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
I remember several years ago, taking my [then] girlfriend to a favourite stretch of the upper Mooi in September, and finding it very low and slimy.
She must have doubted my honesty, because for months I had described to her this babbling brook of ice cold crystal water, rushing over rocks. And on a hot dry September day, it was anything but that. The water was clear, but it was undeniably sluggish, and there was a furry brownness to the underwater rocks.Water limped between pools, rather than gushed, and nowhere did one see water droplets thrown into the air by the force of the stream, as I had no doubt described to her. It looked dead, even if it was not. I tried to explain, but I sense that with each description of how it CAN look, I dug myself deeper.
Rivers are remarkable in that they are barely recognisable from one trip to another. A push of rainwater or snowmelt, a flood, or a few dry months, and the place is transformed into something that has you doubting your own memory.
So of course the Mooi did return to its old self, as it always does, and as it will this spring too.
On further trips to the Mooi I was able to show her what I mean when I say that the river is “sparkling”, and I can’t have done too badly, because it was at a special spot beside that same river that I proposed to her. It was sparkling that day despite the lateness of the season, and she accepted!
I remember once fishing Reekie Lyn on another of those dry spring days, and it was once again in a sorry state. It was a dry dull hot Sunday. The most action we saw was a large angry puffadder that I imagined wanted to kill me. The following day I flew to Joburg, and we flew straight over Reekie Lyn. It had snowed heavily overnight, and was now clear as a bell. I refused to give up my window seat to another passenger who wanted to see the snow. I wanted to see it more than he did. As we flew over Reekie Lyn I looked down and spat “take that!” through my teeth at the puffadder below. I hadn’t seen him coming the day before, but can’t have seen the snow coming a few hours later either!
On another occasion I took my wife to a remote spot much higher up the same river. A spot where a misplaced oak tree grows peacefully beside the river, well within the Drakensberg, where such an alien species does not belong. But the tree is far enough up to have escaped the notice of the rangers, and somehow I am OK with that. It is a loner, and has no offspring, and it is a lovely shady tree. The spot where it grows is flat, with whispy verdant grass, and beside this veritable lawn stands an enormous lichen covered boulder, alongside which the stream plunges into a pool that cries out to be fished, photographed or swum in. The choice depends on your particular passion, but either way, the spot is something like one of those scenes that used to appear on the front of chocolate boxes. Deep green water, short grass on the banks, not a sign of mud or erosion. A backdrop of heavenly mountains. It is perfection.
The day that I hiked my better half up there, the heavens opened as we arrived, and the mountains remained shrouded in mist. She sat on an uncomfortable root under the tree, and remarked that there seemed to her to be no lush lawn anywhere. There were just roots and sticks and rainwater puddles. She read her book while the branches above dripped on her pages. The torrential rain did not let up, and once I had caught a few small Browns, and her book had disintegrated, we hightailed it out of there.
I have since taken a fishing buddy there with similar descriptions of this jewel of a place, but on that occasion it was in spate and we saw and caught nothing.
Then I recommended a stretch of the Umgeni to someone who asked about it. They returned with tales of impenetrable bramble, nettles and turpentine grass, and have not asked my advice since. A year or so earlier another friend and I fished the same stretch together in early spring before the rankness had set in. It was one of those glorious days, with a cool blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and if I remember, a few willing Browns. He twice asked me why I hadn’t told him about the beat sooner.
So I guess my point here is that streams and rivers are places where a fly-fisherman needs to throw his expectations out of the window. He needs to go with whatever the season throws at him. He should probably shut his mouth when it disappoints, and revel in it when the going is good.
Come to think about it, he should shut his mouth when the going is good too, lest he later be judged a fraud, or worse still an NAHRR*
( * a Nostalgic and Hopelessly Romantic Recidivist)
the 4th September 1988.
The farm “Avon” on the Mooi River.
It was one of the best spring fishing years that I have had. The diary records it as being a dry spring, with the river not flowing all that strongly, and plenty of algae around.
On this particular day PD and I were only on the water around 10 am. It was cold, clouded and blustery. I remember we went up to the top boundary, and fished downstream from there, although we were of course upstream nymphing. I know, it is illogical, but were were younger then, and it made perfect sense at the time.
With it being cold and windy, the fishing started off slow. But the sun started to poke through, and although it didn’t exactly get hot that day, it got brighter. What a day it turned out to be!
PD started hooking fish first. They were really good size fish for a midlands river.
Tom Sutcliffe once wrote a piece about “Champagne day on the Mooi”. Well this was to be one of those. Both of us got fish over “over two pounds” according to my journal, and a string of fish of “a pound and a half”
By early afternoon it had brightened up a little too much perhaps, because the fishing dropped off a little, in the stretch below the Gordon’s farmhouse.
But by evening, in a large pool back upstream, near the farmhouse, the fish started rising, and we had a lot of fun at the tail of the pool, casting to spreading rings, missing the strike, and generally dabbling in Trout heaven.
On the last Saturday of September last year, Mike and I headed out to Riverside on the upper Mooi river. This stretch of river is club water, and is on a dairy farm that sits within the “U” shape formed by the KZN parks area of Kamberg Nature reserve.
We were blessed with a pleasant sunny day, the temperature peaking at just twenty two degrees C, and the occasional light gust of wind.
One parks under some plane trees at the farm entrance and fishes upstream from there.
This is classic KZN river water for me. Quite high river banks, through which runs a stream, deep and moody in its big pools, and light and babbling over sheets of shelf-rock in other places, with just occasional rapids through a tumble of jagged rocks or rounded pebbles. You generally wade up until it gets too deep, then you clamber out and go around the head of the pool, where you slither down the bank again. In mid summer your forays out of the river involve pushing through grass and maize higher than your head, with the odd fence or bramble bush to keep you on your toes. But in September, while it has turned green, the fields are dusted in short grass, large areas are burned, and the going is really very easy.
Here in South Africa, and certainly in my own home waters of KwaZulu Natal, our river fish are not expected to grow very big.
“You will hear the silence of the folded hillside brushed by the wind in its grasses..”
The other day I grasped an opportunity to go out on the river alone. From time to time I have this urge for the utter solitude and peace of being alone on the water for a full day. In fact I have that urge most weekends, and seldom get to fulfill the dream. So when this particular late September day dawned, I woke with my soul upon the lip of the precipice, ready to soar. I was happy. I left my bed with a sense of freedom and liberation. I had awoken early. The kids were baby-sat.
All was well until I reached the bedroom window and drew back the curtain a few inches to inspect the conditions. It had been raining. In fact my memory was suddenly jogged that in the half sleep of the bewitching hour, I had heard a thunderstorm and the drumming of the gutters. It was now cold and miserable. I stepped back and pondered the situation briefly, and then looked again.
On Sunday I awoke to my alarm clock at the ungodly hour of 3:45am, and flopped out of bed into my waiting ‘fish clothes’.
I had prepared everything the night before, so having pulled on my clothes I eased myself into the pickup and set off upcountry.
In mid summer you don’t want to be late. I speak of that time of year around Christmas when most people are on holiday, and when by breakfast time you might just encounter the first bead of sweat running down your face. Its hot and rainy and humid. Sunrises over crisp wet lawns are good. Sunsets are spectacular. The white hot hours between are best spent in deep shade, where one should move as little as possible. And even if you don’t move, these hot times are not good. Not to me anyway.
So anyway, there I was, barrelling along at a good speed so as not to be late for PD. 4:30 at his house. On the water by 4:45 am. Sunrise was scheduled for 4:56 am.
Surprisingly enough there are one or two people around at this time of morning. This time there was an old man perched on the front steps of the general dealer’s at Lidgeton. We stared at one another, long and hard, as I loomed out of the dark, and zoomed past him. What the hell was he doing up so early? The damn place is hardly going to be so crowded at opening time as to justify a four hour head start on the other shoppers! (and its Sunday dammit)
I guess he wondered where the hell I could be going so early.
Its funny how at this time of the morning one feels at least somewhat unique. Your friends are all tucked up in bed. The air has a sweet aroma to it. A sort of “after the rain” bouquet, with an ice cured edge. The light is everything. It unfolds a dull grey from the east, and then suddenly it’s golden and startling, and shining in great big streaks, right past you onto a hillside.