The other day I had the privilege of being on the river for work reasons (again). I know that it is not an infrequent occurrence, but I still consider it a privilege. Anyway, I took a break while the crew were having a lunch break, and I went for stroll. The light was brilliant, and the water was as clean as it gets. I didn’t have a pair of polarised specs, but the angle of the midday sunshine, and the east flowing stretch of river just aligned in a way that it made no difference…I could see everything! Flow was pretty decent, since we had rain all the way into early May this year. So in summary it was perfect.
At Picnic pool, I spotted a small fish come up to take something near the head, where the water rushes in. It was a small dark shape, that snatched and ran. Above that pool is a big shallow bedrock tail-out, but the run gets deep on the south side, and runs with just a bit of a ripple under overhanging grass. I saw nothing there. Surprisingly.
Above that is a piece of water that holds deep memories for me. The river runs over shallow rock, but it divides, such that there are 4 river banks in all, and they are covered in clumps of huge cascading grass tufts. Despite the shallowness of the water, and the bedrock, I have often seen, caught, and spooked fish here.
It started way back on the 18th of April 1999…… I was fishing with a pal (since departed), and we came upon fish here. I didn’t know this part of the river well back then, and after we had caught, seen and spooked several fish here, I asked “Are we at the top boundary yet”, as I peered into a tunnel of offending wattle trees upstream of us.
My colleague replied that we were very close to the end of the beat, and so we gave up for the day and headed out. I now know that he was not entirely right. There was about half a kilometre to go.
Anyway, I spotted a fish here again. I spooked it in fact, and saw it shoot away in panic.
Just above the next rapid, I was passing between two big clumps of the same riverside grass, when I saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. (Did you know that your peripheral vision is more alert to movement than your direct gaze?) I stopped to process the image my brain had received. I am often fooled by a shadow of a bird flying overhead, and I need to stop and analyse as I now did. Was it a little too quick to have been a fish? Was it moving in too straight a line? Was its path of movement strangely inconsistent with the features and obstructions of the river bed? I stared at the water as I thought these thoughts. I decided it was just a bird. But as I was about to avert my deep-thought (and doubtless unblinking) gaze, I noticed something.
It was a Trout’s eye.
Strange to find a Trout’s eye right in front of you, on a bare rock riverbed, barely a rod’s length away….
I blinked and “zoomed out” in my minds eye, and blow me down, it turns out that what I had seen was attached to a motionless fish!
It didn’t move a fin, so I guess my peripheral vision wouldn’t have picked it up. It was my blank stare that did it for me.
I had a camera with me, but the battery had gone flat, so I very carefully pulled my phone from my top pocket and switched on the video camera.
What a treasure to see, watch, video, and appreciate a decent sized brown on this water.
It is at times like this that I don’t really need a rod at all. Sometimes I can just walk; just look.
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.
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 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!
I ignored him.
“Hey Larnie” ..he tried again. And then, proceeding to the assumption that I was in fact listening he added “How menny feesh in da sea?”
He had spotted the fly casting decal on the side of my vehicle, and he abandoned his task of selling fruit at the roadside to connect with me as a fellow fisherman. I shouldn’t have been so rude, but he wasn’t reading it right. Neither was PD when he replied “60 fish…..hell I can’t remember when last I caught even 10 fish!”.
“Easy tiger” I replied. “It was 20 fish, over 3 days, and the biggest was 60 cms” I guess its easy to get the wrong end of the stick. The bull by the udders. This is what Paul Schullery reckons we have done when we interpret the term ”fine, and far off” as coined by Charles Cotton . In his book “Fly-Fishing secrets of the Ancients” he says” Cotton’s admonition had nothing to do with double hauling across the Delaware”. He explains that in Cotton’s time (over three hundred years ago), they didn’t have the fly lines of today and could really only flick and let the wind do the rest.
That made me feel better, because often all I am capable of is flicking and letting the wind do the rest. I have just been asked to teach fly casting at an event next month. Boy are they in for a surprise!
But of late I have been doing OK in the catching department, despite going with a notion of casting only so far as I can do with some measure of perfection, minus 20%, to ensure perfection a good deal of the time. And I am speaking here of stillwater fishing. Coupled with a stealthy approach, I have had some good fun. I won’t say I am catching more fish, but having a big rainbow take your fly in ankle deep water just in front of you is an experience that has a lot going for it. You will be surprised how many “feesh deh are in dat sea” ! That close in zone can be a diamond mine!
Speaking of which, I have been listening to Jonah Tolchin recently.
Some good stuff. Including this track: Diamond Mine (Spotify link)
But just in case you thought I was talking about a different type of beat: The lower beats of Reekie Lyn are looking great. Andrew Savs tells me that he and his mates were able to stroll up and fish a few spots down there that previously had to be approached on hands and knees, and with roll casts. Its not that the fish have gone blind, its just that the wattles have been felled, thanks to the efforts of a bloke named Gwamanda, and now you can stroll up to the river’s edge and scare the trout that way.
Last Sunday I couldn’t scare the fish. That is because I was obscured from their view by a layer of detritus on the water’s surface, left there by the howling gale. I was fishing a slow pool on Brigadoon…in line with Cotton’s suggestion that it is less windy there. Pfft……! My problem was that I could barely cast in the headwind. Cotton’s flicking thing wasn’t doing the trick. If I waited for a lull, and managed a cast, my little delicate nymph (another suggestion of Cotton’s) got caught in all that scum. So I did what any tactical, sophisticated fly fisherman would do. I put on a fly large enough and heavy enough that I could throw it in the wind, and it was sturdy enough in build, to break through that layer of grass seed and leaves and the like. Far off perhaps, but not so fine. When it plopped through there and started to sink, I suddenly realised that it would snag on the bottom quickly on account of it’s 12mm tungsten bead, so I did what any tactical, sophisticated fly fisherman would do, and I stripped that 1/0 Woolly Bugger back to safety as fast as I could. It wasn’t my fault that a big angry brown of 18 inches grabbed it along the way.
Graeme asked if I had any pictures. “Hell no Larnie!” I replied “It wasn’t pretty”. Besides, Cotton wasn’t pretty, and he didn’t take pictures either. (He also married his cousin……just saying….)
I love maps.
Let’s do a drill-down to my nearest Trout Stream here in South Africa:
Firstly, for those outside of South Africa…. see below:
Then, below is the detail of that purple rectangle above:
And below again: Detail of that red elipse above, showing the major Trout Streams of the KZN Midlands. (the red dots denote the source of each stream. The copper line shows a significant ridge of high ground, with altitudes in metres above sea level along it. )
Pick out the Umgeni River above, and here below is a general locality map of the area closer up, showing the zone directly above the UMGENI label in the map above:
Three detailed maps showing close ups of the colour coded areas in the above map:
Black box from the locality map above: (Furth and Brigadoon) (which also includes the red area, further expanded upon in mapo no 2 hereunder) [from “Trout on the doorstep” ]
The red box from the locality map: (Lower Brigadoon) [From “Stippled Beauties”]
The blue box from the locality map: (Chestnuts) [From Neville Nuttall’s “Life in the Country” ]
Here be Trouts indeed!
Since I am more interested in rivers than history, I have yet to establish whether the original farms “Manor Farm” and “Brigadoon” actually share a common boundary or not. I have been busy working on a river instead of pouring over old surveyor general maps, which I would also like to do, if I could just find some time. What I can tell you is that you can see one farm from the other, and that the Umgeni River flows first through Brigadoon and then Manor farm. Brigadoon being on the southern bank, and Manor Farm on the northern one. The current owner of Brigadoon is our friend Russell Watson (who also happens to be South Africa’s most capped international polo player). And the owners of Manor Farm for many years have been the McKenzie family, that being the same family of the famous General Duncan Mckenzie. And it so happens that Russell is related (by marriage of his elder brother to the grand daughter of the brother of General Duncan Mckenzie), to the owners of the farm across and down from him.(‘”) Russell hails from farms in the Underberg district, including Seaforth (which happens also to be on a good trout stream), which was the family farm of the same MKenzie family into which his Brother married. Had my plans not gone pear shaped I would ,ironically, have been on the Umgeni at Brigadoon and five days later on the river at Seaforth. It could be seen as a migration in reverse of that of the bloodline, but only if you apply a lot of license, and as much imagination.
Lower Brigadoon, looking towards Manor farm
This interconnectedness and irony repeats itself everywhere. Take General Duncan McKenzie for example. He , among other things, built the road from Dargle to Fort Nottingham. With a bit of imagination you could say he built the road to Lions Bush, the farm of Peter Brown, since it is along that way. And then the politicians of the day go and re-name the Maritzburg freeway offramp to “Peter Brown offramp”, it having previously been named after none other than the man who built the road to Peter Brown’s farm: Duncan McKenzie.
I didn’t say I had no interest in history: as you can see I love to roll around the connectedness of things through history. In the same way I like to roll around the connectedness of things in nature, and perhaps science too. I also have an interest in that river that runs through the farms of Watson and McKenzie, as many of you will know. We cleared some more wattle trees from that river two weeks ago. While we were doing that I noted that a particular tributary was flowing quite strongly, despite the recent drought. It joins the main river at a spot where I have caught Brown Trout before, and I wonder if the feeder stream is not perhaps cooler than the main river.
The small stream enters from the left , joining the main river in the dead centre of this picture.
Or maybe it has some favourable chemistry, the complexity of which we may never be able to measure or understand. Then again that side stream runs in a very tight kloof on Furth Farm. A kloof that will undoubtedly stay shaded much of the time due to the topography it enjoys. Unfortunately though, I noticed that the same deep kloof has, like the main river, become infested with wattle trees.
I would like to rid that tributary of those wattles, because it would improve the water flows further, but it gets me thinking: Do we just chop them down and let the trunks lie where they fall and rot there, or do we poison them standing. Either way, the wattle stems, with their tannins, and whatever other chemistry they may introduce to the system, will remain part of it for many years to come. So perhaps they need to be cut, cross-cut and removed. That will have to be done by hand, as no tractor will get in there. So it would be a monster task, and it would be a whole lot easier just to drop them where they stand. Or poison them. But what might the effect of that be on the water that runs through the farm that the daughter of my great grandson might buy one day? The effect that would be, of either the poison, or the rotting wattle trunks.
And that gets me thinking in turn: we are removing lots of shade from the river that should, by reasonable deduction, cause the water to warm up. Pre global warming (if indeed you believe in global warming), and pre wattle trees, the Trout thrived. So the clear-felled river should be fine right? Or have the invasive wattles cooled a river that would otherwise have become non-viable for Trout. Or were the natural forests bigger back then, and so the water not as warm as we might make it now. Perhaps we might need to plant some indigenous trees on the forest fringes to enlarge those forests again. Does anyone have very old photos of the pockets of forest, or do they appear on old surveyor general maps? Maybe we need to find time and go pour over those old maps after all, lest we poison our great grandchildren. Or at least dash their chances of quality Trout fishing on the Umgeni.
(Heck! In which case we had might as well poison them and be done with it.)
(yes, I refer to the great Grandchildren…not the Trout or the wattles)
‘* my information was gleaned from a book entitled “The first 100 years of the Underberg Himeville district”