” …..a light that is abstract and tender, just the right light to shield the fickle, often mysterious movements of the brown trout” Harry Midleton; The Spine of Time
This morning was cool. In the garden, I noticed that the little crocosmia “falling stars” have started to lose the brilliance with which they greet hot February days. A stroll to the rain gauge revealed yellowing leaves on a London Plane across the road, but only on the southward side of the giant tree. The gauge itself was full from the last week’s rain, and I remembered that the cicadas have been sounding for days now. I don’t recall hearing them this late, and I know that they were not active in time for the Christmas just passed. Yesterday the Diedericks Cuckoo was competing for the airwaves, and as I sit on the porch to write this, the heat of the day is presenting itself beneath a bright sun. Last night friends reported over a cold beer that they had measured water temperatures of 22 degrees C in recent days. These are signs of mid-summer. But as we chatted we agreed that signs of autumn were suddenly getting difficult to ignore.
On Thursday the Inzinga river was a raging torrent, and quite unfishable. The uMngeni was not quite in that category, but I judged it too fast and too coloured to warrant a visit. A friend listened to the broken English of an inhabitant of one of our upland valleys in which he was told that the river was both clean and dirty. He decided he would drive up there today to see for himself, and of course he is taking a fly rod and will send me pictures later. I told him to watch out for an apparently innocent pothole near a stream crossing which caught me off guard last week, and saw my bakkie bottom out on a hidden rock. The flooded stream had washed it out more severely than was apparent!
In the heat of the day, the riverside veld is alive with hoppers but the air temperatures up in the berg are suddenly markedly more pleasant than down in the towns. The light is somehow almost imperceptibly softer. I have a trip to the mountains coming up in just a few weeks, and I know it will be autumnal by then. The change of season is upon us, and there are Trout to be caught. I am fixing my leaders today and putting my fly tackle back in my bakkie again. I have some flies I need to tie. It is time!
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.
It is winter now.
Easter time, or more specifically late March through all of April, is a magical time for us trout fly-fisherman here on the eastern seaboard of South Africa.
We have just come out of the stifling heat of February, which is about as “un-trouty” as you can get, and those of us with European origins are feeling ever so slightly more comfortable, no matter how African we profess to be.
Our rainy season is drawing to an end. We can still get rain at this time of year. In fact we can get rather a lot, but the wild unpredictability of our thunderstorms is abating.
A month ago, there was a not unreasonable chance that the river would turn into a raging torrent of chocolate while you were on your way there, or while you were busy fishing it. And I am not talking about Easter egg chocolate here. I am talking about mud. Mud was in January and February, and it came with water that more often than not was over twenty degrees C (68 degrees F). The weather was humid too, so that even on a cloudy day, you could feel sweaty.
There were trout to be had for sure, but all the talk was around releasing them carefully and water temperatures vs oxygenation.
Now, as the season turns, mornings have a crispness to them. Stepping into a stream in the morning is a thing that you hold your breath for. The moment that the stream clutches at your old ragged wading longs, you find yourself standing on tip toes!
The grass changes too. This part of the world is all about grass. It its natural state, and thankfully our mountain streams are largely in that state, there is barely a tree to be seen. The grass bolts and produces seed heads in late February. By late March it has taken on a yellowness. One doesn’t really notice this insidious change, but when you look at your December photographs, against the ones you took yesterday, you suddenly see it.
I don’t know that the trout feed more, or are more willing. It is hard to tell. Being a cold water fish they are supposed to be happier, so we tell ourselves that they are. In reality it is probably that we are happier, and fishing better as a result. We certainly get out more, so we catch more fish.
The light gets a little softer. It makes for great photography. The rain that falls is invariably cooler, and raingear and a change of clothes become important. In mid summer, it didn’t matter if you got drenched: you were either wet and warm or dry and warm. Now you want a jacket on the back seat.
When the sun is shining, it can hang above you in an azure blue sky all day, and you don’t have that feeling that its rays are penetrating your skin and boiling your blood beneath.
I for one feel a little safer not having to rely on an unseen layer of sunscreen alone to protect me from certain incineration! Days of sheltering in the shade at some point of the day, and returning home physically drained to swat mosquitoes all night, are thankfully gone.
Now you can walk the veld with something of a spring in your step.
It is a magical time, but it passes all too quickly. It is a time when the rivers will be at their best, and although the stillwaters will be good too, they will be good right through the winter, when the rivers are closed. So, figuring that one should make full use of this fleeting opportunity I advocate getting out there on our streams and rivers.
It is an Easter thing.
End of lent.
Good river trout are to be had.
Go get ‘em!