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.
It is a term my fishing buddies and I have adopted over the years. It refers specifically to Brown Trout, and it is an attempt to describe their behaviour when they are prevalent, on the feed, and generally visible to the observant flyfisher.
Browns, as we all know, are fickle things. They have a habit of disappearing, both in stillwater and in streams. Their apparent disappearance is a very common cause of comments about inadequate stocking, or the catastrophic effects of a drought, or deep suspicions and conspiracy theories about sinister fish-kills.
I too have fallen for their tricks and have contributed to those theories and creased brow comments of failure and doom.
But after you have given up hope, and have phoned the hatchery for quotes, or scoured the country for ever more hard to find stocks of Brown Trout fingerlings, do yourself a favour and go try the stream a few more times.
Pick a grey drizzly day if you can, but if you don’t get one of those, go anyway.
And maybe. Just maybe. You will be blessed with a day when the Browns are “On the prod”.
On those rare and beautiful days, if (and only if) you are an observant angler, you will see some crazy stuff!
Firstly, you will spook fish. They will shoot out from under your feet in the most crazy of places. They will be in stagnant mucky looking backwaters, and in holes under your feet. They will be lying in the shadow of a crack in a rock, no wider than you could have cut with a bread knife. Some might just be right out in the open on a pale streambed, so obvious that you can stop and photograph them.
Just the other day, I was walking up the Mooi just ahead of my colleague, peering into the water, when a small Brown shot down the shallow run towards me, raced off across the river to snaffle something, and returned to a feeding lie right in front of me. I lifted the camera very slowly to my eye and took this photo of him:
At times like this, I don’t even need to cast to them. Watching them is enthralling in itself. Malcolm Draper referred to the term “existence value” the other night in the pub. They have a value because they exist, and we can watch them. I like that.
On another day I was again walking ahead while another fishing buddy was below me fishing a “pearler” of a pool that I had deliberately skipped and put him onto. I was on the thin and less obvious water upstream of that, and it seemed a bit hopeless. It was a bright, clear day, and the stream was flowing low and clean over sheets of almost unbroken sheet rock. I was on a high bank, with the fly stuck in the keeper, and my mind more on observation than fishing in the traditional sense. Suddenly, from under a tuft of grass at my feet, out shot a fish of around 14 inches!
Where was I……..The other thing that will undoubtedly happen when they are on the prod, is that you will lift your fly from the water, and a fish will chase it right to your feet, and your reactions will have been too slow to stop the lift in time to let him catch the fly. You have had that happen to you, haven’t you!
You will miss fish too. They will just fall off the fly for no apparent reason, barbed or barbless hook….it is immaterial. You will have struck gently but firmly, and you will have kept even pressure, and your hook will have been a sharp one too. It will happen. Frustrating!
The other thing that will happen when the Browns are “on the prod”, (with a bit of luck), is that you will catch some.
The above fish pictures are just a random sample of fish caught on the Mooi (the dreadfully drought ravaged, “where have all the fish gone”, “we are going to have to re-seed it” Mooi), and were all caught during the month of October.
Yes. This month. October 2016.
The Browns have been “on the prod” !
…..and on public and club water……..
“Opening Day – 1 September 1990”
After a winter of repeated tackle cleaning, fly tying and general pent-up abstinence, fly fishermen, myself included, seldom miss an opening day of the season.
It was the first day of spring and we were to have the privilege of fishing a small stretch of the upper Umgeni River. The old Merc bumped, lurched and scraped its belly down the stony track towards the farm “Knowhere”, with its large house overlooking the bend in the long pool and the downstream flats along the southern bank of the river dotted with grazing sheep. We parked by the side of the track near the top of the hill, briefly admiring the idyllic setting below us, then opted to walk the last few hundred metres to the farmhouse rather than risk doing serious damage to the underside of the car.
After exchanging courtesies with the friendly landowner and fending off three large, overenthusiastic farm dogs, we were at last free to stroll down to the river bank to see what condition the water was in following some early spring rain two days before. The river level had risen and, while slightly off colour, was just clean enough so one could see the fly in the water and just discoloured and turbulent enough to allow fishing from the high banks without being spotted by the wily browns that live in this stretch of river.
I rigged up a five-weight outfit for my girlfriend Jacqui and a three-weight for myself. The leaders were topped with small, bright orange foam strike indicators and the light tippets finished off with a freshly tied “Peacock Woolly Worm” on the five-weight, and the three-weight with my favourite “Wezani” nymph. The Wezani is a somewhat simple, but very effective, olive green and black seal’s fur nymph that Paul de Wet and I had developed and refined on several trips to the forested streams above Weza in southern Natal. The Wezani is best tied well weighted with wine bottle lead, or with plumber’s lead if you don’t drink wine. These flies seem to improve after catching a couple of fish when they become more tattered around the thorax.
Within the first hour or two of the morning’s fishing I caught and released a number of small, feisty browns around half to three-quarters of a pound. They were typical ‘geni browns – beautifully coloured and healthy. The fish were eager and hungry after the long winter but, as usual, tricky and evasive.
Approaching midday, I wandered over to the high bank from which Jacqui had been casting to hear that she had just hooked and lost her first ever brown trout. She appeared to be taking it quite well and wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have been. I sensed that I would only be getting in her way and that any offers of consolation or tuition would not likely be welcomed, so I continued a short distance downstream and squatted down behind a clump of bush to continue the steady rhythm of casting and drifting the nymph slow and deep along the bank.
The foam strike indicator dipped once more, but this time more decisively, and disappeared into the green depths. I lifted the rod gently and struck hard. A large, brightly speckled brown more than half a metre long flashed its long flanks, writhed and then dived to the bottom of the stream. The soft little rod bucked hard and my road arm trembled as the fish thumped and knocked against the stream bed and then dived headlong into some submerged reeds against the opposite bank. It showed itself on the surface one more time and then sounded again.
Almost half an hour later after a dogged battle interspersed with powerful runs, we beached the grand old fish into a clump of weed about a hundred metres downstream. As I reached down to slip my index finger into its gills, the small fly shot out of its mouth with an audible “ping”. I jumped into the water up to my thighs and, using both arms, scooped the exhausted monster onto the bank. With some sadness, I reluctantly administered the Coup de Grace. It was well beyond reviving after the unnecessarily long fight. I had not come prepared for fish this size.
The old cockfish was long and wiry with a large head, a pronounced rounded snout and a hooked jaw. His big, round spots were charcoal-coloured, with some bright red ones surrounded here and there by large silver rosettes. It was stunning. Measuring 57cm and weighing 3lb 15oz., it was my largest brown and by far the biggest stream fish I had ever seen, or had ever hoped to see on any trout water.
Those of you who have fished this stretch of the Umgeni River will probably agree that its landscape and the very long, slow pools around its middle section are quite unlike other classic ‘berg and midlands waterways.
Under normal water levels, this section is typically slack or at best slow-flowing and there are no riffles or fast water to impart movement and action to your fly, or to excite the downstream angler. The high banks demand a stealthy, upstream approach and the fish, while fairly plentiful, can at times be a real challenge. A good measure of patience, concentration and sharp reflexes are required as you crane your neck watching your barely moving leader, waiting and begging the strike indicator to stop and dip into the murky depths. And then you pick up the line and repeat the exercise, cast after cast.
Strike indicators are a matter of personal preference. I don’t mind them and in situations like this I like to use a small polypropylene yarn or a stick-on foam indicator at the very top of a short leader, typically 7 to 8 foot long. Just about any small nymph will do the job, but after several trips to this part of the Umgeni I can vouch for a generic Peacock Woolly Worm in sizes 10 and 12 as a confidence-boosting, backup pattern when the water is dirty, and a well weighted Wezani (or similar) nymph in sizes 12, 14 and 16 to cover various depths to structure when the water is on the clean side.
The beautiful early spring day was capped off when Jacqui eventually landed her first Umgeni brown late that afternoon after several frustrating near-misses. Around sunset, we trudged wearily but contented back up the steep hill and turned the car homeward to “sticky troutless, Durban”* (with sincere apologies to Neville Nuttall).
On the drive home, my thoughts inevitably returned to the day and it was only then that I remembered the 3lb 10oz. fish that Paul de Wet had caught on a nearby stretch of the Umgeni the year before and the apparently much larger fish that our friend Conrad Raab had lost earlier in the 1988 season. While the Umgeni is certainly better known for its browns of half a pound or sometimes up to a pound if you are lucky, 2 pounders are not unheard of and, as we now know, a trophy fish is never out of the question.
This is indeed a special and very different stretch of river and only a small part of a much larger, diverse waterway that demands our time and exploration.
Brett is an old friend, who now resides in Australia with his wife Jacqui.
Photos supplied by Andrew are more recent, but were all taken on the stretch of river in question: “Knowhere”, which is now NFFC club water.
Vir die van julle wat die Afrikaanse woorde van hierdie liedjie ken, sal julle seker met my saam stem as ek se dat dit heelwat toepaslik is.
There has been much talk over the years about the subtle variations in the colouration and spot patterns on browns from different rivers here in the KZN midlands. I too have expressed opinions or generalisations about how the fish look in this river or that. So it occurred to me to post here a sample of fish pictures from each river. In this way you can not only decide for yourself, but you can help me identify a pattern or trend, if indeed there is one. Because much as I adore the poetry in describing the special colouration of some hallowed stream’s trout, I have to confess that with the hard cold evidence in front of me, I am struggling!
So there you have it: Loch Leven strains , Von Bher (red spots), maybe some Slovenian influence, and who knows what else in between. The photos were also taken at various times of the season, and of course that will have some effect too. But can you think up a rule that will hold true, or describe a pattern that can’t be disproven with these or other pictures? Here is a table summarising what I can see in these pictures.
|silvery||no||not so much||yes|
|spots up on the head & mouth||no||no||no|
|Leopard like spot shapes||?||?||?|
Please do drop me a comment if you have any ideas, because this one has me beaten…… Some of these photos are robbed from my friends and colleagues off Facebook or the internet, and many were not taken by me. It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Thank you to any of you who unknowingly donated pictures in the name of science !
Thank you to Wayne Stegen, Peter Brigg and Graeme Steart for additional pictures received so far. Their pictures have been added to the albums. Please do keep them coming!
It started with mosquitos the night before. They had bugged me half the night, buzzing around my ears frequently but at irregular intervals. I could hear them, and I guessed at their location for the purpose of aiming my ineffectively flailing open hand.
The ants required the same open hand, but thankfully the blows were one hundred percent effective, crushing the little buggers milliseconds after they delivered a painful bite to the back of my neck. I had picked them up at a fence crossing. They must have been crawling on my back. There was this pole you see. A sort of “H” frame that kept the fence tension. It was that taught wire that was the problem. I stood on it, while I was astride the pole, and the thing I have feared for several decades might happen, happened. That is why I stayed on top of the pole long enough for the ants to climb on board. Long enough to start breathing again. Just last week I pointed out a fencing staple and a notch in the pole that could have injured PD in this way, and now it befell me.
Anton disappeared around the bend chortling. Chortling repeatedly. After he had left, I could still hear him chortling. In fairness he had showed some concern for my health at the time that the wire snapped, but now, having fed me smoked sprats and whisky for breakfast he was chortling.
Despite the ants, and despite the mosquitoes, the day had promise. I found fish rising, and I even had one on briefly, but it threw the hook. Letting the pool settle after the splashes, I went and found Anton and beckoned for him to come and catch one.
He did catch browns too. So did I. Lovely buttery little fellows.
They were willing, even if they were a little incompetent at hooking themselves at times.
By evening they were throwing themselves after caddis, but during the day they were doing more strange things like gently sipping hoppers. Go figure!
That’s browns for you.
On this same river the browns have “shown me a toffee” more times than I care to remember. That was an expression Kev used a lot. And since we and our varsity buddies had fished this stretch, back in the eighties, I had been shown a toffee here more often than is reasonable to expect. Back then though, this was glory water. Us youngsters had succeeded in getting the fishing club thrown out of here. We fished it too often, and the farmer grew tired of all the foot traffic. I can’t blame him. We were pests. You would have been too with fishing that good. A tired pest that is. Maybe Anton will become a pest. He was back there the next day, hungry for more brown trout action. I would have gone too, but there is this career thing that I have.
Back then none of us had such encumbrances. We were footloose and fancy free. Car free too, but Kev had a VW Golf. That was one smart car! We went fishing in it, and we came back late at night. In the blackness and tiredness the dashboard lighting glowed bright orange. The tape player was similarly illuminated , and it spewed forth excellent rock music that I often hadn’t heard before, but which sounded so good on that stereo. The beer was cold and the euphoria of a great day on the water, together with the loud clear music carried us home in a mild buzz. Anton’s dashboard glows the same orange, and his stereo played “Marillion” at a healthy volume. Great stuff. Cold beer too. And a euphoric buzz to boot. We had a great day on the river.
Some days will always be slow ones. There will be those days where a long week will catch up with you, and instead of heading out at 5 am, you will put your alarm on snooze, get up at 6:30, and have a decent breakfast, complete with a cappuccino. Driven as one might want to be to get out on the water, sometimes fishing days will turn out that way. The rigors of a business week will catch up with you, and your body will rebel and tell you to “chill”.
On Sunday, I obeyed. Egg, bacon, beans, toast, ended off with a good coffee and a resigned but satisfied sigh. The river would have to wait.
When we did get up to the Umgeni, it was off colour. We paused at the bridge where the tar road ends and inspected it. Unlike the slate grey of a mountain stream in spate, we got cheap weak instant coffee colour. As always, there was hope that further up it would be better.
Arriving on the farm we met Russell. “It was crystal clean yesterday” he said. There had been a storm. He didn’t get it, It happened up there. He gesticulated in the direction of the source.
We went down to the river anyway. We crawled under the electric fence and went down to the water’s edge. It was still cheap coffee coloured. Damn!
I always peer into dirty water, normally along a protruding stick or log, to try to get a sense of how far into the water I can see, and therefore what the visibility will be for the trout. This time the dark shades of a wet branch disappeared within a few centimetres. Not good. Often the Umgeni appears a little ginger beer like, but this was nothing like that. I always wonder how much muddy water a Brown Trout can tolerate through its gills in a season. There must be a red line somewhere.
We strolled down the river, looking into each pool as though we expected, against all odds, to suddenly find a clean one.
I pointed out the log jams of wattles, and explained how these and other alien trees were the major contributors to the water colour we were seeing. Not only do wattles (Acacia mearnsii) contribute tannins, which give the Umgeni its yellowy brown hue on the best days (see What makes rivers different colours), but on the worst ones like today, it is the clearfells and Allelopathy that give rise to erosion. Years of apathy have lead to widespread patches of wattle, and they are especially prevalent on the farms of absentee landlords, and in road reserves. They also predominate on farms where licensed commercial timber is grown, but where there has been scant effort to contain plantations within the approved plantation blocks. The farm opposite us that morning is one managed by a corporate poultry concern. Their lack of veld burning and the absence of cattle to devour small wattles has lead to a wasteland of weeds and increaser species (the precursors to afforestation which are associated with poor basal cover).
We walked back to the car, and drove up river, stopping at another spot higher up.
I pointed out a recent clear-fell on the hillside in the distance. The commercial timber plantation there had been felled. It is a very steep slope, and it could be argued that no timber should ever have been allowed to be planted there. But the deed is done, and now we should be looking at how to minimize the damage. When last I was up there in the clear-fell last year, I noticed that the timber trash had been laid in windrows lying straight up and down the hill. An opportunity to use that trash as a soil holding device, by laying it along the contours, had been missed. I shudder to think how many tons of topsoil this caused to wash into the Umgeni river!
The section of river we were looking at there within sight of the clear-fell was dirty too. No surprises there. The banks at that point are planted to pasture. The pasture land extends too close to the river bank, if one is to follow the law to the letter, but one has to be pragmatic about these things. The cows grazing in the field near us have devoured any small wattles. The ground is also secured by a mass of grass roots that bind it all together, and there is no sign of erosion on this well farmed commercial enterprise.
Driving further up the river we passed onto the tenement above. While it is now owned by the same farmer, its history is different. Maybe no cattle were around to eat the emerging wattles many years ago. Maybe a fenceline kept the cows from the river bank, which on the face of it is a good thing. I do know that this piece of land was not owned by a man whose elderly father was a fly-fisherman. On the farm below, where we had just been, this was the case. Derek used to run a tractor down near the river with a mower, so that his ageing dad would be able to fish it in the late summer without undue effort. Twenty years later, it shows! The farm below is relatively clear of wattle. The one we were looking at now has a ribbon of big wattles running up the river banks. They are big trees now. In my estimation the cost to remove them would run to about….let’s see: A conservative estimate: R500,000 ($50,000). That would be to remove them properly: cut, pull from the river, stack, burn, and do some follow up management. On second thoughts, my figure is way too low, and that is just for a few kms of river. There are many more kms above this farm with the same problem.
My mood turned. I became dejected. It was not because I was not getting to fish on Sunday. Sure, that was a pity, but it was bigger than that. It was about our apparent collective apathy in handling this conservation problem. The same type of apathy that had me ignore my 5 am alarm clock, is the very thing that is at play here.
In recent years I have witnessed wattle infestation high up berg rivers, and in other places, where no one has noticed, and no one is doing anything about it. In many places those trees are already large and the job of removing them seems insurmountable. In other places the trees are still small, but no one has noticed. The passage of time alone will surely multiply the extent of the problem to something beyond our grasp.
On the way out I witnessed freshly felled wattles along side streams, where a WWF initiative is underway. At other spots I saw an absolute mess where a contractor appears to have pillaged the useful timber and done a runner with the money, without finishing the tidy up job he was employed to do. It was an emotional see-saw in which I tried desperately to interpret the mixed results as an overall win. I am unsure if we are going backwards or forwards in this river valley at present.
We stopped for a beer and a pizza at il-Postino to cheer us up.
It worked. It was a relaxed Sunday, and it was pleasant to sit on the porch of what was our local trading store in my childhood. From there we pulled in at Steam Punk, a simply superb coffee shop in the most obscure of places, where I had a “Coppucino” ( a cappuccino made the Syrian way, with Cardamom, just the way I like it).
It is easy to just enjoy the beer and the coffee and forget about it all.
“..the river moves on and on ; the heart follows, willingly, always glad to be Hunter, discoverer.” Harry Middleton
We describe rivers as living beings. The concept resonates and it allows for the attachment of a personality to a thread of water in Trout country. That seems appropriate. Yet rivers, if they are to be living things, are an anomaly, because they never die. Sure, in the lowlands, some factory may dump waste and the river “dies”. But even there, look at the Thames and its tributaries now compared to how they were in the industrial revolution! When man has burned out and imploded in millennia to come, I suspect the Thames will still be there, and I suspect it will have a healthy run of salmon.
A berg stream, will in all likelihood have a an easier go of things. Up there in a steep sided kloof there is a more evident timelessness. A recent rock fall: a fresh slab of white sandstone, skidded to a halt half way down the mountain, is still fresh thirty years on. The word “recent” takes on a new timeline. We can go back up there and throw a fly as we did half a generation ago, and it is still as it was.
In a pretty run of water a small trout will be finning, as it was back then. Its presence and purpose there as meaningless and beautiful as a dazzling brushstroke on a canvas. As one can stand in an art gallery and contemplate a work of art, in order to discover its meaning, so too, one must hike into the mountains and watch that finning Brown. In so doing you will give it meaning, but you will not be able to describe it, and every man will find his own meaning. You have to go there for yourself. Years on, you will need to go back there again to place another dot on the map of life. Two points on the page set the trajectory. They point you to where you are going.
…..thirty two years later:
My photographic equipment improved in the intervening years. I aged (a bit!). My fishing improved.The farm got expropriated. The government changed. The tree grew.
And the river stayed the same.
A celebration of our upland Trout streams on video://player.vimeo.com/video/117028709
View on Youtube:
Photo taken by my son, James Fowler