“So what I am suggesting here is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”. Jerry Kustich
I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts.
Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example: He drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.
I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back and did little better than get caught in a storm. In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.
On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley. On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.
And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.
On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle. It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low. On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.
On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.
On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award. Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming. The river was low, and it was hot. I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.
At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.
Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining! Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl. Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing. He reckons its perfect every time.
But here’s the thing: I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for a receipt. He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.
And to add to that, this month, I learned the local name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.
And at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside. Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).
Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)
Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures. Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.
I vote for messy.
“But every angler who experiences bad fishing fears, above all else, that he’s the only one who’s experiencing it” Ted Leeson, Inventing Montana 2009.
When we were under the shadow of magnificent Ha Ha Lamolapo; when we were camped where the rushing water of Angel falls filled our ears at night; when we were spooking an 18 inch brown in the pool at Rooiwal in the driving rain; at all those times, we didn’t feel hard done by. We may have felt a bit bleak when the brown James swore was 30 inches long, would not open its mouth. I did swear just a little when a large brown spat out my Chief Nymph as soon as I tensioned into it up there between “Spooky Wagons” and “Opportunity Lost”. And we did set out on our last day on the river with a mild underlying sense of “now or never boys!”. But on the whole we were blissfully happy to be blanking up there in the mountains on our big trip.
The trouble started when we returned.
One friend knew the score before our drive home was over. He hastened to tell the others.
“You what!” friends said incredulously when we reported the tally. Sometimes before. They were not asking. Just damning us to eternal condemnation, at a place visible only down there off the end of their noses. A place where us lesser mortals wallow in the pity that comes with going to a fabled location and duffing it completely.
Then someone caught a 24 inch brown in our local water just up the road. I recognised the pool from the rocks in the background in the picture. It was 3 days after our return.
I landed a brown of 21 inches less than five months ago in a pool a couple of hundred yards above that spot. It happened on a day when I was not imbued with confidence. I just drove down to the river for a few throws on that hot humid afternoon, because it seemed wrong not to. I strolled upstream a distance shorter than a roll cast and caught my Trout, plus two other good ones, and then I drove home again.
Our big trip, on the other hand, involved 18 hours of driving, 70kms of hiking, and a whole lot more conquering, endurance, effort and most importantly, joy.
Joy in the wildness, the remoteness, the connectedness, the experience of it all. The big trip, and opportunity lost are joyfully etched in my memory forever.
Just as music is all about the spaces between the notes, and how you can judge the authenticity of a friend who fails to say or do something, so there is much to learn from when you don’t catch fish.
Longest silence, and all that stuff. It’s therapeutic. It’s not about the fish.
I recently spent a day on the Mooi, when the wind blew so damned hard that when I got to Krantz pool, I swear the water was occasionally piling up in a great big bulge in the middle of the stream before flattening out again in a big noisy flopping motion, that had me feeling nervous about hippos. And at scissors run, a gust actually blew my line off the surface of the water into a pile of sticks. I didn’t see a fish all day.
Then before the season opened I went off to a stillwater on my own. I sort of snuck out there without telling my fishing buddies, on the strength of an illogical hunch I had that there would be big fish there. I had never fished the water before. There were big fish there. Two of them. I lost them both. One snapped me up when I stood on the line. The other one pulled my leader out of the end of the fly line. Bloody superglue! Anton makes you drink when you get snapped off. I am avoiding him.
Then as the first storms of early November were starting to make an appearance, I went out on a day when the water was a soup of runoff…all deep green like and smacking of good fish. I threw delicate midges, and peeping caddis, and small “Gold Ribbed”. Then I chucked a big dragon on an intermediate line. Then a woolly bugger. Then a massive Minkie. I ended up with a minnow imitation that Roy had asked me whether I intended to use in the salt.
It looked so good. The others got fish. Me. Nil.
Then one year I forked out on rental of a top water with a few other guys. A top, top water. A really top water. My buddies made pigs of themselves. On my fourth trip out there I landed a stockie that might have gone thirteen inches.
The other day I was out in the mist chucking that dragon of mine all day. You know the one that you can’t go wrong on….the famous one. All day.
I came home late to find my family had picked up a stray dog. A basset. My son, with disregard to its gender, thought it looked like a dog that should be called “Kevin”. It was on heat. I went to bed.
In Thomas McGuane’s wonderful book of the same name he writes “For the ardent fisherman, progress is toward the kinds of fishing that are never productive in the sense of the blood riots of the hunting-and-fishing periodicals.”
That is a deep thought, and one that makes me feel a little better. Clearly I am progressing, because I am not catching a whole pile of fish! Of course I would like to catch some better sized fish, or a few more of them, but I will bow graciously to this “progress” that has been bestowed on me.
The truth be told, I have done a great deal of progressing in my time as a fly-fisherman. Quite aside from my current slump, I have had some steep graphed periods in which I could not complain about the size of the fish, or the mix being in favour of “stockies” as is currently the case, because I caught nothing at all.
My kids have just ended school for the short September holiday, and it reminds me of such a ten day holiday of my own. We had stocked a small dam over on the far boundary of the farm, and the fish should by then have grown to a size that they were worthy of being caught. It was however a warm year, so I fished only the early mornings. It must have been before I was riding a motorbike or driving, because I remember walking there and back every day before breakfast for ten days straight. Each morning I would see a fish or two rise, or experience some small glimmer of hope, for I returned every single day. But every day I trudged well over a kilometer back to the farmhouse, empty handed and hungry for the first meal of the day. Ten days straight, I tell you, and not so much as a nibble.
A diary entry of mine in July 1998 records that one of my pals had his 17th blank day straight!
As a university student, a few of us once took off for a week and camped at Glengarry campsite. We fanned out each day and fished various stillwaters. One or two of the guys got a fish here or there, but they were very sparse, and I remember enough to know that I caught nothing at all. My diary records that it was so cold that my toothpaste froze, and I remember it being as miserable as that. After a week of camping and blank fishing days my buddies dropped me back at the farm, where I wasted no time in calling Guy, my other fishing friend, and arranging to go and fish Aberfoyle dam the very next day. We caught nothing there either!
Aberfoyle dam was a lovely NFFC water, close to town, but the rules were such that you had to park and walk to the dam , which put many people off. We often went there and fished, and waved at the drivers of the passing trains. On one trip back in 1989, the water was dirty, and we caught nothing at all, yet again. We did however consume a few beers, the effects of which had us wondering if we could employ a trick from the old stories in which a can of milk was poured into the river in the morning to clear up the water for later in the day.
The strange thing about these slow patches, it that they cause me to want to fish more, and to fish more carefully. They serve to heighten the pleasure of the days when it does all come together. But beside all that, some of the greatest mischief, some of the best memories, and the most unusual experiences, have been had plunking around in water apparently devoid of fish.
So here’s to progress!
May it end soon.
Plain “unsuccessful” days are the ones that don’t make for good magazine stories. They are however part of the tapestry of an outdoor life. The tiny inconsequential events on those days, are some of the the building blocks of a life of fly-fishing.
It was the 28th May 2005.
The plan was to fish an exclusive private water that Guy had access to in the Mooi River valley. I was excited at the prospect. It was not often that I got a chance to fish this water, and previous invitations to fish it had always turned into those red letter days, with big strong Rainbows coming freely to the fly. Well, in my nostalgic reminiscing they did. It probably wasn’t THAT easy, but we certainly did get good fish there.
When we arrived, beyond all odds, it was filthy dirty. It was May. My diary doesn’t record what rain we had had, but by May it should have tapered off in a normal year. 2005 wasn’t normal. I only know that from the evidence of how the rest of the day turned out.
Guy and I never did dirty water. Mud and Trout don’t go together. We were always fussy about that. I still am. So muddy water always means a change of venue. No question!
After venue no 1, we decided to book an NFFC water: Prairie it was to be, and we set off. That was a drive of some twenty kilometres from where we were on the South side of the valley. If memory serves we went up the valley to Riverside, crossed over there, and came back down on the Northern side.
When we got to Prairie the light was such that we couldn’t decide what the water looked like. We inflated tubes and launched. Thirty yards off the edge, Guy and I looked at each other and shook heads. The colour was not good at all.
Time to re-think.
What if we went up into the hills where there is less cultivation? That sounded like a good idea. So we phoned Highmoor. They weren’t prepared to do a half day ticket. There was only half of the day left, and it was quite a way to drive. We ditched that plan on financial grounds.
Then Guy suggested that we just go over the ridge to Bracken Waters. I though that if the one water was dirty, that one would be too, but we were running out of options, and at least it was close by.
We phoned and changed the booking, and we were on our way.
Just behind the Kamberg store, the ground looked really marshy. The recent rain hadn’t helped. We carried on a short distance, and the vehicle started to spin in the deep muddy tracks. Guy managed to steer it into a set of shallower ones, and we forged ahead, sliding and slithering, until the vehicle slipped across into some really deep ones, and we were done for. Thoroughly stuck!
Fortunately I knew the owner of the store at the time, and after numerous attempts to get out, using available stones, and floor mats, we swallowed our pride and went looking for his help. I can’t quite remember why, but for some practical reason he pulled us out in a forward direction. This meant that we would have to turn around, and go back through the same muddy patch again. After studying the water, and finding it as muddy as I had feared, we ventured back. I drove. I gunned it, reckoning that momentum would be our only ally. It was spectacular, and successful.
We stopped after the bad patch, and poured a mug of coffee from a flask, sitting there in the cab wondering what next.
After much deliberation we settled on Granchester. Off we went, a further 10 km or so down the road. Granchester was in wonderful nick. Clean as a whistle.
We tackled up, and fished for the next hour and a half. That was all we got in before dark fell. There were midges hatching, but no head and tail rises, just a few deep swirls. We failed to crack the code. Guy got a small stock fish. I got nothing.
All I can say is that it still beat a day in an office. That’s fly-fishing!