From atop the bridge pilaster I gazed into the swirling water of the pocket on the upstream side. It is too small a piece of water to be called a pool, but it is bigger than many of the others. Put it this way, it’s a place you would put a fly if you were rock-hopping up this way. My eyes followed the tongue of current…the thalweg…to its point of dispersion. That point where the rush of water dissolves and spreads enough that you know a brown trout will take up occupancy there. A rainbow would go above that into the faster flow, but a wise old brown, that’s where he would sit. The water was clear as ice, the peat stain of mid summer all washed out of it, but the surface swirled and the sunlight danced, and my eyes lied to me, and I couldn’t see a fish. I decided to follow what the texts say and just keep staring stubbornly and with resolve at exactly the same spot, believing a Trout into existence. The river bed was a dappled mix of pale yellows and fawns…remnants of sandstone which line the river bed between clusters of black igneous boulders. It should be the perfect backdrop against which to spot a Trout…more akin to a Cape mountain stream that a KZN Midlands one…this shouldn’t be difficult.
Then the Trout moved. This gave away the colour I should be looking for. In this light it was a grey. Not a dove grey, but a charcoal smudge on a rough textured sketch paper. I find that defining these visual clues to myself helps me. So I will spot a ghost of a fish, and immediately come up with the words to describe the colour, or shape or movement, or perhaps the position. I will even speak them out loud. “Directly in line with that dead stick”; “nose pushes forward from black to pale rock”; “a few inches to the right of the rounded stone with a light patch on it”. This helps me find the fish again if I lose sight of it. It also forces me to think about how I spotted it…what gave it away. And if a stranger heard me speaking to myself this way it would probably serve to scare them off, fearful of this strange and possibly dangerous nit, creeping around amongst the Ouhout, speaking to himself.
The fish, or rather the image of it, came and went. A billow of water, a passing cloud, or a random spilling pattern on the surface would obscure it, and then I would find it again, using my self-talk as a guide.
I looked around. The spot was tight against the bridge. It was also cut off from the perfect casting spot I occupied by a barbed wire fence. A tight new, authoritative type of fence that shouted “No trespassers” , without needing a sign to say that. I don’t have permission to fish this stretch. I also don’t own a one weight, or a bamboo fly rod, and I reckon those would be the only proper options with which to grace a fish like this.
Below the bridge, I do have permission to fish, and the stream is that much bigger there, such that I have decreed the two weight to be the appropriate tool. Of course the stream cant be bigger below the bridge. That would be illogical.
The quantity of water flowing in under it is identical to that flowing out from beneath it 15 feet lower, but one needs a line, just like I needed a line to keep my vision locked on that sleek, almost motionless Brown. A line between the charcoal smudge and the pale ochre behind it.
The day prior, I had used the two weight on the stretch below, despite my faith in my own formula wavering. My own formula being ”Two weight above the Wakecroft Stream confluence, 3 weight below, and 4 weight down below the Furth Stream confluence”. My doubt was tugged at by the thought of wind, and more so by the fullness of the stream, but in the end I stuck to the paint-by-numbers formula. 4,3,2….and I stuck to the 2 weight. A 2 weight for an 18 inch brown in May; a 3 weight for a 17 incher in February, and a 4 weight for a 19 incher in September. It has been a good season.
I smiled to myself at the memory of the big fish the day before. Caught late on a pretty afternoon, with the slanting sun throwing rose tints on the view of the homestead above. Baboon Hill and Fowler’s Folly behind it. A tiny nymph (#20) sunk deep beneath a dry fly. 18;20;2.
The delicate parachute dry just started mooching off like a dog hearing its bathtub being filled. It didn’t scud, or dart, or tug. It just mooched, so subtly that I would say it didn’t even drag. But I had been focused on the spot, because I had faith that there was a good fish in there. It was a bit like the faith you need when the paint-by- numbers instructions say “purple here”, and you have seen the photo of what you are painting, and there aint no damn purple in it!
Like the faith I needed to muster to use my 9 foot 4 weight on this same stream. It was a season or two back. I had not used anything heavier than a 3 weight on this stream in decades, but with my mate Ray being so addicted to his 10 foot dry fly rod, I started to develop an itch. What if I had more length to get the rod tip up above the high summer growth, the autumn blackjacks. What if I could fish the lift properly without yanking the fly out too early. Not bowing to the anxiousness of duffing the next cast with a snag at lift-off? Ray had described that reach. Ten foot added to his arm. The high dangle. The fly held out over the flow ahead, almost below the rod tip, dancing on the water enticingly for moments longer than I could do with a shorter rod. “But what of the delicacy of presentation?” I had thought. “Paradoxically the heavier the line the more lightly you can make it fall upon the water” answered Huish Edye from the pages of my bedtime reading that night.
So I had faith, and I tried it. 19 inches. 4 days into the season, on the 9 foot 4 weight. Size 12 Bugger. My best ever Brown from the stream. 19; 12;4
In between. February. The 3 weight. A 17 inch Brown, on a #18 Troglodyte. 17;18;3.
Can you see the purple patch in the numbers?
When I looked back into the stream the Brown was gone. I guessed it’s length at 11 inches.
I have its location now. All I need is the bamboo rod, and permission. Oh, and a way to cast from the bridge over the barbed wire fence, and then if I get the fish, a way of netting it. I think I will need an accomplice hiding in the bushes to the side of the stream.
As you can see my flyfishing, and the Trout I pursue don’t fit to formulas.
” …..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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll just leave this here.
I head out onto a local water here in search of some Browns, and meet with some success. Join me.
I spent a winter’s afternoon on a local stillwater, and share some of the tactics and the experience in this short video.
I always take time to stop fly fishing and take a look at my hausberg. Its a wonderful term that. In short, and as translated to suit me, it means ‘the mountain that looks out over the district of my birth, upbringing, and current abode: a psychological anchor of place, and a symbol of purpose and direction, normally viewed from below, but sometimes, as a means of re-setting ones compass, from atop’
and I think La Branche would have identified with my obsession for the Inhlosane mountain:
“The man who hurries through a trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him.” George LA Branche: Dry Fly on Fast Water 1914.
I had never hooked a trout before this week-end. That is to say, I had never held a fly between my two fingers, and used it to hook a trout. There is a first time for everything.
There is also a heavily wooded valley cut by a tributary of a favourite stream, which I had never entered. Here a reclusive and interesting man resides. I had never met this hermetic bloke before. What I have done before, is to go on a day’s fishing and not take my fly rod out of its tube. That happened once when PD and I holed up for breakfast at a favourite midlands haunt, and when the rain kept pounding down, and we tired of pigging out on coffee, we came home. This week-end I ended up at the same “piggly” place, but alas, they had run out of pork sausages. I pigged out on bacon instead, and then went on a circuitous fishing jaunt with Anton, in which the rod never saw the light of day. The fate of the stream in that same wooded valley was the same….never sees the light of day….owing to the rank woody growth that obscures the house tucked away in there, as much as it does the road in. We traversed that new road, right up to where it emerged within sight of Conniston Farm, where as a young child I collected tadpoles in a jar. So while the water held little promise, an orientation loop was neatly closed.
My friend Trevor throws a tight loop, which I was admiring when he caught a tadpole on Saturday. Well, it was in fact a brown, but it was of tadpole proportions. The tadpole capture was caught on film, as was the capture of my hooked trout, which was somewhat bigger, and for that I am a feeling a little smug.
The first time I hooked it, it was perfectly legit. The second hooking was for the sake of the camera, so I don’t think it should tarnish the legitimacy of my success on celluloid. Later, when I was sneaking down to “Five Pounder Pool”, the cameraman observed that the TV viewers would see this in the background of the interview his colleague was conducting at the riverside, and he asked if that would be problematic. Picture the window-cleaner behind the TV presenter, or the kid who opens the door during a live feed from daddy’s study. The others felt that while I may have technically been poaching at the time, my sneaking around in the background would be “fairly legit”, whatever that means.
The legitimacy of my excuse for not being at the hospital with my wife when her finger was stitched, is beyond reproach or question. I was fishing. Sort of. I was on that self same circuitous fishing trip, complete with bloody sandwiches. I do feel a little guilty that after the injury, I didn’t even eat the bloodied sandwiches, not because I am squeamish, but because I was lured to a pub with long cold glasses of lager, and jalapeno burgers. The pub with long cold glasses of lager, is where much of this weekend should have been spent, because it was too damned hot for trout. Tadpole sized or otherwise.
Anton offered to drop me off at the local sports ground on the way home so that I could practice my casting in the hot afternoon sun, but I declined. I had work to do, feeding sandwiches to the dog, and giving my wife a hug. Possibly wetting my wading boots under a tap and sucking on lager masking peppermints.
Earlier, after I had hooked my trout twice, and in response to a hair-brained idea involving a circuitous non fishing trip , he had asked me if my brain had disintegrated. The reply on my Whatsapp says “Yes, but I am fully expecting you to support me during this difficult time”. The reply was by my wife. That was when her typing finger was still OK, and before she took fright at Anton’s doorbell ringing and let rip with that new knife. And it was before Anton took me on a circuitous non fishing trip.
They say that reclusive bloke in the wooded valley is also a bit cooked, but maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. This heat has clouded my judgment.
They tell me it is going to snow this week. That might help.
“Opening Day – 1 September 1990”
After a winter of repeated tackle cleaning, fly tying and general pent-up abstinence, fly fishermen, myself included, seldom miss an opening day of the season.
It was the first day of spring and we were to have the privilege of fishing a small stretch of the upper Umgeni River. The old Merc bumped, lurched and scraped its belly down the stony track towards the farm “Knowhere”, with its large house overlooking the bend in the long pool and the downstream flats along the southern bank of the river dotted with grazing sheep. We parked by the side of the track near the top of the hill, briefly admiring the idyllic setting below us, then opted to walk the last few hundred metres to the farmhouse rather than risk doing serious damage to the underside of the car.
After exchanging courtesies with the friendly landowner and fending off three large, overenthusiastic farm dogs, we were at last free to stroll down to the river bank to see what condition the water was in following some early spring rain two days before. The river level had risen and, while slightly off colour, was just clean enough so one could see the fly in the water and just discoloured and turbulent enough to allow fishing from the high banks without being spotted by the wily browns that live in this stretch of river.
I rigged up a five-weight outfit for my girlfriend Jacqui and a three-weight for myself. The leaders were topped with small, bright orange foam strike indicators and the light tippets finished off with a freshly tied “Peacock Woolly Worm” on the five-weight, and the three-weight with my favourite “Wezani” nymph. The Wezani is a somewhat simple, but very effective, olive green and black seal’s fur nymph that Paul de Wet and I had developed and refined on several trips to the forested streams above Weza in southern Natal. The Wezani is best tied well weighted with wine bottle lead, or with plumber’s lead if you don’t drink wine. These flies seem to improve after catching a couple of fish when they become more tattered around the thorax.
Within the first hour or two of the morning’s fishing I caught and released a number of small, feisty browns around half to three-quarters of a pound. They were typical ‘geni browns – beautifully coloured and healthy. The fish were eager and hungry after the long winter but, as usual, tricky and evasive.
Approaching midday, I wandered over to the high bank from which Jacqui had been casting to hear that she had just hooked and lost her first ever brown trout. She appeared to be taking it quite well and wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have been. I sensed that I would only be getting in her way and that any offers of consolation or tuition would not likely be welcomed, so I continued a short distance downstream and squatted down behind a clump of bush to continue the steady rhythm of casting and drifting the nymph slow and deep along the bank.
The foam strike indicator dipped once more, but this time more decisively, and disappeared into the green depths. I lifted the rod gently and struck hard. A large, brightly speckled brown more than half a metre long flashed its long flanks, writhed and then dived to the bottom of the stream. The soft little rod bucked hard and my road arm trembled as the fish thumped and knocked against the stream bed and then dived headlong into some submerged reeds against the opposite bank. It showed itself on the surface one more time and then sounded again.
Almost half an hour later after a dogged battle interspersed with powerful runs, we beached the grand old fish into a clump of weed about a hundred metres downstream. As I reached down to slip my index finger into its gills, the small fly shot out of its mouth with an audible “ping”. I jumped into the water up to my thighs and, using both arms, scooped the exhausted monster onto the bank. With some sadness, I reluctantly administered the Coup de Grace. It was well beyond reviving after the unnecessarily long fight. I had not come prepared for fish this size.
The old cockfish was long and wiry with a large head, a pronounced rounded snout and a hooked jaw. His big, round spots were charcoal-coloured, with some bright red ones surrounded here and there by large silver rosettes. It was stunning. Measuring 57cm and weighing 3lb 15oz., it was my largest brown and by far the biggest stream fish I had ever seen, or had ever hoped to see on any trout water.
Those of you who have fished this stretch of the Umgeni River will probably agree that its landscape and the very long, slow pools around its middle section are quite unlike other classic ‘berg and midlands waterways.
Under normal water levels, this section is typically slack or at best slow-flowing and there are no riffles or fast water to impart movement and action to your fly, or to excite the downstream angler. The high banks demand a stealthy, upstream approach and the fish, while fairly plentiful, can at times be a real challenge. A good measure of patience, concentration and sharp reflexes are required as you crane your neck watching your barely moving leader, waiting and begging the strike indicator to stop and dip into the murky depths. And then you pick up the line and repeat the exercise, cast after cast.
Strike indicators are a matter of personal preference. I don’t mind them and in situations like this I like to use a small polypropylene yarn or a stick-on foam indicator at the very top of a short leader, typically 7 to 8 foot long. Just about any small nymph will do the job, but after several trips to this part of the Umgeni I can vouch for a generic Peacock Woolly Worm in sizes 10 and 12 as a confidence-boosting, backup pattern when the water is dirty, and a well weighted Wezani (or similar) nymph in sizes 12, 14 and 16 to cover various depths to structure when the water is on the clean side.
The beautiful early spring day was capped off when Jacqui eventually landed her first Umgeni brown late that afternoon after several frustrating near-misses. Around sunset, we trudged wearily but contented back up the steep hill and turned the car homeward to “sticky troutless, Durban”* (with sincere apologies to Neville Nuttall).
On the drive home, my thoughts inevitably returned to the day and it was only then that I remembered the 3lb 10oz. fish that Paul de Wet had caught on a nearby stretch of the Umgeni the year before and the apparently much larger fish that our friend Conrad Raab had lost earlier in the 1988 season. While the Umgeni is certainly better known for its browns of half a pound or sometimes up to a pound if you are lucky, 2 pounders are not unheard of and, as we now know, a trophy fish is never out of the question.
This is indeed a special and very different stretch of river and only a small part of a much larger, diverse waterway that demands our time and exploration.
Brett is an old friend, who now resides in Australia with his wife Jacqui.
Photos supplied by Andrew are more recent, but were all taken on the stretch of river in question: “Knowhere”, which is now NFFC club water.
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.
A good portion of my personal fishing history, has developed upon a patch of landscape from which the Inhlosane mountain is in view. Often the mountain is barely in sight, when some fishing tale unfolds. It might be in the background at some obscure and seldom seen angle, or it might just be peeping over the horizon, its furrowed brow of wrinkled cliffs crowning the ridge, like some concerned Grandpa looking in. Like an elderly father figure, concerned for the way things might turn out. Its dome giving away its ever watchful presence from afar.
The Inhlosane must have looked on that day that PD and guy were out on JJ’s dam at Zuivergout.
They were huddled in heavy jackets in the gathering gloom. Huddled in HMS bottletop, that was smaller than the both of them. HMS bottletop with its two micron, transparent fibreglass bottom, that separated them from the icy winter water. And Guy was taking aim at a bass they had caught , and was letting rip with his oversize wooden kudgel. The wooden kudgel with a lead ingot buried in the business end. And above the barrage of ant bass swearing, there was an earnest and nervous plea from PD to please stop, as guy missed, again and again, smashing the delicate boat bottom, out there in that cold water, a long way from shore.
The Inhlosane probably has eyes in the back of its head too. I am sure of it. It watches us on cold winter mornings, as we trundle up the side of the field to Mbovana.
Up along the edge of the field of cut grass, its sandy spread of colour punctuated by scattered guinea fowl, and the stillness of morning split by the raucous clatter of a franklin from somewhere between the hay bales . South African river chickens, I call them. Calling boldly , but running scared with wings and feet competing for their speedy retreat. The sun pierces the eastern skyline beneath the london planes, and the Inhlosane holds watch.
Then there was that furious run over to Boston to find fish boxes floating in the reeds, to strip the hens and cocks, and race back with PD in the passenger seat, an ice-cream tub of precious trout eggs cradled on his lap. We had to forego the comfort of the cab heater in favour of a good trout egg temperature. PD did a fine job of cushioning bone rattling dirt roads as we circled the mountain from below, on a day dominated by driving, that cut into fishing time. Fishing time lost to so few eggs. The hens were few and far between, and the instructions had gotten mixed up….all the good ones were released right beside our box. We cussed and drove and cussed. But we loved it. Circling our mountain in cold dusty air in the pale failing winter light. It was a harsh day of leanness. Real winter. Too short a season for those fond of good jackets, hip flasks and cold trout water.
In recent days we have sweated and toiled and scratched ourselves on wretched wattle trees. Cutting, dragging, hacking and stacking. Efforts to please the watching mountain. To rid its love-child, the river, of the scourge of spreading trees that don’t belong. With our shins brushing bramble patches, our eyes squinting against flying wood chips, our clothes ragged and dirty, and our hearts filled with well-meaning aggression. The mountain looks on. Motionless. Unmoved.
But surely pleased. Please tell me he is pleased.
Family members have proposed marriage atop the old fellow, and spread ashes on his slopes. We have hiked up the back end, and dare I admit it, rolled rocks down his sides.
We have owned properties within line of sight of those eyes beneath the heavy brow. Caught some good trout too. Big ones, from some private syndicates, and from little known farm dams. Inhlosane has watched too as we have celebrated little Browns from the Umgeni.
As he has watched our family, so we have watched him too. I cast my eyes westward every day on the way to work. A quick check, as one might expect to check a wristwatch. Just a “Look see”, to establish if he is spending the day in cloud, or sun, or snow, or storm. A quick run over, like a brail reading, or a memory imprinting. A flash of vision that captures and imprints yet another image of his shape, and height, and colour and mood.
From Nottingham Road, or Greytown, or Fort Nottingham, or Kamberg, and many places more, Inhlosane is a beacon. A beacon to establish direction. Sometimes barely visible, and maybe to some, barely recognisable, but so often there, peeping over some ridge or hill. Beady eyed it seems. Watching a landscape of toil and heat and cold, and dry and flood.
Sitting at home in Maritzburg, Durban, or wherever else one hails from, a flyfisherman is plagued with the problem of not knowing what the Trout waters up there in the hills are looking like.
I am off to work soon, but had the good fortune of trundling around in the Kamberg area over the last few days. So here is an update for those of you lucky enough to still have some leave:
We are still very much in the grip of drought, in that many dams are very low, and rivers have still not had a “spring flush”.
The Mooi at the Bend was at 22.8 degrees C on Thursday morning and flowing at levels that one would expect in winter.
The Mooi just below “The Bend”
The Mooi at Glenfern on Thursday.
That said, on Thursday a fair storm started up over Mount Erskine …but no higher than that in the catchment. (the hills above Riverside…on the Northern bank of the Mooi.)
The Mooi at Thendele with the storm over Meshlyn in the background
I would guess it dropped 10mm there, then moved on down over Meshlyn, who I hear got 9mm. I drove down the valley with the storm, and at about Sourveldt (Kamberg farmers hall), they got pounding rain, wash in the fields, and quite significant runoff into the little Mooi (But a lot less into the lower Mooi). The storm moved out towards Mooi River/Hidcote.
On Friday afternoon there were several storms up around the Giant. It looked to me that most of the rain fell “below the Giant’s tummy”, and that the Bushmans might therefore have done well from that storm. It seemed to move off Northwards and Eastwards towards Ntamahlope. Seconday storms dropped some water over the Giant generally, and I could see scattered rain over the Kamberg Valley. The Mooi at Game pass and at Riverside were definitely up on Saturday, and looking rather pleasant.
The Mooi at Game Pass on Saturday
By that I mean the best they have looked so far this season, and eminently fishable, but there was not enough flow to wash all the algae and silt away.
The dams: Prairie was still looking low and disappointing, even after Thursday’s storm:
Granchester is similarly low, and I would not bother with Strawberry, Tembu or Eremia. I haven’t seen Uitzicht…but I think you all saw the magnificent fish it produced last week, whatever its level.
Highmoor top dam is full and cool. The lower dam is still down a bit.
On balance, If I had a day or two more, I would be on the Mooi, at Game Pass, Kamberg, Thendele, Riverside, Stillerus, or Reekie Lyn. I would probably try the Bushmans too. Plenty of good water there. Flows up with some cool mountain water, but running clean. Water at 18 to 20 degrees C. Take suncream and watch out for snakes.
Imperfect info, and with the unstable weather we have at this time of year, it might be out of date by this afternoon, but there you have it from my perspective. Drop me a line if you have more news on water conditions. You don’t have to give away your secret spots, or report what you caught, but sharing info on conditions would be a great contribution to our small fly fishing community here in the KZN midlands.
For future, I do a more general roundup on this sort of news that you can access from the icons on the right of this. FOSAF report around month end, and a mid-month one on Fly-Dreamers. There is some moon phase and weather stuff on the right too. I hope they add some value.
Oh September rain
You drench my folded vale.
Your cold and cheerless mist
Like linen, soft and pale.
But you seduce. You persist.
And your verdant prize
Is my Holy Grail.
Gone be fawn and dust.
Out with brown and drought!
It is your sparkling stream for which I lust.
And water for my Trout.
Come grace us with your driving squalls,
And saturate us in your dew.
Oh how I have prayed for you!
August here in the KZN midlands is not a pretty time of year. At the end of a long winter, the entire province is tinder dry, and starting to heat up. We often experience “Berg winds” (For foreigners, that is winds blowing out of the North West over the Drakensberg, and not unlike the Santa Anna’s in California).