A number of weeks back, I was out on the stream with a good mate of mine. It was a warm, cloudy day, in which the light was silvery, but more significantly a fairly fierce wind buffeted us and ruffled the surface. We fished up a section of riffle water interspersed with bigger pools. Often on this piece we will say “the fish are in the pools today”, or conversely “They are all in the pockets”, or perhaps “they are holding deep…get down”. On this particular day the results were inconclusive. We got a few fish from both, but we were hardly tripping over them. It was fun, but it wasn’t a red-letter day. The wind was pretty exhausting!
We reached a point where the road runs close to the stream, and my partner mentioned that he was tired. I anticipated that we would make use of this take-out point and call it a day. I wanted a few more throws in a good pool so I fished it very thoroughly, thinking it would be my last fishing spot for the day. I tried a dry, then a light nymph, and then I worked a deeper pattern, cancelling out options…running through the usual methodical process of elimination. My fishing partner (the one who had said he was tired) , went ahead and fished the only nearby water available, seemingly to kill time until I was done. The water he was on was less than ideal. It was very fast: all bubbles and whiteness. And remember the wind was blowing hard. In fact it had picked up and it would have been fair to use the word ‘howling’.
He knuckled down; dried his fly; got into position, and with the focus of a hungry heron, set about placing his caddis on dinner plate-sized patches of smooth water. He said his hit rate was low, but he kept at it.
When I caught up with him he was excited. “five casts, five fish” he enthused. “Just throw you fly in any patch that isn’t white, and I promise, you will get a fish first cast” he said.
And I did.
My point in relating this, is not to expound the merits of fast water, or wind. My point is that Mr Tired stayed focused and fished as thoroughly as he had the first pool of the day. In other words he was consistent in his focus, positivity and curiosity. He was able to say to himself “I wonder what will happen if I throw a fly in there”, even though we were at the end of the day. (actually that turned out not to be the end of the day…we carried on and Mr Tired suddenly wasn’t so tired…and he made a pig of himself!)
Another friend of mine is consistent in his dedication to looking for bugs and clues. He is the guy who will take fifteen minutes to survey a pool and consider his approach at the end of a long blank day. He will look into the shallows around his feet to see what insect life there is, he will try to catch one, and he will change fly, or re-tie his knot, or go down a tippet diameter, or try the fly deeper in the water column. This is at the end of the day. Most of us can already taste the beer, and it shows in how we fish the last pool. I confess…I am the one who strolls up to the last piece of water, plops the fly in somewhat resignedly, and goes through the motions. This is certainly true on a slow day, and even more so on a blank day.
If I applied this defeated apathy and lack of care at the first pool, I would probably never have a red-letter day. I know that the fresh first-pool-approach is more likely to produce fish. I know that it would be great to not have a blank day, and get it together at the last run or pool. But do I fish the last pool with the same dedication as the first one of the day? No. I am inconsistent.
Will you fish a tiny fly on a still piece of water when fish are rising? Yes. I am sure you would. Will you fish a #18 nymph in the same water when there are whitecaps?
Why not? Why do you need a big Woolly Bugger in a big wind? Do you think bugs get bigger under a ruffled surface? Do you think fish stop eating flies of that size when a hatch stops or a wind picks up? Like me, you are being inconsistent. Illogical.
Let’s look at inconsistency in another way. If you were with a band of like-minded fly fishers, on a famous stream, with a high population of fish and bugs where the fishing was currently good, I wouldn’t mind betting that you would focus on what the fish are, or might be eating. We would probably discuss fly choice, look for bugs, compare tippet diameters and discuss changing conditions and possible adjustments to our approach.
What about if you and I go visit a little-fished, supposedly second-rate stream on a partially exploratory basis. No fish seen. Little threads of doubt already sewn. “B team” thoughts…..
Would you and I look for bugs, change tippet formula, re-tie knots, and team up to refine our skills to a fine point, pursuant of a glorious end-game? No?
Why the difference?
We know which attitude and approach produces more fish.
I tire easily. I lose confidence. I listen to the tiny nay-sayers in my head. I get lazy.
The bad weather, the poor returns over the last few weeks, the fact that this water is not as popular as another….all these things are my downfall. How about you?
The guys who raise eyebrows with their fishing success, will fish a puddle like it is a stretch of the Test near Stockbridge. They will focus on the finesse of what they are doing in driving rain, or tree buckling wind, on supposedly second-rate waters and when they have only ten minutes left.
They are veritable machines!
They are consistent.
Last year around this time, I started a little “side-page” here on Truttablog in which I share my local fishing conditions. Not catches and flies and techniques mind you. Just water temperatures , which streams are blown out, which rivers are low, and the like. And then also just the ones I happen to know about, or have crossed in the last few days, or which friends have told me about.
It is an irregular and perhaps slightly unpredictable thing, because my travels are erratic and unpredictable. The result is a little bohemian, and certainly not something you can rely upon alone to plan fishing trips. I also only occasionally share the posts on Facebook and Twitter (which I am increasingly disenchanted with, by the way), the result being that the reports are something an interested fisherman would have to go looking for.
That sits well with me.
In some ways it is like the camaraderie and buzz that we used to have to go looking for before the internet came along. We would go into the fly shop in Maritzburg and hang around for a morning, eavesdropping and hoping to pick up on some news of where was fishing well. Or we would visit the booking office in Underberg and prick up our ears for news of what was producing, or which stretch of river was clean. We attended the fishing club meetings with similar objectives, and we hung on every word. The combination of information, as well as the inferences we were able to draw from multiple comments, reports or rumours, was what we used to plan our next day out. Or perhaps it was what guided us on whether it was worthwhile to go out at all. We had to work at it. Nothing was handed to us on a plate.
So in the last fifty two weeks, there have (co-incidentally) been fifty two reports on the page. No, not one a week: remember, I said they were erratic; but there have been fewer than two thousand views. That sits well with me too. Like the fact that internet searches generate more than five times the Truttablog site traffic than all social media channels put together.
In a world where people are punting themselves, and competing for attention on frenetically busy media channels in which worthwhile content is only discovered by endlessly sifting through a lot of noise, I for one am starting to move away from that. I arrive at a question or interest, and I go looking for the information that I want or need. I use a browser that limits tracking and blocks all advertising, and I do a lot more searching and a lot less sifting (or “scroll and judge” as my daughter calls it). And I enjoy the process more, find a lot of older content, and find more well-researched stuff. Do I spend less time online? Probably not, but I definitely waste less time. I also find cool stuff, and go down Google rabbit holes (actually “Duck Duck Go” rabbit holes) that completely absorb me, and have friends asking “how the hell did you find that?”
So, after fifty two weeks of running the water conditions page experiment, I think I will just keep it ticking over, un-punted and low key with no ego invested in the stats. If you happen to read it, and it helps you plan a day on the water, then maybe I have shared some of what I remember enjoying at the fishing club meetings, the fly shop, or the booking office.
That sits well with me.
Back in 2017, I was taking a bunch of people on a walk along the river. There were a lot of ladies in the party, and at the outset, I had told them that there was only one fence crossing, but that every crossing thereafter would be through a gate, or over a neat galvansised stile, placed there for their comfort and convenience. I had visited the one crossing I had anticipated, and finding a very tight fence, I had scanned up and down the fence-line to find the best place to make the crossing. The best I could get was a spot where they would have to get down on their bellies and crawl. I could find nothing better.
In preparation for subjecting them to that indignity, I cut a short piece of plastic pipe, which I planned to use to shroud the barbed wire. It was the least I could do. After apologizing to them for their little leopard crawl, I swung my piece of plastic pipe confidently and we walked on. Later we encountered a fence I had forgotten about. Then another. One lady asked how much further it was to the pickup point.
I promised it was not far now and that there were no more fences to climb though. Absolutely zero. No Bull. I promised them.
Further upstream was a place where there was no stile, but a gate within sight of the river bank. Unfortunately there was a bull at the gate …..with his harem of cows. I thought for a moment. How difficult can it be to move a bull? Deciding that boldness was the way to go, I reasoned further that attack was a better approach that gentle moral suasion. He might have had his cows, but I had a bunch of ladies and a promise of no more fences. So I wielded my little plastic pipe, and charged straight at him, making some aggressive half Zulu, half cowboy whooping noises that seemed appropriate at the time. The bull stood his ground. In fact he had a mildly bemused look on his face, and when I pulled up right in front of him, and he hadn’t so much as taken a step back. Then, just to show who was in charge, he lowered his head, and came straight for me. I beat him repeatedly on his forehead with my piece of plastic pipe. It seemed to stop him. I think he must have wondered what this little tickle was between his eyes. I retreated….walking backwards to start with, and with shaking knees. When I was far enough back to make an unguarded retreat, I turned around, to see a bunch of sensible women climbing through and over the fence.
If you think I am talking bull….I have witnesses!
I put a stile at that point. Within sight of the gate. That seems a little odd, but I have my reasons.
It was just up from that point that Ilan and I once had to perform for the camera. The cameraman wanted footage of us fishing, and although he didn’t say as much, one can assume that he meant it to include the catching of Trout. The first run saw us getting into the swing of things and finding our feet. That is a euphemism for catching bushes on the back-cast, and nothing in the river. They took a lot of footage, and I at least was suffering from a little anxiousness relating to the catch rate, which at that point was a fat round number. It was starting to get hot, and sweat was trickling down my face. Imagine my relief when just up at Picnic pool, a very generous Trout obliged and did me the honours. After that it was straight off to breakfast in a shady cool restaurant.
Further above Picnic pool is a spot that I have marked on my map simply as “Tractor crossing”. When I told the new owner of the farm that there was a place there to get his tractor across to help us pull logs from the stream, he disagreed, saying there was no such crossing on his farm. I protested that I had fished it many times, and I assured him that there was most definitely a crossing where his tractor could get through. No bull!
We later got his John Deere through the river there, and put it to good effect clearing the run from boundary pool all the way down through Nanna Berry Pool and below.
Last week I was back at “Tractor Crossing” to perform a mini SASS test. This is a fun exercise where you net the river for bugs and then tip the contents into a white tray to identify the contents. The insect types are located on a identity guide, and entered onto a bio-monitoring score sheet gives an indication of river health. I looked around, and chose a spot to balance my white trays, and lay down my field guides, pencil, score sheets and the like. The farm track leading through the river presented the perfect spot, and since I wasn’t expecting traffic, I boldly occupied the roadway with my gear. After holding the net in the current and shuffling my feet in the gravel upstream of it, I moved to the shore, and tipped the contents into the white tray. Then I plonked myself down in the veld, got comfortable and entered my own little world, prodding bugs, looking in books, and taking photos.
Presently I became aware of a deep grumbling sound, and I looked up from my work. There, on the far side of the drift, was a bull. He was snorting, pawing the ground, and grumbling at me. Looking behind me, on my side of the river, I saw his cows. I glanced at all my kit strewn about in the veld, and I looked at the roughness of the crossing. Figuring that he would have difficultly charging me across the river, and that it would be an enormous effort to shift my study site, I decided to stand my ground. So I stood up, looked him in the eye, and in no uncertain terms, told him to bugger off, and go find his own crossing spot, because, in case he couldn’t see, this one was already occupied. Thank you very much!
On the week-end, PD and I joined friends on a Stillwater nearby. We attended to some DIY matters at our fishing shack there, re-connected with fellow fly-fishers, and after a few lunchtime cooldrinks we set about a bit of fishing. If you could call it that. I at least stayed standing up, tossing a fly somewhat mindlessly. PD gave in to that post lunchtime condition that affects the eyelids, and lay back in the grass. We talked. We chatted family, and friends, and this Trout water and that. PD recalled trips to this water as a varsity student, once with a sick friend, once when it was half frozen over. I landed a small rainbow, and lost another, probably without drawing breath. The Irishman, fishing further down the shoreline was yabbering a lot less.
In fact he was alone, fishing well as he always does, not yabbering at all, and he was catching fish on a DDD.
A little later we decided we had had our fill. It had been a fun day out, with much talk and a lot less serious fishing. As we trundled across the veld, I retold my story of the bull interrupting my mini SASS. And as I explained to PD, when I told that bull off, it actually listened, turned tail, and went and found another spot to cross the river! As PD climbed from the bakkie to open the last gate, he said “all that proves is that you talk bull”.
“Sometimes it requires considerable strength of mind to break the chain of business and go where we long to be, but such “a stitch in time save nine,” and even a few days on the streams in the spring time, while the air is fresh and bracing and all the world is young, will do much for a man’s health and strength.
The bit of sport and change of scene renew his youth, and he feels like a boy again.
The spirit of a boy lies dormant in many of us, and only needs to be released by just going fishing.
The above lines were penned by Theodore Gordon in February of 1913.
I was chatting to a friend the other day and we were reminiscing how, as varsity students, we would jump in a borrowed car with insufficient fuel in the tank, and head for the hills hoping to get to a trout stream with enough daylight hours left to get a fish. We may have taken some peanuts, and we probably forgot a rain jacket. What was important is that we got out there. We got stuck in the mud; we lost huge fish; we witnessed hatches and sunsets; and we took grainy photos that we still gaze at with the fondest of memories.
Nowadays, it could be said that we fiddle around for hours making sure we have what we need. We check the weather; fill the car; buy new boots; consider whether its worth going considering travel time vs time on the water; make elaborate lunches; and worry about a week old report that says the river was low or dirty.
And we fish less.
It occurs to me that all those preparations and considerations and fancy sandwiches are sometimes the problem. Sure, it is fun to contemplate the trip and make ones preparations, but as one’s mind atrophies, these things also become the excuses we use for not getting out at all. Life is busy, and the gaps available for fishing trips are rare and short. When there is a gap, we may find ourselves thinking it is too narrow an opportunity to fit in a trip to the stream. We mull over how long it will take, and we build into the time required, all those things that put our comfort ahead of the goal of making it happen.
I now carry some peanuts, a can of bully beef, and a flask of water in my bakkie along with my fishing kit, and a bag with a change of clothes in it. If a gap opens, all I need is my car keys and the right attitude. I am fishing a lot more. Sadly perhaps, much of this is alone. But regardless of whether it is alone, whether I forget the camera at home, get wet, or find the river as dirty as they said it would be, that spirit of the boy is not as dormant as it once was.
I know of many anglers who’s success comes in large part from searching out waters that are fishing very well. Make no mistake, they are often anglers considerably more proficient than I am, but they have a way of ratcheting that up exponentially by keeping their ears to the ground, and keeping their network buzzing. Theirs is a race. There are rules, and inner circles, and invitations garnered, not shared.
As a semi professional hillbilly, I seem to have missed the secret handshakes. I just go off to my usual spots. Spots that were on the list a few years ago, but are now largely relegated to the B list. I have had spectacular fishing there before. It will come again in the future, that is a certainty, but for now they are quiet.
And I have them to myself.
Quite. Really quiet.
On my last jaunt, I didn’t even notice any planes overhead. Maybe that was because Joburg is closed. What I did hear was the plaintive cry of orange-throated longclaws in the windy veld. I heard the fish eagle. I heard the loud gulp of an occasional large trout rolling on the surface the few times the wind dropped. For the rest of the time, I heard the wind. Incessant wind, whisking the veld and buffeting my hat and ringing in my ears. In the evening I heard the crackle of the fire and the lapping of the waves a few metres away outside. In the morning I heard the kiewiets complaining at the cows, and the odd trill of a panicked dabchick. If the wind wasn’t blowing, I would hear the roll of another heavy fish.
I caught a few fish, but they were few and far between. They were beautiful.
Just yesterday I was given the inside track on another water that is fishing spectacularly well. Big fish. Grip and grins. Faces I don’t recognize. Several of them. PD and I shared the pictures. I could make that phone call. I could get in on the action. I could be part of the inner circle. The noise. I asked PD what he though. “I fear its inundated already” he said adding “Like North pier in a shad run”.
They are big fish though. I could still make the call….
Or I could work on that semi professional hillbilly thing , catch smaller fish somewhere quiet, and not be a sheep.
Sunday dawned hotter than all the rest. Hot and still. I was up at five in the morning, and set out through the wet grass to look for rising trout, and it was warm then. The sun was shining at a low angle across the water and my eyes ached as I scanned the water and tried to track my dry fly. A fish swirled here and there. Once or twice within casting distance. I changed dry fly several times: Beetles, para RAB’s, a DDD, and a midge, damsel and Copper John on the dropper. I held my hand up to screen my eyes. Later I stood behind a small willow, merely for the relief its trunk gave me. I positioned myself directly behind the trunk, in its narrow shade, and then side cast my fly under the willow fronds, merely to escape the piercing rays. It was then that I realized I was grateful for the slender shade of the trunk, and at the same time that it was now hot. It was 6 am.
I walked back to the cottage. As I did, I noticed more swirls, and also the dimples of fleeing minnows, and the formula dawned on me. My fly box with minnows in it was back at the cottage.
Later, after a hearty breakfast, and time with our feet up, my wife and I decided to set up under a willow, with bottles of cold water and our books. I moved the deck chairs, put on sunscreen, took off my boots, and sighed at the prospects of a hot day. The three days prior had been cloudy and windy and stormy and misty: all changing and interesting, and cool. Weather as interesting as a broken landscape, and with patches of great promise between, when the trout would surely come on the rise. Periods of wind change, or calm after a cooling storm, or breezy with scudding clouds and patches of mist. Times that breathed promise and opportunity. But I had yet to hit it right. I had not connected. Sure, I had caught 2 or 3 fish: one off the front lawn in near darkness on a dry fly. One on a dragonfly nymph just after the storm, that sort of thing. But I had missed fish, had takes, been broken off twice due to poor knots, and not landed more than two in any one day. On the Saturday I put in a solid six hours and all I had to show for it was a missed follow. You know the thing where you pull the fly out of the mouth of a following fish, and watch it turn as it sees you. And you curse your stupidity for hours thereafter. And that had been it.
Now, as I put the chairs down and resigned myself to a day of waiting out the stifling still weather, I saw one or two last bulges. Last remnants surely, of the morning’s minnow gluttony. My wife was still busy inside, so I found the box with minnow imitations in it, and tied one on. She still wasn’t out of the cottage yet, so I quickly threw all my stuff into the canoe, and leaving my water bottle under the tree, and wearing an old pair of crocs, I pushed off. Just off the front lawn I dropped an anchor, and started casting a minnow imitation in the direction of one or two more swirls I had seen. The water was a pea soup of food. There were midges, and ants, and corixae and damselfly nymphs. Dragonflies darted over the water, swallows swooped, and the sun beat down mercilessly.
Nature would surely take a break any minute now and sit out the searing heat of day as I was about to do.
Then a fish grabbed the minnow strongly, and set off for open water. I raised the rod tip triumphantly, gathered the loose line, and got my mind in gear to fight a fierce fish, which was pulling line. That’s when my knot gave in.
When I had finished muttering and swearing and analysing the errors of my ways, and tying on a new minnow pattern, I looked up, and saw more fish were moving. I threw the minnow out again. I retrieved in a manner as alluring and enticing as I could conjure in the dead calm sticky conditions. I sucked the minnow back in, just under the surface, there under a burning white sun. More fish were rising now. Porpoising. I had a take on the minnow….just a tug, and then it was gone. I threw it again, but fish were porpoising everywhere now, so after a few casts I changed to a midge. That was when fish started cartwheeling into the sky. I quickly rigged the other rod with a caddis, and threw that out before retrieving the one with the midge on. The next five fish porpoised. I tied a sunk buzzer below the emerger I had on the five weight, and when three casts of the caddis drew no result, I put that back out. Now the fish were swirling. I looked at the water. There were copper beetles. I took the caddis off and threw it into the canoe, and tied on a beetle imitation. The fish were back to cartwheeling. I threw the beetle. A hundred fish swirled. Twenty porpoised. A dozen cartwheeled. I looked into the water beside the boat. Caenis; hoppers; beetles (Black and copper); one or two winged ants, midges. I put on a tiny ant imitation, throwing the buzzer and emerger in the boat. I cast. The tops of my feet were burning. I threw off the crocs and dug in my vest for sunscreen, which I rubbed on my feet. I cast the tube aside. Fish were getting airborne again. My leader was sinking. I pulled it in and coated it in silicone paste, threw the tub in the boat, put the caddis back on and cast. I readied the other rod with a larger ant. The caddis was being ignored by fish that were taking insects either side of my line. There were a lot more winged ants around now .
The fish were going nuts now. I pulled in the caddis, and started tying on ants. I needed more tippet. Fish were rising right beside the hull of the boat.I was battling to see the fine nylon, and my hands were shaking. “Andy! Look behind you”, my wife shouted from the shore. “To hell with behind me” I muttered. The fish had practically been splashing water into the canoe for the last hour. “I Know!” I said politely. “Yes, but that fish is just rolling around on the surface continually” she said. Said she had never seen anything like it. My hands shook. I finally got both ants on, tossed the tippet spools in the hull, and threw the team out. This leader was sinking. I had treated the other one. I pulled it in, and went scrambling through the junk in the boat searching for the silicone paste. Fish started porpoising again, and my ants went unnoticed. I rigged the other rod with a big black DDD, and a few minutes later I cast that, and then changed the small ant on the point to a little black emerger. Threw the ant in the boat. Pulled in the DDD . Tossed the ant team. Fish were in the air again. I stood on the sun cream. Sweat ran down my neck. My line wrapped around a discarded croc. I kicked it away and I retrieved and threw again. My feet burned. Fish rose. The sun baked.
And then it happened.
To the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” , sung by a choir of a hundred maidens, and with an orchestra in grandiose accompaniment playing in my mind, a small and gracious rainbow, porpoised over my large ant in slow motion. I raised the rod in celebration, the hook set, and the knot held. My wife videoed from the shore. I took a photo.
The fish swam off. And the rise was over.
I paddled back, and tipped all the junk out of the boat to sort out later, and crawled gasping to the willow tree, croaking “water!”. The lake returned to the lifeless state of the past three days, The sun beat down hard, and I sat under the tree, took off my sweaty hat and shook my head in disbelief.
I wonder if this is what Isaak Walton had in mind when he said to “be quiet and go a angling”…
“Sorry, I didn’t feed the butterflies………” she mumbled from the confused thickness of sleep. She followed it with “Where have you been?” as I crawled into the sleeping bag beside her.
“Fishing” I said.
“You liar!” she responded, just a little less sleepily. Minutes later her rhythmic breathing told me she had drifted off again. I soon would too.
The night had been cold, but mild at the same time. Cold in the way that cold air settles on a lake’s surface in the middle of the night. Mild, in that the breeze was soft and stopped altogether at times, leaving the hum of silence in my ears, and just the gentle sound of lapping waves as they ran out and dissipated across the inky water before me. From above was a halo of light delivered by a half moon, somewhere above the swirling mist and low cloud. Tiny drizzle drops hit the surface of my down jacket with imperceptible pinpricks of sound. They lacked the weight that would have dimpled the water surface.
I judged the progress of my figure eight retrieve by the thickness of the line in my left hand. As it got thicker, I was near the weight forward part of the line, and the lift would need to be executed soon. But not too soon. A failed lift of the line would see the fly hit the side of the canoe, and bring the leader in against the rod tip, risking another tangle. I wanted to avoid those. An earlier tangle had been a challenge to unravel with just the light of my cellphone down in the hull of the canoe.
I lifted, probably more briskly than I needed to, to make sure that the olive dragonfly nymph took flight. It did. The stiff rod carried it high and fast, and I flicked a single forward cast out into the satin blackness, with vigour to shoot line and to match the lift-off, but aimed high above the water, so that it would alight with more finesse. I figured these short casts would work fine. They left less retrieve time in which I could become confused as to where the fly was, and surely less line meant fewer tangles. Besides, without rod flash, and in the dark, I needn’t cast further.
The short cast was a success. A minor triumph. An accomplishment that delivered its own enjoyment and satisfaction. No fish catching was required here: just getting the fly out by feel and intuition alone was doing it for me in this world of blindness. Throwing by feel. Throwing into black. Throwing for fish, which books assured me could see my diminutive offering.
I was in shallow water. Water where I had seen many fish feed during daylight hours, but where the closeness to the shore always seemed to make my approach seem too obvious. Now, with the cloak of darkness, I had a mental picture of big Browns coming in close and fearlessly in search of protein. Dragonfly protein perhaps.
Most people who can’t sleep, get up in the night for tea, or to read a book. Our cottage is small, and those solutions would have woken my wife. But the cottage sits right beside a Trout lake, and I really had been wide-eyed. It seemed like a good idea.
I raised the anchor, and held it up against the grey sky to see that it was clear of weed. It was. I placed it in the canvas bucket behind my seat, taking care to lower the steel onto the cushion of soft wet rope in silence. I lifted the paddle silently, and dug it in beside me to swing the craft around. Lowering my head to pick out the shape of things against the skyline, I judged the position of the jetty, and of the willow tree, and of the cottage where my wife lay sleeping. I picked a spot and paddled over there unhurriedly. A spot just off the tufts of cattails, where I had seen big fish swirl late on summer days. A spot just beyond the last fencepost, which I must now be careful to avoid. If I could see it. I couldn’t tell if I had arrived at the spot I pictured, but I placed the paddle down at my feet with great care, and judged the glide of the craft before lowering the anchor again. It found firm ground less than 4 foot below me, and I tied off the rope at a gunwale drain, before reaching for the rod.
Not wanting the risk another mess of tippet and leader, I pulled line out until I was certain I had ample flyline out of the end eye. Then I delivered an exaggerated roll, to get the fly straightened out, and listened for the plop of it entering the water column. Only then did I lift, and cast. I felt the tug of the weight of the line, and I released the energy and imagined the fly alighting near the cattail tufts nearby. It was surely there, I thought. But then I doubted. My nose dripped. My hands were losing their feeling. The breeze stiffened a little, and I shivered.
Was that weed on the fly? To raise the fly against the sky would mean pulling the leader join into the end eye, and that would involve risk in getting the fly clear again. Instead I mock cast and listened to the sound of the fly as it passed me. It sounded right.
This time I cast away from the shore, abandoning my dream of Browns close in, and choosing water that was deeper. Deeper and weed free perhaps.
A little rainbow grabbed the fly suddenly. I felt its raw pull. Its struggle. It jumped nearby, and I saw its silver side in the diffuse moonlight. I heard it land. I grinned to myself, as I experienced the urgent tugging. The fish came in beside the canoe, and suddenly I was glad I had cut off the dropper earlier. I didn’t like the odds of a thrashing fish in the dark with a loose hook hanging somewhere near it. I ran my hand down the tippet. As I got closer to the struggling fish, my hand created enough of an angle, and it slipped off the hook before I could touch it’s cold body. “That was landed, right?” I said to myself. I decided to notch it up. I roll cast the fly out, waited for the plop; Lifted again and cast again. Then I reached for the phone and pressed the side button to see the time. 2:05 am. A 13 inch Rainbow landed at 2:05 am. That’s what I would write in my fishing log. “You liar!” I said to myself, in the dark.
I’ll just leave this here.
“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”
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.
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.
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.
I head out onto a local water here in search of some Browns, and meet with some success. Join me.
I spent a winter’s afternoon on a local stillwater, and share some of the tactics and the experience in this short video.
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 was fishing this stillwater over the Christmas break, and I looked down and saw this one dragonfly shuck. Then I started noticing more, and more. There were dozens. I wish I had been there to witness the hatch !