Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

flyfishing books

A giveaway

Swisher and Richards

I did a re-sort of my library today after a recent gift of yet more books, and discovered a duplicate. I have a copy of this iconic and important book in paperback:

If you live in South Africa, and if you are happy to pay the courier costs, its yours. First come, first served.

Get in touch with a comment or an e-mail (truttablog at gmail dot com) and I will get it ready for collection.


Frank Mele

Small in the Eye of a River

It was late at night and I was nearing the end of a book I picked up at Huddy’s Books. The purchase had ended a hiatus in terms of my book collecting habit, brought about by my circumstances, but now I was relishing the pages of a book new to me. I turned the page on one story and started another. Something about blue dun capes. I read on a little, realizing that tiredness had overtaken my ability to truly digest what I was reading. On the second page I stopped.  The piece was brilliant. Brilliant in the way of a rolling epic which spanned decades and transcended there here-and-now. I closed the book. I was too tired to appreciate this. It required relishing.

The next day I re-opened Nick Lyons 1973 “Fisherman’s Bounty” anthology  on the story “Blue Dun”, by one Frank Mele.

For the next while I was spellbound. Each paragraph unrolled and soaked in, and I loved the read.  Who was this author? How was it that I didn’t know of him? What else had he written?

As it turns out, these were questions that had been asked by other readers of Lyons book, decades earlier, and they too had gone looking for more.

Mele’s “Blue Dun” Story was written in 1970. It was later  included in the anthology I was reading, and served to introduce the world to Mele. Coincidentally it was in 1970 that Nick Lyons published his own book, “Seasonable Angler”, and in that book is a story entitled “Mecca”, which Nick Lyons told me in a subsequent e-mail,  was about Frank Mele (albeit under the pseundonym ‘Hawkes’), and more pointedly a days fishing in which Lyons was introduced to a man who was to become a friend.

 Elsewhere in ‘Seasonable Angler’ Nick Lyons writes of a Payne rod which survived a house fire, and which he mentions needs to be sent to Mele for checking over. I later learned that the rod was given to Nick Lyons by Mele, and later when Mele fell on hard times Nick Lyons gave it back. Between re-reading Lyons book, and “Mecca” which  I then learned was the first fly-fishing story Lyons ever wrote, I entered a delightful voyage of discovery.

Frank Mele wrote a book of flyfishing stories which was published in very small numbers in three separate editions, the first of which came out when I was a varsity student in 1988.. After his death in 1996, Nick Lyons brought the book to the wider angling world with a re-published edition, which I have since acquired, had shipped to me here in South Africa, and read. Read I might say,  with a level of unsurpassed delight and enjoyment. It is an absolute gem of literature, as promised by Lyons in the foreword, which I first read online and which multiplied my determination to acquire the book. The title of the book is “Small in the eye of a River” (and not “the River” as erroneously printed in the earlier versions).

The writing is what I would describe as  highly intelligent. The topics are broad and encompass a life view of enthusiasm, awe and respect, all loosely wrapped around the author’s unfailing love of flyfishing and music.  His 30 page “Thoughts on flyfishing” unpacks his life-view and philosophy beautifully, immersing the reader in the topic, which he tackles more eruditely than most forays into this topic. Other stories are variously sweet and innocent, evocative, thought provoking and light.  The book is unusual. I can’t think of any other book I could compare it to. I found one passage particularly moving:  Mele had discovered Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” after its first (and relatively unsuccessful) 1950 publishing, and had acquired a copy in a colourful way, which I will leave for you to read about. He had written to Marinaro to encourage him, and to praise him for his work. Twenty years later he was to meet Marinaro, who confided in him that after the first publishing he had become depressed about the publication, and how Mele’s letter had carried him forward and prevented him from giving up.

Such touching and epic anecdotes, which straddle decades and warm the heart are surely Mele’s forte!

Mele’s life was unique too.   After descending deep down the Google rabbit hole late at night I uncovered insightful gems about him. Many of them were brief eulogies or short articles written by his former violin students, fishermen he had met, and friends. Nick Lyons filled me in a little and he introduced me to James Bendelius, a great friend of Mele, who shared with me the story he once  wrote about ‘Goombah’, as he was affectionately known. Bendelius’ story appeared in  the  Bulletin of The Anglers’ Club of New York in 2008, and is in itself a moving and brilliantly written account of Mele, the man. One of my blog readers from the USA came forward to tell me that he owns one of Mele’s Payne rods. Jamie Bendelius still owns much of his collection of rods, books and other tackle.

In March of 2016, twenty years after his death, an event was held in which panelists told stories of his life and their encounters with him in a forum, with more in the audience who contributed to the memories of the man.

Included in the panel was his son Andy, whose career in environmental work was inspired by his father. The thirteen thousand word transcript of that forum is an insightful document, and takes the reader on a roller-coaster journey through Mele’s passion for bamboo fly rods, his truncated orchestral career, his cooking, his harsh tonque and short temper, and his boundless generosity.  Very prevalent in this document and others is the story of how he mobilized to see to it that groundbreaking legislation was enacted to save his beloved Trout waters in the Catskills mountains, where NY city storage dams threatened to starve rivers of reasonable minimum flows. His legacy in this  is truly something that has changed the face of flyfishing in the Catskill mountains for more generations than he would ever know.

The stories were personal and touching. He was a small and scathing  man with deep set eyes and a big heart.  Bendelius  relates how the only time he saw a tear in Mele’s eye was when he gifted to him a rare  book that he had been seeking for more than 50 years. Others recall the exact recipe of his pesto, and some relate his taste for liver, and sheep’s heads, and other carnivore’s delights that left some squeamish. A small group of passionate anglers who were cemented by the diminutive, argumentative Italian, called themselves “The Woodstock Anglers” and were clearly an institution, apparently still are.

The most recent piece I read was by his long time Friend Tony Bonavist and was placed online  as recently as 2019.

Everything I read about Frank Mele is filled with colour. He had an immersive affliction for casting dry flies with a bamboo rod, which he did with a grace and style that impressed all those who watched him. Says James  Bendelius :   “ The Syracuse rod maker Dan Brenan was an early inspiration to Frank and his love for cane made Jim Payne a close friend. Frank would spend time at the Payne shop discussing the merits with Jim and later Walt Carpenter. He was always pursuing the ultimate bamboo rod.

Goombah knew cane rods. Not in the technical sense but in the artistic sense. “   

He is referred to by many as a mentor, and others call him their ‘maestro’.  His quest for the perfect rod lead him to the brink of financial ruin, and consumed him as much as his passion for wine, women and song. He loved to smoke an acrid pipe tobacco, drank coffee that could ‘melt the spoon’, and flung pasta at his ceiling to see if it was cooked. He wasn’t known for his cleanliness. He collected flyfishing books, and engaged in correspondence with some of America’s flyfishing greats. Amongst his friends was none other than Preston Jennings, the Darbees, Art Flick, and  Dan Brennan, to name just a few.  His humble home was a veritable train station of violin students, flyfishers, hackle breeders, political lobbyists and all whom he invited in to taste his sauces.  He loved to write. His stories were apparently published in magazines, and he wrote a few books, but only one other, “Polpetto” was published (to critical acclaim). The rest of his material is relegated to papers in boxes in peoples’ houses, and in journals that pre-date the internet and don’t appear in searches.  A few people said they had some papers, and ‘must go take a look to see if they can find them’.

In wading through all this material, and exchanging e-mails, it struck me that this was a man who was in many ways discovered appreciated and venerated long after his death. It is almost as though the world was slow to wake to what it had lost. I can’t help wondering what more he may have written, had he received the encouragement he himself gave to Marinaro during his living years.

I also can’t help hoping that something might trigger some of his old friends to go and dig in those boxes, find those papers, and see to it that they make it into the public eye. If that which was published is anything to go by, there would be a queue for a posthumous publication……..

Postscript: I am grateful to Jamie Bendelius, who, subsequent to the first posting of this story, sent me the two pictures of the inscribed books in his private library. I have inserted these in the post above in the relevant places. The first is in what was Mele’s copy of Nick Lyons book “Seasonable Angler” and the second is in Mele’s copy of “Modern Dry Fly Code”.


Drunken deaf narratives

I recently wrote a piece about alcohol use, hid it in a piece about flyfishing, and sent it off to the editors of a  magazine.  They printed it. I wondered if anyone would get it, and my thoughts turned to something my wife once said to me. “You have to join the dots for them Andy”, she said, and I suspect that as usual, she is right. I was on a call to Duncan Brown about a year back, talking about a piece of writing, and he mentioned the term “a deaf narrative”. I think Duncan was talking about a narrative that remains obscure and meaningless until the end is revealed. I like the notion, so I jotted down the term. The other day I Googled it, and all I came up with was stuff about hearing impaired people.  I like that too:  that the good, rich stuff is buried deep enough that Google doesn’t know about it , and I try to do a little of that in my writing. But then I go and make it really obscure, and am left wondering if anyone at all joined the dots. Even one person…….

That woman to whom I gave a lift in the Lotheni Valley, may or may not have been under the influence. She was returning from town, laden with shopping (which included a weighty stash of Zamalek quarts). She was tired when I saw her struggling up the hill. When she sat beside me in the bakkie she was animated and enthusiastic. Our exchange was fun. A small delight in a dusty landscape. Her home overlooks the Hlambamasoka.

One of the Hlambamasoka’s that is…the other one runs under the road just beyond Boston on the R617.  Both once contained Trout, and hence their relevance in this, and other stories I have written.

Some time back, my friend Geoff, who speaks isiZulu better than many Zulus, pulled me aside to tell me how much he had enjoyed a book I once wrote, but to tell me that it contained a mistake. I cringed. I am sure it contained many, but somehow you want those swept under the carpet. Not so the mistake Geoff found. I was amused and delighted at this one. Let me explain:   I had extracted the meaning of the name “Hlambamasoka”  from a demure and graceful lady of great poise and dignity, and I repeated her explanation in my book. But as Geoff pointed out, the true meaning of this name is more something borne of hedonistic excess and indulgence. Something that in our culture might be a little too risqué to be used in the naming of a stream, let alone two of them. It goes around the practice of washing off after binge-like activity amongst the maidens of the valley, and that, young reader, is already too much information!

Later in my piece I write of Frank Mele, whose essay “Blue Dun” I greatly admire.

In that text, he reveals in a few suitably camouflaged lines, that he once had some trouble with liquor. He contrasted that with Preston Jenning’s hiatus from his flyfishing life, apparently born of some similar troubles, possibly a bout of depression, which unlike his, was endured with sobriety. That got me thinking. It is undeniable that many great tales, contrivances and subtle delights are delivered on sparkling turns of phrase in a pub. Their delivery is without doubt helped along by the loosening of the tongue. The hearing of them is warmly wrapped in swaddling nostalgia, mirth or aesthetic appreciation which is also helped along by a little tipple.

Take for example the story of Tim’s nets. Tim makes these grand landing nets, you see, and at one time he was having some trouble sourcing the right cloth for the bag of the net. He settled on something different: a particularly fine and soft mesh, which while a little on the impervious side, is certainly kind on fish. He took one of these along to the local one night, where he planned to meet his customer, and the new owner of the net. As they stood at the brass rail, embellishing and drawing out the exchange of this fine item, various of the consort were waxing lyrical about the fine mesh, and how a captured Trout seems mesmerized when slung in the deep comforting folds of the stuff. How they relax, and calm down, and become compliant and beautiful in resigned compliance.  It was at this point that an eavesdropping patron on the bar stool a little further down the counter asked  if he might be allowed to acquire such a net……for his wife. 

Net by Tim at Bambooze

Now I’m sorry, but stuff like that doesn’t happen in coffee shops!

Which was why I wrote to contrast the deep rich epic of Mele’s life-long quest for a blue dun cape, (complete with a bout of alcoholic indulgence) with the stark realities of a far flung African village, plagued by poverty and similar indulgences, but of a different hue. (did you see what I did there?….sorry…I can’t stop myself).

Frank Mele

And with that I dropped in some other lines that you won’t find in coffee shops:  Like the water only covering half one’s boots; pulling yourself up a river bank by a puffadder’s tail, and a glass phone screen that bears a dent from a bony finger. Who ever dented a piece of glass, I ask you!  And if you have ever fished “The Glides”, you will know that my romanticism of the place is the stuff of good whisky, late on a rainy night, and that you have to wait for it to be just right.

The Glides

You will also know that buying a Mele first edition with South African funny money is something of a joke, and that the swig from a flask was a prelude to its utterance. The Hlambamasoka at Lotheni is most times a bleak and disappointing stream, lying between denuded banks, and enriched with cattle dung. To travel there to flyfish in it requires a mix of unrealistic foolishness, romantasized hope, and, dare I  say, a swig or more from a flask.

You can read the article in the latest edition of The Complete Flyfisherman.   You might want to go back and read some of my earlier ones……..

Authors notes (to this author’s note) offered without explanations.

  • Tims landing nets are branded “Bambooze”
  • Frank Mele was instrumental in catchment protection work for his beloved home river……..
  • Frank Mele wrote an essay that inspired him to write a book………..
  • Mele wrote one book of fly fishing essays, and a novel………..
  • Hlambamasoka is also the name given to a nature reserve…….on the uMngeni River

Breaking the code

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.

Charles Fox, as sketched by Schwiebert in his book “Trout”

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. 

Sketch by Ernest Schwiebert

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.

Additional Reading:

‘ * Errata. I am grateful to John Fiorini who had this to add in respect of the “Letort Regulars”:

The term “Letort Regulars” is capable of a couple of meanings. A loose group that adopted the name (and of which I was a member) was formed in the late 70’s and met for dinner at a local restaurant on the first Fri. of each month, with a picnic in August on benches at the “Nineteenth Hole” on the river behind Charlie Fox’s house. (That is also where an ad hoc gathering of locals often held a “prayer breakfast” on Sun. mornings.) Charlie was a regular attendee at our “meetings”, but Shenk and Marinaro were not. The latter-day Regulars sort of faded away in, I think, the early 90’s.

Seeral others also forwarded me pictures of the cloth badge of the Regulars

And in respect of the conservation of the river, John adds:

I don’t live in the Carlisle area and haven’t followed the recent status of the Letort carefully, but I know that both the city and the Central PA Conservatory have done a lot of rehab work on the river.

And Eric Richard added:

A letter written by Charlie Fox at the group’s inception was titled Super Trout in reference to the Loch Leven strain of Brown Trout. The Loch Leven was the mover. Defined by it’s movement and recognized by these anglers for their value they met to propagate and manage these misunderstood fish. The-book is an historical document. A federal fish hatchery biologist dismissed them with the assumption that all brown trout were crossed. You should be happy to know that while standing on the shoulders of C. Fox a grassroots movement of anglers in PA successfully petitioned for the protection of the Letort’s breeding population during the post spawn when they are feeding in the downstream watershed.

This particularly interested me, because my home river here in South Africa was once on record (and forgive me, but for the time being I forget where the reference comes from , except that I know it is quoted by Duncan Brown in one of his books), as that containing the most pure genetic population of Loch Leven Browns in the world. Sadly I know that this is no longer the case, but a few of us keep pictures of our Browns from the river, and compare notes and are looking to see the degree to which the later introduced European browns remain in evidence, interbreed, or perhaps reduce in number as the supposedly now adapted Loch Leven’s hold sway.


A pretty scene

John Gierach

John Gierach

“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.


A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It

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.

A River Runs Through It

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.


A picture paints a thousand words

DP Fowler artwork
Call of the Stream
Art
Oil Painting by DP Fowler
Artwork of Lotheni by DP Fowler

Photo of the moment (115)

Flyfishing books
Flyfishing books
Some great Christmas break reading, that has recently found its way onto the shelves.

Beating the system

John Gierach

“It’s true that all successful strategies are based on a plausible supposition, but in my experience gamblers and fishermen with a “system” exhibit unshakable confidence , but don’t actually do any better than the rest of us”

John Gierach, “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers”

John Gierach

Gierach himself has always puzzled me with his assertion that one should go fishing as the low pressure rolls in, but then he does explain that this means to go fishing when the bad weather moves in. In our part of the world the low pressure is what precedes the bad weather, and it is characterised by strong northerly winds and warm, balmy conditions. For me those are the very worst fishing conditions, but then I have been proved wrong on that before too.

Then when the wind turns from the south, the pressure is busy rising, and miserable drizzle is on the way, or perhaps already here, bam…Brown trout weather.

Sometimes.

Unless the wind swings from the east a bit.

And then there’s the moon phase, which I show only a mild interest in, but which colleagues plan their business meetings around.

Cold water equals orange flies.

Lucky hats.

And if you want to throw random unpredictable determinants in there: ones that are barely worth trying to chart or anticipate, then throw in South African fly hatches. Oh for a “labour day caddis hatch”. Our caddis don’t seem to give a damn about when we are on holiday.

But having said all of the above, I think you have to have a system. Any system. Pick one. It will, as Gierach points out, give you confidence. And in contradiction of his statement, I believe that with that confidence , you will do better then the rest of us.

No. Wait. The rest of us have systems too.

OK. His comment holds true.


Haig Brown, video and changing seasons

Fly Fishing books

I have to confess that the last time I read “A River Never Sleeps” I vaguely remember it didn’t keep my attention. This time it has grabbed me. Maybe you need to become an old fart before you can appreciate literature from dusty old volumes. I don’t know.

Either way, my depth of understanding and context was no doubt enriched by having first read (or more correctly re-read) all of G.E.M. Skues’ works, as well as the very in-depth book about Skues, written by Tony Hayter.

Haig-Brown and Skues

That put Haig-Brown’s background into perspective. Realising that he had grown up and lived during the time of the great wet fly vs dry fly debate, and the frustrating time Skues had explaining that a nymph was not a wet fly, and that in fact you could cast it upstream to sighted fish, allowed me to enter his world just a little more. 

I also don’t know that any other angling writer was schooled on chalk streams in England, and then ended up on a great big river in British Columbia flinging meat at salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroats and goodness knows what else, on a river so big that there was a good argument for a boat. To Further the contrast and juxtapositions, Haig Brown grew up wing-shooting, worked as a logger, threw Devon Minnows, and ended up as an author, a judge, and chancellor of a university. From chopping down trees with rough hands, to writing on the paper they made, no doubt with softer ones. That really is quite a contrast. And contrast was something that drew him in. More specifically the contrast of the seasons. He describes in the most beautiful language, the changing of seasons, the trees, the birds, the weather, and a dozen other harbingers of fish runs and seasons to come.

It seems appropriate that I am reading the book at a time where I too am flinging veritable carcasses at stillwater trout, and at a time when the river season is about to open. A time when dry and dust is met by the faintest of green tinges on burnt veld, and days with no jacket required.

You might also have noticed that I have flung myself headlong into the making of videos.  The quality is questionable at times, but as I say, I have flung myself at it, and this old fart is learning new skills faster than he can read dusty old books.  I am really looking forward to taking the camera onto a stream, and sharing that somehow more genteel and cultured pursuit on film.

In fact, it has me wondering whether I should share the contents and joys of dusty old books on film?  Might that make them more accessible, and allow fellow fly-fishers to get a taste of what they have to offer, and their relevance to modern fly fishing. Using film to appreciate books. Contrast draws me in.  Juxtapositions.  Changing seasons.

Let me know what you think.


A fisherman’s philosophy …..in quotes

fly fishing books

Reading my way through the tomes that cascade from my over-full bookshelf, is something I take great pleasure in doing. There is something satisfying in reading a message that resonates, written in so  beautiful, and poetic a style that it causes you to lower the book and nod or mumble something. I mumble and nod a lot. It is a way of wallowing in a thought well presented, a way of immersing yourself in a moment shared eruditely in print. 

fly fishing books

My family have stopped responding with questions to all my mumbling and nodding. So I will share some with you:

“How often fishing leads a man to find beauty otherwise never seen! I am rich in having a treasure store of such places”  Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado

“The man who hurries through a Trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him” George La Branche  The Dry Fly on Fast Water.

“The secret of successful fishing is to expect it….Hope should be in the fisherman’s heart , expectancy in his hand , and his motto should be “you can never tell”  “ Robert Hartman, About fishing

“Now that I care less, I fish better” Andrew Brown,  Fishing in Utopia

“Fisherman who care too much about the size and numbers of fish they catch are insufferable on good days and as harried as overworked executives on slow ones. On the other hand, it is possible to be a happy angler who doesn’t catch many fish; its just that no one will ever say you’re good at it”     John Gierach, Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers.

“Perhaps the power of fly-fishing (and the comparisons it invites) lies not in its confrontation with meaning, but its escape from it.”  Maximillian Werner , Black River Dreams

“Flyfishing has many attributes , but none more pleasing than its ability to find and liberate the young boy that still hides within me and to let that boy live again without embarrassment or regret, sorrow or anguish” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time.

“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes  and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside”  Nick Lyons, Seasonable Angler.

Let me stop there, lest you fall asleep during this diatribe, but I think you get the idea:  An immersed  fisherman who doesn’t read, achieves immersion in shallower water.  

You may nod and mumble now…


Pewter and Charcoal: Colour

I know. It is a contradiction. But consider the richness of contrast.

Just look at the contrast:  of shade, texture, light and dark. Think of the feelings and depth of thought that it invokes.

 

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And then, having done that, employ the technique of introducing colour, and relish the richness of it.  No one does that quite like Middleton:

“With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other. On the far west ridge, damask reds and vermillion giving way to softer Chinese reds and the blunt reds of aged wine, and these in turn, mixed with leaves of moody sallow and the dull yellow of sulphur and raw cream, and among these were newly fallen leaves still bright as jonquils” 

and he goes on with

 “ ……pumpkin orange….daring blotches of apricot…wrinkled browns….and the colour of tarnished copper and well-worn  leather “  Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time”

Now look again:

Umgeni-29

It’s been fun exploring some quotes from books recently read and re-read. And exploring “Pewter and Charcoal”, but I will end this little series here, for a while…..

I hope you have enjoyed it.


Pewter and Charcoal: Solitude, Middleton and Gierach

I don’t always fish alone, and I often enjoy company. But some days are hermit days, full of thought and reflection, in which one becomes just a little misanthropic.

Anton (1 of 1)

“Since fly fishing is a solitary sport, its hard not to think of other fishermen- collectively, if not individually –  as the enemy”  John Gierach: A Fly Rod Of Your Own.

“In trout fishing, and especially in mountain trout fishing, one angler and trout borders on the idyllic,or some version thereof. Two anglers and trout is a crowd, claustrophobic and unbearable.”  Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time”


Pewter and Charcoal, Giants and the Yorkshire Dales

For the most part, the mountains lining the valleys of our upland Trout streams could borrow descriptions from the Dales. But then we have our peaks, which do tower over you as you flick a fly in staircase streams, deep in the berg. The contrast is as rich as the texture of a black and white photo, as polarising as dark shaded ravines cut in a blanket of winter snow.

So here is a contrast: Giants Castle in the snow, and Catlow’s description of the rounded hills of his beloved home waters:

giant (1 of 1)

“It is these mountains that bring me back year after year, to the valley through which she flows. They are not the spectacular peaks of the west, thrusting jagged silhouettes defiantly into the sky.They are massive shapes, rising with calm assurance in great sweeps of brown heather, lifting themselves patiently in long and flowing lines, raising their vast bulk to the sky with the huge authority of sufficient strength.”

Laurence Catlow, The Healing Stream


Pewter and Charcoal: a little Brown and Catlow

“It was one of those times that I think come to all fishermen: when we win back something of the vision of our angling boyhood, but at the same time experience it with the deeper gratitude of a grown man”  Laurence Catlow, The Healing stream

I think Catlow’s comment is befitting of those times, when you land a Trout, even a very small one, and in the  moments before you release it, you admire it and think “Damn I love these fish, and I love this pastime”

Brown (1 of 1)

Pewter and Charcoal: Gierach and conservation perfection

On obsessing about conservation while fishing, Gierach once wrote:

“I can’t say I spent a lot of time brooding about this: the fishing was too good for that, and I also understood that if you chase perfection too far down the rabbit hole, you can end up growing your beard down to your belt buckle and carrying a sign that reads “The End Is Near”. “

(A fly Rod of your Own:  John Gierach)

I am trying to avoid the beard and the sign, but I do relish this one place, which to me represents a degree of conservation perfection attained. It is very dear to me.

Bird pool view (1 of 1)

Pewter and Charcoal: La Branche and my hausberg

I always take time to stop fly fishing and take a look at my hausberg. Its a wonderful term that. In short, and as translated to suit me, it means ‘the mountain that looks out over the district of my birth, upbringing, and current abode: a psychological anchor of place, and a symbol of purpose and direction, normally viewed from below, but sometimes, as a means of re-setting ones compass, from atop’ 

geni (1 of 1)-3

and I think La Branche would have identified with my obsession for the Inhlosane mountain:

“The man who hurries through a trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him.”  George LA Branche: Dry Fly on Fast Water 1914.


Pewter and Charcoal, Lyons and a lone angler

“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside”  Wrote Nick Lyons in Seasonable Angler. 

Lyons wrote a column by that same name in the magazine “Flyfisherman” for 22 years . Back when our currency had some value, I used to subscribe to it, and always read that column first. I have enjoyed his writing ever since.

I think this image captures the essence of privateness,  quiet satisfaction et al:

geni (1 of 1)-5


Pewter and Charcoal, Walden and Furth

Pewter and charcoal….a series of sorts, that aims to couple the timelessness of a black and white image, with the timelessness of quotes from our fly fishing literature.

To kick it off, here is the uMngeni on Furth farm:

geni (1 of 1)

…and here is something from Walden…that unsung American writer, from his book ‘Upstream and down’, published in 1938:

“Streams with reputations do not always live up to them and the obscurer brooks often hold a big trout or two. ……/../… Fishermen rather than fish perpetuate and enhance the reputation of a stream. By story and legend, the magic euphony of a name, the prestige of a river is won and held. Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, Brodhead – such names owe their celebrity as much to the tongues and pens of fishermen as to the numbers and weight of trout between their banks”

I will just leave those two here…..


Dog Days

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.

Screenshot_20200111_145317

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!

Umgeni River

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”