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:
On the four eight line, like any others, you needed to ask the exchange for a connection. But within the party line there was a whole lot of connection. Like hearing Mrs Ras talk in Afrikaans to her mother, who lived on the other side of the railway line at the Dargle station, or Mr Smith. Once someone said to the bloke on the other end that he would tell him all the details when he next saw him, because Mr Smith was listening-in on the party line, to which Mr Smith retorted loud and clear over the phone that he was not listening!
On Saturday we were out on Justin’s dam. It was dead calm, and the morning sun had warmed the air to the point were we were good in shirt sleeves. That despite the ice remaining in the shade of the steps that cascade down through the veld to the crisp water’s edge.
We were battling for a connection. The odd fish rolled lazily every fifteen minutes or so, but you couldn’t call it a morning rise, and there was no hatch to match. We were asking the exchange for a connection. We moved about a bit. We tried different depths. Nothing.
Neither of us had had enough sleep the night before. We fished close to the bakkie, which stood, door open on the knoll behind us with our tackle spilled about it. We retreated to the base and ate a banana and made some coffee. Sleep was definitely an option.
After coffee I put on a #18 zebra midge under a black DDD and threw it out far into the mirror on my bigger rod. Then I sat in the veld and yawned.
As recently as the year 2000, you could call the exchange in Barkly East from the top of the pass, and the tannie would enquire as to the weather up there.
The old black handle crank phone with 4822 written in my Dad’s handwriting under the clear glass label holder , still sits on the farm. Dad is mastering Whatsapp now. On Father’s day I showed him how to send a photo , and then we had tea and he reminisced about how they only had one tractor on the farm. It was an “International” with steel wheels, that had bolts at intervals on the tread, kind of like the studs in my smooth felt-soled wading boots. For the rest they used wagons. I grew up playing on those old wagons, and the International, under the trees where they lay abandoned behind the sheds.
Dad’s phone buzzed.It was my brother sending him a whatsapp . He said my brother wouldn’t know why he wasn’t replying and that he had better tell him he would message later after we had left. But I told Dad that my brother knew that already since we were connected. Its kinda like a party line Mr Smith.
A Hen fish took the Zebra midge and the DDD disappeared. I struck.
Graeme was fishing on the shale and in due course he picked up a fish on an egg pattern. I joined him there and tried my own egg pattern. I got a lot more strikes than he did, but I wasn’t connecting much. I offset the hook, as suggested by Gary Glen-Young the other day, but my hook-ups didn’t improve much.
Graeme and I were standing shoulder to shoulder chatting and throwing long lines in the clear water. We were connecting. Just not to fish.
We debated the hook-up issue, and Greame suggested that the materials of the pattern were obscuring the gape a bit. I listened and thought about that, and added that it was an old fashioned barbed hook. Despite having flattened the barb, the point was heavy, and it lacked the long fine point of a modern barbless hook. Graeme was nodding. He must have been listening (I don’t think he would deny that). I pulled it in and had a look. It’s shank was an angular material , with clean rib lines running down the curve of the hook. It kinda reminded me of the moulded lines of that old matt-black telephone. I had better tie up some new ones with the material up on top, away from the gape, and on a fine-wire barbless hook. But what will I do with all these old ones that look perfectly good? Sometimes its hard to let go….to shake off the old and get the thumbs working, and even when you do, you keep the old stuff. Some things stick in your psyche.
Like two shorts and two longs. 4822.
“There are not many men who can fish all morning without seeing or feeling a fish and not suffer some deterioration in care or keenness that is likely to retard their reaction when at last the moment comes.” Arthur Ransome, Rod and Line, 1929
Who have you have lost a fish, because you weren’t expecting it? A fish chased you fly at the end of the cast as you lifted off, and you were not focused enough to halt your rhythm and leave the fly in the water.
A fish took your dry, but you had allowed such a bow in the line since last casting that you couldn’t connect.
You walked up on a pool, and realised too late that there was a lunker in the tail end, as you saw him scoot off.
You were holding the line tight against the cork grip in your left hand, and something hammered the fly so hard and so fast that you didn’t have time to let go, and your tippet parted.
Do these things sound familiar?
It seems that they were familiar back in 1929, but we all still do them.
Solutions? Well, I think you have to beat human nature. Accept that this is something you WILL fail at.
Here are some ideas that might make you fail less often:
- Change fly, tippet, or strike indicator, just for the sake of doing it. We all refocus and elevate our expectation when we put out a new offering
- Take a rest. Our sport is one of concentration, but I am guilty of hardly ever just sitting on a rock to rest. Try it
- Begin with the end in mind. You end goal is to catch a fish. Don’t forget that. When you start enjoying the curve of the line and the pull of the rod tip in the cast, you have probably gone all esoterically mushy on yourself. Cut it out!
- Imagine a fish following your fly, as often and as long as you can. That’ll fix it!
- Mix things up by casting into “crazy places”….like 2 inches from the shore, in behind the cattails, in a side pocket smaller than a side plate. If you are fishing a Brown trout water, you may be in for some surprises. Even if not, your next cast, into more obvious water, will carry more hope. Hope = concentration.
- Slow down. Stop. Think. Re-work a minor strategy for each spot you arrive at, rather than moving faster and faster, and ever more mindlessly.
Shrill summer frogs.
Shining jetty planks.
The mesmerizing arc of a fly line
replaced by flickering flames,
and a quieted mind.
“So what I am suggesting here is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”. Jerry Kustich
I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts.
Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example: He drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.
I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back and did little better than get caught in a storm. In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.
On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley. On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.
And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.
On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle. It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low. On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.
On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.
On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award. Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming. The river was low, and it was hot. I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.
At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.
Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining! Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl. Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing. He reckons its perfect every time.
But here’s the thing: I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for a receipt. He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.
And to add to that, this month, I learned the local name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.
And at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside. Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).
Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)
Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures. Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.
I vote for messy.
“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed” ……..
”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him”
The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.
Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.
Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.
In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.
In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass. It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record. I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.
My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers. My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”. I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black. We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.
What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.
Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music. Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:
And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:
A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago. I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!
It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….
Saturday was number one of five.
That’s the number of berg winds you have to have before you get decent spring rains. The rains won’t come until you have had five of them. So says my Dad. In August 2015 we didn’t have five berg winds. Remember that drought?
To qualify, a berg wind must occur after the 1st August. It must come from the North or North East or North west, but either way, it must be strong enough to bend a gum tree, such that it shows the silver underside of its leaves. And it must be hot, (It was 28 degrees on Saturday), and last the better part of a day or day and night.
Fly fishing in berg winds is impossible. Several epic attempts spring to mind.
Some older ones:
11 August 2001: My son and I ventured out to Lake Zonk. He paddled his fibreglass canoe around. I paddled a float tube. It was dusty and warm, and the whitecaps were on the water. He got blown downwind, and couldn’t manage the paddle back to the car. I had to do a mid water maneuver whereby I transferred from my float tube to his canoe, and then attached the tube to tow it back. I remember being irritable. We didn’t catch any fish.
21 August 2001: PD and I on Crystal Waters. It was hazy and smoky. We holed up at a restaurant in Underberg for a while and had a few cups of coffee first. When we had convinced ourselves that the gum trees were bending a little less, we headed out. When we were rigging up, our float tubes blew away across the veld. After that we stood with one foot on the tube while rigging up. We paddled across the dam to a so-called sheltered spot. PD swears that I disappeared from sight in the waves from time to time. We were paddling twenty foot away from one another. PD landed one suicidal fish. The Coles refused to take our money for a day ticket. They said anyone crazy enough to fish in that wind, didn’t have to pay.
And then some more recent ones:
15 August 2015: Dave Prentice and I on Uitzicht on the Kamberg. My journal says “horrible berg wind. We hunkered down behind the wall and threw flies out into the chop. Nil!”
9 August last year: a private dam. Roy sat on a lawn chair up the bank behind me. The wind howled from the North. I hooked one fish, but it came off. In my journal I wrote “ I had so hoped I could hook a fish and run back to Roy in his chair and let him feel that tug one last time”. Alas. It never happened.
So here’s to the next four horrible, bad-mood-inducing, filthy berg winds. May they come quickly.
Someone keep count please.
In the early eighties, or thereabouts, the government of South Africa was handing out subsidies to farmers to build farm dams. It was all about building infrastructure, and I guess on some level about food security in an isolated, alienated apartheid nation.
Farmers in our neck of the woods (KZN midlands) built dams. Pretty ones. Some had London planes planted next to them, or liquid ambers. There were concrete benches, and braai places built. Trout were stocked. Some irrigation happened, but I don’t think there was as much of that as the then government expected or hoped.
Those Trout grew fat.
In my youth our fly-fishing very quickly became all about big fat dam fish…bigger fatter ones than any river fisherman could have dreamed of. Trout fishermen strapped on big “Walker’s Killers”, and went and dragged them around dams in boats, or flung them in from the edge, and the results were spectacular, even if in hindsight we acknowledge that the path to those results was somewhat less refined and challenging than what river fishermen had been used to.
In his 1974 booklet “Introducing Trout Fishing in South Africa” John Beams writes “ For me there are really only two reasons for for fishing still water. Firstly , there is always the chance of a big fish, and secondly, if the rivers are muddy……”, but that book has pictures of big fish that outnumber those of small fish and streams put together. Also in Bob Crass’ 1986 book “Trout in South Africa” he confirms John Beams own comment elsewhere in his book, that he “transferred his business activities from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg largely, so he led us to believe , because he enjoyed catching the big trout to be found in Natal dams.”
In contrast, books like “a Trout fisher in South Africa” by Kingfisher (1922) and “Trout Fishing in South Africa “ (1916) contain no references to dams or stillwater at all, but boast exceptional fish of two to four pounds in weight, with a skinny five pounder being worthy of a lord.
When I came into flyfishing in the early 1980’s, there was a fair amount of chatter about stream fishing, both in Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles (that were to become his first book), and in the fly-fishing books that one could buy at the newly launched “Flyfisherman” (Africa’s first fly fishing only tackle shop…est 1981) . But to be honest, outside of that, I really didn’t encounter all that many people who actually fished streams, or certainly not fishermen who preferred streams, or spent more time on them than they did on dams.
If I look at my collection of flyfishing books, which is nearing some 300 titles in total, even now, I am only able to identify 3 titles that cover stillwater flyfishing specifically.
One of those is the American book “Stillwater Trout” edited by John Merwin (1980). In this book Merwin’s very first line is “Ponds and Lakes are the poor sisters of American Trout fishing”, and he goes on to describe how “our quiet waters have remained quiet” and how American anglers, spoiled for choice in rivers, battled to get to grips with fishing still water, when they had been brought up on streams.
This ironic, discrepant state of affairs persists to this day. Stillwaters hold favour here, but the fly-fishing literature, and quite honestly even the South African literature is weighted towards streams. Even Youtube videos and Facebook bear the slant of the printed stuff.
But here is the thing: Those dams that our Dads and Granddads built on the farms, are starting to be used extensively for irrigation. Some have levels that fluctuate so much nowadays, that they are no longer stocked with Trout. It simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, dams are sadly becoming overrun with bass. Two or three dams seem to fall to this fate almost every year in this neck of the woods. At the same time, the environmentalists have quite righty identified the lack of wisdom in building dams, so very few new ones are coming on board. Added to that, the government environmental authorities are hell-bent on putting legislation in place that will enable them to shut down hatcheries at will, which means dams (where Trout don’t breed) may not have a source of stocked fish in future years.
Then consider that considerably more than half of the new members joining our fly fishing club here in the midlands either claim to be stream fishermen, or express a desire to get into stream fishing. I recently put forward to my colleagues in the local club, that we had been offered access to another stretch of stream, but that I questioned whether we should pursue it, because the stretches immediately upstream and downstream of it, are very seldom fished. The guys around the table were unanimous: “sign it up” they said. They said that we need to look to the future, and secure access and custodianship to good river water, regardless of the here-and-now usage statistics.
Add to the picture above (am I joining the dots adequately for you?), that there is only a finite number of kilometres of Trout river out there. In fact, if we think about it, it is finite and shrinking with the effects of population on the planet and the landscape. There are rivers mentioned in Bob Crass’ 1971 book “Trout fishing in Natal”, that are quite simply, no longer trout streams. Writing in a chapter he titled “First aid for rivers” in the book “My Way With a Trout” (1985), Tom Sutcliffe says that “the time is over for excessive irrigations, over-grazing, ploughing too close to the banks, allowing wattle to choke the life out of the river, and cattle to crumble its banks.” He goes on to say: “most of the fishing areas in this country [he is writing about rivers] need , or are soon going to need, this sort of special care and attention”
So, in joining the dots a bit further, we have more people resuming their interest in streams, and now we have fewer streams, or fewer kilometers of stream viable for Trout. And to coin Malcolm Gladwell’s term, I foresee a tipping point at some future date, where suddenly a lot of flyfishers will be rocking up on the same streams on Saturdays and finding less elbow room than they once enjoyed. Suggesting they strap on a big Walkers’ Killer and go tow it around a bass dam probably won’t sway them.
At least we may have more river fishermen to digest all the appropriate literature out there.
Maybe some who know me and are a little puzzled with the river conservation bug that has bitten me, will offer a small nod of understanding? Or perhaps they will merely continue to humour my obsession with killing bass and wattle trees.