There suddenly came an October day when I heard the rumble of thunder. I heard it in the early hours of the morning, and then it got hot and humid. Smudges of pale cloud hung in a white sky. Then in the early afternoon, the pasty blue sky over the berg rumbled at us, and taking a look at it, I discovered that it may in fact be grey, not blue. I took my glasses off; then put then back on again. Somehow those colours were barely distinguishable as I squinted westward. We were sharing a rod and throwing dries at some tiny trout in hot treacle sunshine. The water was low, but it was cool, and clean, and soothing to be beside. Small Trout flashed at the flies.
We dipped our fingers in the water. Then we went back to the truck, packed up in the shade, and drove on. Later we put the vehicle in four wheel drive and drove it up a bank to get the bonnet under a pine tree, after the biggest hailstone in the valley hit the windscreen, scaring Trevor half out of his seat.
That was after we had explored two valleys, stopping at vantage points and on bridges and peering at clear water to better assess the flow and maybe spot a Brown. The flow was slow, and the runs held no cover. The pools were reasonable though, and we had no difficulty imaging trout in them, even if we couldn’t see them. We drank a lot of water, and the sweat trickled down our collars. At one spot, high above an enticing blue-green glide through a dolorite channel, we debated whether to rig a rod and clamber down the hill. It was stifling, and we couldn’t dally too long. In the end we allowed laziness to conquer us both and we merely spent an extra minute or two looking wistfully down the slope at the thing. Then we drove into welcome raindrops.
Once the risk of hail had passed we drove south through countryside that glistened following the passing of the storm. At the next river the flow was still low, but gulches and road drains poured red earth into the river in billowing, widening clouds, that contrasted with the slow clear flows.
We picked our way towards home on a back road that I had not driven before. We chose it because it took us all the way down the valley and then crossed the river again on the way back. We slithered along on wet roads, and then suddenly we were on tar again. The rain had stopped but it felt steamy again.
I recognised hills, and reported our position to Trevor. Then I got some hills wrong, and had to re-orientate, until I was nodding confidently again. Then we were back on dry roads, but soon after I dropped Trevor off there was more of that grey/blue sky and lightning. As I climbed out of the cab at home I was greeted by thunder, and a piet-my-vrou. I put my feet up on the veranda, after a long day of driving, and had a cup of tea, looking out over the lawn and sniffing the petrichor.
The next day was hot. We washed the mix of winter’s dust and summer mud off the bakkie, and the inside got a spring clean. Boots were dried. Winter clothing was removed, and I re-stocked the vehicle with a repaired tow rope (after we broke one helping someone out) and made sure there was a raincoat in there, and snake gaitors.
Later we holed up in the cool of the house, barefoot and in shorts, and feeling the humidity. I checked my stream box, and resolved to tie up a few more dries. I hadn’t looked in there until now.
Its uncanny how you can’t really tell the blue sky from the grey but thunder serves to sharpen the focus a little, and suddenly you realise it’s a storm. A bit of thunder and humidity signals the passage from spring to summer, and suddenly you know it is here.
“Sorry, I didn’t feed the butterflies………” she mumbled from the confused thickness of sleep. She followed it with “Where have you been?” as I crawled into the sleeping bag beside her.
“Fishing” I said.
“You liar!” she responded, just a little less sleepily. Minutes later her rhythmic breathing told me she had drifted off again. I soon would too.
The night had been cold, but mild at the same time. Cold in the way that cold air settles on a lake’s surface in the middle of the night. Mild, in that the breeze was soft and stopped altogether at times, leaving the hum of silence in my ears, and just the gentle sound of lapping waves as they ran out and dissipated across the inky water before me. From above was a halo of light delivered by a half moon, somewhere above the swirling mist and low cloud. Tiny drizzle drops hit the surface of my down jacket with imperceptible pinpricks of sound. They lacked the weight that would have dimpled the water surface.
I judged the progress of my figure eight retrieve by the thickness of the line in my left hand. As it got thicker, I was near the weight forward part of the line, and the lift would need to be executed soon. But not too soon. A failed lift of the line would see the fly hit the side of the canoe, and bring the leader in against the rod tip, risking another tangle. I wanted to avoid those. An earlier tangle had been a challenge to unravel with just the light of my cellphone down in the hull of the canoe.
I lifted, probably more briskly than I needed to, to make sure that the olive dragonfly nymph took flight. It did. The stiff rod carried it high and fast, and I flicked a single forward cast out into the satin blackness, with vigour to shoot line and to match the lift-off, but aimed high above the water, so that it would alight with more finesse. I figured these short casts would work fine. They left less retrieve time in which I could become confused as to where the fly was, and surely less line meant fewer tangles. Besides, without rod flash, and in the dark, I needn’t cast further.
The short cast was a success. A minor triumph. An accomplishment that delivered its own enjoyment and satisfaction. No fish catching was required here: just getting the fly out by feel and intuition alone was doing it for me in this world of blindness. Throwing by feel. Throwing into black. Throwing for fish, which books assured me could see my diminutive offering.
I was in shallow water. Water where I had seen many fish feed during daylight hours, but where the closeness to the shore always seemed to make my approach seem too obvious. Now, with the cloak of darkness, I had a mental picture of big Browns coming in close and fearlessly in search of protein. Dragonfly protein perhaps.
Most people who can’t sleep, get up in the night for tea, or to read a book. Our cottage is small, and those solutions would have woken my wife. But the cottage sits right beside a Trout lake, and I really had been wide-eyed. It seemed like a good idea.
I raised the anchor, and held it up against the grey sky to see that it was clear of weed. It was. I placed it in the canvas bucket behind my seat, taking care to lower the steel onto the cushion of soft wet rope in silence. I lifted the paddle silently, and dug it in beside me to swing the craft around. Lowering my head to pick out the shape of things against the skyline, I judged the position of the jetty, and of the willow tree, and of the cottage where my wife lay sleeping. I picked a spot and paddled over there unhurriedly. A spot just off the tufts of cattails, where I had seen big fish swirl late on summer days. A spot just beyond the last fencepost, which I must now be careful to avoid. If I could see it. I couldn’t tell if I had arrived at the spot I pictured, but I placed the paddle down at my feet with great care, and judged the glide of the craft before lowering the anchor again. It found firm ground less than 4 foot below me, and I tied off the rope at a gunwale drain, before reaching for the rod.
Not wanting the risk another mess of tippet and leader, I pulled line out until I was certain I had ample flyline out of the end eye. Then I delivered an exaggerated roll, to get the fly straightened out, and listened for the plop of it entering the water column. Only then did I lift, and cast. I felt the tug of the weight of the line, and I released the energy and imagined the fly alighting near the cattail tufts nearby. It was surely there, I thought. But then I doubted. My nose dripped. My hands were losing their feeling. The breeze stiffened a little, and I shivered.
Was that weed on the fly? To raise the fly against the sky would mean pulling the leader join into the end eye, and that would involve risk in getting the fly clear again. Instead I mock cast and listened to the sound of the fly as it passed me. It sounded right.
This time I cast away from the shore, abandoning my dream of Browns close in, and choosing water that was deeper. Deeper and weed free perhaps.
A little rainbow grabbed the fly suddenly. I felt its raw pull. Its struggle. It jumped nearby, and I saw its silver side in the diffuse moonlight. I heard it land. I grinned to myself, as I experienced the urgent tugging. The fish came in beside the canoe, and suddenly I was glad I had cut off the dropper earlier. I didn’t like the odds of a thrashing fish in the dark with a loose hook hanging somewhere near it. I ran my hand down the tippet. As I got closer to the struggling fish, my hand created enough of an angle, and it slipped off the hook before I could touch it’s cold body. “That was landed, right?” I said to myself. I decided to notch it up. I roll cast the fly out, waited for the plop; Lifted again and cast again. Then I reached for the phone and pressed the side button to see the time. 2:05 am. A 13 inch Rainbow landed at 2:05 am. That’s what I would write in my fishing log. “You liar!” I said to myself, in the dark.
In recent weeks and months, my work, as well as my leisure, have taken me to a particular artery. By an artery, of course I mean a river. It also happens to be a Trout river: no surprises there.
Of course, at its upper end it is too small to be called an artery, even too small in fact, to be called a stream. Some of my exploration has taken me so high up that all I have encountered is a wet patch in the grass near KwaNovuka.
At the other end of this, I was on the phone yesterday to a man whose factory overlooks the uMngeni in Durban. And this is the artery I write of: The one that runs from Impendle vlei (at KwaNovuka), down the Poort stream, to join the uMngeni, and off down the Dargle valley and beyond, ultimately to the sea.
I am struck by the interconnectedness of this passage of water, not only in the geographical and ecological sense, but in the social sense too.
I start with Mr Z.S. Zuma, which is the formal manner in which this gentleman introduced himself last week. Zuma is dramatic, and theatrical in the delivery of his compelling rhetoric. His stutter emerges as he is about to raise his voice; about to spread his arms wider; and about to deliver his coup de grace. The words build up inside him, and a quiver appears on his lips, and you know that something portentous is about to be delivered. A clincher is on the way. Then the dam bursts, he is through his speech impediment, and his message tumbles out voluminously and with the weight of deep conviction. He ends it with a half sentence, spoken with one eyebrow lifted, and no sign of a smirk on his face, but the whole room about him erupts in appreciative laughter. And then he sits down. All of this has been in isiZulu. I turn to Hlengiwe who sits beside me and whisper “What did he say?”. She smiles, and lifts both hands to aid in her explanation, and then she gives up with a chuckle and a shaking of her head. Later, another colleague translates with cruel brevity and explains “He was trying to change the constitution”, and that is all I get. What I do know is that Zuma was discussing the ecology of the Impendle Vlei, the cultural practices of his generation and the one that went before it, and the interplay between agricultural practices and the well-being of his people.
Earlier in the week, I sat in Kath’s kitchen over a welcome cup of tea. I had just come down off the mountain, where I had been exploring the removal of a water sapping plantation.
I was unfit, and had neglected to take something to eat, so when I returned to my bakkie, I unceremoniously devoured a whole tin of bully beef, scraped from the tin with my pen knife. Now I was letting that succour absorb, and adding sweet tea to displace the shaky, light headed feeling that had had me wondering if anyone would ever find my corpse on that remote hillside if I had taken a turn for the worse. Kath’s hospitality, and the warmth of her interest in the river and the landscape around her were palpable. In an exchange that bore many similarities to that with Mr Zuma and his clan, I filled her in on the connectivity of her stream with the highlands at Kwa Novuka. She in turn filled me in on some of the history of the people in the valley, and together we wove a more complete picture than either of us had before we met. Then Stu entered, barefoot as usual, and the conversation turned to trout, as it does. He had found some precious fish just below the confluence at the end of last season.
We discussed their size. Stu expressed his appreciation for their rarity and significance that far up the stream, and I departed with a pleasing sense that things were as intact as one could hope them to be. A glimmer of positive light, shining through in the aftermath of the WWF report which stated that us humans have collapsed 84% of all fresh water species populations worldwide since 1970.
The artery that is the Poort stream, and the uMngeni river to which it adds itself, is in the sliver of habitat that still harbours the 16% that we have not yet destroyed. As this mixture of water progresses down towards the sea, it somewhere slides into the realm of the 84%. It doubtless doesn’t cross a line on a map from one reality to the next. Things are never that simple. It oozes through untold influences from one beautiful reality into the insidious, devastation of the next. My choice, cowardly as it might be, is to stick to the 16% portion, and fight to prevent it becoming a 15%. I shut out the world of leaking sewers and piles of plastic, and instead clear log jams that I hope will see an upward migrating fish get to share its genes with one of the ones Stu spotted. If Mr Zuma’s cattle get some winter feed, they may not trample any silt into the wetland at KwaNovuka. If we can arrange a mosaic of veld burning, then perhaps next year, unlike this year, we won’t see all the river banks burned at the same time over nearly 15 kms of the river’s passage. Then some of the biota that falls into the river in spring, will feed micro organisms, whose predators will fly upstream and lay their eggs above and below the cleared logjam.
I for one, don’t understand what ecological connectivity lies in that thin blue line of the Poort and its issue. What organism migrates up, and which one is swept down to feed it before it starts it’s migration. What I am starting to appreciate is the social connectedness from those like the Factory-man from down by the sea, up to Mr Zuma who overlooks the source. Between those two are Stu and Kath, and The Appleman and AJ and I. I buy trees from AJ, and maybe the Factory-man will go fishing with Stu, or buy a tree for Roy’s Pool. Perhaps I will introduce Kath to Mr Zuma, and there will be a value exchange there.
This week AJ and I clambered about in a small forest patch overlooking the river.
There under the hanging misty remnants of the cold front that blew in while I sat in Kath’s kitchen, AJ found a latifolius. (A Real Yellowwood to us English speaking mortals). He thought it might have been a henkelii, but in glancing around he saw no parent tree. So this one was seeded by a bird. Perhaps a bird that flew down from the small bush on Umgeni Poort, where Flemming, who was hit by a falling yellowwood in the mid 1800’s, lies buried. So perhaps, five to ten years after we plant the forest pioneer shrubs down at Roy’s pool this month, another bird will drop a latifolious seed there. And then a hundred years later, a giant yellowwood will shade a Trout in Roy’s pool, replacing the 15 incher that The Appleman killed last year.
(If the required bird species is still okay.) In fairness The Appleman tried not to kill the 15 incher; he didn’t punch it on the nose, as he has been known to do. And he doesn’t kill birds. (Neither do I: not knowingly anyway.) The Appleman also cut down his fair share of wattle trees, that will help ensure that the river is flowing strongly past that giant tree a hundred years from now.
The Appleman and I were on the phone last night, discussing the scarcity of fish in a stream that flows in the next valley…the one that flows behind Mr Zuma’s house, and I postulated that the degradation of that river both upstream and downstream of where we sample it, can’t have helped the situation. Fish and organisms are hemmed in: unable to seek ideal refuge upstream or downstream. That stream is just a little more in the 84% realm than in the 16%. So perhaps a Trout fisherman, hoping to preserve his beloved stream, needs to be looking down there below, in the warmth of the thornveld; and up there on the plateau, where wet grass grows.
A week earlier I threw a fly for a few hours further down the stream, at “three quarter mile pool”. The day had started off misty and drab; weather that had me sniffing the breeze and sagely declaring that it was Brown Trout time!
In fact, it was not. By the time I arrived at the river, it was blustery, and the light was brassy, filtering through a haze of warmth, garnished with the scent of spring blossoms and winter smoke in equal parts. The water was clear enough that I was grateful for the gusts of wind that served to obscure my profile from my quarry. But my deep sunk nymph repeatedly returned to me without news from the deep. My knowledge of the state of the river reassured me, that it was nothing sinister. Mr Zuma’s water was good. Kath’s water was fine. I hope their mingled product would pass that factory in Durban with just a little of that goodness intact. The goodness that harboured Stu’s special trout in the delicate headwaters in the hills above me.
To help you join some dots in the story above, I include links here:
“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”
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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.