Making my way west, away from the brutal hissing, rattling black highway, puts me in the folds of soft hills. Soft hills decked in the ochres, fawn, brown, yellow, maple orange and bare sticks of winter’s onset. The only hard lines are the escarpment, where the berg presses against the sky in a stark outline. It is an outline of a boundary against which we retreat. It reminds me of my prized dorm bed at boarding school, that fit in a corner against the walls of the basement boiler, and was warm in winter. So too, the berg is a boundary of comfort. Heading west puts me in place where my back is covered. The higher I go, the less of the downstream lowlands I see and the further I am from that highway. I can choose how high to go, and my decision depends on my need for escape from the lowlands….depends on how much of that brutal highway I have been absorbing of late.
The westward route extends past the railway lines and coffee shops and tourists who point out of their windows before taking sudden, lurching turns. Driving it now, I am rolling the vista back and forward in my mind. Back to summer, when it was rank and warm, and roadside grasses had aspirations of being giant elephant reeds. Forward to June, when the stems of bolted grass are stark sticks, losing husks and gathering dust. In between was the golden season. The season of crocosmias paniculata, lit like burgundy on fire. The season of falling stars: delicate blooms of Oros fake orange (6% real, the rest delivered along that highway from a factory somewhere). The golden season that went too quickly and took with it its red wine pin oaks and its amber London Planes; stole the spathes, spikelets and awns of the wild oat grass, and made off with its cool mornings and breezy warm days. We are left now with crows and sticks and dust; mornings too still to blow away the frost; days too hazy to feel the earth’s lines.
The contrast of our sport cuts like an old blunt knife. Like that cake knife back home, the one with the split wooden handle, bound with string. One that must be pressed and worked, and tilted to cleave the days and leave autumn aside, and winter to be coped with. Autumn with the rivers still open, and their small shy browns spooking at my clumsy casts. On that last day, my wading boots slid into the clean water. Water so clean I had to put my hand into it to be sure it was there. When it seeped through the neoprene onto my skin, my breath knew it was there, and it escaped from my chest in alarm. The fish were rather offish. The ones I found were the ones I spooked, or were rising, but there were few of both. The rising ones only needed one cast to dissuade them, and I couldn’t make them gentle enough. Not even with whisper fine 7X tippet on the two weight, and CDC dries. They just didn’t want them. And I suppose I just didn’t need them either. What I needed was the cold water, and warm sun weak enough not to roast me. I needed the Prussian blue and blackened purples of the shaded side of Baboon hill as my backdrop; and I needed the willows still with leaf but a sorry lemon lime hue leaf, not a lush green one. I needed silk surfaced fields, pale and dotted with bales, each one throwing a shadow as black as charcoal. I needed those trout too, but I only needed them to show themselves to me. I didn’t need to posses them. I only needed to possess autumn.
But the knife has pressed and cleaved the seasons now, and autumn can’t be possessed any longer. I drive further on rippled, bone shaking corrugations, and I throw dust clouds in the wake of the bakkie. At the bridge I pretend not to look at the river that jilts me. It runs clear, and strong enough to make me think of spring, although I deny the thought. My thoughts must run with the season.
I alight from the vehicle into wiry, tawny grass, and am greeted by warm sun and a raw breeze. The air is coming at me from the north across the cerulean ripples of the lake. I need a jacket. Later, I push the toe of my boot through iced muck, sticking to the cattails and reeds in the boggy margins. Just beyond, a band of still water laps in inky rolling waves that curl into the cattails and are tamed. At the outer edge of that bank, the mesmerizing ripples start, glinting fierce sunlight across at me and in, under the brim of my hat to hurt my eyes. Although I have to squint to look at it, its that transition that I am after, and I throw a team of flies across there. It is close enough that I am cautious not to move, and that a false cast is not needed. The black DDD alights, and the rice-bead corixa imitation plops just behind it. I hold the rod high, and still, poised expectedly. “The hang” they call it. It feels more like a long wait to me. Nothing happens. I try it a few more times, but winter fish are stubborn, and averse to our formulas. You will have more luck calling the cat.
Before long I am moving from spot to spot. My focus has changed to seeking warmth from the sun between wind gusts, casting in a direction in which I save my eyes the glimmer, and achieving crisp loops and pleasing distances. I have long since changed to a single fly, and I retrieve faster than I want to.
It seems slow, and there is a lot of time for considering the world, and the lake, and the season past. I am small and I am perched on a high vista in the wind, and the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes run repeatedly through my mind. I have to remind myself that this is what winter fly fishing is about. I consider a day back in the eighties, where I fished Triangle dam like this all day, and in which I was rewarded with one Rainbow. Only one Rainbow; but it was big and angry and I still have the photo. “Stick it out” I tell myself, but I needn’t, because I always do stick it out. It is merely an exercise in getting one’s mind alignment right. Standing there alone, with more thoughts than time, and all the time in the world to pick which ones to use, you never know if you have that alignment right. Never will.
Many hours later I am jolted by a silvery rainbow. It’s lively, but it is a small one. Later, another takes the fly as I lift it, but for the rest the fish are off the prod, and this day will remain one of wind and sun. “Meaningless. Meaningless”.
As I step out of the cab to close the last gate behind me in the gloom of evening, my senses are hit by the silage-like scent of dead, dewy winter grass, and my entire childhood washes over me in the time it takes to close the gate.
It is winter now.
I know. It is a contradiction. But consider the richness of contrast.
Just look at the contrast: of shade, texture, light and dark. Think of the feelings and depth of thought that it invokes.
And then, having done that, employ the technique of introducing colour, and relish the richness of it. No one does that quite like Middleton:
“With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other. On the far west ridge, damask reds and vermillion giving way to softer Chinese reds and the blunt reds of aged wine, and these in turn, mixed with leaves of moody sallow and the dull yellow of sulphur and raw cream, and among these were newly fallen leaves still bright as jonquils”
and he goes on with
“ ……pumpkin orange….daring blotches of apricot…wrinkled browns….and the colour of tarnished copper and well-worn leather “ Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time”
Now look again:
It’s been fun exploring some quotes from books recently read and re-read. And exploring “Pewter and Charcoal”, but I will end this little series here, for a while…..
I hope you have enjoyed it.
At the tender age of seventeen, I would have been hamstrung and home-trapped, had it not been for Plunkington. Plunkington was eighteen years old. He also, as luck would have it, had both a driver’s license, and a car that got us to fishing water with almost respectable reliability.
There was a time, the memories of which are sufficiently hazy, that I struggle to place it in the continuum that was my growth into fly-fishing, in which that car transported us to Midmar. Midmar, small tents, mealie pap, and carp. Deck chairs and booze from brown paper bags completed the scene. The memories are hazy, but Plunkington, the character, is not.
A tall, lanky bloke, with a wide frame, low energy that never dried up, and a slow, long, methodical stride, Plunkington’s level of excitement never rose above the volume of his music. He listened to AC/DC, ZZ Top, and various other noisy rock bands, at volumes that were barely audible. The music emitted from either the poor quality tape player in the old car, or an even lower quality portable radio, that he would take with him in his boat. Given that I could never hear the thing, I stopped short of complaining about it, but I did venture that music on a boat was far removed from the fly-fishing scene I had in mind. Plunkington would not have replied. Some things are better left un-said. In Plunkington’s case, he believed that to be true for most things.
We would arrive at a dam, and Plunkington would begin to tackle up in dead silence. There was nothing to compete with my babble about which fly I planned to use, what strength mono I thought might be appropriate and the like. He answered questions, and then only if they were direct enough, and an absence of wind prevented him from pretending not to have heard. Typically, I would still be talking, only to look up and find that he had rigged his heavy fibreglass rod long ago, and had mooched off to throw his Walkers Killer, leaving me with a lot less wind in my sails than had emitted from my mouth.
Plunkington claimed bad knees. He didn’t speak about that, or moan, he just moved slowly and deliberately. He climbed through fences in slow motion. He tied on flies, stashed his net, and landed Trout in the same way. Grenades may or may not have changed that. I suspect the latter would have been the case.
Plunkington fished a cheap sinking line on his cheap rod. He stuck to old fly patterns, swore more than was necessary, and caught more Trout than all of us. He drank his beer in quarts, from the bottle, and in the bath. He handled blank days badly, but fished them harder. His response to filthy weather was to stay out even longer than he would do in fine weather, and keep us waiting, shivering at the locked car. If you went out to find him, and plead that sanity prevail, you were inclined to find him rowing the boat away in the mist to a new spot, even further away from the landing. And the reception you would get was more icy than the weather.
Nothing deterred the man. After seven blank days in a row, he would drop me off at home, and ask “where to tomorrow?”. The next morning he would be there, his wet clothes still on the front seat, and junk all about the car. He would clear a space for me and say quietly “We are going to KILL them today!” He would plead poverty, and have me paying more than my share of the petrol, or he would demolish my sandwiches on account of his local shop having run out bread. Coupled with that his demons inspired in him tall stories, which at first we all believed. His self-confidence hovered around rock bottom, and emerged like a flower that blooms fleetingly in a desert, only when he caught more Trout than us. For the rest he was either on an even keel, or he was somewhere between gloomy and uninspired.
At the end of every days fishing he would claim in all seriousness to have lost the car keys. After a frantic search, and detailed contemplation of how we would have to spend the night out, or walk twenty kilometres for help, he would miraculously find them. Plunkington drank too much, rolled cars, told lies, got in a huff, and caught way too many Trout.
“So why on earth did you stick it out?” my wife asks.
We talked fishing. We fished. We spent long hours in small boats together. We got cold, and we got hot and we suffered the elements. We got caught in storms, and witnessed strange things together. We laughed a lot, at stupid things, that no one else would have got. We compared flies and spoke tackle and fly-fishing venues, and personalities. We shared our hatred for bass in our Trout waters. He came up with wild and quirky ideas. We shared our mutual teenage awkwardness by escaping to Trout waters, and in so doing largely avoided it altogether.
On a blank day he would lie on his back in the grass chewing a grass stem, and after a long silence he would proclaim: “Bugger-all fish in this water. We should really stock carp here”.
So I don’t know why I stuck it out. But I do know that I would do it all again.
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.
Skimming through fishing magazines, websites and books, I can’t help but notice the prevalence of articles espousing the wildness of the fishing. The secret location is so remote that a helicopter was the only way in. The bigger fish are in the headwaters above the waterfall, and it takes several hours to hike in. For the best fishing, you have to walk further. And so it goes.
And we want to be the one who DID walk further. The one who went higher into the mountains, beyond where your unfit mates would ever go.
We hope that the fishing there will be better too, because then we would have been rewarded for our efforts. We will also have a story to tell, and our mates are more likely to repeat the story on our behalf when we are not around. In short, we will be heroes. I remember taking two mates on an epic hike in cold damp weather, in which there was less fishing than hiking, and all we saw was one monster Trout racing for cover.
I enjoy the fact that we went up there, further than anyone else goes. When I see pictures of other’s expeditions that made it halfway to where we went, I have to bite my tongue. I don’t want to be the tosser who blurts out that we went higher. But I do enjoy knowing that.
I don’t believe that I have a competitive bone in my body. Maybe I do, but I don’t believe it. I don’t think I am trying to be a hero. If I am, please aim a kick at my shin!
What I do know, is that in a world of ringing phones, busy airports and desks overflowing in paper, I want to set myself apart from it all. Being the one who hiked over the big mountain to the dangerous side, and came back with a picture of a 22 inch Brown, is one way of pulling ones flagging spirit from the mire of modern life.
Some might argue that achieving this with a modicum of humility is the trick. They might be right, but I think that for a plunker like me, hooking that big Brown and then actually landing it, is where the real trick lies.
I recently came to the realisation that I have something of a penchant for fishing waters other than the "blue ribbon" ones. That is to say that I end up exploring lesser known waters or waters that are passed over by others as being second class.
I can’t quite work out why I do that. Maybe on some level I dream of re-discovering a long forgotten gem. Or maybe it is because these streams are less likely to be occupied by other fishermen. While we seldom encounter other fishermen on the river here, there is something to be said for the river bank without paths or well trampled grass. Perhaps it has something to do with my secret belief that one day I will catch a lunker from under everyone’s noses.
Or perhaps I am naturally a supporter of the underdog. The poor cousin of the great Trout stream. The waters that are forgotten by everyone else.
What I do know is that this inclination of mine sees me hiking more, and catching fewer fish. I do fish the good waters, make no mistake, but just as often I will be crawling through the undergrowth trying to find the water, while many others have their fly in a perfect drag free drift on a premium stretch of the Mooi or Bushmans.
Many of these visits, maybe you could say most of them, end in at least some disappointment. Yes, I will clock up some more exploring miles. Put little red squiggles on my GPS map, see some wildlife, or spot a new bird. But when I return fishless, albeit a little wiser, with blackjacks stuck to my clothes, I will think "maybe I should have stuck with my favourite stretch of the Mooi". And yet a few weeks later you will find me out there crawling through the undergrowth, or fishing water that may (or may not) contain Trout.
Just last week I dragged two fishing buddies on a hike that well exceeded ten kilometers. A week earlier some guys had been catching eighteen inch Browns on the main river. Logic said we should have been there, but instead we were on a virtually unheard of tributary. We had explored the lower reaches but, inspired by deceptively attractive Google Earth images, I lured my mates ever higher into the hills. Near to our furthest point I hooked and landed an unidentified minnow of microscopic proportions. It was the only piscatorial event of the day.
"This is a long way to come to catch a mudfish!" commented PD.
Hours later, having hiked back to within site of the pickup, he spotted a Brown that he reckoned would have gone two pounds. Thank heavens he didn’t catch it. I would never have heard the end of that.
I was on the Eastern shoreline of a small lake that we sometimes fish. For my last minute day off from work, I had been blessed with mild sunny weather. It was April, and the blue sky was dotted with drifting puffy white clouds. There was a slight Northerly breeze. Just enough to ripple the crystal clear water.
The fish were small. Tiny in fact. Last year’s stocking had clearly been a success, and as a result we would have to put up with these ankle biters until following seasons, by which time the fishing would no doubt be superb.
For now, I was content. So what if the fish still had parr markings. They were ‘on the prod’, and the alternative would have been to be at a desk with a computer and an incessantly ringing phone.
The fish were feeding for sure, but I was getting more “bangs and wriggles” than I was Rainbows. I had on a #12 Red Eyed Damsel which the fish were chasing for sure, but they were really only connecting with it when I stripped it back fast. It reminded me of the method I had deployed the evening before go get my daughter’s kitten to chase a pom-pom. The fish were of similar size and disposition! But this was no way to fish a damsel imitation, or anything else for that matter.
I reeled in and walked on down the pretty rocky shoreline. This place has the look and feel of a Scottish loch. It is as good a place as any to take a stroll to unwind on your day off. Further along, I sank into the thick grass and busied myself with the connection of a little dry fly. A “DHE”. I greased it up well and then teased the deer hair fibres apart again, to restore it’s buggy spiky look.
Then I sat back in the veld and waited for a fish to show. A few fish had been showing on the surface, but certainly not many. It was a fair wait. Fifteen minutes perhaps. Fifteen unwinding minutes of not casting, and just taking in the view. It was exactly what I needed.
Then a fish swirled. I covered it quickly and landed it, returned it, and sat back in the grass to dry the fly. No casting.
After a further ten minutes another fish moved, and I repeated the single cast regime, with the same result.
I can recommend it.
There was a time when I was less than diligent about carrying a net.
It was in the days before magnetic net keepers, and at a time when long handled retractable nets were the order of the day on stillwaters. The problem lay in carrying the net. I’d clip it to my belt, but when I went to crouch down, it would hinge around and the handle would catch me in the groin unexpectedly. I would try shoving it down my trousers, which worked ok until you went down on one knee and it poked you in the sternum. This was also less than pleasant when the net had been used and was wet!
Many years ago, I used to fish stillwaters with a fellow by the name of Guy, who had bad knees. I don’t know how bad the knees were. All I know is that when I was crouching in the tall grass or beside a bush at the water’s edge, he was standing tall, because it was uncomfortable for him to crouch.
So I was at an advantage. I could take cover just a little more than he could. So the fish were less likely to see me, and I would catch more fish.
Except that it didn’t work like that. In fact I don’t remember EVER out-fishing Guy. I may have done, but I think I would have remembered that.
So what was it about him that gave him such “good hands”?
I recently started wearing sun gloves when out fly-fishing. Here are my personal observations:
Sun protection. I suppose this has to be number one on the list. I started wearing them for this reason alone. I simply didn’t want my hands to look like my grandmother’s did, with large dark spots on the back, and with a leathery look, and regular little bleeding nicks. The gloves seem to do the job well, and considering that sun-cream washes off ones hands, the glove would be the way to go. We have harsh sun conditions here in South Africa, and one finds that particularly at high altitude, you very quickly burn.
Protection from wind and chapping. This was a surprise discovery. Regrettably I am an office person, and when exposed to wind and cold, my hands simply are not as tough as they need to be. I have found that the gloves help with this aspect of things.
It is a simple fact that hardly anyone can afford to have a dedicated fishing car of any quality nowadays. There are those who have written about their fishing cars, but they were all somehow old “jalopies” (as we call them in South Africa), that made for a good story but were not reliable enough to provide a fishing trip of any comfort. So the reality is that the vehicle one goes to work in every day, has to double as your fishing car.
With this in mind, any self respecting fly-fisherman, will of course choose his vehicle without any consideration to its normal everyday use. He will buy it for his outdoor pursuits alone, and live with its idiosyncrasies on the city streets. I applaud that.
I too have chosen my mode of transport over the last two decades, with regard only for my fishing.
I have in fact done this only twice, because rightly or wrongly, I like to drive a vehicle until it can drive no more. I started with “Rufus” some 17 years ago. Rufus was a maroon coloured Ford ranger, 2 wheel drive 2,5 diesel double cab. What a “bakkie” that was! I christened it with a fishing trip to the Rhodes area within weeks of having bought it, thus consummating it’s role as a fishing vehicle.
Before leaving the hospital, I was careful to check with the surgeon that he did indeed recommend fly-fishing the following day as part of my recovery program. He confirmed that with my feet in the water and some beer going in the other end, my very recently attended to kidney would be happy as can be.
By the following morning the effects of the general anaesthetic had worn off enough that when PD texted to say “are you up to this” I replied in the affirmative without hesitation, and he was forced to overcome his own stress induced lethargy, and come over to help me load the canoe.
We fished one of the lower lakes on the farm. An easy water, where the fish are obliging.
I lay in bed this morning, as the rain pattered on the roof, thinking as one does, about exactly where to spread our “winnings”. We have all, I am sure day- dreamed about how exactly we would spend our lottery winnings. A new truck, a couple of bamboo fly rods, a few trips to exotic fly-fishing locations reachable only by helicopter: Kamkatchka. New Zealand. Alaska. Maybe Mongolia for Taimen. That sort of thing. But our winnings this time are real winnings. They are Trout. Hatched Trout, and thousands of them.
Thousands of them!
We had a good year at the hatchery this year you see, and we have a last batch of some twenty odd thousand fry, that need to go into the dams tomorrow.
This morning as my vehicle sputtered reluctantly to life, it coughed out a slug of yesterday’s dust through the air-vents, long before it breathed any warmth into the frigid cab. The dust in question was the only pervading reminder of our travels in Trout country.
I had been a dastardly day. High wind, coming out of either the South or the West or some cold place in between. Wind that , having touched some sparse dirty snow somewhere, then thrashed the surface of the dams into icy whitecaps.
We tried to fish of course. The canoe was duly launched, and wrapped in heavy jackets and beanies, we climbed clumsily aboard and dug the oars deeply into the crystal clarity of a deep green lake. On arrival at our normal spot we dropped anchor. More correctly, we dropped both anchors. Heavy weather calls for such measures. PD asked for instructions on the anchor protocol. “Just throw the thing overboard” I yelled into the wind. And he did.
“You will hear the silence of the folded hillside brushed by the wind in its grasses..”
The other day I grasped an opportunity to go out on the river alone. From time to time I have this urge for the utter solitude and peace of being alone on the water for a full day. In fact I have that urge most weekends, and seldom get to fulfill the dream. So when this particular late September day dawned, I woke with my soul upon the lip of the precipice, ready to soar. I was happy. I left my bed with a sense of freedom and liberation. I had awoken early. The kids were baby-sat.
All was well until I reached the bedroom window and drew back the curtain a few inches to inspect the conditions. It had been raining. In fact my memory was suddenly jogged that in the half sleep of the bewitching hour, I had heard a thunderstorm and the drumming of the gutters. It was now cold and miserable. I stepped back and pondered the situation briefly, and then looked again.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to join a Kombi load of fly-fishermen, and travel down to the unlikely destination of Somerset East in the Cape to get some trout.
On that trip, Maurice Broughton and I were assigned a beat on the tiny Naude’s river, and with our guide, we had an enjoyable morning hunting trout in the better pools.
At lunchtime we found a lovely willow tree growing in a patch of lush grass beside a pool in the stream.
We settled down to some sandwiches, and if memory serves, a chilled bottle of wine!
While we were sitting there, enjoying the tranquil setting, a small trout began rising at the head of the pool. He rose a few times, right up in the funnel. Right up where the water cascaded over some stone into the pool.
He only rose a few times and then stopped. Maurice and I began to postulate as to what he might be taking. We decided it was a terrestrial of some sort, because nothing was hatching, but a light breeze buffeted the veld grass beside the water.
It was then that we decided to have some fun.
I recently spent a few days with four friends on some magnificent trout rivers. On that particular trip we made a point of dividing ourselves differently each day, and heading out onto our booked beats, only to regroup at lunch time, or perhaps in the evening.
Over those days we fished long hours, and all caught many good trout. However, despite the long stretches of time on the water, I found myself watching my colleagues fish for many enjoyable hours, particularly after I had caught a few trout, and settled into the day in question.
A memorable day on the Bokspruit at Carabas. One of the most beautiful pieces of water I know.