September is a varied time. It is the month in which we are most likely to get snow, and at the same time, daytime temperatures of 30 degrees are far from uncommon.
Here where I live, when a September cold front comes in, we get eleven degrees and drizzle, and at that temperature there won’t be snow, not even on the high berg. If it drops to seven degrees then we expect some white stuff up on top. In the event that it hits five degrees, snow on the Inhlosane, the little berg, and hey, maybe even Karkloof is a possibility. Either way, that cold front is a valued thing, all the more if it drops some reel rain and lifts us up out of our dry winter.
In between, its typically what I call a “flat white”. Bright hot sunshine. No wind. White, flat light that is a photographer’s nemesis. Not fishing weather at all, it seems.
The truth be told, it can actually be quite good in these conditions if you go higher in the mountains, where it is cooler, and all the more so if we have had rain, like this year. My pal Ray fished a mountain stream the other day and commented that it was hot. But as he said the fish were “on the prod”, and he got enough of them to make the drive seem well worth the trouble. But I sit here on a bright Saturday morning, feeling a little disinclined to tramp up a river valley smothered in sunscreen and looking out for snakes. Instead I am tying flies, with a bottle of chilled lemon and mint water at my elbow. I have half an eye on the weather app. It predicts one of those eleven degree things later in the week, complete with drizzle. Heck….who knows, it might even rain! Now THAT has my attention. I saw the Viking yesterday and he had spotted it too. I said something about a mid-week adventure and his smile indicated he had been thinking the same thing.
So for now I am tying some streamers too big to show my sophisticated mates who think more of me; and some emergers so small that they belong in something magnetized, so that they don’t blow away when you open the fly box at the streamside.
I may tie up something in between just to balance things out. I’ve been listening to Paul Proctor’s chat with Pete Tyjas on his one hundredth podcast (Well done Pete!) , and I am about to check my tippet spools, and move a bunch of flies from the patch back into the box. Theodore Gordon’s collection of letters and “Little talks” are on my nightstand, and I am just a little inspired.
There will be a ‘seven’ or an ‘eleven’ to end this ‘flat white’, and I will be ready.
Opening day. I seldom fish it. It is normally dry and lean and often still wintery, even if only in a vaguely cold and dusty way. Algae is the norm. Pools take on a sedentary look, and it is not attractive. But this year felt a little different. Winter snow and rain supposedly comes in the middle of July. I say supposedly, because I can’t remember when mother nature last stuck with that nice, neat formula. In recent years we have had no decent snow at all. Then this year, like a late gift, it arrived, accompanied by around an inch of rain just about everywhere, and it did that in the week before the Trout river season opened. So the Viking said to me that if I was serious about my stream flyfishing; if I was properly committed to the cause, then I would fish a river with him, notwithstanding the fact that it was a work day. “OK”, I said “I’m in!”, and we agreed to leave at 8 am.
We arrived on the water around 2:30 pm. What can I say: work got in the way of us both. The upside was that Dave joined us. We strolled down to the river under slightly dulled skies, but in high spirits. I will concede that there was a slight sense of occasion being out on opening day. We started in at King’s pump, and plied the slow, moody looking water there, leapfrogging upstream in a sort of loosely plaited arrangement. It all seemed rather still and lifeless, despite the decent water levels and clarity and the apparent absence of any algae. As the afternoon slid by, I confess that my concentration began to wane, and the boyish enthusiasm with which we set out was converting to a more realistic temper.
At some point, at a big bend in the pool, I lifted my rod and drew the fly from the depths near my feet, and then I jiggled it a little to see how it was swimming. It was a small Woolly Bugger. In fact I suspect it was the very same fly that I caught a lunker on in the Bushmans two seasons back: my biggest river fish ever. I lifted it and dropped it. It looked good. Kinda tadpole like. I did it again. The fish that shot out from under the grass clump at my feet to grab it took me totally by surprise! I leaned back, and probably gasped, and in so doing drew the fly out of the water. The fish turned, looking… hunting, for the fly. So I lowered it back in, and it took it. That put a smile on my face. The first fish of the season. It was a pretty little brown. I photographed it, and returned it, and I was happy.
Later I took a phone call (why did I do that!), and for a long time I stood there with my rod in one hand, fly hanging a few inches below my thumb and forefinger which grasped the tippet, saying “yes” and “um”. Dave took the opportunity and, hearing from The Viking that I had landed a fish, he cut in and fished the pool, as he was well entitled to do. When he hooked his fish, I was trying to enjoy the moment with him while remaining focused on my phone call, which had already gone on way too long. I should explain at this point that it was a video call, and that I was having a time of disguising that I was out on a Trout river with my buddy landing a trout right there beside me, ducks flying overhead, and kingfishers dashing by.
Later, as dark drew across the landscape, we stood almost side by side and fished Siesta Pool.
At some point a trout slashed at my caddis imitation at the head of the pool, and the others heard it, but I didn’t connect. Walking out through the lush ryegrass pasture in the low light, I was reminded that The Viking had earlier challenged us to a dare in which the one who didn’t catch a fish should take a plunge in the drinking trough near the gate. We were drawing near the trough, and having earlier rejected the challenge, I now suggested that we might invoke it. He was having none of it.
I tried several mates to see who wanted to join me. This one was working. That one was busy. Another had an invitation to some fancy syndicate water. It was starting to feel like a “rent a crowd” situation, so I stopped trolling my phone list and just went alone.
There was a heavy grey sky, and there were patches of mist hanging below the line of hills to the west, making them seem closer, more imposing, and somehow grander than they are in bright, tame sunshine. I tackled up, and set off along the base of the krantz, past the second pumphouse and beyond, to a willow lined section of river.
It was sullen water. The depth was difficult to determine on account of the silveriness of the day. It was all reflection, and muted surface colours of nchishi green, and mud-bank brown. I imagined it to be deep. I conjured up levels of faith in my piscatorial success which defied the apparent chances.
Then I had a take. Right there in between the logs, in the grey-green water right in front of me, and the fish swirled straight after I saw the tippet tighten. I was now wide awake. Perhaps the fish were “on the prod”.
There was no action in the big pool above that, and with the bow and arrow casts I executed through the multitude of bare willow branches covering another deep slot, were not successful. But they did prove to be “on the prod” that day. Above the drift a lively 14 inch fish took my fly with gusto, and came to the net.
Not long after, and in the same pool, a fish came out from under my own bank and smacked the same little Woolly Bugger with such aggression, it surprised me. So did the size of the fish! After tense moments in which the fish moved up and down the pool at pace, shaking its head, I lifted the net on a truly lovely trophy, and I confess, I was shaking just a little (and uttering little exclamations of pleased wonder and smug satisfaction for some time too). After a one handed photo, I slid the beautiful big cock fish back into the depths at my feet, and sat in the grass for a long moment taking in the scene, and letting things wash over me.
Just casts later, a solid 16 inch fish took the fly, and I was in heaven.
While I had been working that pool, a fish had risen at a spot just above a log jam. At first, I thought it was a duck. Then it rose again and I knew it was no duck. They were not small rises!
As I reached the spot, I resolved to have a good look at this fish; to take it slow, and to hunt this thing properly. With my earlier success, my want of fish had relaxed into a need for the ultimate sight fishing and stalking experience. I waited over twenty minutes for the fish to rise again. Then I covered it with a single cast, and not achieving a successful or pleasing drag free drift, I decided to try a different approach. The log jam above was forcing me to cast up along my bank, and let the fly drift down way off to the fish’s left side, as well as drawing the fly off the water with messy drag for fear of the fly going into the logs. Rather than risk putting the fish down with another cast that would surely be identical to the first failed attempt, I resolved to backtrack, walk around the spot in the ryegrass pasture and approach the bank from above for a quartering downstream cast.
As I approached the river again, I saw that I had been gifted with a large clump of sword grass, behind which I could crouch. I slid down there with my fly at the ready and waited. It was another twenty minutes or so, and the fish rose again. A thumping, unabashed walloping gulp of a rise, performed with impunity. It got my heart racing, but I held my composure long enough to change to a beetle imitation (because with no hatching flies evident, it could only have been a terrestrial that it took, and it was too early in the season for a hopper). The beetle drifted over the spot without result, and I retrieved the fly and line to wait for more signals. At this point, lying there in the grass behind my clump of grass, I had a chat on the phone with PD to share news of my success. Phoning people while fishing is not something I do, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary here, but I was still bubbling over with the news of my big fish, and I wanted to share it with someone who would get it. After a good while on the phone, with my rod lying beside me in the grass, another a fish moved in a different spot, and I quickly ended the call with “Gotta go!”. The fish had risen below me in a spot that I could easily reach from my previous approach. There was nothing for it…I leopard crawled out, circled back around, and presented from the earlier spot. Nothing. It occurred to me then that this was probably one of those fish that was not holding position, and that in fact the few rises might all be the same fish, moving about. He would be in a rotation about the pool. My only chance was to try spot him, and predict the path of his route, so as to drop a fly in the spot he was approaching, to avoid lining him in these glassy, silver conditions.
I returned to my clump of sword grass and sat it out. There was another rise, but I couldn’t see the fish, so I didn’t cast. I decided that the rise was sub surface, so I changed to an emerger in anticipation of the next one. I craned my neck and rotated my polarized glasses but I could not see through the silvery slick. I sat it out for more than half an hour, and during that time I relented and made one blind cast….just on the off chance that my good luck of the day would repeat itself.
When the fish rose again, it was in a different place, and this time it was definitely taking off the surface, but since I couldn’t see any insects, it must have been something small. I changed to a size 18 F-Fly, and waited. Little breezes riffled the water at times. The sprinklers in the field trilled and clicked and thrummed. Cloud patches continued to drift across the gloomy grey hills to the west. The ryegrass pasture was lush and short and pretty behind me, and the willows were all gaunt and bare and full of sticks. It was quiet. Then, after another fourty minutes a tiny miracle unfolded. A shaft of sunshine poked through the cloud and lit the water in front of me. It was like a screen being lifted. Suddenly I could see the secrets beneath the previously shiny, reflective surface. The pool was not deep at all. It was a bed of intricate, golden stones, strewn about the place, with lots of feature and lots of holding water. And there in front of me, finning away was the Trout. Exposed! Presented to me on a plate. It was beautiful. I reached for my camera, switched it over to video mode, adjusted the polarizing filter to cut the last remaining glare, zoomed the lens in and just before I raised the eyepiece, I looked at the Trout to get my aim right. As I did so, the fish swam confidently forward, and I craned around the sword grass to see it rise to something off the surface, and then it sank away and the sun disappeared and pool was silver again. The ghost was gone.
Later, the weather grew heavy, and I strolled upstream, peering into holes under the gaunt willows, and delivering the odd hopeful cast blindly into deep green lairs, pitted with raindrops.
Presently I wound in and strolled back to the bakkie. As I climbed the hill to leave the drizzle stopped, and two fish rose in the slow water behind me. I stopped and watched the ripples of their rises subside, and I smiled.
The weather forecast had predicted winds of 5 to 7 metres per second. As I drove up the Dargle road I looked at the tops of the gum trees and saw no movement. Perhaps it would be perfect, and I would be spared that nasty, hot, blustery berg wind.
I arrived at the bottom of the valley to gusts of wind, and was met by detritus on the water, and great swirling wind ripples brushing the surface of the enormous pool. I was in shirtsleeves. It was warm.
Fish number one was six inches long: a pretty little Brown showing signs of its Loch Leven heritage: tiny black pepper spots, silvery and with just a sprinkling of red splotches down towards the tail.
The next thirteen fish eluded me. Yes: Thirteen! I started to mutter and swear. Some were those little dashing takes of small fish. A sort of grab and go thing, where the lift of the rod is plainly slow and ineffective. Others were on for a few moments. Two of them came off at the rim of the outstretched net, and one was a good solid fish that lunged at the fly, just as it landed millimeters from the reeds on the far side. It thrashed on the surface as Browns often do, and then it was gone. I checked the hook. It was a long pointed, ultra-sharp, wide gaped jig hook. OK, it was barbless, but thirteen misses! I ask you, with tears in my eyes! Sure, some were downstream of me, and my strike may have been too quick to allow them to turn downstream, but I adjusted for this once I had had that thought, and some I didn’t strike at all. Since the fish were eating the fly in question with gusto, I chose not to change it. Fish number fourteen through twenty one all held, so I ended the morning on a count of seven. I think. All the counting was getting confusing. One was a fish which came up at my feet while I was watching for the fly to come into view. I saw the fish first, watched it while it turned in slow motion, and as it began to sink away, I lifted, believing it must have taken my as-yet unseen fly. I was right.
It was a strange day. The wind howled, and stopped, causing my gust-adjusted casts to slam into the river. The sun burned down, leaving my face reddened. The Trout ignored a stripped fly, and pounced on one drifted slowly with little sudden twitches. They were like kittens….excited by feigned lifelessness, interspersed with enticing wriggles, and it was a mental picture that helped me master the day’s technique. After a bite to eat, I decided I had had my fill, and I drove happily back down the valley.
The following day was windless. I illogically concluded that it would be even better than the awful berg wind. It was hot. It was slow. The water measured just shy of 15 degrees C, and it ran clear in the pretty little tributary. The other two guys were exploring upstream of me. I had pointed them to the big pool where I caught a Trout last year, and I was brimming with confidence for them. I made sure they had a camera with them and asked for pictures of the Trout when they caught it, and I wasn’t just puffing. I really meant it. I put a little North Country Spider through several runs and I leaned forward in anticipation. I had this place nailed now. I new what success looked like, and it was just a matter of time.
A little further up, I stepped onto a small island and planned my route into the pool, on the other side. I put my foot on a matt of dried bramble, and plunged four foot through it , coming to rest with my hands and elbows in the unforgiving thorns. I extracted myself painfully. It was a merciless process. Yesterday’s fall into a hole had given me a wet foot and some mud on my longs. This was different.
Plucking thorns from my skin, I regained my composure, and returned to fishing. “shaken but not stirred” I told myself.
Repeated perfect drifts were ignored. I was joined by Tim, who reported that he and Anton had not encountered anything yet. I was surprised.
We moved down to the main river, and strolled up the banks, recounting past experiences at each bend, riffle and pool we came across. Anton threw a little dry. I tried an emerger. Tim was satisfied to just walk, try to spot fish, and watch us. The water was like gin. The air was still and hot. The river-bed was strewn with sticks and the willows were thick about us. There was some algae. I clambered in, enjoying the cool water against my legs, and I threw my fly up into the willow tunnel ahead of me.
Up at Picnic Pool, Anton and I tied on heavy flies and we plied the depths of a place that is as close to a sure-thing as you get on our river.
Above picnic pool I crept to the river’s edge in several spots where I have spotted fish before, and I strained my eyes, sure that I would spot one again. Anton looked at his watch and mumbled something about the rugby game starting soon. We strolled back through the short-cropped pasture, with the birds signing in the trees, and the river sliding silently past beside us, and sweat trickling down our collars. “Where did you say you got that fish?” Anton asked doubtfully. And I smiled.
The rivers are open. Some have rushed out there, all puffed up with the ceremony of it all. Given that we fish our stillwaters all winter long, and that our rivers are only closed for three months, I find that a bit over the top, but I suppose its fun. I often don’t rush to the rivers until we have had rain, because at this time of year they can be low and slimy and not so attractive. But this year we had late snows (and accompanied by about an inch of rain in these parts), and the rivers are looking pretty damned good. So for once I did fish opening day. And then again a few days later.
We have had cool cloudy, moody weather. In other words Brown trout weather. The water surface has been all silvery and reflective, and in this video it looks green. That is an illusion…in reality it is crystal clear. Notwithstanding that I have found a few fish to be bold and hungry.
It has been fun, and I am enjoying being back on moving water.
The Letort Regulars used to meet for Sunday morning breakfasts, or for picnics at Charlie Fox’s place on the Letort spring creek, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Vince Marinaro and others would stay over at Charlie’s fishing hut, which he built on his property even before he built himself a house to live in.
It was in that hut that they had a fly tying kit , donated by one Bob McCafferty, and their meetings, experiments and trials drew the attention of visitors like Lefty Kreh, George La Branche, ER Hewitt and Joe Brooks.
This band of fishermen, which included the likes of Ed Shenk, Gene Utech, Tommy Thomas, Ross Trimmer and others, were ground breakers. Their home water was what is still described as one of the most difficult trout streams in the world.
Stories abound about how spooky the fish are, and how clear the water is. The banks are sodden marshes in many places, the whole stream is only 9 miles long, and the fish are apparently all but impossible. Online searches reveal much evidence of these difficulties expounded in recent times. But reading Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” (written in 1950) reveals that not much has changed in this respect. Marinaro humbly paints a picture of himself as a duffer, saying things like ”This stream has always been a difficult one for me to solve and for many others too. The capture of one good trout in an evening’s fly-fishing was quite an achievement” and “….the usual result in these cases is a violent reaction on my part intended to be a strike, something I fervently wish I had never learned, and the matter is concluded by a sudden parting”.
As a relatively slow flowing limestone creek (AKA Spring Creek, chalk stream, Limestoner), its trout have all the time in the world to inspect what the fly fisherman has to offer, as well as a remarkable abundance of food besides. These characteristics make the stream a veritable university of fly fishing technique. Puzzles and riddles needed to be solved there, because although early fly anglers could see the trout, they couldn’t catch them.
What makes this interesting, is that the likes of the Letort Regulars had other streams they could go to, where the trout were easier, but they didn’t. That is to say that they chose not to abandon this near impossible challenge in favour of easier waters. They fished other waters, for sure, but their identity as “The Regulars” formed around the most difficult stream in the Cumberland Valley, the one of which Marinaro said: “the Letort is a hard task master and does not treat lightly any violation of dry fly technique”.
This challenge saw them entertaining the mother of invention: necessity. If they wanted to work out the puzzle, they had to get serious about it, study the trout and the insects and learn by trial and error. And so a great “university” was borne.
I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Ed Shenk’s books, and I am sure there are many other enlightening ones besides that I am not aware of, but I have devoured books by Mike Lawson, Ernest Schwiebert, Darryl Martin and Vince Marinaro.
These articulate writings of a bygone era reveal a level of enquiry, dedication, observation, and let me say obsession, which is rare nowadays. A Google search will reveal tidbits, videos and anecdotes, and people who are quick to boast that they knew the Letort Regulars, but like me, they don’t add to the body of knowledge of flyfishing technique.
The discoveries of the Letort regulars were significant. They pushed the boundaries. They looked for the smallest hooks and finest tippets they could find and tied flies on them, and tried to land big fish on them. They spoke and wrote with deference to Halford and Gordon, but then gently introduced the flyfishing world to the new frontier of terrestrials. They pushed back frontiers. In the 1970 edition of “The Code” which I own, Marinaro writes with wry amusement about how he meets anglers out on he stream who offer him their tiny flies, complete with words of instruction and encouragement, oblivious to the fact that it was he who started the whole thing.
It is also interesting to read on modern forums, how the benches, stream improvements, access paths , footbridges, and passages across the streamside bogs are all gone. Quite apart from the fact that a highway bridge now crosses the river where Fox’s hut once stood, the attentions of this dedicated band of fishermen are seemingly a thing of the past. How strange that is!
Consider for a moment, that when the likes of Charlie Fox fished the Letort, it was probably not as famous as it is now. At that stage it did not have attached to it the history of some of the great personalities of flyfishing, and neither was it described as the birthplace of modern terrestrial imitation, as it now is. And yet, despite its ordinariness, it received the loving attention of these pioneers. That would be attention both in respect of hours spend studying its trout and how to master them, and also hours spent with spade and saw, making it into something great. Now in the glow of its fame, there is little evidence that any of this still takes place.
Instead there are some brass plaques, and there are those who claim to have known the men who made it great. There are also stories about how difficult it is to access the neglected sections, and there are dreadful stories of fish kills and pollution.
One forum commentator enlightens his colleagues as to the names of various stretches, pools and meadows, presumably because these exist only in the memories of ones like him, who witnessed the Letort in its halcyon days.
(I must hasten to add that I have never visited the stream – I wish I could- and that my conclusions are based on desk-bound research, but I can find no evidence that refutes what I claim here)
This whole state of affairs puzzles me. Notwithstanding the burgeoning and ever pressing demands of the human population, the fact that an iconic and revered stream lies unkempt and at least in part, neglected, is an irony. So many other places have been killed by too much attention: turned to theme parks with gift shops and tourist centres, but this one, like many trout streams I read of, suffers neglect instead. I suppose I have to be careful what I wish for, but could I perhaps put in a request for something in between? I mean, could one of the people who revels in the nostalgia of the greats, not round up his buddies and go cut a path and lay a boardwalk to one of the pools? Maybe these fellows actually have it waxed. Maybe they fish there three times a week, meet in secret, and keep their wonderful exploits off the internet. That would be great I guess, and from thousands of miles away I may never know, but nothing leads me to suspect that this is the case.
Turning for a moment to the observations, and technical developments of the Letort Regulars: Has anyone seen Marinaro’s assertions on the body colours of the spinner vs the dun espoused, refuted, or even discussed since the 1990’s? It is quite possible that I am missing something, and that in fact these technical issues have been built upon since that era of great flyfishing books. But my mates and I just throw Para RAB’s. I know: Our particular streams are fast freestone waters, and fish will bite Humpies and DDD’s, so maybe the Letort/Marinaro model doesn’t apply here, and maybe modernisations of his work are widely applied elsewhere..
But, we do have some slower sections of river. Late last season a friend and I were foxed by some fussy trout in a series of slow pools.
Our frantic changing from a para RAB to a beetle to a CDC emerger simply didn’t work, and our conscious repertoire didn’t extend to significantly different solutions. We concluded that we were fishing one of the most difficult trout streams around, and I for one would have been happy with just one trout that evening. I can’t help thinking that Marinaro, if he was watching, would have labelled us as guys who “Stomped the banks and flailed the water”. And I can’t help thinking that all of us fly anglers have gone just a little bit backward. Our enquiries extend to scant viewings of Instagram pictures, and the odd YouTube video in which the tattoos and the brand of fly rod are the main feature. We don’t meet at the riverside to inspect the insects and discuss the finer points of the hatch, and life is too busy for a fisherman’s breakfast every Sunday.
We recently lost Lefty Kreh and Ed Shenk.
There might have been a code once, but I think its broken.
I know of many anglers who’s success comes in large part from searching out waters that are fishing very well. Make no mistake, they are often anglers considerably more proficient than I am, but they have a way of ratcheting that up exponentially by keeping their ears to the ground, and keeping their network buzzing. Theirs is a race. There are rules, and inner circles, and invitations garnered, not shared.
As a semi professional hillbilly, I seem to have missed the secret handshakes. I just go off to my usual spots. Spots that were on the list a few years ago, but are now largely relegated to the B list. I have had spectacular fishing there before. It will come again in the future, that is a certainty, but for now they are quiet.
And I have them to myself.
Quite. Really quiet.
On my last jaunt, I didn’t even notice any planes overhead. Maybe that was because Joburg is closed. What I did hear was the plaintive cry of orange-throated longclaws in the windy veld. I heard the fish eagle. I heard the loud gulp of an occasional large trout rolling on the surface the few times the wind dropped. For the rest of the time, I heard the wind. Incessant wind, whisking the veld and buffeting my hat and ringing in my ears. In the evening I heard the crackle of the fire and the lapping of the waves a few metres away outside. In the morning I heard the kiewiets complaining at the cows, and the odd trill of a panicked dabchick. If the wind wasn’t blowing, I would hear the roll of another heavy fish.
I caught a few fish, but they were few and far between. They were beautiful.
Just yesterday I was given the inside track on another water that is fishing spectacularly well. Big fish. Grip and grins. Faces I don’t recognize. Several of them. PD and I shared the pictures. I could make that phone call. I could get in on the action. I could be part of the inner circle. The noise. I asked PD what he though. “I fear its inundated already” he said adding “Like North pier in a shad run”.
They are big fish though. I could still make the call….
Or I could work on that semi professional hillbilly thing , catch smaller fish somewhere quiet, and not be a sheep.
The other day I had the privilege of being on the river for work reasons (again). I know that it is not an infrequent occurrence, but I still consider it a privilege. Anyway, I took a break while the crew were having a lunch break, and I went for stroll. The light was brilliant, and the water was as clean as it gets. I didn’t have a pair of polarised specs, but the angle of the midday sunshine, and the east flowing stretch of river just aligned in a way that it made no difference…I could see everything! Flow was pretty decent, since we had rain all the way into early May this year. So in summary it was perfect.
At Picnic pool, I spotted a small fish come up to take something near the head, where the water rushes in. It was a small dark shape, that snatched and ran. Above that pool is a big shallow bedrock tail-out, but the run gets deep on the south side, and runs with just a bit of a ripple under overhanging grass. I saw nothing there. Surprisingly.
Above that is a piece of water that holds deep memories for me. The river runs over shallow rock, but it divides, such that there are 4 river banks in all, and they are covered in clumps of huge cascading grass tufts. Despite the shallowness of the water, and the bedrock, I have often seen, caught, and spooked fish here.
It started way back on the 18th of April 1999…… I was fishing with a pal (since departed), and we came upon fish here. I didn’t know this part of the river well back then, and after we had caught, seen and spooked several fish here, I asked “Are we at the top boundary yet”, as I peered into a tunnel of offending wattle trees upstream of us.
My colleague replied that we were very close to the end of the beat, and so we gave up for the day and headed out. I now know that he was not entirely right. There was about half a kilometre to go.
Anyway, I spotted a fish here again. I spooked it in fact, and saw it shoot away in panic.
Just above the next rapid, I was passing between two big clumps of the same riverside grass, when I saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. (Did you know that your peripheral vision is more alert to movement than your direct gaze?) I stopped to process the image my brain had received. I am often fooled by a shadow of a bird flying overhead, and I need to stop and analyse as I now did. Was it a little too quick to have been a fish? Was it moving in too straight a line? Was its path of movement strangely inconsistent with the features and obstructions of the river bed? I stared at the water as I thought these thoughts. I decided it was just a bird. But as I was about to avert my deep-thought (and doubtless unblinking) gaze, I noticed something.
It was a Trout’s eye.
Strange to find a Trout’s eye right in front of you, on a bare rock riverbed, barely a rod’s length away….
I blinked and “zoomed out” in my minds eye, and blow me down, it turns out that what I had seen was attached to a motionless fish!
It didn’t move a fin, so I guess my peripheral vision wouldn’t have picked it up. It was my blank stare that did it for me.
I had a camera with me, but the battery had gone flat, so I very carefully pulled my phone from my top pocket and switched on the video camera.
What a treasure to see, watch, video, and appreciate a decent sized brown on this water.
It is at times like this that I don’t really need a rod at all. Sometimes I can just walk; just look.
“There are big trout here, but not many, and they are not the kind you simply fish for; they are the kind you mount a campaign against” Ted Leeson
My favourite places are either unknown by many flyfishers, or alternatively they are known, but considered second rate. As my friend Pete Tyjas said to me once “Yes, Andrew….I am a salmon too”, by which he meant that he swims against the current. The remark was in reference to a statement I had made along the lines of that above, coupled with our discussion about Pete stopping a successful online magazine to go into print. That is ballsy!
And so is creeping around on some forgotten stream somewhere in the brambles, trying to find that enormous trout that exists only in your imagination. At best it existed fifty years ago, and in your imagination its progeny have retained the ability to grow big, and are fit and well despite all the hardships thrown at them for half a century.
I enjoy launching that type of campaign. I am normally spurred on by a dearth of catch returns, or a complaint about how tricky it was to even get to the water, let alone cast! Maybe by an exaggerated tip off.
So perhaps it was less than coincidental that I so enjoyed Richard Baker’s piece in Fly Culture magazine (Spring 2021) in which he launches a campaign against the progeny of Wilson Dermot’s biggest ever trout, in the Bishop’s Sutton Stream in Hampshire. It brought back memories of staying at Stillerus cottage, being afraid of the Wildebeest that roam the vlei there, and trying to catch Neville Nuttall’s “Uncle George”. It was in the late seventies, and Uncle George had long since met his maker, but in our youthful ignorance and excitement we didn’t let that fact get in the way of a good campaign.
As one fisherman I know says “The truth is a rare commodity, and so should be used sparingly”. I think this comes into play with a lot of fishermen when they whisper to you in a dining booth or the corner of a pub, that the fish at such and such a place are ENORMOUS. What they are really saying is that there were enormous fish there, or it looks like there could be, or there should be. They are saying that the place is worthy of a campaign. The fish they are describing is not as big as the tale, but there is absolutely no reason why it should not have been that big. And in the fact that they are whispering this to you, they are inviting you, or perhaps challenging you, to mount such a campaign.
And who wouldn’t be flattered by such an invitation! And who are we to ignore their hot tip, and pay them the disrespect of going to fish at the popular, and known water, when this undiscovered gem lies in wait of our attentions. It is up to you and I to go and mount that campaign! We need to be ballsy about this!
(Perhaps while our erstwhile informant fishes the Thandabantu beat on the Bushmans and catches 23 inch browns, while we pick the blackjacks from our sweaty collars at some unnamed ditch somewhere)
“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake
I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.
While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:
- The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
- The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.
Think on that.
It has been many years since I read “A River Runs Though it” by Norman Maclean. The story is of course famous, from Robert Redford’s movie produced in 1992, but I think few people are familiar with the 1976 book that inspired the movie.
I say that the book inspired the movie, because what many seem to forget is that the movie differs from the written story. In fact the movie brings in elements of two stories which appear in the same book, and to which the full title alludes. “A River Runs Though it, And other stories”. So the movie is not, strictly speaking, just the story made into a film.
In re-reading the book recently, I developed a keen appreciation for the mastery of the movie produced by Redford. For example Redford condenses two scenes involving Neil and his “whore”, into one that captures the essence of it all. Two sets of sunburn; and of disappointment in his brother-in-law; and being at the brunt of the anger of the womenfolk in his wife’s family . And yes, Maclean does refer to the lady of the divided skirts as a “whore”, and in all three stories in his book, he displays a western coarseness which Redford delivered slightly more subtly, and in an aura of nostalgia which served to take the edges off. Redford makes no reference for example of the two brothers chasing the self same whore down the street “kicking her in the ass”. You will notice too, that I write here of Maclean’s wife, and brother-in-law, because the story takes place after they are married, and after his time in the forest service. The movie of course brings in the love interest by placing the story during Macleans courtship of his wife, and before his time in the Forest Service.
But quite aside from re-arranging the life sequence, you find many lines in the book which you will recognize from the movie. In other words they are quoted verbatim. The parts not quoted are of course the descriptions of people, and landscapes, but Redford captures these beautifully in the movie. Another part not repeated verbatim, is of course the subtlety of relationships and attitudes and outlook, and emotion, and herein lies Redford’s mastery. He somehow manages to capture these elements, which Maclean unpacks in detail in the written word, and does so by capture of light, facial expression, body language, background sound, and camera angle. The fact that I did a reverse analysis by reading the book after I saw the movie, and recognized these elements in the book, because I had picked up on them in the movie, speaks volumes for the skill of the movie maker.
As a fisherman, I delighted in some of the technical fishing detail contained in the written version. There was a little in there that would not have made it into a commercial production, seeking a broad audience, but which is of great interest to us technical flyfishing types.
In reading it again, I was struck by the unlikely product of academia that Maclean became as a professor of English, given his Rocky mountain upbringing amongst men “as tough as their axe handles”. His language skills of course gave him the ability to tell his family’s story with a resigned dignity and reverence that has one sighing in a sad and appreciative compassion as you turn the last page. Although I didn’t pick up on it when I read the book many years ago, as I came to the end this time around, I was left with a deep appreciation for this little masterpiece.
If you haven’t read the book, I can recommend it.
I started out the morning with a #16 ant pattern in the dropper position, on some 7X tippet, and trailing about two foot below that, a #20 Pheasant Tail nymph with a small matt tungsten bead on it.
The flow was quick enough that the point fly didn’t sink the ant over a 10 to 15 foot drift and a fish went for the ant on the second drift. The problem was that I couldn’t see the ant. When you can’t see the dry fly, the take surprises you, and that slows your strike time to the point where you will most likely miss the fish. I could have added a drift indicator (AKA Strike indicator), to help me locate the dry…a kind of reference point, but knowing these small fish, some of them would take that instead of the dry. I hooked a small fish on the very next drift on the nymph. I had managed to track the dry on that particular drift and its sudden disappearance was my signal to lift into the fish. But soon after that I got tired of trying to find the dry on the surface, so I pulled it in and put on a parachute dry , tied with pale grey CDC halo hackle.
Since the fish were looking up, and the parachute was on a barbless hook, I left the nymph on my fly patch for later, and just fished the parachute on its own.
That worked, and I landed several fish in the next two runs. Then the fish began to ignore the dry. I switched to something with a barb, that I could quickly tie the little nymph back onto, with its piece of 7X still trailing from my patch. That was a #14 Ed’s Hopper, which I chose because it had a highly visible red wing, and because the breeze was blowing hard enough to imagine that a hopper might land in the stream. From mid-December onwards, there tend to be enough hoppers around that I can fish the Ed’s Hopper without feeling like I am fishing an attractor pattern.
The fish continued to ignore the dry, and I did begin to wonder if they might have had a go at the parachute pattern if I have left it on. I do that a lot: second guess and start to doubt the wisdom of my fly change. Anyway, I had some fish go at the nymph on the point. I missed two of them, merely seeing a flash below the surface. A flash that I think a great many anglers probably don’t even see, especially if they are diligently locking their vision onto the floating indicator fly. Then I landed a fish on the point fly. Soon after, I switched the dropper to a larger nymph (#14), lengthened the distance between the two flies, and put a yarn indicator on.
That larger nymph, a slightly different looking Pheasant Tail Nymph, was heavy in the hand, but in fishing it, I quickly realized that the point fly was sinking much faster, and that the larger and seemingly heavier dropper fly, was in fact not helping things and was staying high in the water column.
Let’s dwell on that a moment. If you closed your eyes and dropped first the #20 point fly into your palm, and then the #14 dropper fly, you would quite correctly say that the larger fly was heavier. It was. But it was less dense. In other words, the size/weight ratio didn’t match that of the smaller fly. In fishing these two, the difference in sink rate was remarkable. Both were tied to 7X tippet, but that point fly was plummeting compared to the bigger pattern. The thing is, that the bigger pattern probably would have needed a 3mm tungsten bead on it to match the density of the point fly, and I didn’t want to be throwing a 3mm bead on my 2 weight outfit. So I changed a few things. I put on a more dense #16 dropper fly. I also started using a tuck cast, and I was careful to add enough slack in the cast by employing a bounce into the tuck cast. (Cast hard and stop suddenly so the fly bounces back, and at the same time end the cast with the rod high and tilt it down to point at the water from on high as it rolls out….it bounces back, and the flies enter the water column first) . So now I had two small, deep nymphs, fished under an indicator, light enough to throw on the two weight with pleasure. All set.
The problem is, I stopped catching fish. My colleague, who was employing different tactics altogether, also stopped catching. Learning that from him surely saved me from a time occupied more by fly changes than fishing. It is useful to share some info with mates. So I settled into focusing on where to find the fish, and I concentrated on some concealment and reducing my false casting. I also played around with distance…standing further back and battling drag with longer drifts, and then later, getting in close with short casts, but kneeling in the stream behind rocks.
Before I knew it, we were five hours into the day, we had covered I think 2 km of river, and our agreed departure time had already passed. Five hours of mental absorption and puzzle solving, in clear mountain air, with cold clean water tugging at my legs, and without a thought of work, or the world’s troubles.
Total immersion and distraction, and fuel for several days of mulling and musing. Isn’t this flyfishing thing a glorious pastime!
“There are two things that you must always respect,” said my aged uncle. “the sea and the mountains”.
We were sitting atop Shada’s Ridge at the time….a spot suitable for the testing of peak names. He would have us go from south to north, naming them one by one, ten cents a’piece: “The Triplets, Red Wall, Lesser Injasuthi Buttress, Greater Injasuthi Buttress, Scaly Peak, The Ape, Old Woman grinding corn………”
Speaking of which, he didn’t mention his wife in that respect thing, and neither did he mention rivers. In his mountain name test, if you got one wrong, the clock went back to zero, such that you didn’t just lose ten cents, you lost everything. Crossing your wife is a bit like that too. Come to think of it, so is crossing swollen rivers. And while he had a special whistle for his wife, he really did respect her (If you don’t count that time he put rocks in her backpack). And notwithstanding the fact that I refer to him as my ‘aged uncle’, I respect him. He called himself the ‘aged uncle’ , and he called other things too, like when lightning was close enough to row the fishing boat to shore and pack it in, and when it was, and wasn’t safe to cross a swollen river.
I remember one time with him, when we were just kids, crossing the Injasuthi river, which was in flood. We were on a day long hike, guided by the ranger at Injasuthi, who was a family friend. I seem to remember that we crossed using a rope for us kids to hang onto. Perhaps we were tied to it. After we crossed, the ranger regaled us with a story of a Durban doctor who had been washed away to his death at the same crossing. I remember being very scared, both by the crossing, and because I knew we would need to cross the river again to return to camp.
I remember too that a discussion ensued about crossing rivers safely on horses. I asked why that was safer, and it was explained to me that horses have four legs.
Skip forward fourty years or so, and I remembered that when PD , a guide, and I were looking to cross the swollen Bokong River. We were hiking back from a rain sodden trip, which was less than successful, if you were to judge it by number of fish caught. We looked at the river at one spot and decided it wasn’t safe. Then we walked downstream and looked there, and decided it was worse.
We returned to the first spot, looked for makeshift wading staffs, and finding none, plunged into the river. It was then that the horse thing came back to me, and I suggested to PD that we go arm in arm….you know, his arm over my shoulder, mine over his. Cozy, you might say, but wow, what a difference it made. We really were twice as safe, having four legs between us. I guess it was kind of like a four wheel drive, or a vehicle with diff-lock. We crossed safely, and with ease and relief.
Some years earlier, my wife and I (and I respect her greatly), were crossing the Poachers stream at Injasuthi after similarly heavy rains, and thinking back, we should really have gotten more cozy, because it wasn’t comfortable at the time. I just didn’t think of it.
“I just didn’t think” is the kind of phrase that accompanies stories of near drownings.
Ilan Lax writes in Dave Walker’s guide of the Bell River coming down in spate when he was on the wrong side. On our last trip to the North Eastern Cape, two mates had to make a dangerous crossing of the Vlooikraalspruit. I am sure you have your own stories too. The Bell river looked like a disaster zone just yesterday, and the KZN berg rivers were full before last week’s rain hit us. As I write this, it is storming again.
Stop and think.
Remember: The sea, the mountains, your wife, and swollen rivers.
I’m going to attribute that edited wisdom to my aged uncle (and aunt).
Funny how you can remember some stuff, while other things just slip your mind. I clearly remember Neil Patterson’s 1985 article in Trout Fisherman magazine entitled “Bring me a rod and make it snappy”. It was about his impressive string of breaking and losing rods, including one that he left at a café table in Paris on his way to have it repaired by its renowned maker.
Then last week I left my rod at the river. We were packing up. The others were quicker than me. They were climbing into their bakkie. It was raining. I pictured myself alone in the storm up there after they had gone. The notion may have felt a little forlorn. I may have rushed. An hour later I was driving along the base of Spionkop mountain when an unexplained chill entered my spine, and I revisited my packing up, and realized I had no recollection of snipping off the fly.
It was a night of restlessness and sore shins (yes…kicking myself). In the morning we drove all the way back up there. The roads were a mess after the storm. The rod was lying unharmed in the grass barely twenty metres from where we had parked. It just dropped off the cattle rails into the veld, along with my prized 1940’s Hardy’s lightweight reel.
The relief saw me babbling and rattling off amazing fishing stories all the way home.
Then there was the time I lost my net on the Sterkspruit. It was back when nets came in pretty much one size category, and that was “large”, especially when taken in the context of our small stream trout. I had spied an amazingly small net, ridiculously small, some might have said back then, behind the counter at The Flyfisherman in Maritzburg. Roger Baert told me it was a sample from a net maker. A novelty of sorts, and a few months later, when it no longer served any purpose, he gave it to me. I screwed an eyelet into the handle and connected it from there to my belt. That day on Birkhall, it kept unscrewing, and all through the day I found myself re-screwing it. Until, that was, I became engrossed in the evening rise.
When we got to the Lindesfarne bridge, it was gone. Dude, ever committed and loyal to the common cause, sprinted across the road, somersaulted over the fence into a patch of bramble and set off at a run to search for it. For hours! He never did find it, but that fence crossing is imprinted on my mind.
And speaking of Dude, there was that enormous fly storage box I handed to him one evening on the bridge over the Bell on the commonage water at the village of Rhodes. When the sun had long set, and we were done frustrating ourselves with small picky rainbows that rejected everything we threw at them, I turned to him and said “Hey Dude, how about that fly box”. And the rest is history.
One day we packed up after fishing at Theuns and Joyce Botha’s place, and headed back down the valley to the house at Branksome where we were staying, and I asked PD to stop for me to take a photo.
That’s when I spotted my very expensive Sage Click reel, lying on his windscreen wiper. Talk about a close call!
It was on Bhungane beat of the Bushmans that I stopped to take another photo, and removed my glasses to look through the viewfinder.
Back then I only needed the glasses to tie on smaller flies, so it was a couple of hours later that I was wiping my eyes to try understand why I couldn’t thread the fly, and the penny dropped. Fortunately I had a GPS running, and I used the ‘trackback’ feature to lead me straight to my specs about a kilometre back.
My Mate Anton has been fishing for years with a fly vest on which every zip is broken. I always looked at him and remarked that it didn’t look all that safe. The late George Forder always carried his ‘nine mill’ under his belt, fully loaded and with the safety catch off, and he used to say “I know it doesn’t look safe, but……” and his voice would trail off. Anton’s retort was not dissimilar. The other day he got a spanking new vest with zips that do close, but it seems old habits die hard, and we were scanning the banks of a favourite small stream of his the other day, looking for a fly box. It was the same stream where I lost and found my rod and reel, and I felt a little bad when I phoned to revel in the fact that I had found mine and had to say “Sorry mate, no sign of that fly box”. That is the same stretch where my then teenage son lost his cellphone. In our detailed analysis of events afterwards, we concluded that it had in fact, evaporated. Here was no other explanation. That river really does eat stuff!
Once, I pulled off the main road about ten kilometers down the road from Briarmains, which I had just left after a day’s fishing. I stopped to investigate a flapping noise that seemed to be coming from the roof of the vehicle as I drove down the road at some eighty kilometers an hour. It turns out it was my leather hat, which I had left up there, and which was right where I had left it.
Then there was the time I had just landed a good fish on the Bushmans, when my wading staff came off its magnet and started to drift downstream in the white water. Graeme was coming towards me with his camera at the ready, and asked me where my priorities lay. I said the staff had come off more than once that day, and that I would fetch it later. “Get the picture rather” I said.
I couldn’t find it that day. But I haven’t given up hope. That was a good few years back. It was my wife’s hiking pole. I have promised to go back and fetch it soon.
She thinks I’m losing it.
I think she may be right.
These uMngeni Browns aren’t that plentiful, or perhaps its just that they are not co-operative. Either way, I keep going back for the few that I can catch.