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:
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.
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 You won’t find much, and what you do find is outdated.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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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……
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.
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:
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….
“So what I am suggesting here is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”. Jerry Kustich
I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts.
Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example: He drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.
I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back and did little better than get caught in a storm. In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.
On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley. On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.
And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.
On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle. It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low. On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.
On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.
On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award. Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming. The river was low, and it was hot. I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.
At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.
Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining! Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl. Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing. He reckons its perfect every time.
But here’s the thing: I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for a receipt. He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.
And to add to that, this month, I learned the local name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.
And at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside. Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).
Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)
Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures. Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.
I vote for messy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed” ……..
”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him”
The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.
Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.
Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.
In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.
In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass. It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record. I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.
My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers. My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”. I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black. We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.
What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.
Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music. Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:
And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:
A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago. I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!
It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….
“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.