As yellows enter the hillside light and long grass, as ambers of smoke and time tint the mountain view, and the season marches to old hats and penknives sharpened out of shape, so the music changes.
I got called a “redneck” this week, and rightly so. It’s all “Seasick Steve and the Level Devils”, “Trampled by Turtles”, and Ramble Tamble. The banjo rules, and when it doesn’t, its all about the sound of that big grumbling diesel motor taking me over the pass at Bottleneck. On our trip there was a roadside stipple of cosmos, and the streams were low and alluring despite their delicate disposition. Our windscreens on life were removed as they always are down there at Rhodes, and we saw long forgotten clarity and colour in everything we did. Back home the river browns were bigger than ever and we are back now and living the dream.
There is a sense of living large. The beers are bigger (“Hell this beer is HUGE!” remarked PD on a rock beside the Willow Stream. I mocked him, but he hauled yet another longtom out of his backpack and held it beside the open one. Dang!….it was bigger!). The music is louder. The coffee from “Ground” keeps getting better, and I for one am mastering the art of ignoring the overdraft. Large and reckless. Who cares when the country is going down the tubes, the rivers are full of clean water, and fly-fishing chatter fills one’s days. We have a new fly-shop in town, but I need nothing from it. It is hot and sweaty here, but there is a chance of frost in the mountains, and last night the thunder burst like an incendiary over Aleppo with no tailing reverberation. Short. Sharp. Powerful. Big and over as quickly as it started.
Its time to live in the moment and make memories. Bigger fish. More time on the water. More confidence. Smaller flies. More dry fly success. I could be a student again for a while. Perhaps it will endure into the coming winter. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps it is a season.
In the summer months, I often have occasion to fish some tiny streams. I really enjoy those waters. Delicate strands of water, in which any trout that you do succeed in catching, is a miracle of nature.
Delicate strands of water
Sure, the words “miracle of nature” are over-used, cliched, and bordering on corny, but consider this:
We have just come through a spring drought, both in KZN, and the NE Cape. You just have to drive through the Kamberg valley, as I did yesterday, to see that despite all the green grass, the dams are still not full. That would have a little less to do with how much rain we have had in the last few weeks, and a lot more to do with what happened from August to November. We are prone to dry spring seasons here, and this year was one of them. To top that, it came after a winter in which we did not receive our customary inch of rain (together with snow on the berg) in July.
So if we can still see that in the level of the dams, especially the ones from which the farmers irrigated, then try to picture the little stream you fished this week, two months ago. With that mental image, try to picture a trout living in there.
I remember one unseasonably dry December, Petro and I hiked up a small side-stream on the Bokspruit that Ben Vosloo had directed us to. Ben’s instructions had been clear, so there was no doubt that we were on the correct stream, but I stared at the trickle in disbelief.
My disbelief deepened, when a hundred yards further we saw trout. We could not have missed them. The poor creatures were lying in solid rock basins worn by the river over many centuries of better flow. When I say “basins”, picture the basin you shave over. They were almost as small, and they didn’t have as much cover . Your basin has the arm of the tap over it, these had no such luxury. When the fish spotted us, all they could do to save themselves, was to zoom around that pool at the greatest speed they could manage. Consider for a moment, that their only food was delivered to them down a tiny trickle of water flowing over warm rock, from the basin above, where a few other trout had picked off whatever was in that water. Maybe a gust of wind might bring them a hopper. And they survived until the next rain. A miracle of nature indeed!
I for one, often under-estimate the ability of trout to survive in these extreme conditions. Such conditions are almost a certainty in a small stream, where there are no, or few, great big pools, where a trout can hunker down in a drought.
One year Basie Vosloo took a few of us up a small feeder stream on his farm. We were looking for trout, just to know if they were there. Basie stopped the F250 in the valley basin, where the nchi-chi grew thickly, there was plenty of cover, and a half reasonable volume of water.
We surveyed the stream, and while we saw nothing, we pronounced it OK for trout. Then Basie drove further, and stopped again. Together with the dogs, we picked our way to the stream, and looked again.
It was getting pretty thin right there, but Basie insisted we go further. I said nothing, but inside I was thinking that this was just a little ridiculous. Almost as if to make a point, Basie drove us twice the distance we had come. We stopped at a stream crossing, were the water trickled through a pipe, and oozed over a rock embankment. Impossible. Ridiculous. But following the enthusiastic dogs, we walked a few yards down. I hung back and let the others go ahead. I was not going to waste my time.
And then “Yup! Here’s a rainbow” came the call.
I had to see this with my own eyes. Sure enough, there it was: A miracle of nature.
What this all comes down to though, is that when fishing one of these little gems, one has to be realistic, and patient. Consider for a moment how that stream may have looked in the dead of winter. Unlike the stocked dam, the presence of trout cannot be assumed. In that context the scarcity of the trout becomes expected, and those that you do catch become wonders.
The days that you can’t find them become exercises in patience and humility. The fish that you do find, should be cause for celebration. Rest assured, that celebration at the 8 inch brown you just caught from a full rushing stream in summer, will not be understood by some of those to whom you tell of its capture.
“It was how big?” . You show them the photo.
“Lovely” they say, with just the slightest hint of condescension in their tone. You flip to the next photo to show them some more in the hopes that they will get it. You have a picture of just how small the stream was . You can put this all in perspective for them. You flip back to show them the other pictures from the drought months to bring your point home.
But they are pouring tea, and discussing the new hardware store that just opened in town.
Additional photos sent in by Tom Sutcliffe, of the feeder stream on Basie Vosloo’s farm, and some fry and paired trout in that delicate water. Thank you Tom.
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!