Many forays from my home waters to the streams of the North Eastern Cape highlands, have got me thinking about the differences between those waters, and the ones nearer my home.
The climate is drier up there, and the veld can be positively scrub-like compared to our lush, humid midlands of KZN. The rivers also flow southward or south westward, whereas all the home streams flow towards the east. We have a lot of Brown Trout streams here at home, whereas around Rhodes and Barkly East, the waters are mainly Rainbow waters. Our rocks, especially in the lower reaches, are black, angular and slippery, whereas the NE Cape has sandstone bedrock or fine gravel for the most part, making for easier wading.
But here is something that perhaps sets the area apart:
In KZN, our streams tend to flow down from the Drakensberg in a relatively straight path, and quite quickly descend below the 1200m contour, BEFORE they are joined by their neighbouring streams. What I mean by this, is that there are relatively few junctions of major rivers within the area that can sustain trout.
The significance of this, is that the KZN trout have limited (Very limited!) opportunity to travel down one valley and up another. This means that the genetic make up in one valley could arguably be completely separate and potentially different from the next valley.
Another aspect to consider, is that when a stream dries up in the North Eastern Cape, it’s Trout population can be restored from another artery when the stream begins to flow again. This is very seldom the case in KZN.
The situation in the Cape is as a result of a jumble of mountains, with rivers and streams that cut through them in a variety of directions, and with the land sloping off to the plains very gradually. This allows rivers to meander and intersect at higher altitudes.
I suppose this makes our trout in the KZN rivers more vulnerable. If a drought or pollution incident were to befall the trout of one valley, it might not quickly receive some fresh bloodlines to re-populate it from another. In the NE Cape, after the severe droughts of 2015/6, we all saw photos of the Sterkspruit so dry that not only did it cease to flow, but the puddles started to dry out. A visit to the area this year, revealed that the streams are again full of countless small trout. It really is quite miraculous! This miracle is no doubt aided by the fact that just a few trout had to survive in 1 or 2 of the streams, and the re-population of all streams after the drought would surely happen given time.
Confluences of trout rivers are an important feature…..
September is typically characterised by such things as heat waves, snow, drought and gales, mixed with lovely blossoms, veld fires and greenery. This September was no different. If I scan the above list, I believe ‘snow’ was missing this year, but last year we had snow in the first week of October, so in a way nothing is atypical yet.
It might feel atypical, but that is just our oscillating take on things.
This year, the mix of the above has delivered us low clear water. Nothing unusual about that at all. In fact I think this state of affairs is exactly as it is meant to be. Reading my own descriptions of this time of year in my book “Stippled Beauties” brings that home to me.
I picked up a copy from the top of the small and shrinking pile in my dining room, and read for as long as it took for the kettle to boil. I stopped there, lest I stumble upon a spelling or grammatical error that would set off a cascade of self doubt. I have yet to read the whole book through since it was printed, for this same reason.
I chatted to a farmer in his driveway the other day through the open windows of our respective trucks, and he took on a refreshing view of things: “Since when has it not rained at all in summer? “ he said. “ It will come”. He knows that this landscape, its river, and its Trout won’t die. I suspect he doesn’t pick up when his bank manager calls, and I suspect he will live to be a hundred. “Chilled”, I believe my kids call it.
After he drove off, and I proceeded down to the river, his words washed over me, and I relaxed into a state of resigned acceptance of the low level of the Trout stream I was headed for. It was not a negative or defeatist type of resignation. Far from it. That morning as I looked into the pools it dawned on me that there was way more than enough water to cover the backs of the Trout.
The water temperature was also a perfect 14 degrees C (57` F). There were slithers of shade, the size of a two litre cool drink bottle and bigger. We had had nights with the air temperature well below 10 degrees (50`F). We had had grey days. And above all I have been spotting Trout in this, and other streams.
Note that I say “spotting”. Catching them, and in fact even getting a presentation over them without spooking them, has been a task with what an army corporal would call “n mooiliksheidgraad van drie” (a difficulty rating of 3). Anyone who went to the army, will know that this is a poetic understatement which amounts to a euphemism, for “downright impossible”.
Rogan and I approached a shallow pool on the Umgeni the other day, peering off downstream at what we thought was a rise, but may have just been a swirl of wind. Only when we put polaroids on and looked straight ahead of us did we see a fish in plain view, chasing a nymph across the pale bedrock. I spotted for Rogan and saw another smaller Brown at the head of the same run. We crouched, and stalked, and hung our flies in bankside vegetation, fluffing it completely.
In the next kilometre or so, we didn’t spot a fish. They were there. I know that with the same certainty one attaches to death and taxes. We just couldn’t spot them. The next fish we did spot were rising in a pool where swallows swooped and dipped to pick up what the rising trout missed. I got in three good casts before I duffed the strike on a fish that took my Para-RAB. And that was it. For the day. That was the sum total of our Trout interactions.
The following day another angler spent a few hours on the same beat before remarking “I’m hitting the pub!” I can’t say I blame him. The ‘mooiliksheidgraad’ was ‘drie’! It’s a typical September, with low rivers and the ‘mooilikheidsgraad’ is supposed to be ‘drie’.
Resign yourself to it. Waste hours peering into pools. Stay away from the pub. Don’t go looking for the grammatical errors. Rather learn by staring at shadows the size of cooldrink bottles, and not breaking your ankle in search of more willing fish elsewhere.
You will live to be a hundred.
PS: Apologies to Rex, Savs, my army corporal, and with empathy to that bank manager. And good luck with today’s surgery…you know who you are…
PPS: And apologies to those who can’t bear the thought of enduring another 50 years of me. It was Leonard Cohen who said with a chuckle to his London audience “Sorry for not dying”.
PPPS: Sorry to oscillate, but as I finished this, my mate Neil sent me a picture of a Brown he got on another river, much further away. A good fish! The river looks like it has more water in it than my home water. I think I am going to don my ankle guards and head out there tomorrow!
On the way into work earlier this week I passed two of those newspaper billboards on consecutive lamp posts. One read “Rain has not broken the drought”, and the next one read “Floods in KZN”.
I think it was the same day that the weather forecast predicted severe hail storms in the Free State, and the following day there was a tornado in Jo-burg, and this all followed 2 days of snow in the berg.
Today is a lovely sunny day. Expect severe frost tonight.
So all in all it is pretty average weather.
The hell not!
But at least on the rainfall front, it’s bloody fantastic! We can consider ourselves “over served”…(a delightful excuse for one’s intoxication, that PD passed on to me after a jaunt to fish the Shenandoa National Park for Brook Trout) At 70mm or thereabouts in most of the upland areas of the midlands, and with the Trout streams barreling along, it is just a little intoxicating isn’t it!
Maybe…just maybe….this is what we need to turn the fishing around in the coming summer.
If the fishing results of recent winter tournaments in the Kamberg and Boston, as well as club results, are anything to go by, the fly fishing really has been down on normal years. My own forays have been less successful (in fish number terms) than the average.
Now we just need to hope for a spring that starts in September, and not in January as happened last season. I have complete faith that we will have an incredible season in 2016/7, and I don’t know about you, but I plan on being prepared for it all. I have read the two articles in Wayne Stegen’s series on Vagabond Fly Mag, and I am already tying up a few leaders for the spring fishing. Us fishermen, like farmers, are eternal optimists while at the same time, possessing the skill to invent excuses beyond the reach of the common man, when in the end it doesn’t all work out.
Maybe that is why I liked the “over-served” excuse so much. It can only have been coined by a fisherman.
I arrived back from a business trip to the north starved of music. During that week, in a country where the power authority is lobbying for 25 hrs of load shedding per day, work and discussions of work, left no space for music. But on my return domestic servants were bopping and jiving in front of a sink full of dirty dishes to the new “fall song”. Very catchy!
The middle Mooi was also apparently bopping and jiving in a brown sort of way. There had been heavy rain up on Allandale, and the algae is being flushed out of that river and elsewhere. If I can find a clean river, I think I will head out with REM, Billy Joel and others to keep me company. Flush the cobwebs out of my head. Shake off this droughty, hot green season, of work and troubles, and fish a nymph with lead in it for once. Perhaps I will get to celebrate the whisked nymph. That is a nymph that gets whisked away without getting down enough. It’s been a long time since I got to have that problem. On the few occasions I have ventured onto a river, I have had to scan through my armoury looking for un-weighted patterns. In fact I plain gave up on nymphs, because I was tiring of losing them on the slimy rocks a few inches under the surface.
Now, while not denying that we remain in a drought, I have the old familiar pleasure of having to phone around to find clean water. I don’t think I will ever complain again. I also think I will stock more un-weighted patterns, because on some level I think I jinxed this whole thing by being so blasé as not to stock enough. If they go hunting for the guy who caused el nino, I might go into hiding for a few days.
A playlist you say. er…I’ve never done this before but okay let’s give it a bash. Some old favourites:
Right now the skies look pregnant with rain, and the humidity hangs in the air. Perhaps I will get soaked. Caught up some valley with no caves. Drenched to the skin in cooling air, and get a chill and shiver until my teeth rattle and I can’t change fly.
I hope so.
(It rained before I could post this. All our local streams are chocolate brown and going like steam trains. I stopped beside a stream yesterday and listened to its own music. No amount of lead would have made fishing a prospect. What sweet music to these ears!)
I am sure most of us have had some uninformed person, upon hearing that we are a fly fisherman, say “Oh I wouldn’t have the patience to sit and wait for a fish to bite”.
Our explanations are long and tedious, and the person glazes over after a minute or so. I advocate Ed Zern’s approach*: Just throw stones at them until they go away!
We all know that fly-fishing, and river fly-fishing in particular, is so filled with activity, stealth, assessment and other things that occupy our faculties, that one hardly requires patience. Where we do however require patience, and where I suspect we fail to recognise the need for patience, is in waiting for the seasonal conditions to improve.
There is much literature and ‘fishing eye candy’ that serves to imprint on our minds, the expectation of a clockwork season. I for one, have come to expect: frost from May until August; an inch of rainfall in July (with snow on the berg); mist in September; thunderstorms commencing in October; cool nights from mid March onwards; wild thunderstorms in December. I could go on. All of these things can fail to happen many times in any particular decade, but I continue to expect them. I think it is a part of our psyche. It is probably the same part that doesn’t believe that someone in our close circle could die tomorrow. We live in denial of such facts.
And spring droughts in South Africa, are as common as bad coffee. Perfect, wet cool spring seasons are a rarity for sure. Dry spring heat is definitely common. Very common.
The fact that we live in denial of that, is evident when farmers have to sell off stock, and stop irrigating, and towns have to impose water restrictions. Our industry, population, and stocking rate, have all grown to beyond a long term sustainable level, and then we act surprised when it doesn’t work out. I don’t mean to underestimate the personal loss, pain and anguish of having to sell a herd of cows ( as my brother had to do yesterday!), or wind up a business, and I don’t mean to imply that any individual is foolish in having extended operations beyond what the long term dictates is sustainable, but looking at the bigger picture, I think that humankind’s expectations exclude black swans +
I firmly believe however, that Trout, by their very existence, can signal to us what sort of level of water is a realistic long term minimum. I made a remark to Tom Sutcliffe the other day. It went something like this “ I think that the average size of Trout in a stream, is an indicator of the lowest level of water they experience”. Tom said he thought that pretty much nailed it.
So here it is: Little berg streams, (like the Little Mooi in that pretty section below the road on the way from Cleopatra to the conservation office at Highmoor), will hold fish of a size that can be sustained by the miserable still pools left at the end of a drought. No bigger. No more.
And if you have a very small stream, but it happens to be one that stays relatively full in even the worst of droughts, you may be pleasantly surprised by the size of its Trout. Similarly, a large river, which looks as though it should hold lunkers, will not, if it is reduced to a trickle in seasons such as the one we are currently experiencing.
This is where realism comes in. Even one pound Trout, will never be a regular feature of the Elands River (Boston, KZN). And this is also where patience comes in. We might have to concede that an entire spring, even an entire river season, may be a write off for the fly-fisherman. A complete write off. I mean: months of staying home watching the lawn grass die, kind of write off. And, if we extend that logic, some streams, pretty as they may look in a good year, maybe aren’t supposed to hold Trout at all.
No, I don’t want to accept it either. I am feeling crabby right now, and if anyone makes stupid comments about patience, they had better watch out for flying rocks.
* Footnote on Ed Zern’s approach: In Zern’s superb book “Hunting and fishing from A to Zern” he describes how he once had a particularly precious hook get left in the jaw of a small and irritating Trout that he inadvertently bungled and snapped off.
He went after it, flailing with his landing net in an attempt to recover the hook, and then noticed he was being watched with disdain by some other anglers. Rather than attempt an explanation, that would just sound like excuses, he threw rocks.
+ Footnote on Black Swans: Read the book by Nassim Taleb…. Good material if you are a DTN.
# In case foreign readers hadn’t gathered by now, we are in the throws of an awful drought in most of South Africa. Our spring rains should commence around late September, and by late October we should be getting some respectable run-off. It hasn’t happened at all. Many streams have stopped flowing altogether. It is not a pretty thing!
In the summer months, I often have occasion to fish some tiny streams. I really enjoy those waters. Delicate strands of water, in which any trout that you do succeed in catching, is a miracle of nature.
Delicate strands of water
Sure, the words “miracle of nature” are over-used, cliched, and bordering on corny, but consider this:
We have just come through a spring drought, both in KZN, and the NE Cape. You just have to drive through the Kamberg valley, as I did yesterday, to see that despite all the green grass, the dams are still not full. That would have a little less to do with how much rain we have had in the last few weeks, and a lot more to do with what happened from August to November. We are prone to dry spring seasons here, and this year was one of them. To top that, it came after a winter in which we did not receive our customary inch of rain (together with snow on the berg) in July.
So if we can still see that in the level of the dams, especially the ones from which the farmers irrigated, then try to picture the little stream you fished this week, two months ago. With that mental image, try to picture a trout living in there.
I remember one unseasonably dry December, Petro and I hiked up a small side-stream on the Bokspruit that Ben Vosloo had directed us to. Ben’s instructions had been clear, so there was no doubt that we were on the correct stream, but I stared at the trickle in disbelief.
My disbelief deepened, when a hundred yards further we saw trout. We could not have missed them. The poor creatures were lying in solid rock basins worn by the river over many centuries of better flow. When I say “basins”, picture the basin you shave over. They were almost as small, and they didn’t have as much cover . Your basin has the arm of the tap over it, these had no such luxury. When the fish spotted us, all they could do to save themselves, was to zoom around that pool at the greatest speed they could manage. Consider for a moment, that their only food was delivered to them down a tiny trickle of water flowing over warm rock, from the basin above, where a few other trout had picked off whatever was in that water. Maybe a gust of wind might bring them a hopper. And they survived until the next rain. A miracle of nature indeed!
I for one, often under-estimate the ability of trout to survive in these extreme conditions. Such conditions are almost a certainty in a small stream, where there are no, or few, great big pools, where a trout can hunker down in a drought.
One year Basie Vosloo took a few of us up a small feeder stream on his farm. We were looking for trout, just to know if they were there. Basie stopped the F250 in the valley basin, where the nchi-chi grew thickly, there was plenty of cover, and a half reasonable volume of water.
We surveyed the stream, and while we saw nothing, we pronounced it OK for trout. Then Basie drove further, and stopped again. Together with the dogs, we picked our way to the stream, and looked again.
It was getting pretty thin right there, but Basie insisted we go further. I said nothing, but inside I was thinking that this was just a little ridiculous. Almost as if to make a point, Basie drove us twice the distance we had come. We stopped at a stream crossing, were the water trickled through a pipe, and oozed over a rock embankment. Impossible. Ridiculous. But following the enthusiastic dogs, we walked a few yards down. I hung back and let the others go ahead. I was not going to waste my time.
And then “Yup! Here’s a rainbow” came the call.
I had to see this with my own eyes. Sure enough, there it was: A miracle of nature.
What this all comes down to though, is that when fishing one of these little gems, one has to be realistic, and patient. Consider for a moment how that stream may have looked in the dead of winter. Unlike the stocked dam, the presence of trout cannot be assumed. In that context the scarcity of the trout becomes expected, and those that you do catch become wonders.
The days that you can’t find them become exercises in patience and humility. The fish that you do find, should be cause for celebration. Rest assured, that celebration at the 8 inch brown you just caught from a full rushing stream in summer, will not be understood by some of those to whom you tell of its capture.
“It was how big?” . You show them the photo.
“Lovely” they say, with just the slightest hint of condescension in their tone. You flip to the next photo to show them some more in the hopes that they will get it. You have a picture of just how small the stream was . You can put this all in perspective for them. You flip back to show them the other pictures from the drought months to bring your point home.
But they are pouring tea, and discussing the new hardware store that just opened in town.
Additional photos sent in by Tom Sutcliffe, of the feeder stream on Basie Vosloo’s farm, and some fry and paired trout in that delicate water. Thank you Tom.