Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

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Consistency part 2: The veritable machine

A number of weeks back, I was out on the stream with a good mate of mine. It was a warm, cloudy day, in which the light was silvery, but more significantly a fairly fierce wind buffeted us and ruffled the surface. We fished up a section of riffle water interspersed with bigger pools.  Often on this piece we will say “the fish are in the pools today”, or conversely “They are all in the pockets”, or perhaps “they are holding deep…get down”.  On this particular day the results were inconclusive.  We got a few fish from both, but we were hardly tripping over them. It was fun, but it wasn’t a red-letter day. The wind was pretty exhausting! 

We reached a point where the road runs close to the stream, and my partner mentioned that he was tired. I anticipated that we would make use of this take-out point and call it a day.  I wanted a few more throws in a good pool so I fished it very thoroughly, thinking it would be my last fishing spot for the day.  I tried a dry, then a light nymph, and then I worked a deeper pattern, cancelling out options…running through the usual methodical process of elimination. My fishing partner (the one who had said he was tired) , went ahead and fished the only nearby water available, seemingly to kill time until I was done.  The water he was on was less than ideal. It was very fast: all bubbles and whiteness. And remember the wind was blowing hard. In fact it had picked up and it would have been fair to use the word ‘howling’.

He knuckled down; dried his fly; got into position, and with the focus of a hungry heron, set about placing his caddis on dinner plate-sized patches of smooth water.  He said his hit rate was low, but he kept at it.

When I caught up with him he was excited. “five casts, five fish” he enthused. “Just throw you fly in any patch that isn’t white, and I promise, you will get a fish first cast” he said.

And I did.

My point in relating this, is not to expound the merits of fast water, or wind. My point is that Mr Tired stayed focused and fished as thoroughly as he had the first pool of the day. In other words he was consistent in his focus, positivity and curiosity. He was able to say to himself “I wonder what will happen if I throw a fly in there”, even though we were at the end of the day. (actually that turned out not to be the end of the day…we carried on and Mr Tired suddenly wasn’t so tired…and he made a pig of himself!)

Another friend of mine is consistent in his dedication to looking for bugs and clues. He is the guy who will take fifteen minutes to survey a pool and consider his approach at the end of a long blank day. He will look into the shallows around his feet to see what insect life there is, he will try to catch one, and he will change fly, or re-tie his knot, or go down a tippet diameter, or try the fly deeper in the water column. This is at the end of the day. Most of us can already taste the beer, and it shows in how we fish the last pool. I confess…I am the one who strolls up to the last piece of water, plops the fly in somewhat resignedly, and goes through the motions. This is certainly true on a slow day, and even more so on a blank day.

If I applied this defeated apathy and lack of care at the first pool, I would probably never have a red-letter day. I know that the fresh first-pool-approach is more likely to produce fish. I know that it would be great to not have a blank day, and get it together at the last run or pool. But do I fish the last pool with the same dedication as the first one of the day?  No. I am inconsistent.

Will you fish a tiny fly on a still piece of water when fish are rising?  Yes. I am sure you would.  Will you fish a #18 nymph in the same water when there are whitecaps?  

Why not? Why do you need a big Woolly Bugger in a big wind?  Do you think bugs get bigger under a ruffled surface? Do you think fish stop eating flies of that size when a hatch stops or a wind picks up?  Like me, you are being inconsistent. Illogical.

Let’s look at inconsistency in another way.  If you were with a band of like-minded fly fishers, on a famous stream, with a high population of fish and bugs where the fishing was currently good, I wouldn’t mind betting that you would focus on what the fish are, or might be eating. We would probably discuss fly choice, look for bugs, compare tippet diameters and discuss changing conditions and possible adjustments to our approach.

What about if you and I go visit a little-fished, supposedly second-rate stream on a partially exploratory basis. No fish seen. Little threads of doubt already sewn. “B team” thoughts…..

Would you and I look for bugs, change tippet formula, re-tie knots, and team up to refine our skills to a fine point, pursuant of a glorious end-game?  No?

Why the difference?

We know which attitude and approach produces more fish.

I tire easily. I lose confidence. I listen to the tiny nay-sayers in my head. I get lazy.  

The bad weather, the poor returns over the last few weeks, the fact that this water is not as popular as another….all these things are my downfall. How about you?

The guys who raise eyebrows with their fishing success, will fish a puddle like it is a stretch of the Test near Stockbridge. They will focus on the finesse of what they are doing in driving rain, or tree buckling wind, on supposedly second-rate waters and when they have only ten minutes left.

They are veritable machines!

They are consistent.

Consistency Part 1 : The University of Purple

In recent years I have been re-reading some books on the topic of fishing the chalk streams and the limestone creeks (UK and USA respectively), and my attention was drawn to why these places were and are, such universities of flyfishing thought.

It relates to the fact that with the slow flow, unruffled surface, consistent water temperature, and clean water, they get regular and to some degree predicable hatches. It also relates to the fact that fish don’t have to expend a lot of energy to swim forward or up, to sip a miniscule fly. Added to that, the water chemistry (alkaline) is such that it produces a lot of bugs, and you can see everything happening.

With the laboratory set up, the observer just has to get into position, don a good peak hat and a pair of polarized glasses and watch the show.  Of course the fish are spooky, so stalking them to watch is something to be done with care. Way back when, blinds were erected along the Letort spring creek in Pennsylvania for this purpose, and voila, the university was open.

From that of course, spilled theories and photos and detailed analysis, that allowed us to recognize a rise-form typical of a trout eating a specific bug.   That is because the professor in question could take a look at the bug a few feet away, drifting very slowly on the water. He could look with the naked eye, or a pair of binoculars or he could stroll down and net a few. Then, with the bug’s ID confirmed he could watch the fish taking them. How far was the fish  prepared to move; what movements did it make to consume it, and so forth. Do you remember those photos in Goddard and Clark’s book, and the ones in “Ring of the Rise”?

When I entered the flyfishing world, Nick Lyons was at the peak of his career publishing flyfishing books, and there were people in my town who knew how to bust the political sanctions imposed by governments around the world against  South Africa, to the extent that they could get those books. 

We read them and took it all in. 

Then we went fishing and tried to see what we were reading about, through the lens afforded us by those images and texts.

We were conducting that observation, both through inexperienced eyes, and on fast flowing freestone steams.  Our streams were variously dirty, fast, acidic, drought affected and inhabited by fewer, smaller insects.  The stuff we heard in the hotel meeting rooms and the slideshows we saw were mildly puzzling, because try as we may, we struggled to see these things when we were out on a piece of water.

To this day, I witness people pontificating about the exact shade of the caddisfly they have seen hatching in a particular location, looking for one, and not finding it, or anything else hatching, putting on a large Woolly Bugger and setting forth. Hell, I do that all the time.  My own journal is littered with comments in the “hatches and feeding” box that say “couldn’t see any”, or “who knows what they were eating”.  In recent months I have made myself a bug net and have been sampling some rapids, runs and glides. Something I have noticed is the couple of caddis pupae I have found, when I could see no hatch at all.

Be honest, have you ever seen a caddis pupa on a trout stream?   Don’t feel bad, I hadn’t for decades, and for anyone who scoffs at that, take a look at the worst, fuzziest photo in any  fishing book: It’s the photo of the caddis pupa! 

Unless you have a bug net, and are lucky, you have very little chance of ever seeing one. Do you imitate them?  Of course you do!  So do I.  Why?  Because we read books, listen to experts and watch YouTube videos, that’s why.

So why can’t we do our own observation and learn from that, rather than from material coming from elsewhere.

There are a number of reasons. A big one is that we lack that consistency of ideal water conditions that I mentioned earlier. Our freestone streams oscillate between flood and drought, and have long periods of coloured water, or poor oxygenation, or high silt load.  You can avoid that by going into the berg where the streams are cleaner, but the flow rates are just as variable, and always faster.  Up in the berg you are on white water a lot of the time, and there fish either don’t grow big, or if they do, its not by eating thousands of tiny bugs in energy sapping flows.  Go lower down to the meadow type water, and you have less ideal conditions, and in all cases our water is slightly acidic at best. And here the bigger Trout eat tadpoles, crabs, terrestrials and other large meaty, opportunistic meals, which give them more reward per unit of energy spent, than sipping minutiae.

So we don’t have consistent hatches. A small number of people have tried to develop hatch charts for my neck of the woods, but I  haven’t seen an attempt at that in the last thirty years.  I have seen a lot of Woolly Buggers thrown: a good number of them thrown by yours truly.

I use the term Woolly Buggers loosely of course. You can insert “Perdigon” or “PTN” or “something buggy” in there, the story is the same: we are not predicting, preparing for, and setting out to fish a hatch or even just a prevalence of a particular invertebrate species.

So, is this something to bemoan:  The fact that we don’t have our own neat university of study, where we can crack the code in South Africa?

Not necessarily.

The way I see it, the lack of predictability introduces both a lot of postulating, theorizing and experimentation on the one hand, and a lot of excitement around hunting down opportunistic “purple patches ”,when it all comes together.

What do I mean by a purple patch?  Let me define that in this context:

A Purple patch is when you encounter a prevalence, hatch or movement of  one or more type of bug, imitate those bugs is size and form, and catch some fish that you might not otherwise have caught.

Some people would define a purple patch as a time when they caught heaps of fish. That doesn’t do it for me.  I can catch dozens of fish on a generic nymph with a big silver bead on it, and I can enjoy that, but that is not what I am referring to here.

I write of “cracking the code”, and for me that is the holy grail.  I actually despair when I catch fish after fish on successive trips, and have no idea why.  The concept that a dark fly, or a white fly or a small fly “seems to be working today”  has as much appeal to me as the notion of a beginner hitting a hole-in-one.  So, soulless dredging with a pattern that seems to be working today is something that I get drawn into only through apathy. And a big fish caught that way, is on some level a bit of a let-down.  I don’t want to catch a lunker because I was at the right place at the right time.  I want to catch it because I worked it all out, hunted it and outsmarted it!

To be honest, that is something that seldom happens.

Add to that the fact that where I live, our number of flyfishers seems to be dwindling, to some degree at least due to emigration as people escape the chaos that is South Africa.  Left behind is a small band of fly-fishers, and in turn only a small percentage of those pursue the type pf purple patch that I define above. How many fishermen are there in the KZN Midlands who will give up a string of fishing days to go hunting bugs, watching fish and taking notes and photos. What’s more, doing that on a challenging stream, with fewer fish where not many fishermen venture, is hardly an activity that competes with watching Curry Cup rugby.

 It’s a lonely space I tell you!  

But I recently saw a picture of a South African bloke in goggles getting into a pool to study the Trout. Ed Herbst leads the way in studying the stream, with his insightful Instagram posts. And the Letort Regulars in the USA and the likes of Sawyer and Goddard in the UK were oddities. They were outliers. They didn’t follow the crowd. They even chose some less popular waters, and they got inquisitive.  I see a new book on South African aquatic invertebrates is due out soon.  

I sniff an opportunity to start delving into our inconsistent conditions and  attending the not so neat, not so consistent, University Of Purple.

Fifty Two sits well with me

Last year around this time, I started a little “side-page” here on Truttablog in which I share my local fishing conditions. Not catches and flies and techniques  mind you. Just water temperatures , which streams are blown out, which rivers are low, and the like. And then also just the ones I happen to know about, or have crossed in the last few days, or which friends have told me about.

It is an irregular and perhaps slightly unpredictable thing, because my travels are erratic and unpredictable. The result is a little bohemian, and certainly not something you can rely upon alone  to plan fishing trips. I also only occasionally share the posts on Facebook and Twitter (which I am increasingly disenchanted with, by the way), the result being that the reports are something an interested fisherman would have to go looking for.  

That sits well with me.

In some ways it is like the camaraderie and buzz that we used to have to go looking for before the internet came along. We would go into the fly shop in Maritzburg and hang around for a morning, eavesdropping and hoping to pick up on some news of where was fishing well. Or we would visit the booking office in Underberg and prick up our ears for news of what was producing, or which stretch of river was clean. We attended the fishing club meetings with similar objectives, and we hung on every word.  The combination of information, as well as the inferences we were able to draw from multiple comments, reports or rumours, was what we used to plan our next day out. Or perhaps it was what guided us on whether it was worthwhile to go out at all. We had to work at it. Nothing was handed to us on a plate.

So in the last fifty two weeks, there have (co-incidentally) been fifty two reports on the page. No, not one a week: remember, I said they were erratic;  but there have been fewer than two thousand views. That sits well with me too. Like the fact that internet searches generate more than five times the Truttablog site traffic than all social media channels put together.  

In a world where people are punting themselves, and competing for attention on frenetically busy media channels in which worthwhile content is only discovered by endlessly sifting through a lot of noise, I for one am starting to move away from that.  I arrive at a question or interest, and I go looking for the information that I want or need. I use a browser that limits tracking and blocks all advertising, and I do a lot more searching and a lot less sifting (or “scroll and judge” as my daughter calls it). And I enjoy the process more, find a lot of older content, and find more well-researched stuff.     Do I spend less time online?  Probably not, but I definitely waste less time. I also find cool stuff, and go down Google rabbit holes  (actually “Duck Duck Go” rabbit holes) that completely absorb me, and have friends asking “how the hell did you find that?”

So, after fifty two weeks of running  the water conditions page experiment, I think I will just keep it ticking over, un-punted and low key with no ego invested in the stats. If you happen to read it, and it helps you plan a day on the water, then maybe I have shared some of what I remember enjoying at the fishing club meetings, the fly shop, or the booking office. 

That sits well with me.

The Breath of a Kingfisher’s Wings

I had started in just below the wetland, in a spot where enormous grasses cascade over the stream banks and trail in the water.

The only way to get the fly in there is to choose a spot where there is a slight gap or curve upstream, make a daring cast, and let the current take the fly into the slither of shade beside the bank. I had done that with a dry dropper:  an elk hair caddis, with a pheasant tail nymph of sorts strung below it, New Zealand style. Those bankside haunts had produced no fish. Not this time anyway.  Neither had the odd deep slot where the current bubbled over rapids and then rippled over a scoured channel.

A little further up I went through a side channel where I have spooked fish before, but never landed them.

Just above that, wading through a wide area of pocket water, I came across the shucks of two Stoneflies on the downstream side of a boulder.  I stopped to photograph them. 

I had been hunting for these for weeks, using a bug net and shuffling my feet in rapids before inspecting the sample in a white tray. After all that effort  these two just presented themselves to me when I had a fly rod in hand. Sometimes the lines between work and fishing are blurred.

As the sun came and went, and small flurries of warm breeze ruffled the water surface, I would lose sight of the dry, then find it again on the water. The clouds started to obscure the sun a little more often. There was a greying on the western horizon.  The weather forecast had predicted a storm in the early afternoon. From the moment I started, it was as though the egg timer was running. Having worked through some magnificent deep pools, with a third, very small, but dense fly now tied a few inches below the first nymph, I was still empty handed. A sticky humidity had descended and there was a rumbling, first ahead of me where I had been watching the horizon, and then, surprisingly, behind me. I turned my head, to see that the more imminent threat was closing in from the east.

After a few more casts, I reeled in and considered my route. There was a tight barbed wire fence between me and my vehicle, which I could see on the hillside about a kilometre away. Added to the barbed wire was a strand of electric. These fences are not easy to get through. There was a gate off to the left, and a stile up ahead alongside Bird Pool. I reckoned the cattle gate would give me a more direct route. I started pacing up the river bank to a logical point at which to depart and go up the hillside.  In the five minutes it took for me to get there, the weather lifted just a little, and I changed plans, choosing to walk up the river bank where I could watch for rises.  When I reached Bird Pool the weather looked heavy again, but I was closer to the vehicle now, so I elected to risk a few more minutes and threw a few casts in the pool.

  I have never done well there.  The white water cascades off the south bank and flows away across the pool, meaning that only the near seam can be fished.  The rest of the pool is a futile and frustrating drag avoidance puzzle which I have never solved.  I lingered and worked at the puzzle as I always do. Then I reeled in and climbed the stile, ready to cut back up the pool. I paused again feeling a reluctance to  leave the river. I looked at the sky. It had changed again. The cloud was higher. There was now a storm moving away from me to the south east. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the one which had been in the west, or the one in the east, but the field had changed in an instant, and I reckoned this storm, whichever one it was, was moving away.  I again curved back to the river, and made my way up to the Forest Runs.

Now I found myself standing beside the second deep run.  The lower one is good when there is a decent flow. Today was decent flow, and I had plied my dry and nymphs with the utmost care and concentration through that first run, without result.  Now I was at the even deeper and more appealing run: the one that didn’t require good flow to look unquestionably promising. I took the flies from the keeper and got to work. 

Up ahead of me on the right bank, was a forest tree that had collapsed into the water just where it slowed. There was a good sized Brown Trout under it.  I couldn’t see it, but I know Brown Trout, and there was no question. It was under there. I took some chances with my casts, getting the fly in close, and letting the current guide them in under the obstruction, millimeters from the snags. I held on in anticipation and with a great confidence that proved to be unfounded. There was not a touch.

Thunder rolled again. I decided on a few last throws with alternative methods. I cut off all three flies, cut back to a stronger, shorter tippet, glanced around as though to see who was watching and extracted my little film cannister. My clandestine vault of the uncouth. I extracted from it, a brown version of my Taddy Bugger. It is tied on a jig hook, with a slotted bead, a small dense tail of the most bulky marabou I can find. The tail has two strands of flash in it. The body is dubbed, and the hackle at the front is from an old hen badger cape. I strapped it on, moved to the top of the run, and let the thing fly out across the current. “Five swings”, I told myself, “then I am gone”.  On the second swing I brought the fly around just above the obstruction which I had just fished from below with my nymphs. Jiggle, jiggle. I could picture the marabou tail working its magic.

The fish took hard and confidently. I brimmed with self-assured vindication, and then quickly settled into a state of nervousness brought about by the painful knowledge of how many fish have simply come unstuck of late. I held my breath and concentrated as I worked to bring the fish under control. Holding the rod high, I outpaced it downstream, getting below it, and to a point where I could climb into the stream. I netted it there, and relaxed, a smile spreading across my face. I removed the fly and studied the fish as I held it in the submerged cloth of the net. It was a broad fish; something of substance in my hand. I lifted it a little and cast my eyes down its flanks. I put it at sixteen inches. It had magnificent blotches down its lower flanks, which tended more to orange than red. I put the rod under my arm, lowered the net, and reached for my phone in my top pocket to get a picture before releasing it.  As I positioned the phone and got my finger over the shutter, ready to capture the moment, the net tilted slightly, and the fish darted off between my legs and was gone.

Later, I would think back to the escape of the fish, and in my mind’s eye consider it a fish that had gotten away. The fact that I had no picture of it, tricked my mind with a sense of loss. 

Minutes later, I stood above the third run, swinging the same fly expectantly, when there was a tiny rush of wind that ruffled my shirt. In an instant a tiny blue kingfisher passed under my elbow, and flew under my rod, departing at breakneck speed straight down the river ahead of me. Its brilliant blue colour flashed in a patch of sunlight way below me, against the contrast of the deep green forest on the far bank, and it was gone.  I found myself smoothing my shirt against my body, as if to straighten it out after the commotion, and I said out loud “Gee, that was close!”. 

Had the kingfisher existed?

Had that fish existed?

There were more patches of sun.

Had the storm even existed?

I fished on, in a reflective mood. There was a short pull in the sweep below Pinetree Pool, but surprisingly nothing to be had in the pool itself. Up near the next stile  a fish flashed at the fly as I reeled in to move on.  Why hadn’t it taken a well-presented nymph, and instead gone for a reeled in dragging fly? I shook my head and looked at the darkening sky. The storm had not returned, but it had been replaced by a heaviness of the atmosphere that was palpable. One last pool, I told myself:  The Black Hole.

I approached with care. There are good fish at The Black Hole.  I know there are, I have seen them. I have caught them.  I put the Taddy Bugger back on. I could sense that it was called for here.

I dropped the fly daringly close to the overhanging sage on the far side, and wriggled the offering back to me. On the third retrieve a Brown ascended vertically from the depths and pounced on the fly before I could lift into the next cast.   It thrashed around, as Browns can do.  I descended the bank with the net outstretched, as the fish crossed the rim into the net bag, the fly pulled loose. It thrashed and before I could lift it, departed the way it had come. I measured it in my mind. Fourteen inches.  That one would go into the log book.

As I stood re-tying the fly, the buff spotted flufftail called its mournful electric call.  The sound resonated in the heavy air. Then a black cuckoo called in the distance. Next a roll of thunder rumbled off in the distance. It was warm and oppressive. Two more casts produced a strong take, and then I reeled in, and I was striding across the eragrostis field.

The first raindrops spattered on the windscreen as I started the engine. The storm that followed was vicious.

The afternoon was gone, like the breath of a kingfishers wings.

Talking Bull

Back in 2017, I was taking a bunch of people on a walk along the river. There were a lot of ladies in the party, and at the outset, I had told them that there was only one fence crossing, but that every crossing thereafter would be through a gate, or over a neat galvansised stile, placed there for their comfort and convenience. I had visited the one crossing I had anticipated, and finding a very tight fence, I had scanned up and down the fence-line to find the best place to make the crossing. The best I could get was a spot where they would have to get down on their bellies and crawl. I could find nothing better.

In preparation for subjecting them to that indignity, I cut a short piece of plastic pipe, which I planned to use to shroud the barbed wire. It was the least I could do. After apologizing to them for their little leopard crawl, I swung my piece of plastic pipe confidently and we walked on. Later we encountered a fence I had forgotten about. Then another. One lady asked how much further it was to the pickup point.

I promised it was not far now and that there were no more fences to climb though. Absolutely zero. No Bull. I promised them.

Further upstream was a place where there was no stile, but a gate within sight of the river bank. Unfortunately there was a bull at the gate …..with his harem of cows. I thought for a moment. How difficult can it be to move a bull?  Deciding that boldness was the way to go, I reasoned further that attack was a better approach that gentle moral suasion. He might have had his cows, but I had a bunch of ladies and a promise of no more fences.   So I wielded my little plastic pipe, and charged straight at him, making some aggressive half Zulu, half cowboy whooping noises that seemed appropriate at the time.  The bull stood his ground. In fact he had a mildly bemused look on his face, and when I pulled up right in front of him, and he hadn’t so much as taken a step back. Then, just to show who was in charge, he lowered his head, and came straight for me. I beat him repeatedly on his forehead with my piece of plastic pipe. It seemed to stop him. I think he must have wondered what this little tickle was between his eyes.  I retreated….walking backwards to start with, and with shaking knees. When I was far enough back to make an unguarded retreat, I turned around, to see a bunch of sensible women climbing through and over the fence.

If you think I am talking bull….I have witnesses!

I put a stile at that point. Within sight of the gate. That seems a little odd, but I have my reasons.

It was just up from that point that Ilan and I once had to perform for the camera.  The cameraman wanted footage of us fishing, and although he didn’t say as much, one can assume that he meant it to include the catching of Trout.  The first run saw us getting into the swing of things and finding our feet. That is a euphemism for catching bushes on the back-cast, and nothing in the river. They took a lot of footage, and I at least was suffering from a little anxiousness relating to the catch rate, which at that point was a fat round number. It was starting to get hot, and sweat was trickling down my face.   Imagine my relief when just up at Picnic pool, a very generous Trout obliged and did me the honours.   After that it was straight off to breakfast in a shady cool restaurant.

Further above Picnic pool is a spot that I have marked on my map simply as “Tractor crossing”.  When I told the new owner of the farm that there was a place there to get his tractor across to help us pull logs from the stream, he disagreed, saying there was no such crossing on his farm. I protested that I had fished it many times, and  I assured him that there was most definitely a crossing where his tractor could get through. No bull!

We later got his John Deere through the river there, and put it to good effect clearing the run from boundary pool all the way down through Nanna Berry Pool and below.

Last week I was back at “Tractor Crossing” to perform a mini SASS test. This is a fun exercise where you net the river for bugs and then tip the contents into a white tray to identify the contents. The insect types are located on a identity guide, and entered onto a  bio-monitoring score sheet gives an indication of river health.  I looked around, and chose a spot to balance my white trays, and lay down my field guides, pencil, score sheets and the like. The farm track leading through the river presented the perfect spot, and since I wasn’t expecting traffic, I boldly occupied the roadway with my gear.  After holding the net in the current and shuffling my feet in the gravel upstream of it, I moved to the shore, and tipped the contents into the white tray. Then I plonked myself down in the veld, got comfortable and entered my own little world, prodding bugs, looking in books, and taking photos.

Presently I became aware of a deep grumbling sound, and I looked up from my work. There, on the far side of the drift, was a bull. He was snorting, pawing the ground, and grumbling at me. Looking behind me, on my side of the river, I saw his cows. I glanced at all my kit strewn about in the veld, and I looked at the roughness of the crossing. Figuring that he would have difficultly charging me across the river, and that it would be an enormous effort to shift my study site, I decided to stand my ground. So I stood up, looked him in the eye, and in no uncertain terms, told him to bugger off, and go find his own crossing spot, because, in case he couldn’t see, this one was already occupied. Thank you very much!

On the week-end, PD and I joined friends on a Stillwater nearby. We attended to some DIY matters at our fishing shack there, re-connected with fellow fly-fishers, and after a few lunchtime cooldrinks we set about a bit of fishing. If you could call it that.  I at least stayed standing up, tossing a fly somewhat mindlessly. PD gave in to that post lunchtime condition that affects the eyelids, and lay back in the grass. We talked. We chatted family, and friends, and this Trout water and that. PD recalled trips to this water as a varsity student, once with a sick friend, once when it was half frozen over. I landed a small rainbow, and lost another, probably without drawing breath. The Irishman, fishing further down the shoreline was yabbering a lot less.

In fact he was alone, fishing well as he always does, not yabbering at all, and he was catching fish on a DDD.

A little later we decided we had had our fill. It had been a fun day out, with much talk and a lot less serious fishing. As we trundled across the veld, I retold my story of the bull interrupting my mini SASS.  And as I explained to PD, when I told that bull off, it actually listened, turned tail, and went and found another spot to cross the river!  As PD climbed from the bakkie to open the last gate, he said “all that proves is that you talk bull”.

Warts and all

I took a break from work the other day, and fished for about two hours on my local stream in the late afternoon. I thought I would share it here….warts and all (Including not catching, losing fish, catching little ones, and hooking logs).

It is not refined videography, and it is not New Zealand; but it is real.

Perhaps it will encourage those who feel outdone by all the slick perfection on offer on the internet. Perhaps some locals will have their eyes opened to what we have on our doorstep in these parts.

I hope you enjoy it.

Drunken deaf narratives

I recently wrote a piece about alcohol use, hid it in a piece about flyfishing, and sent it off to the editors of a  magazine.  They printed it. I wondered if anyone would get it, and my thoughts turned to something my wife once said to me. “You have to join the dots for them Andy”, she said, and I suspect that as usual, she is right. I was on a call to Duncan Brown about a year back, talking about a piece of writing, and he mentioned the term “a deaf narrative”. I think Duncan was talking about a narrative that remains obscure and meaningless until the end is revealed. I like the notion, so I jotted down the term. The other day I Googled it, and all I came up with was stuff about hearing impaired people.  I like that too:  that the good, rich stuff is buried deep enough that Google doesn’t know about it , and I try to do a little of that in my writing. But then I go and make it really obscure, and am left wondering if anyone at all joined the dots. Even one person…….

That woman to whom I gave a lift in the Lotheni Valley, may or may not have been under the influence. She was returning from town, laden with shopping (which included a weighty stash of Zamalek quarts). She was tired when I saw her struggling up the hill. When she sat beside me in the bakkie she was animated and enthusiastic. Our exchange was fun. A small delight in a dusty landscape. Her home overlooks the Hlambamasoka.

One of the Hlambamasoka’s that is…the other one runs under the road just beyond Boston on the R617.  Both once contained Trout, and hence their relevance in this, and other stories I have written.

Some time back, my friend Geoff, who speaks isiZulu better than many Zulus, pulled me aside to tell me how much he had enjoyed a book I once wrote, but to tell me that it contained a mistake. I cringed. I am sure it contained many, but somehow you want those swept under the carpet. Not so the mistake Geoff found. I was amused and delighted at this one. Let me explain:   I had extracted the meaning of the name “Hlambamasoka”  from a demure and graceful lady of great poise and dignity, and I repeated her explanation in my book. But as Geoff pointed out, the true meaning of this name is more something borne of hedonistic excess and indulgence. Something that in our culture might be a little too risqué to be used in the naming of a stream, let alone two of them. It goes around the practice of washing off after binge-like activity amongst the maidens of the valley, and that, young reader, is already too much information!

Later in my piece I write of Frank Mele, whose essay “Blue Dun” I greatly admire.

In that text, he reveals in a few suitably camouflaged lines, that he once had some trouble with liquor. He contrasted that with Preston Jenning’s hiatus from his flyfishing life, apparently born of some similar troubles, possibly a bout of depression, which unlike his, was endured with sobriety. That got me thinking. It is undeniable that many great tales, contrivances and subtle delights are delivered on sparkling turns of phrase in a pub. Their delivery is without doubt helped along by the loosening of the tongue. The hearing of them is warmly wrapped in swaddling nostalgia, mirth or aesthetic appreciation which is also helped along by a little tipple.

Take for example the story of Tim’s nets. Tim makes these grand landing nets, you see, and at one time he was having some trouble sourcing the right cloth for the bag of the net. He settled on something different: a particularly fine and soft mesh, which while a little on the impervious side, is certainly kind on fish. He took one of these along to the local one night, where he planned to meet his customer, and the new owner of the net. As they stood at the brass rail, embellishing and drawing out the exchange of this fine item, various of the consort were waxing lyrical about the fine mesh, and how a captured Trout seems mesmerized when slung in the deep comforting folds of the stuff. How they relax, and calm down, and become compliant and beautiful in resigned compliance.  It was at this point that an eavesdropping patron on the bar stool a little further down the counter asked  if he might be allowed to acquire such a net……for his wife. 

Net by Tim at Bambooze

Now I’m sorry, but stuff like that doesn’t happen in coffee shops!

Which was why I wrote to contrast the deep rich epic of Mele’s life-long quest for a blue dun cape, (complete with a bout of alcoholic indulgence) with the stark realities of a far flung African village, plagued by poverty and similar indulgences, but of a different hue. (did you see what I did there?….sorry…I can’t stop myself).

Frank Mele

And with that I dropped in some other lines that you won’t find in coffee shops:  Like the water only covering half one’s boots; pulling yourself up a river bank by a puffadder’s tail, and a glass phone screen that bears a dent from a bony finger. Who ever dented a piece of glass, I ask you!  And if you have ever fished “The Glides”, you will know that my romanticism of the place is the stuff of good whisky, late on a rainy night, and that you have to wait for it to be just right.

The Glides

You will also know that buying a Mele first edition with South African funny money is something of a joke, and that the swig from a flask was a prelude to its utterance. The Hlambamasoka at Lotheni is most times a bleak and disappointing stream, lying between denuded banks, and enriched with cattle dung. To travel there to flyfish in it requires a mix of unrealistic foolishness, romantasized hope, and, dare I  say, a swig or more from a flask.

You can read the article in the latest edition of The Complete Flyfisherman.   You might want to go back and read some of my earlier ones……..

Authors notes (to this author’s note) offered without explanations.

  • Tims landing nets are branded “Bambooze”
  • Frank Mele was instrumental in catchment protection work for his beloved home river……..
  • Frank Mele wrote an essay that inspired him to write a book………..
  • Mele wrote one book of fly fishing essays, and a novel………..
  • Hlambamasoka is also the name given to a nature reserve…….on the uMngeni River

Awakening a spirit

“Sometimes it requires considerable strength of mind to break the chain of business and go where we long to be, but such “a stitch in time save nine,” and even a few days on the streams in the spring time, while the air is fresh and bracing and all the world is young, will do much for a man’s health and strength.

The bit of sport and change of scene renew his youth, and he feels like a boy again.

The spirit of a boy lies dormant in many of us, and only needs to be released by just going fishing.

Good luck.”

The above lines were penned by Theodore Gordon in February of 1913.

I was chatting to a friend the other day and we were reminiscing how, as varsity students, we would jump in a borrowed car with insufficient fuel in the tank, and head for the hills hoping to get to a trout stream with enough daylight hours left to get a fish. We may have taken some peanuts, and we probably forgot a rain jacket. What was important is that we got out there. We got stuck in the mud; we lost huge fish; we witnessed hatches and sunsets; and we took grainy photos that we still gaze at with the fondest of memories.

Nowadays, it could be said that we fiddle around for hours making sure we have what we need. We check the weather; fill the car; buy new boots; consider whether its worth going considering travel time vs time on the water; make elaborate lunches; and worry about a week old report that says the river was low or dirty.

And we fish less.

It occurs to me that all those preparations and considerations and fancy sandwiches are sometimes the problem. Sure, it is fun to contemplate the trip and make ones preparations, but as one’s mind atrophies, these things also become the excuses we use for not getting out at all. Life is busy, and the gaps available for fishing trips are rare and short. When there is a gap, we may find ourselves thinking it is too narrow an opportunity to fit in a trip to the stream. We mull over how long it will take, and we build into the time required, all those things that put our comfort ahead of the goal of making it happen.

I now carry some peanuts, a can of bully beef, and a flask of water in my bakkie along with my fishing kit, and a bag with a change of clothes in it. If a gap opens, all I need is my car keys and the right attitude. I am fishing a lot more. Sadly perhaps, much of this is alone. But regardless of whether it is alone, whether I forget the camera at home, get wet, or find the river as dirty as they said it would be, that spirit of the boy is not as dormant as it once was.

Seven-11, and Flat Whites

September is a varied time. It is the month in which we are most likely to get snow, and at the same time, daytime temperatures of 30 degrees are far from uncommon.

Here where I live, when a September cold front comes in, we get eleven degrees and drizzle, and at that temperature there won’t be snow, not even on the high berg. If it drops to seven degrees then we expect some white stuff up on top. In the event that it hits five degrees, snow on the Inhlosane, the little berg, and hey, maybe even Karkloof is a possibility. Either way, that cold front is a valued thing, all the more if it drops some reel rain and lifts us up out of our dry winter.

In between, its typically what I call a “flat white”.  Bright hot sunshine. No wind. White, flat light that is a photographer’s nemesis.  Not fishing weather at all, it seems.

The truth be told, it can actually be quite good in these conditions if you go higher in the mountains, where it is cooler, and all the more so if we have had rain, like this year. My pal Ray fished a mountain stream the other day and commented that it was hot. But as he said the fish were “on the prod”, and he got enough of them to make the drive seem well worth the trouble.  But I sit here on a bright Saturday morning, feeling a little disinclined to tramp up a river valley smothered in sunscreen and looking out for snakes.  Instead I am tying flies, with a bottle of chilled lemon and mint water at my elbow. I have half an eye on the weather app. It predicts one of those eleven degree things later in the week, complete with drizzle. Heck….who knows, it might even rain!  Now THAT has my attention. I saw the Viking yesterday and he had spotted it too. I said something about a mid-week adventure and his smile indicated he had been thinking the same thing.

So for now I am tying some streamers too big to show my sophisticated mates who think more of me; and some emergers so small that they belong in something magnetized, so that they don’t blow away when you open the fly box at the streamside.

I may tie up something in between just to balance things out.  I’ve been listening to Paul Proctor’s chat with Pete Tyjas on his one hundredth podcast (Well done Pete!) , and I am about to check my tippet spools, and move a bunch of flies from the patch back into the box.  Theodore Gordon’s collection of letters and “Little talks” are on my nightstand, and I am just a little inspired.

There will be a ‘seven’ or an ‘eleven’ to end this ‘flat white’, and I will be ready.

Four days in September

Day one.

Opening day. I seldom fish it. It is normally dry and lean and often still wintery, even if only in a vaguely cold and dusty way. Algae is the norm. Pools take on a sedentary look, and it is not attractive. But this year felt a little different.   Winter snow and rain supposedly comes in the middle of July. I say supposedly, because I can’t remember when mother nature last stuck with that nice, neat formula. In recent years we have had no decent snow at all. Then this year, like a late gift, it arrived, accompanied by around an inch of rain just about everywhere, and it did that in the week before the Trout river season opened.  So the Viking said to me that if I was serious about my stream flyfishing;  if I was properly committed to the cause, then I would fish a river with him, notwithstanding the fact that it was a work day. “OK”, I said “I’m in!”, and we agreed to leave at 8 am.

We arrived on the water around 2:30 pm. What can I say: work got in the way of us both. The upside was that Dave joined us. We strolled down to the river under slightly dulled skies, but in high spirits. I will concede that there was a slight sense of occasion being out on opening day. We started in at King’s pump, and plied the slow, moody looking water there, leapfrogging upstream in a sort of loosely plaited arrangement. It all seemed rather still and lifeless, despite the decent water levels and clarity and the apparent absence of any algae. As the afternoon slid by, I confess that my concentration began to wane, and the boyish enthusiasm with which we set out was converting to a more realistic temper.

At some point, at a big bend in the pool, I lifted my rod and drew the fly from the depths near my feet, and then I jiggled it a little to see how it was swimming. It was a small Woolly Bugger. In fact I suspect it was the very same fly that I caught a lunker on in the Bushmans two seasons back: my biggest river fish ever. I lifted it and dropped it.  It looked good. Kinda tadpole like. I did it again. The fish that shot out from under the grass clump at my feet to grab it took me totally by surprise! I leaned back, and probably gasped, and in so doing drew the fly out of the water. The fish turned, looking… hunting, for the fly. So I lowered it back in, and it took it.  That put a smile on my face. The first fish of the season. It was a pretty little brown. I photographed it, and returned it, and I was happy.

Later I took a phone call (why did I do that!), and for a long time I stood there with my rod in one hand, fly hanging a few inches below my thumb and forefinger which grasped the tippet, saying “yes” and “um”.  Dave took the opportunity and, hearing from The Viking that I had landed a fish, he cut in and fished the pool, as he was well entitled to do. When he hooked his fish, I was trying to enjoy the moment with him while remaining focused on my phone call, which had already gone on way too long. I should explain at this point that it was a video call, and that I was having a time of disguising that I was out on a Trout river with my buddy landing a trout right there beside me, ducks flying overhead, and kingfishers dashing by. 

Later, as dark drew across the landscape, we stood almost side by side and fished Siesta Pool.

At some point a trout slashed at my caddis imitation at the head of the pool, and the others heard it, but I didn’t connect. Walking out through the lush ryegrass pasture in the low light, I was reminded that The Viking had earlier challenged us to a dare in which the one who didn’t catch a fish should take a plunge in the drinking trough near the gate. We were drawing near the trough, and having earlier rejected the challenge, I now suggested that we might invoke it. He was having none of it.

Day two.

I tried several mates to see who wanted to join me. This one was working. That one was busy. Another had an invitation to some fancy syndicate water. It was starting to feel like a “rent a crowd” situation, so I stopped trolling my phone list and just went alone.

There was a heavy grey sky, and there were patches of mist hanging below the line of hills to the west, making them seem closer, more imposing, and somehow grander than they are in bright, tame sunshine. I tackled up, and set off along the base of the krantz, past the second pumphouse and beyond, to a willow lined section of river.

It was sullen water. The depth was difficult to determine on account of the silveriness of the day. It was all reflection, and muted surface colours of nchishi green, and mud-bank brown. I imagined it to be deep. I conjured up levels of faith in my piscatorial success which defied the apparent chances.

Then I had a take. Right there in between the logs, in the grey-green water right in front of me, and the fish swirled straight after I saw the tippet tighten. I was now wide awake. Perhaps the fish were “on the prod”.

There was no action in the big pool above that, and with the bow and arrow casts I executed through the multitude of bare willow branches covering another deep slot, were not successful. But they did prove to be “on the prod” that day. Above the drift a lively 14 inch fish took my fly with gusto, and came to the net. 

.

Not long after, and in the same pool, a fish came out from under my own bank and smacked the same little Woolly Bugger with such aggression, it surprised me. So did the size of the fish!  After tense moments in which the fish moved up and down the pool at pace, shaking its head, I lifted the net on a truly lovely trophy, and I confess, I was shaking just a little (and uttering little exclamations of pleased wonder and smug satisfaction for some time too). After a one handed photo, I slid the beautiful big cock fish back into the depths at my feet, and sat in the grass for a long moment taking in the scene, and letting things wash over me.

Just casts later, a solid 16 inch fish took the fly, and I was in heaven.

While I had been working that pool, a fish had risen at a spot just above a log jam. At first, I thought it was a duck. Then it rose again and I knew it was no duck. They were not small rises!

As I reached the spot, I resolved to have a good look at this fish; to take it slow, and to hunt this thing properly. With my earlier success, my want of fish had relaxed into a need for the ultimate sight fishing and stalking experience. I waited over twenty minutes for the fish to rise again. Then I covered it with a single cast, and not achieving a successful or pleasing drag free drift, I decided to try a different approach. The log jam above was forcing me to cast up along my bank, and let the fly drift down way off to the fish’s left side, as well as drawing the fly off the water with messy drag for fear of the fly going into the logs. Rather than risk putting the fish down with another cast that would surely be identical to the first failed attempt, I resolved to backtrack, walk around the spot in the ryegrass pasture and approach the bank from above for a quartering downstream cast.

As I approached the river again, I saw that I had been gifted with a large clump of sword grass, behind which I could crouch. I slid down there with my fly at the ready and waited. It was another twenty minutes or so, and the fish rose again. A thumping, unabashed walloping gulp of a rise, performed with impunity. It got my heart racing, but I held my composure long enough to change to a beetle imitation (because with no hatching flies evident, it could only have been a terrestrial that it took, and it was too early in the season for a hopper). The beetle drifted over the spot without result, and I retrieved the fly and line to wait for more signals. At this point, lying there in the grass behind my clump of grass, I had a chat on the phone with PD to share news of my success. Phoning people while fishing is not something I do, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary here, but I was still bubbling over with the news of my big fish, and I wanted to share it with someone who would get it.  After a good while on the phone, with my rod lying beside me in the grass, another a fish moved in a different spot, and I quickly ended the call  with “Gotta go!”. The fish had risen below me in a spot that I could easily reach from my previous approach. There was nothing for it…I leopard crawled out, circled back around, and presented from the earlier spot. Nothing. It occurred to me then that this was probably one of those fish that was not holding position, and that in fact the few rises might all be the same fish, moving about.  He would be in a rotation about the pool. My only chance was to try spot him, and predict the path of his route, so as to drop a fly in the spot he was approaching, to avoid lining him in these glassy, silver conditions.

I returned to my clump of sword grass and sat it out. There was another rise, but I couldn’t see the fish, so I didn’t cast. I decided that the rise was sub surface, so I changed to an emerger in anticipation of the next one. I craned my neck and rotated my polarized glasses but I could not see through the silvery slick. I sat it out for more than half an hour, and during that time I relented and made one blind cast….just on the off chance that my good luck of the day would repeat itself.

When the fish rose again, it was in a different place, and this time it was definitely taking off the surface, but since I couldn’t see any insects, it must have been something small. I changed to a size 18 F-Fly, and waited. Little breezes riffled the water at times. The sprinklers in the field trilled and clicked and thrummed. Cloud patches continued to drift across the gloomy grey hills to the west.  The ryegrass pasture was lush and short and pretty behind me, and the willows were all gaunt and bare and full of sticks. It was quiet. Then, after another fourty minutes a tiny miracle unfolded.  A shaft of sunshine poked through the cloud and lit the water in front of me. It was like a screen being lifted. Suddenly I could see the secrets beneath the previously shiny, reflective surface. The pool was not deep at all. It was a bed of intricate, golden stones, strewn about the place, with lots of feature and lots of holding water. And there in front of me, finning away was the Trout. Exposed! Presented to me on a plate. It was beautiful. I reached for my camera, switched it over to video mode, adjusted the polarizing filter to cut the last remaining glare, zoomed the lens in and just before I raised the eyepiece, I looked at the Trout to get my aim right. As I did so, the fish swam confidently forward, and I craned around the sword grass to see it rise to something off the surface, and then it sank away and the sun disappeared and pool was silver again. The ghost was gone.

Later, the weather grew heavy, and I strolled upstream, peering into holes under the gaunt willows, and delivering the odd hopeful cast blindly into deep green lairs, pitted with raindrops.

Presently I wound in and strolled back to the bakkie. As I climbed the hill to leave the drizzle stopped, and two fish rose in the slow water behind me. I stopped and watched the ripples of their rises subside, and I smiled.

Day three

The weather forecast had predicted winds of 5 to 7 metres per second. As I drove up the Dargle road I looked at the tops of the gum trees and saw no movement. Perhaps it would be perfect, and I would be spared that nasty, hot, blustery berg wind.

No.

I arrived at the bottom of the valley to gusts of wind, and was met by detritus on the water, and great swirling wind ripples brushing the surface of the enormous pool. I was in shirtsleeves. It was warm.

Fish number one was six inches long: a pretty little Brown showing signs of its Loch Leven heritage: tiny black pepper spots, silvery and with just a sprinkling of red splotches down towards the tail. 

burst

The next thirteen fish eluded me. Yes: Thirteen! I started to mutter and swear. Some were those little dashing takes of small fish. A sort of grab and go thing, where the lift of the rod is plainly slow and ineffective. Others were on for a few moments. Two of them came off at the rim of the outstretched net, and one was a good solid fish that lunged at the fly, just as it landed millimeters from the reeds on the far side. It thrashed on the surface as Browns often do, and then it was gone. I checked the hook. It was a long pointed, ultra-sharp, wide gaped jig hook. OK, it was barbless, but thirteen misses! I ask you, with tears in my eyes!  Sure, some were downstream of me, and my strike may have been too quick to allow them to turn downstream, but I adjusted for this once I had had that thought, and some I didn’t strike at all. Since the fish were eating the fly in question with gusto, I chose not to change it. Fish number fourteen through twenty one all held, so I ended the morning on a count of seven. I think. All the counting was getting confusing.  One was a fish which came up at my feet while I was watching for the fly to come into view. I saw the fish first, watched it while it turned in slow motion, and as it began to sink away, I lifted, believing it must have taken my as-yet unseen fly. I was right.

 It was a strange day. The wind howled, and stopped, causing my gust-adjusted casts to slam into the river. The sun burned down, leaving my face reddened. The Trout ignored a stripped fly, and pounced on one drifted slowly with little sudden twitches. They were like kittens….excited by feigned lifelessness, interspersed with enticing wriggles, and it was a mental picture that helped me master the day’s technique.  After a bite to eat, I decided I had had my fill, and I drove happily back down the valley.

Day Four

The following day was windless. I illogically concluded that it would be even better than the awful berg wind. It was hot. It was slow.  The water measured just shy of 15 degrees C, and it ran clear in the pretty little tributary. The other two guys  were exploring upstream of me. I had pointed them to the big pool where I caught a Trout last year, and I was brimming with confidence for them. I made sure they had a camera with them and asked for pictures of the Trout when they caught it, and I wasn’t just puffing. I really meant it.  I put a little North Country Spider through several runs and I leaned forward in anticipation. I had this place nailed now. I new what success looked like, and it was just a matter of time.

A little further up, I stepped onto a small island and planned my route into the pool, on the other side. I put my foot on a matt of dried bramble, and plunged four foot through it , coming to rest with my hands and elbows in the unforgiving thorns. I extracted myself painfully. It was a merciless process. Yesterday’s fall into a hole had given me a wet foot and some mud on my longs. This was different.

 Plucking thorns from my skin, I regained my composure, and returned to fishing. “shaken but not stirred” I told myself.

 Repeated perfect drifts were ignored. I was joined by Tim, who reported that he and Anton had not encountered anything yet. I was surprised.

We moved down to the main river, and strolled up the banks, recounting past experiences at each bend, riffle and pool we came across. Anton threw a little dry. I tried an emerger. Tim was satisfied to just walk, try to spot fish, and watch us.  The water was like gin. The air was still and hot. The river-bed was strewn with sticks and the willows were thick about us. There was some algae.  I clambered in, enjoying the cool water against my legs, and I threw my fly up into the willow tunnel ahead of me.

Up at Picnic Pool, Anton and I tied on heavy flies and we plied the depths of a place that is as close to a sure-thing as you get on our river.

Above picnic pool I crept to the river’s edge in several spots where I have spotted fish before, and I strained my eyes, sure that I would spot one again.   Anton looked at his watch and mumbled something about the rugby game starting soon. We strolled back through the short-cropped pasture, with the birds signing in the trees, and the river sliding silently past beside us, and sweat trickling down our collars.  “Where did you say you got that fish?” Anton asked doubtfully. And I smiled.


The rivers are open

The rivers are open. Some have rushed out there, all puffed up with the ceremony of it all. Given that we fish our stillwaters all winter long, and that our rivers are only closed for three months, I find that a bit over the top, but I suppose its fun. I often don’t rush to the rivers until we have had rain, because at this time of year they can be low and slimy and not so attractive. But this year we had late snows (and accompanied by about an inch of rain in these parts), and the rivers are looking pretty damned good. So for once I did fish opening day. And then again a few days later.

We have had cool cloudy, moody weather. In other words Brown trout weather. The water surface has been all silvery and reflective, and in this video it looks green. That is an illusion…in reality it is crystal clear. Notwithstanding that I have found a few fish to be bold and hungry.

It has been fun, and I am enjoying being back on moving water.

Breaking the code

The Letort Regulars used to meet for Sunday morning breakfasts, or for picnics at Charlie Fox’s place on the Letort spring creek, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. * Vince Marinaro and others would stay over at Charlie’s fishing hut, which he built on his property even before he built himself a house to live in.

Charles Fox, as sketched by Schwiebert in his book “Trout”

It was in that hut that they had a fly tying kit , donated by one Bob McCafferty, and their meetings, experiments and trials drew the attention of visitors like Lefty Kreh, George La Branche, ER Hewitt and Joe Brooks.

This band of fishermen, which included the likes of Ed Shenk, Gene Utech, Tommy Thomas, Ross Trimmer  and others, were ground breakers. Their home water was what is still described as one of the most difficult trout streams in the world.

Stories abound about how spooky the fish are, and how clear the water is. The banks are sodden marshes in many places, the whole stream is only 9 miles long, and the fish are apparently all but impossible. Online searches reveal much evidence of these difficulties expounded in recent times. But reading Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” (written in 1950) reveals that not much has changed in this respect. Marinaro humbly paints a picture of himself as a duffer, saying things like ”This stream has always been a difficult one for me to solve and for many others too. The capture of one good trout in an evening’s fly-fishing was quite an achievement” and “….the usual result in these cases is a violent reaction on my part intended to be a strike, something I fervently wish I had never learned, and the matter is concluded by a sudden parting”.  

 

As a relatively slow flowing limestone creek (AKA Spring Creek, chalk stream, Limestoner), its trout have all the time in the world to inspect what the fly fisherman has to offer, as well as a remarkable abundance of food besides. These characteristics make the stream a veritable university of fly fishing technique. Puzzles and riddles needed to be solved there, because although early fly anglers could see the trout, they couldn’t catch  them.

What makes this interesting, is that the likes of the Letort Regulars had other streams they could go to, where the trout were easier, but they didn’t.  That is to say that they chose not to abandon this near impossible challenge in favour of easier waters. They fished other waters, for sure, but their identity as “The Regulars” formed around the most difficult stream in the Cumberland Valley, the one of which Marinaro said:  “the Letort is a hard task master and does not treat lightly any violation of dry fly technique”.

This challenge saw them entertaining the mother of invention: necessity. If they wanted to work out the puzzle, they  had to get serious about it, study the trout and the insects and learn by trial and error. And so a great “university” was borne. 

Sketch by Ernest Schwiebert

I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Ed Shenk’s books, and I am sure there are many other enlightening ones besides that I am not aware of, but I have devoured books by Mike Lawson, Ernest Schwiebert, Darryl Martin and Vince Marinaro.

These articulate writings of a bygone era reveal a level of enquiry, dedication, observation, and let me say obsession, which is rare nowadays. A Google search will reveal tidbits, videos and anecdotes, and people who are quick to boast that they knew the Letort Regulars, but like me,  they don’t add to the body of knowledge of flyfishing technique.

The discoveries of the Letort regulars were significant. They pushed the boundaries. They looked for the smallest hooks and finest tippets they could find and tied flies on them, and tried to land big fish on them. They spoke and wrote with deference to Halford and Gordon, but then gently introduced the flyfishing world to the new frontier of terrestrials.  They pushed back frontiers.  In the 1970 edition of “The Code” which I own, Marinaro writes with wry amusement about how he meets anglers out on he stream who offer him their tiny flies, complete with words of instruction and encouragement, oblivious to the fact that it was he who started  the whole thing.

It is also interesting to read on modern forums, how the benches, stream improvements, access paths , footbridges, and passages across the streamside bogs are all gone. Quite apart from the fact that a highway bridge now crosses the river where Fox’s hut once stood, the attentions of this dedicated band of fishermen are seemingly a thing of the past. How strange that is! 

Consider for a moment, that when the likes of Charlie Fox fished the Letort, it was probably not as famous as it is now. At that stage it did not have attached to it the history of some of the great personalities of flyfishing, and neither was it described as the birthplace of modern terrestrial imitation, as it now is. And yet, despite its ordinariness, it received the loving attention of these pioneers. That would be attention both in respect of hours spend studying its trout and how to master them, and also hours spent with spade and saw, making it into something great.   Now in the glow of its fame, there is little evidence that any of this still takes place.

Instead there are some brass plaques, and there are those who claim to have known the men who made it great. There are also stories about how difficult it is to access the neglected sections, and there are dreadful stories of fish kills and pollution.

One forum commentator enlightens his colleagues as to the names of various stretches, pools and meadows, presumably because these exist only in the memories of ones like him, who witnessed the Letort in its halcyon days.

(I must hasten to add that I have never visited the stream  – I wish I could-  and that my conclusions are based on desk-bound research, but I can find no evidence that refutes what I claim here)

This whole state of affairs puzzles me. Notwithstanding the burgeoning and ever pressing demands of the human population, the fact that an iconic and revered stream lies unkempt and at least in part, neglected, is an irony. So many other places have been killed by too much attention: turned to theme parks with gift shops and tourist centres, but this one, like many trout streams I read of, suffers neglect instead. I suppose I have to be careful what I wish for, but could I perhaps put in a request for something in between?   I mean, could one of the people who revels in the nostalgia of the greats, not round up his buddies and go cut a path and lay a boardwalk to one of the pools?   Maybe these fellows actually have it waxed. Maybe they fish there three times a week, meet in secret, and keep their wonderful exploits off the internet. That would be great I guess, and from thousands of miles away I may never know, but nothing leads me to suspect that this is the case.

Turning for a moment to the observations, and technical developments of the Letort Regulars:  Has anyone seen Marinaro’s assertions on the body colours of the spinner vs the dun espoused, refuted, or even discussed since the 1990’s?  It is quite possible that I am missing something, and that in fact these technical issues have been built upon since that era of great flyfishing books.  But my mates and I just throw Para RAB’s. I know: Our particular streams are fast freestone waters, and fish will bite Humpies and DDD’s, so maybe the Letort/Marinaro model doesn’t apply here, and maybe modernisations of his work are widely applied elsewhere..

But, we do have some slower sections of river. Late last season a friend and I were foxed by some fussy trout in a series of slow pools.

Our frantic changing from a para RAB to a beetle to a CDC emerger simply didn’t work, and our conscious repertoire didn’t extend to significantly different solutions. We concluded that we were fishing one of the most difficult trout streams around, and I  for one would have been happy with just one trout that evening.   I can’t help thinking that Marinaro, if he was watching, would have labelled us as guys who “Stomped the banks and flailed the water”.    And I can’t help thinking that all of us fly anglers have gone just a little bit backward.  Our enquiries extend to scant viewings of Instagram pictures, and the odd YouTube video in which the tattoos and the brand of fly rod are the main feature. We don’t meet at the riverside to inspect the insects and discuss the finer points of the hatch, and life is too busy for a fisherman’s breakfast every Sunday.

We recently lost Lefty Kreh and Ed Shenk.

There might have been a code once, but I think its broken.

Additional Reading:

‘ * Errata. I am grateful to John Fiorini who had this to add in respect of the “Letort Regulars”:

The term “Letort Regulars” is capable of a couple of meanings. A loose group that adopted the name (and of which I was a member) was formed in the late 70’s and met for dinner at a local restaurant on the first Fri. of each month, with a picnic in August on benches at the “Nineteenth Hole” on the river behind Charlie Fox’s house. (That is also where an ad hoc gathering of locals often held a “prayer breakfast” on Sun. mornings.) Charlie was a regular attendee at our “meetings”, but Shenk and Marinaro were not. The latter-day Regulars sort of faded away in, I think, the early 90’s.

Seeral others also forwarded me pictures of the cloth badge of the Regulars

And in respect of the conservation of the river, John adds:

I don’t live in the Carlisle area and haven’t followed the recent status of the Letort carefully, but I know that both the city and the Central PA Conservatory have done a lot of rehab work on the river.

And Eric Richard added:

A letter written by Charlie Fox at the group’s inception was titled Super Trout in reference to the Loch Leven strain of Brown Trout. The Loch Leven was the mover. Defined by it’s movement and recognized by these anglers for their value they met to propagate and manage these misunderstood fish. The-book is an historical document. A federal fish hatchery biologist dismissed them with the assumption that all brown trout were crossed. You should be happy to know that while standing on the shoulders of C. Fox a grassroots movement of anglers in PA successfully petitioned for the protection of the Letort’s breeding population during the post spawn when they are feeding in the downstream watershed.

This particularly interested me, because my home river here in South Africa was once on record (and forgive me, but for the time being I forget where the reference comes from , except that I know it is quoted by Duncan Brown in one of his books), as that containing the most pure genetic population of Loch Leven Browns in the world. Sadly I know that this is no longer the case, but a few of us keep pictures of our Browns from the river, and compare notes and are looking to see the degree to which the later introduced European browns remain in evidence, interbreed, or perhaps reduce in number as the supposedly now adapted Loch Leven’s hold sway.

The price (or benefit) of not being a sheep

I know of many anglers who’s success comes in large part from searching out waters that are fishing very well. Make no mistake, they are often anglers considerably more proficient than I am, but they have a way of ratcheting that up exponentially by keeping their ears to the ground, and keeping their network  buzzing. Theirs is a race. There are rules, and inner circles, and invitations garnered, not shared.

As a semi professional hillbilly, I seem to have missed the secret handshakes. I just go off to my usual spots. Spots that were on the list a few years ago, but are now largely relegated to the B list. I have had spectacular fishing there before. It will come again in the future, that is a certainty, but for now they are quiet.

And I have them to myself. 

Quite. Really quiet.

On my last jaunt, I didn’t even notice any planes overhead. Maybe that was because Joburg is closed. What I did hear was the plaintive cry of orange-throated longclaws in the windy veld. I heard the fish eagle. I heard the loud gulp of an occasional large trout rolling on the surface the few times the wind dropped. For the rest of the time, I heard the wind. Incessant wind, whisking the veld and buffeting my hat and ringing in my ears. In the evening I heard the crackle of the fire and the lapping of the waves a few metres away outside. In the morning I heard the kiewiets complaining at the cows, and the odd trill of a panicked dabchick. If the wind wasn’t blowing, I would hear the roll of another heavy fish. 

I caught a few fish, but they were few and far between. They were beautiful.

Just yesterday  I was given the inside track on another water that is fishing spectacularly well. Big fish. Grip and grins. Faces I don’t recognize. Several of them. PD and I shared the pictures. I could make that phone call. I could get in on the action. I could be part of the inner circle. The noise.  I asked PD what he though. “I fear its inundated already” he said adding “Like North pier in a shad run”.

They are big fish though. I could still make the call….

Or I could work on that semi professional hillbilly thing , catch smaller fish somewhere quiet, and not be a sheep.

Just walking, just looking

The other day I had the privilege of being on the river for work reasons (again). I know that it is not an infrequent occurrence, but I still consider it a privilege. Anyway, I took a break while the crew were having a lunch break, and I went for stroll. The light was brilliant, and the water was as clean as it gets. I didn’t have a pair of polarised specs, but the angle of the midday sunshine, and the east flowing stretch of river just aligned in a way that it made no difference…I could see everything! Flow was pretty decent, since we had rain all the way into early May this year. So in summary it was perfect.

At Picnic pool, I spotted a small fish come up to take something near the head, where the water rushes in. It was a small dark shape, that snatched and ran. Above that pool is a big shallow bedrock tail-out, but the run gets deep on the south side, and runs with just a bit of a ripple under overhanging grass. I saw nothing there. Surprisingly.

Above that is a piece of water that holds deep memories for me. The river runs over shallow rock, but it divides, such that there are 4 river banks in all, and they are covered in clumps of huge cascading grass tufts. Despite the shallowness of the water, and the bedrock, I have often seen, caught, and spooked fish here.

It started way back on the 18th of April 1999…… I was fishing with a pal (since departed), and we came upon fish here. I didn’t know this part of the river well back then, and after we had caught, seen and spooked several fish here, I asked “Are we at the top boundary yet”, as I peered into a tunnel of offending wattle trees upstream of us.

My colleague replied that we were very close to the end of the beat, and so we gave up for the day and headed out. I now know that he was not entirely right. There was about half a kilometre to go.

Anyway, I spotted a fish here again. I spooked it in fact, and saw it shoot away in panic.

Just above the next rapid, I was passing between two big clumps of the same riverside grass, when I saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. (Did you know that your peripheral vision is more alert to movement than your direct gaze?) I stopped to process the image my brain had received. I am often fooled by a shadow of a bird flying overhead, and I need to stop and analyse as I now did. Was it a little too quick to have been a fish? Was it moving in too straight a line? Was its path of movement strangely inconsistent with the features and obstructions of the river bed? I stared at the water as I thought these thoughts. I decided it was just a bird. But as I was about to avert my deep-thought (and doubtless unblinking) gaze, I noticed something.

It was a Trout’s eye.

Strange to find a Trout’s eye right in front of you, on a bare rock riverbed, barely a rod’s length away….

I blinked and “zoomed out” in my minds eye, and blow me down, it turns out that what I had seen was attached to a motionless fish!

It didn’t move a fin, so I guess my peripheral vision wouldn’t have picked it up. It was my blank stare that did it for me.

I had a camera with me, but the battery had gone flat, so I very carefully pulled my phone from my top pocket and switched on the video camera.

What a treasure to see, watch, video, and appreciate a decent sized brown on this water.

It is at times like this that I don’t really need a rod at all. Sometimes I can just walk; just look.

Mounting campaigns

“There are big trout here, but not many, and they are not the kind you simply fish for; they are the kind you mount a campaign against” Ted Leeson

My favourite places are either unknown by many flyfishers, or alternatively they are known, but considered second rate. As my friend Pete Tyjas said to me once “Yes, Andrew….I am a salmon too”, by which he meant that he swims against the current. The remark was in reference to a statement I had made along the lines of that above, coupled with our discussion about Pete stopping a successful online magazine to go into print. That is ballsy!

And so is creeping around on some forgotten stream somewhere in the brambles, trying to find that enormous trout that exists only in your imagination. At best it existed fifty years ago, and in your imagination its progeny have retained the ability to grow big, and are fit and well despite all the hardships thrown at them for half a century.

I enjoy launching that type of campaign. I am normally spurred on by a dearth of catch returns, or a complaint about how tricky it was to even get to the water, let alone cast! Maybe by an exaggerated tip off.

So perhaps it was less than coincidental that I so enjoyed Richard Baker’s piece in Fly Culture magazine (Spring 2021) in which he launches a campaign against the progeny of Wilson Dermot’s biggest ever trout, in the Bishop’s Sutton Stream in Hampshire. It brought back memories of staying at Stillerus cottage, being afraid of the Wildebeest that roam the vlei there, and trying to catch Neville Nuttall’s “Uncle George”. It was in the late seventies, and Uncle George had long since met his maker, but in our youthful ignorance and excitement we didn’t let that fact get in the way of a good campaign.

As one fisherman I know says “The truth is a rare commodity, and so should be used sparingly”. I think this comes into play with a lot of fishermen when they whisper to you in a dining booth or the corner of a pub, that the fish at such and such a place are ENORMOUS. What they are really saying is that there were enormous fish there, or it looks like there could be, or there should be. They are saying that the place is worthy of a campaign. The fish they are describing is not as big as the tale, but there is absolutely no reason why it should not have been that big. And in the fact that they are whispering this to you, they are inviting you, or perhaps challenging you, to mount such a campaign.

And who wouldn’t be flattered by such an invitation! And who are we to ignore their hot tip, and pay them the disrespect of going to fish at the popular, and known water, when this undiscovered gem lies in wait of our attentions. It is up to you and I to go and mount that campaign! We need to be ballsy about this!

(Perhaps while our erstwhile informant fishes the Thandabantu beat on the Bushmans and catches 23 inch browns, while we pick the blackjacks from our sweaty collars at some unnamed ditch somewhere)

A pretty scene

John Gierach

“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake

I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.

While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:

  • The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
  • The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.

Think on that.

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