“But every angler who experiences bad fishing fears, above all else, that he’s the only one who’s experiencing it” Ted Leeson, Inventing Montana 2009.
When we were under the shadow of magnificent Ha Ha Lamolapo; when we were camped where the rushing water of Angel falls filled our ears at night; when we were spooking an 18 inch brown in the pool at Rooiwal in the driving rain; at all those times, we didn’t feel hard done by. We may have felt a bit bleak when the brown James swore was 30 inches long, would not open its mouth. I did swear just a little when a large brown spat out my Chief Nymph as soon as I tensioned into it up there between “Spooky Wagons” and “Opportunity Lost”. And we did set out on our last day on the river with a mild underlying sense of “now or never boys!”. But on the whole we were blissfully happy to be blanking up there in the mountains on our big trip.
The trouble started when we returned.
One friend knew the score before our drive home was over. He hastened to tell the others.
“You what!” friends said incredulously when we reported the tally. Sometimes before. They were not asking. Just damning us to eternal condemnation, at a place visible only down there off the end of their noses. A place where us lesser mortals wallow in the pity that comes with going to a fabled location and duffing it completely.
Then someone caught a 24 inch brown in our local water just up the road. I recognised the pool from the rocks in the background in the picture. It was 3 days after our return.
I landed a brown of 21 inches less than five months ago in a pool a couple of hundred yards above that spot. It happened on a day when I was not imbued with confidence. I just drove down to the river for a few throws on that hot humid afternoon, because it seemed wrong not to. I strolled upstream a distance shorter than a roll cast and caught my Trout, plus two other good ones, and then I drove home again.
Our big trip, on the other hand, involved 18 hours of driving, 70kms of hiking, and a whole lot more conquering, endurance, effort and most importantly, joy.
Joy in the wildness, the remoteness, the connectedness, the experience of it all. The big trip, and opportunity lost are joyfully etched in my memory forever.
In the early eighties, or thereabouts, the government of South Africa was handing out subsidies to farmers to build farm dams. It was all about building infrastructure, and I guess on some level about food security in an isolated, alienated apartheid nation.
Farmers in our neck of the woods (KZN midlands) built dams. Pretty ones. Some had London planes planted next to them, or liquid ambers. There were concrete benches, and braai places built. Trout were stocked. Some irrigation happened, but I don’t think there was as much of that as the then government expected or hoped.
Those Trout grew fat.
In my youth our fly-fishing very quickly became all about big fat dam fish…bigger fatter ones than any river fisherman could have dreamed of. Trout fishermen strapped on big “Walker’s Killers”, and went and dragged them around dams in boats, or flung them in from the edge, and the results were spectacular, even if in hindsight we acknowledge that the path to those results was somewhat less refined and challenging than what river fishermen had been used to.
In his 1974 booklet “Introducing Trout Fishing in South Africa” John Beams writes “ For me there are really only two reasons for for fishing still water. Firstly , there is always the chance of a big fish, and secondly, if the rivers are muddy……”, but that book has pictures of big fish that outnumber those of small fish and streams put together. Also in Bob Crass’ 1986 book “Trout in South Africa” he confirms John Beams own comment elsewhere in his book, that he “transferred his business activities from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg largely, so he led us to believe , because he enjoyed catching the big trout to be found in Natal dams.”
In contrast, books like “a Trout fisher in South Africa” by Kingfisher (1922) and “Trout Fishing in South Africa “ (1916) contain no references to dams or stillwater at all, but boast exceptional fish of two to four pounds in weight, with a skinny five pounder being worthy of a lord.
When I came into flyfishing in the early 1980’s, there was a fair amount of chatter about stream fishing, both in Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles (that were to become his first book), and in the fly-fishing books that one could buy at the newly launched “Flyfisherman” (Africa’s first fly fishing only tackle shop…est 1981) . But to be honest, outside of that, I really didn’t encounter all that many people who actually fished streams, or certainly not fishermen who preferred streams, or spent more time on them than they did on dams.
If I look at my collection of flyfishing books, which is nearing some 300 titles in total, even now, I am only able to identify 3 titles that cover stillwater flyfishing specifically.
One of those is the American book “Stillwater Trout” edited by John Merwin (1980). In this book Merwin’s very first line is “Ponds and Lakes are the poor sisters of American Trout fishing”, and he goes on to describe how “our quiet waters have remained quiet” and how American anglers, spoiled for choice in rivers, battled to get to grips with fishing still water, when they had been brought up on streams.
This ironic, discrepant state of affairs persists to this day. Stillwaters hold favour here, but the fly-fishing literature, and quite honestly even the South African literature is weighted towards streams. Even Youtube videos and Facebook bear the slant of the printed stuff.
But here is the thing: Those dams that our Dads and Granddads built on the farms, are starting to be used extensively for irrigation. Some have levels that fluctuate so much nowadays, that they are no longer stocked with Trout. It simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, dams are sadly becoming overrun with bass. Two or three dams seem to fall to this fate almost every year in this neck of the woods. At the same time, the environmentalists have quite righty identified the lack of wisdom in building dams, so very few new ones are coming on board. Added to that, the government environmental authorities are hell-bent on putting legislation in place that will enable them to shut down hatcheries at will, which means dams (where Trout don’t breed) may not have a source of stocked fish in future years.
Then consider that considerably more than half of the new members joining our fly fishing club here in the midlands either claim to be stream fishermen, or express a desire to get into stream fishing. I recently put forward to my colleagues in the local club, that we had been offered access to another stretch of stream, but that I questioned whether we should pursue it, because the stretches immediately upstream and downstream of it, are very seldom fished. The guys around the table were unanimous: “sign it up” they said. They said that we need to look to the future, and secure access and custodianship to good river water, regardless of the here-and-now usage statistics.
Add to the picture above (am I joining the dots adequately for you?), that there is only a finite number of kilometres of Trout river out there. In fact, if we think about it, it is finite and shrinking with the effects of population on the planet and the landscape. There are rivers mentioned in Bob Crass’ 1971 book “Trout fishing in Natal”, that are quite simply, no longer trout streams. Writing in a chapter he titled “First aid for rivers” in the book “My Way With a Trout” (1985), Tom Sutcliffe says that “the time is over for excessive irrigations, over-grazing, ploughing too close to the banks, allowing wattle to choke the life out of the river, and cattle to crumble its banks.” He goes on to say: “most of the fishing areas in this country [he is writing about rivers] need , or are soon going to need, this sort of special care and attention”
So, in joining the dots a bit further, we have more people resuming their interest in streams, and now we have fewer streams, or fewer kilometers of stream viable for Trout. And to coin Malcolm Gladwell’s term, I foresee a tipping point at some future date, where suddenly a lot of flyfishers will be rocking up on the same streams on Saturdays and finding less elbow room than they once enjoyed. Suggesting they strap on a big Walkers’ Killer and go tow it around a bass dam probably won’t sway them.
At least we may have more river fishermen to digest all the appropriate literature out there.
Maybe some who know me and are a little puzzled with the river conservation bug that has bitten me, will offer a small nod of understanding? Or perhaps they will merely continue to humour my obsession with killing bass and wattle trees.
No 100 has some significance. It shows a cleared section of the Umgeni, which is very close to my heart. It shows Inhlozane mountain, which I grew up within sight of, and it was taken on a day when we caught browns in numbers markedly higher than before the place was cleared. That’s Rogan in the the river…all-round great guy and son of my late river clearing and flyfishing pal Roy. Call me sentimental!
This cuppa was brewed up in the mountains, when the rain and cloud and wind didn’t look like letting up. Waiting this stuff out is infinitely better with good coffee.
And on the subject of waiting it out: Ted Leeson’s writing continues to delight me in a way that has me laying the open book down on my lap, after reading a particularly erudite and poetic piece, and clucking and shaking my head in awe of his ability to capture a moment or concept, with which I identify immeasurably.
“Much of the technical fly-fishing literature at which anglers have suckled for over a century possesses acutely hallucinogenic properties. Ingesting it produces weird distortions, and never more so than in the matter of hatching insects and rising fish, which generations of recreational users have been induced to believe are the default condition of the average trout stream and a routine component of the ordinary angler’s experience in fishing. While never nakedly advanced, this gravity defying assumption hovers so invisibly in the background that it verges on a form of corruption.”
Leeson continues in this vane, in what is probably the my favourite chapter in “Inventing Montana”, called, so aptly and cleverly “Wading for Godot”.
If you identify with the message that Leeson delivers in this chapter, then you could rightly mothball most of the fly-fishing books in your personal library, but you would do well to keep this one out on the coffee table:
It deals specifically with those times when trout are NOT rising to a hatch. (i.e. 99% of your time on the water)
Rogan and I were discussing the nature of flyfishing as a sport while we walked along an overgrown river bank recently. Our topic is difficult to define, but I don’t think Rogan would disagree if I said that we were both bemoaning the low number of entrants to this thing who are able to embrace the ordinary, the uncomfortable, the companionable, the day without winners, and the less than glamorous. People happy to embrace adventure complete with failure and no social media exposure. People content to learn by trying instead of waiting for a Youtube video. People who fashion something from a stick with a pocket knife, make another for their pal, and use it for twenty years. What would you call that?
In an attempt to define the topic we were circling, Rogan described how he stopped to help a cyclist recently, and gave him a spare tube to get him back on the road. The rider tried to pay him for it. “No!” protested Rogan “You go buy a spare tube, and next time you see a guy with a puncture, you give yours to him” , and he told him to put his thirty bucks away. “That’s how cycling used to be” he said. We discussed how concepts like that are less than common in all sports, and that sadly, flyfishing may have gone that way too.
Then in a thoughtful moment, Rogan suggested that the Comrades Marathon maybe hadn’t gone that way. I am no runner, but I have heard enough stories to think that may be true. Certainly among the ordinary runners just trying to complete the thing. Rogan then recanted the story of his late dad Roy, and how he was once helped along the route by the great Alan Robb, and how in later years, he had an opportunity to help Alan in return, when he looked like he had gone to the wall, and may not make the finish line. “That’s where the red socks came from” he said.
Roy always wore red socks with his wading boots.
Earlier this season, Rogan and I fished this same river, and Rogan wore his Dad’s red socks. I wrote about that, not knowing the significance of it (LINK}
I Googled Alan Robb and his red socks. It turns out he once got them out of his Dad’s drawer too, wore them to run a comrades, and then adopted them as his thing, and only ever wore red ones from then on.
Roy was inspired by Robb and wore red socks. Rogan is inspired by Roy and wears his red socks. I am inspired by Roy and his tenacity in running as many Comrades marathons as he did, but also his “one twig at a time” approach to our joint passion for clearing a river. Rogan inspires me with the same unpretentious joy that his father carried in his soul.
The river is busy healing, and the aftermath of the wattles is a sea of blackjacks that crowd your socks (no matter the colour), your eyebrows, your gloves, your strike indicator and heaven knows what more.
Perhaps 10 more years of grassland management and follow-up work will serve to diminish the autumn “prickle”. In the meantime I am embracing the uncomfortable and the ordinary. Sometimes the soft light of setting sun and a little tiredness together with scratched skin, serves the onset of some sentimentality, and with it comes a picture or two that make it all look glamorous.
Don’t be fooled.
Rogan and I caught a few small fish. We didn’t keep count. Neither did Anton and I when we fished the same river a few days later. And when Sean sent me a video clip of two great Browns spawning on the gravel beds of the Umgeni, I forgot to ask him how many fish he caught, and he didn’t say. I was too excited about the spawning and the big cock fish! You never would have seen something like this two years ago! Roy would have celebrated that with me. He also would have smiled as I fished “Roy’s pool” on worker’s day, and struggled to get a fly in under the NchiShi bush, and caught nothing there.
No glamour. No winners. Just a couple of little challenging Trout.
Enough to Inspire you ?
The donkey launched itself up onto the river bank and made its way to near the small circle of rocks that was our fireplace, where it stopped and awaited the unloading of the bundle of sehalahala from its back.
The sky was darkening somewhat more than the progression of the afternoon suggested it should, and it was cool. It would be wet, and the evening fire would be warranted, and whether or not we were high enough to source leholo or lekhapo, sehalahala is best for wet conditions. So said Martin the muleteer, and we were not about to argue with him. Martin may have forgotten to bring his mealie meal on the trip (necessitating a 26km round trip on a donkey to fetch it), but somehow I still got a sense the he was the kind of guy who would keep you alive on a fishing trip this far into the mountains, if ever it came down to that.
Martin and David were our smoke makers. They would construct a pile of sehalahala each evening that would billow white smoke for long minutes before anything else happened. They typically stood in that smoke, as though bathing themselves in it somehow had a cleansing effect. I would have coughed out my left lung, and developed vicious red rings around sore eyes. Not them. They stood there with the heavy rain wetting their balaclavas and their Basutho blankets from above, while the sehalahala burst into flames, spewing sparks, and dried them from below. I guess if you were dry above your waist then you knew your fire was stronger than the rain. If you didn’t have red eyes, you knew you were a Basutho. If you were worried about a wet blanket, then you were a foreigner. Us foreigners just knew we were cold, and we lay in the back of the kitchen shelter, while supper bubbled on the gas stove.
The day had been cold and windy, with a few rain showers. Those rain showers had sent us up onto the ridge where we sheltered, as best one can, in a ruin with no roof. We made coffee there on the camp stove. At some point it brightened enough that we should have run back down to the river to see if we could spot another big brown. Good spotting light should not go wasted. But we knew that the light would be fleeting, and our legs were sore from hiking.
We were not wrong about the light. You have to decide on these trips how much chasing you are going to do. It is not difficult to overdo it. Tomorrow was another day, and maybe; just maybe; it would be a bright day, and we would have several good hours of looking down into aquamarine pools onto pale bedrock and fine gravel, where twenty five inch browns would stand out like the white flecks in the rock all around us.
We would cast out long graceful loops and land our select few, well aimed casts exactly where they needed to go. Maybe the Trout would eat, unlike the big one yesterday. Maybe the fly would hold, unlike it did the day before.
We thought of these things as we lay there in the damp grass beneath the canvas, and watched the pot boil, and watched David and Martin in the rain making smoke. We did not think about how bedraggled we looked. We didn’t think about the comments that would meet our news of blank days. We were on a trip, and there were no mirrors up there asking us to evaluate how we were doing. That would come after our return.
For now there was just smoke and rain in that happy place in the mountains.
* Sehalahala : Erica or Erica like plants that burn when green, and are used extensively in the Lesotho highlands for making a fire. Leholo and Lekhapo are variants with slightly different fire making properties.
“……..in the old days anyone with a bucket or a milk can could get a load of fingerling trout and put then wherever he wanted to, and that the first plantings done by the Division of Wildlife itself weren’t much more scientific than that. The result on the one hand was that a lot of already depleted native cutthroat fisheries were destroyed altogether by the introduction of brown, rainbow and brook trout. On the other hand, some thriving fisheries were established where before there had been no fish at all. You can apply revisionist criticism to all that if you want to – asking, Why didn’t those dumb schmucks a hundred years ago know what we know now? – but the fact is, it was mostly done with a good heart and, in some cases, the kind of monumental effort you only see from people convinced they’re doing Good Work.”
John Gierach writing in the book “In Praise of Wild Trout” , edited by Nick Lyons 1998.
Arnold Gingrich, in his book “The Joys of Trout”, said”
“Today, if we hope to angle long, it’s much more important that the angler be concerned than that he be well equipped, or well versed, or well skilled. For what matters all the tackle and techniques that we can get our hands on, or all our history and theory and lore that we can cram our heads with, if the fish are no longer there that are, after all, the object of the game?”
He wrote that in the mid seventies, and in the same section of his book, he records for posterity, the history surrounding the birth of the Theodore Gordon Fly-fishers, and its knock-on, the Federation of Flyfishers. He also lists the early stream restoration projects conducted by that organisation around the year 1964; as well as enlightening the reader on a seemingly petty scuff that resulted in the FFF and Trout Unlimited developing in separate camps.
Gingrich, it seems, was saddened by the way things developed in two silos, and expresses a wish that the two organisations might come together for the common good. He writes about “hanging together”.
History has always been important in the sense that it serves either to predict an outcome in current times, or to steer communities away from repeating an undesired chain of events. But in a world where we all seem to read less, and remember less , I get a sense that we fall into the same holes that our forebears did.
I for one, like my dusty old books, and the lessons that lie within them
Here in South Africa, we have an ostensibly environmentally concerned, but very small flyfishing community. That community fails to adequately support a national Federation (FOSAF), which as a result is limited in its breadth of activities. Coupled with that FOSAF has been forced by circumstances to dedicate nearly all its resources to the fight on Trout. It also has a dearth of younger people coming forward to volunteer their time. Then, to complete the scene, there are a few, (as far as I am aware very few), projects that seek to clear litter from rivers, monitor polluters and the like. And all this while there is insidious and seemingly perpetual pressure being placed on the wellbeing of our trout streams, and of course the environment as a whole. And to top it off, us flyfishers spend infinitely more on fly tackle than we do on conservation of our waters.
It seems that we as flyfishers could benefit from :”hanging together” a whole lot more.
The top photo is taken from the book ”Trout fishing in South Africa” issued by the South African Railways in 1916. It is of the Mooi River near the Trout Bungalow, with the Kamberg mountain and the Pimple in the background. A careful inspection suggests that the photo was manipulated. Take a look at the “Trout Bungalow” at the left. In the picture it faces the photographer. In reality it faces almost directly away from the photographer. Furthermore, the structure to the right of the building is the small garden gate that stands to this day, but in this picture its size suggests it could span the width of the river. Despite this glaring “photoshopping” that would no doubt have been done with a razor blade and glue, the panorama is significant in that it shows the wonderful expanse of undisturbed grassland. The only trees being those directly below “the pimple”, the site of the homestead on Hemyock farm.
The picture below was taken in late December 2017 ( just a few days ago). The fact that the trees are so high, caused me to take the photo from higher up the hill than the 1916 photographer did. It has to be said that the proliferation of trees is the single biggest difference between the two pictures. In fact, were it not for the tireless efforts of the farmer who owns the hillside, the picture would have been impossible, as just a few years ago the vantage point was in a thick stand of wattles.
I would have loved to have been around back in 1916, and fishing this river flowing through such lovely virgin grassland! It all remains beautiful countryside though.
This is good stuff. Pricey, but out of the top drawer!
For day to day stuff I am currently grinding “Zephyr” beans bought loose at Steampunk. That is a seriously good deal at R200/Kg.
For day to day stuff I am currently grinding “Zephyr” beans bought loose at Steampunk. That is a seriously good deal at R200/Kg.
A quote, that while I am only on the fringe of the conversation, I think will interest our flyfishing friends in the States who are deeply concerned over the public lands debate, and associated conservation issues:
“I write this here, in this section about the states, because Roosevelt’s wise administration is bringing back the ducks to the states…….
……., trout and salmon are also being rigorously protected and propagated. Reforestation will return their waters to them. And in the great national and local effort, the democratic ideal of free fishing and shooting for all who love it is fast gaining headway. If this succeeds, with our new sense of values, the United States may once again become the sportsman’s paradise. It is just possible”
From pg 28, “Going fishing” by Negley Farson, 1942
I found Mr Mbata sitting on a rock beside the road between KwaDlamini and Ndaba. He was wearing a loose coat, and baggy trousers tied at the waist with a piece of rope, in a way that accentuated his skinny frame. His face was wrinkled in the extreme and he was greying in the way that prompted me to greet him respectfully as “Kehla”, with both hands raised, as is the custom. His return greeting revealed a mouth crowded with outsized yellow teeth that appeared to have collided chaotically during a failed attempt to escape his maw. His discarded “gwaai” of Boxer tobacco rolled in newspaper, lay smoldering at his feet, giving off an aroma that took me back to my childhood days in the potato fields. Ironically, through the open gate in front of us, lay a field of potatoes. After our greeting I remarked on how good they looked, and asked if they were his. “No” he said. They belonged to the man for whom he was currently working. It hadn’t been clear to me that Mr Mbata was working. It turns out that his job was to prevent any goats or cattle entering the field through the open gate beside us. The gate (in perfect working order) lay open on account of the fact that two women, working way off in the distance, had entered that way to sow seeds in a ploughed section of the same field.
After asking after Mr Mbata’s well being, I remarked on the river that flowed silently by, just over the road from us, and on the tributary that entered the main flow a few hundred yards downstream. Mr Mbata, it turned out, knew a lot about both stretches of water. He confirmed that the name of the tributary was indeed the Mtshezana. Then he proceeded to correct me in the name of the main river, with its Zulu name, The Mtsheza. He explained the nomenclature of the suffix “ana” indicating the child of the main river, being the smaller one that joined it. All this was with hand signals and a deeply furrowed brow, which aided my painfully slow and unreliable understanding of his Zulu. The Mtshezana was often dirty, due to the ploughing that took place in the valley below Ntabamhlope from which this stream, and its own tributary, the Nkombane, flowed. The Mtsheza itself is often dirty in summer too, and we quickly arrived at an understanding that we both knew this already.
I enquired about the fish in both bodies of water. My Zulu it seems was adequate. Mr Mbata described the fish with scales. Then he described the fish with spots. I said I knew those, and liked them. Sensing my enthusiasm, he taught me his name for them. “Lungu” he said they were called. I asked him if there were “Lungu” in the Mtshezana, and he replied in an “of course there are!” manner, suggesting that perhaps he shared my enthusiasm for Lungu.
a “Lungu” from the Mtsheza below KwaDlamini
Suddenly Mbata leapt to his feet, catching me by surprise. He set his feet apart for greater stability, and then lurched forward apparently defying the fact that all the blood must have drained from above his shoulders. He swaggered into the road, while I looked on, somewhat taken aback. Then he bent over with great effort, picked up a piece of clay, and lobbed it at the goats in front of us in the road. Of course…I had clean forgotten that unlike me, Mr Mbata was at work! The goats bleated and retreated, leaving us to our important river discussions.
The fishing was good in the river, reported Mbata as he sat back down on his roadside rock, but not now. The water was too clean, and the Lungu would be able to see me. I should wait for the rains up in the mountains, and then I could attach a worm, or if I liked, a piece of meat, to a hook and throw it into the current. Then I would catch Lungu for sure. “Big ones?” I asked. “Big ones and small ones” he replied holding his gnarled hands apart and moving them backwards and forwards across a range that I expected. Clearly Mr Mbata was telling the truth, and was not prone to exaggerated fisherman stories. I liked this man.
We chatted a while about this and that. The weather. The planting date for various crops. When our conversation faltered and a silence fell, I started to bade him farewell. He quickly reached under his loose coat, and produced with pride a Nokia 3310, and asked me to enter my phone number, so that we could converse again and enjoy the long term fruits of our friendship and mutual interests. I obliged, squinting at the badly scratched screen in the bright sun in an attempt to check that I had entered my “isibongu” correctly. Then we called one another on our respective devices to test the numbers, and his old face shone in delight as our phones lit up in turn. The miracle of technology!
I bade him a final farewell, photographed the river, and drove off up the hill, deep in thought as I tried to recall all he had said, and see if I could use my closure skills to eke any more information out of his unabated string of Zulu.
“We fished these streams with a weighty sense of proprietorship, and grave recognition that we might just be the only people on earth who cared that the Trout were there at all” pg 38, Jerusalem Creek, Ted Leeson.
These words struck a chord with me when I first read them, to the extent that I immediately wrote them down in my journal. That “weighty sense of proprietorship” is exactly the feeling I get when I walk and fish my local river; a stream long forgotten by most, which I have probably written about and referred to, too much. Too much in the sense that perhaps I extoll its virtues in excess of what they really are. But after fishing there again on Sunday, and notwithstanding that the browns had a bad case of lockjaw, I am again raving about both the beauty and proximity of the place.
On the way out, my friend Ray and I stooped in at Steampunk for a brew of their good stuff, which happens to be the bean I am grinding at home at present too: