad took me out to a wattle grove that grew out along a ridge in front of the old house, and taught me to shoot with a .22 rifle. He coached me slowly, and with great patience, teaching me about stance, and nestling of the rifle butt into my shoulder. He cautioned me about the position of my cheek, too close to the rifle. Then he folded his hankie, and put it up on a tree nearby as a target. I hit it on the first shot. Praising me, he proceeded to fold the hankie several times to make it smaller, and when I shot that too, he teasingly blamed me for shooting a perfectly good hankie full of holes. That was quiet praise, designed to affirm, but without making my head swell!
Several years later, with equal patience, the wattle grove was gone. My Dad had started working on the wattle on our farm when his father bought the place in 1948, when Dad says two thirds of it was covered in wattle. He worked at it all his farming life, right up until the time he retired. He removed invasive wattle, restored pasture and planted lines of ornamental trees.
My father’s farm….as painted by ………..my father.
Eventually the labourers pleaded with him to leave a small grove of wattles for firewood.
I hope that, aside from our penchant for ridding the veld of wattle trees, I share some of my Dad’s patience. I sometimes think that I might have inherited a little more of the wattle allergy than the patience though. Just this last week-end, I rushed a tippet knot, and lacking the discipline to cut it, and re-tie it, I left a black DDD in a fish. Anton makes you drink for things like that. Dad would not approve.
I also spent a day on a river that hasn’t produced a Brown Trout in a long time, and failed to raise one again. I need to muster the resolve to return, and accept that a single outing is not an adequate sample upon which to make proclamations of doom.
And a few days ago I was cornered by a portly gentleman, who drives a big car, and has a pallid complexion, and fingers like cocktail sausages. He wanted me to take him fishing up a river valley and teach him how to catch trout. He’s a super chap, but I can picture him decked out in his waders, holding a brand new, expensive fly rod, and a cheesy grin, so I smiled wanly and changed the subject.
I really need to work on my patience (or is it my swollen head?)
About eight months ago, I borrowed my son’s battery-powered hand drill to perform an experiment. There is a hillside above a diminutive trout stream I know that is covered in wattle, and I had been pondering ways of getting it sorted out at the lowest possible cost.
Wattles on the hillside above the Furth Stream
My plan involved securing the company and help of my wife, and taking the drill plus a small vial of herbicide to a couple of wattles growing in the road reserve near our home. It was an experiment on a small scale, with bigger things in mind. She agreed, and one day after work, we took a stroll up there. I drilled 4 holes in the first tree, three in the second, and so on. Then we injected the herbicide into the downward sloping holes with a little plastic syringe, wiped our hands with an old hole ridden hankie of mine, and left.
My wife was concerned that the trees would die, and fall on a passing motorist. I tried to allay her fears, saying that it probably would not work anyway, and that if the trees did die, there would be time for the municipality to see the danger, and act with the speed and professionalism that all South African municipalities are so famous for. She seemed unconvinced.
I think tomorrow I am going to look in my diary for a free Saturday, and give that pleasant, rotund fellow a ring. I can picture those fingers of his tying knots slowly and thoroughly, and better than I do……
My fingers: (photo credit….Chris Galliers)
Oh, by the way…..If you are heading down Cedara Road in Hilton anytime soon, look out for a dying wattle tree leaning over the road……and a fellow walking around with a cheesy grin on his face. You may want to report one of them to the municipality.
Here in the KZN midlands, altitude is accepted as a defining criteria for Trout water. It has long been held that trout will survive above 1200meters above sea level, and there is very little fishable water above 1800metres. So within that band of 1800m down to 1200m, there are a few critical bands, and I would argue that one of them is the 1600m band. I say that because every listed trout stream in these parts rises above 1600m.
So here is where that contour runs along the front of the Drakensberg:
Interesting isn’t it!
For me what makes it fascinating is that:
- It shows deeply incised valleys where streams cross the line remarkably close to the escarpment
- It shows that ridge of high ground that runs out into the province from the end of Giants Castle to Inhlosane mountain, very clearly
- And from the few spot heights I threw in on the map above, you will see that there are many islands of ground above 1600m, many of which are a long way “from the mountains”.
One also quickly concludes that the altitude alone is a poor measure of where trout thrive. In studying a map in detail, you come to realise that trout will survive and indeed thrive in stretches of river at low altitudes where the valley sides rise to much higher altitudes, and cool short tributaries contribute to the river (Examples, The Inzinga and the Umgeni). Also, if the drainage upstream of where you are standing is overgrazed or densely inhabited, or intensely farmed, then altitude becomes a less significant measure ( Example, The Bushmans below 1400m …below the clinic). Also, if the stream is on a steeply drained area, where the cold fronts coming from the south west are forced up to generate orographic rainfall, the trout are better off. So, for example, south of Giants Castle, the 1600m contour averages about 130 kms from the sea. North of the Hidcote ridge, where the berg tracks north, north-west, the sea is an average of 175 kms from the sea, and over 200kms in many cases. Here it is drier, there are a lot fewer trout streams, and those that there are, have just a short run in the berg before they spill out onto flatter, warmer plains where they don’t hold Trout. In fact, down south (and off below the limits of the map above), we know that in the Ingeli mountain area, trout are found as close as 80km from the sea at altitudes of under 1000m. There the slope from the sea to Ngeli mountain is 25m per km. From a similar altitude on the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, to the sea, the slope is under 8m per km. Those southern areas get more life-giving mist and drizzle. Did you ever notice how there are no thorn trees along the N3 from Maritzburg to Hidcote, then on the Estcourt side of Hidcote (the dry side), you can draw a line where the thorns start. Thorns like drier , and/or warmer climates.
Returning to our 1600m contour: At a glance, it is encouraging to see how much land above this contour is in the Drakensberg park, and therefore conserved as catchment area. The exception is where the land juts out from Giants Castle. Parts of that area (top end of Dargle, Inzinga, Fort Nottingham, Western side of Kamberg etc) have at times been threatened by proposed developments. (I hope you will join me at the protests if they try again).
See you in the highlands……above 1600 metres perhaps….
It is easy to get caught up in the whole boutique coffee thing and get a bit snooty about it. But here’s the thing: This here off-the-shelf supermarket stuff really hits the spot for me:
In my machine, and with the quantity of the grind set right down, the fineness of the grind at about 75%, and tamping it down ever so lightly, I get this enormous crème, which lends itself to amazing artwork on top of the flat white. But I don’t do artwork. I just know it is a smooth, intensely flavourful cup of coffee.
You could say it’s a Real Peach, which is a catchy tune I have been listening to. I particularly like the lyrics.
I particularly like the lyrics: Real Peach…the lyrics
That is the “beats” part covered.
Books. There is a 1936 gem nestled in a special acid proof document wallet thing on my bookshelf.
Every time I take it out to pour over its pages, I regret it, because it weakens, and love it, because it’s a rare volume with such interesting history and pictures.
Perhaps I should photocopy it and use the copied one to browse and drool on. That way I could keep the original in tact. I think I might just make a cup of that good coffee to settle the nerves, and then do that……
“So what I am suggesting here is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”. Jerry Kustich
I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts.
Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example: He drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.
I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back and did little better than get caught in a storm. In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.
On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley. On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.
And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.
On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle. It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low. On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.
On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.
On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award. Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming. The river was low, and it was hot. I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.
At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.
Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining! Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl. Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing. He reckons its perfect every time.
But here’s the thing: I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for a receipt. He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.
And to add to that, this month, I learned the local name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.
And at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside. Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).
Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)
Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures. Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.
I vote for messy.
Isn’t it funny how, when you are searching for one thing, you find another. We went in search of backpacks stolen from foreign hikers in the mountains and found other things.
I had gone looking for trout, and found cold driving rain at Highmoor. From there we infiltrated the next valley, where vagabonds and miscreants, might descend from the hills and make their getaway with their loot, and we found:
A trout stream.
OK, so we knew the Trout stream was there, but I hadn’t been there in a little while, and I wanted to show it to Anton. In the Trout stream, Anton found some weird bugs that looked like a cross between miniature crabs and aquatic ant lions, but they escaped in short bursts, and when I asked him if he would be able to identify them in a book back home, he said he thought not. I suspect a water bug or water cricket.
But Gaffney identified me when we met her on the way out. She and I had met before, while waiting for the King to arrive. (For four hours in the hot sun…I remember the sunburn). Gaffney was delivering an officer who had returned from leave, back to his mountain outpost in the Ncibidwana valley. An outpost which lay directly in the path of any vagabonds or miscreants who might make a quick getaway from Highmoor with their loot. We discussed the stream with her, and plans to conserve it. The water had been warm, but the flow was good, and we had seen promising ripples tight against the bank in the first pool we came to. The clarity was good, and Anton and I agreed it looked suitably Trouty. Gaffney brimmed with pride at our appreciation of her Trout Stream. It turns out that Gaffney is a champion of wattle eradication, has achieved great things on the Little Mooi, and is likely a perfect ally for efforts to maintain the Ncibidwana.
Just before saying our goodbyes, Gaffney asked if we had seen Pienkie. Hell no. Pienkie….custodian of great Trout fishing at Highmoor has been missing for ages. We had not found Pienkie. There was some confusion, but it emerged that Pienkie was now stationed at the self same outpost up the Ncibidwane valley! To hell with Nemo….we had found Pienkie. (We did wonder what deed or crime might have lead to her banishment though…..)
We failed to find two of our fishing club beat markers elsewhere in the valley. They were simply…..gone. Like backpacks.
Of those that remained however, we found one with bullet holes in it. Now, I don’t know why, but somehow this discovery filled me with joy and pride. The fact that our signs had garnered sufficient merit to become the targets of wild vagabonds and miscreants with rifles, somehow triggered in me a sense of satisfaction and happiness. I can’t really say why. We inspected the holes, and held a discussion about what calibre may have been used, and how poor the aim of the shottist was.
While the level of the Bushmans River was fair, and vastly improved from a few weeks ago, the temperature was too high, and there was nothing to celebrate there. But we stopped at the Vulindlela Tavern anyway, to celebrate…..the bullet holes….or something. There I received a bear hug from one of the patrons, and two ice cold Zamalecs from the bar lady, who acted without surprise, suggesting that she serves storm-drenched flyfishers all the time.
We drove back, drying steadily as Anton’s bakkie seats slowly wicked away all the rainwater from our backsides. The conversation was good too.
I had gone looking for Trout, but instead I received a dousing, experienced good company, explored a good Trout stream, and found joy and pride in some bullet holes. We also found cold Zammalecs.
And we found Pienkie!
To hell with Nemo! We will catch him when the weather cools.
On the back cover of Sheridan D Anderson’s wonderful manifesto is an advert for what Frank Amato publications called the C.I.A. That is, the Central Intelligence for Anglers.
Now that concept will surely appeal to my mate Graeme. Ever scanning Google Earth, he is. Looking for new Trout waters. He checks out the background in big fish pictures and uses sublime clues to work out where it was. I help him. Not much slips him by.
One that did slip him by was the location of a particular water that I may have hinted existed. It didn’t. It still doesn’t. Let’s just say he asked after a mythical water, and I sort of went with it. Artistically. I may also have prompted some support from another colleague, Anton, and he sort of went with it too. My wife, who is a caring person, said “stop it now! He has probably wasted a whole day on Google Earth looking for this non-existent place!”. But when you start one of these things , it is not easy to stop it. So we did not, and I think Graeme may have spent two days on Google Earth, not one. I reasoned that they were work days that he wasted, not fishing days, so it wasn’t too bad. Perhaps if he had had access to the manifesto, with its hidden spitfire, or perhaps the C.I.A. itself, he would have worked it out earlier.
He didn’t. It was only in the car with Mike that the penny dropped. I can picture his face now. It would have been a sort of wide –eyed look, with a very slight, very foolish looking, and totally incredulous smile. One of those smiles that lingers in the corner of the mouth, and is accompanied by exclamations such as “Buggers!”.
But Graeme, is an artful opportunist himself, and it wasn’t more than a few hours later that he turned artful dodger, and alleviated Anton of his recently acquired masterpiece.
The masterpiece was created by none other than the alleged owner of said secret water, so the whole tale has a circular poetic ring to it. I of course played no part in the art heist, but Anton still doesn’t believe that. After he sent his wife on a search, and resorted to reviewing CCTV footage, I reckon the bear was, shall we say, “somewhat prodded”.
Now when this whole poetic thing had gone full circle, I realised that I was very exposed. I am the only one of the trio who has not been punished with some cruel prank. So I did what any conservative fellow would do, and I left the country for a few days. Went and hid out in the desert.
On my return I passed by home for some fresh laundry, and then headed off to hide out behind the mountains. It is dry across that side, and there are no trout, so Anton and Graeme were unlikely to go there. Besides we stayed in caves and the like, so we were pretty safe.
The problem is, that I am back now.
And both these crafty fellows have had many weeks to think about my comeuppance. Let’s just say I have eyes in the back of my head at the moment. Its all quite stressful. I can’t let my guard down for a moment.
My World is at the front. The front of the Drakensberg, that is. My pals and I wander southwards sometimes , and cross over the escarpment to the south- facing end of Lesotho, where the mountains face the cold fronts and catch some rain from time to time, but for the most part we stay just east of the escarpment and catch our Trout here.
With the heat of summer approaching, and mindful of the fact that it would be too damned hot to fish anyway, it made sense to go explore the other side. That is the other side of the mountains….the dry side.
Here at the front end, the berg forces the southern winds upwards, and they let go of rain, which dribbles into our streams, and feeds a humid, if not always cool zone. Our Trout survive through the dry of winter, provided it is a chapter sandwiched in a sufficiently short time-line between autumn and spring. Spring is good. Summer is hot, but with cool rain and oxygenating flow, the Trout can do it. Autumn is heaven. And all this Trout survival takes place within the silently understood limitations of altitude. Everyone knows that in these parts, if you can’t see sugar cane or thorn trees, and if you can see ouhoudt, you can check the map for altitude to be sure, but you are probably in Trout country (1200 metres plus). The North eastern cape is drier, but it has altitude, and the rain that dribbles over the back side of the Drakensberg.
But what of the dry side proper? Time for holiday planning.
I reckoned that if we could stay above 1400 metres altitude, that would make for a good summer holiday. Also, with the 1200 metre KZN trout country paradigm in my head, I could survey these places with a “what –if” mindset, even if I knew it wasn’t trout country. It would be cool surely, at 1400 metres plus?
We snuck through Golden Gate and hightailed it past the tourists of Clarens. At Fouriesberg, the Little Caledon passed through a poort into Lesotho. Or should I say, it oozed. It was not really flowing. There we stayed at an altitude of 1640, and hiked to the top of a sandstone massif of 1860m. It also rained cool rain, and it hailed a little. But the riverside inhabitants had scraped the earth bare and while the cliffs were pleasant to gaze at, and the Moer Koffie was good, we passed on.
At Clocolan, we hiked up off the plains at 1640 metres, and with the aid of a chain hand-rail, we emerged above the cliffs at 1800 metres. But up there, there were just rock pools of storm water, which our guide-dog named “Champagne” could just roll over in.
Despite storms that lashed us, and winds that threatened to blow us off the mountain, the territory just wouldn’t hold a trout. Besides, the cherry wine tasted decidedly dangerous.
Near Hobhouse, in an old, but partly restored mill house, we sat below cool poplars and listened to rushing waters. But there we were flaunting the boundaries at just 1460 metres, and the raging Caledon river was chocolate brown and flowing through flat country.
In a cave near Zastron, we were at 1750 metres, and our hike to the top of a mountain called Mapaya took us to 1920 metres. While the ageing tourist brochure back in the cave made a fleeting remark about “Forelle”, I could see a lot of thorns, and the so-called skinny dipping pool atop the mountain was not only tiny, but dry as a bone.
Average rainfall there used to be 675mm per annum. It hasn’t reached the average in eight years, and this year won’t pass the 300mm mark. Forelle Country: NOT.
At Lady Grey we sat at a restaurant beneath a London Plane tree (at 1650 metres), which only partly obscured the high peaks to the north-east and the east. That shade provided a relief from the 32 degree heat, which coolness was as uncanny as it was refreshing. It reminded me of the notion that dry heat provides greater evaporative potential than humid heat, and that evaporative cooling is therefore more significant. A factor that supposedly explains the survival of trout in our Mediterranean climates, despite air temperatures that routinely reach 37 degrees. Either way, evaporation seems to have put paid to any water that might have flowed in the Wilgespruit past town. The municipality has seen to it that that particular stream will probably never flow consistently again, by putting in an oversized filtration system that backwashes and wastes what water is left, and then adding a couple of hundred low cost houses with flush toilets, to up the demand. The envelope has closed. We drank beer there…trucked in from wetter places.
Over Joubert’s pass, and down past Helvellyn: a picture book farm of such beauty, that I confess to having contemplated variously, murder, land claims, and other undue influences of unsavoury nature, in pursuit of its ownership.
It may be at 2000m altitude, but it’s stream (The Unity stream) was as good as dry.
Where the Unity joins the Karringmelk, the flows were not significantly stronger, and despite being above 1700m it was desperately hot. This is of course known Trout country, but our finned friends live in peril here. Our 2009 visit was in a drought. In the 2015/6 drought, the river dried up. Then in the first 3 months of this year, three violent floods all but decimated the river course, without doing much for the water table. Now, ironically, the enormously flood-altered water course, lies baking in the sun with 23 degree water trickling through it.
I could not bring myself, despite my fly-fishing obsession, to fish for these trout, choosing instead to stalk and photograph them, like some rare animal to be recorded in the moments before their demise.
And so from the dry side, we cross through the known trout areas, Rhodes, Maclear, Matat, Underberg, and home to the midlands.
I have seen the dark side.
I like it here at the front.
I had never hooked a trout before this week-end. That is to say, I had never held a fly between my two fingers, and used it to hook a trout. There is a first time for everything.
There is also a heavily wooded valley cut by a tributary of a favourite stream, which I had never entered. Here a reclusive and interesting man resides. I had never met this hermetic bloke before. What I have done before, is to go on a day’s fishing and not take my fly rod out of its tube. That happened once when PD and I holed up for breakfast at a favourite midlands haunt, and when the rain kept pounding down, and we tired of pigging out on coffee, we came home. This week-end I ended up at the same “piggly” place, but alas, they had run out of pork sausages. I pigged out on bacon instead, and then went on a circuitous fishing jaunt with Anton, in which the rod never saw the light of day. The fate of the stream in that same wooded valley was the same….never sees the light of day….owing to the rank woody growth that obscures the house tucked away in there, as much as it does the road in. We traversed that new road, right up to where it emerged within sight of Conniston Farm, where as a young child I collected tadpoles in a jar. So while the water held little promise, an orientation loop was neatly closed.
My friend Trevor throws a tight loop, which I was admiring when he caught a tadpole on Saturday. Well, it was in fact a brown, but it was of tadpole proportions. The tadpole capture was caught on film, as was the capture of my hooked trout, which was somewhat bigger, and for that I am a feeling a little smug.
The first time I hooked it, it was perfectly legit. The second hooking was for the sake of the camera, so I don’t think it should tarnish the legitimacy of my success on celluloid. Later, when I was sneaking down to “Five Pounder Pool”, the cameraman observed that the TV viewers would see this in the background of the interview his colleague was conducting at the riverside, and he asked if that would be problematic. Picture the window-cleaner behind the TV presenter, or the kid who opens the door during a live feed from daddy’s study. The others felt that while I may have technically been poaching at the time, my sneaking around in the background would be “fairly legit”, whatever that means.
The legitimacy of my excuse for not being at the hospital with my wife when her finger was stitched, is beyond reproach or question. I was fishing. Sort of. I was on that self same circuitous fishing trip, complete with bloody sandwiches. I do feel a little guilty that after the injury, I didn’t even eat the bloodied sandwiches, not because I am squeamish, but because I was lured to a pub with long cold glasses of lager, and jalapeno burgers. The pub with long cold glasses of lager, is where much of this weekend should have been spent, because it was too damned hot for trout. Tadpole sized or otherwise.
Anton offered to drop me off at the local sports ground on the way home so that I could practice my casting in the hot afternoon sun, but I declined. I had work to do, feeding sandwiches to the dog, and giving my wife a hug. Possibly wetting my wading boots under a tap and sucking on lager masking peppermints.
Earlier, after I had hooked my trout twice, and in response to a hair-brained idea involving a circuitous non fishing trip , he had asked me if my brain had disintegrated. The reply on my Whatsapp says “Yes, but I am fully expecting you to support me during this difficult time”. The reply was by my wife. That was when her typing finger was still OK, and before she took fright at Anton’s doorbell ringing and let rip with that new knife. And it was before Anton took me on a circuitous non fishing trip.
They say that reclusive bloke in the wooded valley is also a bit cooked, but maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. This heat has clouded my judgment.
They tell me it is going to snow this week. That might help.
“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.