“So what I am suggesting here is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”. Jerry Kustich
I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts.
Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example: He drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.
I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back and did little better than get caught in a storm. In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.
On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley. On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.
And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.
On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle. It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low. On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.
On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.
On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award. Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.
A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming. The river was low, and it was hot. I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.
At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning. The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.
Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining! Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl. Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing. He reckons its perfect every time.
But here’s the thing: I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for a receipt. He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.
And to add to that, this month, I learned the local name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.
And at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside. Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).
Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)
Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures. Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.
I vote for messy.
Isn’t it funny how, when you are searching for one thing, you find another. We went in search of backpacks stolen from foreign hikers in the mountains and found other things.
I had gone looking for trout, and found cold driving rain at Highmoor. From there we infiltrated the next valley, where vagabonds and miscreants, might descend from the hills and make their getaway with their loot, and we found:
A trout stream.
OK, so we knew the Trout stream was there, but I hadn’t been there in a little while, and I wanted to show it to Anton. In the Trout stream, Anton found some weird bugs that looked like a cross between miniature crabs and aquatic ant lions, but they escaped in short bursts, and when I asked him if he would be able to identify them in a book back home, he said he thought not. I suspect a water bug or water cricket.
But Gaffney identified me when we met her on the way out. She and I had met before, while waiting for the King to arrive. (For four hours in the hot sun…I remember the sunburn). Gaffney was delivering an officer who had returned from leave, back to his mountain outpost in the Ncibidwana valley. An outpost which lay directly in the path of any vagabonds or miscreants who might make a quick getaway from Highmoor with their loot. We discussed the stream with her, and plans to conserve it. The water had been warm, but the flow was good, and we had seen promising ripples tight against the bank in the first pool we came to. The clarity was good, and Anton and I agreed it looked suitably Trouty. Gaffney brimmed with pride at our appreciation of her Trout Stream. It turns out that Gaffney is a champion of wattle eradication, has achieved great things on the Little Mooi, and is likely a perfect ally for efforts to maintain the Ncibidwana.
Just before saying our goodbyes, Gaffney asked if we had seen Pienkie. Hell no. Pienkie….custodian of great Trout fishing at Highmoor has been missing for ages. We had not found Pienkie. There was some confusion, but it emerged that Pienkie was now stationed at the self same outpost up the Ncibidwane valley! To hell with Nemo….we had found Pienkie. (We did wonder what deed or crime might have lead to her banishment though…..)
We failed to find two of our fishing club beat markers elsewhere in the valley. They were simply…..gone. Like backpacks.
Of those that remained however, we found one with bullet holes in it. Now, I don’t know why, but somehow this discovery filled me with joy and pride. The fact that our signs had garnered sufficient merit to become the targets of wild vagabonds and miscreants with rifles, somehow triggered in me a sense of satisfaction and happiness. I can’t really say why. We inspected the holes, and held a discussion about what calibre may have been used, and how poor the aim of the shottist was.
While the level of the Bushmans River was fair, and vastly improved from a few weeks ago, the temperature was too high, and there was nothing to celebrate there. But we stopped at the Vulindlela Tavern anyway, to celebrate…..the bullet holes….or something. There I received a bear hug from one of the patrons, and two ice cold Zamalecs from the bar lady, who acted without surprise, suggesting that she serves storm-drenched flyfishers all the time.
We drove back, drying steadily as Anton’s bakkie seats slowly wicked away all the rainwater from our backsides. The conversation was good too.
I had gone looking for Trout, but instead I received a dousing, experienced good company, explored a good Trout stream, and found joy and pride in some bullet holes. We also found cold Zammalecs.
And we found Pienkie!
To hell with Nemo! We will catch him when the weather cools.
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.
I try very hard to do things right, and to do them the right way, but we all have to compromise sometimes.
Last week I fished for a sighted Trout downstream. Peril the thought!
It was rising in Bird Pool up on Furth, but it was rising against the rock shelf that you just can’t physically get downstream of. The current plunges into the pool, and runs parallel to the shelf, straight into a steep and wooded bank. So I had to use the riffled water at my feet as my screen from the trout’s vision, kneel in the shallow water on the step above where it plunges down into the pool, and deliver my delicate dry directly downstream. Of course I threw in some slack and did it all drag free.
And now best I confess another downstream misdemeanour. Quickly, before Anton spills the beans, because as he read the paragraph above I swear I heard him reaching for the keyboard , or perhaps the magaphone, to say “Tell them about the fish on the Bushmans , you Philistine!”.
It was a very big pool. VERY big. Very deep too. The water was also cold, and we were under-gunned with 3 weights. The big fish would be at the bottom, under the tongue of current coming in at the top. As far as I could see, that may have been 10 foot down, and the current was strong. I requested a stillwater outfit, which, may I point out, Anton duly provided with complicit aplomb, and not a squeak of admonition. We….OK, I, swung a deep sunk GRHE (a big one OK) right into that pool, and let it swing on the current. Big, nasty, deep………
I don’t like digging up river banks and leaving big ugly scars that are at risk of eroding. Its wrong. But I do like to arrange serious machine power to pull felled invasive trees from the river. Our machines ground up the river banks in places, but we removed dozens of tons of alien timber, rather than leave log-jambs. As a redemptive exercise I subjected myself (And my wife) to 2 mornings in miserable cold drizzly weather, scattering grass seeds on the bare scars.
The bull was another one were I was forced to bend the rules. I had been guiding a group of people up the Umgeni, showing them the river clearing and what have you, and by mid morning, repeatedly promising them that they wouldn’t have to climb through a fence again. “No more!” I told them with confidence, after I had watched several pretty ladies crawl under the barbed wire on their bellies in the dust. “From here on I PROMISE its all stiles and gates”
“and we haven’t far to go either” I added convincingly to one whose spirit was visibly flagging”
But then I come over the hill, and there is a bloody Jersey bull, standing at the gate we need to pass through. He was bellowing and pawing the ground, and his harem of cows stood meekly away from him, while he vented and snorted. I didn’t have a white horse, but I pretended. He had his ladies, and I had mine, and I wasn’t going to have mine climb through a fence. I charged at him with gusto making wild cowboy noises and waving a piece of black pipe above my head. Whooping and whistling like a madman, at full sprint and forgetting entirely that the cameraman had attached a wireless microphone to my lapel .
The bull didn’t budge. In fact he put his head down and came straight at me defiantly.
I lost the fish in bird pool, after pricking it 3 times. I caught the sixteen incher on the Bushmans.
The grass seed didn’t germinate on the Umgeni, but I promise to go back again when its really cold and do it again. I smacked the bull square between the eyes with my pathetic plastic pipe. Luckily it seemed to stop him, albeit only 2 foot from me. I retreated slowly with my heart pounding but my dignity in tact (sort of), and helped everyone through the fence.
Sometimes you just have to compromise.
In his book “Fly fishing outside the box”, Peter Hayes says that one needs watchable fish in order to study their behavior.
That sounds like an obvious thing to say, but let’s consider it in the South African context:
In the Western Cape we have generally clear streams emanating from a rocky landscape. The streambed is often pale, even whitish in colour, and although the slightly brackish water gives the streambed a yellow tinge, you still commonly have many pale areas against which trout spotting opportunities abound.
In the Eastern Cape the streams are a bit more inclined to dirty after rain. There is also an abundance of deep green pools. However, between those pools are ample areas of mottled stone, incorporating paler shades.
(can you see the trout?)
I have had many exciting trout spotting experiences on streams like the Bokspruit, and Riflespruit. Moments when you can’t decide whether to employ the fly rod or the camera, but in either event you can spend long moments relishing the sight of a finning Rainbow. I say “relish” because there is a delight in just watching these lithe and fleeting fish. They appear and then blend, and re-appear, and watching them becomes an exercise in concentration.
And that exercise yields information every time. Every observation opportunity is one in which you can imprint on your mind another example of how and where these fish move, what scares them, how close you can get to them, and a myriad other tiny observations. These are observations that we learn from, probably without realising it. One day you will be explaining something about trout to a beginner angler, and he will ask “How do you know that?”. You won’t immediately know how it is that you came to know it, but it will be because you have watched these fish.
Here in KZN, I experience fewer opportunities to watch fish. It is difficult to explain quite why, but let me attempt it anyway. For one thing, and I am generalising here, we have a lot of deep green water. That is water that, even when clean, appears bottle green, and is very difficult to look into. We consider it clean, and it is, but a lot of it is deep, and perhaps more importantly, it is against a mud, or black rock bottom.
Even in the more shallow runs, the river bed is not one that lends itself to trout spotting quite like other provinces. And then too we have a fair amount of cultivation in our catchments, so that in summer one encounters water that is not as sparkling as it could be.
We can of course head up into the mountains more, as Peter Brigg does, but even Peter remarked the other night how we don’t have trout spotting opportunities quite like the Western Cape. I agree with him. The other thing to consider, is that we are often searching for Brown Trout, and they are a wily prey if ever there was one! But somewhere like the upper Bushmans does offer some opportunity to observe our prey.
I think that the point of all this, is to say that even a stillwater fly-fisherman would do well to seek out trout spotting opportunities in order to build his knowledge of the fish that we hunt. And so, regardless of the small size of the fish we may encounter in some of the thinner, higher waters, I treasure every opportunity I get to go looking for fish. In particular, I look forward to our regular forays to the North Eastern Cape. I would encourage fellow KZN anglers to spread their wings a little, and visit the berg, The NE Cape, and the Western Cape. It has been far too long since I last wet my own feet in a Western Cape stream. I feel a trip coming on.
Here in South Africa, and certainly in my own home waters of KwaZulu Natal, our river fish are not expected to grow very big.
In KZN we generally don’t do our fly-fishing for Trout in big strong rivers. As a result there is not a lot written about wading and wading safety or difficulty in these parts. But of course at this time of the year, it is not impossible to find yourself on a fast piece of water, that is still clean enough for you to want to fish it.
Generally the Umgeni is unfishable from a water colour perspective, if it is too fast to wade. The Mooi, and the Bushmans on the other hand, can run a pale slate grey colour, with lots of white water, and be fishable. Fishable that is, with a fair amount of lead on the business end, if you are working a nymph.
And as I have written elsewhere, our KZN rivers are not as easy to wade as those of the North Eastern Cape, where one has the luxury of long gravel beaches and spurs to wade along. The Mooi has many stretches of nasty angled rock, tossed into runs like those “dolosse” on a breakwater. Sharp angled pieces, that scatter the river bed, with deep crevices and holes between them. Then on the upper Bushmans there are stretches where the water’s edge signals a vertical drop into the river channel, and in high water to step off there would see you in 4 ft of fast flowing water.