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.
“As I weakened I set myself landmarks to be reached in order to earn regular rests of a few minutes in that hellish, barren land. My one great desire was to go to sleep in a pool of cool water under a tree, a pool and a tree such as the ones nestling in the lovely rolling hills of my native Dargle Valley in faraway Natal, a valley green in summer when storms and gentle rains water the land; tawny under blue skies in winter when little or no rain falls. There on the farm at the foot of the ‘Nhlosane’ mountain – Zulu for ‘budding breast’- I used to run and ride and fish for trout in the pristine streams.”
Jeff Morphew, describing his escape from his “Tommy” , shot down by German F109’s on 4 June 1942, Libya.
Before Jeff Morphew died in 1993, he was the only man living to have escaped from an Italian POW camp in World War II while Italy was still at war. He had grown up on the farm Furth, in the Dargle, where he was born in 1918.
The only prior record (before this year) that I have been able to locate of trout being caught in the Furth stream (a tributary of the uMngeni) , was a verbal account from Jeff Morphew’s nephew, about Jeff catching trout on forays to this small stream from his retirement home at “The Fextal”, which overlooks the stream.
Yours truly, with a small brown from the Furth Stream, 21st March 2020. (Photo Sean Rogers)
I always take time to stop fly fishing and take a look at my hausberg. Its a wonderful term that. In short, and as translated to suit me, it means ‘the mountain that looks out over the district of my birth, upbringing, and current abode: a psychological anchor of place, and a symbol of purpose and direction, normally viewed from below, but sometimes, as a means of re-setting ones compass, from atop’
and I think La Branche would have identified with my obsession for the Inhlosane mountain:
“The man who hurries through a trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him.” George LA Branche: Dry Fly on Fast Water 1914.
At a time when so many South Africans are emigrating and the grounds that there is nothing left worth staying here for, it was refreshing to see at least our fishing, through the eyes of a foreign visitor this week.
“Wow, Wow, Wow!” were the words that Bert Worms kept repeating, as we drove up the valley, and as we stopped to look out over the vista before us. It is a valley that I travel to most weeks, and it has become old hat to me. You can see Inhlosane mountain off to the south, and northwards is the Kamberg mountain, maybe even Monks Cowl in the distance on a clear day, and Ntabamhlope in the north east. Looking back down from where we had come you see the tops of Lynwood, Miracle Mountain and Mount Ashley. In between are endless folds of rolling hills coloured anywhere from emerald green to the deep dark shade of pine plantations. You don’t see much habitation in between. I looked at it and started to think that it did look quite cool, as Bert uttered his twelfth “Wow”.
Then we trundled down to the river to cast a fly.
On the way Bert and I chatted. He is the chairman of a small fly angling club in the Netherlands, as well as a much larger, general fishing club. He spoke of our local fly fishing magazine that so impressed him and I asked him about their local magazines. “Yes, we have one” he said “but everything they publish is about fishing somewhere else! We have hundreds of kilometers of river fishing in the Netherlands, and they just write about how good it is over there and over there” . Interesting, I thought.
At the river, I lent Bert a rod and we strung up. The water was a bit off colour from a storm 2 days earlier, and I found myself apologising for the state of our river. “Yes, he said “It is off colour, and at home we probably wouldn’t fish this, but look at this!” he exclaimed, waiving his arms at the wide open space”
There was a pause, and then he added “Wow!”
Later, a storm threatened from the west, and as the lightning grew closer, I looked at Bert to read his appetite for more. We seemed to sort of resign ourselves to throwing in the towel. Then as we drew closer to the fencing stile, I had a quick rethink, despite the few raindrops that had started to fall. “If you are happy to take a short walk down there, there is a very beautiful pool I would like to show you” He seemed keen, so we instantly and silently resolved to extend our short time on the river. At the big pool, the rain started to pelt us, but Bert was not deterred, and kept throwing a fly, until he was rewarded with a pretty Brown.
“Wow!” he said, and we wended our way home, chatting happily as fishermen do, when they know they have shared a good day, and a good place.
On the four eight line, like any others, you needed to ask the exchange for a connection. But within the party line there was a whole lot of connection. Like hearing Mrs Ras talk in Afrikaans to her mother, who lived on the other side of the railway line at the Dargle station, or Mr Smith. Once someone said to the bloke on the other end that he would tell him all the details when he next saw him, because Mr Smith was listening-in on the party line, to which Mr Smith retorted loud and clear over the phone that he was not listening!
On Saturday we were out on Justin’s dam. It was dead calm, and the morning sun had warmed the air to the point were we were good in shirt sleeves. That despite the ice remaining in the shade of the steps that cascade down through the veld to the crisp water’s edge.
We were battling for a connection. The odd fish rolled lazily every fifteen minutes or so, but you couldn’t call it a morning rise, and there was no hatch to match. We were asking the exchange for a connection. We moved about a bit. We tried different depths. Nothing.
Neither of us had had enough sleep the night before. We fished close to the bakkie, which stood, door open on the knoll behind us with our tackle spilled about it. We retreated to the base and ate a banana and made some coffee. Sleep was definitely an option.
After coffee I put on a #18 zebra midge under a black DDD and threw it out far into the mirror on my bigger rod. Then I sat in the veld and yawned.
As recently as the year 2000, you could call the exchange in Barkly East from the top of the pass, and the tannie would enquire as to the weather up there.
The old black handle crank phone with 4822 written in my Dad’s handwriting under the clear glass label holder , still sits on the farm. Dad is mastering Whatsapp now. On Father’s day I showed him how to send a photo , and then we had tea and he reminisced about how they only had one tractor on the farm. It was an “International” with steel wheels, that had bolts at intervals on the tread, kind of like the studs in my smooth felt-soled wading boots. For the rest they used wagons. I grew up playing on those old wagons, and the International, under the trees where they lay abandoned behind the sheds.
Dad’s phone buzzed.It was my brother sending him a whatsapp . He said my brother wouldn’t know why he wasn’t replying and that he had better tell him he would message later after we had left. But I told Dad that my brother knew that already since we were connected. Its kinda like a party line Mr Smith.
A Hen fish took the Zebra midge and the DDD disappeared. I struck.
Graeme was fishing on the shale and in due course he picked up a fish on an egg pattern. I joined him there and tried my own egg pattern. I got a lot more strikes than he did, but I wasn’t connecting much. I offset the hook, as suggested by Gary Glen-Young the other day, but my hook-ups didn’t improve much.
Graeme and I were standing shoulder to shoulder chatting and throwing long lines in the clear water. We were connecting. Just not to fish.
We debated the hook-up issue, and Greame suggested that the materials of the pattern were obscuring the gape a bit. I listened and thought about that, and added that it was an old fashioned barbed hook. Despite having flattened the barb, the point was heavy, and it lacked the long fine point of a modern barbless hook. Graeme was nodding. He must have been listening (I don’t think he would deny that). I pulled it in and had a look. It’s shank was an angular material , with clean rib lines running down the curve of the hook. It kinda reminded me of the moulded lines of that old matt-black telephone. I had better tie up some new ones with the material up on top, away from the gape, and on a fine-wire barbless hook. But what will I do with all these old ones that look perfectly good? Sometimes its hard to let go….to shake off the old and get the thumbs working, and even when you do, you keep the old stuff. Some things stick in your psyche.
Like two shorts and two longs. 4822.
Here in the KZN midlands, altitude is accepted as a defining criteria for Trout water. It has long been held that trout will survive above 1200meters above sea level, and there is very little fishable water above 1800metres. So within that band of 1800m down to 1200m, there are a few critical bands, and I would argue that one of them is the 1600m band. I say that because every listed trout stream in these parts rises above 1600m.
So here is where that contour runs along the front of the Drakensberg:
Interesting isn’t it!
For me what makes it fascinating is that:
- It shows deeply incised valleys where streams cross the line remarkably close to the escarpment
- It shows that ridge of high ground that runs out into the province from the end of Giants Castle to Inhlosane mountain, very clearly
- And from the few spot heights I threw in on the map above, you will see that there are many islands of ground above 1600m, many of which are a long way “from the mountains”.
One also quickly concludes that the altitude alone is a poor measure of where trout thrive. In studying a map in detail, you come to realise that trout will survive and indeed thrive in stretches of river at low altitudes where the valley sides rise to much higher altitudes, and cool short tributaries contribute to the river (Examples, The Inzinga and the Umgeni). Also, if the drainage upstream of where you are standing is overgrazed or densely inhabited, or intensely farmed, then altitude becomes a less significant measure ( Example, The Bushmans below 1400m …below the clinic). Also, if the stream is on a steeply drained area, where the cold fronts coming from the south west are forced up to generate orographic rainfall, the trout are better off. So, for example, south of Giants Castle, the 1600m contour averages about 130 kms from the sea. North of the Hidcote ridge, where the berg tracks north, north-west, the sea is an average of 175 kms from the sea, and over 200kms in many cases. Here it is drier, there are a lot fewer trout streams, and those that there are, have just a short run in the berg before they spill out onto flatter, warmer plains where they don’t hold Trout. In fact, down south (and off below the limits of the map above), we know that in the Ingeli mountain area, trout are found as close as 80km from the sea at altitudes of under 1000m. There the slope from the sea to Ngeli mountain is 25m per km. From a similar altitude on the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, to the sea, the slope is under 8m per km. Those southern areas get more life-giving mist and drizzle. Did you ever notice how there are no thorn trees along the N3 from Maritzburg to Hidcote, then on the Estcourt side of Hidcote (the dry side), you can draw a line where the thorns start. Thorns like drier , and/or warmer climates.
Returning to our 1600m contour: At a glance, it is encouraging to see how much land above this contour is in the Drakensberg park, and therefore conserved as catchment area. The exception is where the land juts out from Giants Castle. Parts of that area (top end of Dargle, Inzinga, Fort Nottingham, Western side of Kamberg etc) have at times been threatened by proposed developments. (I hope you will join me at the protests if they try again).
See you in the highlands……above 1600 metres perhaps….
“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…….
I don’t remember what the occasion was, but a number of us had been invited up to Bill Duckworth’s Trout syndicate at the top end of the Dargle Valley.
We were staying over at the “Opera House” , and it was a colourful gathering to say the least.
It was October of 1995. Spring had sprung, and I remember a cool wind across short green veld, some of which still bore traces of ash from the winter burn.
I remember Bill strolling out onto the front “lawn” of the cottage in his stripy pyjamas in the morning with a pair of garden shears, to trim a small tree so gnarled from the cruel weather up there, that I remember thinking that it hardly needed Bill’s help in containing itself. Bill asked me to move my vehicle around the back, since its presence beside his target shrub was doing little to improve the view. It was quite early, and many of the guys were still snoring. Being the youngest, I was up early….keen to fish. I don’t know why Bill was up, but I politely obliged by moving the car, before setting off to fish.
I started out at the top dam, where a number of small fish were moving. I was in adventurous spirits though, so at some point I reeled in, and headed down the steep rocky valley that leads from the wall of the top dam, down to “woodley”. In those days there was no cottage down there, but the dam, the newest on the property, nestled in the valley in an inviting sort of way.
I was wearing some very heavy canvass waders. I had brought them back with me from the States a few years earlier. They were direct from the Orvis shop in Vermont, which I had visited, and were my pride and joy. They weighed a ton. Boot-foot they were.
I waded in to the cool water at Woodley dam, and tried my luck there for a while.
Then at some point I realised that the weather had turned warm and blustery, and that my walk back up the valley in those hot waders was not going to be fun. However while I had been fishing, the others had come down to “bottom dam” in a couple of the vehicles, and I could see them off to the West, fishing that water. I figured I would mosey over there and look needful round about the time they were due to head back for breakfast. So I reeled in and walked over.
When I arrived at the dam, I was really hot! So I walked straight up to the nearest shore, checked to see I wasn’t too close to one of the others, and waded in quite deep so as to benefit from the temperature of the water.
I figured that while I was there, and since the others weren’t showing any sign of leaving, I would throw a fly. At some point I saw a dorsal fin porpoise in the water ahead of me, and on the strength of that, I put on a whopper of a DDD…the largest one I had in my box. Size 6!
The fly rode out there in the waves like a small ship, and I stood there, enjoying the cool water, and not particularly hopeful of anything in particular.
Then the dorsal appeared, and neatly swallowed my fly . I struck, and the fight was on.
Mike was nearby, and I remember him appearing on the scene to ask if I had a net. I replied that I had. I had a small folding net that had belonged to my grandfather. Just then the fish jumped. “Um, about that net Mike”. No…he didn’t have one either. Mine would have to do.
The fish jumped again.
“I think you had better wade back to within the weeds Andrew” he said “because if that thing sees you, you have had-it!”. They were wise words, and I followed Mike’s advice. Mike didn’t know I was using five pound tippet.
It wasn’t long after that, that the fish came past like a stream train, just off the weed-bed. I saw it coming, and at the last minute I thrust the net out in front of it, and it swam straight in.
The fish was very surprised, and it was not ready to give in. I dropped the rod, and holding the net with one hand, I grabbed its tail with the other, since only its head was in the hopelessly small net.
I walked ashore, and a few meters more, just to be sure she didn’t manage a spectacular escape.
Trevor weighed her. Try as he may, he could not get her to tip the scales at ten pounds, but she was mighty close.
The actual fly that I got her on. It has since lost its tail to the elements.
It was quite a fish.
The fish today, on my lounge wall. The inscription on the brass plate comes from one of my favourite poems.
Bill was thrilled at the size of the fish that had come from his waters. He was even more thrilled when he heard that the fly used to catch it, was the one named after him. He asked if he could have a look. “My goodness” Bill said, in his inimitable falsetto whisper tone. “I’ve never seen one so big! Could you tie me some of those?”
How could I refuse.
A few weeks later I met up with Bill somewhere. I pulled out my car’s ashtray, which in those days was used to store trout flies. I had it crammed with enough big DDD’s for Bill, myself, and a few other guys I had promised some to.
“My, those look wonderful” said Bill, as he turned the ashtray upside down, collecting the whole lot, and after quickly admiring them, he crammed them into his waiting box, and he was off with them all!