Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

Posts tagged “flyfishing

Stoneycroft then and now

Stoneycroft

If, in 1936, you had consulted the newly published guide to the “Inland Waters of Natal”, with a view to fishing the uMngeni (then spelt Umgeni), you would have been pointed to Mr WJ Mc Donald. This would have been through a listing of the various country hotels from which one might venture out to fish for Trout, which had been in some of these waters for close to 50 years. The guide shows that McDonald could have put you onto five miles of the Inzinga River, but elsewhere he is listed as the contact for 2 miles of Brown Trout fishing un the “Umgeni” at Stoneycroft.

If you go driving the Dargle district now, looking for the farm Stoneycroft, you will be disappointed.

Old Topo maps show a farm named “Stoneycroft”, which is now, and has for a long time, been called “Wakecroft”. The title deeds of Wakecroft indicate that the farm is a subdivision of Wakefield Farm , the upstream farm that still bears this name, given it no doubt by its first owner under the British Crown in 1851, Mr Frederick Edgar Shaw, who hailed from the Yorkshire town of the same name.

If you had fished there in 1936, we can imagine that you would find a clear flowing stream, passing through sweeping grasslands, broken only by patches of forest on the south facing slopes, and ribbons of forest pioneer species tracing the tributaries as they fell from the escarpment in the south west.

It is not clear where the boundaries of the two-mile stretch might be. If your permit allowed you upstream, you would  no doubt have been on the property belonging to Helli Lasch, possibly on to the next piece belonging to my grandfather, DS Fowler. Otherwise you would have gone down a little onto the farm Furth, where the Morphew family settled about the same time that Shaw did.

You probably would have fished downstream then, as was the custom, so the escarpment known as the “Heatherdon ridge” would have been on your right shoulder. You would have regularly had views of Inhlosane mountain to the south, but it is not impossible that its original Afrikaans name of “Spitzberg” might have lingered on the lips of locals.

Inhlosane Mountain circa 1930

Just off that mountain to the east the Speir family might have still been in residence at Mount Park. You would have caught Browns between half a pound and three pounds.

The absence of literature on this particular flyfishing experience hints at the fact that the stream would not have been heavily fished.

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If in 2023 (a mere 87 years later), you were to join the Natal Fly Fishers Club and book to fish this beat, you would probably be facing upstream as you fish, as is the custom of the day. The Heatherdon Ridge would be at your left shoulder, and if you occasionally glanced back you would see Inhlosane Mountain (and no one would know that it ever had another name).

The chances are you would be making a day trip, or you might be staying at Beverley Country Cottages or Mount Park, both of which are closer than Impendle (and Impendle would not be on the list of likely alternatives). If you scouted around the valley or spoke to some locals you would come across Morphews, Lasch, Fowler, Shaw and other names that were pinned to the landscape back in ’36 too.

You would get Brown Trout of between half a pound and Three pounds descended from the same Trout now 133 years in residence. I can tell you that you will not encounter other anglers on the water: It is lightly fished.

Stoneycroft

There is a timelessness to places like Stoneycroft.


Endless occasions to exercise hope

uMngeni Trout water

I had a few minutes to stroll along a stretch of my home water this week. The water was cold and crystal clear, and being mid winter, distinctly off bounds. But I found myself cupping my hands aside my glasses to cut out the glare and scanning every inch as one does. My senses were alert. September was in my mind.

This quote from Art Lee captured my state of mind beautifully:

“For hundreds of days on scores of rivers, I’ve sought trout and salmon pools the way some travelers seek cathedrals, and somehow each one I’m shown becomes at once the most splendid of all for the wonder of knowing I’m yet to explore it. For, if it’s true that the essence of fishing lies concealed in its endless occasions to exercise hope, then the embodiment of this ideal must swim in the waters that glide by under your gaze, awaiting only your presence to begin dramas for which nature has rehearsed the waters for ages”.


Season’s Bookends

uMngeni River

I managed to fish the first pool of the day in shirtsleeves, but by the time I was throwing my dry fly into the tongue of current at the top I was shivering, and I didn’t stick it out as long as I would normally do. A cold , dry southerly wind had sprung up, and I was soon off up the hill. There I retrieved the keys from their hiding place in the rear wheel arch, and I was relieved to pull on my jacket, and stem the cold that had seeped into me. I could have tolerated the cold wind if I had been waded into warm summer water, but the water on the last day of the season was at less than 10 degrees C. I shivered one last time and returned to the river where Anton was diligently working the next run, swooning at the beauty of the water, and trying not to curse at a now buffeting wind.

The wind gained strength and threw dust and dry leaves up into the air over the river. As we drew closer to the forest, trees creaked and leaves rustled in a dry hushing sound, somehow distinct from the sound they make at the approach of a humid summer storm. I looked down the valley, where under the view of the same mountain that commands the south-western flank of the valley, I had fished in the sticky heat of summer.

I remember a day when I described the water as “beautifully clean”, but if I had to be honest, it was not a patch on the late season water up here, several kilometres up the valley. That day, was one of many where I watched the sky with suspicion and a modicum of caution, in the knowledge of the impunity with which those  heavy clouds are known to throw down storms.  In the final analysis, during the period from the season’s opening in September to Christmas, we weren’t often  chased  off the water with fearful lightning storms. Sure, we had those in December as we normally do, but September opened after late August rains, and the river presented with bountiful clean water from the get-go. Through the next 3 months we had days of soft soaking rains, the rivers stayed full and clean, and the heat stayed at bay. It was a glorious season, and I knew it. I have fished enough seasons to know that dry, hot, algal springs are more the norm, and the conditions that unfolded demanded a level of consciousness if you were to be awake to the brilliant flyfishing opportunities. I felt like an evangelist when I phoned my buddies and said things like “Just do it…just go…this doesn’t happen often…don’t miss out…just grab the opportunity”.  Some listened. I listened to myself. I went fishing, and I did it often. By Christmas I had chalked up a dozen trips to the uMngeni, and had visited Lotheni, the Mooi, the Ncibidwana.  The fishing was fabulous. 

When the deluge of late summer came, and streams were dirty everywhere for days on end, I was able to tolerate the situation in the knowledge that I had squeezed my fair share of  days out of the four months prior. I had landed my best brown ever on the uMngeni, and had had some great fish in other catchments too.

I was content to pick days and dash out to capitalise on narrow windows of opportunity that presented when the sun broke through and the flow subsided for a bit. My cup was adequately full that I could tolerate the odd long trip out to a stream that was more a danger than a delight. I shrugged, tried a few stillwaters to slake my need to be on the water, and wrote and tied flies and marveled at the levels of saturation in the catchments.  The Viking and I got caught in a storm on the Mooi, just like Rogan and I had a few weeks earlier. We discovered tributaries swelled to the point that they were now Trout streams, not trickles. We got stuck in the mud. We phoned one another, and hung on threads of news of streams that may just be fishable.

When April came around, we were off to the North Eastern Cape, where we encountered strong flows and dirty water. We fixed that by going upstream to the high mountain stuff, where previously dainty and almost fragile streams now presented bold flows, and strong fish.  We satisfied our desire for cold high altitude Trout, in successive days of indulgence.

On my return, I was back onto the local streams, to fish the patch between when it frosts at Moshesh’s Ford, and when it frosts at Drinkkop.  Lo and behold, I snatched what felt like just a few days here and there, and then we were into April floods. There was a short gap (which I took advantage of), and then we were into May floods, of all things. Just as those subsided, and three golden weeks of autumn perfection unfolded, I was struck down by COVID, and robbed of it all.

But here I was, back on the river, coughing now and then, but regained in strength enough to enjoy the last day of the season. The late autumn colours of a pin oak contrasted the deep green of the forest and the silver sparkle of the water from a low afternoon sun.

The contrast from my two days in the first week of the season on the same river struck me. It was enormous. Those days had been dark and brooding and warm. They were full of the pregnancy of spring, and the fish had been eager to pack on weight after the winter.

Today the fish were all but extinct. Perfect deep runs over pale, yellow speckled rock were apparently devoid of fish. We couldn’t even spook one. I glanced downriver, where just four weeks earlier I had landed a lovely 18 inch Brown. Today the paper dry wind moaned and the river flowed pretty and empty of willing Trout.  

We were there, I suppose, for ceremonial purposes. The water was pretty and clean, and the sharpness of early winter light threw deep shadows and startling contrasts.

The ceremony marked a full month of river days. They started on the uMngeni in September. They ended on the uMngeni in May. Between was a catalogue of well spent days with great friends across a dozen different streams. Today was the closing book-end. September was the opening one. The season was now packed away in a string of photos, memories, journal entries, and anecdotes.  It was done. We strolled back to the bakkie and I had my first cold beer in weeks.

I was fishless and happy.      


Reekie Lynn

Mooi river Trout

Running over Rabbits

Rainbow Trout

“Turn onto the bunny”. These are the cruel words I was reminded of, as Ray and I strained into the rearview mirror to see if the rabbit had missed the wheels as it dashed in front of us on our route back from the pub to our abode on the Bell River. The words had been emitted by none other than “Matilda”, the ice-queen who delivers driving instructions from within the  GPS. She had been directing me to the River Test in Hampshire, where I was to meet with the keeper. I didn’t think she would lower herself to delivering doom to small innocent bundles of fly tying material.

As we contemplated the fate of the rabbit we had just passed over, we agreed that Jan would have had us stop, and would have subjected us to carrying the carcass around until he could find a pinning board, tacks and salt. But we were tired from a long day on the river, and mercy was not in our plan. We were not going to stop for the bunny.

Walking our socks off on the Riflespruit

We had walked our socks off, and we had doubled down on fine pizza, washed down with cold beer, with an enthusiasm akin to that with which the trout had been smashing our hoppers on the Riflespruit.

Those Trout displayed no mercy. Doctor Harry had passed by behind me, and then from the high bank ahead he directed me to a crack in the rock: a shelf over which the water flowed, and which would surely harbour Trout. He wasn’t wrong. The Rainbows were lined up there like troops, and they clobbered the hopper with gusto each time it drifted over the lip. I would immediately angle the rod low, to draw the thrashing fish downstream, away from the lie, so that I could fool another on the next delivery.

It worked.

I landed 6 fish from the spot. Each one came up as innocently as an ignorant traveller turning onto a small country lane.  They smoked the hopper and I landed them with impunity.

But as the cock crowed in the dawn, the tables would turn. A day or two later I missed fish after fish in a pool on the upper Bokspruit. Thinking back on it now, the fish lost  in that particular pool, numbered precisely six. One brut snapped me off after a spirited fight. The others just didn’t connect to the hopper. My mates standing behind me, taking videos, were swooning and swearing and ultimately taking pity on me for my bad luck. They offered me the best pools thereafter, as if to give me opportunities at redemption.

The best pools on the Bokspruit

It just got worse…I missed even more fish as the afternoon wore on. The situation was one bereft of all mercy. I felt like a run-over rabbit. If truth be told, I still feel that way. I have unfinished business on the upper Bok. In my dreams, I see the neb of a rainbow pop out of the jumbled current to suck down my hopper, as if in slow motion. Others cruise into the air and turn on their sides to land with a raucous splash. It is unclear if they take the hopper on the way up, or the way down, but either way, they smash it with a cruelty that seems unnecessary. As unnecessary as a flyfisher hauling in his quarry to photograph its spots before sending it back, panting and shocked like a rabbit that just missed a wheel.  

Things are not as they seem. “The Bunny” was a small country lane leading to a bridge over the river, where swans pirouetted in the current and Trout swam. 

My colleagues had said that my GPS wouldn’t find it, and they gave me a photocopy of the ordinance map. As it turned out the Ice Queen knew exactly where the bunny was, just like Dr Harry knew there would be Trout in that seam.   The Trout which engulfed bits of bunny fur used to represent the thorax of that hopper.  That hopper that didn’t work on the merciless, beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit.

The beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit

Autumn anticipated

Trout stream

” …..a light that is abstract and tender, just the right light to shield the fickle, often mysterious movements of the brown trout” Harry Midleton; The Spine of Time

This morning was cool. In the garden, I noticed that the little crocosmia “falling stars” have started to lose the brilliance with which they greet hot February days. A stroll to the rain gauge revealed yellowing leaves on a London Plane across the road, but only on the southward side of the giant tree. The gauge itself was full from the last week’s rain, and I remembered that the cicadas have been sounding for days now. I don’t recall hearing them this late, and I know that they were not active in time for the Christmas just passed. Yesterday the Diedericks Cuckoo was competing for the airwaves, and as I sit on the porch to write this, the heat of the day is presenting itself beneath a bright sun. Last night friends reported over a cold beer that they had measured water temperatures of 22 degrees C in recent days. These are signs of mid-summer.  But as we chatted we agreed that signs of autumn were suddenly getting difficult to ignore.

On Thursday the Inzinga river was a raging torrent, and quite unfishable.  The uMngeni was not quite in that category, but I judged it too fast and too coloured to warrant a visit. A friend listened to the broken English of an inhabitant of one of our upland valleys in which he was told that the river was both clean and dirty. He decided he would drive up there today to see for himself, and of course he is taking a fly rod and will send me pictures later. I told him to watch out for an apparently innocent pothole near a stream crossing which caught me off guard last week, and saw my bakkie bottom out on a hidden rock. The flooded stream had washed it out more severely than was apparent!

In the heat of the day, the riverside veld is alive with hoppers but the air temperatures up in the berg are suddenly markedly more pleasant than down in the towns. The light is somehow almost imperceptibly softer. I have a trip to the mountains coming up in just a few weeks, and I know it will be autumnal by then. The change of season is upon us, and there are Trout to be caught.  I am fixing my leaders today and putting my fly tackle back in my bakkie again. I have some flies I need to tie. It is time!

Mooi River

Grab a coffee

Brown Trout

This one is a little longer…..

The water colour is interesting in this video. In the bright morning sun it appears red-brown. Through the Canon SX60 it looks darker but more clear. The underwater shots show the suspended matter, and then later in the day, in different light it looks lighter and just a little milky. In one shot off the north bank with the Canon it looks crystal clear. For me, summer spate water colour like this is as difficult to define as a photographer’s light. Either way, it didn’t seem to deter the fish from taking a fairly small fly.


Big fish, small net!

Trout in a net


Consistency part 2: The veritable machine

A number of weeks back, I was out on the stream with a good mate of mine. It was a warm, cloudy day, in which the light was silvery, but more significantly a fairly fierce wind buffeted us and ruffled the surface. We fished up a section of riffle water interspersed with bigger pools.  Often on this piece we will say “the fish are in the pools today”, or conversely “They are all in the pockets”, or perhaps “they are holding deep…get down”.  On this particular day the results were inconclusive.  We got a few fish from both, but we were hardly tripping over them. It was fun, but it wasn’t a red-letter day. The wind was pretty exhausting! 

We reached a point where the road runs close to the stream, and my partner mentioned that he was tired. I anticipated that we would make use of this take-out point and call it a day.  I wanted a few more throws in a good pool so I fished it very thoroughly, thinking it would be my last fishing spot for the day.  I tried a dry, then a light nymph, and then I worked a deeper pattern, cancelling out options…running through the usual methodical process of elimination. My fishing partner (the one who had said he was tired) , went ahead and fished the only nearby water available, seemingly to kill time until I was done.  The water he was on was less than ideal. It was very fast: all bubbles and whiteness. And remember the wind was blowing hard. In fact it had picked up and it would have been fair to use the word ‘howling’.

He knuckled down; dried his fly; got into position, and with the focus of a hungry heron, set about placing his caddis on dinner plate-sized patches of smooth water.  He said his hit rate was low, but he kept at it.

When I caught up with him he was excited. “five casts, five fish” he enthused. “Just throw you fly in any patch that isn’t white, and I promise, you will get a fish first cast” he said.

And I did.

My point in relating this, is not to expound the merits of fast water, or wind. My point is that Mr Tired stayed focused and fished as thoroughly as he had the first pool of the day. In other words he was consistent in his focus, positivity and curiosity. He was able to say to himself “I wonder what will happen if I throw a fly in there”, even though we were at the end of the day. (actually that turned out not to be the end of the day…we carried on and Mr Tired suddenly wasn’t so tired…and he made a pig of himself!)

Another friend of mine is consistent in his dedication to looking for bugs and clues. He is the guy who will take fifteen minutes to survey a pool and consider his approach at the end of a long blank day. He will look into the shallows around his feet to see what insect life there is, he will try to catch one, and he will change fly, or re-tie his knot, or go down a tippet diameter, or try the fly deeper in the water column. This is at the end of the day. Most of us can already taste the beer, and it shows in how we fish the last pool. I confess…I am the one who strolls up to the last piece of water, plops the fly in somewhat resignedly, and goes through the motions. This is certainly true on a slow day, and even more so on a blank day.

If I applied this defeated apathy and lack of care at the first pool, I would probably never have a red-letter day. I know that the fresh first-pool-approach is more likely to produce fish. I know that it would be great to not have a blank day, and get it together at the last run or pool. But do I fish the last pool with the same dedication as the first one of the day?  No. I am inconsistent.

Will you fish a tiny fly on a still piece of water when fish are rising?  Yes. I am sure you would.  Will you fish a #18 nymph in the same water when there are whitecaps?  

Why not? Why do you need a big Woolly Bugger in a big wind?  Do you think bugs get bigger under a ruffled surface? Do you think fish stop eating flies of that size when a hatch stops or a wind picks up?  Like me, you are being inconsistent. Illogical.

Let’s look at inconsistency in another way.  If you were with a band of like-minded fly fishers, on a famous stream, with a high population of fish and bugs where the fishing was currently good, I wouldn’t mind betting that you would focus on what the fish are, or might be eating. We would probably discuss fly choice, look for bugs, compare tippet diameters and discuss changing conditions and possible adjustments to our approach.

What about if you and I go visit a little-fished, supposedly second-rate stream on a partially exploratory basis. No fish seen. Little threads of doubt already sewn. “B team” thoughts…..

Would you and I look for bugs, change tippet formula, re-tie knots, and team up to refine our skills to a fine point, pursuant of a glorious end-game?  No?

Why the difference?

We know which attitude and approach produces more fish.

I tire easily. I lose confidence. I listen to the tiny nay-sayers in my head. I get lazy.  

The bad weather, the poor returns over the last few weeks, the fact that this water is not as popular as another….all these things are my downfall. How about you?

The guys who raise eyebrows with their fishing success, will fish a puddle like it is a stretch of the Test near Stockbridge. They will focus on the finesse of what they are doing in driving rain, or tree buckling wind, on supposedly second-rate waters and when they have only ten minutes left.

They are veritable machines!

They are consistent.


The Breath of a Kingfisher’s Wings

Furth Farm

I had started in just below the wetland, in a spot where enormous grasses cascade over the stream banks and trail in the water.

The only way to get the fly in there is to choose a spot where there is a slight gap or curve upstream, make a daring cast, and let the current take the fly into the slither of shade beside the bank. I had done that with a dry dropper:  an elk hair caddis, with a pheasant tail nymph of sorts strung below it, New Zealand style. Those bankside haunts had produced no fish. Not this time anyway.  Neither had the odd deep slot where the current bubbled over rapids and then rippled over a scoured channel.

A little further up I went through a side channel where I have spooked fish before, but never landed them.

Just above that, wading through a wide area of pocket water, I came across the shucks of two Stoneflies on the downstream side of a boulder.  I stopped to photograph them. 

I had been hunting for these for weeks, using a bug net and shuffling my feet in rapids before inspecting the sample in a white tray. After all that effort  these two just presented themselves to me when I had a fly rod in hand. Sometimes the lines between work and fishing are blurred.

As the sun came and went, and small flurries of warm breeze ruffled the water surface, I would lose sight of the dry, then find it again on the water. The clouds started to obscure the sun a little more often. There was a greying on the western horizon.  The weather forecast had predicted a storm in the early afternoon. From the moment I started, it was as though the egg timer was running. Having worked through some magnificent deep pools, with a third, very small, but dense fly now tied a few inches below the first nymph, I was still empty handed. A sticky humidity had descended and there was a rumbling, first ahead of me where I had been watching the horizon, and then, surprisingly, behind me. I turned my head, to see that the more imminent threat was closing in from the east.

After a few more casts, I reeled in and considered my route. There was a tight barbed wire fence between me and my vehicle, which I could see on the hillside about a kilometre away. Added to the barbed wire was a strand of electric. These fences are not easy to get through. There was a gate off to the left, and a stile up ahead alongside Bird Pool. I reckoned the cattle gate would give me a more direct route. I started pacing up the river bank to a logical point at which to depart and go up the hillside.  In the five minutes it took for me to get there, the weather lifted just a little, and I changed plans, choosing to walk up the river bank where I could watch for rises.  When I reached Bird Pool the weather looked heavy again, but I was closer to the vehicle now, so I elected to risk a few more minutes and threw a few casts in the pool.

  I have never done well there.  The white water cascades off the south bank and flows away across the pool, meaning that only the near seam can be fished.  The rest of the pool is a futile and frustrating drag avoidance puzzle which I have never solved.  I lingered and worked at the puzzle as I always do. Then I reeled in and climbed the stile, ready to cut back up the pool. I paused again feeling a reluctance to  leave the river. I looked at the sky. It had changed again. The cloud was higher. There was now a storm moving away from me to the south east. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the one which had been in the west, or the one in the east, but the field had changed in an instant, and I reckoned this storm, whichever one it was, was moving away.  I again curved back to the river, and made my way up to the Forest Runs.

Now I found myself standing beside the second deep run.  The lower one is good when there is a decent flow. Today was decent flow, and I had plied my dry and nymphs with the utmost care and concentration through that first run, without result.  Now I was at the even deeper and more appealing run: the one that didn’t require good flow to look unquestionably promising. I took the flies from the keeper and got to work. 

Up ahead of me on the right bank, was a forest tree that had collapsed into the water just where it slowed. There was a good sized Brown Trout under it.  I couldn’t see it, but I know Brown Trout, and there was no question. It was under there. I took some chances with my casts, getting the fly in close, and letting the current guide them in under the obstruction, millimeters from the snags. I held on in anticipation and with a great confidence that proved to be unfounded. There was not a touch.

Thunder rolled again. I decided on a few last throws with alternative methods. I cut off all three flies, cut back to a stronger, shorter tippet, glanced around as though to see who was watching and extracted my little film cannister. My clandestine vault of the uncouth. I extracted from it, a brown version of my Taddy Bugger. It is tied on a jig hook, with a slotted bead, a small dense tail of the most bulky marabou I can find. The tail has two strands of flash in it. The body is dubbed, and the hackle at the front is from an old hen badger cape. I strapped it on, moved to the top of the run, and let the thing fly out across the current. “Five swings”, I told myself, “then I am gone”.  On the second swing I brought the fly around just above the obstruction which I had just fished from below with my nymphs. Jiggle, jiggle. I could picture the marabou tail working its magic.

The fish took hard and confidently. I brimmed with self-assured vindication, and then quickly settled into a state of nervousness brought about by the painful knowledge of how many fish have simply come unstuck of late. I held my breath and concentrated as I worked to bring the fish under control. Holding the rod high, I outpaced it downstream, getting below it, and to a point where I could climb into the stream. I netted it there, and relaxed, a smile spreading across my face. I removed the fly and studied the fish as I held it in the submerged cloth of the net. It was a broad fish; something of substance in my hand. I lifted it a little and cast my eyes down its flanks. I put it at sixteen inches. It had magnificent blotches down its lower flanks, which tended more to orange than red. I put the rod under my arm, lowered the net, and reached for my phone in my top pocket to get a picture before releasing it.  As I positioned the phone and got my finger over the shutter, ready to capture the moment, the net tilted slightly, and the fish darted off between my legs and was gone.

Later, I would think back to the escape of the fish, and in my mind’s eye consider it a fish that had gotten away. The fact that I had no picture of it, tricked my mind with a sense of loss. 

Minutes later, I stood above the third run, swinging the same fly expectantly, when there was a tiny rush of wind that ruffled my shirt. In an instant a tiny blue kingfisher passed under my elbow, and flew under my rod, departing at breakneck speed straight down the river ahead of me. Its brilliant blue colour flashed in a patch of sunlight way below me, against the contrast of the deep green forest on the far bank, and it was gone.  I found myself smoothing my shirt against my body, as if to straighten it out after the commotion, and I said out loud “Gee, that was close!”. 

Had the kingfisher existed?

Had that fish existed?

There were more patches of sun.

Had the storm even existed?

I fished on, in a reflective mood. There was a short pull in the sweep below Pinetree Pool, but surprisingly nothing to be had in the pool itself. Up near the next stile  a fish flashed at the fly as I reeled in to move on.  Why hadn’t it taken a well-presented nymph, and instead gone for a reeled in dragging fly? I shook my head and looked at the darkening sky. The storm had not returned, but it had been replaced by a heaviness of the atmosphere that was palpable. One last pool, I told myself:  The Black Hole.

I approached with care. There are good fish at The Black Hole.  I know there are, I have seen them. I have caught them.  I put the Taddy Bugger back on. I could sense that it was called for here.

I dropped the fly daringly close to the overhanging sage on the far side, and wriggled the offering back to me. On the third retrieve a Brown ascended vertically from the depths and pounced on the fly before I could lift into the next cast.   It thrashed around, as Browns can do.  I descended the bank with the net outstretched, as the fish crossed the rim into the net bag, the fly pulled loose. It thrashed and before I could lift it, departed the way it had come. I measured it in my mind. Fourteen inches.  That one would go into the log book.

As I stood re-tying the fly, the buff spotted flufftail called its mournful electric call.  The sound resonated in the heavy air. Then a black cuckoo called in the distance. Next a roll of thunder rumbled off in the distance. It was warm and oppressive. Two more casts produced a strong take, and then I reeled in, and I was striding across the eragrostis field.

The first raindrops spattered on the windscreen as I started the engine. The storm that followed was vicious.

The afternoon was gone, like the breath of a kingfishers wings.


My Season so far: A photo essay


Warts and all

I took a break from work the other day, and fished for about two hours on my local stream in the late afternoon. I thought I would share it here….warts and all (Including not catching, losing fish, catching little ones, and hooking logs).

It is not refined videography, and it is not New Zealand; but it is real.

Perhaps it will encourage those who feel outdone by all the slick perfection on offer on the internet. Perhaps some locals will have their eyes opened to what we have on our doorstep in these parts.

I hope you enjoy it.


Drunken deaf narratives

I recently wrote a piece about alcohol use, hid it in a piece about flyfishing, and sent it off to the editors of a  magazine.  They printed it. I wondered if anyone would get it, and my thoughts turned to something my wife once said to me. “You have to join the dots for them Andy”, she said, and I suspect that as usual, she is right. I was on a call to Duncan Brown about a year back, talking about a piece of writing, and he mentioned the term “a deaf narrative”. I think Duncan was talking about a narrative that remains obscure and meaningless until the end is revealed. I like the notion, so I jotted down the term. The other day I Googled it, and all I came up with was stuff about hearing impaired people.  I like that too:  that the good, rich stuff is buried deep enough that Google doesn’t know about it , and I try to do a little of that in my writing. But then I go and make it really obscure, and am left wondering if anyone at all joined the dots. Even one person…….

That woman to whom I gave a lift in the Lotheni Valley, may or may not have been under the influence. She was returning from town, laden with shopping (which included a weighty stash of Zamalek quarts). She was tired when I saw her struggling up the hill. When she sat beside me in the bakkie she was animated and enthusiastic. Our exchange was fun. A small delight in a dusty landscape. Her home overlooks the Hlambamasoka.

One of the Hlambamasoka’s that is…the other one runs under the road just beyond Boston on the R617.  Both once contained Trout, and hence their relevance in this, and other stories I have written.

Some time back, my friend Geoff, who speaks isiZulu better than many Zulus, pulled me aside to tell me how much he had enjoyed a book I once wrote, but to tell me that it contained a mistake. I cringed. I am sure it contained many, but somehow you want those swept under the carpet. Not so the mistake Geoff found. I was amused and delighted at this one. Let me explain:   I had extracted the meaning of the name “Hlambamasoka”  from a demure and graceful lady of great poise and dignity, and I repeated her explanation in my book. But as Geoff pointed out, the true meaning of this name is more something borne of hedonistic excess and indulgence. Something that in our culture might be a little too risqué to be used in the naming of a stream, let alone two of them. It goes around the practice of washing off after binge-like activity amongst the maidens of the valley, and that, young reader, is already too much information!

Later in my piece I write of Frank Mele, whose essay “Blue Dun” I greatly admire.

In that text, he reveals in a few suitably camouflaged lines, that he once had some trouble with liquor. He contrasted that with Preston Jenning’s hiatus from his flyfishing life, apparently born of some similar troubles, possibly a bout of depression, which unlike his, was endured with sobriety. That got me thinking. It is undeniable that many great tales, contrivances and subtle delights are delivered on sparkling turns of phrase in a pub. Their delivery is without doubt helped along by the loosening of the tongue. The hearing of them is warmly wrapped in swaddling nostalgia, mirth or aesthetic appreciation which is also helped along by a little tipple.

Take for example the story of Tim’s nets. Tim makes these grand landing nets, you see, and at one time he was having some trouble sourcing the right cloth for the bag of the net. He settled on something different: a particularly fine and soft mesh, which while a little on the impervious side, is certainly kind on fish. He took one of these along to the local one night, where he planned to meet his customer, and the new owner of the net. As they stood at the brass rail, embellishing and drawing out the exchange of this fine item, various of the consort were waxing lyrical about the fine mesh, and how a captured Trout seems mesmerized when slung in the deep comforting folds of the stuff. How they relax, and calm down, and become compliant and beautiful in resigned compliance.  It was at this point that an eavesdropping patron on the bar stool a little further down the counter asked  if he might be allowed to acquire such a net……for his wife. 

Net by Tim at Bambooze

Now I’m sorry, but stuff like that doesn’t happen in coffee shops!

Which was why I wrote to contrast the deep rich epic of Mele’s life-long quest for a blue dun cape, (complete with a bout of alcoholic indulgence) with the stark realities of a far flung African village, plagued by poverty and similar indulgences, but of a different hue. (did you see what I did there?….sorry…I can’t stop myself).

Frank Mele

And with that I dropped in some other lines that you won’t find in coffee shops:  Like the water only covering half one’s boots; pulling yourself up a river bank by a puffadder’s tail, and a glass phone screen that bears a dent from a bony finger. Who ever dented a piece of glass, I ask you!  And if you have ever fished “The Glides”, you will know that my romanticism of the place is the stuff of good whisky, late on a rainy night, and that you have to wait for it to be just right.

The Glides

You will also know that buying a Mele first edition with South African funny money is something of a joke, and that the swig from a flask was a prelude to its utterance. The Hlambamasoka at Lotheni is most times a bleak and disappointing stream, lying between denuded banks, and enriched with cattle dung. To travel there to flyfish in it requires a mix of unrealistic foolishness, romantasized hope, and, dare I  say, a swig or more from a flask.

You can read the article in the latest edition of The Complete Flyfisherman.   You might want to go back and read some of my earlier ones……..

Authors notes (to this author’s note) offered without explanations.

  • Tims landing nets are branded “Bambooze”
  • Frank Mele was instrumental in catchment protection work for his beloved home river……..
  • Frank Mele wrote an essay that inspired him to write a book………..
  • Mele wrote one book of fly fishing essays, and a novel………..
  • Hlambamasoka is also the name given to a nature reserve…….on the uMngeni River

Awakening a spirit

Brown Trout

“Sometimes it requires considerable strength of mind to break the chain of business and go where we long to be, but such “a stitch in time save nine,” and even a few days on the streams in the spring time, while the air is fresh and bracing and all the world is young, will do much for a man’s health and strength.

The bit of sport and change of scene renew his youth, and he feels like a boy again.

The spirit of a boy lies dormant in many of us, and only needs to be released by just going fishing.

Good luck.”

The above lines were penned by Theodore Gordon in February of 1913.

I was chatting to a friend the other day and we were reminiscing how, as varsity students, we would jump in a borrowed car with insufficient fuel in the tank, and head for the hills hoping to get to a trout stream with enough daylight hours left to get a fish. We may have taken some peanuts, and we probably forgot a rain jacket. What was important is that we got out there. We got stuck in the mud; we lost huge fish; we witnessed hatches and sunsets; and we took grainy photos that we still gaze at with the fondest of memories.

Nowadays, it could be said that we fiddle around for hours making sure we have what we need. We check the weather; fill the car; buy new boots; consider whether its worth going considering travel time vs time on the water; make elaborate lunches; and worry about a week old report that says the river was low or dirty.

And we fish less.

It occurs to me that all those preparations and considerations and fancy sandwiches are sometimes the problem. Sure, it is fun to contemplate the trip and make ones preparations, but as one’s mind atrophies, these things also become the excuses we use for not getting out at all. Life is busy, and the gaps available for fishing trips are rare and short. When there is a gap, we may find ourselves thinking it is too narrow an opportunity to fit in a trip to the stream. We mull over how long it will take, and we build into the time required, all those things that put our comfort ahead of the goal of making it happen.

I now carry some peanuts, a can of bully beef, and a flask of water in my bakkie along with my fishing kit, and a bag with a change of clothes in it. If a gap opens, all I need is my car keys and the right attitude. I am fishing a lot more. Sadly perhaps, much of this is alone. But regardless of whether it is alone, whether I forget the camera at home, get wet, or find the river as dirty as they said it would be, that spirit of the boy is not as dormant as it once was.


Seven-11, and Flat Whites

Emergers

September is a varied time. It is the month in which we are most likely to get snow, and at the same time, daytime temperatures of 30 degrees are far from uncommon.

Here where I live, when a September cold front comes in, we get eleven degrees and drizzle, and at that temperature there won’t be snow, not even on the high berg. If it drops to seven degrees then we expect some white stuff up on top. In the event that it hits five degrees, snow on the Inhlosane, the little berg, and hey, maybe even Karkloof is a possibility. Either way, that cold front is a valued thing, all the more if it drops some reel rain and lifts us up out of our dry winter.

In between, its typically what I call a “flat white”.  Bright hot sunshine. No wind. White, flat light that is a photographer’s nemesis.  Not fishing weather at all, it seems.

The truth be told, it can actually be quite good in these conditions if you go higher in the mountains, where it is cooler, and all the more so if we have had rain, like this year. My pal Ray fished a mountain stream the other day and commented that it was hot. But as he said the fish were “on the prod”, and he got enough of them to make the drive seem well worth the trouble.  But I sit here on a bright Saturday morning, feeling a little disinclined to tramp up a river valley smothered in sunscreen and looking out for snakes.  Instead I am tying flies, with a bottle of chilled lemon and mint water at my elbow. I have half an eye on the weather app. It predicts one of those eleven degree things later in the week, complete with drizzle. Heck….who knows, it might even rain!  Now THAT has my attention. I saw the Viking yesterday and he had spotted it too. I said something about a mid-week adventure and his smile indicated he had been thinking the same thing.

So for now I am tying some streamers too big to show my sophisticated mates who think more of me; and some emergers so small that they belong in something magnetized, so that they don’t blow away when you open the fly box at the streamside.

I may tie up something in between just to balance things out.  I’ve been listening to Paul Proctor’s chat with Pete Tyjas on his one hundredth podcast (Well done Pete!) , and I am about to check my tippet spools, and move a bunch of flies from the patch back into the box.  Theodore Gordon’s collection of letters and “Little talks” are on my nightstand, and I am just a little inspired.

There will be a ‘seven’ or an ‘eleven’ to end this ‘flat white’, and I will be ready.


Four days in September

Day one.

Opening day. I seldom fish it. It is normally dry and lean and often still wintery, even if only in a vaguely cold and dusty way. Algae is the norm. Pools take on a sedentary look, and it is not attractive. But this year felt a little different.   Winter snow and rain supposedly comes in the middle of July. I say supposedly, because I can’t remember when mother nature last stuck with that nice, neat formula. In recent years we have had no decent snow at all. Then this year, like a late gift, it arrived, accompanied by around an inch of rain just about everywhere, and it did that in the week before the Trout river season opened.  So the Viking said to me that if I was serious about my stream flyfishing;  if I was properly committed to the cause, then I would fish a river with him, notwithstanding the fact that it was a work day. “OK”, I said “I’m in!”, and we agreed to leave at 8 am.

We arrived on the water around 2:30 pm. What can I say: work got in the way of us both. The upside was that Dave joined us. We strolled down to the river under slightly dulled skies, but in high spirits. I will concede that there was a slight sense of occasion being out on opening day. We started in at King’s pump, and plied the slow, moody looking water there, leapfrogging upstream in a sort of loosely plaited arrangement. It all seemed rather still and lifeless, despite the decent water levels and clarity and the apparent absence of any algae. As the afternoon slid by, I confess that my concentration began to wane, and the boyish enthusiasm with which we set out was converting to a more realistic temper.

At some point, at a big bend in the pool, I lifted my rod and drew the fly from the depths near my feet, and then I jiggled it a little to see how it was swimming. It was a small Woolly Bugger. In fact I suspect it was the very same fly that I caught a lunker on in the Bushmans two seasons back: my biggest river fish ever. I lifted it and dropped it.  It looked good. Kinda tadpole like. I did it again. The fish that shot out from under the grass clump at my feet to grab it took me totally by surprise! I leaned back, and probably gasped, and in so doing drew the fly out of the water. The fish turned, looking… hunting, for the fly. So I lowered it back in, and it took it.  That put a smile on my face. The first fish of the season. It was a pretty little brown. I photographed it, and returned it, and I was happy.

Later I took a phone call (why did I do that!), and for a long time I stood there with my rod in one hand, fly hanging a few inches below my thumb and forefinger which grasped the tippet, saying “yes” and “um”.  Dave took the opportunity and, hearing from The Viking that I had landed a fish, he cut in and fished the pool, as he was well entitled to do. When he hooked his fish, I was trying to enjoy the moment with him while remaining focused on my phone call, which had already gone on way too long. I should explain at this point that it was a video call, and that I was having a time of disguising that I was out on a Trout river with my buddy landing a trout right there beside me, ducks flying overhead, and kingfishers dashing by. 

Later, as dark drew across the landscape, we stood almost side by side and fished Siesta Pool.

At some point a trout slashed at my caddis imitation at the head of the pool, and the others heard it, but I didn’t connect. Walking out through the lush ryegrass pasture in the low light, I was reminded that The Viking had earlier challenged us to a dare in which the one who didn’t catch a fish should take a plunge in the drinking trough near the gate. We were drawing near the trough, and having earlier rejected the challenge, I now suggested that we might invoke it. He was having none of it.

Day two.

I tried several mates to see who wanted to join me. This one was working. That one was busy. Another had an invitation to some fancy syndicate water. It was starting to feel like a “rent a crowd” situation, so I stopped trolling my phone list and just went alone.

There was a heavy grey sky, and there were patches of mist hanging below the line of hills to the west, making them seem closer, more imposing, and somehow grander than they are in bright, tame sunshine. I tackled up, and set off along the base of the krantz, past the second pumphouse and beyond, to a willow lined section of river.

It was sullen water. The depth was difficult to determine on account of the silveriness of the day. It was all reflection, and muted surface colours of nchishi green, and mud-bank brown. I imagined it to be deep. I conjured up levels of faith in my piscatorial success which defied the apparent chances.

Then I had a take. Right there in between the logs, in the grey-green water right in front of me, and the fish swirled straight after I saw the tippet tighten. I was now wide awake. Perhaps the fish were “on the prod”.

There was no action in the big pool above that, and with the bow and arrow casts I executed through the multitude of bare willow branches covering another deep slot, were not successful. But they did prove to be “on the prod” that day. Above the drift a lively 14 inch fish took my fly with gusto, and came to the net. 

.

Not long after, and in the same pool, a fish came out from under my own bank and smacked the same little Woolly Bugger with such aggression, it surprised me. So did the size of the fish!  After tense moments in which the fish moved up and down the pool at pace, shaking its head, I lifted the net on a truly lovely trophy, and I confess, I was shaking just a little (and uttering little exclamations of pleased wonder and smug satisfaction for some time too). After a one handed photo, I slid the beautiful big cock fish back into the depths at my feet, and sat in the grass for a long moment taking in the scene, and letting things wash over me.

Just casts later, a solid 16 inch fish took the fly, and I was in heaven.

While I had been working that pool, a fish had risen at a spot just above a log jam. At first, I thought it was a duck. Then it rose again and I knew it was no duck. They were not small rises!

As I reached the spot, I resolved to have a good look at this fish; to take it slow, and to hunt this thing properly. With my earlier success, my want of fish had relaxed into a need for the ultimate sight fishing and stalking experience. I waited over twenty minutes for the fish to rise again. Then I covered it with a single cast, and not achieving a successful or pleasing drag free drift, I decided to try a different approach. The log jam above was forcing me to cast up along my bank, and let the fly drift down way off to the fish’s left side, as well as drawing the fly off the water with messy drag for fear of the fly going into the logs. Rather than risk putting the fish down with another cast that would surely be identical to the first failed attempt, I resolved to backtrack, walk around the spot in the ryegrass pasture and approach the bank from above for a quartering downstream cast.

As I approached the river again, I saw that I had been gifted with a large clump of sword grass, behind which I could crouch. I slid down there with my fly at the ready and waited. It was another twenty minutes or so, and the fish rose again. A thumping, unabashed walloping gulp of a rise, performed with impunity. It got my heart racing, but I held my composure long enough to change to a beetle imitation (because with no hatching flies evident, it could only have been a terrestrial that it took, and it was too early in the season for a hopper). The beetle drifted over the spot without result, and I retrieved the fly and line to wait for more signals. At this point, lying there in the grass behind my clump of grass, I had a chat on the phone with PD to share news of my success. Phoning people while fishing is not something I do, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary here, but I was still bubbling over with the news of my big fish, and I wanted to share it with someone who would get it.  After a good while on the phone, with my rod lying beside me in the grass, another a fish moved in a different spot, and I quickly ended the call  with “Gotta go!”. The fish had risen below me in a spot that I could easily reach from my previous approach. There was nothing for it…I leopard crawled out, circled back around, and presented from the earlier spot. Nothing. It occurred to me then that this was probably one of those fish that was not holding position, and that in fact the few rises might all be the same fish, moving about.  He would be in a rotation about the pool. My only chance was to try spot him, and predict the path of his route, so as to drop a fly in the spot he was approaching, to avoid lining him in these glassy, silver conditions.

I returned to my clump of sword grass and sat it out. There was another rise, but I couldn’t see the fish, so I didn’t cast. I decided that the rise was sub surface, so I changed to an emerger in anticipation of the next one. I craned my neck and rotated my polarized glasses but I could not see through the silvery slick. I sat it out for more than half an hour, and during that time I relented and made one blind cast….just on the off chance that my good luck of the day would repeat itself.

When the fish rose again, it was in a different place, and this time it was definitely taking off the surface, but since I couldn’t see any insects, it must have been something small. I changed to a size 18 F-Fly, and waited. Little breezes riffled the water at times. The sprinklers in the field trilled and clicked and thrummed. Cloud patches continued to drift across the gloomy grey hills to the west.  The ryegrass pasture was lush and short and pretty behind me, and the willows were all gaunt and bare and full of sticks. It was quiet. Then, after another fourty minutes a tiny miracle unfolded.  A shaft of sunshine poked through the cloud and lit the water in front of me. It was like a screen being lifted. Suddenly I could see the secrets beneath the previously shiny, reflective surface. The pool was not deep at all. It was a bed of intricate, golden stones, strewn about the place, with lots of feature and lots of holding water. And there in front of me, finning away was the Trout. Exposed! Presented to me on a plate. It was beautiful. I reached for my camera, switched it over to video mode, adjusted the polarizing filter to cut the last remaining glare, zoomed the lens in and just before I raised the eyepiece, I looked at the Trout to get my aim right. As I did so, the fish swam confidently forward, and I craned around the sword grass to see it rise to something off the surface, and then it sank away and the sun disappeared and pool was silver again. The ghost was gone.

Later, the weather grew heavy, and I strolled upstream, peering into holes under the gaunt willows, and delivering the odd hopeful cast blindly into deep green lairs, pitted with raindrops.

Presently I wound in and strolled back to the bakkie. As I climbed the hill to leave the drizzle stopped, and two fish rose in the slow water behind me. I stopped and watched the ripples of their rises subside, and I smiled.

Day three

The weather forecast had predicted winds of 5 to 7 metres per second. As I drove up the Dargle road I looked at the tops of the gum trees and saw no movement. Perhaps it would be perfect, and I would be spared that nasty, hot, blustery berg wind.

No.

I arrived at the bottom of the valley to gusts of wind, and was met by detritus on the water, and great swirling wind ripples brushing the surface of the enormous pool. I was in shirtsleeves. It was warm.

Fish number one was six inches long: a pretty little Brown showing signs of its Loch Leven heritage: tiny black pepper spots, silvery and with just a sprinkling of red splotches down towards the tail. 

burst

The next thirteen fish eluded me. Yes: Thirteen! I started to mutter and swear. Some were those little dashing takes of small fish. A sort of grab and go thing, where the lift of the rod is plainly slow and ineffective. Others were on for a few moments. Two of them came off at the rim of the outstretched net, and one was a good solid fish that lunged at the fly, just as it landed millimeters from the reeds on the far side. It thrashed on the surface as Browns often do, and then it was gone. I checked the hook. It was a long pointed, ultra-sharp, wide gaped jig hook. OK, it was barbless, but thirteen misses! I ask you, with tears in my eyes!  Sure, some were downstream of me, and my strike may have been too quick to allow them to turn downstream, but I adjusted for this once I had had that thought, and some I didn’t strike at all. Since the fish were eating the fly in question with gusto, I chose not to change it. Fish number fourteen through twenty one all held, so I ended the morning on a count of seven. I think. All the counting was getting confusing.  One was a fish which came up at my feet while I was watching for the fly to come into view. I saw the fish first, watched it while it turned in slow motion, and as it began to sink away, I lifted, believing it must have taken my as-yet unseen fly. I was right.

 It was a strange day. The wind howled, and stopped, causing my gust-adjusted casts to slam into the river. The sun burned down, leaving my face reddened. The Trout ignored a stripped fly, and pounced on one drifted slowly with little sudden twitches. They were like kittens….excited by feigned lifelessness, interspersed with enticing wriggles, and it was a mental picture that helped me master the day’s technique.  After a bite to eat, I decided I had had my fill, and I drove happily back down the valley.

Day Four

The following day was windless. I illogically concluded that it would be even better than the awful berg wind. It was hot. It was slow.  The water measured just shy of 15 degrees C, and it ran clear in the pretty little tributary. The other two guys  were exploring upstream of me. I had pointed them to the big pool where I caught a Trout last year, and I was brimming with confidence for them. I made sure they had a camera with them and asked for pictures of the Trout when they caught it, and I wasn’t just puffing. I really meant it.  I put a little North Country Spider through several runs and I leaned forward in anticipation. I had this place nailed now. I new what success looked like, and it was just a matter of time.

A little further up, I stepped onto a small island and planned my route into the pool, on the other side. I put my foot on a matt of dried bramble, and plunged four foot through it , coming to rest with my hands and elbows in the unforgiving thorns. I extracted myself painfully. It was a merciless process. Yesterday’s fall into a hole had given me a wet foot and some mud on my longs. This was different.

 Plucking thorns from my skin, I regained my composure, and returned to fishing. “shaken but not stirred” I told myself.

 Repeated perfect drifts were ignored. I was joined by Tim, who reported that he and Anton had not encountered anything yet. I was surprised.

We moved down to the main river, and strolled up the banks, recounting past experiences at each bend, riffle and pool we came across. Anton threw a little dry. I tried an emerger. Tim was satisfied to just walk, try to spot fish, and watch us.  The water was like gin. The air was still and hot. The river-bed was strewn with sticks and the willows were thick about us. There was some algae.  I clambered in, enjoying the cool water against my legs, and I threw my fly up into the willow tunnel ahead of me.

Up at Picnic Pool, Anton and I tied on heavy flies and we plied the depths of a place that is as close to a sure-thing as you get on our river.

Above picnic pool I crept to the river’s edge in several spots where I have spotted fish before, and I strained my eyes, sure that I would spot one again.   Anton looked at his watch and mumbled something about the rugby game starting soon. We strolled back through the short-cropped pasture, with the birds signing in the trees, and the river sliding silently past beside us, and sweat trickling down our collars.  “Where did you say you got that fish?” Anton asked doubtfully. And I smiled.



The rivers are open

The rivers are open. Some have rushed out there, all puffed up with the ceremony of it all. Given that we fish our stillwaters all winter long, and that our rivers are only closed for three months, I find that a bit over the top, but I suppose its fun. I often don’t rush to the rivers until we have had rain, because at this time of year they can be low and slimy and not so attractive. But this year we had late snows (and accompanied by about an inch of rain in these parts), and the rivers are looking pretty damned good. So for once I did fish opening day. And then again a few days later.

We have had cool cloudy, moody weather. In other words Brown trout weather. The water surface has been all silvery and reflective, and in this video it looks green. That is an illusion…in reality it is crystal clear. Notwithstanding that I have found a few fish to be bold and hungry.

It has been fun, and I am enjoying being back on moving water.


A pretty scene

John Gierach

John Gierach

“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake

I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.

While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:

  • The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
  • The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.

Think on that.


Book-end ants

Rainbow Trout

While packing up after three hours or so of frenetic ant hatch, it occurred to me that the last time I fished a stillwater, some four months ago, had also been a wild ant hatch. In between there was a baker’s dozen of trips to streams and rivers all along the berg…a wild ride between heavy rain and summer heat.  A time of wearing out the studs on my wading boots in the lush grasslands, and getting achy feet and small browns, all in fair measure. But either side of that chapter was a day in the sweetness of spring’s cool air on the one end, and this day in the glow of a slightly pale April sun at the other.

Two distinctly different days on two different stillwaters, but both marked by the excess of a ridiculously prolific hatch of little black ants.   The few hours prior were marked with frustration, as were my hours in early December.  Ants, ants, ants, everywhere you looked, and the Trout going absolutely dilly.

Ant

Of course as soon as I saw the ants, I pulled out my box and found an imitation. A small “E Z 2 C” ant with a cylindrical black foam body, with a white tip, which, for the life of me I couldn’t see out on the water, to a Mc Murray ant, to various of my own imitations.  I tried smaller ones (to imitate the males) and bigger ones (to imitate the females). I swiped my hand through the swarm and captured one or two, and I studied them, and pulled my fly box out again. As the sun passed above and moved westward, a shiny, coppery light reflected off ten million little wings on the water’s surface. The fish had so many specimens to choose from, that introducing my own exact replica was clearly an exercise in futility. I tied on three ants at once. Three times zilch is still nothing. Why would a fish eat any of mine, when they had thirty acres of water in which they could just about swim in a straight line with their mouths open, and stuff themselves like orcas on plankton?

I took to practicing my casting accuracy. It was strangely like clay pigeon shooting. Nature presented me with totally randomized targets, which appeared suddenly and demanded a “hit”.  I was getting quite good…bang…hit the ripples marking the extremities of the fish’s window at ten yards to the left….then a single pickup and hit twenty five yards slightly right. Strip that in, pick it up, and fire a 15 yard cast far right. Bang. Bang. Bang. It was fun, but I wasn’t catching fish.

Since I was aiming for “The edge of the dinner plate”, it occurred to me to put something different on. Something big and juicy. Something to persuade a Trout that it could eat something other than a damned ant! I chose a cased caddis on a #12 longshank hook…a sort of shiny, reed-like thing that was unweighted, and had an alluring little brown-headed, chartreuse  worm, sticking out the end of the reed-stem case.

A few casts later, it worked, and I brought in a fish of around two pounds.  I sneered at it and told it that I knew caddis were tastier than bitter ants.

Rainbow Trout

The ants carried on hatching and landing on the water, and the trout carried on eating them. It was interesting to observe the rises.  Some were splashy, but  others were clearly not surface rises. Were they eating ants that had sunk, or was there a blind hatch of  something else?  I scanned the margins, but all I saw was ants, ants, ants.  Millions of shimmering wings:  ants mating and dying on the water. Their affinity for nesting near a body of water, was claiming half their number, but the orgy of excess was such that it hardly made a difference.

I changed to a bigger, juicier distractor pattern, and landing it on the edge of the dinner plate with enough of a splash to make the Rainbow turn and look at it, I got another one.

Towards the end the number of ants on the water diminished as the hatch slowed, and a light breeze blew the carcasses into the reeds. The trout were still looking up now, but they were having to go looking for food. Sensing the cue, I changed to a dry bigger and tastier than an ant:  a DCD and deerhair beetle. Presently a fish rose, a full cast out in front of me, and still in clay pigeon mode, I swung around and with two false casts shot out the longest cast I am capable of. It alighted like thistledown, and the Trout ate it. Finally!  A Trout on the dry.   I landed the fish, clicked off a picture and returned it to the water, before reeling in and strolling back to the bakkie.

My obsession with the streams had been folded between two covers. I thought back to the streams, and to the December ant hatch as I drove home. Many happy hours on the water had passed in the first three months of the year. There were days in which I stuck diligently to the dry, and others where I never took off the heavy nymph. I had had water as clear as the proverbial gin (that we are now allowed to buy again), and days in milky, murky water, where that was all that was on offer. Neil and I had fished in the rain. Graeme and I in broad sunlight. 

I had blanked on the Mooi  with PD and then with Neil on the same stretch, had a field day on a particularly sparse parachute dry with an orange post.  There was that fish that had gotten Anton shaking at the knees, and the one Graeme got which I captured on video, from the approach, to the strike, to the release. There were all those fish I got on the #20 nymph, and the enormous fish that famously stole one such nymph, paying scant respect to my silly 7X tippet.

Back at my fly-tying desk, I pulled out some CDC in black and in white, and a few strands of pearlescent flashabou to try capture those sparkling wings, and I got tying one of Marc Petitjean’s ants, complete with wing sparkle.

I tried a few more, and then I substituted the CDC  wing with some white Kapok, and I held the result up to the light to study it. It looked good.

I will carry it out to the next ant hatch. And when I get there I will strap on a caddis, and I will catch me a Trout. 

But  perhaps I will fish a few more streams before I do that. Mix things up a bit you know…… Perhaps an ant on a river (on 5X tippet of course).


A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It

It has been many years since I read “A River Runs Though it” by Norman Maclean. The story is of course famous, from Robert Redford’s movie produced in 1992, but I think few people are familiar with the 1976 book that inspired the movie.

A River Runs Through It

I say that the book inspired the movie, because what many seem to forget is that the movie differs from the written story.  In fact the movie brings in elements of two stories which appear in the same book, and to which the full title alludes. “A River Runs Though it, And other stories”.  So the movie is not, strictly speaking, just the story made into a film.

In re-reading the book recently, I developed a keen appreciation for the mastery of the movie produced by Redford. For example Redford condenses two scenes involving Neil and his “whore”, into one that captures the essence of it all. Two sets of sunburn; and of disappointment in his brother-in-law; and being at the brunt of the anger of the womenfolk in his wife’s family . And yes, Maclean does refer to the lady of the divided skirts as a “whore”, and in all three stories in his book, he displays a western coarseness which Redford delivered slightly more subtly, and in an aura of nostalgia which served to take the edges off.  Redford makes no reference for example of the two brothers chasing the self same whore down the street “kicking her in the ass”.  You will notice too, that I write here of Maclean’s wife, and brother-in-law, because the story takes place after they are married, and after his time in the forest service. The movie of course brings in the love interest by placing the story during Macleans courtship of his wife, and before his time in the Forest Service.

But quite aside from re-arranging the life sequence, you find many  lines in the book which you will recognize from the movie. In other words they are quoted verbatim. The parts not quoted are of course the descriptions of people, and landscapes, but Redford captures these beautifully in the movie.  Another part not repeated verbatim, is of course the subtlety of relationships and attitudes and outlook, and emotion, and herein lies Redford’s mastery. He somehow manages to capture these elements, which Maclean unpacks in detail in the written word, and does so by capture of light, facial expression, body language, background sound, and camera angle. The fact that I did a reverse analysis by reading the book after I saw the movie, and recognized these elements in the book, because I had picked up on them in the movie, speaks volumes for the skill of the movie maker.

As a fisherman, I delighted in some of the technical fishing detail contained in the written version. There was a little in there that would not have made it into a commercial production, seeking a broad audience, but which is of great interest to us technical flyfishing types.

In reading it again, I was struck by the unlikely  product of academia that Maclean became as a professor of English, given his Rocky mountain upbringing amongst men “as tough as their axe handles”. His language skills of course gave him the ability to tell his family’s story with a resigned dignity and reverence that has one sighing in a sad and appreciative compassion as you turn the last page.  Although I didn’t pick up on it when I read the book many years ago, as I came to the end this time around, I was left with a deep appreciation for this little masterpiece.

If you haven’t read the book, I can recommend it.