Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

Posts tagged “Ed Zern

Coffee & quotes

coffee maker-1

Thanks to my friends Anton and Allison for this oh so posh coffee drip filter thing which they gave me for my fiftieth. Very suave! I become philosophical when I drink coffee made in it.


And the quote:

“Fly Fishing, or any other sport fishing, is an end in itself and not a game or competition among fishermen; The great figures in the historic tradition of angling are not those men who caught the greatest numbers of fish or the biggest fish but those who, like Ronalds and Francis and Halford and Skues and Gordon and Wulff and Schwiebert, made lasting contributions of thought and knowledge, of fly patterns and philosophy, of good writing and good sportsmanship”

And that comes from what is arguably my favourite fishing book of all time , written by this man, famous member of the Midtown Turf, Yachting and Polo Association:



Droughts and patience

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!

I had a dream

It went something like this:

We were near Mooi River.The  water had been booked, but we were somehow unsure of parking arrangements. While hovering around the entrance road the farmer drove past. Bruce is his name. He is from Mooi River. I know him well. We didn’t stop him or greet him, but let him pass like a stranger. Then we parked and walked to the dam in front of his house. Bruce doesn’t own a farm, let alone one with a house overlooking it.

The lake was small and ugly, but the water was devilishly clear. This makes little sense, because it was mid-summer. The bottom was patches of orange clay interspersed with dark green weed beds. The Trout were swimming about, plain as daylight, and must have been able to see our every move.

I cast out over the hopelessly clear water, with its swimming Trout. There was no chance of catching one. They had all seen us, and we had seen all of them. It was a horrible day.  But by good fortune, the fly came to rest in a narrow slither of shade, formed by a weed bank. Lo and behold, that slither of shade held a Trout bigger than all the rest.

In a startling moment of excitement the giant fish appeared from out of that slither of inky depth and ate the fly. No. I don’t know what fly it was. That is not important.

The fish went wild. It leapt and thrashed and disturbed the entire lake, thrashing about over that orange clay, and colouring the entire body of water like the Animas river after its mine spillage. It was awful.

I didn’t have my net. It was on the veranda of the cottage behind us. I didn’t mention the cottage behind us did I? No. Farmhouse. Cottage. It’s a dream OK! James was there. James is my son. He is a young man. In the dream he was a sulking teenager. I shouted for him to bring the net. Shouted and shouted. I dare not turn around to see what he was up to: I would lose the giant fish! I shouted some more. “Bring the bloody net!” He was a teenager. I don’t know what he was doing back there, but he sure as hell wasn’t bringing the net, and the fish was thrashing around in the Fanta Orange. It was a desperate situation. I shouted until I was hoarse. James wasn’t bringing the net.

Eventually he came flopping along with the frigin net. I beat him over the head with it in frustration (repeatedly), and then landed the great fish.

It was a wonderful fish, shaped like a Chinook salmon. Deep and broad. I measured it. My tape measures are all cut to the length of a reasonable South African Trout. This one ended at 29 inches. I held a place marker on the fish’s flank with my thumb and pulled the tape through my fingers to start again. 29 plus 3.  31 inches!  Magnificent. I hooked the thing up to my budget Chinese spring balance and it went “clunk” as it hit the bottom.

We will never know what that fish weighed!  But I have such a clear picture of it in my mind’s eye. It was a hen fish with a big hooked jaw. So clear. I think I am going to get one of those big green plastic looking replicas made of it. Hang it on the wall I will. Maybe I will get the guys to add an animation thing like they did with Billy, that disgusting bass. Mine will play “Sail” by Awol Nation. Or maybe something to the tune of “Mary had a little lamb”

It was a dream OK!

James:  I am sorry about that. How is your head this morning? (But why didn’t you just bring the bloody net?)

(James is currently working on a kibbutz in Israel)

Moral of the story:  (with apologies to Ed Zern) The frame of your landing net should be built slender and delicate, but don’t overdo it. You might need to land a very big fish with it. Or do other things.