Opening day. I seldom fish it. It is normally dry and lean and often still wintery, even if only in a vaguely cold and dusty way. Algae is the norm. Pools take on a sedentary look, and it is not attractive. But this year felt a little different. Winter snow and rain supposedly comes in the middle of July. I say supposedly, because I can’t remember when mother nature last stuck with that nice, neat formula. In recent years we have had no decent snow at all. Then this year, like a late gift, it arrived, accompanied by around an inch of rain just about everywhere, and it did that in the week before the Trout river season opened. So the Viking said to me that if I was serious about my stream flyfishing; if I was properly committed to the cause, then I would fish a river with him, notwithstanding the fact that it was a work day. “OK”, I said “I’m in!”, and we agreed to leave at 8 am.
We arrived on the water around 2:30 pm. What can I say: work got in the way of us both. The upside was that Dave joined us. We strolled down to the river under slightly dulled skies, but in high spirits. I will concede that there was a slight sense of occasion being out on opening day. We started in at King’s pump, and plied the slow, moody looking water there, leapfrogging upstream in a sort of loosely plaited arrangement. It all seemed rather still and lifeless, despite the decent water levels and clarity and the apparent absence of any algae. As the afternoon slid by, I confess that my concentration began to wane, and the boyish enthusiasm with which we set out was converting to a more realistic temper.
At some point, at a big bend in the pool, I lifted my rod and drew the fly from the depths near my feet, and then I jiggled it a little to see how it was swimming. It was a small Woolly Bugger. In fact I suspect it was the very same fly that I caught a lunker on in the Bushmans two seasons back: my biggest river fish ever. I lifted it and dropped it. It looked good. Kinda tadpole like. I did it again. The fish that shot out from under the grass clump at my feet to grab it took me totally by surprise! I leaned back, and probably gasped, and in so doing drew the fly out of the water. The fish turned, looking… hunting, for the fly. So I lowered it back in, and it took it. That put a smile on my face. The first fish of the season. It was a pretty little brown. I photographed it, and returned it, and I was happy.
Later I took a phone call (why did I do that!), and for a long time I stood there with my rod in one hand, fly hanging a few inches below my thumb and forefinger which grasped the tippet, saying “yes” and “um”. Dave took the opportunity and, hearing from The Viking that I had landed a fish, he cut in and fished the pool, as he was well entitled to do. When he hooked his fish, I was trying to enjoy the moment with him while remaining focused on my phone call, which had already gone on way too long. I should explain at this point that it was a video call, and that I was having a time of disguising that I was out on a Trout river with my buddy landing a trout right there beside me, ducks flying overhead, and kingfishers dashing by.
Later, as dark drew across the landscape, we stood almost side by side and fished Siesta Pool.
At some point a trout slashed at my caddis imitation at the head of the pool, and the others heard it, but I didn’t connect. Walking out through the lush ryegrass pasture in the low light, I was reminded that The Viking had earlier challenged us to a dare in which the one who didn’t catch a fish should take a plunge in the drinking trough near the gate. We were drawing near the trough, and having earlier rejected the challenge, I now suggested that we might invoke it. He was having none of it.
I tried several mates to see who wanted to join me. This one was working. That one was busy. Another had an invitation to some fancy syndicate water. It was starting to feel like a “rent a crowd” situation, so I stopped trolling my phone list and just went alone.
There was a heavy grey sky, and there were patches of mist hanging below the line of hills to the west, making them seem closer, more imposing, and somehow grander than they are in bright, tame sunshine. I tackled up, and set off along the base of the krantz, past the second pumphouse and beyond, to a willow lined section of river.
It was sullen water. The depth was difficult to determine on account of the silveriness of the day. It was all reflection, and muted surface colours of nchishi green, and mud-bank brown. I imagined it to be deep. I conjured up levels of faith in my piscatorial success which defied the apparent chances.
Then I had a take. Right there in between the logs, in the grey-green water right in front of me, and the fish swirled straight after I saw the tippet tighten. I was now wide awake. Perhaps the fish were “on the prod”.
There was no action in the big pool above that, and with the bow and arrow casts I executed through the multitude of bare willow branches covering another deep slot, were not successful. But they did prove to be “on the prod” that day. Above the drift a lively 14 inch fish took my fly with gusto, and came to the net.
Not long after, and in the same pool, a fish came out from under my own bank and smacked the same little Woolly Bugger with such aggression, it surprised me. So did the size of the fish! After tense moments in which the fish moved up and down the pool at pace, shaking its head, I lifted the net on a truly lovely trophy, and I confess, I was shaking just a little (and uttering little exclamations of pleased wonder and smug satisfaction for some time too). After a one handed photo, I slid the beautiful big cock fish back into the depths at my feet, and sat in the grass for a long moment taking in the scene, and letting things wash over me.
Just casts later, a solid 16 inch fish took the fly, and I was in heaven.
While I had been working that pool, a fish had risen at a spot just above a log jam. At first, I thought it was a duck. Then it rose again and I knew it was no duck. They were not small rises!
As I reached the spot, I resolved to have a good look at this fish; to take it slow, and to hunt this thing properly. With my earlier success, my want of fish had relaxed into a need for the ultimate sight fishing and stalking experience. I waited over twenty minutes for the fish to rise again. Then I covered it with a single cast, and not achieving a successful or pleasing drag free drift, I decided to try a different approach. The log jam above was forcing me to cast up along my bank, and let the fly drift down way off to the fish’s left side, as well as drawing the fly off the water with messy drag for fear of the fly going into the logs. Rather than risk putting the fish down with another cast that would surely be identical to the first failed attempt, I resolved to backtrack, walk around the spot in the ryegrass pasture and approach the bank from above for a quartering downstream cast.
As I approached the river again, I saw that I had been gifted with a large clump of sword grass, behind which I could crouch. I slid down there with my fly at the ready and waited. It was another twenty minutes or so, and the fish rose again. A thumping, unabashed walloping gulp of a rise, performed with impunity. It got my heart racing, but I held my composure long enough to change to a beetle imitation (because with no hatching flies evident, it could only have been a terrestrial that it took, and it was too early in the season for a hopper). The beetle drifted over the spot without result, and I retrieved the fly and line to wait for more signals. At this point, lying there in the grass behind my clump of grass, I had a chat on the phone with PD to share news of my success. Phoning people while fishing is not something I do, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary here, but I was still bubbling over with the news of my big fish, and I wanted to share it with someone who would get it. After a good while on the phone, with my rod lying beside me in the grass, another a fish moved in a different spot, and I quickly ended the call with “Gotta go!”. The fish had risen below me in a spot that I could easily reach from my previous approach. There was nothing for it…I leopard crawled out, circled back around, and presented from the earlier spot. Nothing. It occurred to me then that this was probably one of those fish that was not holding position, and that in fact the few rises might all be the same fish, moving about. He would be in a rotation about the pool. My only chance was to try spot him, and predict the path of his route, so as to drop a fly in the spot he was approaching, to avoid lining him in these glassy, silver conditions.
I returned to my clump of sword grass and sat it out. There was another rise, but I couldn’t see the fish, so I didn’t cast. I decided that the rise was sub surface, so I changed to an emerger in anticipation of the next one. I craned my neck and rotated my polarized glasses but I could not see through the silvery slick. I sat it out for more than half an hour, and during that time I relented and made one blind cast….just on the off chance that my good luck of the day would repeat itself.
When the fish rose again, it was in a different place, and this time it was definitely taking off the surface, but since I couldn’t see any insects, it must have been something small. I changed to a size 18 F-Fly, and waited. Little breezes riffled the water at times. The sprinklers in the field trilled and clicked and thrummed. Cloud patches continued to drift across the gloomy grey hills to the west. The ryegrass pasture was lush and short and pretty behind me, and the willows were all gaunt and bare and full of sticks. It was quiet. Then, after another fourty minutes a tiny miracle unfolded. A shaft of sunshine poked through the cloud and lit the water in front of me. It was like a screen being lifted. Suddenly I could see the secrets beneath the previously shiny, reflective surface. The pool was not deep at all. It was a bed of intricate, golden stones, strewn about the place, with lots of feature and lots of holding water. And there in front of me, finning away was the Trout. Exposed! Presented to me on a plate. It was beautiful. I reached for my camera, switched it over to video mode, adjusted the polarizing filter to cut the last remaining glare, zoomed the lens in and just before I raised the eyepiece, I looked at the Trout to get my aim right. As I did so, the fish swam confidently forward, and I craned around the sword grass to see it rise to something off the surface, and then it sank away and the sun disappeared and pool was silver again. The ghost was gone.
Later, the weather grew heavy, and I strolled upstream, peering into holes under the gaunt willows, and delivering the odd hopeful cast blindly into deep green lairs, pitted with raindrops.
Presently I wound in and strolled back to the bakkie. As I climbed the hill to leave the drizzle stopped, and two fish rose in the slow water behind me. I stopped and watched the ripples of their rises subside, and I smiled.
The weather forecast had predicted winds of 5 to 7 metres per second. As I drove up the Dargle road I looked at the tops of the gum trees and saw no movement. Perhaps it would be perfect, and I would be spared that nasty, hot, blustery berg wind.
I arrived at the bottom of the valley to gusts of wind, and was met by detritus on the water, and great swirling wind ripples brushing the surface of the enormous pool. I was in shirtsleeves. It was warm.
Fish number one was six inches long: a pretty little Brown showing signs of its Loch Leven heritage: tiny black pepper spots, silvery and with just a sprinkling of red splotches down towards the tail.
The next thirteen fish eluded me. Yes: Thirteen! I started to mutter and swear. Some were those little dashing takes of small fish. A sort of grab and go thing, where the lift of the rod is plainly slow and ineffective. Others were on for a few moments. Two of them came off at the rim of the outstretched net, and one was a good solid fish that lunged at the fly, just as it landed millimeters from the reeds on the far side. It thrashed on the surface as Browns often do, and then it was gone. I checked the hook. It was a long pointed, ultra-sharp, wide gaped jig hook. OK, it was barbless, but thirteen misses! I ask you, with tears in my eyes! Sure, some were downstream of me, and my strike may have been too quick to allow them to turn downstream, but I adjusted for this once I had had that thought, and some I didn’t strike at all. Since the fish were eating the fly in question with gusto, I chose not to change it. Fish number fourteen through twenty one all held, so I ended the morning on a count of seven. I think. All the counting was getting confusing. One was a fish which came up at my feet while I was watching for the fly to come into view. I saw the fish first, watched it while it turned in slow motion, and as it began to sink away, I lifted, believing it must have taken my as-yet unseen fly. I was right.
It was a strange day. The wind howled, and stopped, causing my gust-adjusted casts to slam into the river. The sun burned down, leaving my face reddened. The Trout ignored a stripped fly, and pounced on one drifted slowly with little sudden twitches. They were like kittens….excited by feigned lifelessness, interspersed with enticing wriggles, and it was a mental picture that helped me master the day’s technique. After a bite to eat, I decided I had had my fill, and I drove happily back down the valley.
The following day was windless. I illogically concluded that it would be even better than the awful berg wind. It was hot. It was slow. The water measured just shy of 15 degrees C, and it ran clear in the pretty little tributary. The other two guys were exploring upstream of me. I had pointed them to the big pool where I caught a Trout last year, and I was brimming with confidence for them. I made sure they had a camera with them and asked for pictures of the Trout when they caught it, and I wasn’t just puffing. I really meant it. I put a little North Country Spider through several runs and I leaned forward in anticipation. I had this place nailed now. I new what success looked like, and it was just a matter of time.
A little further up, I stepped onto a small island and planned my route into the pool, on the other side. I put my foot on a matt of dried bramble, and plunged four foot through it , coming to rest with my hands and elbows in the unforgiving thorns. I extracted myself painfully. It was a merciless process. Yesterday’s fall into a hole had given me a wet foot and some mud on my longs. This was different.
Plucking thorns from my skin, I regained my composure, and returned to fishing. “shaken but not stirred” I told myself.
Repeated perfect drifts were ignored. I was joined by Tim, who reported that he and Anton had not encountered anything yet. I was surprised.
We moved down to the main river, and strolled up the banks, recounting past experiences at each bend, riffle and pool we came across. Anton threw a little dry. I tried an emerger. Tim was satisfied to just walk, try to spot fish, and watch us. The water was like gin. The air was still and hot. The river-bed was strewn with sticks and the willows were thick about us. There was some algae. I clambered in, enjoying the cool water against my legs, and I threw my fly up into the willow tunnel ahead of me.
Up at Picnic Pool, Anton and I tied on heavy flies and we plied the depths of a place that is as close to a sure-thing as you get on our river.
Above picnic pool I crept to the river’s edge in several spots where I have spotted fish before, and I strained my eyes, sure that I would spot one again. Anton looked at his watch and mumbled something about the rugby game starting soon. We strolled back through the short-cropped pasture, with the birds signing in the trees, and the river sliding silently past beside us, and sweat trickling down our collars. “Where did you say you got that fish?” Anton asked doubtfully. And I smiled.
The rivers are open. Some have rushed out there, all puffed up with the ceremony of it all. Given that we fish our stillwaters all winter long, and that our rivers are only closed for three months, I find that a bit over the top, but I suppose its fun. I often don’t rush to the rivers until we have had rain, because at this time of year they can be low and slimy and not so attractive. But this year we had late snows (and accompanied by about an inch of rain in these parts), and the rivers are looking pretty damned good. So for once I did fish opening day. And then again a few days later.
We have had cool cloudy, moody weather. In other words Brown trout weather. The water surface has been all silvery and reflective, and in this video it looks green. That is an illusion…in reality it is crystal clear. Notwithstanding that I have found a few fish to be bold and hungry.
It has been fun, and I am enjoying being back on moving water.
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.
These uMngeni Browns aren’t that plentiful, or perhaps its just that they are not co-operative. Either way, I keep going back for the few that I can catch.
In recent weeks and months, my work, as well as my leisure, have taken me to a particular artery. By an artery, of course I mean a river. It also happens to be a Trout river: no surprises there.
Of course, at its upper end it is too small to be called an artery, even too small in fact, to be called a stream. Some of my exploration has taken me so high up that all I have encountered is a wet patch in the grass near KwaNovuka.
At the other end of this, I was on the phone yesterday to a man whose factory overlooks the uMngeni in Durban. And this is the artery I write of: The one that runs from Impendle vlei (at KwaNovuka), down the Poort stream, to join the uMngeni, and off down the Dargle valley and beyond, ultimately to the sea.
I am struck by the interconnectedness of this passage of water, not only in the geographical and ecological sense, but in the social sense too.
I start with Mr Z.S. Zuma, which is the formal manner in which this gentleman introduced himself last week. Zuma is dramatic, and theatrical in the delivery of his compelling rhetoric. His stutter emerges as he is about to raise his voice; about to spread his arms wider; and about to deliver his coup de grace. The words build up inside him, and a quiver appears on his lips, and you know that something portentous is about to be delivered. A clincher is on the way. Then the dam bursts, he is through his speech impediment, and his message tumbles out voluminously and with the weight of deep conviction. He ends it with a half sentence, spoken with one eyebrow lifted, and no sign of a smirk on his face, but the whole room about him erupts in appreciative laughter. And then he sits down. All of this has been in isiZulu. I turn to Hlengiwe who sits beside me and whisper “What did he say?”. She smiles, and lifts both hands to aid in her explanation, and then she gives up with a chuckle and a shaking of her head. Later, another colleague translates with cruel brevity and explains “He was trying to change the constitution”, and that is all I get. What I do know is that Zuma was discussing the ecology of the Impendle Vlei, the cultural practices of his generation and the one that went before it, and the interplay between agricultural practices and the well-being of his people.
Earlier in the week, I sat in Kath’s kitchen over a welcome cup of tea. I had just come down off the mountain, where I had been exploring the removal of a water sapping plantation.
I was unfit, and had neglected to take something to eat, so when I returned to my bakkie, I unceremoniously devoured a whole tin of bully beef, scraped from the tin with my pen knife. Now I was letting that succour absorb, and adding sweet tea to displace the shaky, light headed feeling that had had me wondering if anyone would ever find my corpse on that remote hillside if I had taken a turn for the worse. Kath’s hospitality, and the warmth of her interest in the river and the landscape around her were palpable. In an exchange that bore many similarities to that with Mr Zuma and his clan, I filled her in on the connectivity of her stream with the highlands at Kwa Novuka. She in turn filled me in on some of the history of the people in the valley, and together we wove a more complete picture than either of us had before we met. Then Stu entered, barefoot as usual, and the conversation turned to trout, as it does. He had found some precious fish just below the confluence at the end of last season.
We discussed their size. Stu expressed his appreciation for their rarity and significance that far up the stream, and I departed with a pleasing sense that things were as intact as one could hope them to be. A glimmer of positive light, shining through in the aftermath of the WWF report which stated that us humans have collapsed 84% of all fresh water species populations worldwide since 1970.
The artery that is the Poort stream, and the uMngeni river to which it adds itself, is in the sliver of habitat that still harbours the 16% that we have not yet destroyed. As this mixture of water progresses down towards the sea, it somewhere slides into the realm of the 84%. It doubtless doesn’t cross a line on a map from one reality to the next. Things are never that simple. It oozes through untold influences from one beautiful reality into the insidious, devastation of the next. My choice, cowardly as it might be, is to stick to the 16% portion, and fight to prevent it becoming a 15%. I shut out the world of leaking sewers and piles of plastic, and instead clear log jams that I hope will see an upward migrating fish get to share its genes with one of the ones Stu spotted. If Mr Zuma’s cattle get some winter feed, they may not trample any silt into the wetland at KwaNovuka. If we can arrange a mosaic of veld burning, then perhaps next year, unlike this year, we won’t see all the river banks burned at the same time over nearly 15 kms of the river’s passage. Then some of the biota that falls into the river in spring, will feed micro organisms, whose predators will fly upstream and lay their eggs above and below the cleared logjam.
I for one, don’t understand what ecological connectivity lies in that thin blue line of the Poort and its issue. What organism migrates up, and which one is swept down to feed it before it starts it’s migration. What I am starting to appreciate is the social connectedness from those like the Factory-man from down by the sea, up to Mr Zuma who overlooks the source. Between those two are Stu and Kath, and The Appleman and AJ and I. I buy trees from AJ, and maybe the Factory-man will go fishing with Stu, or buy a tree for Roy’s Pool. Perhaps I will introduce Kath to Mr Zuma, and there will be a value exchange there.
This week AJ and I clambered about in a small forest patch overlooking the river.
There under the hanging misty remnants of the cold front that blew in while I sat in Kath’s kitchen, AJ found a latifolius. (A Real Yellowwood to us English speaking mortals). He thought it might have been a henkelii, but in glancing around he saw no parent tree. So this one was seeded by a bird. Perhaps a bird that flew down from the small bush on Umgeni Poort, where Flemming, who was hit by a falling yellowwood in the mid 1800’s, lies buried. So perhaps, five to ten years after we plant the forest pioneer shrubs down at Roy’s pool this month, another bird will drop a latifolious seed there. And then a hundred years later, a giant yellowwood will shade a Trout in Roy’s pool, replacing the 15 incher that The Appleman killed last year.
(If the required bird species is still okay.) In fairness The Appleman tried not to kill the 15 incher; he didn’t punch it on the nose, as he has been known to do. And he doesn’t kill birds. (Neither do I: not knowingly anyway.) The Appleman also cut down his fair share of wattle trees, that will help ensure that the river is flowing strongly past that giant tree a hundred years from now.
The Appleman and I were on the phone last night, discussing the scarcity of fish in a stream that flows in the next valley…the one that flows behind Mr Zuma’s house, and I postulated that the degradation of that river both upstream and downstream of where we sample it, can’t have helped the situation. Fish and organisms are hemmed in: unable to seek ideal refuge upstream or downstream. That stream is just a little more in the 84% realm than in the 16%. So perhaps a Trout fisherman, hoping to preserve his beloved stream, needs to be looking down there below, in the warmth of the thornveld; and up there on the plateau, where wet grass grows.
A week earlier I threw a fly for a few hours further down the stream, at “three quarter mile pool”. The day had started off misty and drab; weather that had me sniffing the breeze and sagely declaring that it was Brown Trout time!
In fact, it was not. By the time I arrived at the river, it was blustery, and the light was brassy, filtering through a haze of warmth, garnished with the scent of spring blossoms and winter smoke in equal parts. The water was clear enough that I was grateful for the gusts of wind that served to obscure my profile from my quarry. But my deep sunk nymph repeatedly returned to me without news from the deep. My knowledge of the state of the river reassured me, that it was nothing sinister. Mr Zuma’s water was good. Kath’s water was fine. I hope their mingled product would pass that factory in Durban with just a little of that goodness intact. The goodness that harboured Stu’s special trout in the delicate headwaters in the hills above me.
To help you join some dots in the story above, I include links here:
Read about the passage of the Poort Stream HERE
Read about Roy’s Pool, and the initiative to re-forest its northern bank HERE
Read about the WWF report HERE
Read about “Three Quarter mile pool” HERE
I head out onto a local water here in search of some Browns, and meet with some success. Join me.
I spent a winter’s afternoon on a local stillwater, and share some of the tactics and the experience in this short video.
“It was one of those times that I think come to all fishermen: when we win back something of the vision of our angling boyhood, but at the same time experience it with the deeper gratitude of a grown man” Laurence Catlow, The Healing stream
I think Catlow’s comment is befitting of those times, when you land a Trout, even a very small one, and in the moments before you release it, you admire it and think “Damn I love these fish, and I love this pastime”
On the eve of our planned trip, I happened to be up on the river. Call it a bit of a “forward patrol”. It was late afternoon, and I was peering into what looked like slightly brown water, squinting against the harsh afternoon rays of the sun, that were beaming in from the west to burn my corneas. “I think it could be clear by tomorrow” I reported to The Viking, factoring in the that there were 14 hours between us and our planned trip, as well as the fact that we would be about 3kms upstream.
I was not wrong.
Our Saturday dawned bright and clear, and when we arrived at the river in the dew, it too was “bright and clear” in the way that good Trout streams are in the early morning light.
The Viking was into a fish in the first run, as was I at the pool just above him.
From there the day unfolded in a delightful haze of small Browns grabbing at the fly; rounding corners and exclaiming “Aah, gee look at that!”, and brief moments looking skyward at circling birds of prey. Sure there were brambles, and the ‘khaki bos’ and blackjacks were at the point of seeding in a spectacularly bad display of what happens when we muck with pristine valleys. But all in all, and with the nostalgic review that accompanies the memories of a good day astream, it was a brilliant outing.
The Viking fished several stretches that I had explained I was going to fish. When he caught up with me, I translated my flailing hand signals, which were meant to convey that I had already fished it, and invariably he replied “I know, but it just looked so good” .
It did look good.
All of it.
The water was not as clear as the upper Bok in winter, but you could see every pebble on the streambed, and the Trout were not scarce. They were not big either. Somehow we got much bigger fish here last year, but it really didn’t matter. At one spot I climbed into the river, and seeing a dead tree behind me, I flicked the fly out in a half hearted roll cast, so that you would have been able to reach the strike indicator with a garden rake. That dark orange indicator (my solution to silvery afternoon light) positively leapt forward and I lifted into a fish that wouldn’t quite have made twelve inches, but it was my best of the day.
The Viking’s best had come earlier. I saw him hoist the fish aloft after a whistle to alert me to his success, and I rather suspect he had wanted me to go down there and photograph it. But I had moved into a good position in such a sweet run, that I pretended not to know that, and fished on with my dry fly.
Back at the car, the Viking produced the special “Black Mist” craft beer that he had been boasting about. It was cold, and it was wet, which are two good attributes of any beer opened at the end of a long sunny day on a Trout river. But I said I could taste undertones of Bovril, and peaty water from a bog in Scotland. While The Viking was deciding whether to be offended or not, I asked if I could have the second one. As we drove home our light mood battled our tiredness, and the elevating effects of the black mist, which we agreed was an entirely different thing to The Red Mist. But we agreed that if you drank enough of one, it could lead to the other.
We also agreed that it had been a day to celebrate, and in the morning I reviewed the pictures which helped support that judgment, with satisfaction.
It was Monday 13th April 2015. PD and I were on the lower water at Kelvin Grove, having a spectacularly unsuccessful day. It was just one of those days where it didn’t come together. It was also the first day of our trip, and I suppose we hadn’t found our mojo. Later in the day a pressing wind started to blow, and a million little polar leaves would shower down into the water, meaning we would hook leaves on every cast.
We had set off with unbridled enthusiasm, and walked so far down stream, that I guess you could say that we had bitten off more than we could chew.
After a while we chucked it in, and walked a long way back to Orlando’s. There was a moment as we ascended the hill up to the cottage where our unfitness manifested itself on account of laughter trying to break through our breathlessness. My cousin related a very personal moment in which he and his siblings struggled to break open the box containing the ashes of his late father, aside a high mountain where they were to be scattered. It was not cheap laughter. It was borne on the wings of celebration of the life of a man who introduced us both to this lifelong affliction of fly fishing The laughter was also sanctified in the fact that we lost a Dad and an Uncle respectively, and had worked through that for a number of years, and now there poured forth mirth that he would have participated in joyfully had he circled back to be with us. And besides, if some small dose of punishment was justified: have you ever endured bellyaching laughter while out of breath. Its life threatening I tell you!
Upon our return we found the cottage empty, and we were instantly jealous of Anton and Roy, for they must surely have been enjoying success. In fact we spotted them in the valley below us, and we could have trotted back down that same hill to enquire and put our curiosity out of its misery. We sat on chairs on the lawn overlooking the river and drank cold beer instead. We sure as hell weren’t going to climb that hill again! Besides; we still had a lot to laugh about, and that is a safer prospect sitting in a chair.
That evening Roy grinned at his new label, given him by Anton: “The Kraai Buffalo”. It turns out that Anton had had to tap him on the shoulder, when they met on the river bank, and tell the deaf guy to stop making so much bloody noise when entering the river.
My memory of all this was jogged by this piece from that delightful book by John Inglis Hall:
“A Few years ago I met a Polish Scot or a Scottish Pole from the wartime immigration fishing here and getting nothing, only because he was a clumsy wader. He was a big man and fished well but roughly, trained probably by the violence of the Scottish winds to press, and insist on the fly hissing out at all costs. He stamped about in the water like an amphibious, legged tank, purposefully but very noisily. After we had smoked together for half an hour in the lee of a bank, resting, out of the wind, I went and took two trout from where he had just been fishing. He watched me smiling and with a decent grace in spite of the insult, then summed the matter up in a memorably peculiar phrase:
‘Ah! I, too much splash! Must make rehashmentation method of walking in water? Yes.’
He winked as we spoke, and, a huge man, demonstrated by tiptoeing absurdly along the grass in mightily exaggerated silence how quiet he must now be. I never saw him again, but I am prepared to bet that he got more fish after this incident.”
I laughed out loud at this, and my mind turned instantly to the Kraai Buffalo who would, if he could circle back, have laughed until his belly ached. I believe he made considerable “rehashmentation” after Anton’s comment. He certainly displayed a whole lot of decent grace both before and after that incident; something I have been working through for a few years now. In fact, just the other day, I went to look at work done on the banks of a beautifully restored river pool which I have named after the Kraai Buffalo himself.
It is a pool in which Roy was spectacularly unsuccessful, but him and I dreamed together about re-establishing a forest on the north bank. Roy once told me that he wished he could win the lotto so that he could buy the indigenous trees needed to get it going. Now if that isn’t decent grace! The north bank is now clear of wattle and a couple of indigenous forest fringe species are starting to flourish. The bramble on the south bank has been sprayed. Graeme and I have both caught Browns there. I have worked through things and now I am ready to go buy the trees, lotto winnings or not. Its looking great. I am excited.
Standing there alone beside the pool, I shouted into the pressing wind and to him:“Take a look at this Roy!” Shouting into the wind is something John Inglis Hall admits to in his book. It seems I am not alone, Kraai Buffalo!
Last season, I stood in the middle of a road drift across the uMngeni, and threw a fly upstream. I suppose it was not a tame road crossing. Not some concrete slab with guide railings, just a spot identified as a good one for tractor crossings, where years ago the farmer shaved the banks a bit. All the same, it felt just a little bit domestic to be standing there fishing, in the way that one feels when you stand on a jetty.
Anyway, I had seen a fish rise in a spot beside the chute at the top of the run, and I had spotted it in the water since. I put a fly over it, and got the fish. It was a slightly better size than the average…around 12 inches.
That was the 22nd March 2019. The spot where I had found it stayed with me.
Fast forward to this year. My friend and I were on the river again. When it came to dividing up who would go where, I confess, I sort of engineered it that I would get that spot again. A lie is a lie, and they stay good.
I carefully surveyed the flow, reminding myself exactly where the fish was last time, and put in a cast. The fish took the fly first cast! It rolled over clumsily as they sometimes do, and having showed itself, managed to wriggle free, despite my maintaining tension.
On the way back down to the bakkie that evening, we were crossing the river at the drift. I stopped, waited for my colleague to catch up with me, and instructed him to throw a fly “there”. I explained the location in great detail, such that there was no doubt where the dinner plate size target was.
He listened intently, and then delivered a cast right into the spot, and before you could say “predictable”, he had it. But this time too, it wriggled free.
Four days later on the 19th March 2020, I was working in the valley. Late in the afternoon, when the others had packed up and gone home, I stayed on, and rigged up a rod. I strode purposefully up to the drift, and waded into the right position. The river was up about 3 or 4 inches from a few days back, but the rock marking the target was still just protruding. I delivered a nymph 2 centimetres to the left and 13 centimetres above. The indicator shot forward and I had him.
Yes…I have checked the spots. It is a different fish.
This little fellow took a nymph in quick water on Stoneycroft farm, a place I have been hanging out at a lot lately.
“I had been wrong to think of trout as treasure, and so to think of fishing as some sort of treasure hunt. It is an analogy that does both the trout and the process of catching them an injustice, for treasure can be tawdry or vulgar or downright ugly. Treasure can be a monument to the unhappy partnership of inordinate wealth and appallingly bad taste. Treasure is often treasure merely in terms of value in dollars or pound notes. But a brown trout is neither tawdry nor vulgar nor ugly. And his beauty is in perfect taste and quite beyond price.”
Laurence Catlow, The healing stream.
A friend made a valid point the other day. It seems obvious now, but consider this:
When you fish a stillwater, there is a very good chance that for at least a portion of the day, you will stand there, or sit there in your float tube, and think about work, or some domestic trouble. Now think back to the last day you spent on a river or stream. You scrambled up banks and slid down into the water, and waded over uneven rocks, and slipped and slithered , and hiked, and focused and cast and watched the dry fly or the indicator….all day long. I wouldn’t mind betting that you came home beaten…..I mean really physically tired….and mentally refreshed. I wouldn’t mind betting that you didn’t think about the mortgage, or that idiot at work either.
(Ted Leeson describes the concept of a “vacation” , and vacating the mind in his superb book, “Inventing Montana”…its worth a read!)
Maybe you got some Browns?
If you are a stillwater fisherman…..consider the streams….. Think of it as a “vacation”.
“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed” ……..
”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him”
The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.
Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.
Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.
In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.
In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass. It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record. I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.
My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers. My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”. I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black. We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.
What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.
Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music. Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:
And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:
A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago. I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!
It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….
The donkey launched itself up onto the river bank and made its way to near the small circle of rocks that was our fireplace, where it stopped and awaited the unloading of the bundle of sehalahala from its back.
The sky was darkening somewhat more than the progression of the afternoon suggested it should, and it was cool. It would be wet, and the evening fire would be warranted, and whether or not we were high enough to source leholo or lekhapo, sehalahala is best for wet conditions. So said Martin the muleteer, and we were not about to argue with him. Martin may have forgotten to bring his mealie meal on the trip (necessitating a 26km round trip on a donkey to fetch it), but somehow I still got a sense the he was the kind of guy who would keep you alive on a fishing trip this far into the mountains, if ever it came down to that.
Martin and David were our smoke makers. They would construct a pile of sehalahala each evening that would billow white smoke for long minutes before anything else happened. They typically stood in that smoke, as though bathing themselves in it somehow had a cleansing effect. I would have coughed out my left lung, and developed vicious red rings around sore eyes. Not them. They stood there with the heavy rain wetting their balaclavas and their Basutho blankets from above, while the sehalahala burst into flames, spewing sparks, and dried them from below. I guess if you were dry above your waist then you knew your fire was stronger than the rain. If you didn’t have red eyes, you knew you were a Basutho. If you were worried about a wet blanket, then you were a foreigner. Us foreigners just knew we were cold, and we lay in the back of the kitchen shelter, while supper bubbled on the gas stove.
The day had been cold and windy, with a few rain showers. Those rain showers had sent us up onto the ridge where we sheltered, as best one can, in a ruin with no roof. We made coffee there on the camp stove. At some point it brightened enough that we should have run back down to the river to see if we could spot another big brown. Good spotting light should not go wasted. But we knew that the light would be fleeting, and our legs were sore from hiking.
We were not wrong about the light. You have to decide on these trips how much chasing you are going to do. It is not difficult to overdo it. Tomorrow was another day, and maybe; just maybe; it would be a bright day, and we would have several good hours of looking down into aquamarine pools onto pale bedrock and fine gravel, where twenty five inch browns would stand out like the white flecks in the rock all around us.
We would cast out long graceful loops and land our select few, well aimed casts exactly where they needed to go. Maybe the Trout would eat, unlike the big one yesterday. Maybe the fly would hold, unlike it did the day before.
We thought of these things as we lay there in the damp grass beneath the canvas, and watched the pot boil, and watched David and Martin in the rain making smoke. We did not think about how bedraggled we looked. We didn’t think about the comments that would meet our news of blank days. We were on a trip, and there were no mirrors up there asking us to evaluate how we were doing. That would come after our return.
For now there was just smoke and rain in that happy place in the mountains.
* Sehalahala : Erica or Erica like plants that burn when green, and are used extensively in the Lesotho highlands for making a fire. Leholo and Lekhapo are variants with slightly different fire making properties.