In recent weeks and months, my work, as well as my leisure, have taken me to a particular artery. By an artery, of course I mean a river. It also happens to be a Trout river: no surprises there.
Of course, at its upper end it is too small to be called an artery, even too small in fact, to be called a stream. Some of my exploration has taken me so high up that all I have encountered is a wet patch in the grass near KwaNovuka.
At the other end of this, I was on the phone yesterday to a man whose factory overlooks the uMngeni in Durban. And this is the artery I write of: The one that runs from Impendle vlei (at KwaNovuka), down the Poort stream, to join the uMngeni, and off down the Dargle valley and beyond, ultimately to the sea.
I am struck by the interconnectedness of this passage of water, not only in the geographical and ecological sense, but in the social sense too.
I start with Mr Z.S. Zuma, which is the formal manner in which this gentleman introduced himself last week. Zuma is dramatic, and theatrical in the delivery of his compelling rhetoric. His stutter emerges as he is about to raise his voice; about to spread his arms wider; and about to deliver his coup de grace. The words build up inside him, and a quiver appears on his lips, and you know that something portentous is about to be delivered. A clincher is on the way. Then the dam bursts, he is through his speech impediment, and his message tumbles out voluminously and with the weight of deep conviction. He ends it with a half sentence, spoken with one eyebrow lifted, and no sign of a smirk on his face, but the whole room about him erupts in appreciative laughter. And then he sits down. All of this has been in isiZulu. I turn to Hlengiwe who sits beside me and whisper “What did he say?”. She smiles, and lifts both hands to aid in her explanation, and then she gives up with a chuckle and a shaking of her head. Later, another colleague translates with cruel brevity and explains “He was trying to change the constitution”, and that is all I get. What I do know is that Zuma was discussing the ecology of the Impendle Vlei, the cultural practices of his generation and the one that went before it, and the interplay between agricultural practices and the well-being of his people.
Earlier in the week, I sat in Kath’s kitchen over a welcome cup of tea. I had just come down off the mountain, where I had been exploring the removal of a water sapping plantation.
I was unfit, and had neglected to take something to eat, so when I returned to my bakkie, I unceremoniously devoured a whole tin of bully beef, scraped from the tin with my pen knife. Now I was letting that succour absorb, and adding sweet tea to displace the shaky, light headed feeling that had had me wondering if anyone would ever find my corpse on that remote hillside if I had taken a turn for the worse. Kath’s hospitality, and the warmth of her interest in the river and the landscape around her were palpable. In an exchange that bore many similarities to that with Mr Zuma and his clan, I filled her in on the connectivity of her stream with the highlands at Kwa Novuka. She in turn filled me in on some of the history of the people in the valley, and together we wove a more complete picture than either of us had before we met. Then Stu entered, barefoot as usual, and the conversation turned to trout, as it does. He had found some precious fish just below the confluence at the end of last season.
We discussed their size. Stu expressed his appreciation for their rarity and significance that far up the stream, and I departed with a pleasing sense that things were as intact as one could hope them to be. A glimmer of positive light, shining through in the aftermath of the WWF report which stated that us humans have collapsed 84% of all fresh water species populations worldwide since 1970.
The artery that is the Poort stream, and the uMngeni river to which it adds itself, is in the sliver of habitat that still harbours the 16% that we have not yet destroyed. As this mixture of water progresses down towards the sea, it somewhere slides into the realm of the 84%. It doubtless doesn’t cross a line on a map from one reality to the next. Things are never that simple. It oozes through untold influences from one beautiful reality into the insidious, devastation of the next. My choice, cowardly as it might be, is to stick to the 16% portion, and fight to prevent it becoming a 15%. I shut out the world of leaking sewers and piles of plastic, and instead clear log jams that I hope will see an upward migrating fish get to share its genes with one of the ones Stu spotted. If Mr Zuma’s cattle get some winter feed, they may not trample any silt into the wetland at KwaNovuka. If we can arrange a mosaic of veld burning, then perhaps next year, unlike this year, we won’t see all the river banks burned at the same time over nearly 15 kms of the river’s passage. Then some of the biota that falls into the river in spring, will feed micro organisms, whose predators will fly upstream and lay their eggs above and below the cleared logjam.
I for one, don’t understand what ecological connectivity lies in that thin blue line of the Poort and its issue. What organism migrates up, and which one is swept down to feed it before it starts it’s migration. What I am starting to appreciate is the social connectedness from those like the Factory-man from down by the sea, up to Mr Zuma who overlooks the source. Between those two are Stu and Kath, and The Appleman and AJ and I. I buy trees from AJ, and maybe the Factory-man will go fishing with Stu, or buy a tree for Roy’s Pool. Perhaps I will introduce Kath to Mr Zuma, and there will be a value exchange there.
This week AJ and I clambered about in a small forest patch overlooking the river.
There under the hanging misty remnants of the cold front that blew in while I sat in Kath’s kitchen, AJ found a latifolius. (A Real Yellowwood to us English speaking mortals). He thought it might have been a henkelii, but in glancing around he saw no parent tree. So this one was seeded by a bird. Perhaps a bird that flew down from the small bush on Umgeni Poort, where Flemming, who was hit by a falling yellowwood in the mid 1800’s, lies buried. So perhaps, five to ten years after we plant the forest pioneer shrubs down at Roy’s pool this month, another bird will drop a latifolious seed there. And then a hundred years later, a giant yellowwood will shade a Trout in Roy’s pool, replacing the 15 incher that The Appleman killed last year.
(If the required bird species is still okay.) In fairness The Appleman tried not to kill the 15 incher; he didn’t punch it on the nose, as he has been known to do. And he doesn’t kill birds. (Neither do I: not knowingly anyway.) The Appleman also cut down his fair share of wattle trees, that will help ensure that the river is flowing strongly past that giant tree a hundred years from now.
The Appleman and I were on the phone last night, discussing the scarcity of fish in a stream that flows in the next valley…the one that flows behind Mr Zuma’s house, and I postulated that the degradation of that river both upstream and downstream of where we sample it, can’t have helped the situation. Fish and organisms are hemmed in: unable to seek ideal refuge upstream or downstream. That stream is just a little more in the 84% realm than in the 16%. So perhaps a Trout fisherman, hoping to preserve his beloved stream, needs to be looking down there below, in the warmth of the thornveld; and up there on the plateau, where wet grass grows.
A week earlier I threw a fly for a few hours further down the stream, at “three quarter mile pool”. The day had started off misty and drab; weather that had me sniffing the breeze and sagely declaring that it was Brown Trout time!
In fact, it was not. By the time I arrived at the river, it was blustery, and the light was brassy, filtering through a haze of warmth, garnished with the scent of spring blossoms and winter smoke in equal parts. The water was clear enough that I was grateful for the gusts of wind that served to obscure my profile from my quarry. But my deep sunk nymph repeatedly returned to me without news from the deep. My knowledge of the state of the river reassured me, that it was nothing sinister. Mr Zuma’s water was good. Kath’s water was fine. I hope their mingled product would pass that factory in Durban with just a little of that goodness intact. The goodness that harboured Stu’s special trout in the delicate headwaters in the hills above me.
To help you join some dots in the story above, I include links here:
Read about the passage of the Poort Stream HERE
Read about Roy’s Pool, and the initiative to re-forest its northern bank HERE
Read about the WWF report HERE
Read about “Three Quarter mile pool” HERE
It was the 18th April 1999. Guy and I were fishing the uMngeni on Brigadoon, on what my fishing log describes as “Blacks Water”. That was the section of river above the confluence of the Furth Stream, and at some time not long past, it had been the farm of John Black, and if memory serves, Derek Fly had bought it or taken it over, and its length was now added to the beat known to us as Brigadoon.
At that time all the riverside lands from the Furth confluence up to Picnic Pool were planted to maize, and the river banks were wild and rank. I have a picture of Guy, whose hairstyle at the time was also ‘wild and rank’, chest high in the undergrowth, throwing a fly into Picnic pool. He is clearly fishing downstream, and I know it would have been with a sinking line, and probably with a #14 Connemara Black or an Invicta on the end.
As we progressed above picnic pool I clearly remember entering a section of river that was a tumble of black rock, with a firm bedrock of the same colour. Tall grass overhung the river on all sides where it split into braided channels. There in that tumble of rock and tall grass that shaded the water as we waded up, I remember pricking and seeing small browns. I seem to remember that I took the left-hand side of the stream, and Guy took the right, and when we rejoined just a dozen yards higher up at the tail of the pool above, we had both seen and pricked numerous fish, and landed none. And that was after a day in which we hadn’t seen fish since we first started out into the valley below. I remember peering up the river into a wattle-shaded tunnel of darkness, and asking Guy where he thought the top boundary of Brigadoon was, and that he replied that we were pretty much there and that all above was overgrown. We retreated back to the bottom boundary where I landed two browns over two pounds that evening. That last run, however, stuck in my mind, and every time I have visited that stretch , I have fished it, with an air of expectancy built on that experience all those years ago.
I had started fishing Brigadoon in April of 1985, but always the lower section. Then in much more recent years I have become very familiar with the water at the top of Brigadoon, and above that on Furth Farm. I discovered that Guy was not wrong about the river being overgrown, but that in fact we were still a way from the top boundary of Brigadoon. I have since witnessed the wonderful transformation of that river, when the wattles were all removed, and the river came back to life.
It was probably in the knowledge of that, and how dear the river is to me, that Tom Sutcliffe sent me this picture from his archives a few months back:
The picture was taken by the late Neil Hodges, some time in the mid eighties.
There was an instant glimmer of recognition, when I saw that braided water in the foreground, but the hills didn’t look right and I started to doubt myself. During lockdown, I kept revisiting that picture, and working my way up the river in my mind, ruling out one spot after another. I was muttering to myself, things like “No…not there…the steep side is on the opposite bank”, and “no, no rapid in that spot”. I couldn’t work out where the shot was taken, and it started to haunt me.
When the end of lockdown finally set us free, I wasted little time in getting up to the uMngeni, even thought the season was closed. I had the picture open on my phone, and I drove up the valley, stopping here and there to look at the horizon, and the orientation of the river, and occasionally to walk down to the water’s edge, where I shook my head in puzzlement. I just couldn’t work it out. I sat in the driver’s seat for a while studying the horizon in front of me, and that in the picture. It all sloped the wrong way!
And then it dawned on me, and I put the bakkie into reverse and beetled back down the road to a spot where I could park. I strode down to the river muttering “Neil, you sneaky bugger” repeatedly, and with increasing conviction as I glanced up at the emerging profile of the horizon as I got closer to the spot. At the river I took my boots off, and waded through the icy clear water, before hiking up the steep hill on the other side. I maneuvered myself to a precise spot in the middle of a bramble patch, and checked the phone one last time. It looked perfect, but if I could just locate the fence-post in the foreground of the old picture…. I searched in the now overgrown area in front of me to no avail. Then I pointed to where I thought the post should be and ran my pointing finger up the slope, tracking the direction of the fence in the old picture. As I swung around , there behind me was a string of old rusted posts tracking exactly the same line, and it was then that I knew I was in precisely the right spot.
I phoned Tom, and accused him of being complicit in Neil’s sneaky attempt to conceal the spot: The photo had been flipped!
I took a picture of the confluence of the Furth Stream and the Umgeni and prepared to sent it via whatsapp it to my friend George. George and I had met in the pharmacy that morning; he with a headache of undeclared origin (I suggested he reconsider his whiskey brand) and me stocking up on kidney pills. He had asked about the river clarity. Everyone has been asking that this week….they want to get on some trout water on the weekend. I said I would send a picture later.
While I was typing the explanation of the clean water from the Furth and the not so clean water of the Umgeni, there was a “gallumph” and a trout engulfed something off the surface in the exact spot I had just photographed. I ditched the message by hitting “send”, and took the second picture just as the ripples from the rise were subsiding.
Comfort was just over the stream working the brush-cutter to clear a path through the blackjacks for our autumn fishing. I worried about leaving him alone to finish the job. Just the day before I had found him clearing grass stems wrapped around the blade shaft, with his bare hands and the motor still running. But I reasoned that since I had just taught him how to use a shifting spanner, and which way to turn a nut to tighten it, perhaps he was coming up in the world, and would be OK.
Him and I had been tightening nuts on the handrail supports of our bridge over the Furth. Every time something went “plop”, Comfort declared it a frog, and I did a quick inventory of my tools to see what to add to my growing shopping list from the local hardware store.
The day before, I lead a team of guys rolling out erosion control mats above the Furth higher up. The choreography of “Rake, seed, fertilise, unroll to a pre-determined point, peg”…… and repeat, had proved difficult. We went back and forth for seed, and rakes and fertilizer bags, and the unroll direction of the mat kept veering down-slope, threatening to steer our trajectory into an uncontrolled downhill unraveling. “Soos ‘n myn trok sonder remme” as they say. I took Comfort off the lead role, and things went a bit better.
That gave me time to go and take a stroll along the stream. It was flowing as clear as the water George forgot to put in his whiskey. Although when you looked at the deep pools, you would have said it was off colour.
Funny how it does that. Put an underwater camera in there and you see how clean it really is. The Umgeni at picnic pool was the same this morning. The pool looked like milo, but taking a look at the rocky sections above and below, Alfred and I agreed, it was perfectly clean enough and called for a dry fly.
A dry fly was what my friend Neil tried on the Furth stream when I lured him there this week, but he lucked out. Maybe it was Comfort who put the fish down. Comfort, the male, Zulu version of Marge Simpson, with a beanie perched on top of his weird hairdo, bobbing about on the river bank. On the drive home on Tuesday I took a look at the arrangement atop his oddly shaped swede , when I turned in the driver’s seat to see where the snoring was emanating from. It seemed that my Colter Wall, Jaimi Faulkner and Mark Knopfler from the stereo had this effect on Comfort. One minute his droopy bloodhound eyes were mesmerized by the yellow line zipping towards him, and the next he was a gonner … Lulled to sleep by this somber music and a day of intense problem solving.
Other problem solving we did this week, was trying to work out where the dirty water was coming from. Ok, the problem solving I was doing. Comfort took the first amendment on that one. I met the farmer in a local shop, and he pointed me to where he thinks the problem might be coming from. With all the rain on the way, I thought of doing a rain walk….a thing I learned of while in the UK: you walk a river in the rain to see first hand where the mud is coming from. I could take a fly rod to use above the offending tributary, go alone, ditch all the blood sweat and tears of river work, and go for a soul nurturing walk.
But then I remembered: Someone has to take care of Comfort. “Pick you up at the turnoff at 7am” I said, and he grinned back at me.
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….
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:
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:
“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”
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?
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….
“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.
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.
The South African department of environmental affairs is about to see to it that broccoli ceases to find its way onto dinner plates in South Africa, by listing it as invasive and requiring a permit to do anything with it.
Dammit! I like my broccoli! What is it with them!
Broccoli is tasty. It is only grown in small areas. It doesn’t harm anyone, and millions of us like it.
Hell, some people are passionate about it.
They say not to worry and that we will be able to get permits. I don’t trust them. Broccoli, it seems, are guilty until proven innocent.
It seems like we are getting a law that will require thousands of Broccoli permits, at great cost and admin, to protect against a problem in some obscure distant corner of the country, that I don’t even know of. Wouldn’t there be wisdom in spending 10% of the effort and money on protecting that zone, wherever it is…and leave us to grow and enjoy our Broccoli elsewhere. Surely it would be quicker and easier to identify the rare zones where Broccoli MIGHT be a threat than to throw a blanket over the entire country.
If Broccoli only succeeded in remote beautiful areas where its range co-incided with another species that was going to be ousted, or it somehow caused the demise of another species, I could understand it. But it doesn’t. (there may have been some shaky pseudo-science trying to prove that it wiped out some obscure tiny creature a hundred years ago, but there is nothing obvious or that can be proved without contention)
A lot of people make a living out of Broccoli……what about them? They are going to lose their jobs. If a fracking rig was closed down by the state and people lost their jobs, at least there is a sound environmental reason…but stopping broccoli…Really!
The law says that if a species poses a threat of “ establishment and spread outside of its natural distribution range (a) threaten ecosystems, habitats or other species or have demonstrable potential to threaten ecosystems, habitats or other species” Then it must be declared an invasive species.
The authorities keep quoting foreign risk assessments. I have read them. They are pathetic! and they apply to countries where broccoli can and do thrive and spread. It is a fact that that does not happen here in SA, so to my mind those assessments are useless and irrelevant. The authorities seem to think they add credibility to their cause.
Here in my home province of KZN, Broccoli are limited in their area …the area is shrinking due to more dire environmental degradation, and no one has conclusive evidence that it ever wiped out any other species…..there are some obscure claims but on dodgy evidence that is most definitely not mainstream.
Broccoli can co-exist with numerous other species, and does. I a not aware of any other species every having been ousted by Broccoli…at least not here in KZN. Broccoli uses the same nutrition as some indigenous species, but its not like it devours indigenous species.
No one has ever died of Broccoli poisoning.
As far as I know, a species has to meet the above “spread outside its natural distribution” and/or cause harm to Human health or wellbeing before the state can regulate it. Broccoli never hurt anyone.
I have NEVER heard of broccoli spreading rampantly across the landscape . In fact I have never heard of it spreading EVER…anywhere, since it was first brought to this country well over a century ago.
They say they will issue a permit to allow you to grow Broccoli, but there are no guidelines on when they might approve or not approve those permits, and the draft regulations have no mention of an appeal process. Permits, it seems will be issued by “the state”. Who in “ The state”…the janitor?
There are lots of species, like bugweed, wattle and bramble, that do harm, but not broccoli. So why on earth is it listed?
I am dumbfounded.
Read more here: BAN ON BROCCOLI
We only have a few days to object, and then the demise of Broccoli could be on a one way path.
Errata…….due to a typing error, the word “Broccoli” appears numerous times in the piece above. Apologies…the word should be “Trout”. All other aspects of this article remain valid, as does my disbelief and indignation.
Arnold Gingrich, in his book “The Joys of Trout”, said”
“Today, if we hope to angle long, it’s much more important that the angler be concerned than that he be well equipped, or well versed, or well skilled. For what matters all the tackle and techniques that we can get our hands on, or all our history and theory and lore that we can cram our heads with, if the fish are no longer there that are, after all, the object of the game?”
He wrote that in the mid seventies, and in the same section of his book, he records for posterity, the history surrounding the birth of the Theodore Gordon Fly-fishers, and its knock-on, the Federation of Flyfishers. He also lists the early stream restoration projects conducted by that organisation around the year 1964; as well as enlightening the reader on a seemingly petty scuff that resulted in the FFF and Trout Unlimited developing in separate camps.
Gingrich, it seems, was saddened by the way things developed in two silos, and expresses a wish that the two organisations might come together for the common good. He writes about “hanging together”.
History has always been important in the sense that it serves either to predict an outcome in current times, or to steer communities away from repeating an undesired chain of events. But in a world where we all seem to read less, and remember less , I get a sense that we fall into the same holes that our forebears did.
I for one, like my dusty old books, and the lessons that lie within them
Here in South Africa, we have an ostensibly environmentally concerned, but very small flyfishing community. That community fails to adequately support a national Federation (FOSAF), which as a result is limited in its breadth of activities. Coupled with that FOSAF has been forced by circumstances to dedicate nearly all its resources to the fight on Trout. It also has a dearth of younger people coming forward to volunteer their time. Then, to complete the scene, there are a few, (as far as I am aware very few), projects that seek to clear litter from rivers, monitor polluters and the like. And all this while there is insidious and seemingly perpetual pressure being placed on the wellbeing of our trout streams, and of course the environment as a whole. And to top it off, us flyfishers spend infinitely more on fly tackle than we do on conservation of our waters.
It seems that we as flyfishers could benefit from :”hanging together” a whole lot more.