“Turn onto the bunny”. These are the cruel words I was reminded of, as Ray and I strained into the rearview mirror to see if the rabbit had missed the wheels as it dashed in front of us on our route back from the pub to our abode on the Bell River. The words had been emitted by none other than “Matilda”, the ice-queen who delivers driving instructions from within the GPS. She had been directing me to the River Test in Hampshire, where I was to meet with the keeper. I didn’t think she would lower herself to delivering doom to small innocent bundles of fly tying material.
As we contemplated the fate of the rabbit we had just passed over, we agreed that Jan would have had us stop, and would have subjected us to carrying the carcass around until he could find a pinning board, tacks and salt. But we were tired from a long day on the river, and mercy was not in our plan. We were not going to stop for the bunny.
We had walked our socks off, and we had doubled down on fine pizza, washed down with cold beer, with an enthusiasm akin to that with which the trout had been smashing our hoppers on the Riflespruit.
Those Trout displayed no mercy. Doctor Harry had passed by behind me, and then from the high bank ahead he directed me to a crack in the rock: a shelf over which the water flowed, and which would surely harbour Trout. He wasn’t wrong. The Rainbows were lined up there like troops, and they clobbered the hopper with gusto each time it drifted over the lip. I would immediately angle the rod low, to draw the thrashing fish downstream, away from the lie, so that I could fool another on the next delivery.
I landed 6 fish from the spot. Each one came up as innocently as an ignorant traveller turning onto a small country lane. They smoked the hopper and I landed them with impunity.
But as the cock crowed in the dawn, the tables would turn. A day or two later I missed fish after fish in a pool on the upper Bokspruit. Thinking back on it now, the fish lost in that particular pool, numbered precisely six. One brut snapped me off after a spirited fight. The others just didn’t connect to the hopper. My mates standing behind me, taking videos, were swooning and swearing and ultimately taking pity on me for my bad luck. They offered me the best pools thereafter, as if to give me opportunities at redemption.
It just got worse…I missed even more fish as the afternoon wore on. The situation was one bereft of all mercy. I felt like a run-over rabbit. If truth be told, I still feel that way. I have unfinished business on the upper Bok. In my dreams, I see the neb of a rainbow pop out of the jumbled current to suck down my hopper, as if in slow motion. Others cruise into the air and turn on their sides to land with a raucous splash. It is unclear if they take the hopper on the way up, or the way down, but either way, they smash it with a cruelty that seems unnecessary. As unnecessary as a flyfisher hauling in his quarry to photograph its spots before sending it back, panting and shocked like a rabbit that just missed a wheel.
Things are not as they seem. “The Bunny” was a small country lane leading to a bridge over the river, where swans pirouetted in the current and Trout swam.
My colleagues had said that my GPS wouldn’t find it, and they gave me a photocopy of the ordinance map. As it turned out the Ice Queen knew exactly where the bunny was, just like Dr Harry knew there would be Trout in that seam. The Trout which engulfed bits of bunny fur used to represent the thorax of that hopper. That hopper that didn’t work on the merciless, beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit.
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.
My mind is a whirl of flaming Lombardy poplars, water clear and cool; of shafts of sunlight cutting across the mountains and igniting the yellowing veld.
Whisky from the bottle cap, ice on boots, and rocks on two wheel tracks. Rods, flies, cussing, jokes and dust.
Cold wet socks.
Nuts, mussels and biltong from the backpack.
The Birkhall porch: swirls of light and clinking glasses in the night. Tobacco smoke and fishing plans. Roads: ever curling , descending, rising, twisting and demanding another gear.
The veld: whisked and brushed by wind, seed-heads bowing and bucking, in browns and pale sun-washed ambers.
Footfalls: plodding and tired in wet boots, stumbling on stones, sliding into the water, jarring knees, and pushing aside ever resisting swathes of grass and current.
Fatigue. Freedom. Beer. Faces of true friends ignited in the day’s sunlight, smiling, jovial and a little reddened. Steaming plates of hot food. Coffee. Sleep. Tea. Frost. sunlight and wind.
Punching fly-casts. Fish, fleeting, fleeing, watery and dreamlike. Sheep paths. Tippet and gink. Wet poplar leaves. Tongues of current and water spreading over pale gravel and stone.
Drifts, flicks, drag, and lightning takes. Sleep, drive, walk, fish, walk, drive, drink, eat, sleep.
In the summer months, I often have occasion to fish some tiny streams. I really enjoy those waters. Delicate strands of water, in which any trout that you do succeed in catching, is a miracle of nature.
Delicate strands of water
Sure, the words “miracle of nature” are over-used, cliched, and bordering on corny, but consider this:
We have just come through a spring drought, both in KZN, and the NE Cape. You just have to drive through the Kamberg valley, as I did yesterday, to see that despite all the green grass, the dams are still not full. That would have a little less to do with how much rain we have had in the last few weeks, and a lot more to do with what happened from August to November. We are prone to dry spring seasons here, and this year was one of them. To top that, it came after a winter in which we did not receive our customary inch of rain (together with snow on the berg) in July.
So if we can still see that in the level of the dams, especially the ones from which the farmers irrigated, then try to picture the little stream you fished this week, two months ago. With that mental image, try to picture a trout living in there.
I remember one unseasonably dry December, Petro and I hiked up a small side-stream on the Bokspruit that Ben Vosloo had directed us to. Ben’s instructions had been clear, so there was no doubt that we were on the correct stream, but I stared at the trickle in disbelief.
My disbelief deepened, when a hundred yards further we saw trout. We could not have missed them. The poor creatures were lying in solid rock basins worn by the river over many centuries of better flow. When I say “basins”, picture the basin you shave over. They were almost as small, and they didn’t have as much cover . Your basin has the arm of the tap over it, these had no such luxury. When the fish spotted us, all they could do to save themselves, was to zoom around that pool at the greatest speed they could manage. Consider for a moment, that their only food was delivered to them down a tiny trickle of water flowing over warm rock, from the basin above, where a few other trout had picked off whatever was in that water. Maybe a gust of wind might bring them a hopper. And they survived until the next rain. A miracle of nature indeed!
I for one, often under-estimate the ability of trout to survive in these extreme conditions. Such conditions are almost a certainty in a small stream, where there are no, or few, great big pools, where a trout can hunker down in a drought.
One year Basie Vosloo took a few of us up a small feeder stream on his farm. We were looking for trout, just to know if they were there. Basie stopped the F250 in the valley basin, where the nchi-chi grew thickly, there was plenty of cover, and a half reasonable volume of water.
We surveyed the stream, and while we saw nothing, we pronounced it OK for trout. Then Basie drove further, and stopped again. Together with the dogs, we picked our way to the stream, and looked again.
It was getting pretty thin right there, but Basie insisted we go further. I said nothing, but inside I was thinking that this was just a little ridiculous. Almost as if to make a point, Basie drove us twice the distance we had come. We stopped at a stream crossing, were the water trickled through a pipe, and oozed over a rock embankment. Impossible. Ridiculous. But following the enthusiastic dogs, we walked a few yards down. I hung back and let the others go ahead. I was not going to waste my time.
And then “Yup! Here’s a rainbow” came the call.
I had to see this with my own eyes. Sure enough, there it was: A miracle of nature.
What this all comes down to though, is that when fishing one of these little gems, one has to be realistic, and patient. Consider for a moment how that stream may have looked in the dead of winter. Unlike the stocked dam, the presence of trout cannot be assumed. In that context the scarcity of the trout becomes expected, and those that you do catch become wonders.
The days that you can’t find them become exercises in patience and humility. The fish that you do find, should be cause for celebration. Rest assured, that celebration at the 8 inch brown you just caught from a full rushing stream in summer, will not be understood by some of those to whom you tell of its capture.
“It was how big?” . You show them the photo.
“Lovely” they say, with just the slightest hint of condescension in their tone. You flip to the next photo to show them some more in the hopes that they will get it. You have a picture of just how small the stream was . You can put this all in perspective for them. You flip back to show them the other pictures from the drought months to bring your point home.
But they are pouring tea, and discussing the new hardware store that just opened in town.
Additional photos sent in by Tom Sutcliffe, of the feeder stream on Basie Vosloo’s farm, and some fry and paired trout in that delicate water. Thank you Tom.
Once every two years we go back to the North Eastern Cape.
It’s not often enough, I know, but we figured, when we started this thing all those years ago, that we could sell every second year to wives and family. In fact we were confident that we could ensure the event would take place if we did it seldom enough. And we were right I suppose, because we have indeed been back every second year like clockwork.
Some time back, I fished the Trout Bungalow section of the Mooi River with a good friend of mine. It was a magical April day. We arrived late morning, perhaps a little too late, as I like to be on the water by about 10:00 am at the very latest. We tackled up quickly and headed upstream to do battle.
I carried a particular air about me that day. It was an air of curiosity and comparison. An introspective sense of evaluation, and an acute appreciation of the nature of this river. The reason for this is that the outing was hot on the heals of a visit to Rhodes in the North Eastern Cape.
Now those rivers are unquestionably different. We had done well at Rhodes, and refined our skills a little more. We had adapted to those rivers and moulded our approach around them, and here I was back on home water. Now I was asking myself whether I would fish this river as I had at Rhodes, and if not, why not.
The first observation was that Guy and I remarked on the clarity of the water on the Mooi. It was full, and sparkling, and looking great. However it was not a patch on the clarity of the Bell or the Bokspruit.
Clear water on the Bokspruit at Welgemoed. (Can you spot the Trout?)
As river fishermen, we inevitably do a fair amount of clambering up and down steep hills.
Sometimes it is the walk in on a goat track.
Paul De Wet and Rhett Quinn heading up the Riflespruit valley
At other times it is just part of making your way up and down a river valley.
Roy Ward looking for good footing in a river valley in KZN
Either way a certain quota of sure footedness is an asset, as is a reasonable degree of fitness.