“In the corner of a smokey bar
She’s singing Hallelujah
All the fools are shouting over her
But she keeps singing Hallelujah”
From the song ”I hear your song, Sweetness”, by George Taylor
Keeping with a musical theme, who remembers Feargal Sharkey ?
I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that Feargal Sharkey is now a champion of the environment in the UK. More specifically, he is the champion of England’s beleaguered chalk streams. Sharkey is doing a whole lot to publicise the abuse of these unique and beautiful streams, that are in many places almost beyond rescue. Who would have thought, that in a first world country, there would be government sanctioned abuse at the levels that Feargal Sharkey has been exposing. Countless streams pumped permanently dry, others pumped full of raw sewage, or used as a dumping ground for overflowing sewage works in times of high rainfall. With his profile, there is a lot that he can,and indeed, has been, doing about the situation. I have listened with delight to his radio broadcasts on BBC, and I follow him on Twitter, with a view to broadening my education on matters environmental.
There has to be a lot to learn from countries and catchments who have been there before. So in a similar vein, I follow the happenings in the Driftless area of Wisconsin in the USA, where trout stream restoration has been happening on a scale that I can only dream of. And I follow the WWF and countless other local environmental groups.
So what have I learned from my reading, and twitter following, and from Feargal Sharkey, and what are the implications for the conservation of our river catchments ?
Well, I think I have learned that :
- Many people, with varying strengths and attributes can bring a variety of much needed skill, publicity, lobbying, money and drive to the work that is required in the environmental field.
- I have learned that the field of environmental restoration and preservation is burdened by conferences and acronyms and strategic framework modeling, and the like that is so expensive and slow moving that it threatens to sink the entire progress ship.
- And in a similar vein, that on-the-ground real practical work, is happening in some wonderful and deeply encouraging examples, but that there are not enough of these to ever reach a sense of elation or victory for the environment on a large scale.
- I have learned that there is, in most cases, a huge gap between business,on the one hand, and environmental work on the other. The unquenchable thirst of man for profit at all costs, is so strong that meaningful funding is not forthcoming. That which is, is often channeled to humanitarian causes, and in any case is limited to that which earns CSI points.
- It is proving difficult for organisations to monetise environmental gains that they are trying to package as “eco-system services” and “natural capital”.
- I have learned that the majority of fly-fishermen, sadly, are not truly environmentalists at all. ( they like wearing that badge, but they don’t give up a day’s fishing easily)
- I have learned that the national spend on environmental work comes out of the top end…the overflow….the luxury portion, and that in hard times it is the first to go. This is not just true of South Africa.
- Real, high level, large scale, and step-change environmental gains are likely to be expensive, uncomfortable, and unpopular. …..Unpopular amongst all those cappuccino drinking, self proclaimed, environmentalists with ‘save the rhino’ stickers on their big luxury cars…..(like me).
So, in summary: In this field of stream restoration and care, there is both cause for despair, and a need for unparalleled bravery.
My observations are impressions and generalisations. Some of them may prove to be untrue or unfair. Most of them will be cause for consternation and offence. As a quiet spoken, conservation-minded recluse, I seem to have an uncanny and newfound propensity to offend. That propensity has accelerated in direct proportion to my alarm at the degradation around me, and my conviction that some luxuries need to be sacrificed to get things done.
And there is so much that needs to “get done”, that one needs to carve out a small niche, put your head down, and do your bit in your chosen area, and hope that someone will take on the other bits. I have chosen the niche of some upland streams and catchments in KZN. I hope someone has the hinterland and the beaches, and a whole lot of other streams.
So as George Taylor sang “Keep holding on”
I don’t do tackle reviews. I am just not a hugely technical tackle junkie. Stuff feels right or it doesn’t. This level of analytical skill is of no use when spewing out advice on a rod or line.
But I reckon I could pull it off with a fly vest or pack, because whether it feels right is everything. So here goes:
To me a fly-fishing combo vest/pack is a critical piece of kit. For the type of fishing I do, and perhaps just because I am stuck in my ways, I am not considering a sling pack, or chest pack. A full pack/vest combo is what I need and want, and it is one thing I am prepared to spend some money on, but it must last me a long time. I don’t want to spend this money more often than I have to. I need a pack to be able to carry food, rain gear, a warm layer etc. I used to fish with a pack that was, as far as I can tell, a stitch-for-stitch copy of the patagonia sweet pack vest.
I liked it.
Unfortunately it only lasted 20 years, and the manufacturer’s business didn’t last that long. It was however such a close copy of the Patagonia , and it so happens that a buddy of mine recently bought the upgraded version of the Patagonia, that I think I can can compare my new Umpqua to the Patagonia sweet pack. (a good review of that one HERE )
I have only owned the Umpqua Swiftwater for 5 months, and done just 112 hours with it on my back, so I comment here with caution. I believe you have to really know a product and have used it extensively before you can truly add value in a review of it, and I am not entirely sure that my level of usage is there yet.
That said, I can comment on various features of the Umpqua, and their usefulness for me personally.
You can watch youtube videos about this pack vest that are very valuable HERE and another review HERE. They also have one that explains the whole zerosweep concept, so I won’t repeat that. Instead I will add or build on features that have already been shown in these very helpful videos:
Firstly: the pack that was sent to me by courier here in South Africa had a manufacturing fault. When I reported that and returned it, Frontier Flyfishing in JHB, who had supplied it, were really great about it. No questions asked, they sent me a new one, and threw in a spool of rather expensive Flouro tippet for good measure. Thank you guys.
The pack is very comfortable to wear, but here are some thoughts:
The waist band is wider, more padded, and stronger than it needs to be for the size of the pack.
The pack volume is rather small for a guy like me who likes to go off for eight hours up a river valley, and take some rain gear and warm clothing as well as a hiking stove and coffee pot. The waistband could support this, but there simply isn’t enough space. Patagonia on the other hand have got it the wrong way around: a decent size pack and a feeble string of a waistband.
What I have done a few times is to take along one of those dry bags, and hang it from the outside of the pack. There are multiple attachment straps that make this easy, but it does mean you have something swinging around on the back.
The set up does however come with a bigger pack , and I have one on order. Judging by the pictures and details from Umpqua, I have a sneaky suspicion it will be too big. Fussy, aren’t I !
Umpqua do say that you can reach around the side to access the lower pouches without taking the pack off. True, but it takes some practice and as I get older I am less able to contort to reach like this.
The adjustability of the pack, in terms of shoulder strap position, tensioning of the straps that run down to the waist band and around the back, is fantastic. You can make it fit any shape imaginable, and in fact there are so many settings that I am still experimenting with what feels right. For one thing the left shoulder strap keeps slipping off my shoulder ……like the strap on the sundress of the girl at the party who is trying to look stern, but still somehow comes across as provocative…… I am sure I can fix that somehow. I think it is because the waist band takes ALL the weight, and there is nothing left for the shoulder straps to do, if you know what I mean. I do know that I don’t come back from a long day with sore shoulders like I did with the other pack, but then I haven’t been able to carry enough weight to make that a fair comparison.
The back hook for hanging your net works out a little too low for me, despite the fact that I carry a very small (read short) stream net. I found that after you put a ring plus a magnet plus the loop on the frame of the net, it just hangs too low.
So of late I have been hanging the net off the shoulder strap to lift it higher.
The back pack takes a hydration bladder. I never thought I would use one of these, but my son and his wife gave me one for Christmas a while back, and let me tell you that in our hot South African conditions, having a pack that takes one of these is now on my list of ‘must haves’.
Now to the front of the vest:
The pocket configuration is great. Inside you have mesh pockets that close tightly, and are very secure for car keys and the like. Maybe I have the pack a bit tight, but I find them a LITTLE difficult to access, so I put the seldom used items in there.
Then on the front, it has the two big long pockets either side, that you can open from top or bottom, and that have a sort of hanging basket in the top half. This is clever, and works very well indeed. I have deep soft weight, floatant, strike indicator yarn and tool all in these top sections. Fly boxes go in the bottom sections.
At the base of the front are two tippet spool elastics. These puzzle me. They have gone to great lengths to ensure that when empty, they tuck away out of sight.
That is a good thing, because I don’t use them. I don’t want my flashy spools of nylon on the outside of my vest in the hot sun. Instead I use a lanyard looped with a carabiner onto a convenient loop in the same area, and tuck the spool holder into the pockets with the fly boxes. Flouro one side, nylon the other, and with the lanyard running through the zip.
When tying tippet, I can drop the set of spools, and they dangle safely until I get time to put them in the pocket again.
On the outside of the front are a few clever features: Two soft fabric pockets. These are made of a sort of clingy material, so I keep my sun gloves on one side, and a camera/sunglasses cleaning cloth on the other. They kind of cling in there, and even though the pocket opening is low and wide, they NEVER fall out.
I can also temporarily tuck my polarising filter in there if I take it off the front of my camera.
Then there are the ports for nippers on retractable devices….they slide away out of the way. Fantastic! (But it did take a bit of fiddling to find the right zinger, with short enough loops and connectors to make the distance from the zinger to the nipper short enough).
There are 4 ports like this. I only use one. I cant think what I would need to put in the others.
Then there are the clever ports for your forceps. This is really smart. I had to buy new ones, as my old ones were way too short, but with the new ones they just peek out perfectly.
Fly patches. The vest comes with one. It is made of dense rubber type material that holds a barbless hook exceptionally well. Don’t put a barbed hook in there, whatever you do, it rips it up badly, but a barbless one, it holds onto beautifully…I haven’t lost a fly.
The store persuaded me to buy another Umpqua product that would house my barbed hooks. A flat panel with slots and a magnetic surface. The product integrates with the pack in that the tab ends of it tuck way, but I don’t recommend it. The slots in the material are longer than its density can support and your flies fall out of the slots. The magnet is also weaker than others I have, and I have lost flies from there too. Furthermore the magnetic piece is bright white. I tried colouring it with a permanent marker, but it seems I can’t keep within the lines, and it didn’t darken it enough.
I have resorted to my C & F patch, which works much better, although it does sort of detract from the whole ‘zero sweep’ aspect of the set up.
And speaking of the zero sweep. While it is talked about in the videos, it might not be clear what they mean about the special zippers. A normal zip has a little slot in it. Most flyfishers will have had their tippet pass through this slot at some time, and will know what a frustration it is. Here is where Umpqua have done something tiny that is so significant and important. The little “bridge” on the zipper train has no open slot!
This is very worthwhile.
PD and I were fishing the other day, and he had on his Patagonia sweetpack. I eyed it again, especially when I had to ask him to carry my sandwiches. He is able to fit more fly boxes than me, but that doesn’t bother me much as I have taken to travelling lighter these days. But I did notice that when we crossed the river in a spot that was too deep, and both our packs were immersed, his stuff stayed dry…mine was sopping.
But then I have always carried my car keys in a waterproof container that I also secure with a lanyard, because you really can’t afford to lose car keys or get them wet, now that these things are electronic..
I really like the Patagonia, and it was a tough choice, but I have to say that I don’t have buyer’s remorse. The Umpqua Swiftwater ZS is a great piece of kit. It is expensive for us here in SA with our weak Rand, make no mistake, but looking at the quality of the thing, I am quietly confident I will get it to 30 years.
A quick calculation tells me that this means it will be the last vest/pack that I ever buy.
I am sure most of us have had some uninformed person, upon hearing that we are a fly fisherman, say “Oh I wouldn’t have the patience to sit and wait for a fish to bite”.
Our explanations are long and tedious, and the person glazes over after a minute or so. I advocate Ed Zern’s approach*: Just throw stones at them until they go away!
We all know that fly-fishing, and river fly-fishing in particular, is so filled with activity, stealth, assessment and other things that occupy our faculties, that one hardly requires patience. Where we do however require patience, and where I suspect we fail to recognise the need for patience, is in waiting for the seasonal conditions to improve.
There is much literature and ‘fishing eye candy’ that serves to imprint on our minds, the expectation of a clockwork season. I for one, have come to expect: frost from May until August; an inch of rainfall in July (with snow on the berg); mist in September; thunderstorms commencing in October; cool nights from mid March onwards; wild thunderstorms in December. I could go on. All of these things can fail to happen many times in any particular decade, but I continue to expect them. I think it is a part of our psyche. It is probably the same part that doesn’t believe that someone in our close circle could die tomorrow. We live in denial of such facts.
And spring droughts in South Africa, are as common as bad coffee. Perfect, wet cool spring seasons are a rarity for sure. Dry spring heat is definitely common. Very common.
The fact that we live in denial of that, is evident when farmers have to sell off stock, and stop irrigating, and towns have to impose water restrictions. Our industry, population, and stocking rate, have all grown to beyond a long term sustainable level, and then we act surprised when it doesn’t work out. I don’t mean to underestimate the personal loss, pain and anguish of having to sell a herd of cows ( as my brother had to do yesterday!), or wind up a business, and I don’t mean to imply that any individual is foolish in having extended operations beyond what the long term dictates is sustainable, but looking at the bigger picture, I think that humankind’s expectations exclude black swans +
I firmly believe however, that Trout, by their very existence, can signal to us what sort of level of water is a realistic long term minimum. I made a remark to Tom Sutcliffe the other day. It went something like this “ I think that the average size of Trout in a stream, is an indicator of the lowest level of water they experience”. Tom said he thought that pretty much nailed it.
So here it is: Little berg streams, (like the Little Mooi in that pretty section below the road on the way from Cleopatra to the conservation office at Highmoor), will hold fish of a size that can be sustained by the miserable still pools left at the end of a drought. No bigger. No more.
And if you have a very small stream, but it happens to be one that stays relatively full in even the worst of droughts, you may be pleasantly surprised by the size of its Trout. Similarly, a large river, which looks as though it should hold lunkers, will not, if it is reduced to a trickle in seasons such as the one we are currently experiencing.
This is where realism comes in. Even one pound Trout, will never be a regular feature of the Elands River (Boston, KZN). And this is also where patience comes in. We might have to concede that an entire spring, even an entire river season, may be a write off for the fly-fisherman. A complete write off. I mean: months of staying home watching the lawn grass die, kind of write off. And, if we extend that logic, some streams, pretty as they may look in a good year, maybe aren’t supposed to hold Trout at all.
No, I don’t want to accept it either. I am feeling crabby right now, and if anyone makes stupid comments about patience, they had better watch out for flying rocks.
* Footnote on Ed Zern’s approach: In Zern’s superb book “Hunting and fishing from A to Zern” he describes how he once had a particularly precious hook get left in the jaw of a small and irritating Trout that he inadvertently bungled and snapped off.
He went after it, flailing with his landing net in an attempt to recover the hook, and then noticed he was being watched with disdain by some other anglers. Rather than attempt an explanation, that would just sound like excuses, he threw rocks.
+ Footnote on Black Swans: Read the book by Nassim Taleb…. Good material if you are a DTN.
# In case foreign readers hadn’t gathered by now, we are in the throws of an awful drought in most of South Africa. Our spring rains should commence around late September, and by late October we should be getting some respectable run-off. It hasn’t happened at all. Many streams have stopped flowing altogether. It is not a pretty thing!
Each of us builds a set of reference points in our flyfishing journey. We all have a history of where we went and what we caught, and what happened along the way, and with whom. It is a tapestry, in which our history matches that of a fellow flyfisher for only as long as it takes for our threads to cross. We spend a day together here, and then, and for an instant we saw the same frames in that movie in our minds that is the flyfishing aesthetic. For the rest of it, it is a personal and unique journey. We can wonder if anyone sees it quite like we do. It is a bit like contemplating a colour like Blue for example. We think we know what blue is, but how do we know that everyone else isn’t seeing it as what we call red!
So it is with our own personal histories of places visited, fish missed, and stuff along the way that make a place or time memorable. This is not about me, or anyone else having been further, fished more, or having pictures more clever than you. It is not a quiz. It is to say: “hey…you’ve been there too! Cool, we have something in common”. Have our flyfishing threads perhaps crossed unknowingly in this tapestry?
Let me know if they have:
Perhaps you have a tapestry of images in which I will recognise none of the places. This is the stuff that keeps fishermen seeking out new places, new friends, and new experiences.
Easter time, or more specifically late March through all of April, is a magical time for us trout fly-fisherman here on the eastern seaboard of South Africa.
We have just come out of the stifling heat of February, which is about as “un-trouty” as you can get, and those of us with European origins are feeling ever so slightly more comfortable, no matter how African we profess to be.
Our rainy season is drawing to an end. We can still get rain at this time of year. In fact we can get rather a lot, but the wild unpredictability of our thunderstorms is abating.
A month ago, there was a not unreasonable chance that the river would turn into a raging torrent of chocolate while you were on your way there, or while you were busy fishing it. And I am not talking about Easter egg chocolate here. I am talking about mud. Mud was in January and February, and it came with water that more often than not was over twenty degrees C (68 degrees F). The weather was humid too, so that even on a cloudy day, you could feel sweaty.
There were trout to be had for sure, but all the talk was around releasing them carefully and water temperatures vs oxygenation.
Now, as the season turns, mornings have a crispness to them. Stepping into a stream in the morning is a thing that you hold your breath for. The moment that the stream clutches at your old ragged wading longs, you find yourself standing on tip toes!
The grass changes too. This part of the world is all about grass. It its natural state, and thankfully our mountain streams are largely in that state, there is barely a tree to be seen. The grass bolts and produces seed heads in late February. By late March it has taken on a yellowness. One doesn’t really notice this insidious change, but when you look at your December photographs, against the ones you took yesterday, you suddenly see it.
I don’t know that the trout feed more, or are more willing. It is hard to tell. Being a cold water fish they are supposed to be happier, so we tell ourselves that they are. In reality it is probably that we are happier, and fishing better as a result. We certainly get out more, so we catch more fish.
The light gets a little softer. It makes for great photography. The rain that falls is invariably cooler, and raingear and a change of clothes become important. In mid summer, it didn’t matter if you got drenched: you were either wet and warm or dry and warm. Now you want a jacket on the back seat.
When the sun is shining, it can hang above you in an azure blue sky all day, and you don’t have that feeling that its rays are penetrating your skin and boiling your blood beneath.
I for one feel a little safer not having to rely on an unseen layer of sunscreen alone to protect me from certain incineration! Days of sheltering in the shade at some point of the day, and returning home physically drained to swat mosquitoes all night, are thankfully gone.
Now you can walk the veld with something of a spring in your step.
It is a magical time, but it passes all too quickly. It is a time when the rivers will be at their best, and although the stillwaters will be good too, they will be good right through the winter, when the rivers are closed. So, figuring that one should make full use of this fleeting opportunity I advocate getting out there on our streams and rivers.
It is an Easter thing.
End of lent.
Good river trout are to be had.
Go get ‘em!
On Friday, as I lowered the back door of the aircraft, turned and reversed down the steps onto the tarmac, I felt cool dry April afternoon air swirl around me and lift my spirits.
I had come home. Home to Southern mountains, to prospects of winter frost, to Trout, and good coffee.
I had left behind sticky Mozambique, with it’s potholes, humidity, train ambushes and sugarcane. I had left behind Tanzania’s red earth rivers, it’s bribes and mosquitoes. I had left behind Lusaka’s dust, incomplete buildings, and broken machinery. We had retreated to the place with good freeways, neatly laid out farms and towns, and familiar faces.
Returning home made me contemplate the uniqueness of this Southern tip of the continent. For a week we had emersed ourselves in flat humid places. Places with rolling hills at most. Lush places of brilliant green foliage against a lot of bare red earth. A LOT of bare earth! We had flown over them, conversed with their people, and experienced the vastness of what lies to the North of us. Something more vast than the whole of the USA in a sense: where you can fly for an hour and find yourself two days drive from where you were, and listening to a completely new set of languages in a place ruled and governed completely differently from where you had breakfast. A great big dusty, muddy, overgrazed and degraded landscape. Heavily populated in the sense that the populations of Africa spew across the land like something spilled there. Their occupation hap-hazard, devoid of planning, and the impact on the environment always evident.
Back home, the pollution is piped below the surface, the people live in neat rows, and the bugs get nuked with frost in winter. There are more higher plateaus where one can escape thorn trees and tropical looking bush. Trout plateaus. Something that does not exist at all across Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique….. the places we were returning from.
A week or two earlier I had struggled to convey these differences to two Canadian travellers who are planning a fly fishing trip overland from Tanzania to the Western Cape. In my own mind it was fairly clear. They would see bush and big rivers with Bream and Tigers (which I know so little about) for thousands of miles through indigenised Africa, and then they would emerge down here needing less money for bribes, a small stream stick, a couple of dry flies and some warmer clothing!
I get a sense that we really do live in a cocoon down here. One that is under threat of being burst by things like global warming, the banning of Trout, and the rise of corruption.
I need to get my feet in a cold Trout stream soon to re-visit some of my sweeping statements above, and to give this all some more thought.
I was very definitely assembled somewhere in Europe, or perhaps North America, but either way, my design was intended for climes closer to the arctic circle than the equator. I do not suffer heat gladly. Neither do the trout of course, and I see this as a significant parallel far beyond mere co-incidence.
This neat alignment; this poetic symphony of affairs, is shattered every summer however, here in my South African home town.
Pietermaritzburg, and even the village of Hilton, can turn into a cauldron of thick hot air, day after day at the height of summer. Right now it is February and my general demeanour is at its least palatable point in the annual cycle.
A hot day on the Bushmans