As I stood on the dam wall the other day, I got to thinking about Lawrence, who I had just met at the roadside. He was cutting out some invasive trees along a fence line. They are trees which I have long wanted gone, so I felt compelled to pull over and go and shake his hand and say “bloody well done”, which I did. Lawrence is the very first Zulu-speaking man I have met who sports a full Bredarsdorp brei (… a guttural “burr”, or a uvular “R”, as in ….Brgedargsdorgp bgrgei). He introduced himself (“Lawgrence”), but he didn’t introduce his helper: a man with one eye that looked like a dead trout egg.
Now I was standing there fishing, and contemplating whether I should take off the gloves and put on a trout egg imitation. A translucent orange one, not a white opaque one showing early signs of a galloping mildew infection. The fishing was slow. That is to say, it was just casting…the fish part of the formula was missing. While waiting for the fly to sink, I sent a text to PD, to tell him I was having no success, and that I was having difficulty turning over my “thirty eight foot leader” . It wasn’t really that long, but it felt like it. The fly landed with a plop a few minutes after everything else had straightened out, and that was giving me a sense that I wasn’t coping. The truth be told, I was coping. There was a nasty berg wind at my back, and it was helping those long casts.
The phone took a while to find signal, but eventually the message dispatched, and some time later came the reply: “Strap on four foot of 8lb Maxima, and a big Woolly Bugger”. Sound advice!
The previous time I was atop this long dam wall, throwing a big Woolly Bugger, I had had an interrupted afternoon, in which business cut into precious fishing time. Unusual business. I had to go and rescue Darling from a gaggle of snakes. At that stage I only knew her as Darling. That was the name and number The Boss had sent me as an electronic business card when I asked for the details of his foreman. I concluded of course that they are romantically involved. My inkling was supported when, having got Darling and her crew started on their task down in the kloof, and while setting up eagerly to fish Baboon dam, the second call came. It was The Boss. Darling was in distress down in the kloof. Could I send someone to go and rescue her please. Something about her being in tears, inconsolable and trapped by a team of serpents. Who could I send? It is wild baboon country, so remote and steep, no one would find her there, and besides, who else was around?
A mournful wind whistled across the veld. I cursed, and took the rod pieces apart and put them back in the cloth bag and tube. I had not even got as far as putting the real on. “There goes my fishing” I said through gritted teeth, to no one but the baboons.
It took me forever to find Darling. Notwithstanding the fact that we had cell comms, and I had a vantage point and a pair of binoculars. Second language, sobs, trees getting confused with rocks….all those usual communication impediments. By the time I had found her, chased away all the phantom winter snakes, and led her up out of the valley, I was tired, and the wind was stronger, and the sparkle had gone out of the day. It was not unlike what was before me now.
A band of still water, heavily riffled about 20 yards out where the berg wind, done with harassing the bankside grass tufts, now hit the water surface. Wind in my ears. Lips cracked. My paper-dry hands gripping the worn cork, but without expectancy. Trout away on business elsewhere.
In between there had been a very brief visit to West Hastings, where I witnessed a couple of small trout rise, and one or two lunkers porpoising seductively way out in the waves. Nothing else. There was that trip to the lake on the mountain, where I got a few fish. That was nice. Before that was a very slow day, with one giant fish, but nothing else all day long. That fish was special, if only for its size, but that was way back. “When was that?” I asked out loud in the wind. June maybe, I thought. We are on the other end of winter now, and I feel like I missed it. There was illness, a trip south (non-fishing), another bout of illness, work, and now winter is at it’s end. Where was I ?
I guess many years I feel this way about a river season, or an autumn, and that if I had to pick, “missing winter” wouldn’t be the worst fate. A friend called this morning to update me on his fishing. It turns out its been really slow everywhere.
After the hot berg wind, the evening arrived suddenly, and with accompanying stillness. My mental braying about winter evaporated as the first fish started to rise. Before long they were boiling everywhere. One or two jumped clear of the water in the sunset.
I was changing fly frantically, trying to match the invisible hatch. It was warm, and furious and infuriatingly fun, in a spitting, teeth grinding and laugh-out-loud kind of way. And it felt like spring. I stacked that lens on top of a report last week of three-pound browns spotted in the river by some farm workers. Add the paucity of fishing in weeks past, and you have yourself a bubbling casserole of youthful anticipation for 1st September.
“The coming griver seasgon is going to be gwild Dgarling”. A breiing Zulu….have you ever!
“Turn onto the bunny”. These are the cruel words I was reminded of, as Ray and I strained into the rearview mirror to see if the rabbit had missed the wheels as it dashed in front of us on our route back from the pub to our abode on the Bell River. The words had been emitted by none other than “Matilda”, the ice-queen who delivers driving instructions from within the GPS. She had been directing me to the River Test in Hampshire, where I was to meet with the keeper. I didn’t think she would lower herself to delivering doom to small innocent bundles of fly tying material.
As we contemplated the fate of the rabbit we had just passed over, we agreed that Jan would have had us stop, and would have subjected us to carrying the carcass around until he could find a pinning board, tacks and salt. But we were tired from a long day on the river, and mercy was not in our plan. We were not going to stop for the bunny.
We had walked our socks off, and we had doubled down on fine pizza, washed down with cold beer, with an enthusiasm akin to that with which the trout had been smashing our hoppers on the Riflespruit.
Those Trout displayed no mercy. Doctor Harry had passed by behind me, and then from the high bank ahead he directed me to a crack in the rock: a shelf over which the water flowed, and which would surely harbour Trout. He wasn’t wrong. The Rainbows were lined up there like troops, and they clobbered the hopper with gusto each time it drifted over the lip. I would immediately angle the rod low, to draw the thrashing fish downstream, away from the lie, so that I could fool another on the next delivery.
I landed 6 fish from the spot. Each one came up as innocently as an ignorant traveller turning onto a small country lane. They smoked the hopper and I landed them with impunity.
But as the cock crowed in the dawn, the tables would turn. A day or two later I missed fish after fish in a pool on the upper Bokspruit. Thinking back on it now, the fish lost in that particular pool, numbered precisely six. One brut snapped me off after a spirited fight. The others just didn’t connect to the hopper. My mates standing behind me, taking videos, were swooning and swearing and ultimately taking pity on me for my bad luck. They offered me the best pools thereafter, as if to give me opportunities at redemption.
It just got worse…I missed even more fish as the afternoon wore on. The situation was one bereft of all mercy. I felt like a run-over rabbit. If truth be told, I still feel that way. I have unfinished business on the upper Bok. In my dreams, I see the neb of a rainbow pop out of the jumbled current to suck down my hopper, as if in slow motion. Others cruise into the air and turn on their sides to land with a raucous splash. It is unclear if they take the hopper on the way up, or the way down, but either way, they smash it with a cruelty that seems unnecessary. As unnecessary as a flyfisher hauling in his quarry to photograph its spots before sending it back, panting and shocked like a rabbit that just missed a wheel.
Things are not as they seem. “The Bunny” was a small country lane leading to a bridge over the river, where swans pirouetted in the current and Trout swam.
My colleagues had said that my GPS wouldn’t find it, and they gave me a photocopy of the ordinance map. As it turned out the Ice Queen knew exactly where the bunny was, just like Dr Harry knew there would be Trout in that seam. The Trout which engulfed bits of bunny fur used to represent the thorax of that hopper. That hopper that didn’t work on the merciless, beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit.
I grabbed the handle of the old green door, pressed the thumb latch down, and gave a push. It seemed to be stuck, but it moved enough to encourage me to try harder. I tried again with a firm shove, and it opened. Dad and I stepped through onto the east-facing veranda of the old house.
We were entirely silent for a moment, except for the sound of Dad’s deep draw of breath. He seemed to falter for a moment. Then in a slightly choked voice he uttered the words ”Oh my! The memories!”, and he moved across the concrete floor to gaze at the façade of the house and then the vista of rolling green hills before us. I remained silent. It was his moment. The only sound was the rush of the uMngeni River. Dad just took it all in. His eyes were a little misty. Then he pointed things out, and we began to speak of how it was back then, when he was a boy.
He re-told the story of summer nights with his bed pulled out onto the porch; the Great Dane, whom he secretly let into his bedroom through the door behind us to have it sleep on his bed; how he remembered being able to see Inhlosane Mountain, now obscured by a few trees.
I asked if he remembered hearing the river as loudly as we were then, and he shook his head. But he remembered being ordered to take an afternoon sleep, and laying down on a blanket under some trees that are no longer there, where he watched weaver birds build their nests. He pointed out the “Old folks room” at the southern end of the building, and I asked him about the cellar there, evident from the stone staircase leading down from the lawn. “They kept booze in there.” he said, but I pointed out that he had said the same about the front cellar just minutes earlier. I was looking for a repeat of the story about apples stored there and how they stayed cool and crispy for months, but that memory was gone. “Maybe they kept booze in both.” he said with a grin, and we both laughed.
We looked out over the terraced area built by the Italian prisoners of war, and Dad remembered the veggie garden there, but the story of the fruit trees so harshly and expertly pruned by the same POWs was lost that day.
We turned back towards the view of the river below, and Dad craned his neck, looking for the willow tree. It was gone, but having looked around at features like the water wheel furrow and the bend of the river, he was still able to lock on a precise location and point to it, as he told another story: “Jack Didcott took me fishing there” he said. “I was just a small boy, and he was very kind to me. He hooked a trout but pretended not to. He asked me if I would like to fish, and handed me his rod. The fish was already on, and I said ‘I’ve got a fish, I’ve got a fish!’. Dad was motioning the holding of the rod, and he was laughing. He lowered his hands, and slipped into a tone of reverence before telling how Jack Didcott went off to the war after that, and never came back. My grandfather “had helped Didcott’s widow with her finances, and what have you” as Dad put it.
When the stories were done, we took one last look around the east veranda and circled back to the front porch. Dad steadied himself with a hand against the stone corner pillar as he allowed his eyes to drift over the commanding view of the valley. “To grow up here” he started, and then he struggled for words. “What a playground! You know…to grow up…..for a boy”.
We walked back down the stone stairs, Dad turning sideways and taking care with his footing on the stonework, his hand gripping the balustrade. We strolled back past the booze cellar, around to the back. Dad pointed out his father’s study overlooking where the old dairy building had been with the river beyond, where it flowed tight at the foot of the forest. We spoke about how the old man would take his fly rod and creel with him to milking in the afternoon, and leave them outside the stone dairy, to take down to the river later, where he caught trout for dinner. Dad pointed out the door to the dining room and showed me where the scullery and kitchen were. I found an open door and stepped in. The floors had been done, and a glance into the kitchen revealed the woodstove gone: replaced with modern fittings. I encouraged Dad to step in and take a look, but he shook his head and turned away. His head was swimming with the special memories of his childhood, and he chose not to spoil them with images of change and modernisation.
We strolled back across the driveway to the car. I felt a need to relish the visit, perhaps extend it. We both knew it wouldn’t be repeated. I scanned my memory for more stories he had told over the years. Perhaps I could draw them out, ask him more about them. Maybe something precious would emerge. I thought of what he had told me on the drive in earlier.
He said that the eight-mile private road had been maintained by the two farmers: the Fowlers from Umgeni Poort and the Ross family from New Forest. “It was in better nick then than it is now!” he remarked. I said I could imagine that to be true. At a spot just beneath Inhlezela Mountain, he related the story of Isaac falling off the back of the vehicle after they hit a rough spot on the road exactly where we were. Dad had been watching out the back window and saw it happen “Dad! Dad! Stop! Isaac has fallen off” he re-enacted, his face alight in the recollection of the moment. Earlier, as we passed Scott brothers he told of Claudi, the injured Blue Crane. “Zebra were running wild in the days before the Lavisters came to live here, and across there” he pointed to the other side of the road down towards the Elands River “hundreds upon hundreds of Blue Cranes. One of them was injured by the hay mower, and its left foot was all…….” He paused. “It was ……messed up. It came to live in the farmyard, and it was very tame. We called her Claudi. She was lovely.” He paused again and then added “ The labourers would hold out her wings and dance with her.”
There seemed to be nothing more. We climbed into the bakkie to leave, and I drove out slowly. I offered to stop along the way if he wanted a photo or to look at anything. He declined.
Dad fell quiet. His soul was dancing with Claudi.
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!