After the drama of family and grandchildren, stepping forward one after the other to drop a white lily onto the coffin below, the old guy in the tweed fedora stepped forward to the grave’s edge. He had stepped slowly forward when attentions were diverted. When the mourners had pulled their eyes away, and were looking through the bare branches of the graveyard trees at the happy sky beyond. As they were all swallowing hard and waiting for the lumps in throats to mercifully subside. That was when he stepped to the edge of the raw earth.
His movements were slow and deliberate, as those of an old man might be. Slow as a poignant moment required. His shoulders were rounded in tweed, but his stance was firm and erect. He was a mix of pride and defiance, and of humility and solemnity. Two steps forward. Eyes cast down. He embodied grief, but an outwardly unemotional grief. He was accepting of the inevitable. His friend had gone first. His turn would come, like all of us. The time between would be lonelier for Paul’s passing. That is how it will have to be.
He raised his hand to the brim of his hat, and then brought it forward.
It was at once a wave,
and a doffing of this hat.
A “goodbye old friend”.
It was a split second farewell gesture, but it was one that captured everything .
Everything to anyone who knew. Anyone who knew the friendship between these two. Two old men who I saw side by side in the veld confirming the botanical name of the wildflowers. Two old men whom I saw stoop on their walking sticks as they climbed the hill behind all the youngsters to nod at the cave paintings. Two old men who passed field glasses between them and discussed the identity of a bird of prey. Two old men who sat hunched in a boat with fly rods in hand, happy to just be there, and not demanding of a Trout’s sacrifice. Two old men who delighted in the stories re-told by the other so many times, but one more time again for the benefit of the others around the table. Two old men who delighted in prose and play on words. Men who treasured the sipping of a whisky in the firelight. One a farmer, the other from town, both of them equally academic. Both of them flyfishermen. Both of them basking in the nostalgia of later years.
One of them gone now.
A buddy lost.
My turn to look up at the sky now, and swallow hard.
So long Paul. Sterkte Stiggs.
In the last week we have switched on the under-floor heating in the lounge, and I have worn a jacket of some sort most days. By my reckoning that signals the close of number 36….my 36th contiguous flyfishing season since this thing bit me all those years ago.
Sitting here in my living room , armed with a good cup of coffee and a reflective mood, I have just paged through my journal, and tried to get a sense of how it was. Tried for a capsule that sums it all up. Something that captures it in a way that lets me roll it around in my mind without missing any of the good bits.
One can add the numbers I guess: 200 hours of fishing over 45 days on ten stillwaters and eight different streams, and just under a hundred Trout. A fair season by those numbers I guess, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
130 of those 200 hours on streams, x number of Browns vs Rainbows, so many on dries, so many on nymphs. I have all this info. I could probably add up the kms travelled the diesel burnt, the coffee, beer and whisky drunk.
I think it is better summed up as follows: (in terms of the piscatorial quarry at least)
We broke the rules and started 3 days early on the very lower Bushmans, where we were shown a toffee. That is always a good way to start. There were some trips to the Lotheni, a few months apart, but they were lean. The trips to the Mooi were not, and there were more of those this season than last. The Mooi and the Bushmans produced some big fish for me. Bigger ones for my Facebook buddies it seems, or was that camera angle?
I was happy with mine. The Umgeni showed me more good fish, and more toffees than ever before. It was real “Rub your snout in that” stuff! . The lower Sterkspruit and the lower Bokspruit were challenging, but the upper reaches of both offered up their bounty. The Vlooikraal was as special as it always is.
A 17 incher in the sleet with Jan in October at Reekie Lyn.
A 19 incher from Krantz pool with PD.
PD’s 18 incher from the Sterkspruit…
……sure it wasn’t my fish, but you asked about memorable fish right? And you didn’t ask if I caught them.
My first day of an Eastern Cape trip got me a 14 inch Rainbow on a nymph fishing with Roy. My last day got me a 14 inch Brown on a dry …stalked, fooled, hooked and landed with PD as my witness.
“Book-ends!” he remarked after he had congratulated me on that last fish, and I thought about that over a cup of streamside coffee off the camp stove while he went fishing.
There was a fish of some 13 inches on the Bushmans right towards the death, that was special. Several fly changes, lots of stalking and creeping about, and eventually I fooled him, alone, and without witnesses. The solitude of a good fish on an empty river with no one to ‘high-five’ you is, I think, a healthy thing.
But the fish that had my eyes swirling in the same way that Kaa the snake was able to dazzle Mowgli, was that Umgeni fish at ‘The Black Hole’ . Like PD’s one on the Sterk, I didn’t catch it. Unlike PD’s on the Sterk, no-one caught it. I however, photographed it. Twice. I put about 10 different fly patterns over it. I spotted it feeding no less than four times, and I rose it three times, pricking it on two of those occasions.
That fish had me beaten. It is also the one thing that has me looking forward to no 37.
Now that, my friends, is surely the fish of the season!
……….My next post will be the season between the fish……………which in so many ways is larger and more significant.
I try very hard to do things right, and to do them the right way, but we all have to compromise sometimes.
Last week I fished for a sighted Trout downstream. Peril the thought!
It was rising in Bird Pool up on Furth, but it was rising against the rock shelf that you just can’t physically get downstream of. The current plunges into the pool, and runs parallel to the shelf, straight into a steep and wooded bank. So I had to use the riffled water at my feet as my screen from the trout’s vision, kneel in the shallow water on the step above where it plunges down into the pool, and deliver my delicate dry directly downstream. Of course I threw in some slack and did it all drag free.
And now best I confess another downstream misdemeanour. Quickly, before Anton spills the beans, because as he read the paragraph above I swear I heard him reaching for the keyboard , or perhaps the magaphone, to say “Tell them about the fish on the Bushmans , you Philistine!”.
It was a very big pool. VERY big. Very deep too. The water was also cold, and we were under-gunned with 3 weights. The big fish would be at the bottom, under the tongue of current coming in at the top. As far as I could see, that may have been 10 foot down, and the current was strong. I requested a stillwater outfit, which, may I point out, Anton duly provided with complicit aplomb, and not a squeak of admonition. We….OK, I, swung a deep sunk GRHE (a big one OK) right into that pool, and let it swing on the current. Big, nasty, deep………
I don’t like digging up river banks and leaving big ugly scars that are at risk of eroding. Its wrong. But I do like to arrange serious machine power to pull felled invasive trees from the river. Our machines ground up the river banks in places, but we removed dozens of tons of alien timber, rather than leave log-jambs. As a redemptive exercise I subjected myself (And my wife) to 2 mornings in miserable cold drizzly weather, scattering grass seeds on the bare scars.
The bull was another one were I was forced to bend the rules. I had been guiding a group of people up the Umgeni, showing them the river clearing and what have you, and by mid morning, repeatedly promising them that they wouldn’t have to climb through a fence again. “No more!” I told them with confidence, after I had watched several pretty ladies crawl under the barbed wire on their bellies in the dust. “From here on I PROMISE its all stiles and gates”
“and we haven’t far to go either” I added convincingly to one whose spirit was visibly flagging”
But then I come over the hill, and there is a bloody Jersey bull, standing at the gate we need to pass through. He was bellowing and pawing the ground, and his harem of cows stood meekly away from him, while he vented and snorted. I didn’t have a white horse, but I pretended. He had his ladies, and I had mine, and I wasn’t going to have mine climb through a fence. I charged at him with gusto making wild cowboy noises and waving a piece of black pipe above my head. Whooping and whistling like a madman, at full sprint and forgetting entirely that the cameraman had attached a wireless microphone to my lapel .
The bull didn’t budge. In fact he put his head down and came straight at me defiantly.
I lost the fish in bird pool, after pricking it 3 times. I caught the sixteen incher on the Bushmans.
The grass seed didn’t germinate on the Umgeni, but I promise to go back again when its really cold and do it again. I smacked the bull square between the eyes with my pathetic plastic pipe. Luckily it seemed to stop him, albeit only 2 foot from me. I retreated slowly with my heart pounding but my dignity in tact (sort of), and helped everyone through the fence.
Sometimes you just have to compromise.
As yellows enter the hillside light and long grass, as ambers of smoke and time tint the mountain view, and the season marches to old hats and penknives sharpened out of shape, so the music changes.
I got called a “redneck” this week, and rightly so. It’s all “Seasick Steve and the Level Devils”, “Trampled by Turtles”, and Ramble Tamble. The banjo rules, and when it doesn’t, its all about the sound of that big grumbling diesel motor taking me over the pass at Bottleneck. On our trip there was a roadside stipple of cosmos, and the streams were low and alluring despite their delicate disposition. Our windscreens on life were removed as they always are down there at Rhodes, and we saw long forgotten clarity and colour in everything we did. Back home the river browns were bigger than ever and we are back now and living the dream.
There is a sense of living large. The beers are bigger (“Hell this beer is HUGE!” remarked PD on a rock beside the Willow Stream. I mocked him, but he hauled yet another longtom out of his backpack and held it beside the open one. Dang!….it was bigger!). The music is louder. The coffee from “Ground” keeps getting better, and I for one am mastering the art of ignoring the overdraft. Large and reckless. Who cares when the country is going down the tubes, the rivers are full of clean water, and fly-fishing chatter fills one’s days. We have a new fly-shop in town, but I need nothing from it. It is hot and sweaty here, but there is a chance of frost in the mountains, and last night the thunder burst like an incendiary over Aleppo with no tailing reverberation. Short. Sharp. Powerful. Big and over as quickly as it started.
Its time to live in the moment and make memories. Bigger fish. More time on the water. More confidence. Smaller flies. More dry fly success. I could be a student again for a while. Perhaps it will endure into the coming winter. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps it is a season.
I don’t do tackle reviews. I am just not a hugely technical tackle junkie. Stuff feels right or it doesn’t. This level of analytical skill is of no use when spewing out advice on a rod or line.
But I reckon I could pull it off with a fly vest or pack, because whether it feels right is everything. So here goes:
To me a fly-fishing combo vest/pack is a critical piece of kit. For the type of fishing I do, and perhaps just because I am stuck in my ways, I am not considering a sling pack, or chest pack. A full pack/vest combo is what I need and want, and it is one thing I am prepared to spend some money on, but it must last me a long time. I don’t want to spend this money more often than I have to. I need a pack to be able to carry food, rain gear, a warm layer etc. I used to fish with a pack that was, as far as I can tell, a stitch-for-stitch copy of the patagonia sweet pack vest.
I liked it.
Unfortunately it only lasted 20 years, and the manufacturer’s business didn’t last that long. It was however such a close copy of the Patagonia , and it so happens that a buddy of mine recently bought the upgraded version of the Patagonia, that I think I can can compare my new Umpqua to the Patagonia sweet pack. (a good review of that one HERE )
I have only owned the Umpqua Swiftwater for 5 months, and done just 112 hours with it on my back, so I comment here with caution. I believe you have to really know a product and have used it extensively before you can truly add value in a review of it, and I am not entirely sure that my level of usage is there yet.
That said, I can comment on various features of the Umpqua, and their usefulness for me personally.
You can watch youtube videos about this pack vest that are very valuable HERE and another review HERE. They also have one that explains the whole zerosweep concept, so I won’t repeat that. Instead I will add or build on features that have already been shown in these very helpful videos:
Firstly: the pack that was sent to me by courier here in South Africa had a manufacturing fault. When I reported that and returned it, Frontier Flyfishing in JHB, who had supplied it, were really great about it. No questions asked, they sent me a new one, and threw in a spool of rather expensive Flouro tippet for good measure. Thank you guys.
The pack is very comfortable to wear, but here are some thoughts:
The waist band is wider, more padded, and stronger than it needs to be for the size of the pack.
The pack volume is rather small for a guy like me who likes to go off for eight hours up a river valley, and take some rain gear and warm clothing as well as a hiking stove and coffee pot. The waistband could support this, but there simply isn’t enough space. Patagonia on the other hand have got it the wrong way around: a decent size pack and a feeble string of a waistband.
What I have done a few times is to take along one of those dry bags, and hang it from the outside of the pack. There are multiple attachment straps that make this easy, but it does mean you have something swinging around on the back.
The set up does however come with a bigger pack , and I have one on order. Judging by the pictures and details from Umpqua, I have a sneaky suspicion it will be too big. Fussy, aren’t I !
Umpqua do say that you can reach around the side to access the lower pouches without taking the pack off. True, but it takes some practice and as I get older I am less able to contort to reach like this.
The adjustability of the pack, in terms of shoulder strap position, tensioning of the straps that run down to the waist band and around the back, is fantastic. You can make it fit any shape imaginable, and in fact there are so many settings that I am still experimenting with what feels right. For one thing the left shoulder strap keeps slipping off my shoulder ……like the strap on the sundress of the girl at the party who is trying to look stern, but still somehow comes across as provocative…… I am sure I can fix that somehow. I think it is because the waist band takes ALL the weight, and there is nothing left for the shoulder straps to do, if you know what I mean. I do know that I don’t come back from a long day with sore shoulders like I did with the other pack, but then I haven’t been able to carry enough weight to make that a fair comparison.
The back hook for hanging your net works out a little too low for me, despite the fact that I carry a very small (read short) stream net. I found that after you put a ring plus a magnet plus the loop on the frame of the net, it just hangs too low.
So of late I have been hanging the net off the shoulder strap to lift it higher.
The back pack takes a hydration bladder. I never thought I would use one of these, but my son and his wife gave me one for Christmas a while back, and let me tell you that in our hot South African conditions, having a pack that takes one of these is now on my list of ‘must haves’.
Now to the front of the vest:
The pocket configuration is great. Inside you have mesh pockets that close tightly, and are very secure for car keys and the like. Maybe I have the pack a bit tight, but I find them a LITTLE difficult to access, so I put the seldom used items in there.
Then on the front, it has the two big long pockets either side, that you can open from top or bottom, and that have a sort of hanging basket in the top half. This is clever, and works very well indeed. I have deep soft weight, floatant, strike indicator yarn and tool all in these top sections. Fly boxes go in the bottom sections.
At the base of the front are two tippet spool elastics. These puzzle me. They have gone to great lengths to ensure that when empty, they tuck away out of sight.
That is a good thing, because I don’t use them. I don’t want my flashy spools of nylon on the outside of my vest in the hot sun. Instead I use a lanyard looped with a carabiner onto a convenient loop in the same area, and tuck the spool holder into the pockets with the fly boxes. Flouro one side, nylon the other, and with the lanyard running through the zip.
When tying tippet, I can drop the set of spools, and they dangle safely until I get time to put them in the pocket again.
On the outside of the front are a few clever features: Two soft fabric pockets. These are made of a sort of clingy material, so I keep my sun gloves on one side, and a camera/sunglasses cleaning cloth on the other. They kind of cling in there, and even though the pocket opening is low and wide, they NEVER fall out.
I can also temporarily tuck my polarising filter in there if I take it off the front of my camera.
Then there are the ports for nippers on retractable devices….they slide away out of the way. Fantastic! (But it did take a bit of fiddling to find the right zinger, with short enough loops and connectors to make the distance from the zinger to the nipper short enough).
There are 4 ports like this. I only use one. I cant think what I would need to put in the others.
Then there are the clever ports for your forceps. This is really smart. I had to buy new ones, as my old ones were way too short, but with the new ones they just peek out perfectly.
Fly patches. The vest comes with one. It is made of dense rubber type material that holds a barbless hook exceptionally well. Don’t put a barbed hook in there, whatever you do, it rips it up badly, but a barbless one, it holds onto beautifully…I haven’t lost a fly.
The store persuaded me to buy another Umpqua product that would house my barbed hooks. A flat panel with slots and a magnetic surface. The product integrates with the pack in that the tab ends of it tuck way, but I don’t recommend it. The slots in the material are longer than its density can support and your flies fall out of the slots. The magnet is also weaker than others I have, and I have lost flies from there too. Furthermore the magnetic piece is bright white. I tried colouring it with a permanent marker, but it seems I can’t keep within the lines, and it didn’t darken it enough.
I have resorted to my C & F patch, which works much better, although it does sort of detract from the whole ‘zero sweep’ aspect of the set up.
And speaking of the zero sweep. While it is talked about in the videos, it might not be clear what they mean about the special zippers. A normal zip has a little slot in it. Most flyfishers will have had their tippet pass through this slot at some time, and will know what a frustration it is. Here is where Umpqua have done something tiny that is so significant and important. The little “bridge” on the zipper train has no open slot!
This is very worthwhile.
PD and I were fishing the other day, and he had on his Patagonia sweetpack. I eyed it again, especially when I had to ask him to carry my sandwiches. He is able to fit more fly boxes than me, but that doesn’t bother me much as I have taken to travelling lighter these days. But I did notice that when we crossed the river in a spot that was too deep, and both our packs were immersed, his stuff stayed dry…mine was sopping.
But then I have always carried my car keys in a waterproof container that I also secure with a lanyard, because you really can’t afford to lose car keys or get them wet, now that these things are electronic..
I really like the Patagonia, and it was a tough choice, but I have to say that I don’t have buyer’s remorse. The Umpqua Swiftwater ZS is a great piece of kit. It is expensive for us here in SA with our weak Rand, make no mistake, but looking at the quality of the thing, I am quietly confident I will get it to 30 years.
A quick calculation tells me that this means it will be the last vest/pack that I ever buy.
It was during a Rhodes trip a few years ago, that I learnt of the death of Tim Wright.
Tim was an outdoorsman, an educator, and a gentleman. He was also a flyfisherman. I had the good fortune of benefitting from the fact that he taught and mentored both of my sons at junior school.
Tim was one of those guys, like my old friend Win Whitear, who punished schoolboys with what modern rules might decree as “cruel and unusual punishment”….(things like making them carry a rock, for rocking on their chair, or famously once throwing all a boy’s books out the window in the rain for some or other misdemeanor)…..and got away with it because the boys respected him so much.
He fed boys yellow Smarties ,from a tub labeled by his friend the pharmacist, as “homesick pills” , while on bush camps. Bush camps that he arranged and lead without profit, during his well earned school holidays. It was after a return from such a camp that he acknowledged me with a fleeting nod and a single sentence indicating that my boy was an accomplished outdoorsman. That eye contact, and brief appreciative nod, live with me as clearly as the lump in my throat that I felt all day on the upper Riflespruit on the day following his death.
On that day, and I remember it well, I was fishing with my friend Rhett. Rhett who I have no doubt would acknowledge the influence of his teacher, Pike. Pike hadn’t joined us that day. His legs were mountain weary, and I do believe he was in the pub while we did the Riflespruit. In Pike’s defence, he had brought Rhett along on the trip when he was a schoolboy, and I reckon he needed to be in the pub. On that trip we also had along some guys touching an undeclared age somewhere over 60. They were a little worried about the social dynamics of a schoolboy on our fishing trip.
Pike defended the judgment call, citing an assurance that Rhett would bring them beers and coffee. Rhett didn’t disappoint. Pike’s mentorship and judgment was as solid then as it is now.
Rhett now has children of his own, and he is coming along on our trip next month. Rhett had to eak out the money for the trip because he has school fees to pay. School fees which would have won over the fishing trip if it had come to that, because Rhett knows the value of a good school teacher.
In flyfishing circles in these parts, I reckon the value of a good school teacher is known. Countless fishermen have related to me how Win was such a great influence to them in their school years. The same Win who one year sat in my boat with a fly rod and a creased brow beneath his beanie and listened intently to one or other parenting problem. It is a good listener who says nothing until you have got it all out, and then delivers a few well considered sentences at the end of it all. Sentences that proved correct and apt and comforting to a parent sitting on an ice cold lake with a fly rod in his hand.
The other day I got a call from Murray. He wanted to clarify the identity of a man named “Pike”, who had taught his friend years back, and had introduced him to flyfishing. The friend wanted to look Pike up, acknowledge him, and thank him for getting him started with a ‘the fly’. The fact that he wanted to do that speaks volumes about his character, and also, might I suggest, the mentorship he received somewhere in his youth too.
It was indeed the same “Pike” . The same one who, when we are about to head out fishing, holds us back, chatting at the roadside to a farmer about his children, their schools and their progress. He does so with an intense interest, care, and attentiveness. It is no surprise that the farmers remember him. I am just the one with the strung up fly rod pacing a few yards away.
Pike once arrived on just such a trip as the aforementioned Rhodes trip, having taken a group of schoolboys fishing in East Griqualand. He related this story:
On a particularly slow day, he had elected to take an afternoon snooze in the vehicle while the boys fished a little way off. One youngster…a little guy called Leo who couldn’t open gates, and forgot a lot of stuff at home, and needed a lot of looking after …declared that he would stay back with Sir in the vehicle, out of the wind. He fidgeted. Pike tried to sleep. Leo then found a cable tie and asked Pike if he could place it on his wrist as a bangle.
“Not such a good idea” said Pike.
“Just loosely Sir” said Leo.
“don’t pull it tight now Leo! ” said Pike.
Pike dozed for a while…….
Then there was a high pitched “Sir!” from Leo.
You guessed it!
Pike has taken countless schoolboys fishing over the years. He says he is going to write a book called “looking after Leo, and other stories”
I sure hope he does.
It was a very disappointed thief who broke down my patio door in the middle of the night with an axe, in search of a flat screen TV.
All he got was an angry Great Dane and a sea of books. I only wish we had managed to give him some fast flying lead too….the bastard!
But let me put the angry thoughts of retribution aside for a moment and focus on his disappointment, and my delight: Books.
I hadn’t realised it, but books, and more specifically flyfishing books, have been in my blood for a long time. I remembered this favourite from my school days:
And I remembered my delight at being mentioned in one of Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles, when I was just a schoolboy, that later became part of his first book: “My way with a Trout”.
I remember taking fly-fishing books out of the school library …the same titles, repeatedly: “Where the bright waters meet”, by Harry Plunkett-Green, and titles by Skues and Sawyer.
And looking at my own collection now, I realise that it has swelled somewhat over the years.
And I think how I relish the titles by Middleton and Duncan, and Grzelewski and Rosenbauer and Engle, and Gierach, and French, and Traver, and Leeson, and where do I stop……. I have read them all, many several times.
“Where do you get the time!” proclaimed a friend the other day. He wasn’t expecting an answer, but I gave him one anyway: “I don’t own a TV” I said. And I realise now that while the man in the dark of night who threatened to shoot our dog spoke impeccable English, it can’t have been Graeme, because he knows I don’t own a flatscreen. (One step closer to catching the thief, you might say.)
My wife and I were out to breakfast one day, and I had parked the car out front of the restaurant. I was about to lock the car when Petro pointed out that I had left something of value in full view. I re-opened the door and hid whatever it was under the floor mat. Then she opened her door and together we hid a few more items….you know, used handkerchiefs, toothpicks, that sort of thing. The sort of thing that people break car windows for. Then our eyes moved simultaneously to the back seat where I had a stack of secondhand fly-fishing books that I had just collected from the post office. We looked at them and then at one another and fell into laughter.
Later over coffee we discussed which country we might emigrate to, if ever we did that, and we decided that we would choose a country where one’s fly-fishing books were at risk of being stolen.
I have had the privilege and the satisfaction over the last three years or so, to work alongside some seriously committed fly-fishing conservationists on the Umgeni River:
- Roy (whose doctor told him to get some youngsters to haul logs instead of suffering another hernia)
- Anton (who had an adverse reaction to bramble spray, but carried on anyway)
- Penny, who isn’t scared to get dirty
- Lucky and Zuma….two of the hardest working guys you will find
- Bob…who is just always there and quietly gets on with it
- Russell….who has committed diesel and machines for many, many hours and tidied up after we left.
etc, etc….I cannot name them all!
What these guys have achieved is commendable and fantastic. They have cleared kilometers of river. Stuff that was horrible to access. The landscape on this stretch of the Umgeni is completely transformed. You come over the hill and it is not recognisable. Take a look at the #BRU site for the full story.
Come and see the fish eagle’s nest; learn some history about the valley; climb over the fence stiles; learn the names of the hills and farms; get some exercise; and take home the booklet I am busy producing all about the Umgeni as a trout fishery. I will show you the honey holes, and show you how I fish them.
Someone will collect us at the end and bring us back to our cars.
Fishermen, if you are from out of the province and are here to attend the main evening event (mentioned below), and you want to be off somewhere sampling the stillwater fishing: here is something for your wife and kids to do instead of shopping in a mall.
We will be back at Il Postino in time for a superb lunchtime Pizza.
..….and if you are also attending the dinner that night……..
You can go home, have a snooze, get changed into your smart clothes, and come and attend this auspicious and prestigious event, that will raise the money to start #BRU2, and continue the work you will have witnessed in the morning.