In recent weeks and months, my work, as well as my leisure, have taken me to a particular artery. By an artery, of course I mean a river. It also happens to be a Trout river: no surprises there.
Of course, at its upper end it is too small to be called an artery, even too small in fact, to be called a stream. Some of my exploration has taken me so high up that all I have encountered is a wet patch in the grass near KwaNovuka.
At the other end of this, I was on the phone yesterday to a man whose factory overlooks the uMngeni in Durban. And this is the artery I write of: The one that runs from Impendle vlei (at KwaNovuka), down the Poort stream, to join the uMngeni, and off down the Dargle valley and beyond, ultimately to the sea.
I am struck by the interconnectedness of this passage of water, not only in the geographical and ecological sense, but in the social sense too.
I start with Mr Z.S. Zuma, which is the formal manner in which this gentleman introduced himself last week. Zuma is dramatic, and theatrical in the delivery of his compelling rhetoric. His stutter emerges as he is about to raise his voice; about to spread his arms wider; and about to deliver his coup de grace. The words build up inside him, and a quiver appears on his lips, and you know that something portentous is about to be delivered. A clincher is on the way. Then the dam bursts, he is through his speech impediment, and his message tumbles out voluminously and with the weight of deep conviction. He ends it with a half sentence, spoken with one eyebrow lifted, and no sign of a smirk on his face, but the whole room about him erupts in appreciative laughter. And then he sits down. All of this has been in isiZulu. I turn to Hlengiwe who sits beside me and whisper “What did he say?”. She smiles, and lifts both hands to aid in her explanation, and then she gives up with a chuckle and a shaking of her head. Later, another colleague translates with cruel brevity and explains “He was trying to change the constitution”, and that is all I get. What I do know is that Zuma was discussing the ecology of the Impendle Vlei, the cultural practices of his generation and the one that went before it, and the interplay between agricultural practices and the well-being of his people.
Earlier in the week, I sat in Kath’s kitchen over a welcome cup of tea. I had just come down off the mountain, where I had been exploring the removal of a water sapping plantation.
I was unfit, and had neglected to take something to eat, so when I returned to my bakkie, I unceremoniously devoured a whole tin of bully beef, scraped from the tin with my pen knife. Now I was letting that succour absorb, and adding sweet tea to displace the shaky, light headed feeling that had had me wondering if anyone would ever find my corpse on that remote hillside if I had taken a turn for the worse. Kath’s hospitality, and the warmth of her interest in the river and the landscape around her were palpable. In an exchange that bore many similarities to that with Mr Zuma and his clan, I filled her in on the connectivity of her stream with the highlands at Kwa Novuka. She in turn filled me in on some of the history of the people in the valley, and together we wove a more complete picture than either of us had before we met. Then Stu entered, barefoot as usual, and the conversation turned to trout, as it does. He had found some precious fish just below the confluence at the end of last season.
We discussed their size. Stu expressed his appreciation for their rarity and significance that far up the stream, and I departed with a pleasing sense that things were as intact as one could hope them to be. A glimmer of positive light, shining through in the aftermath of the WWF report which stated that us humans have collapsed 84% of all fresh water species populations worldwide since 1970.
The artery that is the Poort stream, and the uMngeni river to which it adds itself, is in the sliver of habitat that still harbours the 16% that we have not yet destroyed. As this mixture of water progresses down towards the sea, it somewhere slides into the realm of the 84%. It doubtless doesn’t cross a line on a map from one reality to the next. Things are never that simple. It oozes through untold influences from one beautiful reality into the insidious, devastation of the next. My choice, cowardly as it might be, is to stick to the 16% portion, and fight to prevent it becoming a 15%. I shut out the world of leaking sewers and piles of plastic, and instead clear log jams that I hope will see an upward migrating fish get to share its genes with one of the ones Stu spotted. If Mr Zuma’s cattle get some winter feed, they may not trample any silt into the wetland at KwaNovuka. If we can arrange a mosaic of veld burning, then perhaps next year, unlike this year, we won’t see all the river banks burned at the same time over nearly 15 kms of the river’s passage. Then some of the biota that falls into the river in spring, will feed micro organisms, whose predators will fly upstream and lay their eggs above and below the cleared logjam.
I for one, don’t understand what ecological connectivity lies in that thin blue line of the Poort and its issue. What organism migrates up, and which one is swept down to feed it before it starts it’s migration. What I am starting to appreciate is the social connectedness from those like the Factory-man from down by the sea, up to Mr Zuma who overlooks the source. Between those two are Stu and Kath, and The Appleman and AJ and I. I buy trees from AJ, and maybe the Factory-man will go fishing with Stu, or buy a tree for Roy’s Pool. Perhaps I will introduce Kath to Mr Zuma, and there will be a value exchange there.
This week AJ and I clambered about in a small forest patch overlooking the river.
There under the hanging misty remnants of the cold front that blew in while I sat in Kath’s kitchen, AJ found a latifolius. (A Real Yellowwood to us English speaking mortals). He thought it might have been a henkelii, but in glancing around he saw no parent tree. So this one was seeded by a bird. Perhaps a bird that flew down from the small bush on Umgeni Poort, where Flemming, who was hit by a falling yellowwood in the mid 1800’s, lies buried. So perhaps, five to ten years after we plant the forest pioneer shrubs down at Roy’s pool this month, another bird will drop a latifolious seed there. And then a hundred years later, a giant yellowwood will shade a Trout in Roy’s pool, replacing the 15 incher that The Appleman killed last year.
(If the required bird species is still okay.) In fairness The Appleman tried not to kill the 15 incher; he didn’t punch it on the nose, as he has been known to do. And he doesn’t kill birds. (Neither do I: not knowingly anyway.) The Appleman also cut down his fair share of wattle trees, that will help ensure that the river is flowing strongly past that giant tree a hundred years from now.
The Appleman and I were on the phone last night, discussing the scarcity of fish in a stream that flows in the next valley…the one that flows behind Mr Zuma’s house, and I postulated that the degradation of that river both upstream and downstream of where we sample it, can’t have helped the situation. Fish and organisms are hemmed in: unable to seek ideal refuge upstream or downstream. That stream is just a little more in the 84% realm than in the 16%. So perhaps a Trout fisherman, hoping to preserve his beloved stream, needs to be looking down there below, in the warmth of the thornveld; and up there on the plateau, where wet grass grows.
A week earlier I threw a fly for a few hours further down the stream, at “three quarter mile pool”. The day had started off misty and drab; weather that had me sniffing the breeze and sagely declaring that it was Brown Trout time!
In fact, it was not. By the time I arrived at the river, it was blustery, and the light was brassy, filtering through a haze of warmth, garnished with the scent of spring blossoms and winter smoke in equal parts. The water was clear enough that I was grateful for the gusts of wind that served to obscure my profile from my quarry. But my deep sunk nymph repeatedly returned to me without news from the deep. My knowledge of the state of the river reassured me, that it was nothing sinister. Mr Zuma’s water was good. Kath’s water was fine. I hope their mingled product would pass that factory in Durban with just a little of that goodness intact. The goodness that harboured Stu’s special trout in the delicate headwaters in the hills above me.
To help you join some dots in the story above, I include links here:
Read about the passage of the Poort Stream HERE
Read about Roy’s Pool, and the initiative to re-forest its northern bank HERE
Read about the WWF report HERE
Read about “Three Quarter mile pool” 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.
“As I weakened I set myself landmarks to be reached in order to earn regular rests of a few minutes in that hellish, barren land. My one great desire was to go to sleep in a pool of cool water under a tree, a pool and a tree such as the ones nestling in the lovely rolling hills of my native Dargle Valley in faraway Natal, a valley green in summer when storms and gentle rains water the land; tawny under blue skies in winter when little or no rain falls. There on the farm at the foot of the ‘Nhlosane’ mountain – Zulu for ‘budding breast’- I used to run and ride and fish for trout in the pristine streams.”
Jeff Morphew, describing his escape from his “Tommy” , shot down by German F109’s on 4 June 1942, Libya.
Before Jeff Morphew died in 1993, he was the only man living to have escaped from an Italian POW camp in World War II while Italy was still at war. He had grown up on the farm Furth, in the Dargle, where he was born in 1918.
The only prior record (before this year) that I have been able to locate of trout being caught in the Furth stream (a tributary of the uMngeni) , was a verbal account from Jeff Morphew’s nephew, about Jeff catching trout on forays to this small stream from his retirement home at “The Fextal”, which overlooks the stream.
Yours truly, with a small brown from the Furth Stream, 21st March 2020. (Photo Sean Rogers)
It was the 18th April 1999. Guy and I were fishing the uMngeni on Brigadoon, on what my fishing log describes as “Blacks Water”. That was the section of river above the confluence of the Furth Stream, and at some time not long past, it had been the farm of John Black, and if memory serves, Derek Fly had bought it or taken it over, and its length was now added to the beat known to us as Brigadoon.
At that time all the riverside lands from the Furth confluence up to Picnic Pool were planted to maize, and the river banks were wild and rank. I have a picture of Guy, whose hairstyle at the time was also ‘wild and rank’, chest high in the undergrowth, throwing a fly into Picnic pool. He is clearly fishing downstream, and I know it would have been with a sinking line, and probably with a #14 Connemara Black or an Invicta on the end.
As we progressed above picnic pool I clearly remember entering a section of river that was a tumble of black rock, with a firm bedrock of the same colour. Tall grass overhung the river on all sides where it split into braided channels. There in that tumble of rock and tall grass that shaded the water as we waded up, I remember pricking and seeing small browns. I seem to remember that I took the left-hand side of the stream, and Guy took the right, and when we rejoined just a dozen yards higher up at the tail of the pool above, we had both seen and pricked numerous fish, and landed none. And that was after a day in which we hadn’t seen fish since we first started out into the valley below. I remember peering up the river into a wattle-shaded tunnel of darkness, and asking Guy where he thought the top boundary of Brigadoon was, and that he replied that we were pretty much there and that all above was overgrown. We retreated back to the bottom boundary where I landed two browns over two pounds that evening. That last run, however, stuck in my mind, and every time I have visited that stretch , I have fished it, with an air of expectancy built on that experience all those years ago.
I had started fishing Brigadoon in April of 1985, but always the lower section. Then in much more recent years I have become very familiar with the water at the top of Brigadoon, and above that on Furth Farm. I discovered that Guy was not wrong about the river being overgrown, but that in fact we were still a way from the top boundary of Brigadoon. I have since witnessed the wonderful transformation of that river, when the wattles were all removed, and the river came back to life.
It was probably in the knowledge of that, and how dear the river is to me, that Tom Sutcliffe sent me this picture from his archives a few months back:
The picture was taken by the late Neil Hodges, some time in the mid eighties.
There was an instant glimmer of recognition, when I saw that braided water in the foreground, but the hills didn’t look right and I started to doubt myself. During lockdown, I kept revisiting that picture, and working my way up the river in my mind, ruling out one spot after another. I was muttering to myself, things like “No…not there…the steep side is on the opposite bank”, and “no, no rapid in that spot”. I couldn’t work out where the shot was taken, and it started to haunt me.
When the end of lockdown finally set us free, I wasted little time in getting up to the uMngeni, even thought the season was closed. I had the picture open on my phone, and I drove up the valley, stopping here and there to look at the horizon, and the orientation of the river, and occasionally to walk down to the water’s edge, where I shook my head in puzzlement. I just couldn’t work it out. I sat in the driver’s seat for a while studying the horizon in front of me, and that in the picture. It all sloped the wrong way!
And then it dawned on me, and I put the bakkie into reverse and beetled back down the road to a spot where I could park. I strode down to the river muttering “Neil, you sneaky bugger” repeatedly, and with increasing conviction as I glanced up at the emerging profile of the horizon as I got closer to the spot. At the river I took my boots off, and waded through the icy clear water, before hiking up the steep hill on the other side. I maneuvered myself to a precise spot in the middle of a bramble patch, and checked the phone one last time. It looked perfect, but if I could just locate the fence-post in the foreground of the old picture…. I searched in the now overgrown area in front of me to no avail. Then I pointed to where I thought the post should be and ran my pointing finger up the slope, tracking the direction of the fence in the old picture. As I swung around , there behind me was a string of old rusted posts tracking exactly the same line, and it was then that I knew I was in precisely the right spot.
I phoned Tom, and accused him of being complicit in Neil’s sneaky attempt to conceal the spot: The photo had been flipped!
Making my way west, away from the brutal hissing, rattling black highway, puts me in the folds of soft hills. Soft hills decked in the ochres, fawn, brown, yellow, maple orange and bare sticks of winter’s onset. The only hard lines are the escarpment, where the berg presses against the sky in a stark outline. It is an outline of a boundary against which we retreat. It reminds me of my prized dorm bed at boarding school, that fit in a corner against the walls of the basement boiler, and was warm in winter. So too, the berg is a boundary of comfort. Heading west puts me in place where my back is covered. The higher I go, the less of the downstream lowlands I see and the further I am from that highway. I can choose how high to go, and my decision depends on my need for escape from the lowlands….depends on how much of that brutal highway I have been absorbing of late.
The westward route extends past the railway lines and coffee shops and tourists who point out of their windows before taking sudden, lurching turns. Driving it now, I am rolling the vista back and forward in my mind. Back to summer, when it was rank and warm, and roadside grasses had aspirations of being giant elephant reeds. Forward to June, when the stems of bolted grass are stark sticks, losing husks and gathering dust. In between was the golden season. The season of crocosmias paniculata, lit like burgundy on fire. The season of falling stars: delicate blooms of Oros fake orange (6% real, the rest delivered along that highway from a factory somewhere). The golden season that went too quickly and took with it its red wine pin oaks and its amber London Planes; stole the spathes, spikelets and awns of the wild oat grass, and made off with its cool mornings and breezy warm days. We are left now with crows and sticks and dust; mornings too still to blow away the frost; days too hazy to feel the earth’s lines.
The contrast of our sport cuts like an old blunt knife. Like that cake knife back home, the one with the split wooden handle, bound with string. One that must be pressed and worked, and tilted to cleave the days and leave autumn aside, and winter to be coped with. Autumn with the rivers still open, and their small shy browns spooking at my clumsy casts. On that last day, my wading boots slid into the clean water. Water so clean I had to put my hand into it to be sure it was there. When it seeped through the neoprene onto my skin, my breath knew it was there, and it escaped from my chest in alarm. The fish were rather offish. The ones I found were the ones I spooked, or were rising, but there were few of both. The rising ones only needed one cast to dissuade them, and I couldn’t make them gentle enough. Not even with whisper fine 7X tippet on the two weight, and CDC dries. They just didn’t want them. And I suppose I just didn’t need them either. What I needed was the cold water, and warm sun weak enough not to roast me. I needed the Prussian blue and blackened purples of the shaded side of Baboon hill as my backdrop; and I needed the willows still with leaf but a sorry lemon lime hue leaf, not a lush green one. I needed silk surfaced fields, pale and dotted with bales, each one throwing a shadow as black as charcoal. I needed those trout too, but I only needed them to show themselves to me. I didn’t need to posses them. I only needed to possess autumn.
But the knife has pressed and cleaved the seasons now, and autumn can’t be possessed any longer. I drive further on rippled, bone shaking corrugations, and I throw dust clouds in the wake of the bakkie. At the bridge I pretend not to look at the river that jilts me. It runs clear, and strong enough to make me think of spring, although I deny the thought. My thoughts must run with the season.
I alight from the vehicle into wiry, tawny grass, and am greeted by warm sun and a raw breeze. The air is coming at me from the north across the cerulean ripples of the lake. I need a jacket. Later, I push the toe of my boot through iced muck, sticking to the cattails and reeds in the boggy margins. Just beyond, a band of still water laps in inky rolling waves that curl into the cattails and are tamed. At the outer edge of that bank, the mesmerizing ripples start, glinting fierce sunlight across at me and in, under the brim of my hat to hurt my eyes. Although I have to squint to look at it, its that transition that I am after, and I throw a team of flies across there. It is close enough that I am cautious not to move, and that a false cast is not needed. The black DDD alights, and the rice-bead corixa imitation plops just behind it. I hold the rod high, and still, poised expectedly. “The hang” they call it. It feels more like a long wait to me. Nothing happens. I try it a few more times, but winter fish are stubborn, and averse to our formulas. You will have more luck calling the cat.
Before long I am moving from spot to spot. My focus has changed to seeking warmth from the sun between wind gusts, casting in a direction in which I save my eyes the glimmer, and achieving crisp loops and pleasing distances. I have long since changed to a single fly, and I retrieve faster than I want to.
It seems slow, and there is a lot of time for considering the world, and the lake, and the season past. I am small and I am perched on a high vista in the wind, and the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes run repeatedly through my mind. I have to remind myself that this is what winter fly fishing is about. I consider a day back in the eighties, where I fished Triangle dam like this all day, and in which I was rewarded with one Rainbow. Only one Rainbow; but it was big and angry and I still have the photo. “Stick it out” I tell myself, but I needn’t, because I always do stick it out. It is merely an exercise in getting one’s mind alignment right. Standing there alone, with more thoughts than time, and all the time in the world to pick which ones to use, you never know if you have that alignment right. Never will.
Many hours later I am jolted by a silvery rainbow. It’s lively, but it is a small one. Later, another takes the fly as I lift it, but for the rest the fish are off the prod, and this day will remain one of wind and sun. “Meaningless. Meaningless”.
As I step out of the cab to close the last gate behind me in the gloom of evening, my senses are hit by the silage-like scent of dead, dewy winter grass, and my entire childhood washes over me in the time it takes to close the gate.
It is winter now.
I know. It is a contradiction. But consider the richness of contrast.
Just look at the contrast: of shade, texture, light and dark. Think of the feelings and depth of thought that it invokes.
And then, having done that, employ the technique of introducing colour, and relish the richness of it. No one does that quite like Middleton:
“With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other. On the far west ridge, damask reds and vermillion giving way to softer Chinese reds and the blunt reds of aged wine, and these in turn, mixed with leaves of moody sallow and the dull yellow of sulphur and raw cream, and among these were newly fallen leaves still bright as jonquils”
and he goes on with
“ ……pumpkin orange….daring blotches of apricot…wrinkled browns….and the colour of tarnished copper and well-worn leather “ Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time”
Now look again:
It’s been fun exploring some quotes from books recently read and re-read. And exploring “Pewter and Charcoal”, but I will end this little series here, for a while…..
I hope you have enjoyed it.
I don’t always fish alone, and I often enjoy company. But some days are hermit days, full of thought and reflection, in which one becomes just a little misanthropic.
“Since fly fishing is a solitary sport, its hard not to think of other fishermen- collectively, if not individually – as the enemy” John Gierach: A Fly Rod Of Your Own.
“In trout fishing, and especially in mountain trout fishing, one angler and trout borders on the idyllic,or some version thereof. Two anglers and trout is a crowd, claustrophobic and unbearable.” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time”
Truttablog | Waters & words
Having recently written about Harry Plunket Green and his bright waters (HERE), I was delighted to stumble on a fellow blogger who has similar things in mind.
David Johnson, of Peaks Fly fishing Podcast, has taken it upon himself to do the “audio book thing” by reading chapters of “Where the Bright Waters Meet” in successive issues of his podcast.
For the many who know of the book, but don’t own it, here is a wonderful way to experience the writing of Harry Plunket Green.:
Or on a podcast player here: https://peaksflyfishing.libsyn.com/
Thank you David!
On the eve of our planned trip, I happened to be up on the river. Call it a bit of a “forward patrol”. It was late afternoon, and I was peering into what looked like slightly brown water, squinting against the harsh afternoon rays of the sun, that were beaming in from the west to burn my corneas. “I think it could be clear by tomorrow” I reported to The Viking, factoring in the that there were 14 hours between us and our planned trip, as well as the fact that we would be about 3kms upstream.
I was not wrong.
Our Saturday dawned bright and clear, and when we arrived at the river in the dew, it too was “bright and clear” in the way that good Trout streams are in the early morning light.
The Viking was into a fish in the first run, as was I at the pool just above him.
From there the day unfolded in a delightful haze of small Browns grabbing at the fly; rounding corners and exclaiming “Aah, gee look at that!”, and brief moments looking skyward at circling birds of prey. Sure there were brambles, and the ‘khaki bos’ and blackjacks were at the point of seeding in a spectacularly bad display of what happens when we muck with pristine valleys. But all in all, and with the nostalgic review that accompanies the memories of a good day astream, it was a brilliant outing.
The Viking fished several stretches that I had explained I was going to fish. When he caught up with me, I translated my flailing hand signals, which were meant to convey that I had already fished it, and invariably he replied “I know, but it just looked so good” .
It did look good.
All of it.
The water was not as clear as the upper Bok in winter, but you could see every pebble on the streambed, and the Trout were not scarce. They were not big either. Somehow we got much bigger fish here last year, but it really didn’t matter. At one spot I climbed into the river, and seeing a dead tree behind me, I flicked the fly out in a half hearted roll cast, so that you would have been able to reach the strike indicator with a garden rake. That dark orange indicator (my solution to silvery afternoon light) positively leapt forward and I lifted into a fish that wouldn’t quite have made twelve inches, but it was my best of the day.
The Viking’s best had come earlier. I saw him hoist the fish aloft after a whistle to alert me to his success, and I rather suspect he had wanted me to go down there and photograph it. But I had moved into a good position in such a sweet run, that I pretended not to know that, and fished on with my dry fly.
Back at the car, the Viking produced the special “Black Mist” craft beer that he had been boasting about. It was cold, and it was wet, which are two good attributes of any beer opened at the end of a long sunny day on a Trout river. But I said I could taste undertones of Bovril, and peaty water from a bog in Scotland. While The Viking was deciding whether to be offended or not, I asked if I could have the second one. As we drove home our light mood battled our tiredness, and the elevating effects of the black mist, which we agreed was an entirely different thing to The Red Mist. But we agreed that if you drank enough of one, it could lead to the other.
We also agreed that it had been a day to celebrate, and in the morning I reviewed the pictures which helped support that judgment, with satisfaction.
It was late afternoon, and even the dark red colour indicator was proving difficult to see against the silver surface. I stopped and took this picture, then headed back to the bakkie where I lay back in the grass and watched the clouds, waiting for the coffee to brew.
It was Monday 13th April 2015. PD and I were on the lower water at Kelvin Grove, having a spectacularly unsuccessful day. It was just one of those days where it didn’t come together. It was also the first day of our trip, and I suppose we hadn’t found our mojo. Later in the day a pressing wind started to blow, and a million little polar leaves would shower down into the water, meaning we would hook leaves on every cast.
We had set off with unbridled enthusiasm, and walked so far down stream, that I guess you could say that we had bitten off more than we could chew.
After a while we chucked it in, and walked a long way back to Orlando’s. There was a moment as we ascended the hill up to the cottage where our unfitness manifested itself on account of laughter trying to break through our breathlessness. My cousin related a very personal moment in which he and his siblings struggled to break open the box containing the ashes of his late father, aside a high mountain where they were to be scattered. It was not cheap laughter. It was borne on the wings of celebration of the life of a man who introduced us both to this lifelong affliction of fly fishing The laughter was also sanctified in the fact that we lost a Dad and an Uncle respectively, and had worked through that for a number of years, and now there poured forth mirth that he would have participated in joyfully had he circled back to be with us. And besides, if some small dose of punishment was justified: have you ever endured bellyaching laughter while out of breath. Its life threatening I tell you!
Upon our return we found the cottage empty, and we were instantly jealous of Anton and Roy, for they must surely have been enjoying success. In fact we spotted them in the valley below us, and we could have trotted back down that same hill to enquire and put our curiosity out of its misery. We sat on chairs on the lawn overlooking the river and drank cold beer instead. We sure as hell weren’t going to climb that hill again! Besides; we still had a lot to laugh about, and that is a safer prospect sitting in a chair.
That evening Roy grinned at his new label, given him by Anton: “The Kraai Buffalo”. It turns out that Anton had had to tap him on the shoulder, when they met on the river bank, and tell the deaf guy to stop making so much bloody noise when entering the river.
My memory of all this was jogged by this piece from that delightful book by John Inglis Hall:
“A Few years ago I met a Polish Scot or a Scottish Pole from the wartime immigration fishing here and getting nothing, only because he was a clumsy wader. He was a big man and fished well but roughly, trained probably by the violence of the Scottish winds to press, and insist on the fly hissing out at all costs. He stamped about in the water like an amphibious, legged tank, purposefully but very noisily. After we had smoked together for half an hour in the lee of a bank, resting, out of the wind, I went and took two trout from where he had just been fishing. He watched me smiling and with a decent grace in spite of the insult, then summed the matter up in a memorably peculiar phrase:
‘Ah! I, too much splash! Must make rehashmentation method of walking in water? Yes.’
He winked as we spoke, and, a huge man, demonstrated by tiptoeing absurdly along the grass in mightily exaggerated silence how quiet he must now be. I never saw him again, but I am prepared to bet that he got more fish after this incident.”
I laughed out loud at this, and my mind turned instantly to the Kraai Buffalo who would, if he could circle back, have laughed until his belly ached. I believe he made considerable “rehashmentation” after Anton’s comment. He certainly displayed a whole lot of decent grace both before and after that incident; something I have been working through for a few years now. In fact, just the other day, I went to look at work done on the banks of a beautifully restored river pool which I have named after the Kraai Buffalo himself.
It is a pool in which Roy was spectacularly unsuccessful, but him and I dreamed together about re-establishing a forest on the north bank. Roy once told me that he wished he could win the lotto so that he could buy the indigenous trees needed to get it going. Now if that isn’t decent grace! The north bank is now clear of wattle and a couple of indigenous forest fringe species are starting to flourish. The bramble on the south bank has been sprayed. Graeme and I have both caught Browns there. I have worked through things and now I am ready to go buy the trees, lotto winnings or not. Its looking great. I am excited.
Standing there alone beside the pool, I shouted into the pressing wind and to him:“Take a look at this Roy!” Shouting into the wind is something John Inglis Hall admits to in his book. It seems I am not alone, Kraai Buffalo!
Last season, I stood in the middle of a road drift across the uMngeni, and threw a fly upstream. I suppose it was not a tame road crossing. Not some concrete slab with guide railings, just a spot identified as a good one for tractor crossings, where years ago the farmer shaved the banks a bit. All the same, it felt just a little bit domestic to be standing there fishing, in the way that one feels when you stand on a jetty.
Anyway, I had seen a fish rise in a spot beside the chute at the top of the run, and I had spotted it in the water since. I put a fly over it, and got the fish. It was a slightly better size than the average…around 12 inches.
That was the 22nd March 2019. The spot where I had found it stayed with me.
Fast forward to this year. My friend and I were on the river again. When it came to dividing up who would go where, I confess, I sort of engineered it that I would get that spot again. A lie is a lie, and they stay good.
I carefully surveyed the flow, reminding myself exactly where the fish was last time, and put in a cast. The fish took the fly first cast! It rolled over clumsily as they sometimes do, and having showed itself, managed to wriggle free, despite my maintaining tension.
On the way back down to the bakkie that evening, we were crossing the river at the drift. I stopped, waited for my colleague to catch up with me, and instructed him to throw a fly “there”. I explained the location in great detail, such that there was no doubt where the dinner plate size target was.
He listened intently, and then delivered a cast right into the spot, and before you could say “predictable”, he had it. But this time too, it wriggled free.
Four days later on the 19th March 2020, I was working in the valley. Late in the afternoon, when the others had packed up and gone home, I stayed on, and rigged up a rod. I strode purposefully up to the drift, and waded into the right position. The river was up about 3 or 4 inches from a few days back, but the rock marking the target was still just protruding. I delivered a nymph 2 centimetres to the left and 13 centimetres above. The indicator shot forward and I had him.
Yes…I have checked the spots. It is a different fish.
This little fellow took a nymph in quick water on Stoneycroft farm, a place I have been hanging out at a lot lately.
At a time when so many South Africans are emigrating and the grounds that there is nothing left worth staying here for, it was refreshing to see at least our fishing, through the eyes of a foreign visitor this week.
“Wow, Wow, Wow!” were the words that Bert Worms kept repeating, as we drove up the valley, and as we stopped to look out over the vista before us. It is a valley that I travel to most weeks, and it has become old hat to me. You can see Inhlosane mountain off to the south, and northwards is the Kamberg mountain, maybe even Monks Cowl in the distance on a clear day, and Ntabamhlope in the north east. Looking back down from where we had come you see the tops of Lynwood, Miracle Mountain and Mount Ashley. In between are endless folds of rolling hills coloured anywhere from emerald green to the deep dark shade of pine plantations. You don’t see much habitation in between. I looked at it and started to think that it did look quite cool, as Bert uttered his twelfth “Wow”.
Then we trundled down to the river to cast a fly.
On the way Bert and I chatted. He is the chairman of a small fly angling club in the Netherlands, as well as a much larger, general fishing club. He spoke of our local fly fishing magazine that so impressed him and I asked him about their local magazines. “Yes, we have one” he said “but everything they publish is about fishing somewhere else! We have hundreds of kilometers of river fishing in the Netherlands, and they just write about how good it is over there and over there” . Interesting, I thought.
At the river, I lent Bert a rod and we strung up. The water was a bit off colour from a storm 2 days earlier, and I found myself apologising for the state of our river. “Yes, he said “It is off colour, and at home we probably wouldn’t fish this, but look at this!” he exclaimed, waiving his arms at the wide open space”
There was a pause, and then he added “Wow!”
Later, a storm threatened from the west, and as the lightning grew closer, I looked at Bert to read his appetite for more. We seemed to sort of resign ourselves to throwing in the towel. Then as we drew closer to the fencing stile, I had a quick rethink, despite the few raindrops that had started to fall. “If you are happy to take a short walk down there, there is a very beautiful pool I would like to show you” He seemed keen, so we instantly and silently resolved to extend our short time on the river. At the big pool, the rain started to pelt us, but Bert was not deterred, and kept throwing a fly, until he was rewarded with a pretty Brown.
“Wow!” he said, and we wended our way home, chatting happily as fishermen do, when they know they have shared a good day, and a good place.
I took a picture of the confluence of the Furth Stream and the Umgeni and prepared to sent it via whatsapp it to my friend George. George and I had met in the pharmacy that morning; he with a headache of undeclared origin (I suggested he reconsider his whiskey brand) and me stocking up on kidney pills. He had asked about the river clarity. Everyone has been asking that this week….they want to get on some trout water on the weekend. I said I would send a picture later.
While I was typing the explanation of the clean water from the Furth and the not so clean water of the Umgeni, there was a “gallumph” and a trout engulfed something off the surface in the exact spot I had just photographed. I ditched the message by hitting “send”, and took the second picture just as the ripples from the rise were subsiding.
Comfort was just over the stream working the brush-cutter to clear a path through the blackjacks for our autumn fishing. I worried about leaving him alone to finish the job. Just the day before I had found him clearing grass stems wrapped around the blade shaft, with his bare hands and the motor still running. But I reasoned that since I had just taught him how to use a shifting spanner, and which way to turn a nut to tighten it, perhaps he was coming up in the world, and would be OK.
Him and I had been tightening nuts on the handrail supports of our bridge over the Furth. Every time something went “plop”, Comfort declared it a frog, and I did a quick inventory of my tools to see what to add to my growing shopping list from the local hardware store.
The day before, I lead a team of guys rolling out erosion control mats above the Furth higher up. The choreography of “Rake, seed, fertilise, unroll to a pre-determined point, peg”…… and repeat, had proved difficult. We went back and forth for seed, and rakes and fertilizer bags, and the unroll direction of the mat kept veering down-slope, threatening to steer our trajectory into an uncontrolled downhill unraveling. “Soos ‘n myn trok sonder remme” as they say. I took Comfort off the lead role, and things went a bit better.
That gave me time to go and take a stroll along the stream. It was flowing as clear as the water George forgot to put in his whiskey. Although when you looked at the deep pools, you would have said it was off colour.
Funny how it does that. Put an underwater camera in there and you see how clean it really is. The Umgeni at picnic pool was the same this morning. The pool looked like milo, but taking a look at the rocky sections above and below, Alfred and I agreed, it was perfectly clean enough and called for a dry fly.
A dry fly was what my friend Neil tried on the Furth stream when I lured him there this week, but he lucked out. Maybe it was Comfort who put the fish down. Comfort, the male, Zulu version of Marge Simpson, with a beanie perched on top of his weird hairdo, bobbing about on the river bank. On the drive home on Tuesday I took a look at the arrangement atop his oddly shaped swede , when I turned in the driver’s seat to see where the snoring was emanating from. It seemed that my Colter Wall, Jaimi Faulkner and Mark Knopfler from the stereo had this effect on Comfort. One minute his droopy bloodhound eyes were mesmerized by the yellow line zipping towards him, and the next he was a gonner … Lulled to sleep by this somber music and a day of intense problem solving.
Other problem solving we did this week, was trying to work out where the dirty water was coming from. Ok, the problem solving I was doing. Comfort took the first amendment on that one. I met the farmer in a local shop, and he pointed me to where he thinks the problem might be coming from. With all the rain on the way, I thought of doing a rain walk….a thing I learned of while in the UK: you walk a river in the rain to see first hand where the mud is coming from. I could take a fly rod to use above the offending tributary, go alone, ditch all the blood sweat and tears of river work, and go for a soul nurturing walk.
But then I remembered: Someone has to take care of Comfort. “Pick you up at the turnoff at 7am” I said, and he grinned back at me.
“But the purposeful conspiring for big trout has at least the thrill of anticipation and, if successful, the satisfaction of any job consummated according to design. On the prowl for a three-pounder you become a specialist; you have renounced the easier rewards of small ones for the rare chance of a whopper. The thing has the gambling appeal of any long shot. Swinging a big streamer into the twilight shallows is one of the headier adventures of trout fishing. It is a grand way to end a day of finicky maneuvers with dry flies. It caps a day of precision with an hour of gusto and sends you home with your balance restored. “
Howard T Walden. “Upstream and down” . 1938
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”
I was impressed recently, by Alison Graham-Smith , a Lead Advisor on conservation and Land Management for ‘Natural England’ in Hampshire, who had read Harry Plunket Greene’s book “Where the bright waters meet”. I was all the more impressed because she is not a fly fisher. I asked her how she had come to read the book, and why. In her reply she explained that it was important as a conservationist to have read the history and the descriptions of Hampshire, before she could claim to be equipped to restore that environment.
Mark, Alison and Sam : Catchment sensitive farming advisors from Natural England, surveying the River Test at Leckford in October
Impressive, don’t you think?
The conversation swished around in my head on that trip, and so when I returned I re-read this old book, and I thought I would share some of it here. It occurred to me that a whole bunch of fishermen have probably heard of the man, and the book, but in an age where few people actually read, I suspect many of us know a lot less about the book than Alison does. I suppose you could be forgiven for that: There was a fair bit of flyfishing literature around at that time, as well as famous flyfishing personalities ‘on the go’, and besides, a lot of these books have lost their dust jackets, and they look faded and smell a bit funny.
But Imagine meeting a lady, who doesn’t fly fish, and have her trounce you in her knowledge of a famous fly-fishing book!
I thought I would rush to your rescue on this front, so here are some interesting facts about the man and the book:
Within those dusty pages are some treasures, and you might find some of this interesting.
When Plunket Greene was born in 1865, GEM Skues was a 10 yr old boy, and FM Halford was 21 years of age. When the Halford/Skues fued over dry fly vs nymph got going, Plunket Greene would have been in his late thirties, and had just moved from London to live in the village of Hurstbourne Priors on the banks of the Hampshire Bourne. Unless I missed it, he doesn’t even give a passing mention to the feud or the two luminaries of the time!
Frank Sawyer had not yet been borne, and across the Atlantic Theodore Gordon of New York had been writing for ten years since receiving a letter and envelope from Halford containing his first dry flies. It would be another ten years before George Le Branche wrote “Dry fly and fast water” and Ray Bergmann’s “Trout” would be written only 2 years after Plunket Greene’s death.
Harry Plunket Greene
Plunket Greene writes in his opening chapter about how he discovered the Bourne. He goes on to write about the wildlife of the valley, and devotes a chapter to the “Iron Blue”. The crux of his message comes in the chapter “ Tragedy of the Bourne”, in which he describes the overstocking of 1905. He opens the next chapter with the words “I prefer to pass over 1906 in silence”, giving weight to the tragedy which he experienced. He writes too of the demise of the original genetics, and of the trout with black backs, a condition he believed they obtained from the tar that leached off the newly tarred roads into the stream. He laments the loss of the silver fish. But his fishing stories do continue through 1910 and beyond, covering days on the Kennet and the Test, and of course the Bourne, and Blagdon.
Harry didn’t tie flies, but he was somewhat obsessed with the Iron Blue Dun.
The Iron Blue
He did fish Blagdon reservoir quite extensively, and people don’t mention that when talking of this book. In fact who knew that Blagdon existed in 1905! Commentators are inclined to make out that it is a purist tome dedicated to the Hampshire Bourne. It is that, but it wanders off into discussions about introducing lawn tennis to Germany, running over dogs, card tricks, games of cricket, and lots of singing.
Singing was of course Harry’s career, and the stories of his touring and putting on “gigs” are scattered about the book. He talks a great deal about his companions on the river, and elsewhere, and it is clear that he was a gregarious fellow. In fact he enjoyed a hot crowded room, and lots of onlookers!
He was a large and imposing man, and reading of him, it could be said that he was “showy”. But here is a quote from his book which speaks to an underlying authenticity in that showiness, and which I think, warrants much thought:
“…..true magnetism and playing to the gallery, though they may have a common ancestor, are as far as the poles apart in the ethics of performance. The one is unconscious, compelling and incomparably precious, the other studied,opportunistic, cheap and nasty”
In reading the book, I sense he didn’t suffer fools, and he makes some cutting remarks about people with questionable intentions.
He was also a nostalgic, and was possessed with an acute and biting appreciation of the countryside and the environment. And this was in 1924! Not unlike Frank Sawyer, Plunket Greene acknowledges that he was complicit, even if reluctantly so, in the stocking his trout stream ( the Hampshire Bourne in his case, The Hampshire Avon in Sawyer’s) , with introduced fish, which displaced the wild fish. He berates himself for the stocking, and is scarred by the guilt of having done so, having learned that the preservation of the natural environment was, with the wisdom of hindsight, the true solution.
What was ironic about this aspect, is that while I was in the UK this year, news broke of how many TONS of trout are stocked into the Test annually. Remember that the Hampshire Bourne is a tributary of the Test.
The Bourne, a tributary of the Test
So what this tells me, is that while fly fishermen wax lyrical about “The Bright Waters” and leave fly boxes at the grave of Harry Plunket Greene, we seem, as a collective to be obsessed with catching fish, even at cost to the environment, and oblivious to his message and his pleas.
Considering the era in which the book was written, it strikes me that he writes with such nostalgia about “The old days”. It also strikes me how environmentally aware he was. In my opinion there is much to be gained from these old books. It places modern fly fishing and conservation topics in context, and it also serves to remind us that not a whole lot has changed. Reading this stuff might also help us to avoid repeating old mistakes, be they ones relating to trout stalking, or how to care for our streams and the trout in them.
I end with the last lines of this lovely book:
“But somewhere, deep down, I have a dim hope that one night the fairy Godmother will walk along the tarry road and stop on the bridge and listen, and send a message to me in the dark; and that when the mists begin to lift, and the poplars to shiver and the cock pheasants crow in the beech-woods, the little Bourne will wake and open her eyes and find in their bosom again the exiles that she had thought were gone for good – the silver trout, and the golden gravel,and the shrimp and the duns- and smell the dust of the road, and see the sun once more, and the red and white cows in the grass, and the yellow buttercups in the meadow and the blue smoke of the cottages against the black elms of the Andover hill –and me too, perhaps, kneeling beside her as of old and watching the little iron-blue, happy, laughing, come bobbing down to me under the trees below the Beehive bridge on the Whitchurch road.
Post script from the fairy godmother: Well Harry….a message for you …..take a look here…River restoration….
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:
My recent visit to the UK afforded me an afternoon on the Test (see my last video), but before that, I went hunting for clean water and willing trout in the Westcountry (Devon and Cornwall). Rain, and the calendar were both against me…..
(Oh, and by way of explanation….most sheep I saw on Dartmoor had red arses……)
Readers might have noticed that I have started doing some video work (aka Vlogging) . To up my game I have been teaching myself some much more complex, bit of course much more capable software. In many respects the complexity has meant that I have taken 2 steps backwards. Trying to get this package to do what I want it to has been a challenge to say the least. Old dogs, new tricks…
So do bear with my amateur attempts. Hopefully the offerings will get more slick as I progress.
This video covers a visit to the River Test in England. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I would actually get to fish this fabled stream. I had resigned myself to the prospect of just looking over the rail of the bridge at Stockbridge, when suddenly, out of the blue, I received an invitation.
This was truly a blessing and the experience was something I will treasure for a long time to come.
I am deeply fortunate to be able to able to identify the symphony and serendipity in ordinary things, or perhaps I am fortunate in that overtly serendipitous things do in fact befall me more than others. Either way, these things are not lost on me. Far from it…I savour them.
So here’s one. You tell me if this is a delightful chance, or if its just me being a sentimental fool:
So…I found myself in Stockbridge, in a fly shop, being served by a fellow South African. And the shop had a better collection of books than the one over the street. In fact I found myself with a pile of “must haves” that would simply not fit in my luggage on the return trip, and I had the agonising choice of which ones to put back. One of those was a book called “The Healing Stream” by Laurence Catlow. It is a book I had not heard of before.
I read a few pages, and decided it was on the “keeper” list, and by that night I was reading it. My decision was an unequivocally good one. The book is a delight and a treasure, with words that flow like pure prose.
A short way into the book, the writer starts to suck the reader into his love affair with one particular river. He rights lyrically. I quote:
“….drive up Garsdale to Hawes, where you turn left and head up through Gayle and over Cam Houses; then it is down to Oughtershaw and Beckermonds before following the beginnings of the river through Yockenthwaite, Hubberholme and Buckden, through Starbotton and Kettlewell and so, after the rough poetry of these northern names, down to the main beats of the Kilnsey Club.”
Those names washed over me as I put the book on the nightstand and fell asleep.
The next day, I found myself on a bus, travelling up a river valley in the Yorkshire Dales. The purpose of that bus ride is the topic of another discussion, but suffice it to say that it was not directly fly fishing related. The bus wound its way up a river valley in ever tightening bends, and over bridges that hardly seemed wide enough for a bus. As we progressed the valley became more and more lovely, until it started to literally take my breath away. The rain spattered on the windows of the bus. That was an excuse not to take photos, but at some stage I took a decision not to attempt a photo, because the beauty was so stunning that I knew that a weak attempt to capture it all, would in this case, serve only to tarnish the memory of such a heavenly place.
As we made our way, I started to take note of names. The village of Kilnsey. Kettlewell. Starbotton. Buckden. Hubberholme.
I am a bit slow, and putting something in reverse is sometimes quite adequate a move to fox me, but at this point I did awaken to the fact that I was travelling the valley I had read about the night before.
Of all the valleys in that fair land, I was in the one I had read about the night before. This freak event deepened my sense of appreciation for where I was. It awakened in me an awareness of how special this beautiful trout stream is to at very least ONE angler. An angler and writer, who I might add is brave enough to admit that his own sense of nostalgia and appreciation on the banks of this river regularly drive him to tears. He even comes a little unhinged.
Having seen his valley, I completely understand those tears. The beauty of the Wharfe River valley in the Yorkshire Dales defies description and capture on celluloid.
It is other-worldly , and to visit it is an experience bordering on the religious, especially when you have by sheer chance read the paragraph describing it the night before.
Perhaps its just me? My mates say I am a little unhinged myself.
If I haven’t posted for a while, its because I am trying a new style of things, and that meant I had to acquire some new skills. And speaking of Style….here’s the first V….log: