As I sit here at my desk, the cuckoo is lamenting “Meitjie, meitjie, meitjie” . That would be the Classless Cuckoo, with a gap in his front teeth, and flashing a ‘hang loose’ hand signal, as our family legend has it.
You will know it as the Klaas’s Cuckoo, and tell me that they don’t have front teeth. Either way, they often sound out their call of the jilted lover as the sun emerges after a few days of cool and rain. With that rain, and coolness, us flyfishers are all thinking of heading to the hills to get on a trout stream.
But we don’t do that, because they are all running chocolate brown. By the time they clear, it will be fiercely hot again. In fact it will probably be fiercely hot again by the time I finish writing this. Such are the dog days of summer.
Three writers from my fly fishing library spring to mind when I mention the Dog days of summer. Firstly , Ted Leeson, (whom I rate as one of the finest writers on flyfishing ever), explains the “dog days” term, its reference to the rising of the star Sirius aside the sun during the late summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The Dog star, as it is called, rising along with the sun, supposedly adds to the heat of the day, and thus the hottest days are “The Dog Days of summer”. He has a delightful chapter on this in his book “Inventing Montana”, in which he describes the sultry hot days of their American summer from the perspective of a holidaying flyfisher.
Across this side of the Atlantic, I reckon we trump the Americans in terms of heat, and thus true dog days, even though we don’t have the synchronicity of Sirius to add to the steaminess of the affair. Perhaps it is in fact no hotter here in January than it is in Ennis in August, but since I am the one sitting here sweating, I will claim the warmer ground. In his first book, our own finest writer, Tom Sutcliffe says “concentrate your fishing on early morning and late evening…… and put your feet up for the in-between time.” That is a line that was punted just last week on our local club chat group, and I paused a moment to contemplate how nothing has changed since Tom wrote that line above in 1985.
In fact, nothing has changed much since Oliver Kite wrote “ one morning in late July it was so hot that I left my jacket in my car“ in 1963. He was writing of the UK of course, and in this trilogy I would imagine he might be the least qualified to write of the dog days of summer, given that last year Hampshire’s highest summer temperature, according to Google, was 21 degrees, and the highest in the last 5 years was 25 degrees C. Here in SA our jackets are locked in a trunk for the summer!
But Kite writes not so much of heat, but rather of depleted fisheries, and thoroughly fished-over trout. We are lucky not to have that problem in my neck of the woods.
We do however have the rank growth on our stream banks, which Oliver Kite writes about, and we have the heat, which Leeson sums up beautifully as follows: (and I will end with this, because putting down a piece with Leeson’s words knocking around in your head is just special)
“ But when Sirius wanders in, circles once around southwest Montana, then lies down, curls up, and goes to sleep, the smothering weight of heat and airborne dust cannot be wished away. I number these among the least habitable days of the inhabitable narrative , a recurring leitmotif that grows heavier the longer it hangs around. The story of your fishing has nowhere to go because the main characters refuse to speak. Back at the ranch, there are iced drinks all around and much talk of the weather”
I was impressed recently, by Alison Graham-Smith , a Lead Advisor on conservation and Land Management for ‘Natural England’ in Hampshire, who had read Harry Plunket Greene’s book “Where the bright waters meet”. I was all the more impressed because she is not a fly fisher. I asked her how she had come to read the book, and why. In her reply she explained that it was important as a conservationist to have read the history and the descriptions of Hampshire, before she could claim to be equipped to restore that environment.
Mark, Alison and Sam : Catchment sensitive farming advisors from Natural England, surveying the River Test at Leckford in October
Impressive, don’t you think?
The conversation swished around in my head on that trip, and so when I returned I re-read this old book, and I thought I would share some of it here. It occurred to me that a whole bunch of fishermen have probably heard of the man, and the book, but in an age where few people actually read, I suspect many of us know a lot less about the book than Alison does. I suppose you could be forgiven for that: There was a fair bit of flyfishing literature around at that time, as well as famous flyfishing personalities ‘on the go’, and besides, a lot of these books have lost their dust jackets, and they look faded and smell a bit funny.
But Imagine meeting a lady, who doesn’t fly fish, and have her trounce you in her knowledge of a famous fly-fishing book!
I thought I would rush to your rescue on this front, so here are some interesting facts about the man and the book:
Within those dusty pages are some treasures, and you might find some of this interesting.
When Plunket Greene was born in 1865, GEM Skues was a 10 yr old boy, and FM Halford was 21 years of age. When the Halford/Skues fued over dry fly vs nymph got going, Plunket Greene would have been in his late thirties, and had just moved from London to live in the village of Hurstbourne Priors on the banks of the Hampshire Bourne. Unless I missed it, he doesn’t even give a passing mention to the feud or the two luminaries of the time!
Frank Sawyer had not yet been borne, and across the Atlantic Theodore Gordon of New York had been writing for ten years since receiving a letter and envelope from Halford containing his first dry flies. It would be another ten years before George Le Branche wrote “Dry fly and fast water” and Ray Bergmann’s “Trout” would be written only 2 years after Plunket Greene’s death.
Harry Plunket Greene
Plunket Greene writes in his opening chapter about how he discovered the Bourne. He goes on to write about the wildlife of the valley, and devotes a chapter to the “Iron Blue”. The crux of his message comes in the chapter “ Tragedy of the Bourne”, in which he describes the overstocking of 1905. He opens the next chapter with the words “I prefer to pass over 1906 in silence”, giving weight to the tragedy which he experienced. He writes too of the demise of the original genetics, and of the trout with black backs, a condition he believed they obtained from the tar that leached off the newly tarred roads into the stream. He laments the loss of the silver fish. But his fishing stories do continue through 1910 and beyond, covering days on the Kennet and the Test, and of course the Bourne, and Blagdon.
Harry didn’t tie flies, but he was somewhat obsessed with the Iron Blue Dun.
The Iron Blue
He did fish Blagdon reservoir quite extensively, and people don’t mention that when talking of this book. In fact who knew that Blagdon existed in 1905! Commentators are inclined to make out that it is a purist tome dedicated to the Hampshire Bourne. It is that, but it wanders off into discussions about introducing lawn tennis to Germany, running over dogs, card tricks, games of cricket, and lots of singing.
Singing was of course Harry’s career, and the stories of his touring and putting on “gigs” are scattered about the book. He talks a great deal about his companions on the river, and elsewhere, and it is clear that he was a gregarious fellow. In fact he enjoyed a hot crowded room, and lots of onlookers!
He was a large and imposing man, and reading of him, it could be said that he was “showy”. But here is a quote from his book which speaks to an underlying authenticity in that showiness, and which I think, warrants much thought:
“…..true magnetism and playing to the gallery, though they may have a common ancestor, are as far as the poles apart in the ethics of performance. The one is unconscious, compelling and incomparably precious, the other studied,opportunistic, cheap and nasty”
In reading the book, I sense he didn’t suffer fools, and he makes some cutting remarks about people with questionable intentions.
He was also a nostalgic, and was possessed with an acute and biting appreciation of the countryside and the environment. And this was in 1924! Not unlike Frank Sawyer, Plunket Greene acknowledges that he was complicit, even if reluctantly so, in the stocking his trout stream ( the Hampshire Bourne in his case, The Hampshire Avon in Sawyer’s) , with introduced fish, which displaced the wild fish. He berates himself for the stocking, and is scarred by the guilt of having done so, having learned that the preservation of the natural environment was, with the wisdom of hindsight, the true solution.
What was ironic about this aspect, is that while I was in the UK this year, news broke of how many TONS of trout are stocked into the Test annually. Remember that the Hampshire Bourne is a tributary of the Test.
The Bourne, a tributary of the Test
So what this tells me, is that while fly fishermen wax lyrical about “The Bright Waters” and leave fly boxes at the grave of Harry Plunket Greene, we seem, as a collective to be obsessed with catching fish, even at cost to the environment, and oblivious to his message and his pleas.
Considering the era in which the book was written, it strikes me that he writes with such nostalgia about “The old days”. It also strikes me how environmentally aware he was. In my opinion there is much to be gained from these old books. It places modern fly fishing and conservation topics in context, and it also serves to remind us that not a whole lot has changed. Reading this stuff might also help us to avoid repeating old mistakes, be they ones relating to trout stalking, or how to care for our streams and the trout in them.
I end with the last lines of this lovely book:
“But somewhere, deep down, I have a dim hope that one night the fairy Godmother will walk along the tarry road and stop on the bridge and listen, and send a message to me in the dark; and that when the mists begin to lift, and the poplars to shiver and the cock pheasants crow in the beech-woods, the little Bourne will wake and open her eyes and find in their bosom again the exiles that she had thought were gone for good – the silver trout, and the golden gravel,and the shrimp and the duns- and smell the dust of the road, and see the sun once more, and the red and white cows in the grass, and the yellow buttercups in the meadow and the blue smoke of the cottages against the black elms of the Andover hill –and me too, perhaps, kneeling beside her as of old and watching the little iron-blue, happy, laughing, come bobbing down to me under the trees below the Beehive bridge on the Whitchurch road.
Post script from the fairy godmother: Well Harry….a message for you …..take a look here…River restoration….
On my recent visit to the UK, I met up with Pete Tyjas.
Pete also wrote a “blurb” for the back of my book back in 2015. Not having met in person before, I was looking forward to meeting him.
We met at the Fox and Hounds hotel in Devon where Pete holes up. He seems to be part of the crew there. He fetched me coffee from the kitchen and stood me to a welcome, hearty breakfast, and then we recorded this podcast.
It was a lot of fun.
Click below if you would like to listen:
My recent visit to the UK afforded me an afternoon on the Test (see my last video), but before that, I went hunting for clean water and willing trout in the Westcountry (Devon and Cornwall). Rain, and the calendar were both against me…..
(Oh, and by way of explanation….most sheep I saw on Dartmoor had red arses……)
Readers might have noticed that I have started doing some video work (aka Vlogging) . To up my game I have been teaching myself some much more complex, bit of course much more capable software. In many respects the complexity has meant that I have taken 2 steps backwards. Trying to get this package to do what I want it to has been a challenge to say the least. Old dogs, new tricks…
So do bear with my amateur attempts. Hopefully the offerings will get more slick as I progress.
This video covers a visit to the River Test in England. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I would actually get to fish this fabled stream. I had resigned myself to the prospect of just looking over the rail of the bridge at Stockbridge, when suddenly, out of the blue, I received an invitation.
This was truly a blessing and the experience was something I will treasure for a long time to come.
I am deeply fortunate to be able to able to identify the symphony and serendipity in ordinary things, or perhaps I am fortunate in that overtly serendipitous things do in fact befall me more than others. Either way, these things are not lost on me. Far from it…I savour them.
So here’s one. You tell me if this is a delightful chance, or if its just me being a sentimental fool:
So…I found myself in Stockbridge, in a fly shop, being served by a fellow South African. And the shop had a better collection of books than the one over the street. In fact I found myself with a pile of “must haves” that would simply not fit in my luggage on the return trip, and I had the agonising choice of which ones to put back. One of those was a book called “The Healing Stream” by Laurence Catlow. It is a book I had not heard of before.
I read a few pages, and decided it was on the “keeper” list, and by that night I was reading it. My decision was an unequivocally good one. The book is a delight and a treasure, with words that flow like pure prose.
A short way into the book, the writer starts to suck the reader into his love affair with one particular river. He rights lyrically. I quote:
“….drive up Garsdale to Hawes, where you turn left and head up through Gayle and over Cam Houses; then it is down to Oughtershaw and Beckermonds before following the beginnings of the river through Yockenthwaite, Hubberholme and Buckden, through Starbotton and Kettlewell and so, after the rough poetry of these northern names, down to the main beats of the Kilnsey Club.”
Those names washed over me as I put the book on the nightstand and fell asleep.
The next day, I found myself on a bus, travelling up a river valley in the Yorkshire Dales. The purpose of that bus ride is the topic of another discussion, but suffice it to say that it was not directly fly fishing related. The bus wound its way up a river valley in ever tightening bends, and over bridges that hardly seemed wide enough for a bus. As we progressed the valley became more and more lovely, until it started to literally take my breath away. The rain spattered on the windows of the bus. That was an excuse not to take photos, but at some stage I took a decision not to attempt a photo, because the beauty was so stunning that I knew that a weak attempt to capture it all, would in this case, serve only to tarnish the memory of such a heavenly place.
As we made our way, I started to take note of names. The village of Kilnsey. Kettlewell. Starbotton. Buckden. Hubberholme.
I am a bit slow, and putting something in reverse is sometimes quite adequate a move to fox me, but at this point I did awaken to the fact that I was travelling the valley I had read about the night before.
Of all the valleys in that fair land, I was in the one I had read about the night before. This freak event deepened my sense of appreciation for where I was. It awakened in me an awareness of how special this beautiful trout stream is to at very least ONE angler. An angler and writer, who I might add is brave enough to admit that his own sense of nostalgia and appreciation on the banks of this river regularly drive him to tears. He even comes a little unhinged.
Having seen his valley, I completely understand those tears. The beauty of the Wharfe River valley in the Yorkshire Dales defies description and capture on celluloid.
It is other-worldly , and to visit it is an experience bordering on the religious, especially when you have by sheer chance read the paragraph describing it the night before.
Perhaps its just me? My mates say I am a little unhinged myself.
If I haven’t posted for a while, its because I am trying a new style of things, and that meant I had to acquire some new skills. And speaking of Style….here’s the first V….log:
“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?
“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
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.
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…..
“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.
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.
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!)
Maybe you got some Browns?
If you are a stillwater fisherman…..consider the streams….. Think of it as a “vacation”.
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.)