The other day I had the privilege of being on the river for work reasons (again). I know that it is not an infrequent occurrence, but I still consider it a privilege. Anyway, I took a break while the crew were having a lunch break, and I went for stroll. The light was brilliant, and the water was as clean as it gets. I didn’t have a pair of polarised specs, but the angle of the midday sunshine, and the east flowing stretch of river just aligned in a way that it made no difference…I could see everything! Flow was pretty decent, since we had rain all the way into early May this year. So in summary it was perfect.
At Picnic pool, I spotted a small fish come up to take something near the head, where the water rushes in. It was a small dark shape, that snatched and ran. Above that pool is a big shallow bedrock tail-out, but the run gets deep on the south side, and runs with just a bit of a ripple under overhanging grass. I saw nothing there. Surprisingly.
Above that is a piece of water that holds deep memories for me. The river runs over shallow rock, but it divides, such that there are 4 river banks in all, and they are covered in clumps of huge cascading grass tufts. Despite the shallowness of the water, and the bedrock, I have often seen, caught, and spooked fish here.
It started way back on the 18th of April 1999…… I was fishing with a pal (since departed), and we came upon fish here. I didn’t know this part of the river well back then, and after we had caught, seen and spooked several fish here, I asked “Are we at the top boundary yet”, as I peered into a tunnel of offending wattle trees upstream of us.
My colleague replied that we were very close to the end of the beat, and so we gave up for the day and headed out. I now know that he was not entirely right. There was about half a kilometre to go.
Anyway, I spotted a fish here again. I spooked it in fact, and saw it shoot away in panic.
Just above the next rapid, I was passing between two big clumps of the same riverside grass, when I saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. (Did you know that your peripheral vision is more alert to movement than your direct gaze?) I stopped to process the image my brain had received. I am often fooled by a shadow of a bird flying overhead, and I need to stop and analyse as I now did. Was it a little too quick to have been a fish? Was it moving in too straight a line? Was its path of movement strangely inconsistent with the features and obstructions of the river bed? I stared at the water as I thought these thoughts. I decided it was just a bird. But as I was about to avert my deep-thought (and doubtless unblinking) gaze, I noticed something.
It was a Trout’s eye.
Strange to find a Trout’s eye right in front of you, on a bare rock riverbed, barely a rod’s length away….
I blinked and “zoomed out” in my minds eye, and blow me down, it turns out that what I had seen was attached to a motionless fish!
It didn’t move a fin, so I guess my peripheral vision wouldn’t have picked it up. It was my blank stare that did it for me.
I had a camera with me, but the battery had gone flat, so I very carefully pulled my phone from my top pocket and switched on the video camera.
What a treasure to see, watch, video, and appreciate a decent sized brown on this water.
It is at times like this that I don’t really need a rod at all. Sometimes I can just walk; just look.
“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.
These uMngeni Browns aren’t that plentiful, or perhaps its just that they are not co-operative. Either way, I keep going back for the few that I can catch.
“Place and experience become reciprocal touchstones, each authenticating the other. The landscape swells with the meaning of what has been lived there, and the shape of that living has, in turn, been molded by the place. The landscape no longer exists as a backdrop or setting but as a medium of experience, a material from which the occasion is fashioned, a character in the story of life” Ted Leeson, Jerusalem Creek.
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!
Making my way west, away from the brutal hissing, rattling black highway, puts me in the folds of soft hills. Soft hills decked in the ochres, fawn, brown, yellow, maple orange and bare sticks of winter’s onset. The only hard lines are the escarpment, where the berg presses against the sky in a stark outline. It is an outline of a boundary against which we retreat. It reminds me of my prized dorm bed at boarding school, that fit in a corner against the walls of the basement boiler, and was warm in winter. So too, the berg is a boundary of comfort. Heading west puts me in place where my back is covered. The higher I go, the less of the downstream lowlands I see and the further I am from that highway. I can choose how high to go, and my decision depends on my need for escape from the lowlands….depends on how much of that brutal highway I have been absorbing of late.
The westward route extends past the railway lines and coffee shops and tourists who point out of their windows before taking sudden, lurching turns. Driving it now, I am rolling the vista back and forward in my mind. Back to summer, when it was rank and warm, and roadside grasses had aspirations of being giant elephant reeds. Forward to June, when the stems of bolted grass are stark sticks, losing husks and gathering dust. In between was the golden season. The season of crocosmias paniculata, lit like burgundy on fire. The season of falling stars: delicate blooms of Oros fake orange (6% real, the rest delivered along that highway from a factory somewhere). The golden season that went too quickly and took with it its red wine pin oaks and its amber London Planes; stole the spathes, spikelets and awns of the wild oat grass, and made off with its cool mornings and breezy warm days. We are left now with crows and sticks and dust; mornings too still to blow away the frost; days too hazy to feel the earth’s lines.
The contrast of our sport cuts like an old blunt knife. Like that cake knife back home, the one with the split wooden handle, bound with string. One that must be pressed and worked, and tilted to cleave the days and leave autumn aside, and winter to be coped with. Autumn with the rivers still open, and their small shy browns spooking at my clumsy casts. On that last day, my wading boots slid into the clean water. Water so clean I had to put my hand into it to be sure it was there. When it seeped through the neoprene onto my skin, my breath knew it was there, and it escaped from my chest in alarm. The fish were rather offish. The ones I found were the ones I spooked, or were rising, but there were few of both. The rising ones only needed one cast to dissuade them, and I couldn’t make them gentle enough. Not even with whisper fine 7X tippet on the two weight, and CDC dries. They just didn’t want them. And I suppose I just didn’t need them either. What I needed was the cold water, and warm sun weak enough not to roast me. I needed the Prussian blue and blackened purples of the shaded side of Baboon hill as my backdrop; and I needed the willows still with leaf but a sorry lemon lime hue leaf, not a lush green one. I needed silk surfaced fields, pale and dotted with bales, each one throwing a shadow as black as charcoal. I needed those trout too, but I only needed them to show themselves to me. I didn’t need to posses them. I only needed to possess autumn.
But the knife has pressed and cleaved the seasons now, and autumn can’t be possessed any longer. I drive further on rippled, bone shaking corrugations, and I throw dust clouds in the wake of the bakkie. At the bridge I pretend not to look at the river that jilts me. It runs clear, and strong enough to make me think of spring, although I deny the thought. My thoughts must run with the season.
I alight from the vehicle into wiry, tawny grass, and am greeted by warm sun and a raw breeze. The air is coming at me from the north across the cerulean ripples of the lake. I need a jacket. Later, I push the toe of my boot through iced muck, sticking to the cattails and reeds in the boggy margins. Just beyond, a band of still water laps in inky rolling waves that curl into the cattails and are tamed. At the outer edge of that bank, the mesmerizing ripples start, glinting fierce sunlight across at me and in, under the brim of my hat to hurt my eyes. Although I have to squint to look at it, its that transition that I am after, and I throw a team of flies across there. It is close enough that I am cautious not to move, and that a false cast is not needed. The black DDD alights, and the rice-bead corixa imitation plops just behind it. I hold the rod high, and still, poised expectedly. “The hang” they call it. It feels more like a long wait to me. Nothing happens. I try it a few more times, but winter fish are stubborn, and averse to our formulas. You will have more luck calling the cat.
Before long I am moving from spot to spot. My focus has changed to seeking warmth from the sun between wind gusts, casting in a direction in which I save my eyes the glimmer, and achieving crisp loops and pleasing distances. I have long since changed to a single fly, and I retrieve faster than I want to.
It seems slow, and there is a lot of time for considering the world, and the lake, and the season past. I am small and I am perched on a high vista in the wind, and the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes run repeatedly through my mind. I have to remind myself that this is what winter fly fishing is about. I consider a day back in the eighties, where I fished Triangle dam like this all day, and in which I was rewarded with one Rainbow. Only one Rainbow; but it was big and angry and I still have the photo. “Stick it out” I tell myself, but I needn’t, because I always do stick it out. It is merely an exercise in getting one’s mind alignment right. Standing there alone, with more thoughts than time, and all the time in the world to pick which ones to use, you never know if you have that alignment right. Never will.
Many hours later I am jolted by a silvery rainbow. It’s lively, but it is a small one. Later, another takes the fly as I lift it, but for the rest the fish are off the prod, and this day will remain one of wind and sun. “Meaningless. Meaningless”.
As I step out of the cab to close the last gate behind me in the gloom of evening, my senses are hit by the silage-like scent of dead, dewy winter grass, and my entire childhood washes over me in the time it takes to close the gate.
It is winter now.
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.
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:
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.
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.
“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”
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:
“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
“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”
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.
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’
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.