“But the purposeful conspiring for big trout has at least the thrill of anticipation and, if successful, the satisfaction of any job consummated according to design. On the prowl for a three-pounder you become a specialist; you have renounced the easier rewards of small ones for the rare chance of a whopper. The thing has the gambling appeal of any long shot. Swinging a big streamer into the twilight shallows is one of the headier adventures of trout fishing. It is a grand way to end a day of finicky maneuvers with dry flies. It caps a day of precision with an hour of gusto and sends you home with your balance restored. “
Howard T Walden. “Upstream and down” . 1938
I was fishing this stillwater over the Christmas break, and I looked down and saw this one dragonfly shuck. Then I started noticing more, and more. There were dozens. I wish I had been there to witness the hatch !
As I sit here at my desk, the cuckoo is lamenting “Meitjie, meitjie, meitjie” . That would be the Classless Cuckoo, with a gap in his front teeth, and flashing a ‘hang loose’ hand signal, as our family legend has it.
You will know it as the Klaas’s Cuckoo, and tell me that they don’t have front teeth. Either way, they often sound out their call of the jilted lover as the sun emerges after a few days of cool and rain. With that rain, and coolness, us flyfishers are all thinking of heading to the hills to get on a trout stream.
But we don’t do that, because they are all running chocolate brown. By the time they clear, it will be fiercely hot again. In fact it will probably be fiercely hot again by the time I finish writing this. Such are the dog days of summer.
Three writers from my fly fishing library spring to mind when I mention the Dog days of summer. Firstly , Ted Leeson, (whom I rate as one of the finest writers on flyfishing ever), explains the “dog days” term, its reference to the rising of the star Sirius aside the sun during the late summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The Dog star, as it is called, rising along with the sun, supposedly adds to the heat of the day, and thus the hottest days are “The Dog Days of summer”. He has a delightful chapter on this in his book “Inventing Montana”, in which he describes the sultry hot days of their American summer from the perspective of a holidaying flyfisher.
Across this side of the Atlantic, I reckon we trump the Americans in terms of heat, and thus true dog days, even though we don’t have the synchronicity of Sirius to add to the steaminess of the affair. Perhaps it is in fact no hotter here in January than it is in Ennis in August, but since I am the one sitting here sweating, I will claim the warmer ground. In his first book, our own finest writer, Tom Sutcliffe says “concentrate your fishing on early morning and late evening…… and put your feet up for the in-between time.” That is a line that was punted just last week on our local club chat group, and I paused a moment to contemplate how nothing has changed since Tom wrote that line above in 1985.
In fact, nothing has changed much since Oliver Kite wrote “ one morning in late July it was so hot that I left my jacket in my car“ in 1963. He was writing of the UK of course, and in this trilogy I would imagine he might be the least qualified to write of the dog days of summer, given that last year Hampshire’s highest summer temperature, according to Google, was 21 degrees, and the highest in the last 5 years was 25 degrees C. Here in SA our jackets are locked in a trunk for the summer!
But Kite writes not so much of heat, but rather of depleted fisheries, and thoroughly fished-over trout. We are lucky not to have that problem in my neck of the woods.
We do however have the rank growth on our stream banks, which Oliver Kite writes about, and we have the heat, which Leeson sums up beautifully as follows: (and I will end with this, because putting down a piece with Leeson’s words knocking around in your head is just special)
“ But when Sirius wanders in, circles once around southwest Montana, then lies down, curls up, and goes to sleep, the smothering weight of heat and airborne dust cannot be wished away. I number these among the least habitable days of the inhabitable narrative , a recurring leitmotif that grows heavier the longer it hangs around. The story of your fishing has nowhere to go because the main characters refuse to speak. Back at the ranch, there are iced drinks all around and much talk of the weather”
In the morning, coffee is king….
I was impressed recently, by Alison Graham-Smith , a Lead Advisor on conservation and Land Management for ‘Natural England’ in Hampshire, who had read Harry Plunket Greene’s book “Where the bright waters meet”. I was all the more impressed because she is not a fly fisher. I asked her how she had come to read the book, and why. In her reply she explained that it was important as a conservationist to have read the history and the descriptions of Hampshire, before she could claim to be equipped to restore that environment.
Mark, Alison and Sam : Catchment sensitive farming advisors from Natural England, surveying the River Test at Leckford in October
Impressive, don’t you think?
The conversation swished around in my head on that trip, and so when I returned I re-read this old book, and I thought I would share some of it here. It occurred to me that a whole bunch of fishermen have probably heard of the man, and the book, but in an age where few people actually read, I suspect many of us know a lot less about the book than Alison does. I suppose you could be forgiven for that: There was a fair bit of flyfishing literature around at that time, as well as famous flyfishing personalities ‘on the go’, and besides, a lot of these books have lost their dust jackets, and they look faded and smell a bit funny.
But Imagine meeting a lady, who doesn’t fly fish, and have her trounce you in her knowledge of a famous fly-fishing book!
I thought I would rush to your rescue on this front, so here are some interesting facts about the man and the book:
Within those dusty pages are some treasures, and you might find some of this interesting.
When Plunket Greene was born in 1865, GEM Skues was a 10 yr old boy, and FM Halford was 21 years of age. When the Halford/Skues fued over dry fly vs nymph got going, Plunket Greene would have been in his late thirties, and had just moved from London to live in the village of Hurstbourne Priors on the banks of the Hampshire Bourne. Unless I missed it, he doesn’t even give a passing mention to the feud or the two luminaries of the time!
Frank Sawyer had not yet been borne, and across the Atlantic Theodore Gordon of New York had been writing for ten years since receiving a letter and envelope from Halford containing his first dry flies. It would be another ten years before George Le Branche wrote “Dry fly and fast water” and Ray Bergmann’s “Trout” would be written only 2 years after Plunket Greene’s death.
Harry Plunket Greene
Plunket Greene writes in his opening chapter about how he discovered the Bourne. He goes on to write about the wildlife of the valley, and devotes a chapter to the “Iron Blue”. The crux of his message comes in the chapter “ Tragedy of the Bourne”, in which he describes the overstocking of 1905. He opens the next chapter with the words “I prefer to pass over 1906 in silence”, giving weight to the tragedy which he experienced. He writes too of the demise of the original genetics, and of the trout with black backs, a condition he believed they obtained from the tar that leached off the newly tarred roads into the stream. He laments the loss of the silver fish. But his fishing stories do continue through 1910 and beyond, covering days on the Kennet and the Test, and of course the Bourne, and Blagdon.
Harry didn’t tie flies, but he was somewhat obsessed with the Iron Blue Dun.
The Iron Blue
He did fish Blagdon reservoir quite extensively, and people don’t mention that when talking of this book. In fact who knew that Blagdon existed in 1905! Commentators are inclined to make out that it is a purist tome dedicated to the Hampshire Bourne. It is that, but it wanders off into discussions about introducing lawn tennis to Germany, running over dogs, card tricks, games of cricket, and lots of singing.
Singing was of course Harry’s career, and the stories of his touring and putting on “gigs” are scattered about the book. He talks a great deal about his companions on the river, and elsewhere, and it is clear that he was a gregarious fellow. In fact he enjoyed a hot crowded room, and lots of onlookers!
He was a large and imposing man, and reading of him, it could be said that he was “showy”. But here is a quote from his book which speaks to an underlying authenticity in that showiness, and which I think, warrants much thought:
“…..true magnetism and playing to the gallery, though they may have a common ancestor, are as far as the poles apart in the ethics of performance. The one is unconscious, compelling and incomparably precious, the other studied,opportunistic, cheap and nasty”
In reading the book, I sense he didn’t suffer fools, and he makes some cutting remarks about people with questionable intentions.
He was also a nostalgic, and was possessed with an acute and biting appreciation of the countryside and the environment. And this was in 1924! Not unlike Frank Sawyer, Plunket Greene acknowledges that he was complicit, even if reluctantly so, in the stocking his trout stream ( the Hampshire Bourne in his case, The Hampshire Avon in Sawyer’s) , with introduced fish, which displaced the wild fish. He berates himself for the stocking, and is scarred by the guilt of having done so, having learned that the preservation of the natural environment was, with the wisdom of hindsight, the true solution.
What was ironic about this aspect, is that while I was in the UK this year, news broke of how many TONS of trout are stocked into the Test annually. Remember that the Hampshire Bourne is a tributary of the Test.
The Bourne, a tributary of the Test
So what this tells me, is that while fly fishermen wax lyrical about “The Bright Waters” and leave fly boxes at the grave of Harry Plunket Greene, we seem, as a collective to be obsessed with catching fish, even at cost to the environment, and oblivious to his message and his pleas.
Considering the era in which the book was written, it strikes me that he writes with such nostalgia about “The old days”. It also strikes me how environmentally aware he was. In my opinion there is much to be gained from these old books. It places modern fly fishing and conservation topics in context, and it also serves to remind us that not a whole lot has changed. Reading this stuff might also help us to avoid repeating old mistakes, be they ones relating to trout stalking, or how to care for our streams and the trout in them.
I end with the last lines of this lovely book:
“But somewhere, deep down, I have a dim hope that one night the fairy Godmother will walk along the tarry road and stop on the bridge and listen, and send a message to me in the dark; and that when the mists begin to lift, and the poplars to shiver and the cock pheasants crow in the beech-woods, the little Bourne will wake and open her eyes and find in their bosom again the exiles that she had thought were gone for good – the silver trout, and the golden gravel,and the shrimp and the duns- and smell the dust of the road, and see the sun once more, and the red and white cows in the grass, and the yellow buttercups in the meadow and the blue smoke of the cottages against the black elms of the Andover hill –and me too, perhaps, kneeling beside her as of old and watching the little iron-blue, happy, laughing, come bobbing down to me under the trees below the Beehive bridge on the Whitchurch road.
Post script from the fairy godmother: Well Harry….a message for you …..take a look here…River restoration….
“I had been wrong to think of trout as treasure, and so to think of fishing as some sort of treasure hunt. It is an analogy that does both the trout and the process of catching them an injustice, for treasure can be tawdry or vulgar or downright ugly. Treasure can be a monument to the unhappy partnership of inordinate wealth and appallingly bad taste. Treasure is often treasure merely in terms of value in dollars or pound notes. But a brown trout is neither tawdry nor vulgar nor ugly. And his beauty is in perfect taste and quite beyond price.”
Laurence Catlow, The healing stream.
On my recent visit to the UK, I met up with Pete Tyjas.
Pete also wrote a “blurb” for the back of my book back in 2015. Not having met in person before, I was looking forward to meeting him.
We met at the Fox and Hounds hotel in Devon where Pete holes up. He seems to be part of the crew there. He fetched me coffee from the kitchen and stood me to a welcome, hearty breakfast, and then we recorded this podcast.
It was a lot of fun.
Click below if you would like to listen:
My recent visit to the UK afforded me an afternoon on the Test (see my last video), but before that, I went hunting for clean water and willing trout in the Westcountry (Devon and Cornwall). Rain, and the calendar were both against me…..
(Oh, and by way of explanation….most sheep I saw on Dartmoor had red arses……)
Readers might have noticed that I have started doing some video work (aka Vlogging) . To up my game I have been teaching myself some much more complex, bit of course much more capable software. In many respects the complexity has meant that I have taken 2 steps backwards. Trying to get this package to do what I want it to has been a challenge to say the least. Old dogs, new tricks…
So do bear with my amateur attempts. Hopefully the offerings will get more slick as I progress.
This video covers a visit to the River Test in England. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I would actually get to fish this fabled stream. I had resigned myself to the prospect of just looking over the rail of the bridge at Stockbridge, when suddenly, out of the blue, I received an invitation.
This was truly a blessing and the experience was something I will treasure for a long time to come.
I am deeply fortunate to be able to able to identify the symphony and serendipity in ordinary things, or perhaps I am fortunate in that overtly serendipitous things do in fact befall me more than others. Either way, these things are not lost on me. Far from it…I savour them.
So here’s one. You tell me if this is a delightful chance, or if its just me being a sentimental fool:
So…I found myself in Stockbridge, in a fly shop, being served by a fellow South African. And the shop had a better collection of books than the one over the street. In fact I found myself with a pile of “must haves” that would simply not fit in my luggage on the return trip, and I had the agonising choice of which ones to put back. One of those was a book called “The Healing Stream” by Laurence Catlow. It is a book I had not heard of before.
I read a few pages, and decided it was on the “keeper” list, and by that night I was reading it. My decision was an unequivocally good one. The book is a delight and a treasure, with words that flow like pure prose.
A short way into the book, the writer starts to suck the reader into his love affair with one particular river. He rights lyrically. I quote:
“….drive up Garsdale to Hawes, where you turn left and head up through Gayle and over Cam Houses; then it is down to Oughtershaw and Beckermonds before following the beginnings of the river through Yockenthwaite, Hubberholme and Buckden, through Starbotton and Kettlewell and so, after the rough poetry of these northern names, down to the main beats of the Kilnsey Club.”
Those names washed over me as I put the book on the nightstand and fell asleep.
The next day, I found myself on a bus, travelling up a river valley in the Yorkshire Dales. The purpose of that bus ride is the topic of another discussion, but suffice it to say that it was not directly fly fishing related. The bus wound its way up a river valley in ever tightening bends, and over bridges that hardly seemed wide enough for a bus. As we progressed the valley became more and more lovely, until it started to literally take my breath away. The rain spattered on the windows of the bus. That was an excuse not to take photos, but at some stage I took a decision not to attempt a photo, because the beauty was so stunning that I knew that a weak attempt to capture it all, would in this case, serve only to tarnish the memory of such a heavenly place.
As we made our way, I started to take note of names. The village of Kilnsey. Kettlewell. Starbotton. Buckden. Hubberholme.
I am a bit slow, and putting something in reverse is sometimes quite adequate a move to fox me, but at this point I did awaken to the fact that I was travelling the valley I had read about the night before.
Of all the valleys in that fair land, I was in the one I had read about the night before. This freak event deepened my sense of appreciation for where I was. It awakened in me an awareness of how special this beautiful trout stream is to at very least ONE angler. An angler and writer, who I might add is brave enough to admit that his own sense of nostalgia and appreciation on the banks of this river regularly drive him to tears. He even comes a little unhinged.
Having seen his valley, I completely understand those tears. The beauty of the Wharfe River valley in the Yorkshire Dales defies description and capture on celluloid.
It is other-worldly , and to visit it is an experience bordering on the religious, especially when you have by sheer chance read the paragraph describing it the night before.
Perhaps its just me? My mates say I am a little unhinged myself.
I am delighted to now own all 3.
If I haven’t posted for a while, its because I am trying a new style of things, and that meant I had to acquire some new skills. And speaking of Style….here’s the first V….log:
“Thus, Instead of spiking his rod when the morning rise is over, and taking his Walton or his Marcus Aurelius or his Omar Khayyam from his pockets, let the wise angler concentrate on the casual feeder; and if his reward be not great, there is every chance of it being quite respectable , and he may be saved the humiliation of an empty creel”. GEM Skues, Minor tactics of the Chalkstream . 1910.
Now I don’t know about you, but I reckon if I took my “Omar Khayyam” from my pocket while out fishing, I think I wouldn’t be saved any humiliation by my fishing mates. Come to think about it, if I took along a creel, there would be significant ragging, and if I filled the thing, I would be crucified.
But aside from the fact that we don’t carry creels and classic literature on the stream (oh, and we don’t have those reversible spears on the butts of our fly rods), nothing much has changed since 1910. “Minor Tactics” is a delight to read. Skues drops in the odd “wherefore” and “thus”, but we will forgive him for that. The language is in fact sheer poetry in places, and his setting up of his argument for nymphs in the face of Halford’s doctrine of dry fly only, is so polite as to seem slightly apologetic. In fact the last chapter is named “Apologia”. Only the British!
I hadn’t realised that my copy of the book is a first edition. It’s a bit wasted on me, because I buy and own books for the words between the covers, not as items for glass display cases. Having said that, its is quite novel turning these pages which are as thick as cardboard: I keep thinking I have turned five pages at once, and am reminded after much thumbing that, no….that’s just the way paper was back then. I swear many of the pages are different thicknesses too. I guess that back then, their hook sizes and tippet diameters were equally variable in their tolerances. But I get the impression from reading this book that their sophistication, entomology, and finesse in technique were not that different to today.
While rolling all this stuff around in my head I thought I should accompany the occasion with something special, and given that I don’t smoke cigars, I cracked open this instead:
Interesting stuff. I googled it : LINK . Fruit. I don’t know…sometimes I think my sophistication in taste is at the same level as my appreciation of first editions and literature by Khayyam and that bait angler….what’s his name…..Walton.
“In the corner of a smokey bar
She’s singing Hallelujah
All the fools are shouting over her
But she keeps singing Hallelujah”
From the song ”I hear your song, Sweetness”, by George Taylor
Keeping with a musical theme, who remembers Feargal Sharkey ?
I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that Feargal Sharkey is now a champion of the environment in the UK. More specifically, he is the champion of England’s beleaguered chalk streams. Sharkey is doing a whole lot to publicise the abuse of these unique and beautiful streams, that are in many places almost beyond rescue. Who would have thought, that in a first world country, there would be government sanctioned abuse at the levels that Feargal Sharkey has been exposing. Countless streams pumped permanently dry, others pumped full of raw sewage, or used as a dumping ground for overflowing sewage works in times of high rainfall. With his profile, there is a lot that he can,and indeed, has been, doing about the situation. I have listened with delight to his radio broadcasts on BBC, and I follow him on Twitter, with a view to broadening my education on matters environmental.
There has to be a lot to learn from countries and catchments who have been there before. So in a similar vein, I follow the happenings in the Driftless area of Wisconsin in the USA, where trout stream restoration has been happening on a scale that I can only dream of. And I follow the WWF and countless other local environmental groups.
So what have I learned from my reading, and twitter following, and from Feargal Sharkey, and what are the implications for the conservation of our river catchments ?
Well, I think I have learned that :
- Many people, with varying strengths and attributes can bring a variety of much needed skill, publicity, lobbying, money and drive to the work that is required in the environmental field.
- I have learned that the field of environmental restoration and preservation is burdened by conferences and acronyms and strategic framework modeling, and the like that is so expensive and slow moving that it threatens to sink the entire progress ship.
- And in a similar vein, that on-the-ground real practical work, is happening in some wonderful and deeply encouraging examples, but that there are not enough of these to ever reach a sense of elation or victory for the environment on a large scale.
- I have learned that there is, in most cases, a huge gap between business,on the one hand, and environmental work on the other. The unquenchable thirst of man for profit at all costs, is so strong that meaningful funding is not forthcoming. That which is, is often channeled to humanitarian causes, and in any case is limited to that which earns CSI points.
- It is proving difficult for organisations to monetise environmental gains that they are trying to package as “eco-system services” and “natural capital”.
- I have learned that the majority of fly-fishermen, sadly, are not truly environmentalists at all. ( they like wearing that badge, but they don’t give up a day’s fishing easily)
- I have learned that the national spend on environmental work comes out of the top end…the overflow….the luxury portion, and that in hard times it is the first to go. This is not just true of South Africa.
- Real, high level, large scale, and step-change environmental gains are likely to be expensive, uncomfortable, and unpopular. …..Unpopular amongst all those cappuccino drinking, self proclaimed, environmentalists with ‘save the rhino’ stickers on their big luxury cars…..(like me).
So, in summary: In this field of stream restoration and care, there is both cause for despair, and a need for unparalleled bravery.
My observations are impressions and generalisations. Some of them may prove to be untrue or unfair. Most of them will be cause for consternation and offence. As a quiet spoken, conservation-minded recluse, I seem to have an uncanny and newfound propensity to offend. That propensity has accelerated in direct proportion to my alarm at the degradation around me, and my conviction that some luxuries need to be sacrificed to get things done.
And there is so much that needs to “get done”, that one needs to carve out a small niche, put your head down, and do your bit in your chosen area, and hope that someone will take on the other bits. I have chosen the niche of some upland streams and catchments in KZN. I hope someone has the hinterland and the beaches, and a whole lot of other streams.
So as George Taylor sang “Keep holding on”
“It is old, old fishing landscape, scarred with its human contacts, familiar and friendly and kind to the frailties of anglers.” Howard T Walden. Upstream and down. 1938.
The colonial idiosyncrasies of our heritage have us leaning to a tamed and manicured world. A conquered wilderness, which we celebrate as “wild” but enjoy for its comforts of stonemasonry, or footpaths and trimmed briar. I for one hanker after the quaint, the named, and the iconic. Do you revel in relating the story of your catch, replete with the name of the pool? Do you inwardly sigh with nostalgic affection at the sight of a stone arch over a river? Do you take your wilderness complete with a puff adder that will bite you, or do you prefer to savour the golden glow of the leather box, as you fold back its lid on the tailgate of your truck, to reveal a fine whisky and two glasses at fishing’s close?
I am told that a taste test uncovers the truth in coffee. The declaration is that we like it strong, but the taste test says otherwise. Strong coffee is the stuff of cowboys and those who have no fears to conquer. The smooth flavours of a mild blend are what strokes our true satisfaction.
Would you be the one to take down the signs that show the way to the beat, or would you revel in creating the timeless logo with which to adorn it.
How about a footbridge. A fencing stile perhaps?
Too tame a river?
“His system was to attach a split shot sinker well above a nymph, and fish it on a short and fairly taught line with a colourful leader and a little sleeve of orange marker. His success was phenomenal …….” Charles F Waterman, writing of George Anderson fishing the Madison some time in the 1960’s. From “Mist on the River” Published in 1986.
The outrigger technique : “The upstream, dead drift, tight line, high rod, weighted nymph technique” ….Chuck Fothergill in The Masters of the Nymph 1979
An old American fly fishing technique, by Al Simpson