“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).
A cloudy winter dawn
The first light of day brings honking geese
Hinting at what lies beyond the drawn curtains,
and out across the drab patchwork landscape:
Low slung cloud, and dampened dust,
Odours of dead wet kikuyu grass,
and a wafting hint of silage, hanging in the still morning air.
And farmyard sounds that carry in the silence
Pervading morning memories of childhood on the farm.
Nostalgia nestled in the moment,
Like my sleepy being in this warm bed.