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 !
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.
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!
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”
In the morning, coffee is king….
On my recent visit to the UK, I met up with Pete Tyjas.
Pete also wrote a “blurb” for the back of my book back in 2015. Not having met in person before, I was looking forward to meeting him.
We met at the Fox and Hounds hotel in Devon where Pete holes up. He seems to be part of the crew there. He fetched me coffee from the kitchen and stood me to a welcome, hearty breakfast, and then we recorded this podcast.
It was a lot of fun.
Click below if you would like to listen: