“It’s true that all successful strategies are based on a plausible supposition, but in my experience gamblers and fishermen with a “system” exhibit unshakable confidence , but don’t actually do any better than the rest of us”
John Gierach, “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers”
Gierach himself has always puzzled me with his assertion that one should go fishing as the low pressure rolls in, but then he does explain that this means to go fishing when the bad weather moves in. In our part of the world the low pressure is what precedes the bad weather, and it is characterised by strong northerly winds and warm, balmy conditions. For me those are the very worst fishing conditions, but then I have been proved wrong on that before too.
Then when the wind turns from the south, the pressure is busy rising, and miserable drizzle is on the way, or perhaps already here, bam…Brown trout weather.
Unless the wind swings from the east a bit.
And then there’s the moon phase, which I show only a mild interest in, but which colleagues plan their business meetings around.
Cold water equals orange flies.
And if you want to throw random unpredictable determinants in there: ones that are barely worth trying to chart or anticipate, then throw in South African fly hatches. Oh for a “labour day caddis hatch”. Our caddis don’t seem to give a damn about when we are on holiday.
But having said all of the above, I think you have to have a system. Any system. Pick one. It will, as Gierach points out, give you confidence. And in contradiction of his statement, I believe that with that confidence , you will do better then the rest of us.
I have to confess that the last time I read “A River Never Sleeps” I vaguely remember it didn’t keep my attention. This time it has grabbed me. Maybe you need to become an old fart before you can appreciate literature from dusty old volumes. I don’t know.
Either way, my depth of understanding and context was no doubt enriched by having first read (or more correctly re-read) all of G.E.M. Skues’ works, as well as the very in-depth book about Skues, written by Tony Hayter.
That put Haig-Brown’s background into perspective. Realising that he had grown up and lived during the time of the great wet fly vs dry fly debate, and the frustrating time Skues had explaining that a nymph was not a wet fly, and that in fact you could cast it upstream to sighted fish, allowed me to enter his world just a little more.
I also don’t know that any other angling writer was schooled on chalk streams in England, and then ended up on a great big river in British Columbia flinging meat at salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroats and goodness knows what else, on a river so big that there was a good argument for a boat. To Further the contrast and juxtapositions, Haig Brown grew up wing-shooting, worked as a logger, threw Devon Minnows, and ended up as an author, a judge, and chancellor of a university. From chopping down trees with rough hands, to writing on the paper they made, no doubt with softer ones. That really is quite a contrast. And contrast was something that drew him in. More specifically the contrast of the seasons. He describes in the most beautiful language, the changing of seasons, the trees, the birds, the weather, and a dozen other harbingers of fish runs and seasons to come.
It seems appropriate that I am reading the book at a time where I too am flinging veritable carcasses at stillwater trout, and at a time when the river season is about to open. A time when dry and dust is met by the faintest of green tinges on burnt veld, and days with no jacket required.
You might also have noticed that I have flung myself headlong into the making of videos. The quality is questionable at times, but as I say, I have flung myself at it, and this old fart is learning new skills faster than he can read dusty old books. I am really looking forward to taking the camera onto a stream, and sharing that somehow more genteel and cultured pursuit on film.
In fact, it has me wondering whether I should share the contents and joys of dusty old books on film? Might that make them more accessible, and allow fellow fly-fishers to get a taste of what they have to offer, and their relevance to modern fly fishing. Using film to appreciate books. Contrast draws me in. Juxtapositions. Changing seasons.
Reading my way through the tomes that cascade from my over-full bookshelf, is something I take great pleasure in doing. There is something satisfying in reading a message that resonates, written in so beautiful, and poetic a style that it causes you to lower the book and nod or mumble something. I mumble and nod a lot. It is a way of wallowing in a thought well presented, a way of immersing yourself in a moment shared eruditely in print.
My family have stopped responding with questions to all my mumbling and nodding. So I will share some with you:
“How often fishing leads a man to find beauty otherwise never seen! I am rich in having a treasure store of such places” Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado
“The man who hurries through a Trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him” George La Branche The Dry Fly on Fast Water.
“The secret of successful fishing is to expect it….Hope should be in the fisherman’s heart , expectancy in his hand , and his motto should be “you can never tell” “ Robert Hartman, About fishing
“Now that I care less, I fish better” Andrew Brown, Fishing in Utopia
“Fisherman who care too much about the size and numbers of fish they catch are insufferable on good days and as harried as overworked executives on slow ones. On the other hand, it is possible to be a happy angler who doesn’t catch many fish; its just that no one will ever say you’re good at it” John Gierach, Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers.
“Perhaps the power of fly-fishing (and the comparisons it invites) lies not in its confrontation with meaning, but its escape from it.” Maximillian Werner , Black River Dreams
“Flyfishing has many attributes , but none more pleasing than its ability to find and liberate the young boy that still hides within me and to let that boy live again without embarrassment or regret, sorrow or anguish” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time.
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Nick Lyons, Seasonable Angler.
Let me stop there, lest you fall asleep during this diatribe, but I think you get the idea: An immersed fisherman who doesn’t read, achieves immersion in shallower water.
“As I weakened I set myself landmarks to be reached in order to earn regular rests of a few minutes in that hellish, barren land. My one great desire was to go to sleep in a pool of cool water under a tree, a pool and a tree such as the ones nestling in the lovely rolling hills of my native Dargle Valley in faraway Natal, a valley green in summer when storms and gentle rains water the land; tawny under blue skies in winter when little or no rain falls. There on the farm at the foot of the ‘Nhlosane’ mountain – Zulu for ‘budding breast’- I used to run and ride and fish for trout in the pristine streams.”
Jeff Morphew, describing his escape from his “Tommy” , shot down by German F109’s on 4 June 1942, Libya.
Before Jeff Morphew died in 1993, he was the only man living to have escaped from an Italian POW camp in World War II while Italy was still at war. He had grown up on the farm Furth, in the Dargle, where he was born in 1918.
The only prior record (before this year) that I have been able to locate of trout being caught in the Furth stream (a tributary of the uMngeni) , was a verbal account from Jeff Morphew’s nephew, about Jeff catching trout on forays to this small stream from his retirement home at “The Fextal”, which overlooks the stream.
Yours truly, with a small brown from the Furth Stream, 21st March 2020. (Photo Sean Rogers)
It was the 18th April 1999. Guy and I were fishing the uMngeni on Brigadoon, on what my fishing log describes as “Blacks Water”. That was the section of river above the confluence of the Furth Stream, and at some time not long past, it had been the farm of John Black, and if memory serves, Derek Fly had bought it or taken it over, and its length was now added to the beat known to us as Brigadoon.
At that time all the riverside lands from the Furth confluence up to Picnic Pool were planted to maize, and the river banks were wild and rank. I have a picture of Guy, whose hairstyle at the time was also ‘wild and rank’, chest high in the undergrowth, throwing a fly into Picnic pool. He is clearly fishing downstream, and I know it would have been with a sinking line, and probably with a #14 Connemara Black or an Invicta on the end.
Fishing the uMngeni in 1999
As we progressed above picnic pool I clearly remember entering a section of river that was a tumble of black rock, with a firm bedrock of the same colour. Tall grass overhung the river on all sides where it split into braided channels. There in that tumble of rock and tall grass that shaded the water as we waded up, I remember pricking and seeing small browns. I seem to remember that I took the left-hand side of the stream, and Guy took the right, and when we rejoined just a dozen yards higher up at the tail of the pool above, we had both seen and pricked numerous fish, and landed none. And that was after a day in which we hadn’t seen fish since we first started out into the valley below. I remember peering up the river into a wattle-shaded tunnel of darkness, and asking Guy where he thought the top boundary of Brigadoon was, and that he replied that we were pretty much there and that all above was overgrown. We retreated back to the bottom boundary where I landed two browns over two pounds that evening. That last run, however, stuck in my mind, and every time I have visited that stretch , I have fished it, with an air of expectancy built on that experience all those years ago.
I had started fishing Brigadoon in April of 1985, but always the lower section. Then in much more recent years I have become very familiar with the water at the top of Brigadoon, and above that on Furth Farm. I discovered that Guy was not wrong about the river being overgrown, but that in fact we were still a way from the top boundary of Brigadoon. I have since witnessed the wonderful transformation of that river, when the wattles were all removed, and the river came back to life.
It was probably in the knowledge of that, and how dear the river is to me, that Tom Sutcliffe sent me this picture from his archives a few months back:
The uMngeni river in the 1980s. Photo by Neil Hodges, courtesy of Tom Sutcliffe.
The picture was taken by the late Neil Hodges, some time in the mid eighties.
There was an instant glimmer of recognition, when I saw that braided water in the foreground, but the hills didn’t look right and I started to doubt myself. During lockdown, I kept revisiting that picture, and working my way up the river in my mind, ruling out one spot after another. I was muttering to myself, things like “No…not there…the steep side is on the opposite bank”, and “no, no rapid in that spot”. I couldn’t work out where the shot was taken, and it started to haunt me.
When the end of lockdown finally set us free, I wasted little time in getting up to the uMngeni, even thought the season was closed. I had the picture open on my phone, and I drove up the valley, stopping here and there to look at the horizon, and the orientation of the river, and occasionally to walk down to the water’s edge, where I shook my head in puzzlement. I just couldn’t work it out. I sat in the driver’s seat for a while studying the horizon in front of me, and that in the picture. It all sloped the wrong way!
And then it dawned on me, and I put the bakkie into reverse and beetled back down the road to a spot where I could park. I strode down to the river muttering “Neil, you sneaky bugger” repeatedly, and with increasing conviction as I glanced up at the emerging profile of the horizon as I got closer to the spot. At the river I took my boots off, and waded through the icy clear water, before hiking up the steep hill on the other side. I maneuvered myself to a precise spot in the middle of a bramble patch, and checked the phone one last time. It looked perfect, but if I could just locate the fence-post in the foreground of the old picture…. I searched in the now overgrown area in front of me to no avail. Then I pointed to where I thought the post should be and ran my pointing finger up the slope, tracking the direction of the fence in the old picture. As I swung around , there behind me was a string of old rusted posts tracking exactly the same line, and it was then that I knew I was in precisely the right spot.
I phoned Tom, and accused him of being complicit in Neil’s sneaky attempt to conceal the spot: The photo had been flipped!
Making my way west, away from the brutal hissing, rattling black highway, puts me in the folds of soft hills. Soft hills decked in the ochres, fawn, brown, yellow, maple orange and bare sticks of winter’s onset. The only hard lines are the escarpment, where the berg presses against the sky in a stark outline. It is an outline of a boundary against which we retreat. It reminds me of my prized dorm bed at boarding school, that fit in a corner against the walls of the basement boiler, and was warm in winter. So too, the berg is a boundary of comfort. Heading west puts me in place where my back is covered. The higher I go, the less of the downstream lowlands I see and the further I am from that highway. I can choose how high to go, and my decision depends on my need for escape from the lowlands….depends on how much of that brutal highway I have been absorbing of late.
The westward route extends past the railway lines and coffee shops and tourists who point out of their windows before taking sudden, lurching turns. Driving it now, I am rolling the vista back and forward in my mind. Back to summer, when it was rank and warm, and roadside grasses had aspirations of being giant elephant reeds. Forward to June, when the stems of bolted grass are stark sticks, losing husks and gathering dust. In between was the golden season. The season of crocosmias paniculata, lit like burgundy on fire. The season of falling stars: delicate blooms of Oros fake orange (6% real, the rest delivered along that highway from a factory somewhere). The golden season that went too quickly and took with it its red wine pin oaks and its amber London Planes; stole the spathes, spikelets and awns of the wild oat grass, and made off with its cool mornings and breezy warm days. We are left now with crows and sticks and dust; mornings too still to blow away the frost; days too hazy to feel the earth’s lines.
The contrast of our sport cuts like an old blunt knife. Like that cake knife back home, the one with the split wooden handle, bound with string. One that must be pressed and worked, and tilted to cleave the days and leave autumn aside, and winter to be coped with. Autumn with the rivers still open, and their small shy browns spooking at my clumsy casts. On that last day, my wading boots slid into the clean water. Water so clean I had to put my hand into it to be sure it was there. When it seeped through the neoprene onto my skin, my breath knew it was there, and it escaped from my chest in alarm. The fish were rather offish. The ones I found were the ones I spooked, or were rising, but there were few of both. The rising ones only needed one cast to dissuade them, and I couldn’t make them gentle enough. Not even with whisper fine 7X tippet on the two weight, and CDC dries. They just didn’t want them. And I suppose I just didn’t need them either. What I needed was the cold water, and warm sun weak enough not to roast me. I needed the Prussian blue and blackened purples of the shaded side of Baboon hill as my backdrop; and I needed the willows still with leaf but a sorry lemon lime hue leaf, not a lush green one. I needed silk surfaced fields, pale and dotted with bales, each one throwing a shadow as black as charcoal. I needed those trout too, but I only needed them to show themselves to me. I didn’t need to posses them. I only needed to possess autumn.
But the knife has pressed and cleaved the seasons now, and autumn can’t be possessed any longer. I drive further on rippled, bone shaking corrugations, and I throw dust clouds in the wake of the bakkie. At the bridge I pretend not to look at the river that jilts me. It runs clear, and strong enough to make me think of spring, although I deny the thought. My thoughts must run with the season.
I alight from the vehicle into wiry, tawny grass, and am greeted by warm sun and a raw breeze. The air is coming at me from the north across the cerulean ripples of the lake. I need a jacket. Later, I push the toe of my boot through iced muck, sticking to the cattails and reeds in the boggy margins. Just beyond, a band of still water laps in inky rolling waves that curl into the cattails and are tamed. At the outer edge of that bank, the mesmerizing ripples start, glinting fierce sunlight across at me and in, under the brim of my hat to hurt my eyes. Although I have to squint to look at it, its that transition that I am after, and I throw a team of flies across there. It is close enough that I am cautious not to move, and that a false cast is not needed. The black DDD alights, and the rice-bead corixa imitation plops just behind it. I hold the rod high, and still, poised expectedly. “The hang” they call it. It feels more like a long wait to me. Nothing happens. I try it a few more times, but winter fish are stubborn, and averse to our formulas. You will have more luck calling the cat.
Before long I am moving from spot to spot. My focus has changed to seeking warmth from the sun between wind gusts, casting in a direction in which I save my eyes the glimmer, and achieving crisp loops and pleasing distances. I have long since changed to a single fly, and I retrieve faster than I want to.
It seems slow, and there is a lot of time for considering the world, and the lake, and the season past. I am small and I am perched on a high vista in the wind, and the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes run repeatedly through my mind. I have to remind myself that this is what winter fly fishing is about. I consider a day back in the eighties, where I fished Triangle dam like this all day, and in which I was rewarded with one Rainbow. Only one Rainbow; but it was big and angry and I still have the photo. “Stick it out” I tell myself, but I needn’t, because I always do stick it out. It is merely an exercise in getting one’s mind alignment right. Standing there alone, with more thoughts than time, and all the time in the world to pick which ones to use, you never know if you have that alignment right. Never will.
Many hours later I am jolted by a silvery rainbow. It’s lively, but it is a small one. Later, another takes the fly as I lift it, but for the rest the fish are off the prod, and this day will remain one of wind and sun. “Meaningless. Meaningless”.
As I step out of the cab to close the last gate behind me in the gloom of evening, my senses are hit by the silage-like scent of dead, dewy winter grass, and my entire childhood washes over me in the time it takes to close the gate.
I know. It is a contradiction. But consider the richness of contrast.
Just look at the contrast: of shade, texture, light and dark. Think of the feelings and depth of thought that it invokes.
And then, having done that, employ the technique of introducing colour, and relish the richness of it. No one does that quite like Middleton:
“With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other. On the far west ridge, damask reds and vermillion giving way to softer Chinese reds and the blunt reds of aged wine, and these in turn, mixed with leaves of moody sallow and the dull yellow of sulphur and raw cream, and among these were newly fallen leaves still bright as jonquils”
and he goes on with
“ ……pumpkin orange….daring blotches of apricot…wrinkled browns….and the colour of tarnished copper and well-worn leather “ Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time”
Now look again:
It’s been fun exploring some quotes from books recently read and re-read. And exploring “Pewter and Charcoal”, but I will end this little series here, for a while…..
I don’t always fish alone, and I often enjoy company. But some days are hermit days, full of thought and reflection, in which one becomes just a little misanthropic.
“Since fly fishing is a solitary sport, its hard not to think of other fishermen- collectively, if not individually – as the enemy” John Gierach: A Fly Rod Of Your Own.
“In trout fishing, and especially in mountain trout fishing, one angler and trout borders on the idyllic,or some version thereof. Two anglers and trout is a crowd, claustrophobic and unbearable.” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time”
For the most part, the mountains lining the valleys of our upland Trout streams could borrow descriptions from the Dales. But then we have our peaks, which do tower over you as you flick a fly in staircase streams, deep in the berg. The contrast is as rich as the texture of a black and white photo, as polarising as dark shaded ravines cut in a blanket of winter snow.
So here is a contrast: Giants Castle in the snow, and Catlow’s description of the rounded hills of his beloved home waters:
“It is these mountains that bring me back year after year, to the valley through which she flows. They are not the spectacular peaks of the west, thrusting jagged silhouettes defiantly into the sky.They are massive shapes, rising with calm assurance in great sweeps of brown heather, lifting themselves patiently in long and flowing lines, raising their vast bulk to the sky with the huge authority of sufficient strength.”
“It was one of those times that I think come to all fishermen: when we win back something of the vision of our angling boyhood, but at the same time experience it with the deeper gratitude of a grown man” Laurence Catlow, The Healing stream
I think Catlow’s comment is befitting of those times, when you land a Trout, even a very small one, and in the moments before you release it, you admire it and think “Damn I love these fish, and I love this pastime”
On obsessing about conservation while fishing, Gierach once wrote:
“I can’t say I spent a lot of time brooding about this: the fishing was too good for that, and I also understood that if you chase perfection too far down the rabbit hole, you can end up growing your beard down to your belt buckle and carrying a sign that reads “The End Is Near”. “
(A fly Rod of your Own: John Gierach)
I am trying to avoid the beard and the sign, but I do relish this one place, which to me represents a degree of conservation perfection attained. It is very dear to me.
I always take time to stop fly fishing and take a look at my hausberg. Its a wonderful term that. In short, and as translated to suit me, it means ‘the mountain that looks out over the district of my birth, upbringing, and current abode: a psychological anchor of place, and a symbol of purpose and direction, normally viewed from below, but sometimes, as a means of re-setting ones compass, from atop’
and I think La Branche would have identified with my obsession for the Inhlosane mountain:
“The man who hurries through a trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him.” George LA Branche: Dry Fly on Fast Water 1914.
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Wrote Nick Lyons in Seasonable Angler.
Lyons wrote a column by that same name in the magazine “Flyfisherman” for 22 years . Back when our currency had some value, I used to subscribe to it, and always read that column first. I have enjoyed his writing ever since.
I think this image captures the essence of privateness, quiet satisfaction et al:
Pewter and charcoal….a series of sorts, that aims to couple the timelessness of a black and white image, with the timelessness of quotes from our fly fishing literature.
To kick it off, here is the uMngeni on Furth farm:
…and here is something from Walden…that unsung American writer, from his book ‘Upstream and down’, published in 1938:
“Streams with reputations do not always live up to them and the obscurer brooks often hold a big trout or two. ……/../… Fishermen rather than fish perpetuate and enhance the reputation of a stream. By story and legend, the magic euphony of a name, the prestige of a river is won and held. Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, Brodhead – such names owe their celebrity as much to the tongues and pens of fishermen as to the numbers and weight of trout between their banks”
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Truttablog is a "Trout centric" journal, in which I seek to highlight South Africa as a fly-fishing destination. In particular I write about my home waters of the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, which seem to receive little press. Recent moves by authorities in South Africa, are threatening to close down Trout hatcheries, ban the practice of catch and release, and in other ways see the demise of a species, entirely without good reason.
I hope that in some small way, my writing will amplify the pleasure and importance of fly-fishing for Trout in South Africa, and in so doing will act as a counter weight to this turning wheel.