I don’t know about you, but after a day which typically involves say 2 hrs in the car, 8 hrs on a river, and traversing say 7 to 12 kms of rough territory, I need a break. Call me soft, but at least half of that “traversing” involves getting in and out of the stream, boulder hopping, and scrambling, and it is normally with a pack on my back that is heavier than it need be. To add to that, I may have fished for 8 hrs and driven for 2, but the number of hours between when I left home and got back seems to end up around 13 hrs. I guess there is time in coffee shops, talking to locals, setting up, and the like.
It is a long day.
But the day following such a foray involves a late start, a big breakfast, and I confess, sometimes not getting out of a pair of slippers!
This is why I like to fish on Saturdays.
My rest day is then spent filling in a logbook, editing photos, downloading GPS tracks and the like.
This last Sunday I cleaned all my floating lines, re-tied and glued a line to leader connection, and re-darkened the tips of my fly lines with a permanent marker. I didn’t get to tie flies, but I emptied the fly patch, adjusted some of the stuff that I hang from, and bury in my pack-vest, and topped it off by cooking a curry so hot that not even the dog wouldn’t try it.
Putting the curry aside for a while, I re-looked at my pack. I had straps that hang and snag, so I rolled them up and pinned them. I had a fly patch that was catching on things, so I put it in a pocket. My zinger was hanging the nippers too low out of their tuck-away sleeve, and I found a second zinger to try putting my New Zealand strike indicator tool into a spare sleeve port. The egg yarn I first used as strike indicator material the day before, and which kept sinking, was removed and replaced with some fresh Antron.
I tied some tippet rings on the end of my treasured flat butt leaders to make them last longer, and I re-tied fresh tippets, with UV glue in the loose surgeon’s knot before I pulled it tight.
I cleared the GPS memory and made space on the camera card while charging the battery.
On Saturday I will hit the river again, and I will be tackled up before my mate.
I like my rest days.
September is typically characterised by such things as heat waves, snow, drought and gales, mixed with lovely blossoms, veld fires and greenery. This September was no different. If I scan the above list, I believe ‘snow’ was missing this year, but last year we had snow in the first week of October, so in a way nothing is atypical yet.
It might feel atypical, but that is just our oscillating take on things.
This year, the mix of the above has delivered us low clear water. Nothing unusual about that at all. In fact I think this state of affairs is exactly as it is meant to be. Reading my own descriptions of this time of year in my book “Stippled Beauties” brings that home to me.
I picked up a copy from the top of the small and shrinking pile in my dining room, and read for as long as it took for the kettle to boil. I stopped there, lest I stumble upon a spelling or grammatical error that would set off a cascade of self doubt. I have yet to read the whole book through since it was printed, for this same reason.
I chatted to a farmer in his driveway the other day through the open windows of our respective trucks, and he took on a refreshing view of things: “Since when has it not rained at all in summer? “ he said. “ It will come”. He knows that this landscape, its river, and its Trout won’t die. I suspect he doesn’t pick up when his bank manager calls, and I suspect he will live to be a hundred. “Chilled”, I believe my kids call it.
After he drove off, and I proceeded down to the river, his words washed over me, and I relaxed into a state of resigned acceptance of the low level of the Trout stream I was headed for. It was not a negative or defeatist type of resignation. Far from it. That morning as I looked into the pools it dawned on me that there was way more than enough water to cover the backs of the Trout.
The water temperature was also a perfect 14 degrees C (57` F). There were slithers of shade, the size of a two litre cool drink bottle and bigger. We had had nights with the air temperature well below 10 degrees (50`F). We had had grey days. And above all I have been spotting Trout in this, and other streams.
Note that I say “spotting”. Catching them, and in fact even getting a presentation over them without spooking them, has been a task with what an army corporal would call “n mooiliksheidgraad van drie” (a difficulty rating of 3). Anyone who went to the army, will know that this is a poetic understatement which amounts to a euphemism, for “downright impossible”.
Rogan and I approached a shallow pool on the Umgeni the other day, peering off downstream at what we thought was a rise, but may have just been a swirl of wind. Only when we put polaroids on and looked straight ahead of us did we see a fish in plain view, chasing a nymph across the pale bedrock. I spotted for Rogan and saw another smaller Brown at the head of the same run. We crouched, and stalked, and hung our flies in bankside vegetation, fluffing it completely.
In the next kilometre or so, we didn’t spot a fish. They were there. I know that with the same certainty one attaches to death and taxes. We just couldn’t spot them. The next fish we did spot were rising in a pool where swallows swooped and dipped to pick up what the rising trout missed. I got in three good casts before I duffed the strike on a fish that took my Para-RAB. And that was it. For the day. That was the sum total of our Trout interactions.
The following day another angler spent a few hours on the same beat before remarking “I’m hitting the pub!” I can’t say I blame him. The ‘mooiliksheidgraad’ was ‘drie’! It’s a typical September, with low rivers and the ‘mooilikheidsgraad’ is supposed to be ‘drie’.
Resign yourself to it. Waste hours peering into pools. Stay away from the pub. Don’t go looking for the grammatical errors. Rather learn by staring at shadows the size of cooldrink bottles, and not breaking your ankle in search of more willing fish elsewhere.
You will live to be a hundred.
PS: Apologies to Rex, Savs, my army corporal, and with empathy to that bank manager. And good luck with today’s surgery…you know who you are…
PPS: And apologies to those who can’t bear the thought of enduring another 50 years of me. It was Leonard Cohen who said with a chuckle to his London audience “Sorry for not dying”.
PPPS: Sorry to oscillate, but as I finished this, my mate Neil sent me a picture of a Brown he got on another river, much further away. A good fish! The river looks like it has more water in it than my home water. I think I am going to don my ankle guards and head out there tomorrow!
I love maps.
Let’s do a drill-down to my nearest Trout Stream here in South Africa:
Firstly, for those outside of South Africa…. see below:
Then, below is the detail of that purple rectangle above:
And below again: Detail of that red elipse above, showing the major Trout Streams of the KZN Midlands. (the red dots denote the source of each stream. The copper line shows a significant ridge of high ground, with altitudes in metres above sea level along it. )
Pick out the Umgeni River above, and here below is a general locality map of the area closer up, showing the zone directly above the UMGENI label in the map above:
Three detailed maps showing close ups of the colour coded areas in the above map:
Black box from the locality map above: (Furth and Brigadoon) (which also includes the red area, further expanded upon in mapo no 2 hereunder) [from “Trout on the doorstep” ]
The red box from the locality map: (Lower Brigadoon) [From “Stippled Beauties”]
The blue box from the locality map: (Chestnuts) [From Neville Nuttall’s “Life in the Country” ]
Here be Trouts indeed!
The indigenous, shade loving “snake lilly” , AKA “Blood Lilly” often found on steep slopes and in pockets of bush beside out Trout streams in spring.
There are two river valleys I know in Trout country that cause me despair. There are two others that give me hope.
Let’s get the despair out of the way.
If you have ever driven up the lower Pitseng pass from the turnoff outside Mt Fletcher, up to Vrederus on the plateau below Naude’s Neck Pass , you may have noticed the stream running parallel to the road for a long way. Perhaps you did not. You could be forgiven for not noticing it, because if truth be told, you seldom see it. It is completely inundated with wattle trees. That stream is the “Luzi”, a Trout stream of not insignificant flow, which takes it’s size from the Bradgate Stream and the Swith that flow down from Naude’s.
Looking down the Swith….wattle trees barely visible downriver on the main river
From just below the confluence of the Swith and the Bradgate, just across from Vrederus, the wattle infestation begins. From there it persists for about twenty kilometers. Yes, you heard right 20! Twenty ‘kays’ of remote stream in a steep river valley, inaccessible and supposedly untouched. Twenty kilometers that could be a special, barely fished trout stream that could easily have supported a “trout fisherman’s lodge”, one can dream. But it is a disaster, and seemingly an insurmountable one.
Similarly remote and infected is the Inzinga here in KZN. As you drive through from Notties to Lotheni you cross first its two tributaries the Kwamanzinyama and the Rooidraai, and then the river itself. The main river is shrouded by life sapping wattles, well into the mountains above the road, and a look across the drainage basins of the kwamanzinyama and Rooidraai reveals the same. It then goes through a relatively clear patch below the water fall. More dire is the stretch out of sight below that in a steep sided gorge were the aforementioned streams join the Inzinga. This problem is far from the view of any passer-by, and beyond the reach of any vehicle like a TLB or tractor that might prove essential in a clean-up job.
Looking up the wattle infested Inzinga valley, the Kwamanzinyama coming in from the right in the distance
The infestation continuing downstream…..
In all honesty a clean up job on the aforementioned streams would be of a magnitude that renders it impossible. I am trying not to be negative, but one has to be realistic. It doesn’t help that neither stream is upheld as a revered destination for fly-fishermen or anyone else for that matter. There really isn’t anyone who cares enough about these two, to even contemplate a clean-up on either. The human race has abandoned these once beautiful streams.
“A world of wounds” said Aldo Leopold…. Despair!
Onto brighter things:
The upper Mooi river once had a severe wattle infestation. The invaders had crept up onto private land within the Kamberg reserve. When that land was expropriated in the late eighties/early nineties, it was ostensibly to incorporate it into the greater park, and commence with the restoration of the landscape. (It so happens that my first job after the army was for a small company that was called upon to contest the valuation used by the state in the expropriation, and I therefore had occasion to visit the property , having previously done so as a school-child as early as 1983. I use the word “ostensibly” because looking back at my fishing photos to as recently as 2005, the area was still in a poor state.
Wattle infestation, Game Pass 2005.
Somehow, however, they got it right. Walking through there now, to go fishing, you wouldn’t know what it used to look like, or have any clue of the transformation, unless you happen to know your veld grasses. The landscape is restored!
Further downstream, farmers have worked to clear wattle of their own volition, and apart from one severe infestation of just over a kilometre of river bank, things are largely under control. The Mooi River is revered as a fly-fishing destination, and it is highly unlikely that it will be lost forever to a severe wattle infestation. As I write, the fishing club I belong to is mustering its resources to go and do routine wattle removal on the Mooi, before it gets out of control. The efforts of the fishermen are not in isolation. One farmer, who owns large tracts of land in the valley, has done an enormous amount of work to clear wattle across many square kilometers in the catchment. He has done this without threat of fine, or for a state subsidy, or any such thing. I don’t know him, but one of these days I am going to stop in there, shake his hand, give him a bottle of whiskey and thank him from the bottom of my heart.
A man whose hand I have shaken in thanks for similar work is Don McHardy. I still need to get him that whiskey! Don should be recognised as a hero. He owns a farm in the Dargle in the Umgeni River catchment, where for the last 6 years he has employed a dozed full time employees to remove alien plants. Gums, wattles brambles, and bug weed. I initially met Don on the roadside, when I stopped to introduce myself and thank him for work he was doing on the bank of the river opposite Chestnuts. It turns out it is not his property, but that he was clearing it for his neighbour…..seemingly as some sort of pro bono favour. Last week I went and had coffee with Don and had occasion to traverse his farm to get to the farmhouse. Wow! Just “Wow”! Hectare upon hectare of pasture and grassland, with the only evidence that it was once infested with scrub is the blackened tree stumps. Clear streams run strong through areas of thick grass cover. Don’s favour to 6 million inhabitants of the catchment lower down, is so far unrecognised.
Don and I discussed re-grassing and burning and spraying, and he divulged valuable information that will help the WWF work being done upstream of him on the Furth and the Poort…..two major tributaries of the Umgeni.
WWF work along the banks of the Furth stream pictured here on the 25th August 2017.
It will also be helpful to the Natal Fly Fishers Club work on the main river, which enters its second phase (#BRU2).
The Umgeni and the Mooi have already been variously transformed, and maintained, and they have strong advocates that will see that it continues.
“That is night fishing, the essence of angling, the emperor of sports. It is a gorgeous gambling game in which one stakes the certainty of long hours of faceless fumbling, nerve-racking starts, frights, falls, and fishless baskets against the off-chance of hooking into – not landing necessarily or even probably, but hooking into – a fish as long and heavy as a railroad tie and as unmanageable as a runaway submarine. It combines the wary stalking and immobile patience of an Indian hunter with sudden, violent action, the mystery and thrill of the unknown, a stimulating sense of isolation and self-reliance, and an unparalleled opportunity to be close to nature since most creatures are really nocturnal in habit.”
From the book “Fishless days, Angling Nights” by Sparse Grey Hackle 1971.
Roy on the Lotheni: all smiles on a blank cold day.
Coffee on the Mooi during 8 days of fishing bliss in October :
Back up on the Lotheni with Graeme, and later with him and Jac on the Mooi in scalding heat which was followed by a wild storm, which we sat out beside an earth bank that sheltered us from the worst of the wind:
An inchworm that fell onto my trouser leg while eating lunch on the Sterkspruit:
Anton prospecting on the Bokspruit
Artwork?………the new piece adorning the entrance to Vrederus:
I bet you didn’t know that swimming is prohibited on the top of Naude’s neck pass!
The team. Zimmer frame intended for late night stabilisation.
PD at Scissors Run on the Mooi:
The view from my imaginary fishing bungalow…a secret spot.
It faces north, looks onto a road built by my grandfather, has red hot pokers and arum lillies in the vlei out front, the sound of running water in front, to the east, and behind; and you can see my favourite mountain peeping over the hill from the kitchen window at the back. There is a nesting pair of fish eagles nearby, and an indigenous forest off to the side. (yes of COURSE there are Trout in the stream!) Heaven.
A little known stream that Keith and I explored in May:
The beautiful Bushmans, with my good friend Anton in the distance.
What a glorious season of mountains, friends, hiking, exploring ; and sandwiches and coffee in the veld.
In the last week we have switched on the under-floor heating in the lounge, and I have worn a jacket of some sort most days. By my reckoning that signals the close of number 36….my 36th contiguous flyfishing season since this thing bit me all those years ago.
Sitting here in my living room , armed with a good cup of coffee and a reflective mood, I have just paged through my journal, and tried to get a sense of how it was. Tried for a capsule that sums it all up. Something that captures it in a way that lets me roll it around in my mind without missing any of the good bits.
One can add the numbers I guess: 200 hours of fishing over 45 days on ten stillwaters and eight different streams, and just under a hundred Trout. A fair season by those numbers I guess, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
130 of those 200 hours on streams, x number of Browns vs Rainbows, so many on dries, so many on nymphs. I have all this info. I could probably add up the kms travelled the diesel burnt, the coffee, beer and whisky drunk.
I think it is better summed up as follows: (in terms of the piscatorial quarry at least)
We broke the rules and started 3 days early on the very lower Bushmans, where we were shown a toffee. That is always a good way to start. There were some trips to the Lotheni, a few months apart, but they were lean. The trips to the Mooi were not, and there were more of those this season than last. The Mooi and the Bushmans produced some big fish for me. Bigger ones for my Facebook buddies it seems, or was that camera angle?
I was happy with mine. The Umgeni showed me more good fish, and more toffees than ever before. It was real “Rub your snout in that” stuff! . The lower Sterkspruit and the lower Bokspruit were challenging, but the upper reaches of both offered up their bounty. The Vlooikraal was as special as it always is.
A 17 incher in the sleet with Jan in October at Reekie Lyn.
A 19 incher from Krantz pool with PD.
PD’s 18 incher from the Sterkspruit…
……sure it wasn’t my fish, but you asked about memorable fish right? And you didn’t ask if I caught them.
My first day of an Eastern Cape trip got me a 14 inch Rainbow on a nymph fishing with Roy. My last day got me a 14 inch Brown on a dry …stalked, fooled, hooked and landed with PD as my witness.
“Book-ends!” he remarked after he had congratulated me on that last fish, and I thought about that over a cup of streamside coffee off the camp stove while he went fishing.
There was a fish of some 13 inches on the Bushmans right towards the death, that was special. Several fly changes, lots of stalking and creeping about, and eventually I fooled him, alone, and without witnesses. The solitude of a good fish on an empty river with no one to ‘high-five’ you is, I think, a healthy thing.
But the fish that had my eyes swirling in the same way that Kaa the snake was able to dazzle Mowgli, was that Umgeni fish at ‘The Black Hole’ . Like PD’s one on the Sterk, I didn’t catch it. Unlike PD’s on the Sterk, no-one caught it. I however, photographed it. Twice. I put about 10 different fly patterns over it. I spotted it feeding no less than four times, and I rose it three times, pricking it on two of those occasions.
That fish had me beaten. It is also the one thing that has me looking forward to no 37.
Now that, my friends, is surely the fish of the season!
……….My next post will be the season between the fish……………which in so many ways is larger and more significant.
I try very hard to do things right, and to do them the right way, but we all have to compromise sometimes.
Last week I fished for a sighted Trout downstream. Peril the thought!
It was rising in Bird Pool up on Furth, but it was rising against the rock shelf that you just can’t physically get downstream of. The current plunges into the pool, and runs parallel to the shelf, straight into a steep and wooded bank. So I had to use the riffled water at my feet as my screen from the trout’s vision, kneel in the shallow water on the step above where it plunges down into the pool, and deliver my delicate dry directly downstream. Of course I threw in some slack and did it all drag free.
And now best I confess another downstream misdemeanour. Quickly, before Anton spills the beans, because as he read the paragraph above I swear I heard him reaching for the keyboard , or perhaps the magaphone, to say “Tell them about the fish on the Bushmans , you Philistine!”.
It was a very big pool. VERY big. Very deep too. The water was also cold, and we were under-gunned with 3 weights. The big fish would be at the bottom, under the tongue of current coming in at the top. As far as I could see, that may have been 10 foot down, and the current was strong. I requested a stillwater outfit, which, may I point out, Anton duly provided with complicit aplomb, and not a squeak of admonition. We….OK, I, swung a deep sunk GRHE (a big one OK) right into that pool, and let it swing on the current. Big, nasty, deep………
I don’t like digging up river banks and leaving big ugly scars that are at risk of eroding. Its wrong. But I do like to arrange serious machine power to pull felled invasive trees from the river. Our machines ground up the river banks in places, but we removed dozens of tons of alien timber, rather than leave log-jambs. As a redemptive exercise I subjected myself (And my wife) to 2 mornings in miserable cold drizzly weather, scattering grass seeds on the bare scars.
The bull was another one were I was forced to bend the rules. I had been guiding a group of people up the Umgeni, showing them the river clearing and what have you, and by mid morning, repeatedly promising them that they wouldn’t have to climb through a fence again. “No more!” I told them with confidence, after I had watched several pretty ladies crawl under the barbed wire on their bellies in the dust. “From here on I PROMISE its all stiles and gates”
“and we haven’t far to go either” I added convincingly to one whose spirit was visibly flagging”
But then I come over the hill, and there is a bloody Jersey bull, standing at the gate we need to pass through. He was bellowing and pawing the ground, and his harem of cows stood meekly away from him, while he vented and snorted. I didn’t have a white horse, but I pretended. He had his ladies, and I had mine, and I wasn’t going to have mine climb through a fence. I charged at him with gusto making wild cowboy noises and waving a piece of black pipe above my head. Whooping and whistling like a madman, at full sprint and forgetting entirely that the cameraman had attached a wireless microphone to my lapel .
The bull didn’t budge. In fact he put his head down and came straight at me defiantly.
I lost the fish in bird pool, after pricking it 3 times. I caught the sixteen incher on the Bushmans.
The grass seed didn’t germinate on the Umgeni, but I promise to go back again when its really cold and do it again. I smacked the bull square between the eyes with my pathetic plastic pipe. Luckily it seemed to stop him, albeit only 2 foot from me. I retreated slowly with my heart pounding but my dignity in tact (sort of), and helped everyone through the fence.
Sometimes you just have to compromise.
As yellows enter the hillside light and long grass, as ambers of smoke and time tint the mountain view, and the season marches to old hats and penknives sharpened out of shape, so the music changes.
I got called a “redneck” this week, and rightly so. It’s all “Seasick Steve and the Level Devils”, “Trampled by Turtles”, and Ramble Tamble. The banjo rules, and when it doesn’t, its all about the sound of that big grumbling diesel motor taking me over the pass at Bottleneck. On our trip there was a roadside stipple of cosmos, and the streams were low and alluring despite their delicate disposition. Our windscreens on life were removed as they always are down there at Rhodes, and we saw long forgotten clarity and colour in everything we did. Back home the river browns were bigger than ever and we are back now and living the dream.
There is a sense of living large. The beers are bigger (“Hell this beer is HUGE!” remarked PD on a rock beside the Willow Stream. I mocked him, but he hauled yet another longtom out of his backpack and held it beside the open one. Dang!….it was bigger!). The music is louder. The coffee from “Ground” keeps getting better, and I for one am mastering the art of ignoring the overdraft. Large and reckless. Who cares when the country is going down the tubes, the rivers are full of clean water, and fly-fishing chatter fills one’s days. We have a new fly-shop in town, but I need nothing from it. It is hot and sweaty here, but there is a chance of frost in the mountains, and last night the thunder burst like an incendiary over Aleppo with no tailing reverberation. Short. Sharp. Powerful. Big and over as quickly as it started.
Its time to live in the moment and make memories. Bigger fish. More time on the water. More confidence. Smaller flies. More dry fly success. I could be a student again for a while. Perhaps it will endure into the coming winter. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps it is a season.
and again 2007
and again 2009
I have had the privilege and the satisfaction over the last three years or so, to work alongside some seriously committed fly-fishing conservationists on the Umgeni River:
- Roy (whose doctor told him to get some youngsters to haul logs instead of suffering another hernia)
- Anton (who had an adverse reaction to bramble spray, but carried on anyway)
- Penny, who isn’t scared to get dirty
- Lucky and Zuma….two of the hardest working guys you will find
- Bob…who is just always there and quietly gets on with it
- Russell….who has committed diesel and machines for many, many hours and tidied up after we left.
etc, etc….I cannot name them all!
What these guys have achieved is commendable and fantastic. They have cleared kilometers of river. Stuff that was horrible to access. The landscape on this stretch of the Umgeni is completely transformed. You come over the hill and it is not recognisable. Take a look at the #BRU site for the full story.
Come and see the fish eagle’s nest; learn some history about the valley; climb over the fence stiles; learn the names of the hills and farms; get some exercise; and take home the booklet I am busy producing all about the Umgeni as a trout fishery. I will show you the honey holes, and show you how I fish them.
Someone will collect us at the end and bring us back to our cars.
Fishermen, if you are from out of the province and are here to attend the main evening event (mentioned below), and you want to be off somewhere sampling the stillwater fishing: here is something for your wife and kids to do instead of shopping in a mall.
We will be back at Il Postino in time for a superb lunchtime Pizza.
..….and if you are also attending the dinner that night……..
You can go home, have a snooze, get changed into your smart clothes, and come and attend this auspicious and prestigious event, that will raise the money to start #BRU2, and continue the work you will have witnessed in the morning.