Funny how you can remember some stuff, while other things just slip your mind. I clearly remember Neil Patterson’s 1985 article in Trout Fisherman magazine entitled “Bring me a rod and make it snappy”. It was about his impressive string of breaking and losing rods, including one that he left at a café table in Paris on his way to have it repaired by its renowned maker.
Then last week I left my rod at the river. We were packing up. The others were quicker than me. They were climbing into their bakkie. It was raining. I pictured myself alone in the storm up there after they had gone. The notion may have felt a little forlorn. I may have rushed. An hour later I was driving along the base of Spionkop mountain when an unexplained chill entered my spine, and I revisited my packing up, and realized I had no recollection of snipping off the fly.
It was a night of restlessness and sore shins (yes…kicking myself). In the morning we drove all the way back up there. The roads were a mess after the storm. The rod was lying unharmed in the grass barely twenty metres from where we had parked. It just dropped off the cattle rails into the veld, along with my prized 1940’s Hardy’s lightweight reel.
The relief saw me babbling and rattling off amazing fishing stories all the way home.
Then there was the time I lost my net on the Sterkspruit. It was back when nets came in pretty much one size category, and that was “large”, especially when taken in the context of our small stream trout. I had spied an amazingly small net, ridiculously small, some might have said back then, behind the counter at The Flyfisherman in Maritzburg. Roger Baert told me it was a sample from a net maker. A novelty of sorts, and a few months later, when it no longer served any purpose, he gave it to me. I screwed an eyelet into the handle and connected it from there to my belt. That day on Birkhall, it kept unscrewing, and all through the day I found myself re-screwing it. Until, that was, I became engrossed in the evening rise.
When we got to the Lindesfarne bridge, it was gone. Dude, ever committed and loyal to the common cause, sprinted across the road, somersaulted over the fence into a patch of bramble and set off at a run to search for it. For hours! He never did find it, but that fence crossing is imprinted on my mind.
And speaking of Dude, there was that enormous fly storage box I handed to him one evening on the bridge over the Bell on the commonage water at the village of Rhodes. When the sun had long set, and we were done frustrating ourselves with small picky rainbows that rejected everything we threw at them, I turned to him and said “Hey Dude, how about that fly box”. And the rest is history.
One day we packed up after fishing at Theuns and Joyce Botha’s place, and headed back down the valley to the house at Branksome where we were staying, and I asked PD to stop for me to take a photo.
That’s when I spotted my very expensive Sage Click reel, lying on his windscreen wiper. Talk about a close call!
It was on Bhungane beat of the Bushmans that I stopped to take another photo, and removed my glasses to look through the viewfinder.
Back then I only needed the glasses to tie on smaller flies, so it was a couple of hours later that I was wiping my eyes to try understand why I couldn’t thread the fly, and the penny dropped. Fortunately I had a GPS running, and I used the ‘trackback’ feature to lead me straight to my specs about a kilometre back.
My Mate Anton has been fishing for years with a fly vest on which every zip is broken. I always looked at him and remarked that it didn’t look all that safe. The late George Forder always carried his ‘nine mill’ under his belt, fully loaded and with the safety catch off, and he used to say “I know it doesn’t look safe, but……” and his voice would trail off. Anton’s retort was not dissimilar. The other day he got a spanking new vest with zips that do close, but it seems old habits die hard, and we were scanning the banks of a favourite small stream of his the other day, looking for a fly box. It was the same stream where I lost and found my rod and reel, and I felt a little bad when I phoned to revel in the fact that I had found mine and had to say “Sorry mate, no sign of that fly box”. That is the same stretch where my then teenage son lost his cellphone. In our detailed analysis of events afterwards, we concluded that it had in fact, evaporated. Here was no other explanation. That river really does eat stuff!
Once, I pulled off the main road about ten kilometers down the road from Briarmains, which I had just left after a day’s fishing. I stopped to investigate a flapping noise that seemed to be coming from the roof of the vehicle as I drove down the road at some eighty kilometers an hour. It turns out it was my leather hat, which I had left up there, and which was right where I had left it.
Then there was the time I had just landed a good fish on the Bushmans, when my wading staff came off its magnet and started to drift downstream in the white water. Graeme was coming towards me with his camera at the ready, and asked me where my priorities lay. I said the staff had come off more than once that day, and that I would fetch it later. “Get the picture rather” I said.
I couldn’t find it that day. But I haven’t given up hope. That was a good few years back. It was my wife’s hiking pole. I have promised to go back and fetch it soon.
She thinks I’m losing it.
I think she may be right.
The eighties, if I am not mistaken, is or was, referred to as the Jet age. Some or other more recent decade, possibly the one we are currently in, is referred to as the information age, in think-tank circles.
It gets me thinking what age we are currently in, in terms of fly fishing. I would have to limit myself to the local South African context here, since I am not qualified to comment on a global basis. (Actually I am not qualified to comment on anything) But local is lekker. So let’s have a look at the theme or defining developments of local fly-fishing through recent decades.
From my perspective it goes something like this
1970’s: Tackle came from Farlows in London. Everything had an overly British influence. I was a youngster, so I don’t really know what was going on, but I know that the Natal Fly Fishers Club was established in 1972, so there must have been some stirrings of local fly fishing comeraderie, and some awakening of the local scene. Jack Blackman’s name was on the lips of many a flyfisher here in KZN.
Books published that I remember, and still own: “Trout fishing in Natal” by Bob Crass; “Life in the Country” by Neville Nuttall; “Introducing fly fishing in South Africa” by John Beams; “Freshwater fishing in South Africa” by Michael Salomon.
1980’s: I fished myself silly in the eigthies…This fitted in from my high school days to the end of my varsity and army times. Fly fishing seemed to be in a big growth phase here in KZN, certainly in terms of public accessibility. Anton Smith reminded me that a lot of farm dams were built at this time, so stillwaters really came on the scene. Roger Baert brought in the first float tube. The fly-Fisherman shop (the first specialist fly shop in Africa!) opened in Pietermaritzburg. The American influence really started to come in strongly. Tom Sutcliffe’s first book was published (after the newspaper articles that preceded that). The first fly magazine started. Tom Sutcliffe and others got us all going on upstream dry fly and nymphs. It seemed to be “heydays” stuff, even then.
Books: “Trout on the veld” by Malcolm Meintjies; “My way with a Trout” by Tom Sutcliffe; “Flies and flyfishing in South Africa”, by Jack Blackman; “Trout in South Africa” , by Bob Crass.
1990’s: Perhaps it was Tom Sutcliffe moving to the Cape and continuing to write and publish that did it. I don’t know, but we in KZN became aware of the Western Cape, and its fast flowing streams, and for my part this decade saw a swing away from the very much stillwater focus here in KZN towards streams. Having said that, I was rearing kids, and some years I fished as little as once a month, and while I dreamed rivers, mnany of those days were in fact stillwater days. Graphite rods, having been introduced in the eighties now became the affordable norm. Later in the decade the Eastern Cape Highlands were opened up to me as a destination for us KZN anglers.
Books published: “"Tom Sutcliffe’s “ Reflections on Flyfishing”; “Hooked on Rivers”, by Jolyon Nuttall; “SA Flyfishing handbook” by Dean Riphagen; “A Mean Mouthed, Hook Jawed , Son of a fish” by Wolf Avni.
2000’s: There seemed to be a big swing towards salt water fly fishing as well as fishing for other species beside Trout. I vaguely remember that this is when Roger Baert told me that the Fly-fisherman shop was selling more saltwater rigs than anything else. I also think there was a drop off in the popularity of fly-fishing generally. Perhaps I should say it didn’t seem to be growing as fast as it had before. Conoeing and thereafter cycling became the rage. The Flyfisherman shop sadly closed its doors here in KZN.
Books published: “Hunting Trout”, by Tom Sutcliffe; “Reflections on the river “by Andrew Levy; “Getaway guide to Fly-Fishing in South Africa”, by Nigel Dennis.
2010’s: The current! Firstly, it has to be labeled as the decade in which the “Trout wars” reached a pinnacle! It also seems to be part of the information age. With facebook, and blogs, online magazines and e-books everywhere, there is almost information overload. On the positive side there is a great connectivity between fly-anglers. We have platforms to discuss and argue and meet one another. Apart from the widespread information, it seems to me that this has sprung us onto the international stage, in that such media know no boundaries. As a result, fly fishing in South Africa is popping up in international groups, discussions, and books like never before. Competitive angling seems to have come to the fore too.
I get a sense that the sport is in another major upswing!
Books published: Peter Brigg’s “Call of the Stream” ; “Shadows on the Streambed” by Tom Sutcliffe; Duncan Brown’s “Are Trout South African”; …………I wonder what else is on the way!
* Note: The list of books published is by no means extensive. For an excellent reference on all the South African fly fishing books ever published, look for Paul Curtis’ book “Fishing the margins”, and the recently updated version “Fishing wider margins”
* Another note: The above is by no means an exhaustive or authorative discourse of developments, but rather a personal, and KZN province biased recollection of how things have come along in each decade.
But apart from trying to look back, with all the imperfections of one’s biased and flailing memory, what of the future?
Trying to guess the major themes of flyfishing in the future is risky business. Maybe some of this is more of a wish-list than a prophecy, but here goes.
I hope that in the next decade, (and it may only be the one starting after the rollover of 2020), the following might predominate:
- South Africa comes to be considered an international destination, and not only for “African species”, but also for its Trout fishing. And then, not because the fish are bigger or better or more willing, but because it is a cool place to go to, and has a good package deal to offer.
- And allied to that, I hope that mainstream conservation and flyfishing might join hands. That anglers will participate in widespread river clean-ups, and that pristine or restored catchments will hold high value. Some of that happens here and there at present, but I am talking on a bigger scale. Perhaps stretches will be worked on with donga gabions, removal of alien plants, relocation of soak pits and washing areas away from streams, etc, etc. I think I am picturing something along the lines of the “thousand mile project” in the USA. If I just glance at KZN and consider how many kilometres of trout stream flow through farmland or tribal land below the Drakensberg world heritage site, that could do with some TLC, and a bit of fanfare and organised access of some sort, to put it on the map, and make it worth caring for in more pairs of eyes……….
I can dream, right?
Gilboa Estates, named after mount Gilboa is a beautiful place.
The mountain itself is the highest point on the Karkloof range of hills. Although less striking than Inhlosane mountain, the Karkloof is an iconic skyline, and is visible from far across the midlands of KZN.
What makes this range unusual is that it protrudes out from the main Mount West/Greytown ridge as a high narrow spur, in an easterly direction. This gives it some unique characteristics. Firstly, it gives it a cool southern side, that is ideal for natural forest to form. So unlike the main ridge to the North (which runs out from Mooi River/Mount West to Greytown in a more North easterly direction), it boasts significant natural forests on its slopes. For those not familiar with this bioclimatic region: that is an anomoly in a landscape which would otherwise be covered in an endless sea of natural grasslands. In its verdant state, as described in the book “Stories from the Karkloof hills” , it must have been on a par with the steppes of Mongolia.
This anomoly is not immediately apparent, because much of our landscape is now dotted with commercial timber plantations, and the Karkloof area in particular is considered timber farming land.
In fact much of that timber is planted right up to the margins of the bush, and to the uninitiated it may all appear a homogenous dark green mass.
I often find myself correcting people when they speak of the commercial timber and refer to it as a forest. It is not a forest. It is a plantation. A dead thing in which nothing else lives. The forest on the other hand is a delight. A mass of species: ferns, Cape Chestnuts, Lemonwoods, Yellowwoods, stinkwoods,……… you name it. It is home to leopard and Duiker and monkeys, and a vast number of bird species.
From the ridge that runs west of the summit of Mt Gilboa, you can stroll along the top edge of the forest, and listen to the sounds of birdsong drifting up to you, in a manner not dissimilar to the mist that tends to drift up over that escarpment.
The cool mist can catch you by surprise, even on a warm day. At around 1700m altitude the ridge is fairly high, but more importantly it is a good 400m higher than the road, visible about 2 km away to the South.
So this ridge catches the wind, which often rises and condenses, and thus it receives a rainfall as high as 1400mm per annum, further supporting the cool lush forests. It snows on top too. Not often, but it does snow. After a winter front the locals will speak of the severity of a snowstorm in progressive terms, from “High berg only”, to “Little berg as well” and on to “It snowed on Inhlosane”, followed by “It Snowed on the Karkloof!”, indicating a real “hum- dinger”.
All that water and cool air augers well for Trout! Trout are to be found, but the ridge is a narrow one, and so they hang precariously to these slopes.
On the Northern side, where the slope is more gentle, the landscape is an open grassland like that I described earlier. Most of it is in prime condition.
It also sports some of the most pretty wild flowers imaginable.
There are one or two lakes in that zone. The recently repaired “Marks dam” is one of them. It is a superb water, and is about to be re-stocked by the NFFC.
Then there are a few more, out on the Eastern end of the ridge, where they are surrounded by Pine plantations.
Below the Eastern crest is Mbona estate and one or two other stillwaters that boast a trout population.
In terms of streams, they are all delicate and precarious threads, and the status of their trout populations is largely unknown nowadays. We know that many had Trout in them. I recently read an account in a private unpublished family history, in which a Durban family would ride out to the Karkloof by wagon, and fish the streams for trout. It would have been in the first 10 years after these were introduced at the turn of the previous century. And of course the Karkloof was the site of John Parker’s first (albeit unsuccessful) hatchery. There are more recent accounts of people shocking the streams in the 1970’s to thin out fish populations, and using those fish to stock dams. But the land is privately owned and these streams are often overgrown and difficult to reach. The Mholweni / Yarrow flows South. Every map you consult has a different labeling as to which arm of the stream is the Yarrow and which the Mholweni, and which name carries to the main stream that flows out onto the flats and runs South West beside the main road. Others say it is one and the same, which I guess it probably is.
The Natal Fly Fishers Club once had water here on the farms of the Shaws and Landale Train. Peter Brigg writes beautifully about his interview with Landale Train in his book (“Call of the Stream”), wherein he suggests that the trout may no longer be there at all. The status of those stretches is uncertain though. It seems hard to believe that the trout are gone completely. I can tell you that I watched trout rising in a pool below the house on the property known as “Twin Streams” about 15 years ago. We have had some severe droughts and floods, and commercial timber clear-felling results in massive silt loads. Who knows what you will find in that stream.
There has also been talk of trout in the hanging valleys up on top: both the Mholweni below “Bosses dam” and the Umvoti below “Barlbarton dam”.
Turning to the Northern side, The Nyamvubu was dammed about 15 or more years ago, and that dam (Bloemendal), while it started out with some good trout, now has Bass and other species. Roger Baert writes of this stillwater, as well as the Craigiburn dam below it, in his recent book, “Meandering Streams”. The Craigiburn dam , as far as I know was last stocked with Trout in 1984 (for some obscure reason I still have a newspaper clipping about that stocking!)
The status of the trout population in the diminutive Nyamvubu that flows into it is unknown. That stream rises in the verdant grasslands which are protected in terms of the stewardship program whereby private landowners sign up to protect their land as a nature reserve. It is good to know that this small sanctuary of natural beauty is valued by enough people for that program to have succeeded.
Gilboa and the Karkloof really is a beautiful place, and it begs further exploration with a fly rod, a map and a camera.
I have a few good fishing pals who are older than I am. I really enjoy fishing with them.
I have never been able to put my finger on why that is. In mulling over why that might be, these two conversations come to mind:
A friend of mine recently returned from a family holiday. It was one of those extended family things where each family within the greater gathering takes a bungalow, and then you get together for meals to argue and create family politics. You know the set up. Anyway, he and his wife were placed with some of the older folk. That is to say, my pal is the right side of fifty, and the “older folk” with whom they shared a bungalow are the wrong side of seventy.
His comment on the whole arrangement was “What a pleasure!”. There was banter, but no barbed remarks. There was enthusiasm but no real competition. There was passion but no agenda. No one was practicing one-upmanship, and no one was judging. You had achieved what you had achieved in your life and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that you were there, and you were living in the moment.
“Rustig” I think he said. (An Afrikaans expression meaning Relaxed, At peace)
I totally got it.
Then Roy wrote me this last week:
My January copy of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying arrived yesterday. There is an letter from an Irishman complimenting a recent article about flyfishing being good for your health. The chap continues refering to a very good friend and fishing companion (also an Irishman), who travels alone from his home in Long Island, New York every year to fish his beloved Liffey with his mate. The chap, Tommie O’Shea is 91 years old, “a dry fly fisherman, a Tricos and Caenis master and an expert entomologist, impatient to reach the river and reluctant to leave it, and always keen to ‘draw first blood’”. The letter goes on to say “on our outings we each had our share of fish on#20, #22 flies and 0.12mm to 0.10mm leaders”. He continues saying it is commendable to mentor young fishermen, but don’t ignore the elderly fishermen. Keep them company, bring them fishing, or in this time of “fast everything”, take the time to visit them and listen to them”. He concludes “May we all spend a lot of time fishing and turn the head of wild beauties at 91 and more.” Wonderful, it gives us a lot to look forward to.
Roy, incidentally is on the RIGHT side of seventy
So, unless your flyfishing is some highly driven affair, in which you must know more, go further, stay out longer, and catch more; and in which you cannot bring yourself to drop a few of those: go fishing with some of the older guys.
They may be much older, in which case you will be taking them fishing as an act of kindness. Or they may be just a little older, in which case they are just a pal who happens to be older than you. Either way, get your head right. Listen more than you speak. Develop an understanding of where their fly-fishing has come from, and why they do what they do. Explore what they know, and quiz them about tactics, tackle and methods. Look at the similarity of the developments long ago with all the new fangled stuff you see on facebook nowadays and ask yourself how much of it really is new.
But more than that perhaps you will re-evaluate what it is about your fishing that is really important. I suspect that you might be prompted to consider that the older guy’s tackle is less complicated. I wouldn’t mind betting he carries fewer flies. He will still sometimes catch more fish than you.
When he catches fewer fish, you might notice that it matters less to him than it mattered to you. And when he caught fewer fish I bet he was still enthralled by the day. Lunchtime might have been as enjoyable as the fishing itself.
Lunchtime is when friendships are deepened. Its when you think about your fly-fishing relative to what your mates have tried. It is where new ideas are born, in the glow of conversation and in mixing your ideas, with those of others. When those lunch pals have been around a little longer, they have an intrinsic wisdom. They have tried some things, and can tell you if they worked or did not. They will instantly identify an idea of yours that has not been tried and is worth giving a bash.
If you fish and interact with an experienced flyfisherman over a day on the water together, you may multiply your hours spent on the water with him, with all of his hours that went before.
Such is the value of that day in my book.
Back in 1996 I was cornered by a horde of tackle dealers, who politely informed me that the rod I was using at the time was……… Well it was……………..
I needed a new one.
And the ones they put in my hands that day beside a dam near Somerset East were sublime. So on my return home to KZN I visited one of them, and he very generously gave me three fly-rods to try.
I tested them on a prime still-water, and settled very quickly on this one:
I can’t be sure when I first stepped into a float tube.
What I do know, is that on the morning of 29th June 1985 Roger Baert arrived on the farm, to come and help us see if we could catch some of the Trout we had stocked in our new dam. He was a little late: He had stopped on the way in to watch a duiker for a long while. I fished from the little rowing boat that my father had bought us, aptly named “DryFly”, and Roger fished from a float tube. Not just any float tube mind you, but the first tube ever brought into South Africa.
When Roger left later that day, he left the first entry in the logbook, and he left the first float tube. The latter was on loan to me, on the “never-never”.