“Opening Day – 1 September 1990”
After a winter of repeated tackle cleaning, fly tying and general pent-up abstinence, fly fishermen, myself included, seldom miss an opening day of the season.
It was the first day of spring and we were to have the privilege of fishing a small stretch of the upper Umgeni River. The old Merc bumped, lurched and scraped its belly down the stony track towards the farm “Knowhere”, with its large house overlooking the bend in the long pool and the downstream flats along the southern bank of the river dotted with grazing sheep. We parked by the side of the track near the top of the hill, briefly admiring the idyllic setting below us, then opted to walk the last few hundred metres to the farmhouse rather than risk doing serious damage to the underside of the car.
After exchanging courtesies with the friendly landowner and fending off three large, overenthusiastic farm dogs, we were at last free to stroll down to the river bank to see what condition the water was in following some early spring rain two days before. The river level had risen and, while slightly off colour, was just clean enough so one could see the fly in the water and just discoloured and turbulent enough to allow fishing from the high banks without being spotted by the wily browns that live in this stretch of river.
I rigged up a five-weight outfit for my girlfriend Jacqui and a three-weight for myself. The leaders were topped with small, bright orange foam strike indicators and the light tippets finished off with a freshly tied “Peacock Woolly Worm” on the five-weight, and the three-weight with my favourite “Wezani” nymph. The Wezani is a somewhat simple, but very effective, olive green and black seal’s fur nymph that Paul de Wet and I had developed and refined on several trips to the forested streams above Weza in southern Natal. The Wezani is best tied well weighted with wine bottle lead, or with plumber’s lead if you don’t drink wine. These flies seem to improve after catching a couple of fish when they become more tattered around the thorax.
Within the first hour or two of the morning’s fishing I caught and released a number of small, feisty browns around half to three-quarters of a pound. They were typical ‘geni browns – beautifully coloured and healthy. The fish were eager and hungry after the long winter but, as usual, tricky and evasive.
Approaching midday, I wandered over to the high bank from which Jacqui had been casting to hear that she had just hooked and lost her first ever brown trout. She appeared to be taking it quite well and wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have been. I sensed that I would only be getting in her way and that any offers of consolation or tuition would not likely be welcomed, so I continued a short distance downstream and squatted down behind a clump of bush to continue the steady rhythm of casting and drifting the nymph slow and deep along the bank.
The foam strike indicator dipped once more, but this time more decisively, and disappeared into the green depths. I lifted the rod gently and struck hard. A large, brightly speckled brown more than half a metre long flashed its long flanks, writhed and then dived to the bottom of the stream. The soft little rod bucked hard and my road arm trembled as the fish thumped and knocked against the stream bed and then dived headlong into some submerged reeds against the opposite bank. It showed itself on the surface one more time and then sounded again.
Almost half an hour later after a dogged battle interspersed with powerful runs, we beached the grand old fish into a clump of weed about a hundred metres downstream. As I reached down to slip my index finger into its gills, the small fly shot out of its mouth with an audible “ping”. I jumped into the water up to my thighs and, using both arms, scooped the exhausted monster onto the bank. With some sadness, I reluctantly administered the Coup de Grace. It was well beyond reviving after the unnecessarily long fight. I had not come prepared for fish this size.
The old cockfish was long and wiry with a large head, a pronounced rounded snout and a hooked jaw. His big, round spots were charcoal-coloured, with some bright red ones surrounded here and there by large silver rosettes. It was stunning. Measuring 57cm and weighing 3lb 15oz., it was my largest brown and by far the biggest stream fish I had ever seen, or had ever hoped to see on any trout water.
Those of you who have fished this stretch of the Umgeni River will probably agree that its landscape and the very long, slow pools around its middle section are quite unlike other classic ‘berg and midlands waterways.
Under normal water levels, this section is typically slack or at best slow-flowing and there are no riffles or fast water to impart movement and action to your fly, or to excite the downstream angler. The high banks demand a stealthy, upstream approach and the fish, while fairly plentiful, can at times be a real challenge. A good measure of patience, concentration and sharp reflexes are required as you crane your neck watching your barely moving leader, waiting and begging the strike indicator to stop and dip into the murky depths. And then you pick up the line and repeat the exercise, cast after cast.
Strike indicators are a matter of personal preference. I don’t mind them and in situations like this I like to use a small polypropylene yarn or a stick-on foam indicator at the very top of a short leader, typically 7 to 8 foot long. Just about any small nymph will do the job, but after several trips to this part of the Umgeni I can vouch for a generic Peacock Woolly Worm in sizes 10 and 12 as a confidence-boosting, backup pattern when the water is dirty, and a well weighted Wezani (or similar) nymph in sizes 12, 14 and 16 to cover various depths to structure when the water is on the clean side.
The beautiful early spring day was capped off when Jacqui eventually landed her first Umgeni brown late that afternoon after several frustrating near-misses. Around sunset, we trudged wearily but contented back up the steep hill and turned the car homeward to “sticky troutless, Durban”* (with sincere apologies to Neville Nuttall).
On the drive home, my thoughts inevitably returned to the day and it was only then that I remembered the 3lb 10oz. fish that Paul de Wet had caught on a nearby stretch of the Umgeni the year before and the apparently much larger fish that our friend Conrad Raab had lost earlier in the 1988 season. While the Umgeni is certainly better known for its browns of half a pound or sometimes up to a pound if you are lucky, 2 pounders are not unheard of and, as we now know, a trophy fish is never out of the question.
This is indeed a special and very different stretch of river and only a small part of a much larger, diverse waterway that demands our time and exploration.
Brett is an old friend, who now resides in Australia with his wife Jacqui.
Photos supplied by Andrew are more recent, but were all taken on the stretch of river in question: “Knowhere”, which is now NFFC club water.
The buzz and blur of youth. It was a time when our fly-fishing tackle was of poor quality, but our experiences were not. We were impoverished in material things, but bailed out by parents who put wheels under us, and held back enough not to quell our thirst for adventure. They were as brave in letting us go, as I am fearful of letting my own kids go, thirty years on. I saw my son off at a bus station in the dodgy part of town this morning. My parents drove me to a campsite in a luxury vehicle, and dropped us two schoolboys there for a week with a flimsy tent, a fly rod, and no cell phone.
Later our forays were in NX735. What a vehicle!
It must have been the sort of left over, pool vehicle from the sugar estate. It was ours to enjoy. We were to pack it with insufficient food, and an oversupply of beer and enthusiasm. Our lodgings were a pump house on Len Thurston’s farm dam, because we had run out of money to pay camping fees in Himeville, and this spot was for free, albeit a bit colder.
The club house at Hopewell was equally cheap, and the beer we were so able to afford enhanced the boat race we had from the inlet where we had been fishing, back to the jetty. The small outboards were not fast enough, so we rowed as well.
Back then we killed fish, ate badly, and built a store of memories, with equal ignorance. Our flies, and the barbs on the hooks we tied them on, were too big. Our egos may have been too. One’s tackle and gear was what you currently had, and not a carefully accumulated collection of things designed to make the trip more comfortable. I got sick on account of an East Griqualand trip on which I took just one flimsy jacket. It failed to protect me from the September snow, and I had earache for a week thereafter. Kevin and Steve used a no 8 spanner as a priest to harvest disgustingly large fish from a dam near Kokstad, because it was all they had. I missed out. I had an awful stomach bug. Medication to curb the problem didn’t even occur to us. One didn’t pack that stuff.
Instead we packed blissful ignorance, unbridled enthusiasm, and a blotting paper attitude to everything we heard and saw. We swaggered with an un-earned air of experience, while secretly storing and treasuring every fishing tip, scribbled road map, and passed down Trout fly. When Jimmy Little invited us into his caravan beside the water, and spoke to us in pure Welsh, we understood very little, but it was warm in there, and he added something interesting to the coffee. We got to drool on his Orvis fly rods too. We set out fishing at 3 am and shivered beside the dam, awaiting sunrise. We embarked on an ill timed hike down a river valley and returned to the leaky tent after nine at night in the rain. We forgot to close the gate, and had to try cover up the damage that the bull did to the fishing shack door. We got hailed on, and had lighting shake our very beings in some very exposed places. Guy and I returned home to use the phone to book the next day’s fishing, and to get a hot meal, and some sleep before we headed out again. It was all we needed. We dived in and dug fish from the weeds.
We all revere the fairytale memories of youth. But we lived our youth without revering it, for had we done so, it would have lost its youthfulness. We are told to draw pictures and sing like we did when we were kids, and we try to cast off the chains of adulthood. We try to pursue a time, but in fact it was not a time. It was a stage, and we have lost the faculties to re-create that stage. We hanker for “care-free”, but it is no longer ours.
My colleagues kids won’t eat their porridge, and whine about going to school. They live in a discomfort imposed upon them by the things they can not yet control. I leave his home smug in the knowledge that this phase is behind me. I am no longer thrown into the pit of life. Now I climb gingerly down the ladder , prepared for whatever lies down there.
I catch more fish now, because my nylon is fresh, and I tie on better hooks. I no longer have that awful reel from which the spool would regularly tumble. I suspect there was a horrible Hopewell hangover * after that boat race, and I have learnt how to dodge those. It is forgotten, but the wisdom earned is still there. I pack a warm jacket now. It is a good one, and there is no need to suffer.
Perhaps youthfulness belongs where it is, and resists our attempts to re invent it for good reason.
But if someone calls to say he is fetching me for fishing in 10 minutes, without prior warning, best I finish my porridge quickly and go to the senior school of life without whining!
Because I still have a lot to learn….
* Big H, big H, big H….a reference to the coding of a dump-site as being suitable for highly hazardous material!