Photo taken by my son, James Fowler
With the onset of our spring rains having occurred in some places and not in others, the weather is foremost on the mind of the river fishermen. In fact our conversations are just a little obsessive at the moment.
This is why:
I remember several years ago, taking my [then] girlfriend to a favourite stretch of the upper Mooi in September, and finding it very low and slimy.
She must have doubted my honesty, because for months I had described to her this babbling brook of ice cold crystal water, rushing over rocks. And on a hot dry September day, it was anything but that. The water was clear, but it was undeniably sluggish, and there was a furry brownness to the underwater rocks.Water limped between pools, rather than gushed, and nowhere did one see water droplets thrown into the air by the force of the stream, as I had no doubt described to her. It looked dead, even if it was not. I tried to explain, but I sense that with each description of how it CAN look, I dug myself deeper.
Rivers are remarkable in that they are barely recognisable from one trip to another. A push of rainwater or snowmelt, a flood, or a few dry months, and the place is transformed into something that has you doubting your own memory.
So of course the Mooi did return to its old self, as it always does, and as it will this spring too.
On further trips to the Mooi I was able to show her what I mean when I say that the river is “sparkling”, and I can’t have done too badly, because it was at a special spot beside that same river that I proposed to her. It was sparkling that day despite the lateness of the season, and she accepted!
I remember once fishing Reekie Lyn on another of those dry spring days, and it was once again in a sorry state. It was a dry dull hot Sunday. The most action we saw was a large angry puffadder that I imagined wanted to kill me. The following day I flew to Joburg, and we flew straight over Reekie Lyn. It had snowed heavily overnight, and was now clear as a bell. I refused to give up my window seat to another passenger who wanted to see the snow. I wanted to see it more than he did. As we flew over Reekie Lyn I looked down and spat “take that!” through my teeth at the puffadder below. I hadn’t seen him coming the day before, but can’t have seen the snow coming a few hours later either!
On another occasion I took my wife to a remote spot much higher up the same river. A spot where a misplaced oak tree grows peacefully beside the river, well within the Drakensberg, where such an alien species does not belong. But the tree is far enough up to have escaped the notice of the rangers, and somehow I am OK with that. It is a loner, and has no offspring, and it is a lovely shady tree. The spot where it grows is flat, with whispy verdant grass, and beside this veritable lawn stands an enormous lichen covered boulder, alongside which the stream plunges into a pool that cries out to be fished, photographed or swum in. The choice depends on your particular passion, but either way, the spot is something like one of those scenes that used to appear on the front of chocolate boxes. Deep green water, short grass on the banks, not a sign of mud or erosion. A backdrop of heavenly mountains. It is perfection.
The day that I hiked my better half up there, the heavens opened as we arrived, and the mountains remained shrouded in mist. She sat on an uncomfortable root under the tree, and remarked that there seemed to her to be no lush lawn anywhere. There were just roots and sticks and rainwater puddles. She read her book while the branches above dripped on her pages. The torrential rain did not let up, and once I had caught a few small Browns, and her book had disintegrated, we hightailed it out of there.
I have since taken a fishing buddy there with similar descriptions of this jewel of a place, but on that occasion it was in spate and we saw and caught nothing.
Then I recommended a stretch of the Umgeni to someone who asked about it. They returned with tales of impenetrable bramble, nettles and turpentine grass, and have not asked my advice since. A year or so earlier another friend and I fished the same stretch together in early spring before the rankness had set in. It was one of those glorious days, with a cool blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and if I remember, a few willing Browns. He twice asked me why I hadn’t told him about the beat sooner.
So I guess my point here is that streams and rivers are places where a fly-fisherman needs to throw his expectations out of the window. He needs to go with whatever the season throws at him. He should probably shut his mouth when it disappoints, and revel in it when the going is good.
Come to think about it, he should shut his mouth when the going is good too, lest he later be judged a fraud, or worse still an NAHRR*
( * a Nostalgic and Hopelessly Romantic Recidivist)
Before the Spring Grove dam.
the 4th September 1988.
The farm “Avon” on the Mooi River.
It was one of the best spring fishing years that I have had. The diary records it as being a dry spring, with the river not flowing all that strongly, and plenty of algae around.
On this particular day PD and I were only on the water around 10 am. It was cold, clouded and blustery. I remember we went up to the top boundary, and fished downstream from there, although we were of course upstream nymphing. I know, it is illogical, but were were younger then, and it made perfect sense at the time.
With it being cold and windy, the fishing started off slow. But the sun started to poke through, and although it didn’t exactly get hot that day, it got brighter. What a day it turned out to be!
PD started hooking fish first. They were really good size fish for a midlands river.
Tom Sutcliffe once wrote a piece about “Champagne day on the Mooi”. Well this was to be one of those. Both of us got fish over “over two pounds” according to my journal, and a string of fish of “a pound and a half”
By early afternoon it had brightened up a little too much perhaps, because the fishing dropped off a little, in the stretch below the Gordon’s farmhouse.
But by evening, in a large pool back upstream, near the farmhouse, the fish started rising, and we had a lot of fun at the tail of the pool, casting to spreading rings, missing the strike, and generally dabbling in Trout heaven.
On Saturday we were out fly-fishing in the Underberg area. We had a storm in the early afternoon. Nothing special: just some wild wind, and 10mm or so of rain, and later the front moved in with a cool wind, a rumble of thunder and some rolling mist. Back home in Hilton that night I could hear a little rain on the veranda roof. That was it.
On Sunday, we took a drive under grey skies up to the Mooi River.
On the last Saturday of September last year, Mike and I headed out to Riverside on the upper Mooi river. This stretch of river is club water, and is on a dairy farm that sits within the “U” shape formed by the KZN parks area of Kamberg Nature reserve.
We were blessed with a pleasant sunny day, the temperature peaking at just twenty two degrees C, and the occasional light gust of wind.
One parks under some plane trees at the farm entrance and fishes upstream from there.
This is classic KZN river water for me. Quite high river banks, through which runs a stream, deep and moody in its big pools, and light and babbling over sheets of shelf-rock in other places, with just occasional rapids through a tumble of jagged rocks or rounded pebbles. You generally wade up until it gets too deep, then you clamber out and go around the head of the pool, where you slither down the bank again. In mid summer your forays out of the river involve pushing through grass and maize higher than your head, with the odd fence or bramble bush to keep you on your toes. But in September, while it has turned green, the fields are dusted in short grass, large areas are burned, and the going is really very easy.
Last week, just as our first decent spring rains were arriving to break the drought, I started building my case. Today, with a full week of inclement weather behind us, I plan to let you in on where this affluenza thing is going. Work with me please.
If you didn’t read what I posted here last week, perhaps you would like to pause here and do that to better understand where I am coming from.
So: in our quest for a magazine cover life, and a magazine cover fishing life in particular, we go in pursuit of the best water, right.
Nothing wrong with that, you may say .
Of course not: Mongolia in the autumn as the larch trees are turning and the Taimen are taking medium size rat imitations. The highest stretches of some local mountain stream, that is pure champagne. The very best fishing club stretch on the Mooi. The Yellowstone rivers. South island. All good. We are fishermen. We enjoy good fishing, and we seek it out.
On 29th September, Mick and I headed out to what was then Natal Fly-Fishers Club water: Silverdale on the Mooi River.
We parked at the bridge, where we tackled up, and headed upstream on the South bank, crossing the river here and there. We started in a few hundred yards up the valley. Mick was just below me, on a large flat pool. I crossed the river and moved ahead to a set of rapids above.
It was a warm spring day. The veld was still brown from winter, but with the green shoots of spring coming through everywhere. The Italian ryegrass pastures were a verdant green, and the irrigation sprinklers were misting in a strong North wind that was roaring above us, catching the tops of the gum trees near where we parked, and making them hiss and rustle in a way that signals difficult casting. But down there in the river valley we were somehow sheltered, and although the water was brushed by gusts that rippled the surface and drove flotsam across the water, casting was not in fact difficult.
Within minutes of us starting out , Mick hollered. He was into a good fish.
In the next half hour, every time I turned around, I saw Mick, either with a bent rod, or on his haunches down at the waters edge landing another fish from the very same spot.
Here in South Africa, and certainly in my own home waters of KwaZulu Natal, our river fish are not expected to grow very big.
Some time back, I fished the Trout Bungalow section of the Mooi River with a good friend of mine. It was a magical April day. We arrived late morning, perhaps a little too late, as I like to be on the water by about 10:00 am at the very latest. We tackled up quickly and headed upstream to do battle.
I carried a particular air about me that day. It was an air of curiosity and comparison. An introspective sense of evaluation, and an acute appreciation of the nature of this river. The reason for this is that the outing was hot on the heals of a visit to Rhodes in the North Eastern Cape.
Now those rivers are unquestionably different. We had done well at Rhodes, and refined our skills a little more. We had adapted to those rivers and moulded our approach around them, and here I was back on home water. Now I was asking myself whether I would fish this river as I had at Rhodes, and if not, why not.
The first observation was that Guy and I remarked on the clarity of the water on the Mooi. It was full, and sparkling, and looking great. However it was not a patch on the clarity of the Bell or the Bokspruit.
Clear water on the Bokspruit at Welgemoed. (Can you spot the Trout?)
In KZN we generally don’t do our fly-fishing for Trout in big strong rivers. As a result there is not a lot written about wading and wading safety or difficulty in these parts. But of course at this time of the year, it is not impossible to find yourself on a fast piece of water, that is still clean enough for you to want to fish it.
Generally the Umgeni is unfishable from a water colour perspective, if it is too fast to wade. The Mooi, and the Bushmans on the other hand, can run a pale slate grey colour, with lots of white water, and be fishable. Fishable that is, with a fair amount of lead on the business end, if you are working a nymph.
And as I have written elsewhere, our KZN rivers are not as easy to wade as those of the North Eastern Cape, where one has the luxury of long gravel beaches and spurs to wade along. The Mooi has many stretches of nasty angled rock, tossed into runs like those “dolosse” on a breakwater. Sharp angled pieces, that scatter the river bed, with deep crevices and holes between them. Then on the upper Bushmans there are stretches where the water’s edge signals a vertical drop into the river channel, and in high water to step off there would see you in 4 ft of fast flowing water.
“You will hear the silence of the folded hillside brushed by the wind in its grasses..”
The other day I grasped an opportunity to go out on the river alone. From time to time I have this urge for the utter solitude and peace of being alone on the water for a full day. In fact I have that urge most weekends, and seldom get to fulfill the dream. So when this particular late September day dawned, I woke with my soul upon the lip of the precipice, ready to soar. I was happy. I left my bed with a sense of freedom and liberation. I had awoken early. The kids were baby-sat.
All was well until I reached the bedroom window and drew back the curtain a few inches to inspect the conditions. It had been raining. In fact my memory was suddenly jogged that in the half sleep of the bewitching hour, I had heard a thunderstorm and the drumming of the gutters. It was now cold and miserable. I stepped back and pondered the situation briefly, and then looked again.