I have had the privilege and the satisfaction over the last three years or so, to work alongside some seriously committed fly-fishing conservationists on the Umgeni River:
- Roy (whose doctor told him to get some youngsters to haul logs instead of suffering another hernia)
- Anton (who had an adverse reaction to bramble spray, but carried on anyway)
- Penny, who isn’t scared to get dirty
- Lucky and Zuma….two of the hardest working guys you will find
- Bob…who is just always there and quietly gets on with it
- Russell….who has committed diesel and machines for many, many hours and tidied up after we left.
etc, etc….I cannot name them all!
What these guys have achieved is commendable and fantastic. They have cleared kilometers of river. Stuff that was horrible to access. The landscape on this stretch of the Umgeni is completely transformed. You come over the hill and it is not recognisable. Take a look at the #BRU site for the full story.
Come and see the fish eagle’s nest; learn some history about the valley; climb over the fence stiles; learn the names of the hills and farms; get some exercise; and take home the booklet I am busy producing all about the Umgeni as a trout fishery. I will show you the honey holes, and show you how I fish them.
Someone will collect us at the end and bring us back to our cars.
Fishermen, if you are from out of the province and are here to attend the main evening event (mentioned below), and you want to be off somewhere sampling the stillwater fishing: here is something for your wife and kids to do instead of shopping in a mall.
We will be back at Il Postino in time for a superb lunchtime Pizza.
..….and if you are also attending the dinner that night……..
You can go home, have a snooze, get changed into your smart clothes, and come and attend this auspicious and prestigious event, that will raise the money to start #BRU2, and continue the work you will have witnessed in the morning.
The eighties, if I am not mistaken, is or was, referred to as the Jet age. Some or other more recent decade, possibly the one we are currently in, is referred to as the information age, in think-tank circles.
It gets me thinking what age we are currently in, in terms of fly fishing. I would have to limit myself to the local South African context here, since I am not qualified to comment on a global basis. (Actually I am not qualified to comment on anything) But local is lekker. So let’s have a look at the theme or defining developments of local fly-fishing through recent decades.
From my perspective it goes something like this
1970’s: Tackle came from Farlows in London. Everything had an overly British influence. I was a youngster, so I don’t really know what was going on, but I know that the Natal Fly Fishers Club was established in 1972, so there must have been some stirrings of local fly fishing comeraderie, and some awakening of the local scene. Jack Blackman’s name was on the lips of many a flyfisher here in KZN.
Books published that I remember, and still own: “Trout fishing in Natal” by Bob Crass; “Life in the Country” by Neville Nuttall; “Introducing fly fishing in South Africa” by John Beams; “Freshwater fishing in South Africa” by Michael Salomon.
1980’s: I fished myself silly in the eigthies…This fitted in from my high school days to the end of my varsity and army times. Fly fishing seemed to be in a big growth phase here in KZN, certainly in terms of public accessibility. Anton Smith reminded me that a lot of farm dams were built at this time, so stillwaters really came on the scene. Roger Baert brought in the first float tube. The fly-Fisherman shop (the first specialist fly shop in Africa!) opened in Pietermaritzburg. The American influence really started to come in strongly. Tom Sutcliffe’s first book was published (after the newspaper articles that preceded that). The first fly magazine started. Tom Sutcliffe and others got us all going on upstream dry fly and nymphs. It seemed to be “heydays” stuff, even then.
Books: “Trout on the veld” by Malcolm Meintjies; “My way with a Trout” by Tom Sutcliffe; “Flies and flyfishing in South Africa”, by Jack Blackman; “Trout in South Africa” , by Bob Crass.
1990’s: Perhaps it was Tom Sutcliffe moving to the Cape and continuing to write and publish that did it. I don’t know, but we in KZN became aware of the Western Cape, and its fast flowing streams, and for my part this decade saw a swing away from the very much stillwater focus here in KZN towards streams. Having said that, I was rearing kids, and some years I fished as little as once a month, and while I dreamed rivers, mnany of those days were in fact stillwater days. Graphite rods, having been introduced in the eighties now became the affordable norm. Later in the decade the Eastern Cape Highlands were opened up to me as a destination for us KZN anglers.
Books published: “"Tom Sutcliffe’s “ Reflections on Flyfishing”; “Hooked on Rivers”, by Jolyon Nuttall; “SA Flyfishing handbook” by Dean Riphagen; “A Mean Mouthed, Hook Jawed , Son of a fish” by Wolf Avni.
2000’s: There seemed to be a big swing towards salt water fly fishing as well as fishing for other species beside Trout. I vaguely remember that this is when Roger Baert told me that the Fly-fisherman shop was selling more saltwater rigs than anything else. I also think there was a drop off in the popularity of fly-fishing generally. Perhaps I should say it didn’t seem to be growing as fast as it had before. Conoeing and thereafter cycling became the rage. The Flyfisherman shop sadly closed its doors here in KZN.
Books published: “Hunting Trout”, by Tom Sutcliffe; “Reflections on the river “by Andrew Levy; “Getaway guide to Fly-Fishing in South Africa”, by Nigel Dennis.
2010’s: The current! Firstly, it has to be labeled as the decade in which the “Trout wars” reached a pinnacle! It also seems to be part of the information age. With facebook, and blogs, online magazines and e-books everywhere, there is almost information overload. On the positive side there is a great connectivity between fly-anglers. We have platforms to discuss and argue and meet one another. Apart from the widespread information, it seems to me that this has sprung us onto the international stage, in that such media know no boundaries. As a result, fly fishing in South Africa is popping up in international groups, discussions, and books like never before. Competitive angling seems to have come to the fore too.
I get a sense that the sport is in another major upswing!
Books published: Peter Brigg’s “Call of the Stream” ; “Shadows on the Streambed” by Tom Sutcliffe; Duncan Brown’s “Are Trout South African”; …………I wonder what else is on the way!
* Note: The list of books published is by no means extensive. For an excellent reference on all the South African fly fishing books ever published, look for Paul Curtis’ book “Fishing the margins”, and the recently updated version “Fishing wider margins”
* Another note: The above is by no means an exhaustive or authorative discourse of developments, but rather a personal, and KZN province biased recollection of how things have come along in each decade.
But apart from trying to look back, with all the imperfections of one’s biased and flailing memory, what of the future?
Trying to guess the major themes of flyfishing in the future is risky business. Maybe some of this is more of a wish-list than a prophecy, but here goes.
I hope that in the next decade, (and it may only be the one starting after the rollover of 2020), the following might predominate:
- South Africa comes to be considered an international destination, and not only for “African species”, but also for its Trout fishing. And then, not because the fish are bigger or better or more willing, but because it is a cool place to go to, and has a good package deal to offer.
- And allied to that, I hope that mainstream conservation and flyfishing might join hands. That anglers will participate in widespread river clean-ups, and that pristine or restored catchments will hold high value. Some of that happens here and there at present, but I am talking on a bigger scale. Perhaps stretches will be worked on with donga gabions, removal of alien plants, relocation of soak pits and washing areas away from streams, etc, etc. I think I am picturing something along the lines of the “thousand mile project” in the USA. If I just glance at KZN and consider how many kilometres of trout stream flow through farmland or tribal land below the Drakensberg world heritage site, that could do with some TLC, and a bit of fanfare and organised access of some sort, to put it on the map, and make it worth caring for in more pairs of eyes……….
I can dream, right?
Ok “Bru”, here’s the deal. I really don’t know why, but when it comes to the upper Umgeni River as a Trout stream, I am a bit obsessed.
I am obsessed with getting it back to, or maintaining it at, its former glory as a premium Trout stream. I have had this obsession since I was a varsity student. I conducted a sort of study of, and evaluation of the Umgeni as a prime fly fishing stream, when I was conscripted in the army. I visited farmers, asked them about their view of the river as a “trout asset”, photographed it, and wrote some or other report under my blankets at night in an army bungalow in far off Potchefstroom. In 1996, on a long car drive to a fly-fishing festival in Somerset East with Jack Blackman, Jim Read and others, I remember boring them all with my dream of the Umgeni as a well organised, conserved and revered fly fishers destination.
In years gone by I have put landowners and fishing clubs in touch, and put conservationists in touch with conservation minded farmers along the banks.
I am still not letting up.
Last year the Natal Fly Fishers club organised two work parties clearing wattle and bramble from river banks. Trout SA made a short video clip. Also, over the last year or two the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) has been working in the catchment to reduce the number of water sapping wattles. It seemed to make sense to get alongside that initiative while there is groundswell. Then at the same time Penny Rees and her DUCT team did “River Walks” blog about their walk from the source to the sea.
Penny has since walked most of the major tributaries of the Umgeni and journalled of her experiences on the blog. Like me, she is passionate about restoring this important river, her for her reasons, and I for mine.
This Saturday the NFFC is holding its third cleanup day. This time the club has thrown some serious resources at the task, hiring in a crew of professional tree-fellers, and with the landowner on board with tractors and staff. Here is a short clip on that: Video.
I have used the opportunity to create a hashtag (do you launch one, or create it……I don’t know. Maybe you hash it!)
Blue Ribbon Umgeni
What is it all about? It is about recognising and valuing the upper Umgeni River as a trout fishery. In this way we hold it up as something that has value. People look after the things that they value. So my “shout-out” is to fellow flyfishers here in the midlands of KZN to go and fish the Umgeni, catch its stippled beauties, photograph them, and tell people about it. Attend the NFFC work-party on Saturday 12th September, or the one on the 17th October, or next year’s ones.
While the internet has rightly been accused of ruining good fishing spots, I am going out on a limb here and guessing that there are few enough river fishermen in South Africa, that those we do have, practice catch and release, and that sharing my favourite fishing spot with them will do a LOT more good than harm.
So #BRU is also an invitation:
Come and fish the Umgeni with me bru!
I am also going to ask you for some money soon. Money towards wattle removal. But you will get something in return. More on that in coming weeks.
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.
Do you remember that scene from “a River runs through it” where the camera swoops across a rocky ridge, and reveals the two boys running across the open grasslands?
Here in the KZN midlands, our landscape, notwithstanding its beauty, is lined and dotted with trees. Not only trees of course, there are fence-lines and farmhouses and roads too, but the trees are significant. Early writings by explorers in this area reveal the extent to which this place was a sea of grass.
A world with the dew still on it: there are still patches to be cherished.
I read somewhere a report from a delegation who travelled from Maritzburg to Underberg to survey that area’s suitability for farming back in the 1800’s. Their most significant comments related to the lack of trees, and the endless expanses of grass. In the context of their report it was a complaint. “No firewood” they said, and they concluded that the area was without charm, and had a low potential for agriculture.
The lucky bastards! I was born in the wrong era! What I would not give to be one of them: to venture out there and see this world with the dew still on it. Forget for a moment all the wildlife they must have encountered, and just imagine the grasslands. The dense grass cover would have stretched for as far as the eye could see. Successive ridges of just pure waving grass! There would probably have been no erosion. I assume that even the lowland rivers must have run clean most of the time.
So, OK, there were no Trout at that stage. (and an obscure group of pseudo environmentalists want us to believe that the Trout came along and ate entire populations of species which have never been recorded), but even without the Trout, what a place it must have been.
I confess, I dream about it sometimes. I lie awake at night like a little kid, and try to be that camera swooping like an eagle across vast expanses of grass….on and on, until I fall asleep.
I have seen a brochure somewhere for a lodge on the steppes of Mongolia, where one can travel to experience such vistas of nothingness. Nothingness as a tourist attraction! I like it.
We can’t put the KZN midlands in a brochure advertising an escape to nothingness. We have lost that. We have lost it to overgrazing, dongas, wattle trees, groves of gums, roads and development. We have lost it to environmental degredation. We have replaced it with a tourist route boasting coffee shops, and jewelry. Rugs, art shops, and clothing outlets. We have rows of holiday homes, and tarred roads. We think pine plantations and encroaching alien trees are pretty. Most visitors don’t know the difference between a wattle plantation and a patch of indigenous bush. Most don’t notice the bare earth drains running off the road into the now silted river. Most don’t know the difference between a kikuyu pasture, an eroded hillside of “mshiki” and “Ngongoni”, and a patch of decent “rooigras”.
We keep expanding too. Ploughing up remaining pieces of grassland, subdividing into smaller and smaller pieces of land, and approving more and more developments after ever more rigorous “EIA’s” . We have wattle trees encroaching into the greater Drakensberg heritage site, and have built dams that wouldn’t be necessary if we fixed the leaking pipes and stopped having babies.
Wattle trees, unchecked, encroaching a river bank in the Drakensberg
And what are we doing to stop all this.
We are banning Trout. Banning Trout and angering one of the most conservation conscious groups in the country.
Forgive my depressing tirade. I am not normally given over to politics and lobbying: Just common sense.
Last week, just as our first decent spring rains were arriving to break the drought, I started building my case. Today, with a full week of inclement weather behind us, I plan to let you in on where this affluenza thing is going. Work with me please.
If you didn’t read what I posted here last week, perhaps you would like to pause here and do that to better understand where I am coming from.
So: in our quest for a magazine cover life, and a magazine cover fishing life in particular, we go in pursuit of the best water, right.
Nothing wrong with that, you may say .
Of course not: Mongolia in the autumn as the larch trees are turning and the Taimen are taking medium size rat imitations. The highest stretches of some local mountain stream, that is pure champagne. The very best fishing club stretch on the Mooi. The Yellowstone rivers. South island. All good. We are fishermen. We enjoy good fishing, and we seek it out.