As I stood on the dam wall the other day, I got to thinking about Lawrence, who I had just met at the roadside. He was cutting out some invasive trees along a fence line. They are trees which I have long wanted gone, so I felt compelled to pull over and go and shake his hand and say “bloody well done”, which I did. Lawrence is the very first Zulu-speaking man I have met who sports a full Bredarsdorp brei (… a guttural “burr”, or a uvular “R”, as in ….Brgedargsdorgp bgrgei). He introduced himself (“Lawgrence”), but he didn’t introduce his helper: a man with one eye that looked like a dead trout egg.
Now I was standing there fishing, and contemplating whether I should take off the gloves and put on a trout egg imitation. A translucent orange one, not a white opaque one showing early signs of a galloping mildew infection. The fishing was slow. That is to say, it was just casting…the fish part of the formula was missing. While waiting for the fly to sink, I sent a text to PD, to tell him I was having no success, and that I was having difficulty turning over my “thirty eight foot leader” . It wasn’t really that long, but it felt like it. The fly landed with a plop a few minutes after everything else had straightened out, and that was giving me a sense that I wasn’t coping. The truth be told, I was coping. There was a nasty berg wind at my back, and it was helping those long casts.
The phone took a while to find signal, but eventually the message dispatched, and some time later came the reply: “Strap on four foot of 8lb Maxima, and a big Woolly Bugger”. Sound advice!
The previous time I was atop this long dam wall, throwing a big Woolly Bugger, I had had an interrupted afternoon, in which business cut into precious fishing time. Unusual business. I had to go and rescue Darling from a gaggle of snakes. At that stage I only knew her as Darling. That was the name and number The Boss had sent me as an electronic business card when I asked for the details of his foreman. I concluded of course that they are romantically involved. My inkling was supported when, having got Darling and her crew started on their task down in the kloof, and while setting up eagerly to fish Baboon dam, the second call came. It was The Boss. Darling was in distress down in the kloof. Could I send someone to go and rescue her please. Something about her being in tears, inconsolable and trapped by a team of serpents. Who could I send? It is wild baboon country, so remote and steep, no one would find her there, and besides, who else was around?
A mournful wind whistled across the veld. I cursed, and took the rod pieces apart and put them back in the cloth bag and tube. I had not even got as far as putting the real on. “There goes my fishing” I said through gritted teeth, to no one but the baboons.
It took me forever to find Darling. Notwithstanding the fact that we had cell comms, and I had a vantage point and a pair of binoculars. Second language, sobs, trees getting confused with rocks….all those usual communication impediments. By the time I had found her, chased away all the phantom winter snakes, and led her up out of the valley, I was tired, and the wind was stronger, and the sparkle had gone out of the day. It was not unlike what was before me now.
A band of still water, heavily riffled about 20 yards out where the berg wind, done with harassing the bankside grass tufts, now hit the water surface. Wind in my ears. Lips cracked. My paper-dry hands gripping the worn cork, but without expectancy. Trout away on business elsewhere.
In between there had been a very brief visit to West Hastings, where I witnessed a couple of small trout rise, and one or two lunkers porpoising seductively way out in the waves. Nothing else. There was that trip to the lake on the mountain, where I got a few fish. That was nice. Before that was a very slow day, with one giant fish, but nothing else all day long. That fish was special, if only for its size, but that was way back. “When was that?” I asked out loud in the wind. June maybe, I thought. We are on the other end of winter now, and I feel like I missed it. There was illness, a trip south (non-fishing), another bout of illness, work, and now winter is at it’s end. Where was I ?
I guess many years I feel this way about a river season, or an autumn, and that if I had to pick, “missing winter” wouldn’t be the worst fate. A friend called this morning to update me on his fishing. It turns out its been really slow everywhere.
After the hot berg wind, the evening arrived suddenly, and with accompanying stillness. My mental braying about winter evaporated as the first fish started to rise. Before long they were boiling everywhere. One or two jumped clear of the water in the sunset.
I was changing fly frantically, trying to match the invisible hatch. It was warm, and furious and infuriatingly fun, in a spitting, teeth grinding and laugh-out-loud kind of way. And it felt like spring. I stacked that lens on top of a report last week of three-pound browns spotted in the river by some farm workers. Add the paucity of fishing in weeks past, and you have yourself a bubbling casserole of youthful anticipation for 1st September.
“The coming griver seasgon is going to be gwild Dgarling”. A breiing Zulu….have you ever!
If, in 1936, you had consulted the newly published guide to the “Inland Waters of Natal”, with a view to fishing the uMngeni (then spelt Umgeni), you would have been pointed to Mr WJ Mc Donald. This would have been through a listing of the various country hotels from which one might venture out to fish for Trout, which had been in some of these waters for close to 50 years. The guide shows that McDonald could have put you onto five miles of the Inzinga River, but elsewhere he is listed as the contact for 2 miles of Brown Trout fishing un the “Umgeni” at Stoneycroft.
If you go driving the Dargle district now, looking for the farm Stoneycroft, you will be disappointed.
Old Topo maps show a farm named “Stoneycroft”, which is now, and has for a long time, been called “Wakecroft”. The title deeds of Wakecroft indicate that the farm is a subdivision of Wakefield Farm , the upstream farm that still bears this name, given it no doubt by its first owner under the British Crown in 1851, Mr Frederick Edgar Shaw, who hailed from the Yorkshire town of the same name.
If you had fished there in 1936, we can imagine that you would find a clear flowing stream, passing through sweeping grasslands, broken only by patches of forest on the south facing slopes, and ribbons of forest pioneer species tracing the tributaries as they fell from the escarpment in the south west.
It is not clear where the boundaries of the two-mile stretch might be. If your permit allowed you upstream, you would no doubt have been on the property belonging to Helli Lasch, possibly on to the next piece belonging to my grandfather, DS Fowler. Otherwise you would have gone down a little onto the farm Furth, where the Morphew family settled about the same time that Shaw did.
You probably would have fished downstream then, as was the custom, so the escarpment known as the “Heatherdon ridge” would have been on your right shoulder. You would have regularly had views of Inhlosane mountain to the south, but it is not impossible that its original Afrikaans name of “Spitzberg” might have lingered on the lips of locals.
Just off that mountain to the east the Speir family might have still been in residence at Mount Park. You would have caught Browns between half a pound and three pounds.
The absence of literature on this particular flyfishing experience hints at the fact that the stream would not have been heavily fished.
If in 2023 (a mere 87 years later), you were to join the Natal Fly Fishers Club and book to fish this beat, you would probably be facing upstream as you fish, as is the custom of the day. The Heatherdon Ridge would be at your left shoulder, and if you occasionally glanced back you would see Inhlosane Mountain (and no one would know that it ever had another name).
The chances are you would be making a day trip, or you might be staying at Beverley Country Cottages or Mount Park, both of which are closer than Impendle (and Impendle would not be on the list of likely alternatives). If you scouted around the valley or spoke to some locals you would come across Morphews, Lasch, Fowler, Shaw and other names that were pinned to the landscape back in ’36 too.
You would get Brown Trout of between half a pound and Three pounds descended from the same Trout now 133 years in residence. I can tell you that you will not encounter other anglers on the water: It is lightly fished.
There is a timelessness to places like Stoneycroft.
I had a few minutes to stroll along a stretch of my home water this week. The water was cold and crystal clear, and being mid winter, distinctly off bounds. But I found myself cupping my hands aside my glasses to cut out the glare and scanning every inch as one does. My senses were alert. September was in my mind.
This quote from Art Lee captured my state of mind beautifully:
“For hundreds of days on scores of rivers, I’ve sought trout and salmon pools the way some travelers seek cathedrals, and somehow each one I’m shown becomes at once the most splendid of all for the wonder of knowing I’m yet to explore it. For, if it’s true that the essence of fishing lies concealed in its endless occasions to exercise hope, then the embodiment of this ideal must swim in the waters that glide by under your gaze, awaiting only your presence to begin dramas for which nature has rehearsed the waters for ages”.
I managed to fish the first pool of the day in shirtsleeves, but by the time I was throwing my dry fly into the tongue of current at the top I was shivering, and I didn’t stick it out as long as I would normally do. A cold , dry southerly wind had sprung up, and I was soon off up the hill. There I retrieved the keys from their hiding place in the rear wheel arch, and I was relieved to pull on my jacket, and stem the cold that had seeped into me. I could have tolerated the cold wind if I had been waded into warm summer water, but the water on the last day of the season was at less than 10 degrees C. I shivered one last time and returned to the river where Anton was diligently working the next run, swooning at the beauty of the water, and trying not to curse at a now buffeting wind.
The wind gained strength and threw dust and dry leaves up into the air over the river. As we drew closer to the forest, trees creaked and leaves rustled in a dry hushing sound, somehow distinct from the sound they make at the approach of a humid summer storm. I looked down the valley, where under the view of the same mountain that commands the south-western flank of the valley, I had fished in the sticky heat of summer.
I remember a day when I described the water as “beautifully clean”, but if I had to be honest, it was not a patch on the late season water up here, several kilometres up the valley. That day, was one of many where I watched the sky with suspicion and a modicum of caution, in the knowledge of the impunity with which those heavy clouds are known to throw down storms. In the final analysis, during the period from the season’s opening in September to Christmas, we weren’t often chased off the water with fearful lightning storms. Sure, we had those in December as we normally do, but September opened after late August rains, and the river presented with bountiful clean water from the get-go. Through the next 3 months we had days of soft soaking rains, the rivers stayed full and clean, and the heat stayed at bay. It was a glorious season, and I knew it. I have fished enough seasons to know that dry, hot, algal springs are more the norm, and the conditions that unfolded demanded a level of consciousness if you were to be awake to the brilliant flyfishing opportunities. I felt like an evangelist when I phoned my buddies and said things like “Just do it…just go…this doesn’t happen often…don’t miss out…just grab the opportunity”. Some listened. I listened to myself. I went fishing, and I did it often. By Christmas I had chalked up a dozen trips to the uMngeni, and had visited Lotheni, the Mooi, the Ncibidwana. The fishing was fabulous.
When the deluge of late summer came, and streams were dirty everywhere for days on end, I was able to tolerate the situation in the knowledge that I had squeezed my fair share of days out of the four months prior. I had landed my best brown ever on the uMngeni, and had had some great fish in other catchments too.
I was content to pick days and dash out to capitalise on narrow windows of opportunity that presented when the sun broke through and the flow subsided for a bit. My cup was adequately full that I could tolerate the odd long trip out to a stream that was more a danger than a delight. I shrugged, tried a few stillwaters to slake my need to be on the water, and wrote and tied flies and marveled at the levels of saturation in the catchments. The Viking and I got caught in a storm on the Mooi, just like Rogan and I had a few weeks earlier. We discovered tributaries swelled to the point that they were now Trout streams, not trickles. We got stuck in the mud. We phoned one another, and hung on threads of news of streams that may just be fishable.
When April came around, we were off to the North Eastern Cape, where we encountered strong flows and dirty water. We fixed that by going upstream to the high mountain stuff, where previously dainty and almost fragile streams now presented bold flows, and strong fish. We satisfied our desire for cold high altitude Trout, in successive days of indulgence.
On my return, I was back onto the local streams, to fish the patch between when it frosts at Moshesh’s Ford, and when it frosts at Drinkkop. Lo and behold, I snatched what felt like just a few days here and there, and then we were into April floods. There was a short gap (which I took advantage of), and then we were into May floods, of all things. Just as those subsided, and three golden weeks of autumn perfection unfolded, I was struck down by COVID, and robbed of it all.
But here I was, back on the river, coughing now and then, but regained in strength enough to enjoy the last day of the season. The late autumn colours of a pin oak contrasted the deep green of the forest and the silver sparkle of the water from a low afternoon sun.
The contrast from my two days in the first week of the season on the same river struck me. It was enormous. Those days had been dark and brooding and warm. They were full of the pregnancy of spring, and the fish had been eager to pack on weight after the winter.
Today the fish were all but extinct. Perfect deep runs over pale, yellow speckled rock were apparently devoid of fish. We couldn’t even spook one. I glanced downriver, where just four weeks earlier I had landed a lovely 18 inch Brown. Today the paper dry wind moaned and the river flowed pretty and empty of willing Trout.
We were there, I suppose, for ceremonial purposes. The water was pretty and clean, and the sharpness of early winter light threw deep shadows and startling contrasts.
The ceremony marked a full month of river days. They started on the uMngeni in September. They ended on the uMngeni in May. Between was a catalogue of well spent days with great friends across a dozen different streams. Today was the closing book-end. September was the opening one. The season was now packed away in a string of photos, memories, journal entries, and anecdotes. It was done. We strolled back to the bakkie and I had my first cold beer in weeks.
I was fishless and happy.
From atop the bridge pilaster I gazed into the swirling water of the pocket on the upstream side. It is too small a piece of water to be called a pool, but it is bigger than many of the others. Put it this way, it’s a place you would put a fly if you were rock-hopping up this way. My eyes followed the tongue of current…the thalweg…to its point of dispersion. That point where the rush of water dissolves and spreads enough that you know a brown trout will take up occupancy there. A rainbow would go above that into the faster flow, but a wise old brown, that’s where he would sit. The water was clear as ice, the peat stain of mid summer all washed out of it, but the surface swirled and the sunlight danced, and my eyes lied to me, and I couldn’t see a fish. I decided to follow what the texts say and just keep staring stubbornly and with resolve at exactly the same spot, believing a Trout into existence. The river bed was a dappled mix of pale yellows and fawns…remnants of sandstone which line the river bed between clusters of black igneous boulders. It should be the perfect backdrop against which to spot a Trout…more akin to a Cape mountain stream that a KZN Midlands one…this shouldn’t be difficult.
Then the Trout moved. This gave away the colour I should be looking for. In this light it was a grey. Not a dove grey, but a charcoal smudge on a rough textured sketch paper. I find that defining these visual clues to myself helps me. So I will spot a ghost of a fish, and immediately come up with the words to describe the colour, or shape or movement, or perhaps the position. I will even speak them out loud. “Directly in line with that dead stick”; “nose pushes forward from black to pale rock”; “a few inches to the right of the rounded stone with a light patch on it”. This helps me find the fish again if I lose sight of it. It also forces me to think about how I spotted it…what gave it away. And if a stranger heard me speaking to myself this way it would probably serve to scare them off, fearful of this strange and possibly dangerous nit, creeping around amongst the Ouhout, speaking to himself.
The fish, or rather the image of it, came and went. A billow of water, a passing cloud, or a random spilling pattern on the surface would obscure it, and then I would find it again, using my self-talk as a guide.
I looked around. The spot was tight against the bridge. It was also cut off from the perfect casting spot I occupied by a barbed wire fence. A tight new, authoritative type of fence that shouted “No trespassers” , without needing a sign to say that. I don’t have permission to fish this stretch. I also don’t own a one weight, or a bamboo fly rod, and I reckon those would be the only proper options with which to grace a fish like this.
Below the bridge, I do have permission to fish, and the stream is that much bigger there, such that I have decreed the two weight to be the appropriate tool. Of course the stream cant be bigger below the bridge. That would be illogical.
The quantity of water flowing in under it is identical to that flowing out from beneath it 15 feet lower, but one needs a line, just like I needed a line to keep my vision locked on that sleek, almost motionless Brown. A line between the charcoal smudge and the pale ochre behind it.
The day prior, I had used the two weight on the stretch below, despite my faith in my own formula wavering. My own formula being ”Two weight above the Wakecroft Stream confluence, 3 weight below, and 4 weight down below the Furth Stream confluence”. My doubt was tugged at by the thought of wind, and more so by the fullness of the stream, but in the end I stuck to the paint-by-numbers formula. 4,3,2….and I stuck to the 2 weight. A 2 weight for an 18 inch brown in May; a 3 weight for a 17 incher in February, and a 4 weight for a 19 incher in September. It has been a good season.
I smiled to myself at the memory of the big fish the day before. Caught late on a pretty afternoon, with the slanting sun throwing rose tints on the view of the homestead above. Baboon Hill and Fowler’s Folly behind it. A tiny nymph (#20) sunk deep beneath a dry fly. 18;20;2.
The delicate parachute dry just started mooching off like a dog hearing its bathtub being filled. It didn’t scud, or dart, or tug. It just mooched, so subtly that I would say it didn’t even drag. But I had been focused on the spot, because I had faith that there was a good fish in there. It was a bit like the faith you need when the paint-by- numbers instructions say “purple here”, and you have seen the photo of what you are painting, and there aint no damn purple in it!
Like the faith I needed to muster to use my 9 foot 4 weight on this same stream. It was a season or two back. I had not used anything heavier than a 3 weight on this stream in decades, but with my mate Ray being so addicted to his 10 foot dry fly rod, I started to develop an itch. What if I had more length to get the rod tip up above the high summer growth, the autumn blackjacks. What if I could fish the lift properly without yanking the fly out too early. Not bowing to the anxiousness of duffing the next cast with a snag at lift-off? Ray had described that reach. Ten foot added to his arm. The high dangle. The fly held out over the flow ahead, almost below the rod tip, dancing on the water enticingly for moments longer than I could do with a shorter rod. “But what of the delicacy of presentation?” I had thought. “Paradoxically the heavier the line the more lightly you can make it fall upon the water” answered Huish Edye from the pages of my bedtime reading that night.
So I had faith, and I tried it. 19 inches. 4 days into the season, on the 9 foot 4 weight. Size 12 Bugger. My best ever Brown from the stream. 19; 12;4
In between. February. The 3 weight. A 17 inch Brown, on a #18 Troglodyte. 17;18;3.
Can you see the purple patch in the numbers?
When I looked back into the stream the Brown was gone. I guessed it’s length at 11 inches.
I have its location now. All I need is the bamboo rod, and permission. Oh, and a way to cast from the bridge over the barbed wire fence, and then if I get the fish, a way of netting it. I think I will need an accomplice hiding in the bushes to the side of the stream.
As you can see my flyfishing, and the Trout I pursue don’t fit to formulas.
Of course there is so much more detail one can add to a sketch map like this. There are so many memories, incidents and photos collected from many years of visits to this particular stretch. The fish have never been easy, but each Brown spotted, stalked, hooked, lost or landed stands out in my memory, and I find that I carry chronicles in my mind of these and other reaches of my home stream.
For a more visual experience, take a look at the interactive maps saved under the “Trout streams of KZN” tab on the blog.
Blackjacks and puffaddders making the best of the last autumn sunshine. That is what I expect on the river tomorrow. I don’t expect to be able to avoid the former. I hope to avoid the latter. I have had thoughts of putting my landing net in some sort of canvas bag on my back to avoid having to pick blackjacks out of it for hours on end, but maybe that will just be a damned nuisance. I don’t know. I also don’t know if crossing the river will be easy or even safe.
For that I will put up with the extra clutter of a wading staff. I do find those useful for poking about on the path ahead of me, which is my snake defence. If I am to carry a wading staff (and maybe a bag for the net), I think I will go light and use the belt pack, rather than a full vest. But then again, the autumn colours are just so damned spectacular that it would be remiss of me to go without my bigger camera. If the water is as clear as I am told it will be, then the little underwater camera would be good to have on hand, and that doesn’t fit in the waist pack.
Rods: despite the predicted absence of strong wind, I might go with the 3 weight rather than the significantly more delicate 2 weight in my arsenal, because I may need to throw some nymphs, and a bit of an up-kick in the wind is predicted for the evening. But then again, what could be sweeter than catching an autumn brown on a delicate dry on the 2 weight.
I don’t know.
I wonder if the Browns will have already gone off a bit as their breeding instincts may have been triggered by these cooler conditions. Certainly the rainbow I caught in a Stillwater earlier this week had a protruding ovipositer. Or maybe the headwaters we are going to will have received some of the lunkers which have migrated from downstream, like Rhett experienced on his home stream in the last fortnight, and maybe they will still be hungry enough to go for a fly. I don’t know.
The farmer was doubtful about the road in. He said he traversed it on a horse last week, but didn’t take enough notice of it to comment on whether a vehicle would make it. He said we should maybe try the valley route, but I pointed out that the stream crossing had been damaged in the recent deluge and that it was thick with sticky mud. We might not get through that way. He nodded thoughtfully but didn’t offer a solution. I think we will take the hill road. I don’t know.
The strange thing is that people call me all the time, asking questions, because they think I know the answers.
But I do know that embracing the prospect of possible failure has become more alluring to me the less I seek out proof of my own conquest, as measured by fish numbers. Maybe that is why I find myself attracted to the less popular, the less explored.
I don’t know.
“Turn onto the bunny”. These are the cruel words I was reminded of, as Ray and I strained into the rearview mirror to see if the rabbit had missed the wheels as it dashed in front of us on our route back from the pub to our abode on the Bell River. The words had been emitted by none other than “Matilda”, the ice-queen who delivers driving instructions from within the GPS. She had been directing me to the River Test in Hampshire, where I was to meet with the keeper. I didn’t think she would lower herself to delivering doom to small innocent bundles of fly tying material.
As we contemplated the fate of the rabbit we had just passed over, we agreed that Jan would have had us stop, and would have subjected us to carrying the carcass around until he could find a pinning board, tacks and salt. But we were tired from a long day on the river, and mercy was not in our plan. We were not going to stop for the bunny.
We had walked our socks off, and we had doubled down on fine pizza, washed down with cold beer, with an enthusiasm akin to that with which the trout had been smashing our hoppers on the Riflespruit.
Those Trout displayed no mercy. Doctor Harry had passed by behind me, and then from the high bank ahead he directed me to a crack in the rock: a shelf over which the water flowed, and which would surely harbour Trout. He wasn’t wrong. The Rainbows were lined up there like troops, and they clobbered the hopper with gusto each time it drifted over the lip. I would immediately angle the rod low, to draw the thrashing fish downstream, away from the lie, so that I could fool another on the next delivery.
I landed 6 fish from the spot. Each one came up as innocently as an ignorant traveller turning onto a small country lane. They smoked the hopper and I landed them with impunity.
But as the cock crowed in the dawn, the tables would turn. A day or two later I missed fish after fish in a pool on the upper Bokspruit. Thinking back on it now, the fish lost in that particular pool, numbered precisely six. One brut snapped me off after a spirited fight. The others just didn’t connect to the hopper. My mates standing behind me, taking videos, were swooning and swearing and ultimately taking pity on me for my bad luck. They offered me the best pools thereafter, as if to give me opportunities at redemption.
It just got worse…I missed even more fish as the afternoon wore on. The situation was one bereft of all mercy. I felt like a run-over rabbit. If truth be told, I still feel that way. I have unfinished business on the upper Bok. In my dreams, I see the neb of a rainbow pop out of the jumbled current to suck down my hopper, as if in slow motion. Others cruise into the air and turn on their sides to land with a raucous splash. It is unclear if they take the hopper on the way up, or the way down, but either way, they smash it with a cruelty that seems unnecessary. As unnecessary as a flyfisher hauling in his quarry to photograph its spots before sending it back, panting and shocked like a rabbit that just missed a wheel.
Things are not as they seem. “The Bunny” was a small country lane leading to a bridge over the river, where swans pirouetted in the current and Trout swam.
My colleagues had said that my GPS wouldn’t find it, and they gave me a photocopy of the ordinance map. As it turned out the Ice Queen knew exactly where the bunny was, just like Dr Harry knew there would be Trout in that seam. The Trout which engulfed bits of bunny fur used to represent the thorax of that hopper. That hopper that didn’t work on the merciless, beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit.
I grabbed the handle of the old green door, pressed the thumb latch down, and gave a push. It seemed to be stuck, but it moved enough to encourage me to try harder. I tried again with a firm shove, and it opened. Dad and I stepped through onto the east-facing veranda of the old house.
We were entirely silent for a moment, except for the sound of Dad’s deep draw of breath. He seemed to falter for a moment. Then in a slightly choked voice he uttered the words ”Oh my! The memories!”, and he moved across the concrete floor to gaze at the façade of the house and then the vista of rolling green hills before us. I remained silent. It was his moment. The only sound was the rush of the uMngeni River. Dad just took it all in. His eyes were a little misty. Then he pointed things out, and we began to speak of how it was back then, when he was a boy.
He re-told the story of summer nights with his bed pulled out onto the porch; the Great Dane, whom he secretly let into his bedroom through the door behind us to have it sleep on his bed; how he remembered being able to see Inhlosane Mountain, now obscured by a few trees.
I asked if he remembered hearing the river as loudly as we were then, and he shook his head. But he remembered being ordered to take an afternoon sleep, and laying down on a blanket under some trees that are no longer there, where he watched weaver birds build their nests. He pointed out the “Old folks room” at the southern end of the building, and I asked him about the cellar there, evident from the stone staircase leading down from the lawn. “They kept booze in there.” he said, but I pointed out that he had said the same about the front cellar just minutes earlier. I was looking for a repeat of the story about apples stored there and how they stayed cool and crispy for months, but that memory was gone. “Maybe they kept booze in both.” he said with a grin, and we both laughed.
We looked out over the terraced area built by the Italian prisoners of war, and Dad remembered the veggie garden there, but the story of the fruit trees so harshly and expertly pruned by the same POWs was lost that day.
We turned back towards the view of the river below, and Dad craned his neck, looking for the willow tree. It was gone, but having looked around at features like the water wheel furrow and the bend of the river, he was still able to lock on a precise location and point to it, as he told another story: “Jack Didcott took me fishing there” he said. “I was just a small boy, and he was very kind to me. He hooked a trout but pretended not to. He asked me if I would like to fish, and handed me his rod. The fish was already on, and I said ‘I’ve got a fish, I’ve got a fish!’. Dad was motioning the holding of the rod, and he was laughing. He lowered his hands, and slipped into a tone of reverence before telling how Jack Didcott went off to the war after that, and never came back. My grandfather “had helped Didcott’s widow with her finances, and what have you” as Dad put it.
When the stories were done, we took one last look around the east veranda and circled back to the front porch. Dad steadied himself with a hand against the stone corner pillar as he allowed his eyes to drift over the commanding view of the valley. “To grow up here” he started, and then he struggled for words. “What a playground! You know…to grow up…..for a boy”.
We walked back down the stone stairs, Dad turning sideways and taking care with his footing on the stonework, his hand gripping the balustrade. We strolled back past the booze cellar, around to the back. Dad pointed out his father’s study overlooking where the old dairy building had been with the river beyond, where it flowed tight at the foot of the forest. We spoke about how the old man would take his fly rod and creel with him to milking in the afternoon, and leave them outside the stone dairy, to take down to the river later, where he caught trout for dinner. Dad pointed out the door to the dining room and showed me where the scullery and kitchen were. I found an open door and stepped in. The floors had been done, and a glance into the kitchen revealed the woodstove gone: replaced with modern fittings. I encouraged Dad to step in and take a look, but he shook his head and turned away. His head was swimming with the special memories of his childhood, and he chose not to spoil them with images of change and modernisation.
We strolled back across the driveway to the car. I felt a need to relish the visit, perhaps extend it. We both knew it wouldn’t be repeated. I scanned my memory for more stories he had told over the years. Perhaps I could draw them out, ask him more about them. Maybe something precious would emerge. I thought of what he had told me on the drive in earlier.
He said that the eight-mile private road had been maintained by the two farmers: the Fowlers from Umgeni Poort and the Ross family from New Forest. “It was in better nick then than it is now!” he remarked. I said I could imagine that to be true. At a spot just beneath Inhlezela Mountain, he related the story of Isaac falling off the back of the vehicle after they hit a rough spot on the road exactly where we were. Dad had been watching out the back window and saw it happen “Dad! Dad! Stop! Isaac has fallen off” he re-enacted, his face alight in the recollection of the moment. Earlier, as we passed Scott brothers he told of Claudi, the injured Blue Crane. “Zebra were running wild in the days before the Lavisters came to live here, and across there” he pointed to the other side of the road down towards the Elands River “hundreds upon hundreds of Blue Cranes. One of them was injured by the hay mower, and its left foot was all…….” He paused. “It was ……messed up. It came to live in the farmyard, and it was very tame. We called her Claudi. She was lovely.” He paused again and then added “ The labourers would hold out her wings and dance with her.”
There seemed to be nothing more. We climbed into the bakkie to leave, and I drove out slowly. I offered to stop along the way if he wanted a photo or to look at anything. He declined.
Dad fell quiet. His soul was dancing with Claudi.
” …..a light that is abstract and tender, just the right light to shield the fickle, often mysterious movements of the brown trout” Harry Midleton; The Spine of Time
This morning was cool. In the garden, I noticed that the little crocosmia “falling stars” have started to lose the brilliance with which they greet hot February days. A stroll to the rain gauge revealed yellowing leaves on a London Plane across the road, but only on the southward side of the giant tree. The gauge itself was full from the last week’s rain, and I remembered that the cicadas have been sounding for days now. I don’t recall hearing them this late, and I know that they were not active in time for the Christmas just passed. Yesterday the Diedericks Cuckoo was competing for the airwaves, and as I sit on the porch to write this, the heat of the day is presenting itself beneath a bright sun. Last night friends reported over a cold beer that they had measured water temperatures of 22 degrees C in recent days. These are signs of mid-summer. But as we chatted we agreed that signs of autumn were suddenly getting difficult to ignore.
On Thursday the Inzinga river was a raging torrent, and quite unfishable. The uMngeni was not quite in that category, but I judged it too fast and too coloured to warrant a visit. A friend listened to the broken English of an inhabitant of one of our upland valleys in which he was told that the river was both clean and dirty. He decided he would drive up there today to see for himself, and of course he is taking a fly rod and will send me pictures later. I told him to watch out for an apparently innocent pothole near a stream crossing which caught me off guard last week, and saw my bakkie bottom out on a hidden rock. The flooded stream had washed it out more severely than was apparent!
In the heat of the day, the riverside veld is alive with hoppers but the air temperatures up in the berg are suddenly markedly more pleasant than down in the towns. The light is somehow almost imperceptibly softer. I have a trip to the mountains coming up in just a few weeks, and I know it will be autumnal by then. The change of season is upon us, and there are Trout to be caught. I am fixing my leaders today and putting my fly tackle back in my bakkie again. I have some flies I need to tie. It is time!
This one is a little longer…..
The water colour is interesting in this video. In the bright morning sun it appears red-brown. Through the Canon SX60 it looks darker but more clear. The underwater shots show the suspended matter, and then later in the day, in different light it looks lighter and just a little milky. In one shot off the north bank with the Canon it looks crystal clear. For me, summer spate water colour like this is as difficult to define as a photographer’s light. Either way, it didn’t seem to deter the fish from taking a fairly small fly.
I was making my way past Marinodale on the way to the river. I craned my neck to look out of the window of my vehicle into the sky alongside the road. Yes, it was a white stork!
Suddenly I felt deeply emotional. Nostalgic.
My ears were filled with the incessant springtime call of Guinea Fowl, the mid-summer afternoons with the haunting call of the Ground Hornbill. My vision was blurred by the memory of those bug soiled windscreens we used to get, as much as it was by tears now literally welling up. The Storks. The common Storks. The Storks by their hundreds down on the vlei below the dam. The Red Footed Kestrels lining the telephone lines, the Black Shouldered Kites.
All gone. Or rare enough to be an interesting sighting in these valleys.
What I took for granted as a kid is now gone. In less than a lifetime we have almost completed our act of wiping them from the face of the earth. I was angry.
“Wake up, you bastards!” I said out loud in the cab.
No one was listening.
I pulled myself together. Even doing this alone can feel embarrassing.
The rains had been good. The veld looked magnificent. There were Swallows starting to collect on the old telephone lines where the wire hadn’t been stolen. I did spot a Black Shouldered Kite.
There was plenty worth saving. Aldo Leopold’s entire ethos of a land ethic washed over me. It left its heavy burden all over again. I could feel it on my shoulders. My meeting with the ranger was important.
At my destination, the river ran full. Too full to fish. After my meeting I tried for an hour, but somehow the quietest water was always on the far side, and I decided not to risk crossing. Instead I packed away the rod, and lowered the tailgate for a seat. I pulled off my wet wading boots and sat down with my bare feet drying in the sun. I ate my simple meal of boiled eggs and slices of cold beef.
The ranger had just told me of the size of the Eland herd, and his successes in thwarting poachers. The fishing, while a non-event that day, had been fantastic in weeks and months past. The water was beautifully clean. A storm was brewing over the high berg, and clouds drifted by, shading the landscape in random patterns and heightening the contrast of the hills. I reached for my phone, strolled barefoot to the river bank and took a picture.
There is still a lot to enjoy, right?
It will still be here for the next generation right?
Everyone is listening now, right?
I was standing in a fast flowing stretch of white water, “picking the pockets”. I had rigged up an 8 foot three weight with the new Rio Creek line which my wife just bought for me.
The hopper had been working well, with many fish coming up to it. I had been hooking half of them. Then I thought of something I heard in a flyfishing podcast about how true learning comes from changing from something that is working, to something else that may not work. As they put it ”trying not to catch fish”. It’s counter intuitive. I like it.
So I put it into practice and tied on a CDC and Elk. It was an almost white one, which doesn’t look anything like the colour of the caddis we get in these parts, but as my friend Ray says, at least we can see it. It does have a dark brown body, so maybe that is the important part….the part the fish sees.
Anyway…I lashed it on with my newfound Eugene-Bend knot, which so far has served me much better than the improved clinch which I have used for so many years, and I set to work.
I was targeting the smooth spots, where white water gave way to flat surfaces. They were still very fast flowing surfaces, and this ‘dusting’ practice required a flick of the fly every few seconds. The fly would sail down the slick, and then start skittering as drag set it. I would try throw a mini mend or lift the rod tip to dangle the fly. Anything to extend the drag free drift by a half second or so.
I stepped forward to another good looking run. As I had worked up this piece, I had often looked ahead, decided it was all white water here. ‘Time to move on’ I would say to myself…then take a few steps, say ‘hang on a second’ and take the fly from the keeper again. So progress was really slow. As it turned out, we did about 600 metres of river in near four hours of fishing. (and I did a lot of talking to myself). This run was one of those. As I stepped forward I reassessed and decided it had merit. I started casting again. If you could call it that. Flicking maybe.
On about the tenth flick, I got the seem just right and the fly drifted down closer to me, drag free all the way. You know what that looks like. It’s a minor victory. As it came towards me, in the flash of an eye, a decent Brown rose towards my fly, hesitated, then turned to follow the fly as though it had now been grabbed by a conviction that it needed to clobber it, and clobber it properly! Maybe it was repairing on its earlier indecision. It came straight towards me, and opened its mouth wide enough to have swallowed a lot more that just the fly. It was consumed by a hunger. It was a bit like my mate, who just that morning had greedily emptied way more than his portion of the breakfast Zamalek quart we were sharing, while I was off opening the gate.
But suddenly the fish made direct eye contact with me. It was as though it all happened in slow motion. Its mouth wide open, closing on the innocent little caddis. Greed in its eyes, focus at 7mm off its snout. And then in the blurry backdrop it sees this bloody great fisherman looking straight into its eyes.
Unlike my fishing pal, it decided on discretion over valor, and turning hard right, I saw its broad side as it dashed across the quickening flow in the tail of the pool. It was suspended in the crystal clear slick for a lot less than a moment, and then it was gone, and I was cursing.
A little further on, I concluded fishing another little slick. I had given it as many drifts as it deserved, and I had caught and released a lovely little Brown.
While I was deciding whether to reel in and skip the apparently entirely white water above, I threw the fly just a little less determinedly into a tiny patch of bubbles and detritus that was caught in an aimless patch of water. It was one of those spots where the water comes racing past a big boulder and then just in behind the boulder some of the water gets spat out, and dawdles like it doesn’t know where to go next. If it were a midlands river it would have had some foam and scum and more leaf matter in it. It was one of those places where, if you threw the fly in and lifted the rod tip, the fly would swirl there indefinitely.
I did that now. I tossed the fly in, reached forward and lifted most of the line off the water in front of me to prevent the fly being pulled away. Then I just guided the rod tip this way and that, in an attempt to float the fly over a variety of spots. One quickly learns that in this fast water, with its mysterious undercurrents, moving a drift an inch to the left or right means the difference between a fish and no fish.
This time it didn’t seem to make any difference. Or so I thought. But then, like an apparition, this Brown appears very very slowly from nowhere. It just kind of slunk in there when I wasn’t looking. Which is strange, because I was looking. I was looking intently, but I didn’t see it arrive. It just got there without arriving, if you know what I mean. Then it proceeded to turn on the caddis. But this fish didn’t just get an angle on the fly, swallow and leave. Not this one. Watching it was like watching my buddy eat his after-beer breakfast beans that morning. Just like he scraped the spoon languidly around the base of the can, to secure every last butter bean, this fish did about two hundred and seventy degrees. It just seemed to keep on turning, like it had all the time in the world. I suppose it did have all the time in the world. Its butter beans were going nowhere. Unlike my share of the beer, which disappeared fast, this caddis wasn’t about to be taken from it.
I waited patiently for Mr Brown to finish his theatrics, and when he was quite done, I said “Thank you sir” very politely, and without a sneer, I lifted into him.
The fish came off.
As I changed back to the hopper, I got to thinking that this was one of the more unusual breakfasts I’d had. But then changing things up does make life interesting.
It was late at night and I was nearing the end of a book I picked up at Huddy’s Books. The purchase had ended a hiatus in terms of my book collecting habit, brought about by my circumstances, but now I was relishing the pages of a book new to me. I turned the page on one story and started another. Something about blue dun capes. I read on a little, realizing that tiredness had overtaken my ability to truly digest what I was reading. On the second page I stopped. The piece was brilliant. Brilliant in the way of a rolling epic which spanned decades and transcended there here-and-now. I closed the book. I was too tired to appreciate this. It required relishing.
The next day I re-opened Nick Lyons 1973 “Fisherman’s Bounty” anthology on the story “Blue Dun”, by one Frank Mele.
For the next while I was spellbound. Each paragraph unrolled and soaked in, and I loved the read. Who was this author? How was it that I didn’t know of him? What else had he written?
As it turns out, these were questions that had been asked by other readers of Lyons book, decades earlier, and they too had gone looking for more.
Mele’s “Blue Dun” Story was written in 1970. It was later included in the anthology I was reading, and served to introduce the world to Mele. Coincidentally it was in 1970 that Nick Lyons published his own book, “Seasonable Angler”, and in that book is a story entitled “Mecca”, which Nick Lyons told me in a subsequent e-mail, was about Frank Mele (albeit under the pseundonym ‘Hawkes’), and more pointedly a days fishing in which Lyons was introduced to a man who was to become a friend.
Elsewhere in ‘Seasonable Angler’ Nick Lyons writes of a Payne rod which survived a house fire, and which he mentions needs to be sent to Mele for checking over. I later learned that the rod was given to Nick Lyons by Mele, and later when Mele fell on hard times Nick Lyons gave it back. Between re-reading Lyons book, and “Mecca” which I then learned was the first fly-fishing story Lyons ever wrote, I entered a delightful voyage of discovery.
Frank Mele wrote a book of flyfishing stories which was published in very small numbers in three separate editions, the first of which came out when I was a varsity student in 1988.. After his death in 1996, Nick Lyons brought the book to the wider angling world with a re-published edition, which I have since acquired, had shipped to me here in South Africa, and read. Read I might say, with a level of unsurpassed delight and enjoyment. It is an absolute gem of literature, as promised by Lyons in the foreword, which I first read online and which multiplied my determination to acquire the book. The title of the book is “Small in the eye of a River” (and not “the River” as erroneously printed in the earlier versions).
The writing is what I would describe as highly intelligent. The topics are broad and encompass a life view of enthusiasm, awe and respect, all loosely wrapped around the author’s unfailing love of flyfishing and music. His 30 page “Thoughts on flyfishing” unpacks his life-view and philosophy beautifully, immersing the reader in the topic, which he tackles more eruditely than most forays into this topic. Other stories are variously sweet and innocent, evocative, thought provoking and light. The book is unusual. I can’t think of any other book I could compare it to. I found one passage particularly moving: Mele had discovered Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” after its first (and relatively unsuccessful) 1950 publishing, and had acquired a copy in a colourful way, which I will leave for you to read about. He had written to Marinaro to encourage him, and to praise him for his work. Twenty years later he was to meet Marinaro, who confided in him that after the first publishing he had become depressed about the publication, and how Mele’s letter had carried him forward and prevented him from giving up.
Such touching and epic anecdotes, which straddle decades and warm the heart are surely Mele’s forte!
Mele’s life was unique too. After descending deep down the Google rabbit hole late at night I uncovered insightful gems about him. Many of them were brief eulogies or short articles written by his former violin students, fishermen he had met, and friends. Nick Lyons filled me in a little and he introduced me to James Bendelius, a great friend of Mele, who shared with me the story he once wrote about ‘Goombah’, as he was affectionately known. Bendelius’ story appeared in the Bulletin of The Anglers’ Club of New York in 2008, and is in itself a moving and brilliantly written account of Mele, the man. One of my blog readers from the USA came forward to tell me that he owns one of Mele’s Payne rods. Jamie Bendelius still owns much of his collection of rods, books and other tackle.
In March of 2016, twenty years after his death, an event was held in which panelists told stories of his life and their encounters with him in a forum, with more in the audience who contributed to the memories of the man.
Included in the panel was his son Andy, whose career in environmental work was inspired by his father. The thirteen thousand word transcript of that forum is an insightful document, and takes the reader on a roller-coaster journey through Mele’s passion for bamboo fly rods, his truncated orchestral career, his cooking, his harsh tonque and short temper, and his boundless generosity. Very prevalent in this document and others is the story of how he mobilized to see to it that groundbreaking legislation was enacted to save his beloved Trout waters in the Catskills mountains, where NY city storage dams threatened to starve rivers of reasonable minimum flows. His legacy in this is truly something that has changed the face of flyfishing in the Catskill mountains for more generations than he would ever know.
The stories were personal and touching. He was a small and scathing man with deep set eyes and a big heart. Bendelius relates how the only time he saw a tear in Mele’s eye was when he gifted to him a rare book that he had been seeking for more than 50 years. Others recall the exact recipe of his pesto, and some relate his taste for liver, and sheep’s heads, and other carnivore’s delights that left some squeamish. A small group of passionate anglers who were cemented by the diminutive, argumentative Italian, called themselves “The Woodstock Anglers” and were clearly an institution, apparently still are.
Everything I read about Frank Mele is filled with colour. He had an immersive affliction for casting dry flies with a bamboo rod, which he did with a grace and style that impressed all those who watched him. Says James Bendelius : “ The Syracuse rod maker Dan Brenan was an early inspiration to Frank and his love for cane made Jim Payne a close friend. Frank would spend time at the Payne shop discussing the merits with Jim and later Walt Carpenter. He was always pursuing the ultimate bamboo rod.
Goombah knew cane rods. Not in the technical sense but in the artistic sense. “
He is referred to by many as a mentor, and others call him their ‘maestro’. His quest for the perfect rod lead him to the brink of financial ruin, and consumed him as much as his passion for wine, women and song. He loved to smoke an acrid pipe tobacco, drank coffee that could ‘melt the spoon’, and flung pasta at his ceiling to see if it was cooked. He wasn’t known for his cleanliness. He collected flyfishing books, and engaged in correspondence with some of America’s flyfishing greats. Amongst his friends was none other than Preston Jennings, the Darbees, Art Flick, and Dan Brennan, to name just a few. His humble home was a veritable train station of violin students, flyfishers, hackle breeders, political lobbyists and all whom he invited in to taste his sauces. He loved to write. His stories were apparently published in magazines, and he wrote a few books, but only one other, “Polpetto” was published (to critical acclaim). The rest of his material is relegated to papers in boxes in peoples’ houses, and in journals that pre-date the internet and don’t appear in searches. A few people said they had some papers, and ‘must go take a look to see if they can find them’.
In wading through all this material, and exchanging e-mails, it struck me that this was a man who was in many ways discovered appreciated and venerated long after his death. It is almost as though the world was slow to wake to what it had lost. I can’t help wondering what more he may have written, had he received the encouragement he himself gave to Marinaro during his living years.
I also can’t help hoping that something might trigger some of his old friends to go and dig in those boxes, find those papers, and see to it that they make it into the public eye. If that which was published is anything to go by, there would be a queue for a posthumous publication……..
Postscript: I am grateful to Jamie Bendelius, who, subsequent to the first posting of this story, sent me the two pictures of the inscribed books in his private library. I have inserted these in the post above in the relevant places. The first is in what was Mele’s copy of Nick Lyons book “Seasonable Angler” and the second is in Mele’s copy of “Modern Dry Fly Code”.
A number of weeks back, I was out on the stream with a good mate of mine. It was a warm, cloudy day, in which the light was silvery, but more significantly a fairly fierce wind buffeted us and ruffled the surface. We fished up a section of riffle water interspersed with bigger pools. Often on this piece we will say “the fish are in the pools today”, or conversely “They are all in the pockets”, or perhaps “they are holding deep…get down”. On this particular day the results were inconclusive. We got a few fish from both, but we were hardly tripping over them. It was fun, but it wasn’t a red-letter day. The wind was pretty exhausting!
We reached a point where the road runs close to the stream, and my partner mentioned that he was tired. I anticipated that we would make use of this take-out point and call it a day. I wanted a few more throws in a good pool so I fished it very thoroughly, thinking it would be my last fishing spot for the day. I tried a dry, then a light nymph, and then I worked a deeper pattern, cancelling out options…running through the usual methodical process of elimination. My fishing partner (the one who had said he was tired) , went ahead and fished the only nearby water available, seemingly to kill time until I was done. The water he was on was less than ideal. It was very fast: all bubbles and whiteness. And remember the wind was blowing hard. In fact it had picked up and it would have been fair to use the word ‘howling’.
He knuckled down; dried his fly; got into position, and with the focus of a hungry heron, set about placing his caddis on dinner plate-sized patches of smooth water. He said his hit rate was low, but he kept at it.
When I caught up with him he was excited. “five casts, five fish” he enthused. “Just throw you fly in any patch that isn’t white, and I promise, you will get a fish first cast” he said.
And I did.
My point in relating this, is not to expound the merits of fast water, or wind. My point is that Mr Tired stayed focused and fished as thoroughly as he had the first pool of the day. In other words he was consistent in his focus, positivity and curiosity. He was able to say to himself “I wonder what will happen if I throw a fly in there”, even though we were at the end of the day. (actually that turned out not to be the end of the day…we carried on and Mr Tired suddenly wasn’t so tired…and he made a pig of himself!)
Another friend of mine is consistent in his dedication to looking for bugs and clues. He is the guy who will take fifteen minutes to survey a pool and consider his approach at the end of a long blank day. He will look into the shallows around his feet to see what insect life there is, he will try to catch one, and he will change fly, or re-tie his knot, or go down a tippet diameter, or try the fly deeper in the water column. This is at the end of the day. Most of us can already taste the beer, and it shows in how we fish the last pool. I confess…I am the one who strolls up to the last piece of water, plops the fly in somewhat resignedly, and goes through the motions. This is certainly true on a slow day, and even more so on a blank day.
If I applied this defeated apathy and lack of care at the first pool, I would probably never have a red-letter day. I know that the fresh first-pool-approach is more likely to produce fish. I know that it would be great to not have a blank day, and get it together at the last run or pool. But do I fish the last pool with the same dedication as the first one of the day? No. I am inconsistent.
Will you fish a tiny fly on a still piece of water when fish are rising? Yes. I am sure you would. Will you fish a #18 nymph in the same water when there are whitecaps?
Why not? Why do you need a big Woolly Bugger in a big wind? Do you think bugs get bigger under a ruffled surface? Do you think fish stop eating flies of that size when a hatch stops or a wind picks up? Like me, you are being inconsistent. Illogical.
Let’s look at inconsistency in another way. If you were with a band of like-minded fly fishers, on a famous stream, with a high population of fish and bugs where the fishing was currently good, I wouldn’t mind betting that you would focus on what the fish are, or might be eating. We would probably discuss fly choice, look for bugs, compare tippet diameters and discuss changing conditions and possible adjustments to our approach.
What about if you and I go visit a little-fished, supposedly second-rate stream on a partially exploratory basis. No fish seen. Little threads of doubt already sewn. “B team” thoughts…..
Would you and I look for bugs, change tippet formula, re-tie knots, and team up to refine our skills to a fine point, pursuant of a glorious end-game? No?
Why the difference?
We know which attitude and approach produces more fish.
I tire easily. I lose confidence. I listen to the tiny nay-sayers in my head. I get lazy.
The bad weather, the poor returns over the last few weeks, the fact that this water is not as popular as another….all these things are my downfall. How about you?
The guys who raise eyebrows with their fishing success, will fish a puddle like it is a stretch of the Test near Stockbridge. They will focus on the finesse of what they are doing in driving rain, or tree buckling wind, on supposedly second-rate waters and when they have only ten minutes left.
They are veritable machines!
They are consistent.
In recent years I have been re-reading some books on the topic of fishing the chalk streams and the limestone creeks (UK and USA respectively), and my attention was drawn to why these places were and are, such universities of flyfishing thought.
It relates to the fact that with the slow flow, unruffled surface, consistent water temperature, and clean water, they get regular and to some degree predicable hatches. It also relates to the fact that fish don’t have to expend a lot of energy to swim forward or up, to sip a miniscule fly. Added to that, the water chemistry (alkaline) is such that it produces a lot of bugs, and you can see everything happening.
With the laboratory set up, the observer just has to get into position, don a good peak hat and a pair of polarized glasses and watch the show. Of course the fish are spooky, so stalking them to watch is something to be done with care. Way back when, blinds were erected along the Letort spring creek in Pennsylvania for this purpose, and voila, the university was open.
From that of course, spilled theories and photos and detailed analysis, that allowed us to recognize a rise-form typical of a trout eating a specific bug. That is because the professor in question could take a look at the bug a few feet away, drifting very slowly on the water. He could look with the naked eye, or a pair of binoculars or he could stroll down and net a few. Then, with the bug’s ID confirmed he could watch the fish taking them. How far was the fish prepared to move; what movements did it make to consume it, and so forth. Do you remember those photos in Goddard and Clark’s book, and the ones in “Ring of the Rise”?
When I entered the flyfishing world, Nick Lyons was at the peak of his career publishing flyfishing books, and there were people in my town who knew how to bust the political sanctions imposed by governments around the world against South Africa, to the extent that they could get those books.
We read them and took it all in.
Then we went fishing and tried to see what we were reading about, through the lens afforded us by those images and texts.
We were conducting that observation, both through inexperienced eyes, and on fast flowing freestone steams. Our streams were variously dirty, fast, acidic, drought affected and inhabited by fewer, smaller insects. The stuff we heard in the hotel meeting rooms and the slideshows we saw were mildly puzzling, because try as we may, we struggled to see these things when we were out on a piece of water.
To this day, I witness people pontificating about the exact shade of the caddisfly they have seen hatching in a particular location, looking for one, and not finding it, or anything else hatching, putting on a large Woolly Bugger and setting forth. Hell, I do that all the time. My own journal is littered with comments in the “hatches and feeding” box that say “couldn’t see any”, or “who knows what they were eating”. In recent months I have made myself a bug net and have been sampling some rapids, runs and glides. Something I have noticed is the couple of caddis pupae I have found, when I could see no hatch at all.
Be honest, have you ever seen a caddis pupa on a trout stream? Don’t feel bad, I hadn’t for decades, and for anyone who scoffs at that, take a look at the worst, fuzziest photo in any fishing book: It’s the photo of the caddis pupa!
Unless you have a bug net, and are lucky, you have very little chance of ever seeing one. Do you imitate them? Of course you do! So do I. Why? Because we read books, listen to experts and watch YouTube videos, that’s why.
So why can’t we do our own observation and learn from that, rather than from material coming from elsewhere.
There are a number of reasons. A big one is that we lack that consistency of ideal water conditions that I mentioned earlier. Our freestone streams oscillate between flood and drought, and have long periods of coloured water, or poor oxygenation, or high silt load. You can avoid that by going into the berg where the streams are cleaner, but the flow rates are just as variable, and always faster. Up in the berg you are on white water a lot of the time, and there fish either don’t grow big, or if they do, its not by eating thousands of tiny bugs in energy sapping flows. Go lower down to the meadow type water, and you have less ideal conditions, and in all cases our water is slightly acidic at best. And here the bigger Trout eat tadpoles, crabs, terrestrials and other large meaty, opportunistic meals, which give them more reward per unit of energy spent, than sipping minutiae.
So we don’t have consistent hatches. A small number of people have tried to develop hatch charts for my neck of the woods, but I haven’t seen an attempt at that in the last thirty years. I have seen a lot of Woolly Buggers thrown: a good number of them thrown by yours truly.
I use the term Woolly Buggers loosely of course. You can insert “Perdigon” or “PTN” or “something buggy” in there, the story is the same: we are not predicting, preparing for, and setting out to fish a hatch or even just a prevalence of a particular invertebrate species.
So, is this something to bemoan: The fact that we don’t have our own neat university of study, where we can crack the code in South Africa?
The way I see it, the lack of predictability introduces both a lot of postulating, theorizing and experimentation on the one hand, and a lot of excitement around hunting down opportunistic “purple patches ”,when it all comes together.
What do I mean by a purple patch? Let me define that in this context:
A Purple patch is when you encounter a prevalence, hatch or movement of one or more type of bug, imitate those bugs is size and form, and catch some fish that you might not otherwise have caught.
Some people would define a purple patch as a time when they caught heaps of fish. That doesn’t do it for me. I can catch dozens of fish on a generic nymph with a big silver bead on it, and I can enjoy that, but that is not what I am referring to here.
I write of “cracking the code”, and for me that is the holy grail. I actually despair when I catch fish after fish on successive trips, and have no idea why. The concept that a dark fly, or a white fly or a small fly “seems to be working today” has as much appeal to me as the notion of a beginner hitting a hole-in-one. So, soulless dredging with a pattern that seems to be working today is something that I get drawn into only through apathy. And a big fish caught that way, is on some level a bit of a let-down. I don’t want to catch a lunker because I was at the right place at the right time. I want to catch it because I worked it all out, hunted it and outsmarted it!
To be honest, that is something that seldom happens.
Add to that the fact that where I live, our number of flyfishers seems to be dwindling, to some degree at least due to emigration as people escape the chaos that is South Africa. Left behind is a small band of fly-fishers, and in turn only a small percentage of those pursue the type pf purple patch that I define above. How many fishermen are there in the KZN Midlands who will give up a string of fishing days to go hunting bugs, watching fish and taking notes and photos. What’s more, doing that on a challenging stream, with fewer fish where not many fishermen venture, is hardly an activity that competes with watching Curry Cup rugby.
It’s a lonely space I tell you!
But I recently saw a picture of a South African bloke in goggles getting into a pool to study the Trout. Ed Herbst leads the way in studying the stream, with his insightful Instagram posts. And the Letort Regulars in the USA and the likes of Sawyer and Goddard in the UK were oddities. They were outliers. They didn’t follow the crowd. They even chose some less popular waters, and they got inquisitive. I see a new book on South African aquatic invertebrates is due out soon.
I sniff an opportunity to start delving into our inconsistent conditions and attending the not so neat, not so consistent, University Of Purple.
Last year around this time, I started a little “side-page” here on Truttablog in which I share my local fishing conditions. Not catches and flies and techniques mind you. Just water temperatures , which streams are blown out, which rivers are low, and the like. And then also just the ones I happen to know about, or have crossed in the last few days, or which friends have told me about.
It is an irregular and perhaps slightly unpredictable thing, because my travels are erratic and unpredictable. The result is a little bohemian, and certainly not something you can rely upon alone to plan fishing trips. I also only occasionally share the posts on Facebook and Twitter (which I am increasingly disenchanted with, by the way), the result being that the reports are something an interested fisherman would have to go looking for.
That sits well with me.
In some ways it is like the camaraderie and buzz that we used to have to go looking for before the internet came along. We would go into the fly shop in Maritzburg and hang around for a morning, eavesdropping and hoping to pick up on some news of where was fishing well. Or we would visit the booking office in Underberg and prick up our ears for news of what was producing, or which stretch of river was clean. We attended the fishing club meetings with similar objectives, and we hung on every word. The combination of information, as well as the inferences we were able to draw from multiple comments, reports or rumours, was what we used to plan our next day out. Or perhaps it was what guided us on whether it was worthwhile to go out at all. We had to work at it. Nothing was handed to us on a plate.
So in the last fifty two weeks, there have (co-incidentally) been fifty two reports on the page. No, not one a week: remember, I said they were erratic; but there have been fewer than two thousand views. That sits well with me too. Like the fact that internet searches generate more than five times the Truttablog site traffic than all social media channels put together.
In a world where people are punting themselves, and competing for attention on frenetically busy media channels in which worthwhile content is only discovered by endlessly sifting through a lot of noise, I for one am starting to move away from that. I arrive at a question or interest, and I go looking for the information that I want or need. I use a browser that limits tracking and blocks all advertising, and I do a lot more searching and a lot less sifting (or “scroll and judge” as my daughter calls it). And I enjoy the process more, find a lot of older content, and find more well-researched stuff. Do I spend less time online? Probably not, but I definitely waste less time. I also find cool stuff, and go down Google rabbit holes (actually “Duck Duck Go” rabbit holes) that completely absorb me, and have friends asking “how the hell did you find that?”
So, after fifty two weeks of running the water conditions page experiment, I think I will just keep it ticking over, un-punted and low key with no ego invested in the stats. If you happen to read it, and it helps you plan a day on the water, then maybe I have shared some of what I remember enjoying at the fishing club meetings, the fly shop, or the booking office.
That sits well with me.
I had started in just below the wetland, in a spot where enormous grasses cascade over the stream banks and trail in the water.
The only way to get the fly in there is to choose a spot where there is a slight gap or curve upstream, make a daring cast, and let the current take the fly into the slither of shade beside the bank. I had done that with a dry dropper: an elk hair caddis, with a pheasant tail nymph of sorts strung below it, New Zealand style. Those bankside haunts had produced no fish. Not this time anyway. Neither had the odd deep slot where the current bubbled over rapids and then rippled over a scoured channel.
A little further up I went through a side channel where I have spooked fish before, but never landed them.
Just above that, wading through a wide area of pocket water, I came across the shucks of two Stoneflies on the downstream side of a boulder. I stopped to photograph them.
I had been hunting for these for weeks, using a bug net and shuffling my feet in rapids before inspecting the sample in a white tray. After all that effort these two just presented themselves to me when I had a fly rod in hand. Sometimes the lines between work and fishing are blurred.
As the sun came and went, and small flurries of warm breeze ruffled the water surface, I would lose sight of the dry, then find it again on the water. The clouds started to obscure the sun a little more often. There was a greying on the western horizon. The weather forecast had predicted a storm in the early afternoon. From the moment I started, it was as though the egg timer was running. Having worked through some magnificent deep pools, with a third, very small, but dense fly now tied a few inches below the first nymph, I was still empty handed. A sticky humidity had descended and there was a rumbling, first ahead of me where I had been watching the horizon, and then, surprisingly, behind me. I turned my head, to see that the more imminent threat was closing in from the east.
After a few more casts, I reeled in and considered my route. There was a tight barbed wire fence between me and my vehicle, which I could see on the hillside about a kilometre away. Added to the barbed wire was a strand of electric. These fences are not easy to get through. There was a gate off to the left, and a stile up ahead alongside Bird Pool. I reckoned the cattle gate would give me a more direct route. I started pacing up the river bank to a logical point at which to depart and go up the hillside. In the five minutes it took for me to get there, the weather lifted just a little, and I changed plans, choosing to walk up the river bank where I could watch for rises. When I reached Bird Pool the weather looked heavy again, but I was closer to the vehicle now, so I elected to risk a few more minutes and threw a few casts in the pool.
I have never done well there. The white water cascades off the south bank and flows away across the pool, meaning that only the near seam can be fished. The rest of the pool is a futile and frustrating drag avoidance puzzle which I have never solved. I lingered and worked at the puzzle as I always do. Then I reeled in and climbed the stile, ready to cut back up the pool. I paused again feeling a reluctance to leave the river. I looked at the sky. It had changed again. The cloud was higher. There was now a storm moving away from me to the south east. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the one which had been in the west, or the one in the east, but the field had changed in an instant, and I reckoned this storm, whichever one it was, was moving away. I again curved back to the river, and made my way up to the Forest Runs.
Now I found myself standing beside the second deep run. The lower one is good when there is a decent flow. Today was decent flow, and I had plied my dry and nymphs with the utmost care and concentration through that first run, without result. Now I was at the even deeper and more appealing run: the one that didn’t require good flow to look unquestionably promising. I took the flies from the keeper and got to work.
Up ahead of me on the right bank, was a forest tree that had collapsed into the water just where it slowed. There was a good sized Brown Trout under it. I couldn’t see it, but I know Brown Trout, and there was no question. It was under there. I took some chances with my casts, getting the fly in close, and letting the current guide them in under the obstruction, millimeters from the snags. I held on in anticipation and with a great confidence that proved to be unfounded. There was not a touch.
Thunder rolled again. I decided on a few last throws with alternative methods. I cut off all three flies, cut back to a stronger, shorter tippet, glanced around as though to see who was watching and extracted my little film cannister. My clandestine vault of the uncouth. I extracted from it, a brown version of my Taddy Bugger. It is tied on a jig hook, with a slotted bead, a small dense tail of the most bulky marabou I can find. The tail has two strands of flash in it. The body is dubbed, and the hackle at the front is from an old hen badger cape. I strapped it on, moved to the top of the run, and let the thing fly out across the current. “Five swings”, I told myself, “then I am gone”. On the second swing I brought the fly around just above the obstruction which I had just fished from below with my nymphs. Jiggle, jiggle. I could picture the marabou tail working its magic.
The fish took hard and confidently. I brimmed with self-assured vindication, and then quickly settled into a state of nervousness brought about by the painful knowledge of how many fish have simply come unstuck of late. I held my breath and concentrated as I worked to bring the fish under control. Holding the rod high, I outpaced it downstream, getting below it, and to a point where I could climb into the stream. I netted it there, and relaxed, a smile spreading across my face. I removed the fly and studied the fish as I held it in the submerged cloth of the net. It was a broad fish; something of substance in my hand. I lifted it a little and cast my eyes down its flanks. I put it at sixteen inches. It had magnificent blotches down its lower flanks, which tended more to orange than red. I put the rod under my arm, lowered the net, and reached for my phone in my top pocket to get a picture before releasing it. As I positioned the phone and got my finger over the shutter, ready to capture the moment, the net tilted slightly, and the fish darted off between my legs and was gone.
Later, I would think back to the escape of the fish, and in my mind’s eye consider it a fish that had gotten away. The fact that I had no picture of it, tricked my mind with a sense of loss.
Minutes later, I stood above the third run, swinging the same fly expectantly, when there was a tiny rush of wind that ruffled my shirt. In an instant a tiny blue kingfisher passed under my elbow, and flew under my rod, departing at breakneck speed straight down the river ahead of me. Its brilliant blue colour flashed in a patch of sunlight way below me, against the contrast of the deep green forest on the far bank, and it was gone. I found myself smoothing my shirt against my body, as if to straighten it out after the commotion, and I said out loud “Gee, that was close!”.
Had the kingfisher existed?
Had that fish existed?
There were more patches of sun.
Had the storm even existed?
I fished on, in a reflective mood. There was a short pull in the sweep below Pinetree Pool, but surprisingly nothing to be had in the pool itself. Up near the next stile a fish flashed at the fly as I reeled in to move on. Why hadn’t it taken a well-presented nymph, and instead gone for a reeled in dragging fly? I shook my head and looked at the darkening sky. The storm had not returned, but it had been replaced by a heaviness of the atmosphere that was palpable. One last pool, I told myself: The Black Hole.
I approached with care. There are good fish at The Black Hole. I know there are, I have seen them. I have caught them. I put the Taddy Bugger back on. I could sense that it was called for here.
I dropped the fly daringly close to the overhanging sage on the far side, and wriggled the offering back to me. On the third retrieve a Brown ascended vertically from the depths and pounced on the fly before I could lift into the next cast. It thrashed around, as Browns can do. I descended the bank with the net outstretched, as the fish crossed the rim into the net bag, the fly pulled loose. It thrashed and before I could lift it, departed the way it had come. I measured it in my mind. Fourteen inches. That one would go into the log book.
As I stood re-tying the fly, the buff spotted flufftail called its mournful electric call. The sound resonated in the heavy air. Then a black cuckoo called in the distance. Next a roll of thunder rumbled off in the distance. It was warm and oppressive. Two more casts produced a strong take, and then I reeled in, and I was striding across the eragrostis field.
The first raindrops spattered on the windscreen as I started the engine. The storm that followed was vicious.
The afternoon was gone, like the breath of a kingfishers wings.