“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.
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.
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.
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.
I spent a winter’s afternoon on a local stillwater, and share some of the tactics and the experience in this short video.
“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed” ……..
”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him”
The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.
Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.
Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.
In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.
In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass. It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record. I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.
My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers. My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”. I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black. We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.
What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.
Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music. Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:
And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:
A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago. I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!
It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….
“Give me that peaceful, wandering free I used to know
Give me the songs that I once sung
Give me those jet-black, kick-back, lay down nights alone
… I was made to chase the storm
Taking the whole world on with big ole’ empty arms”
Extracts from the words of John Mayer’s “give my my badge and gun”
In the last week we have switched on the under-floor heating in the lounge, and I have worn a jacket of some sort most days. By my reckoning that signals the close of number 36….my 36th contiguous flyfishing season since this thing bit me all those years ago.
Sitting here in my living room , armed with a good cup of coffee and a reflective mood, I have just paged through my journal, and tried to get a sense of how it was. Tried for a capsule that sums it all up. Something that captures it in a way that lets me roll it around in my mind without missing any of the good bits.
One can add the numbers I guess: 200 hours of fishing over 45 days on ten stillwaters and eight different streams, and just under a hundred Trout. A fair season by those numbers I guess, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
130 of those 200 hours on streams, x number of Browns vs Rainbows, so many on dries, so many on nymphs. I have all this info. I could probably add up the kms travelled the diesel burnt, the coffee, beer and whisky drunk.
I think it is better summed up as follows: (in terms of the piscatorial quarry at least)
We broke the rules and started 3 days early on the very lower Bushmans, where we were shown a toffee. That is always a good way to start. There were some trips to the Lotheni, a few months apart, but they were lean. The trips to the Mooi were not, and there were more of those this season than last. The Mooi and the Bushmans produced some big fish for me. Bigger ones for my Facebook buddies it seems, or was that camera angle?
I was happy with mine. The Umgeni showed me more good fish, and more toffees than ever before. It was real “Rub your snout in that” stuff! . The lower Sterkspruit and the lower Bokspruit were challenging, but the upper reaches of both offered up their bounty. The Vlooikraal was as special as it always is.
A 17 incher in the sleet with Jan in October at Reekie Lyn.
A 19 incher from Krantz pool with PD.
PD’s 18 incher from the Sterkspruit…
……sure it wasn’t my fish, but you asked about memorable fish right? And you didn’t ask if I caught them.
My first day of an Eastern Cape trip got me a 14 inch Rainbow on a nymph fishing with Roy. My last day got me a 14 inch Brown on a dry …stalked, fooled, hooked and landed with PD as my witness.
“Book-ends!” he remarked after he had congratulated me on that last fish, and I thought about that over a cup of streamside coffee off the camp stove while he went fishing.
There was a fish of some 13 inches on the Bushmans right towards the death, that was special. Several fly changes, lots of stalking and creeping about, and eventually I fooled him, alone, and without witnesses. The solitude of a good fish on an empty river with no one to ‘high-five’ you is, I think, a healthy thing.
But the fish that had my eyes swirling in the same way that Kaa the snake was able to dazzle Mowgli, was that Umgeni fish at ‘The Black Hole’ . Like PD’s one on the Sterk, I didn’t catch it. Unlike PD’s on the Sterk, no-one caught it. I however, photographed it. Twice. I put about 10 different fly patterns over it. I spotted it feeding no less than four times, and I rose it three times, pricking it on two of those occasions.
That fish had me beaten. It is also the one thing that has me looking forward to no 37.
Now that, my friends, is surely the fish of the season!
……….My next post will be the season between the fish……………which in so many ways is larger and more significant.
This photo kindly sent to me by Tom Sutcliffe
It was the fifth of April. PD and I were in the highest of the high country in the North Eastern Cape. Mecca for short.
The sky was a very pale blue, brushed at times with a high and hazy grey white. The weak and filtered sun crept through that haze, and kissed the hills, between interludes of cool breeze, and brighter sunshine. One could just feel the sun’s warmth through a thick denim shirt, and at times it wasn’t enough and one felt the need for an extra layer. The North facing hillsides there are covered in a dense cloak of grass, that waves slightly yellow in April. The Southern facing nooks and crannies are dappled in spiky tufts, as are the immediate river banks. The rocks are the pepper of the veld: strewn everywhere, rough, weathered and interesting, glistening here and there with Quartz and Pitch black and shiny in the stream.
We were not sure of the exact location of the lower boundary. But today was special, and it deserved all our effort in fishing every inch of river that the shortening days would allow us to fit between where we were and sunset. We are both working men, and days on a heavenly stream in the perfection of the April weather are to be treasured and optimised to the full. So we set out for “down there” with conviction and determination, striding ahead over rocky outcrops and ridges, our path curving slightly left and right as we discovered the course of the stream. At some point we arrived at a spot at which the stream was clearly taking a plunge down into a gorge. It is at a junction such as this, that one realises that the passage of the current is about to take you into a venture which calls for a sleeping bag and a tent. You stand atop a rock craning your neck to see if there is a pool down there which you should head for, but a realisation sweeps over you, that you will be going no further on your day-trip. You must start your fishing now, lest you hike so far down that you wont be able to fish back up to the vehicle, without skipping much of the good water on the way back.
PD and I had reached such a spot, but our decision to start in and fish was not such a disappointment or limitation, since we were blessed with an absolute gem of a pool at that point in the river.In fact the pool was a beast. It’s size was such that it was too big for this stream. It was a freak of a thing. It was maybe twenty metres long, with water plunging in at the head in a flurry of white water, and below that it swept probably two metres or more deep, with enough room in there for a leviathon of your dreams. From where we were, the pool lay below us to the South West. We decided to crawl over to the crest of the small krantz overlooking the pool and take a peak in there. As our heads popped over the rim and our eyes adjusted to the deep green water below us, we both gasped.
Below us, suspended in the translucence, were a couple of Rainbows of Alaskan proportions! If we swore, it was not a curse but an expression of religiously significant awe.
We watched for a while. We counted them. We marveled at them. We tried to guess their size, and the depth at which they were finning away. Were they feeding? It was hard to say, but it looked promising, they were not static, but moved slightly back and forth, side to side. It all looked so enticing, but the enormity of the act of peeling off the first coils of line to actually start casting for them, was daunting. We couldn’t lie there in the grass and rocks all day just watching them, so PD insisted that I go after them. I wasn’t too sure that my skills were up to the challenge and I tried to cop out with the usual “no… you start”. As we all know this is a sort of ritual of humility and manners, and PD’s offer for me to take them stood, as is normally the case.
It was decided that he would remain in place as a spotter for me. This is always a good tactic for fish like these. So I crept back from the edge, and went a long way down and around, disappearing from sight of the pool for a good long time. When I came back around to the river, I was in fact well below where I needed to be. This is better than finding you have walked right upon the fish you planned to stalk. I decided that PD would understand me taking my time, so I peeled off line and fished the fast run below the pool first. I needed to get the kinks out of my line. Get my rhythm, and gauge the sink rate of the fly I had chosen.
This duly done, and with some trembling, I positioned myself at the tail of the pool, and fearfully put out the first cast.
The line landed. PD confirmed that the fish had not spooked. He gauged the three dimensional model of my drift, and commented that maybe I needed to cast higher up to allow the fly to get down to the fish. I banked that info for the second cast, and waited patiently for the line to wash to me, to avoid a splashy lift-off above the fish.
The second cast went out, with my heart still in my throat. Mid way down the drift my heart stopped altogether as something took. But it was a small fish that had darted out from nowhere and grabbed the nymph. I pulled it hard to one side and horsed it in, well away from the big fish. PD was experiencing some riffle on the water, and he struggled to see what had happened. To my relief he soon reported that the big ones were undisturbed! It was almost too good to be true: I would have a third shot at it.
PD craned over the edge, desperate to remain low, but trying to get an angle that helped his eyes cut through a bit of glare that was developing. As I set about the third delivery, PD suddenly blurted, in a tone way more bold and loud than our whispers until now: “Bugger. Sorry!”. For in instant I was puzzled, but very soon the mug sized rock bounding down the slope came into view, and the enormous splash as it smacked the surface in the middle of the pool, sent both of us off in peels of laugher and volleys of curses.
The humility and forgiveness of great friendships is invaluable on a Trout stream!
If you carry a camera around on Trout waters long enough, you eventually bump into a co-operative Rainbow.
It wouldn’t take a fly, but after I had photographed it, I caught it with my hands.
Yes, I returned it.
No, there were no witnesses.
Before leaving the hospital, I was careful to check with the surgeon that he did indeed recommend fly-fishing the following day as part of my recovery program. He confirmed that with my feet in the water and some beer going in the other end, my very recently attended to kidney would be happy as can be.
By the following morning the effects of the general anaesthetic had worn off enough that when PD texted to say “are you up to this” I replied in the affirmative without hesitation, and he was forced to overcome his own stress induced lethargy, and come over to help me load the canoe.
We fished one of the lower lakes on the farm. An easy water, where the fish are obliging.