Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

Posts tagged “snow

Pewter and Charcoal, Giants and the Yorkshire Dales

For the most part, the mountains lining the valleys of our upland Trout streams could borrow descriptions from the Dales. But then we have our peaks, which do tower over you as you flick a fly in staircase streams, deep in the berg. The contrast is as rich as the texture of a black and white photo, as polarising as dark shaded ravines cut in a blanket of winter snow.

So here is a contrast: Giants Castle in the snow, and Catlow’s description of the rounded hills of his beloved home waters:

giant (1 of 1)

“It is these mountains that bring me back year after year, to the valley through which she flows. They are not the spectacular peaks of the west, thrusting jagged silhouettes defiantly into the sky.They are massive shapes, rising with calm assurance in great sweeps of brown heather, lifting themselves patiently in long and flowing lines, raising their vast bulk to the sky with the huge authority of sufficient strength.”

Laurence Catlow, The Healing Stream

Beats, Beans, Books…

Seasick Steve  does a wonderful rendition of “Gentle on my mind”   [click that if you have Spotify]  that I have been listening to lately at my tying bench.

Seasick Steve

But in case you thought “beats” referred to something else, I can give you some news on this river beat:

Sept 2018-104

That there is my movie making friend Zig, behind the lens. He and I were on the forest section of Furth Farm on the Umgeni last week, getting some pics of this lovely stream in a spot where it runs deep between rocky banks, shaded by a forest that now comprises only indigenous mistbelt species.  Post the stream restoration efforts, it really is looking great.  Next time I am up there, I am putting a Copper John through that deep water for sure! 

As far as beans go, I have been grinding some “end of the month” stuff….that is to say, some of the cheap stuff. It’s a gentle brew like Steve’s song….easy drinking with easy listening….. and it’s really good, especially in a common  run-through filter. 


On the reading front I have just re-read “Stillwater Trout” by John Merwin, and then on a cold lazy Sunday, post the cold front, I tied up some Copper Johns, and to be sure I had it right, I referred to the book “Barr Flies” by the inventor of the Copper John himself, John Barr. As I was collecting the materials to start tying I stumbled on my “Daddy long legs” material [Hareline], and being one who struggles to follow a recipe, both in the kitchen, and at the vice, I used this material for the legs  instead of the feather fibres, as laid down by the originator of this pattern.

Copper John-1

Copper John-1-2

I like how they turned out.  The Copper John is arguably a bit heavy for our streams before the summer rains set in, but it is good to be prepared for those stronger flows.

With the snow and rain over the week-end, I rather thought that we might have had a lot of moisture, but when we bumped into a farmer friend on the Kamberg road, where he was attending to a stuck milk lorry, he said they had had only 4 mm of rain.  Further along the road, my bakkie threw up a bit of dust, and the illusion of a good start to spring was dashed.  But the Giant was resplendent in snow, and the air was crisp and clear, and that was good enough.

Giants Castle-1


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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

African snow

This post is largely for the benefit and interest of foreigners to South Africa.

With the exception of the tip of South Africa, in what we call the Western Cape, ours is a country in which rainfall comes in summer. Our winters, by contrast, are brutally dry. And I really do mean brutally dry. We can see rainfall taper off as early as late March, and not have a drop of precipitation again until October.

Those in tune with our seasons, as I believe I am, are acutely aware of the length and severity of winter’s dryness. Did the rains persist well into April, and did they start as early as August or as late as November?  These are the types of questions, the answer to which often defines a flyfisher’s (and a farmer’s!) season.


In an ideal year, we will have summer rain which, quite apart from measuring close to the annual average, persists over several more weeks that could be the case. We are happy if it rains well into April and our rain-fed rivers get a good send-off into winter.

Then in the spring, after our horrid hot “Santa Anna” type winds in August, tropical weather systems start to move up in waves over the Cape and spreading out over the country. On more occasions than we wish, these “cold fronts” disappoint. They bring a light drizzle and mist. This greens the grass, but achieves little when it comes to filling our rivers. In so many Septembers, we live in yearning. Yearning for the first thunder, and drumming rain, a flushing of the trout streams.  There have been years where we are kept waiting right up into November, with grass fires persisting, before we all sigh relief and get a good washing.


But what of winter? Well, the intervening months are characterised more by drought than by cold, if one measures these things on a global scale.  Sure it gets cold here.  In the highlands it frosts every night. Record cold temperatures of minus 16 degrees C  (3 degrees F) have been measured. But the cold is usually a nighttime phenomenon, like one would experience in a desert. Our winter days can be glorious affairs: sunny and warm but for a little wind chill.  Winter in the midlands of KZN province, where I live, is a wonderful time to be out flyfishing. The rivers are closed for the season, but our numerous man made lakes and “ponds”, (in American parlance) offer some superb fishing, with Rainbows of around 3 to 5 lbs common enough.

Rainbow (3 of 5)

And what of snow?  Many foreigners have expressed wonder at the concept of snow in Africa. Sometimes they express disbelief. Those of you who have expressed that disbelief are not misguided in doing so, for snow in Africa is somewhat of an enigma. However the reason for snow being a rarity is not what you think it is. Snow is rare, not because it is not cold here. Snow is rare because winter moisture is rare! In the upland areas where we do our flyfishing for trout, temperatures below freezing are a daily occurrence. The “problem” is that these temperatures are accompanied by exceptionally low humidity.

But every once in a while, us South Africans have a bit of excitement. A cold front comes through in winter, bringing with it rain, and snow. With it comes excitement of the fever pitch variety.  We have a website and Facebook page, followed by thousands of us, which predicts, tracks and reports on snowfalls.

Today is warm and windy. The wind is from the north, and the atmospheric pressure is plummeting. I went outside this morning, in mid winter, barefoot and in a t-shirt, to go and fetch something from the car at dawn. I was not cold.

By this evening the wind will have changed. It will be pushing through from the south, and it will be fresh. If the snow predictions are right, we will get rain down here in Hilton where I live, and snow on the mountains. Glorious, African snow!

2012-08-11 11.34.17

2012-08-11 11.26.11



This weird white stuff that we know so little of, will melt and run to the streams and rivers. Every river flyfisher in the country has a deep understanding of what this means. It is a half way respite from drought. A treasured, somewhat rare, and welcome injection of water, to keep our streams limping through the winter until spring’s respite.


Silly Syllogisms

I often find that a thermometer is a poor measure of temperature, in terms of our experience of the fishing day.


Leaving aside the wind chill factor, which we all know well, a thermometer reading tells very little about what it feels like to be out.

Just the other  morning, it was 13 degrees when I got up. On a winter’s morning, that is a very high overnight temperature, and one that on the face of it, should have the global warming guys saying “You see!”.

But strangely it didn’t feel that warm at all. The thing is, that  as the day developed, the light remained dull from some high cloud, and although we had no wind to speak of, a southerly front oozed over, and the daytime temperature never went over 16 degrees. It was a cool day.

Likewise a 29 degree day in May and one of 29 degrees in January are two entirely different things. I suppose in that example you could put it down to a difference in humidity and you would be right.

The guys at Accuweather have this “reelfeel” thing, which is quite useful. It’s accuracy is, and always will be, debatable, but the fact that they felt a need to come up with such a concept, means that I am not the only one who sees the limitation of the mercury. But I don’t believe that the guys have it waxed yet. For example, I have a thermometer out front of my house and one out back, that give different readings. The difference between the two will vary considerably on two consecutive days when the reelfeel temperature is the same. I can’t get my head around such an abstruse outcome, except to say that our experience of the weather is complex.

Us fishermen are quite obsessive about our weather readings, and we add to that the water temperature, clarity, flow, and other factors, in an attempt to solve our Trout riddles. However, as I look through my fishing log, the temperatures, cloud cover, wind details and the like are never enough, and there is always a sentence in my notes that adds a descriptor. That sentence often deals with the degree to which it was miserable , or dull, or bright. One of the key things in there is a description  about the light.

If one thinks about it, a day varies from those clear crisp type of days after rain, to the hazy ones. And the clear bright days after snow in winter, seem that much more pellucid  and bright than the ones in summer when we have had rain. 

South African snow (1 of 1)


And if I had to make a great big generalisation, I would have to say that a cool bright day is one that gets the fish going. Remember that this might be a sunny or an overcast day, but there will be a clarity to the light. The opposite of that would have to be a brassy day.

I often survey a landscape and declare it brassy with an air of disgust, since I believe it doesn’t auger well for the fishing. PD and I have a common understanding of what constitutes a brassy day, and we label them as such with an irritated clucking. Its somewhat of a code that we have, and the others don’t get it. You could probably measure all this scientifically, but to do so would cut into time fishing or in the pub.

My wife asked me to define this brassy classification the other day. There was a veld fire nearby, and the sunlight had turned yellow. She asked if this qualified as a brassy day, and without hesitation I said no. The coppery light was localised because the fire was nearby. Then she started to ask about days when there are fires everywhere and it is coppery all over. That would just be a collection of localised fires. Would that make it a brassy day?  I don’t remember what my answer was. I do know that within 15 minutes I had contradicted myself, and she had caught me out!  But PD and I still know if it’s a brassy day, without really being able to define why. We continue to use it consistently as an excuse as to why we didn’t catch any fish. It’s particularly handy since no one can dispute it.

Other anglers have similar things going.  I remember my friend Kevin, who  despite owning a thermometer would dip his finger into the water with an air of unassailable authority, and declare it cold enough to fish a Mickey Finn. I will often pack up when a still evening is ruined by a cold Easterly wind, but apparently that should not put me off if the clouds are hanging on the hilltops.Guy used to stay out in the most miserable of weather blown in by a cold front from the South, provided there was a nasty drizzle , and return with  an enormous thirst and tales of big fish allegedly landed. Sometimes  these syllogisms are obscure and relate to things like a favourite hat left at home on a cloudy day.

The best one that comes to mind is the one relayed by Jim Read:  Eddie Combes use to ask the late Hugh Huntley if he had shaved that morning , and if indeed he had, Eddie reckoned you had no chance at all of catching a Trout!


I grew up within sight of this mountain, I live within sight of it,and a great deal of my fly-fishing is conducted within sight of it.

Ivanhoe 002  Picture courtesy of Paul DeWet