Waters & words

Streams

To tame a river

“It is old, old fishing landscape, scarred with its human contacts, familiar and friendly and kind to the frailties of anglers.”  Howard T Walden. Upstream and down. 1938.

The colonial idiosyncrasies of our heritage have us leaning to a tamed and manicured world. A conquered wilderness, which we celebrate as “wild” but enjoy for its comforts of stonemasonry, or footpaths and trimmed briar.  I for one hanker after the quaint, the named, and the iconic. Do you revel in relating the story of your catch, replete with the name of the pool?  Do you inwardly sigh with nostalgic affection at the sight of a stone arch over a river? Do you take your wilderness complete with a puff adder that will bite you, or do you prefer to  savour the golden glow of the  leather box, as you fold back its lid on the tailgate of your truck, to reveal a fine whisky and two glasses at fishing’s close?

I am told that a taste test uncovers the truth in coffee. The declaration is that we like it strong, but the taste test says otherwise.  Strong coffee is the stuff of cowboys and those who have no fears to conquer. The smooth flavours of a mild blend are what strokes our true satisfaction.

Would you be the one to take down the signs that show the way to the beat, or would you revel in creating the timeless logo with which to adorn it.

How about a footbridge. A fencing stile perhaps?

Too tame a river?

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Nothing new under the sun: Tight line nymphing

 

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“His system was to attach a split shot sinker well above a nymph, and fish it on a short and fairly taught line with a colourful leader and a little sleeve of orange marker. His success was phenomenal …….”    Charles F Waterman, writing of George Anderson fishing the Madison some time in the 1960’s.   From “Mist on the River”  Published in 1986.

The outrigger technique : “The upstream, dead drift, tight line, high rod, weighted nymph technique”  ….Chuck Fothergill in The Masters of the Nymph  1979

An old American fly fishing technique, by Al Simpson


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Upper Umgeni River-11


Lessons from the landscape: how low do they join

Many forays from my home waters to the streams of the North Eastern Cape highlands, have got me thinking about the differences between those waters, and the ones nearer my home.

The climate is drier up there, and the veld can be positively scrub-like compared to our lush, humid midlands of KZN.  The rivers also flow southward or south westward, whereas all the home streams flow towards the east.  We have a lot of Brown Trout streams here at home, whereas around Rhodes and Barkly East, the waters are mainly Rainbow waters.  Our rocks, especially in the lower reaches, are black, angular and slippery, whereas the NE Cape has sandstone bedrock or fine gravel for the most part, making for easier wading.

But here is something that perhaps sets the area apart:

In KZN, our streams tend to flow down from the Drakensberg in a relatively straight path, and quite quickly descend below the 1200m contour, BEFORE they are joined by their neighbouring streams. What I mean by this, is that there are relatively few junctions of major rivers within the area that can sustain trout.

The significance of this, is that the KZN trout have limited (Very limited!) opportunity to travel down one valley and up another. This means that the genetic make up in one valley could arguably be completely separate and potentially different from the next valley.

Another aspect to consider, is that when a stream dries up in the North Eastern Cape, it’s Trout population can be restored from another artery when the stream begins to flow again.  This is very seldom the case in KZN.

The situation in the Cape is as a result of a jumble of mountains, with rivers and streams that cut through them in a variety of directions, and with the land sloping off to the plains very gradually. This allows rivers to meander and intersect at higher altitudes.

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I suppose this makes our trout in the KZN rivers more vulnerable. If a drought or pollution incident were to befall the trout of one valley, it might not quickly receive some fresh bloodlines to re-populate it from another.     In the NE Cape, after the severe droughts of 2015/6, we all saw photos of the Sterkspruit so dry that not only did it cease to flow, but the puddles started to dry out.  A visit to the area this year, revealed that the streams are again full of countless small trout.  It really is quite miraculous!    This miracle is no doubt aided by the fact that just a few trout had to survive in 1 or 2 of the streams, and the re-population of all streams after the drought would surely happen given time. 

Confluences of trout rivers are an important feature…..


Concentration and attention

“There are not many men who can fish all morning without seeing or feeling a fish and not suffer some deterioration in care or keenness that is likely to retard their reaction when at last the moment comes.”  Arthur Ransome,   Rod and Line, 1929

Who have you have lost a fish, because you weren’t expecting it?  A fish chased you fly at the end of the cast as you lifted off, and you were not focused enough to halt your rhythm and leave the fly in the water.

A fish took your dry, but you had allowed such a bow in the line since last casting that you couldn’t connect.

You walked up on a pool, and realised too late that there was a lunker in the tail end, as you saw him scoot off.

You were holding the line tight against the cork grip in your left hand, and something hammered the fly so hard and so fast that you didn’t have time to let go, and your tippet parted.

 

Do these things sound familiar?

It seems that they were familiar back in 1929, but we all still do them.

Upper Umgeni River-16

Solutions?  Well, I think you have to beat human nature.  Accept that this is something you WILL fail at.

Here are some ideas that might make you fail less often:

  • Change fly, tippet, or strike indicator, just for the sake of doing it. We all refocus and elevate our expectation when we put out a new offering
  • Take a rest. Our sport is one of concentration, but I am guilty of hardly ever just sitting on a rock to rest. Try it
  • Begin with the end in mind.  You end goal is to catch a fish. Don’t forget that. When you start enjoying the curve of the line and the pull of the rod tip in the cast, you have probably gone all esoterically mushy on yourself. Cut it out!
  • Imagine a fish following your fly, as often and as long as you can. That’ll fix it!
  • Mix things up by casting into “crazy places”….like 2 inches from the shore, in behind the cattails, in a side pocket smaller than a side plate.   If you are fishing a Brown trout water, you may be in for some surprises. Even if not, your next cast, into more obvious water, will carry more hope. Hope = concentration.
  • Slow down. Stop. Think.  Re-work a minor strategy for each spot you arrive at, rather than moving faster and faster, and ever more mindlessly.

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Dances with snakes

My sister reminded me the other day of what may have been my first encounter with a Puff Adder. The damned thing was lying atop an old hessian sack, trying to make itself look like a hessian sack, so that it could take out a little blonde farm boy.  Since then I have stumbled on, jumped over, driven over and recoiled from these things more times than I care to remember.  There was the time a bunch of us came over the saddle at Gateshead on our way back down from fishing and found a cluster of babies. A “gaggle of snakes” as I call them.  Then there was a particularly orange specimen near the cattle feeding area on Reekie Lyn that got my heart pumping.  Then there was the one Rhett and I drove over in his landcruizer of the way down to the Ndawana to fish.  We drove over it repeatedly, but it didn’t seem to notice, heightening my suspicion that these things are deeply evil, and may actually be immune to death.

Aside  from Puff Adders, there were the Night Adders that lived in the ticky-creeper on the veranda steps of my grandparents farmhouse. Then there was the cobra that crossed the road in front of Petro and I on the Eerste River, with its head in the fynbos one end and its tail in the bush on the other side.  I don’t think I have ever see a bigger snake. The snake gaitors that Tom Sutcliffe had lent me on the same water a few days earlier suddenly seemed so hopelessly inadequate.

Tom Sutcliffe (4 of 22)

 

Then there was the trauma doctor friend of ours who told me to forget that the BS about hippos being Africa’s most dangerous animals. “Far and away …SNAKES” he assured me.   It probably lies in the statistics…….maybe more people die from Hippo encounters than snake encounters, but he was adamant that it was snake victims that filled the emergency room.

My friend Russell showed me the goose bumps on his arm after he related the story of his encounter with a Berg Adder last week. He was navigating some high country on a motorbike, putting his feet down all the time, like a kid on a scooter, when he saw the little terror right where he would have put his foot.

That reminds me of a berg hike we did as kids to Bannerman’s hut near Giants Castle.  We overnighted at the hut, and were to summit the pass the following morning, but alas, driving rain and cold drove us back to the hut.  Later the same day we struck out for Giants Castle camp, walking single file down the path at some speed.  It had by now turned hot and windy….perfect snake weather. First we encountered a Berg Adder that the lead hiker jumped over in terror, leaving the second guy at risk.  Then we saw two more snakes….probably “Skaapstekers”  By then us kids were all jumpy, so it was agreed that Keith Duane would hike in front. I was some distance behind him, when I came around a corner and nearly jumped out of my skin for the fourth time that day.  He was standing  next to the path, pointing down into the path with a straight finger and a piercing alarmed look. I followed the line of his arm…and saw……  a Shongololo!

MIllipede

There was the time at Roman baths that I spotted a Skaapsteker just before my foot was about to land on  its head.  Then we had a trip to Highmoor in April where the Skaapstekers were just EVERYWHERE.     There was the time I was pushing my daughter along on her little pink bike,  sans training wheels , when I kicked a grass snake. Hard.  Then the Jack Russel walked right over a Rinkhals without knowing, and when we noticed it, we were one side, the dog was the other side, and the snake was angry.

We have had snakes in the laundry basket.  Snakes in gumboots. Snakes on the windowsill.

This would all be fine, except that I am terrified of the things.

So last week when a puffy struck at my calf and got the fabric of my longs just millimetres from my skin, I sort of freaked out a little.

A few days later, rattled more that a rattle snake, wearing snake gaitors and probing the path ahead of me with a stick , I didn’t take too kindly to the occasional  innocent tap to my calf from my wife’s hiking pole as she walked behind me. I know she struggles to get me onto a dance floor, but this method of inducing dancing just isn’t cricket. (especially given the embarrassing girl-like squeals it tends to induce).

lower Furth

 

PS.  That Puff Adder that was immune to the Landcruizer tyres was crossing the road beside a large root that shielded it from the imprint of the tyre. I am still  very suspicious however, that something as evil as a Puff Adder may in fact be able to avert death through mystical means.

PPS.  I suppose the fact that I have thus far averted a snake bite, given the number of scary incidents I have had, itself borders on the mystical.

PPPS: I recommend you stay away from me on river banks.  I seem to attract the damned things.


Getting happily beaten

A friend made a valid point the other day. It seems obvious now, but consider this:

When you fish a stillwater, there is a very good chance that for at least a portion of the day, you will stand there, or sit there in your float tube, and think about work, or some domestic trouble. Now think back to the last day you spent on a river or stream.  You scrambled up banks and slid down into the water, and waded over uneven rocks, and slipped and slithered , and hiked, and focused and cast and watched the dry fly or the indicator….all day long.  I wouldn’t mind betting that you came home beaten…..I mean really physically tired….and mentally refreshed.  I wouldn’t mind betting that you didn’t think about the mortgage, or that idiot at work either. 

(Ted Leeson describes the concept of a “vacation” , and vacating the mind in his superb book, “Inventing Montana”…its worth a read!)

 

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Maybe you got some Browns?

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If you are a stillwater fisherman…..consider the streams…..  Think of it as a “vacation”.

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Umgeni River Trout-8


Lessons from the Landscape: Kamberg and a return to wildness

As a kid we visited and fished Kamberg a fair bit.Many of us did.

I have fond memories:

  • Jumping out of my skin when concentrating on a rising fish, in my own little world, when a ranger came up on the river bank alongside me  unnoticed and asked “Liseeence?”  Followed by the rattling off of every Trout fly that he knew. He knew a lot of them!
  • Booking  Stillerus beat number one, and being excited at being offered beat two in whispered tones by the lady in the office, as no-one had booked it that day. I felt so privileged!
  • Mown paths along the course of Stillerus, with beat markers.
  • Smartly dressed guards at the gate, with gleaming boots, snapping to attention for every car.
  • Creeping through wattles and brambles on Game Pass, trying to get to the river.
  • Lots of fishermen.

I could go on.

Now, alongside the broken down Trout hatchery, and having entered a crumbling, abandoned gate house, you will encounter this:

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The grass is not mown, and the picnic table is toppled and broken.  No guards. No salutes. No picnickers.  But notice the ring-barked tree. And notice how on Game Pass you don’t need to go creeping through the wattles.  I find wilted, sprayed (treated) bramble there quite often.  And no other fishermen, apart from a very small band who extoll the virtues of the stream on Facebook.

So things fall apart. But not completely. Conservation is still taking place, it just is not being offered on a plate to paying guests. Interesting. Money is being spent on conserving nature, but the source of income to fund it has been abandoned.

Stillerus is wild and unkempt, and the authorities have moved their own staff into the cottage there, that one could once hire, so that there is no longer accommodation for visitors.  The fishing is still excellent.

Stillerus (4 of 26)

Heard any news on how Stillerus is fishing lately?

I thought not.  You have to know someone now. In a sense it is more private. You definitely will not encounter other fishermen there.  Try Googling it. You won’t find much, and what you do find is outdated. Did you hear about the four pounder that was caught there this season? 

You need to know someone.

But it is still there, and it is available to those who seek it out.

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  Whoever seeks it out might have to get involved in spraying the bramble at some stage, or ring barking a wattle tree, or engaging with the authorities to partner on getting it done.

And while we are in this phase of a return to wildness (I am looking forward to Duncan Brown’s new book!) , restaurants have proliferated  lower down in the catchments. Country restaurants, which people drive out to, and at which they while away the hours on a deck overlooking a mountain or a river.  When Kamberg was in its prime, people didn’t have access to such things, but they would pack sandwiches and go for a walk or some flyfishing in the country.   Kamberg is empty. The restaurants are full. And the one who hikes up to the very upper Mooi to see how far up he can find Trout, is an intrepid explorer, but one who will claim to “go there all the time”, when in fact he was last there three seasons back. The place is empty, and it is there for the taking by a shrunk band of flyfishers.  A band, which I believe are more proficient fly fishers than the droves of casual fishermen who used to visit Kamberg, and fill the coffers of the conservation funds.

Maybe it lends itself to a guide, and there is an opportunity there for the “resort” to be accessible again in that way…….. but experience shows that there are not enough visiting fly-fishers to keep a guide in business in these parts. 

So it is wilder, arguably unkempt, in a way that doesn’t matter, but possibly at risk of a lack of environmental management.  One could get philosophical about what the desired outcome is.

(Read HERE and HERE)

Where to from here?  I don’t know. I have been blamed for giving away “secret spots” like this one, but having done so, it still is not crowded. And if someone called for volunteers to spray the bramble on Stillerus, I wonder how many would put their hands up? 


Coffee and quotes

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On running out of flies on the river:

“I had to go home and be in time for supper, an astonishing mishap, breaking all precedents”.  From “Rod and Line” by Arthur Ransome…. 1929

(This little book is a delight!  It is poetic in its delivery, modern, adventurous, and upbeat in its content, and not the stuffy armchair stuff that you might expect to be hearing from a Brit between the wars.)


Slowly slowly, kill a tree (and teach a man to fish)

When I was a youngster, my Dad took me out to a wattle grove that grew out along a ridge in front of the old house, and taught me to shoot with a .22 rifle.  He coached me slowly, and with great patience, teaching me about stance, and nestling of the rifle butt into my shoulder. He cautioned me about the position of my cheek, too close to the rifle.  Then he folded his hankie, and put it up on a tree nearby as a target.  I hit it on the first shot. Praising me, he proceeded to fold the hankie several times to make it smaller, and when I shot that too, he teasingly blamed me for shooting a perfectly good hankie full of holes. That was quiet praise, designed to affirm, but without making my head swell!

Several years later, with equal patience, the wattle grove was gone. My Dad had started working on the wattle on our farm when his father bought the place in 1948, when Dad says two thirds of it was covered in wattle. He worked at it all his farming life, right up until the time he retired. He removed invasive wattle, restored pasture and planted lines of ornamental trees.

Corrie Lyn Farm-1

My father’s farm….as painted by ………..my father.

Eventually  the labourers pleaded with him to leave a small grove of wattles for firewood.

I hope that, aside from our penchant for ridding the veld of wattle trees, I share some of my Dad’s patience.  I sometimes think that I might have inherited a little more of the wattle allergy than the patience though.  Just this last week-end, I rushed a tippet knot, and lacking the discipline to cut it, and re-tie it, I left a black DDD in a fish.  Anton makes you drink for things like that.  Dad would not approve.

I also spent a day on a river that hasn’t produced a Brown Trout in a long time, and failed to raise one again. I need to muster the resolve to return, and accept that a single outing is not an adequate sample upon which to make proclamations of doom.

And a few days ago I was cornered by a portly gentleman, who drives a big car, and has a pallid complexion, and fingers like cocktail sausages. He wanted me to take him fishing up a river valley and teach him how to catch trout. He’s a super chap, but I can picture him decked out in his waders, holding a brand new, expensive fly rod, and  a cheesy grin, so I smiled wanly and changed the subject.

I really need to work on my patience (or is it my swollen head?)

About eight months ago, I borrowed my son’s battery-powered hand drill to perform an experiment.  There is a hillside above a diminutive trout stream I know that is covered in wattle, and I had been pondering ways of getting it sorted out at the lowest possible cost.

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Wattles on the hillside above the Furth Stream

My plan  involved securing the company and help of my wife, and taking the drill plus a small vial of herbicide to a couple of wattles growing in the road reserve near our home. It was an experiment on a small scale, with bigger things in mind.  She agreed, and one day after work, we took a stroll up there.  I drilled 4 holes in the first tree, three in the second, and so on.  Then we injected the herbicide into the downward sloping holes with a little plastic syringe, wiped our hands with an old hole ridden hankie of mine, and left.

My wife was concerned that the trees would die, and fall on a passing motorist.  I tried to allay her fears, saying that it probably would not work anyway, and that if the trees did die, there would be time for the municipality to see the danger, and act with the speed and professionalism that all  South African municipalities are so famous for.  She seemed unconvinced.

I think tomorrow I am going to look in my diary for a free Saturday, and give that pleasant, rotund fellow a ring. I can picture those fingers of his tying knots slowly and thoroughly, and better than I do……

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My fingers:  (photo credit….Chris Galliers)

Oh, by the way…..If you are heading down Cedara Road in Hilton  anytime soon, look out for a dying wattle tree leaning over the road……and a fellow walking around with a cheesy grin on his face.  You may want to report one of them to the municipality.


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Lessons from the landscape: the 1600m contour

Here in the KZN midlands, altitude is accepted as a defining criteria for Trout water. It has long been held that trout will survive above 1200meters above sea level, and there is very little fishable water above 1800metres.   So within that band of 1800m down to 1200m, there are a few critical bands, and I would argue that one of them is the 1600m band.  I say that because every listed trout stream in these parts rises above 1600m.

So here is where that contour runs along the front of the Drakensberg:

The 1600m contour in KZN

Interesting isn’t it!

For me what makes it fascinating is that:

  • It shows deeply incised valleys where streams cross the line remarkably close to the escarpment
  • It shows that ridge of high ground that runs out into the province from the end of Giants Castle to Inhlosane mountain, very clearly
  • And from the few spot heights I threw in on the map above, you will see that there are many islands of ground above 1600m, many of which are a long way “from the mountains”.

One also  quickly concludes that the altitude alone is a poor measure of where trout thrive.  In studying a map in detail, you come to realise that trout will survive and indeed thrive in stretches of river at low altitudes where the valley sides rise to much higher altitudes, and cool short tributaries contribute to the river (Examples, The Inzinga and the Umgeni).  Also, if the drainage upstream of where you are standing is overgrazed or densely inhabited, or intensely farmed, then altitude becomes a less significant measure ( Example, The Bushmans below 1400m …below the clinic).  Also, if the stream is on a steeply drained area, where the cold fronts coming from the south west are forced up to generate orographic rainfall, the trout are better off.  So, for example, south of Giants Castle, the 1600m contour averages about 130 kms from the sea. North of the Hidcote ridge, where the berg tracks north, north-west, the sea is an average of 175 kms from the sea, and over 200kms in many cases.  Here it is drier, there are a lot fewer trout streams, and those that there are, have just a short run in the berg before they spill out onto flatter, warmer plains where they don’t hold Trout.  In fact, down south (and off below the limits of the map above), we know that in the Ingeli mountain area, trout are found as close as 80km from the sea at altitudes of under 1000m.  There the slope from the sea to Ngeli mountain is 25m per km.   From a similar altitude on the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, to the sea, the slope is under 8m per km.  Those southern areas get more life-giving mist and drizzle.  Did you ever notice how there are no thorn trees along the N3 from Maritzburg to Hidcote, then on the Estcourt side of Hidcote (the dry side), you can draw a line where the thorns start. Thorns like drier , and/or warmer climates.

Returning to our 1600m contour:  At a glance, it is encouraging to see how much land above this contour is in the Drakensberg park, and therefore conserved as catchment area.  The exception is where the land juts out from Giants Castle.  Parts of that area (top end of Dargle, Inzinga, Fort Nottingham, Western side of Kamberg etc) have at times been threatened by proposed developments. (I hope you will join me at the protests if they try again). 

 

See you in the highlands……above 1600 metres perhaps….


a Vote for messy

“So what I am suggesting here  is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”.  Jerry Kustich

I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts. 

Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example:  He  drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.

I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back  and did little better than get caught in a storm.  In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.

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On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley.   On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.

And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.

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On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle.    It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low.  On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.

On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.

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On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award.  Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.

A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming.  The river was low, and it was hot.  I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.

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At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning.  The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.

Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining!  Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl.  Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing.  He reckons its perfect every time.

But here’s the thing:  I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for  a receipt.  He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.

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And  to add to that, this month, I learned the local  name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.

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And  at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside.  Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).

Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)

Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I  think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures.  Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.

I vote for messy.


Exploring the dry side

My World is at the front. The front of the Drakensberg, that is. My pals and I wander southwards sometimes , and cross over the escarpment to the south- facing end of Lesotho, where the mountains face the cold fronts and catch some  rain from time to time, but for the most part we stay just east of the escarpment and catch our Trout here.

With the heat of summer approaching, and mindful of the fact that it would be too damned hot to fish anyway, it made sense to go explore the other side. That is the other side of the mountains….the dry side.

Here at the front end, the berg forces the southern winds upwards, and they let go of rain, which dribbles into our streams, and feeds a humid, if not always cool zone. Our Trout survive through the dry of winter, provided it is a chapter sandwiched in a sufficiently short time-line between autumn and spring. Spring is good. Summer is hot, but with cool rain and oxygenating flow, the Trout can do it. Autumn is heaven.  And all this Trout survival takes place within the silently understood limitations of altitude. Everyone knows that in these parts, if you can’t see sugar cane or thorn trees, and if you can see ouhoudt, you can check the map for altitude to be sure, but you are probably in Trout country (1200 metres plus).   The North eastern cape is drier, but it has altitude, and the rain that dribbles over the back side of the Drakensberg.

But what of the dry side proper? Time for holiday planning.

I reckoned that if we could stay above 1400 metres altitude, that would make for a good summer holiday.  Also, with the 1200 metre KZN trout country paradigm in my head, I could survey these places with a “what –if” mindset, even if I knew it wasn’t trout country. It would be cool surely, at 1400 metres plus?

We snuck through Golden Gate and hightailed it past the tourists of Clarens. At Fouriesberg, the Little Caledon passed through a poort into Lesotho. Or should I say, it oozed.  It was not really flowing. There we stayed at an altitude of 1640, and hiked to the top of a sandstone massif of 1860m. It also rained cool rain, and it hailed a little. But the riverside inhabitants had scraped the earth bare and while the cliffs were pleasant to gaze at, and the Moer Koffie was good, we passed on.

At Clocolan, we hiked up off the plains at 1640 metres, and with the aid of a chain hand-rail, we emerged above the cliffs at 1800 metres. But up there, there were just rock pools of storm water, which our guide-dog named “Champagne” could just roll over in.

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Despite storms that lashed us, and winds that threatened to blow us off the mountain, the territory just wouldn’t hold a trout. Besides, the cherry wine tasted decidedly dangerous.

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Near Hobhouse, in an old, but partly restored mill house, we sat below cool poplars and listened to  rushing waters. But there we were flaunting the boundaries at just 1460 metres, and the raging Caledon river was chocolate brown and flowing through flat country.

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In a cave near Zastron, we were at 1750 metres, and our hike to the top of a mountain called Mapaya took us to 1920 metres.  While the ageing tourist brochure back in the cave made a fleeting remark about “Forelle”, I could see a lot of thorns, and the so-called skinny dipping pool atop the mountain was not only tiny, but dry as a bone.

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Average rainfall there used to be 675mm per annum. It hasn’t reached the average in eight years, and this year won’t pass the 300mm mark.  Forelle Country:  NOT.

At Lady Grey we sat at a restaurant beneath a London Plane tree (at 1650 metres), which only partly obscured the high peaks to the north-east and the east. That shade provided a relief from the 32 degree heat, which coolness was as uncanny as it was refreshing. It reminded me of the notion that dry heat provides greater evaporative potential than humid heat, and that evaporative cooling is therefore more significant. A factor that supposedly explains the survival of trout in our Mediterranean climates, despite air temperatures that routinely reach 37 degrees.  Either way, evaporation seems to have put paid to any water that might have flowed in the Wilgespruit past town. The municipality has seen to it that that particular stream will probably never flow consistently again, by putting in an oversized filtration system that backwashes and wastes what water is left, and then adding a couple of hundred low cost houses with flush toilets, to up the demand.  The envelope has closed.  We drank beer there…trucked in from wetter places.

Over Joubert’s pass, and down past  Helvellyn:  a picture book farm of such beauty, that I confess to having contemplated variously, murder, land claims, and other undue influences of unsavoury nature, in pursuit of its ownership.

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It may be at 2000m altitude, but it’s stream (The Unity stream) was as good as dry.

Where the Unity joins the Karringmelk, the flows were not significantly stronger, and despite being above 1700m it was desperately hot. This is of course known Trout country, but our finned friends live in peril here.  Our 2009 visit was in a drought. In the 2015/6 drought, the river dried up. Then in the first 3 months of this year,  three violent floods all but decimated the river course, without doing much for the water table. Now, ironically, the enormously flood-altered water course, lies baking in the sun with 23 degree water trickling through it.

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I could not bring myself, despite my fly-fishing obsession, to fish for these trout, choosing instead to stalk and photograph them, like some rare animal to be recorded in the moments before their demise.

And so from the dry side, we cross through the known trout areas, Rhodes, Maclear, Matat, Underberg, and home to the midlands.

I have seen the dark side.

I like it here at the front.


Blood on my sandwiches

I had never hooked a trout before this week-end. That is to say, I had never held a fly between my two fingers, and used it to hook a trout. There is a first time for everything.

There is also a heavily wooded valley cut by a tributary of a favourite stream, which I had never entered. Here a reclusive and interesting man resides. I had never met this hermetic bloke before. What I have done before, is to go on a day’s fishing and not take my fly rod out of its tube. That happened once when PD and I holed up for breakfast at a favourite midlands haunt, and when the rain kept pounding down, and we tired of pigging out on coffee, we came home. This week-end I ended up at the same “piggly” place, but alas, they had run out of pork sausages. I pigged out on bacon instead, and then went on a circuitous fishing jaunt with Anton, in which the rod never saw the light of day. The fate of the stream in that same wooded valley was the same….never sees the light of day….owing to the rank woody growth that obscures the house tucked away in there, as much as it does the road in. We traversed that new road, right up to where it emerged within sight of Conniston Farm, where as a young child I collected tadpoles in a jar. So while the water held little promise, an orientation loop was neatly closed.

My friend Trevor throws a tight loop, which I was admiring when he caught a tadpole on Saturday. Well, it was in fact a brown, but it was of tadpole proportions. The tadpole capture was caught on film, as was the capture of my hooked trout, which was somewhat bigger, and for that I am a feeling a little smug.

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The first time I hooked it, it was perfectly legit. The second hooking was for the sake of the camera, so I don’t think it should tarnish the legitimacy of my success on celluloid. Later, when I was sneaking down to “Five Pounder Pool”, the cameraman observed that the TV viewers would see this in the background of the interview his colleague was conducting at the riverside, and he asked if that would be problematic. Picture the window-cleaner behind the TV presenter, or the kid who opens the door during a live feed from daddy’s study. The others felt that while I may have technically been poaching at the time, my sneaking around in the background would be “fairly legit”, whatever that means.

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The legitimacy of my excuse for not being at the hospital with my wife when her finger was stitched, is beyond reproach or question. I was fishing. Sort of. I was on that self same circuitous fishing trip, complete with bloody sandwiches. I do feel a little guilty that after the injury, I didn’t even eat the bloodied sandwiches, not because I am squeamish, but because I was lured to a pub with long cold glasses of lager, and jalapeno burgers. The pub with long cold glasses of lager, is where much of this weekend should have been spent, because it was too damned hot for trout. Tadpole sized or otherwise.

Anton offered to drop me off at the local sports ground on the way home so that I could practice my casting in the hot afternoon sun, but I declined. I had work to do, feeding sandwiches to the dog, and giving my wife a hug. Possibly wetting my wading boots under a tap and sucking on lager masking peppermints.

Earlier, after I had hooked my trout twice, and in response to a hair-brained idea involving a circuitous non fishing trip , he had asked me if my brain had disintegrated. The reply on my Whatsapp says “Yes, but I am fully expecting you to support me during this difficult time”. The reply was by my wife. That was when her typing finger was still OK, and before she took fright at Anton’s doorbell ringing and let rip with that new knife. And it was before Anton took me on a circuitous non fishing trip.

They say that reclusive bloke in the wooded valley is also a bit cooked, but maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. This heat has clouded my judgment.

They tell me it is going to snow this week. That might help.


Books, Boarding School, and Beats

“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed”   ……..

”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him” 

The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.

Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.

Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.

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In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.

In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass.  It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record.  I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.

My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers.  My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”.   I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black.  We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.

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What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.

Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music.  Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:

Artist Justin Townes Earle on Spotify

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And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:

A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago.  I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did  we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!

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It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….