It was during a Rhodes trip a few years ago, that I learnt of the death of Tim Wright.
Tim was an outdoorsman, an educator, and a gentleman. He was also a flyfisherman. I had the good fortune of benefitting from the fact that he taught and mentored both of my sons at junior school.
Tim was one of those guys, like my old friend Win Whitear, who punished schoolboys with what modern rules might decree as “cruel and unusual punishment”….(things like making them carry a rock, for rocking on their chair, or famously once throwing all a boy’s books out the window in the rain for some or other misdemeanor)…..and got away with it because the boys respected him so much.
He fed boys yellow Smarties ,from a tub labeled by his friend the pharmacist, as “homesick pills” , while on bush camps. Bush camps that he arranged and lead without profit, during his well earned school holidays. It was after a return from such a camp that he acknowledged me with a fleeting nod and a single sentence indicating that my boy was an accomplished outdoorsman. That eye contact, and brief appreciative nod, live with me as clearly as the lump in my throat that I felt all day on the upper Riflespruit on the day following his death.
On that day, and I remember it well, I was fishing with my friend Rhett. Rhett who I have no doubt would acknowledge the influence of his teacher, Pike. Pike hadn’t joined us that day. His legs were mountain weary, and I do believe he was in the pub while we did the Riflespruit. In Pike’s defence, he had brought Rhett along on the trip when he was a schoolboy, and I reckon he needed to be in the pub. On that trip we also had along some guys touching an undeclared age somewhere over 60. They were a little worried about the social dynamics of a schoolboy on our fishing trip.
Pike defended the judgment call, citing an assurance that Rhett would bring them beers and coffee. Rhett didn’t disappoint. Pike’s mentorship and judgment was as solid then as it is now.
Rhett now has children of his own, and he is coming along on our trip next month. Rhett had to eak out the money for the trip because he has school fees to pay. School fees which would have won over the fishing trip if it had come to that, because Rhett knows the value of a good school teacher.
In flyfishing circles in these parts, I reckon the value of a good school teacher is known. Countless fishermen have related to me how Win was such a great influence to them in their school years. The same Win who one year sat in my boat with a fly rod and a creased brow beneath his beanie and listened intently to one or other parenting problem. It is a good listener who says nothing until you have got it all out, and then delivers a few well considered sentences at the end of it all. Sentences that proved correct and apt and comforting to a parent sitting on an ice cold lake with a fly rod in his hand.
The other day I got a call from Murray. He wanted to clarify the identity of a man named “Pike”, who had taught his friend years back, and had introduced him to flyfishing. The friend wanted to look Pike up, acknowledge him, and thank him for getting him started with a ‘the fly’. The fact that he wanted to do that speaks volumes about his character, and also, might I suggest, the mentorship he received somewhere in his youth too.
It was indeed the same “Pike” . The same one who, when we are about to head out fishing, holds us back, chatting at the roadside to a farmer about his children, their schools and their progress. He does so with an intense interest, care, and attentiveness. It is no surprise that the farmers remember him. I am just the one with the strung up fly rod pacing a few yards away.
Pike once arrived on just such a trip as the aforementioned Rhodes trip, having taken a group of schoolboys fishing in East Griqualand. He related this story:
On a particularly slow day, he had elected to take an afternoon snooze in the vehicle while the boys fished a little way off. One youngster…a little guy called Leo who couldn’t open gates, and forgot a lot of stuff at home, and needed a lot of looking after …declared that he would stay back with Sir in the vehicle, out of the wind. He fidgeted. Pike tried to sleep. Leo then found a cable tie and asked Pike if he could place it on his wrist as a bangle.
“Not such a good idea” said Pike.
“Just loosely Sir” said Leo.
“don’t pull it tight now Leo! ” said Pike.
Pike dozed for a while…….
Then there was a high pitched “Sir!” from Leo.
You guessed it!
Pike has taken countless schoolboys fishing over the years. He says he is going to write a book called “looking after Leo, and other stories”
I sure hope he does.
It was a very disappointed thief who broke down my patio door in the middle of the night with an axe, in search of a flat screen TV.
All he got was an angry Great Dane and a sea of books. I only wish we had managed to give him some fast flying lead too….the bastard!
But let me put the angry thoughts of retribution aside for a moment and focus on his disappointment, and my delight: Books.
I hadn’t realised it, but books, and more specifically flyfishing books, have been in my blood for a long time. I remembered this favourite from my school days:
And I remembered my delight at being mentioned in one of Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles, when I was just a schoolboy, that later became part of his first book: “My way with a Trout”.
I remember taking fly-fishing books out of the school library …the same titles, repeatedly: “Where the bright waters meet”, by Harry Plunkett-Green, and titles by Skues and Sawyer.
And looking at my own collection now, I realise that it has swelled somewhat over the years.
And I think how I relish the titles by Middleton and Duncan, and Grzelewski and Rosenbauer and Engle, and Gierach, and French, and Traver, and Leeson, and where do I stop……. I have read them all, many several times.
“Where do you get the time!” proclaimed a friend the other day. He wasn’t expecting an answer, but I gave him one anyway: “I don’t own a TV” I said. And I realise now that while the man in the dark of night who threatened to shoot our dog spoke impeccable English, it can’t have been Graeme, because he knows I don’t own a flatscreen. (One step closer to catching the thief, you might say.)
My wife and I were out to breakfast one day, and I had parked the car out front of the restaurant. I was about to lock the car when Petro pointed out that I had left something of value in full view. I re-opened the door and hid whatever it was under the floor mat. Then she opened her door and together we hid a few more items….you know, used handkerchiefs, toothpicks, that sort of thing. The sort of thing that people break car windows for. Then our eyes moved simultaneously to the back seat where I had a stack of secondhand fly-fishing books that I had just collected from the post office. We looked at them and then at one another and fell into laughter.
Later over coffee we discussed which country we might emigrate to, if ever we did that, and we decided that we would choose a country where one’s fly-fishing books were at risk of being stolen.
Please forgive me for being just a little cynical when some “fly-fishing personality” posts a picture of the hamburger he just had for lunch at the airport, and some sport comments “Amazing!”
“A monkey in silk is a monkey no less” Rodriguez.
I find myself walking a fine line between a few angling mates who entirely shun the internet, including Facebook, and others who report what they had for breakfast, and post another picture of the Adams they just tied, as though none of us have ever seen the thing.
“Meaningless, meaningless” the book of Ecclesiastes
In recent months I have grown weary of trolling the pages, wasting good reading time, and expecting, against all hope, for something meaningful and rewarding to leap from the screen and cause me to have a life altering moment. I would settle for an “aha” moment in which I discover some revelation in fly design or leader rigging. Make no mistake, I have definitely found a few of those. But overwhelmingly, I witness a multitude of fly-fishers posting pictures and words that serve to cement their place in a world of conformity. I ask myself if I am unwittingly part of it all.
We were holed up in a fishing cottage waiting out a north wind recently, and the wine was flowing freely. One of the guys related a story. They had been at a rock concert on the Isle of Man, and there were upwards of twenty thousand weary, hung-over party goers waiting for the ferry in specially set up pens designed to batch the number of revelers who could safely board the ferry, when one joker emitted a “baaaaa”.
Rare are the discoveries of well thought out, and novel concepts in fly design, leader dynamics or stealthy approach on Facebook. What I find disappointing in some way, is that when there is a really worthwhile idea that does NOT conform, the number of “likes, follows, and shares” is puzzlingly low. It is as though the crowd rewards and applauds all that is familiar and in alignment with the contents of the glossy magazine.
This all has me inexplicably drawn to the unfashionable in fly-fishing. I revel in the little known, off the page, authentic and previously common, especially if there is a quirk of application or interpretation.
“………young and old, quietly fishing on unfashionable waters and doing it very well with a handful of flies and perfectly good, but cheap tackle from Cabela’s……You don’t notice them because they don’t show up on the covers of magazines and they don’t write books about it” John Gierach , “At the grave of the Unknown Fisherman”
One thing is for sure, and that is that the internet is gear-centric when it comes to fly-fishing.
“The sporting press no longer represents sport; it has turned billboard for the gadgeteer.” Aldo Leopold, “A sand county Almanac”
That is an element I am certainly guilty of falling for in recent years. I went into a phase of acquiring fly tackle. There was a new reel with spools, the strength and smoothness of which would be best pitched at a marlin, not a fifteen inch trout. And then I found myself no longer being able to refer to “my fly rod”, because I have a 2,3,4 and 5 weight! Excessive!
“It seems important to remember that for most of the sport”"’s long history, anyone who spent hundreds of dollars on a fly rod and released all the fish they caught would have been run out of town” John Gierach
Or was I just replacing some old tackle, converting to large arbor reels, and buying stuff of a quality I could not previously afford?
“Given a choice between a trout reel machined to micro-tolerances, or one banged back into working order after a fall using the butt end of a Buck knife while a pal steadied the project on a gleaming piece of east Sierra granite, which all led to catching those goldens brilliant as the sun setting on a Faberge egg….” Seth Norman, “The fly fishers Guide to Crimes of Passion”
I have good friends, who are, despite their protestations, pure “tackle sluts”! Wonderful, generous people they are, they just happen to have an affliction. On the way out to some piece of water, they will wax lyrical about the specifications of this or that rod or line, and how much better it is than the one they bought last season. Given that I know the bloke fished twice last season, I am flabbergasted that he has that twice-used-line stored in a cupboard somewhere. I think I am more flabbergasted that he has formed a technical opinion of the new one over the old one!
At least he is enthusiastic about our shared passion, I tell myself.
“ If you see a fly fisherman on TV now , he is more likely to be in his early thirties and appear to be a weekend sports anchor……..he has an endorsement deal with Patagonia. He is presentable , noncontroversial, and REALLY ENTHUSIASTIC : “MAN! Those chironomids are amazing!” Jack Ohman , “Angler Management”
Who am I to say.
My obsession with the lie of the land, the seasons, and the associations of place and people in the history of fly-fishing on my home waters, is no more noble than my buddies’ catalogue like knowledge of tackle, or another’s jovial chatter on Facebook.
Its just that unplugged fly-fishing has my attention right now, and I like it.
Author’s note: No pictures were used during the production of the above essay……..(just saying)
In the last little while, I have experienced a sort of “turn-over” not unlike those that sometimes discolour a decent Trout water for many weeks.
First my trusty vehicle went up in a puff of steam. I had planned for it to do 400,000 kms, something a friend of mine said was impossible. I pointed out that I got as near as dammit to 390,000 (and 13 years) in the last one. He said I was just lucky. So when Pendula coughed, I considered myself unlucky, and threw myself into something new shiny and bloody fantastic. The disappointment of having only made 235,000 kms and 7 years quickly dissipated when I started to get the hang of all the electronics in the new one.
During the weeks in which I was still buying 4 X 4 magazines to see what new fandangled things I could bolt to this new chariot, I got a mail from a magazine. I had done a piece for them. They liked it, and could they have high resolution copies of the following pictures please. It was as I was reading those lines that a cold sweat broke out.
A week earlier, in the excitement of having decent music in my cab again, I had overwritten every single one of my high resolution RAW format fly-fishing pictures with tunes. 10 years of magazine acceptable pictures gone. Just like that. It had happened as quickly as the needle of the temperature gauge in the old Ford had hit the stop peg in the red zone.
My son has a clever recovery program, and maybe I can ditch the music and recover some of the images, but its unlikely I will get them all back. Whatever I get back will be at the expense of some great blues music. So I could spend hours in front of a PC trying to turn the clock back, and I could kick my left shin blue,
I could put the new bakkie to good use, and go fishing instead, and in the process take some new pictures. As a naturally recidivist nostaligic, it’s time to shake out the old and embrace the new. Maybe I will learn how to tie the Penny knot , and make it my own and ditch 30 years of improved clinch tying. Maybe I will try 3 fly rigs, and try my hand at tying wally wings. Maybe I will mothball my old doughnut float tube and get a new U tube, and start drinking beer that doesn’t come in green bottles, and start flyfishing for bass.
Or maybe not.
Damn I am cross with myself for burning that motor and overwriting those pictures!
I was tidying up my fishing logs the other day, and restacking my bookshelf, and I started reading some old entries as one invariably does. It was late and outside I could hear the heartwarming pitter patter of rain. I was scanning the logbooks for hot summer days that were recorded along with storms and good trout. I suppose I was looking for encouragement for upcoming ventures in high summer.
As I looked down I saw the cat was lying close by. He was seemingly absorbing , enhancing, and retransmitting the nostalgia of it all, as only an old faithful cat can do on a rainy night.
Damn-it ginger. You weren’t even there!
I have an old friend who, when he is sitting comfortably in our lounge, and a truly classic piece of music comes on the stereo, closes his eyes as he listens.
I think he sways a little too.
He certainly zones out.
He escapes the confines of our simple human surroundings, switches off the world around him, and allows his mind to soar to lofty and beautiful places in which the depth of his appreciation knows no bounds. He transcends those in the room who nod in his direction and snigger, and he rises to a place above us all.
I may have sniggered along with the others at one time. I don’t know. But I no longer do.
I too now know that lofty place. I think we all need such a place, given that to go there is all we can do in this broken and often painful world.
That place is one in which the things you choose to immerse your consciousness in, take over from all else. It is a place where the love your soul has for images, and words, and music, and beauty holds sway. It is a place that defies description, and which is unique to you alone. It is a place that acknowledges and reveres your fondest memories, and houses your own aesthetic blueprint.
My such place encompasses mountains, landscapes, weather, trout (and the waters they live in), set against a watermark of stories, and songs; all in the context of very personal memories.
I am taken to that lofty place by images. Not just any images mind you, but collections of images played out in the context of personal connections, complete with birdsong, and the sounds of a rushing mountain stream.
Those images, and everything that goes along with them, are I suppose well represented by what I post on this journal.
Here is a fairly random and possibly representative sample of those: Image Library.
I identify with John Gierach when he says “The modern depictions of fly fishing in print and video are accurate as far as they go, but they usually run heavy on gratuitous fish catching and light on the long silences that characterize the sport”. I don’t suppose it is a coincidence that McGuane writes about “The longest silence”
My silences on the water, while they are just that: Silences; can be represented by favourite music.
- The sounds of silence: Disturbed …..no, not Simon & Garfunkel, although I love that version…but you’ve gotta listen to this!
And while their names don’t fit the topic quite as poetically, take a listen to these ones too.
- Sacrifice: Sinead O’Connor
- American Pie: Madonna Its just a pity she doesn’t sing the whole thing
- Favourite mistake: Cheryl Crow
- Thumbing my way: Pearl Jam
- The Boxer: Mumford & Sons
- You and me: Lifehouse
And beautiful stories are the echoes of my own stories:
Reading list….books in which, when I got to the end I felt I had “ just finished sucking the last precious drop off the last page of a beautiful book.” (to quote Robin Douglas)
My list of such books: It is difficult to single out just a few books of all those I heave read, but here is my attempt to do that:
- On the spine of time: Middleton
- The River Why: Duncan
- Chalkstream Chronicle: Patterson
- Hunting Trout: Sutcliffe
- The Habit of Rivers:Leeson
- Where the Trout are as long as your leg: Gierach (I know, they are all brilliant)
You are a flyfisher. You are reading this blog. I think you will get it. No one else will. Close your eyes. They will snigger.
To hell with them.
At the tender age of seventeen, I would have been hamstrung and home-trapped, had it not been for Plunkington. Plunkington was eighteen years old. He also, as luck would have it, had both a driver’s license, and a car that got us to fishing water with almost respectable reliability.
There was a time, the memories of which are sufficiently hazy, that I struggle to place it in the continuum that was my growth into fly-fishing, in which that car transported us to Midmar. Midmar, small tents, mealie pap, and carp. Deck chairs and booze from brown paper bags completed the scene. The memories are hazy, but Plunkington, the character, is not.
A tall, lanky bloke, with a wide frame, low energy that never dried up, and a slow, long, methodical stride, Plunkington’s level of excitement never rose above the volume of his music. He listened to AC/DC, ZZ Top, and various other noisy rock bands, at volumes that were barely audible. The music emitted from either the poor quality tape player in the old car, or an even lower quality portable radio, that he would take with him in his boat. Given that I could never hear the thing, I stopped short of complaining about it, but I did venture that music on a boat was far removed from the fly-fishing scene I had in mind. Plunkington would not have replied. Some things are better left un-said. In Plunkington’s case, he believed that to be true for most things.
We would arrive at a dam, and Plunkington would begin to tackle up in dead silence. There was nothing to compete with my babble about which fly I planned to use, what strength mono I thought might be appropriate and the like. He answered questions, and then only if they were direct enough, and an absence of wind prevented him from pretending not to have heard. Typically, I would still be talking, only to look up and find that he had rigged his heavy fibreglass rod long ago, and had mooched off to throw his Walkers Killer, leaving me with a lot less wind in my sails than had emitted from my mouth.
Plunkington claimed bad knees. He didn’t speak about that, or moan, he just moved slowly and deliberately. He climbed through fences in slow motion. He tied on flies, stashed his net, and landed Trout in the same way. Grenades may or may not have changed that. I suspect the latter would have been the case.
Plunkington fished a cheap sinking line on his cheap rod. He stuck to old fly patterns, swore more than was necessary, and caught more Trout than all of us. He drank his beer in quarts, from the bottle, and in the bath. He handled blank days badly, but fished them harder. His response to filthy weather was to stay out even longer than he would do in fine weather, and keep us waiting, shivering at the locked car. If you went out to find him, and plead that sanity prevail, you were inclined to find him rowing the boat away in the mist to a new spot, even further away from the landing. And the reception you would get was more icy than the weather.
Nothing deterred the man. After seven blank days in a row, he would drop me off at home, and ask “where to tomorrow?”. The next morning he would be there, his wet clothes still on the front seat, and junk all about the car. He would clear a space for me and say quietly “We are going to KILL them today!” He would plead poverty, and have me paying more than my share of the petrol, or he would demolish my sandwiches on account of his local shop having run out bread. Coupled with that his demons inspired in him tall stories, which at first we all believed. His self-confidence hovered around rock bottom, and emerged like a flower that blooms fleetingly in a desert, only when he caught more Trout than us. For the rest he was either on an even keel, or he was somewhere between gloomy and uninspired.
At the end of every days fishing he would claim in all seriousness to have lost the car keys. After a frantic search, and detailed contemplation of how we would have to spend the night out, or walk twenty kilometres for help, he would miraculously find them. Plunkington drank too much, rolled cars, told lies, got in a huff, and caught way too many Trout.
“So why on earth did you stick it out?” my wife asks.
We talked fishing. We fished. We spent long hours in small boats together. We got cold, and we got hot and we suffered the elements. We got caught in storms, and witnessed strange things together. We laughed a lot, at stupid things, that no one else would have got. We compared flies and spoke tackle and fly-fishing venues, and personalities. We shared our hatred for bass in our Trout waters. He came up with wild and quirky ideas. We shared our mutual teenage awkwardness by escaping to Trout waters, and in so doing largely avoided it altogether.
On a blank day he would lie on his back in the grass chewing a grass stem, and after a long silence he would proclaim: “Bugger-all fish in this water. We should really stock carp here”.
So I don’t know why I stuck it out. But I do know that I would do it all again.
I recently became the custodian of some classic fly fishing tackle. That is to say, it was not given to me, but circumstances dictate that I must look after this stuff for a while, (and I am not saying any more than that!)
Petro and I opened the heavy and elegant, but battered box on the lounge floor the other night over a good bottle of red.
The box was engraved, and inside, apart from the Palakona cane rod, Hardy’s leaders in muslin inserts, reels, tiny trout flies, and the like, were two fishing permits.
So from this, and the tarnished plaque on the front, we know that the box belonged to one Henry Antrobus Cartwright, a military man during the second world war, and stationed in Berne, Switzerland when things were pretty damned hot.
Cartwright was a distinguished military man, famous for his five attempted escapes from German POW camps in the first world war, and for his book “Within Four Walls”. * Cartwright illustrated that book with humorous sketches, so he was clearly a multi talented man. In the second world war, he was a captain in the British army, a Colonel by 1945, and a brigadier before the war ended. Following some research I now know that he received the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) on the 14th June 1945, and that on the 18th of June he went fly-fishing.
The story goes something like this:
Cartwright had links to SIS and MI5, and his job was debriefing returning prisoners of war, escapees, and other military personnel getting out of the spotlight, and passing from Germany, back through Berne in Switzerland, (where he was stationed).
My Google search turned up these snippets:
“Switzerland, along with SIS stations in fellow neutral countries such as Portugal and Sweden were to become the major collection points for Allied intelligence about the Axis war plans in Europe.”
“Count Frederick "Fanny" van den Heuvel, the epitome of a perfect old time diplomat, tall, courteous, an excellent linguist, had been educated in Berne and could speak fluent Swiss-German. He had also gone to school in England and had once been a director of "Enos" Fruit Salts. He had worked for the SIS during WWI but had been compromised. He was appointed Station Chief SIS Geneva, while Victor Farrell was appointed a "Press Attache" at the British Embassy in Berne, where he joined the Air Attache, Air Commodore Freddie West, MC, VC and the Military Attache, Colonel H.A. Cartwright both of who had previous links with SIS.
The various Naval, Military and Air Attaches were the main intelligence gatherers for MI5.”
So it seems that Cartwright was a man who got to learn some war secrets, and as a result he was a marked man by the Germans, who were trying to get eyes on him. He must have been a nervous man, because back in August of 1943, he erroneously dismissed a man named Kocherthaler, a middle man, to a noble German “traitor” named Fritz Kolbe, and in so doing missed an opportunity to set up an intelligence chain that may have ended the war that little bit earlier.
Read the story of Kolbe, Kocherthaler and Cartwright HERE.
But despite all that , we see that he was promoted quickly through the ranks towards the end of the war, so he must have been a high powered fellow, with some successes about which we may never know, and a man with a whole lot more stress than someone sitting in an office nowadays.
And from my research I discovered that The King’s Birthday Honours 1945, celebrating the official birthday of King George VI, were announced on 14 June 1945 for the United Kingdom and British Empire in which Cartwright received his “CMG”.
Now look at the date his fishing permit was issued:
So, in a nutshell, he escaped, he snuck around gathering secrets, served his country well, got promoted right to the top, made the king’s birthday list, and then he went fly-fishing to celebrate.
What a man !
So how did I end up with his tackle?
Well, I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.
My Uber driver the other day, wanted to know what brought me to Cape Town. His name was Eugene. He was a clean shaven and decidedly Caucasian looking guy who mixed his level of social sophistication and intelligence with that delightful and unmistakable accent of the Cape Flats. I can’t help striking up a conversation with these guys, just as a means of listening and perhaps, if I am lucky enough, to gain one of their quotable sayings, that they come up with regularly.
I told him about the fly-fishing expo I had just attended. Eugene wanted to know what this fly-fishing thing was all about. I explained. The weight in the line not in the sinker or lure….you know the drill. He got that instantly, and my explanation tailed off, leaving me feeling that I hadn’t got the essence of it all into the discussion. So I added bits about us fly-fishers being totally different from the bait and lure guys. I think I said something about finesse in tackle, and probably compared baseball with cricket.
“Ah, so yoo okes shmokes beeg cigaars” said Eugene.
“You nailed it!” I said, and he smiled.
But as we fell into silence, I pondered afresh how our big cigars hide some home truths that we don’t readily confess to.
I had just heard fears the day before, how an expo attendee, having bought a ticket to enter this prestigious event, could just lift some merchandise! I would never do that! So I got to thinking what I would do, and finding that page in my mind particularly blank, I resorted to considering what I have done.
There was the time we all fooled our varsity mate “Donkey” (yes, he is from East Griqualand) into believing that one of us, who had hooked into a massive lump of weed, was into a good fish. The fishing being rather slower than the flow of beer, we had no qualms in making the “fight” last for a full 25 minutes, complete with a running commentary to Donkey about the ever increasing estimates as to the size of this thing. We worked him up to a fever pitch of excitement and jealousy before nonchalantly declaring, “Oops, sorry, must have been this here weed”.
Then there was the time we like to think we fooled Conrad, who was the last one out on his float tube fishing, into believing the widening rings behind him were rises, and not the product of our pebble throwing. By the time the pebbles had grown in size to missiles that could cause grievous bodily harm, and our mirth had caused our aim to deteriorate to a point where he was actually in danger, he lost his cool, as any respectful, sincere, and dedicated fly-fisherman should. Sorry Conrad! I promise…we have grown up since then.
The other day I was tying minnow patterns and it got me thinking about the time I was stocking a dam with fry. I knew that the big trout in the dam would make a feast of these hapless fellows, and as early as the night before, I had planned my approach. I would stock. Then I would make coffee. Then I would fish a minnow pattern. I could barely sleep that night, as I manufactured in my mind, the story of the success I would surely have.
Imagine my cursing when I arrived at the dam to find it occupied by a fisherman, standing in the exact spot where I had dreamed of launching my Kent’s baby Rainbow. I commenced with the stocking. It didn’t take long for Popjoy to wander over and enquire as to my activities. “Stocking!” I proclaimed, adding “First time in years…I feel bad for not having stocked this dam, when we stocked that other one over the hill so very well all these years”.
It worked a charm. He was gone, and over the hill in minutes!
After coffee I put up the minnow imitation and, taking my time, so as to keep the dream in tact, I wandered over to the previously occupied spot, and executed a long and gentle cast. The whopper took the fly on the first strip, and surged for the horizon, breaking me off in the process, and setting off a chain reaction of scattering monsters. It was mayhem, and it would be many hours before things settled down again. Poetic justice I suppose.
One of my fellow fly anglers, who is a whole lot more competent than I am, and likely to empty a river stretch of fish in front of your eyes, has been tying up a storm and gearing up for the new river season with single minded determination and with the honing of skills like you have never seen.
It is quite worrying for those of us who are destined to fish up a piece of river behind him.
Now certain “Uriah the Hittite” type allegations have been leveled at me, but to set the record straight: It is pure coincidence that I employed this man last month, and have sent him off to work on a project in a very far flung country, with limited leave.
Ok, yes, he does leave on the first of September, but……..
Oh to hell with it. Pass me one of those big cigars Eugene.
James and I entered a coffee shop in the high street of Matatiele. We ordered cappuccinos. The willing young local made one, and the aroma was great. Just for fun, I said that it looked great, but could he do a palm tree, or a heart or such artwork in the foam. He knew how to do a hut, he said. I was impressed. I hadn’t seen it yet, but if this man could do a foamy African hut on the top of my cappuccino, it would make the road trip all the more memorable.
We watched with anticipation as he poured the next one. He poured it straight in the centre. I leaned forward, waiting for the moment he started to move the jug. I needed to learn how to do this. He poured straight. All the way. Didn’t move the jug or the cup…just poured dead straight. Then, when he was done, and bog standard cappuccino stood on the counter between us, he looked at it in an air of mild disappointment and resignation and said “ah…the hut…she did not come this time” .
Next time you come over I will show you how I do an Adams in the crème!
(I can pour straight)
AND….added many months later:
Questions I ask myself:
What if a trip to catch Golden Dorado or Milkfish is not reachable. What if GT’s and Jurassic Lake are beyond the reach of your pay-cheque?
Will you dream instead of fishing?
Or will you stick to the best “front-page waters” your pay-cheque and leave balance can get you to, in the hopes of getting closer to the success boasted by the exotic destinations. You have two Saturdays to fish this month. Will you risk them on the club water than no one has fished this year. Will you go beating your way through bush to find the water, or will you go to the water that you know fished well last week, and has nice clear banks?
Are you guilty of envying the guy who explored and uncovered a water that was long forgotten and is now producing whoppers, but despite that envy, you follow him to the water already uncovered?
Have you thought about the difference between a fly-fishing adventurer, and a fair-water fisherman? Will you divide your time between exploring and following the best results, or will it just be a pursuit of the tug on the line?
And whether you follow the best fishing stats, or are an adventurer, what will you do to support the lore, the wonder, the appreciation, and the excitement about your home waters. What will you do to put up a flag for our own waters? Will you make the “local is lekker” voice strong enough to be heard over the clamor for Alphonse and Patagonia?
When you explore and uncover and succeed, will you splash it all over facebook, for others to follow the GPS co-ordinates? Or will you post with integrity, to follow the fine line between ruining fishing spots and building up appreciation for what we have on our doorstep. Will you stick to mentioning the valley, but not naming the water? Will you delay and mix the posts to stop people beating a path to a single water?
And when you sit at your desk, will you click on the big fish pictures, skip comment longer than a sentence or two and move on? Or will you seek out the meaningful, the thoughtful, the detailed and the authentic content? Will you follow a few writers and actually read what they say, and learn from it?
That’s a lot of questions, but I think you get the idea: There’s a lot of noise out there. A lot of competition, flash, and bling.
How does that saying go?…”Be still, ……… study, and go fly-fishing” ….something like that.
I like that mantra.
Since I am more interested in rivers than history, I have yet to establish whether the original farms “Manor Farm” and “Brigadoon” actually share a common boundary or not. I have been busy working on a river instead of pouring over old surveyor general maps, which I would also like to do, if I could just find some time. What I can tell you is that you can see one farm from the other, and that the Umgeni River flows first through Brigadoon and then Manor farm. Brigadoon being on the southern bank, and Manor Farm on the northern one. The current owner of Brigadoon is our friend Russell Watson (who also happens to be South Africa’s most capped international polo player). And the owners of Manor Farm for many years have been the McKenzie family, that being the same family of the famous General Duncan Mckenzie. And it so happens that Russell is related (by marriage of his elder brother to the grand daughter of the brother of General Duncan Mckenzie), to the owners of the farm across and down from him.(‘”) Russell hails from farms in the Underberg district, including Seaforth (which happens also to be on a good trout stream), which was the family farm of the same MKenzie family into which his Brother married. Had my plans not gone pear shaped I would ,ironically, have been on the Umgeni at Brigadoon and five days later on the river at Seaforth. It could be seen as a migration in reverse of that of the bloodline, but only if you apply a lot of license, and as much imagination.
Lower Brigadoon, looking towards Manor farm
This interconnectedness and irony repeats itself everywhere. Take General Duncan McKenzie for example. He , among other things, built the road from Dargle to Fort Nottingham. With a bit of imagination you could say he built the road to Lions Bush, the farm of Peter Brown, since it is along that way. And then the politicians of the day go and re-name the Maritzburg freeway offramp to “Peter Brown offramp”, it having previously been named after none other than the man who built the road to Peter Brown’s farm: Duncan McKenzie.
I didn’t say I had no interest in history: as you can see I love to roll around the connectedness of things through history. In the same way I like to roll around the connectedness of things in nature, and perhaps science too. I also have an interest in that river that runs through the farms of Watson and McKenzie, as many of you will know. We cleared some more wattle trees from that river two weeks ago. While we were doing that I noted that a particular tributary was flowing quite strongly, despite the recent drought. It joins the main river at a spot where I have caught Brown Trout before, and I wonder if the feeder stream is not perhaps cooler than the main river.
The small stream enters from the left , joining the main river in the dead centre of this picture.
Or maybe it has some favourable chemistry, the complexity of which we may never be able to measure or understand. Then again that side stream runs in a very tight kloof on Furth Farm. A kloof that will undoubtedly stay shaded much of the time due to the topography it enjoys. Unfortunately though, I noticed that the same deep kloof has, like the main river, become infested with wattle trees.
I would like to rid that tributary of those wattles, because it would improve the water flows further, but it gets me thinking: Do we just chop them down and let the trunks lie where they fall and rot there, or do we poison them standing. Either way, the wattle stems, with their tannins, and whatever other chemistry they may introduce to the system, will remain part of it for many years to come. So perhaps they need to be cut, cross-cut and removed. That will have to be done by hand, as no tractor will get in there. So it would be a monster task, and it would be a whole lot easier just to drop them where they stand. Or poison them. But what might the effect of that be on the water that runs through the farm that the daughter of my great grandson might buy one day? The effect that would be, of either the poison, or the rotting wattle trunks.
And that gets me thinking in turn: we are removing lots of shade from the river that should, by reasonable deduction, cause the water to warm up. Pre global warming (if indeed you believe in global warming), and pre wattle trees, the Trout thrived. So the clear-felled river should be fine right? Or have the invasive wattles cooled a river that would otherwise have become non-viable for Trout. Or were the natural forests bigger back then, and so the water not as warm as we might make it now. Perhaps we might need to plant some indigenous trees on the forest fringes to enlarge those forests again. Does anyone have very old photos of the pockets of forest, or do they appear on old surveyor general maps? Maybe we need to find time and go pour over those old maps after all, lest we poison our great grandchildren. Or at least dash their chances of quality Trout fishing on the Umgeni.
(Heck! In which case we had might as well poison them and be done with it.)
(yes, I refer to the great Grandchildren…not the Trout or the wattles)
‘* my information was gleaned from a book entitled “The first 100 years of the Underberg Himeville district”
I still own a rod called “snappy”. Until very recently it was the only rod I had ever broken. In fact, if truth be told, I didn’t break it. The kids did. It was a long time ago, and it got named based on its distinction of having been the rod that snapped. There is nothing original about that nomenclature. I stole it from Neil Patterson. He had written a superb article for Trout Fisherman magazine in the UK. It may be partly because he incorporated that story in his excellent book ”Chalkstream Chronicle”, but I prefer to think I remember the story from way back in ‘85 before he produced the book. The article was called “Bring me a rod and make it snappy”, and chronicled all the awful things he has done to fly rods in his time.
He also had a bright orange rod, which he called “the carrot”, and which kinda rusted at the ferrule on account of him never taking it apart, such that he never could again. That reminds me of my friend Bruce. Bruce once returned a rod to the tackle dealer who had sold it to him, saying that it really wasn’t working for him. On this occasion the South African failed in his bid to evoke the lifetime guarantee thing. I mention it thus because Roger tells me that the South Africans developed a reputation for being more inclined than anyone on the globe to need the lifetime guarantee on an Orvis. In fact Orvis grew suspicious of the motives of the South Africans, and started insisting that a piece be cut from the rod just above the grip and returned as proof that we were not accumulating good sticks. Bruce never got a chance to accumulate another good stick,because the reason his was not quite to his liking, is that not unlike “the carrot”, he had used it in the salt, and it had a reel permanently fixed to the reel seat.
With the advent of us having to prove that we really had broken the things, came a generous supply of awesome Orvis grips and reel seats. I never was a craftsman, and these donations were the perfect shortcut. I could epoxy a blank into the beautifully built Orvis piece, slap on some guides (which sometimes even lined up!) and voila! I had a fly rod. One particular rod was such that the blank rattled around in the grip. No problem, a particular removal company had recently seen fit to drive a 30 ton truck over a rod of mine (catastrophic failure!) , and I was able to cut a sleeve from that, slide the blank into it, and that in turn into the latest Orvis assembly donation. And there you had it: “Elliot” was borne!
I still have Elliot. Its an OK rod. It was the better of two rods that I found lying on the side of the main road. Yes, just lying there in the ditch. The sun glinted on one of the reels and I slammed on anchors and picked them up. I advertised, looking for their owners, but thankfully no one replied, and I reasoned that they were something marginally more honourable than an ill-gotten gain. The second one was appalling. Floppy, with no backbone at all. I acceded to a request to borrow a rod, and lent that one to the bloke in question. He wasn’t a fly-fisherman, so he wouldn’t have noticed the slight quality problem. In any event, he never returned the things he borrowed. He never returned that rod either.
Having built Elliot I was filled with rod builders confidence. So I repaired snappy with a segment donated to me by Roger. I built my son a rod. He still has it. I also built “the pony pole” for an old friend whose interest lies more in riding small tough Lesotho ponies across rugged countryside. I can identify with that particular affliction, since it takes place in Trout country, which is why I built him the rod.
I saw him not so long ago, and I think he said a pony had stood on the rod, before he got to use it. Come to think of it, I built him that rod in exchange for a car radio, the fate of which is long forgotten.
Delirium tremens !
Anyway, snappy fishes just fine, as does the first rod I ever broke , which was earlier this season.
Yes: the first. Remember, one was driven over by a removal truck. The other was slammed behind the car seat by my kids, and I wasn’t even there when the Lesotho pony stood on “the pony pole”. And that first rod I ever broke: In all fairness I didn’t break that one either. The dog did. His name is Ben. He is still alive. Graeme and I walked down a perfectly straight farm road on our way to fish the river. No trees. Fences twenty yards away. Just a straight road, and we both walked with our rods out behind us, as one should do. When we started the rod was fine. At the end of the road when we turned down to the river it was broken. And all we did was chat as we walked. But the dog. Ben. He was excitable, and young, and he bound ahead and then doubled back behind us, stopping to nuzzle us, and bite our hands playfully. So you see….it is simple. The dog bit the rod. It wasn’t me.
Wolff fixed it beautifully for me, and Peter, while I am embarrassed about what I did to John’s rod, it still fishes beautifully, and you can hardly see the repair.
I really do treasure it, I promise.
And it wasn’t me.
It was the dog.
A thin Indian man asked where the gents was. I didn’t know I was part of the establishment. I had only been there ten minutes. I confidently steered him in the direction of the ladies room, and he set off across the lawns with determination. I presume the bewilderment came a little later.
A fat lady stopped in front of the table. She didn’t look down at the books. She looked straight at me and her oversized lips unrolled in a peculiar unfurling motion, followed by an even more peculiar sound. “Good morning!” I proclaimed. She stared straight through me and said nothing. I felt like a mannequin. She did the lip unfurling thing again and made the same odd sound. “Good morning!” I proclaimed with equal volume and enthusiasm as I had a moment before. She waddled off in silence, as the model train trundled past.
I told my family that I knew what this was all about. This idea of manning a table and selling books. In my student years Kevin, PD and I had a table at a girl’s school fete. We demonstrated fly-tying with enthusiasm. That was for about twenty minutes. Fortunately we had brought beer. Beer at a girl’s junior school.
There is not much interest in fly tying at girl’s school fetes, and it doesn’t help to be tucked away around a corner.
The train trundled past again.
Maybe the Sandton brigade that parades these lawns will be interested in a flyfishing book?
“Owe Da-hling, the kids are jaast playing p-hut-p-hut. We will be along in a seccy. Did you find Derek? Let’s have some coffee shall we. Soop-her!” Lots of gold jewellery and tight jeans, some on bums where they belong. Some definitely not. Sausages.
The train trundles past again.
Two young girls come asking if I have any Agatha Christie titles. “Never heard of her” I want to say. Men stand on the porches, in casual clothes. Shorts and slops. Hands in pockets. Bellies hanging out just a little more than they perhaps planned. I can see they have escaped the corporate world for the Easter week-end. They have endured 5 hours at the wheel. Now they are spending top dollar on some quaint B & B, and they are lurking while their wives spend what is left on the credit card. Three days of this, five more hours in the car, and they will be back behind their desks. What the hell makes them tick. Not fly-fishing. Not books.
The bloody train goes past again.
The Indian man comes past a second time. He must have survived his trip to the ladies room, but he is not asking me for any more guidance. He is returning from the car, where he collected his banana, and now he takes up a position on a bench and eats it in a painfully deliberate way, facing me but noticing nothing but his own fruit.
The damned noisy train-full of kids passes again.
A middle aged woman approaches. Everyone says she should write a book. She is not sure if it will be any good. How does she start, she wants to know. I encourage her. She is a lovely lady. “Just get out a pen and write” I say. At the prospect of having to commit, to actually get started, she retracts. I can see it in her body language. She paints too. She could do her own cover. “What will you write about?” I ask her. She hasn’t thought about that and the question scares her off, and she leaves as the train trundles past. Again.
“Sunil” comes to chat to me. He is from Durban (and all). He is staying at a hotel. The one between the freeway and the railway line. “You all so lucky here man” he says. “Fresh air and all”. “What this book?” he wants to know. “Ay! Nice man. Well done. Good luck man”
That train. It has a lot of adults on it. Many are not accompanied by kids. Their facial expressions are interestingly dull for someone on a fun-ride.
Alan and Lynn drop by, and we catch up on their family matters. They are just taking is easy. Sauntering. They love the book. But they don’t fish.
The train’s bloody whistle is now working.
Someone tries to buy the painting that I have on display. Another asks if the book is about painting. Some youngster lies down on the rails in front of the train as it approaches and his friends get a picture of him, just in time before it rolls past.
Mothers wander past with all manner of prams. Prams with decals and suspension systems that look like they belong on cars. Some babies sleep, granting the parents thirty meters of peace, sometimes even more! Others just scream and smear once edible substances over themselves and everything in reach. The Dads get their turn too. What a lovely outing.
Someone brings grandad. He is 103 years old. He bustles along with surprising agility and then takes up a position in the shade, where he reverses the walker and sits watching the train, which whistles on its way past again.
I sit and stare at the people and wonder if there is more than this for them. Petro assures me that there is. “They probably did a good hike in the mountains yesterday, and this is their rest day”. My scepticism isn’t buying it. I don’t see scratched skin, or a stained shirt, or a worn pair of shoes. I just see bling and boredom.
I start wondering what it would take to derail a small scale train. The rails measure about 30mm each, and are about 400mm apart. The coaches weigh 200Kg each, and can take 600Kg of smiling kids (complete with bored looking adult companions). They say a coin on one of the rails can dispatch a big one.
And the $%#@!>* train passed again.
My misanthropic, antisocial and reclusive tendencies thoroughly reinforced, and with the rays of the sun cutting in low from the west, we pack up. Just before I carry the last box to the bakkie I have a perverse thought of riding the train, but just as suddenly I realise that to ride it would be to let it get the better of me, so I shake my head to clear it, and get the hell out of there.
I need home, and I need the hills.
PS. Rupert stopped by. Nice guy. He is a flyfisherman. We talked knot strength and how long one should expect a co-polymer leader to last. He had lost a few fish the day before. Windknots.
Thank you Rupert
Too many flights. Too many meetings and negotiations and calculations.
No mountains. No rivers. No trout.
The buzz and blur of youth. It was a time when our fly-fishing tackle was of poor quality, but our experiences were not. We were impoverished in material things, but bailed out by parents who put wheels under us, and held back enough not to quell our thirst for adventure. They were as brave in letting us go, as I am fearful of letting my own kids go, thirty years on. I saw my son off at a bus station in the dodgy part of town this morning. My parents drove me to a campsite in a luxury vehicle, and dropped us two schoolboys there for a week with a flimsy tent, a fly rod, and no cell phone.
Later our forays were in NX735. What a vehicle!
It must have been the sort of left over, pool vehicle from the sugar estate. It was ours to enjoy. We were to pack it with insufficient food, and an oversupply of beer and enthusiasm. Our lodgings were a pump house on Len Thurston’s farm dam, because we had run out of money to pay camping fees in Himeville, and this spot was for free, albeit a bit colder.
The club house at Hopewell was equally cheap, and the beer we were so able to afford enhanced the boat race we had from the inlet where we had been fishing, back to the jetty. The small outboards were not fast enough, so we rowed as well.
Back then we killed fish, ate badly, and built a store of memories, with equal ignorance. Our flies, and the barbs on the hooks we tied them on, were too big. Our egos may have been too. One’s tackle and gear was what you currently had, and not a carefully accumulated collection of things designed to make the trip more comfortable. I got sick on account of an East Griqualand trip on which I took just one flimsy jacket. It failed to protect me from the September snow, and I had earache for a week thereafter. Kevin and Steve used a no 8 spanner as a priest to harvest disgustingly large fish from a dam near Kokstad, because it was all they had. I missed out. I had an awful stomach bug. Medication to curb the problem didn’t even occur to us. One didn’t pack that stuff.
Instead we packed blissful ignorance, unbridled enthusiasm, and a blotting paper attitude to everything we heard and saw. We swaggered with an un-earned air of experience, while secretly storing and treasuring every fishing tip, scribbled road map, and passed down Trout fly. When Jimmy Little invited us into his caravan beside the water, and spoke to us in pure Welsh, we understood very little, but it was warm in there, and he added something interesting to the coffee. We got to drool on his Orvis fly rods too. We set out fishing at 3 am and shivered beside the dam, awaiting sunrise. We embarked on an ill timed hike down a river valley and returned to the leaky tent after nine at night in the rain. We forgot to close the gate, and had to try cover up the damage that the bull did to the fishing shack door. We got hailed on, and had lighting shake our very beings in some very exposed places. Guy and I returned home to use the phone to book the next day’s fishing, and to get a hot meal, and some sleep before we headed out again. It was all we needed. We dived in and dug fish from the weeds.
We all revere the fairytale memories of youth. But we lived our youth without revering it, for had we done so, it would have lost its youthfulness. We are told to draw pictures and sing like we did when we were kids, and we try to cast off the chains of adulthood. We try to pursue a time, but in fact it was not a time. It was a stage, and we have lost the faculties to re-create that stage. We hanker for “care-free”, but it is no longer ours.
My colleagues kids won’t eat their porridge, and whine about going to school. They live in a discomfort imposed upon them by the things they can not yet control. I leave his home smug in the knowledge that this phase is behind me. I am no longer thrown into the pit of life. Now I climb gingerly down the ladder , prepared for whatever lies down there.
I catch more fish now, because my nylon is fresh, and I tie on better hooks. I no longer have that awful reel from which the spool would regularly tumble. I suspect there was a horrible Hopewell hangover * after that boat race, and I have learnt how to dodge those. It is forgotten, but the wisdom earned is still there. I pack a warm jacket now. It is a good one, and there is no need to suffer.
Perhaps youthfulness belongs where it is, and resists our attempts to re invent it for good reason.
But if someone calls to say he is fetching me for fishing in 10 minutes, without prior warning, best I finish my porridge quickly and go to the senior school of life without whining!
Because I still have a lot to learn….
* Big H, big H, big H….a reference to the coding of a dump-site as being suitable for highly hazardous material!
I arrived back from a business trip to the north starved of music. During that week, in a country where the power authority is lobbying for 25 hrs of load shedding per day, work and discussions of work, left no space for music. But on my return domestic servants were bopping and jiving in front of a sink full of dirty dishes to the new “fall song”. Very catchy!
The middle Mooi was also apparently bopping and jiving in a brown sort of way. There had been heavy rain up on Allandale, and the algae is being flushed out of that river and elsewhere. If I can find a clean river, I think I will head out with REM, Billy Joel and others to keep me company. Flush the cobwebs out of my head. Shake off this droughty, hot green season, of work and troubles, and fish a nymph with lead in it for once. Perhaps I will get to celebrate the whisked nymph. That is a nymph that gets whisked away without getting down enough. It’s been a long time since I got to have that problem. On the few occasions I have ventured onto a river, I have had to scan through my armoury looking for un-weighted patterns. In fact I plain gave up on nymphs, because I was tiring of losing them on the slimy rocks a few inches under the surface.
Now, while not denying that we remain in a drought, I have the old familiar pleasure of having to phone around to find clean water. I don’t think I will ever complain again. I also think I will stock more un-weighted patterns, because on some level I think I jinxed this whole thing by being so blasé as not to stock enough. If they go hunting for the guy who caused el nino, I might go into hiding for a few days.
A playlist you say. er…I’ve never done this before but okay let’s give it a bash. Some old favourites:
Right now the skies look pregnant with rain, and the humidity hangs in the air. Perhaps I will get soaked. Caught up some valley with no caves. Drenched to the skin in cooling air, and get a chill and shiver until my teeth rattle and I can’t change fly.
I hope so.
(It rained before I could post this. All our local streams are chocolate brown and going like steam trains. I stopped beside a stream yesterday and listened to its own music. No amount of lead would have made fishing a prospect. What sweet music to these ears!)