“Sorry, I didn’t feed the butterflies………” she mumbled from the confused thickness of sleep. She followed it with “Where have you been?” as I crawled into the sleeping bag beside her.
“Fishing” I said.
“You liar!” she responded, just a little less sleepily. Minutes later her rhythmic breathing told me she had drifted off again. I soon would too.
The night had been cold, but mild at the same time. Cold in the way that cold air settles on a lake’s surface in the middle of the night. Mild, in that the breeze was soft and stopped altogether at times, leaving the hum of silence in my ears, and just the gentle sound of lapping waves as they ran out and dissipated across the inky water before me. From above was a halo of light delivered by a half moon, somewhere above the swirling mist and low cloud. Tiny drizzle drops hit the surface of my down jacket with imperceptible pinpricks of sound. They lacked the weight that would have dimpled the water surface.
I judged the progress of my figure eight retrieve by the thickness of the line in my left hand. As it got thicker, I was near the weight forward part of the line, and the lift would need to be executed soon. But not too soon. A failed lift of the line would see the fly hit the side of the canoe, and bring the leader in against the rod tip, risking another tangle. I wanted to avoid those. An earlier tangle had been a challenge to unravel with just the light of my cellphone down in the hull of the canoe.
I lifted, probably more briskly than I needed to, to make sure that the olive dragonfly nymph took flight. It did. The stiff rod carried it high and fast, and I flicked a single forward cast out into the satin blackness, with vigour to shoot line and to match the lift-off, but aimed high above the water, so that it would alight with more finesse. I figured these short casts would work fine. They left less retrieve time in which I could become confused as to where the fly was, and surely less line meant fewer tangles. Besides, without rod flash, and in the dark, I needn’t cast further.
The short cast was a success. A minor triumph. An accomplishment that delivered its own enjoyment and satisfaction. No fish catching was required here: just getting the fly out by feel and intuition alone was doing it for me in this world of blindness. Throwing by feel. Throwing into black. Throwing for fish, which books assured me could see my diminutive offering.
I was in shallow water. Water where I had seen many fish feed during daylight hours, but where the closeness to the shore always seemed to make my approach seem too obvious. Now, with the cloak of darkness, I had a mental picture of big Browns coming in close and fearlessly in search of protein. Dragonfly protein perhaps.
Most people who can’t sleep, get up in the night for tea, or to read a book. Our cottage is small, and those solutions would have woken my wife. But the cottage sits right beside a Trout lake, and I really had been wide-eyed. It seemed like a good idea.
I raised the anchor, and held it up against the grey sky to see that it was clear of weed. It was. I placed it in the canvas bucket behind my seat, taking care to lower the steel onto the cushion of soft wet rope in silence. I lifted the paddle silently, and dug it in beside me to swing the craft around. Lowering my head to pick out the shape of things against the skyline, I judged the position of the jetty, and of the willow tree, and of the cottage where my wife lay sleeping. I picked a spot and paddled over there unhurriedly. A spot just off the tufts of cattails, where I had seen big fish swirl late on summer days. A spot just beyond the last fencepost, which I must now be careful to avoid. If I could see it. I couldn’t tell if I had arrived at the spot I pictured, but I placed the paddle down at my feet with great care, and judged the glide of the craft before lowering the anchor again. It found firm ground less than 4 foot below me, and I tied off the rope at a gunwale drain, before reaching for the rod.
Not wanting the risk another mess of tippet and leader, I pulled line out until I was certain I had ample flyline out of the end eye. Then I delivered an exaggerated roll, to get the fly straightened out, and listened for the plop of it entering the water column. Only then did I lift, and cast. I felt the tug of the weight of the line, and I released the energy and imagined the fly alighting near the cattail tufts nearby. It was surely there, I thought. But then I doubted. My nose dripped. My hands were losing their feeling. The breeze stiffened a little, and I shivered.
Was that weed on the fly? To raise the fly against the sky would mean pulling the leader join into the end eye, and that would involve risk in getting the fly clear again. Instead I mock cast and listened to the sound of the fly as it passed me. It sounded right.
This time I cast away from the shore, abandoning my dream of Browns close in, and choosing water that was deeper. Deeper and weed free perhaps.
A little rainbow grabbed the fly suddenly. I felt its raw pull. Its struggle. It jumped nearby, and I saw its silver side in the diffuse moonlight. I heard it land. I grinned to myself, as I experienced the urgent tugging. The fish came in beside the canoe, and suddenly I was glad I had cut off the dropper earlier. I didn’t like the odds of a thrashing fish in the dark with a loose hook hanging somewhere near it. I ran my hand down the tippet. As I got closer to the struggling fish, my hand created enough of an angle, and it slipped off the hook before I could touch it’s cold body. “That was landed, right?” I said to myself. I decided to notch it up. I roll cast the fly out, waited for the plop; Lifted again and cast again. Then I reached for the phone and pressed the side button to see the time. 2:05 am. A 13 inch Rainbow landed at 2:05 am. That’s what I would write in my fishing log. “You liar!” I said to myself, in the dark.
I head out onto a local water here in search of some Browns, and meet with some success. Join me.
Making my way west, away from the brutal hissing, rattling black highway, puts me in the folds of soft hills. Soft hills decked in the ochres, fawn, brown, yellow, maple orange and bare sticks of winter’s onset. The only hard lines are the escarpment, where the berg presses against the sky in a stark outline. It is an outline of a boundary against which we retreat. It reminds me of my prized dorm bed at boarding school, that fit in a corner against the walls of the basement boiler, and was warm in winter. So too, the berg is a boundary of comfort. Heading west puts me in place where my back is covered. The higher I go, the less of the downstream lowlands I see and the further I am from that highway. I can choose how high to go, and my decision depends on my need for escape from the lowlands….depends on how much of that brutal highway I have been absorbing of late.
The westward route extends past the railway lines and coffee shops and tourists who point out of their windows before taking sudden, lurching turns. Driving it now, I am rolling the vista back and forward in my mind. Back to summer, when it was rank and warm, and roadside grasses had aspirations of being giant elephant reeds. Forward to June, when the stems of bolted grass are stark sticks, losing husks and gathering dust. In between was the golden season. The season of crocosmias paniculata, lit like burgundy on fire. The season of falling stars: delicate blooms of Oros fake orange (6% real, the rest delivered along that highway from a factory somewhere). The golden season that went too quickly and took with it its red wine pin oaks and its amber London Planes; stole the spathes, spikelets and awns of the wild oat grass, and made off with its cool mornings and breezy warm days. We are left now with crows and sticks and dust; mornings too still to blow away the frost; days too hazy to feel the earth’s lines.
The contrast of our sport cuts like an old blunt knife. Like that cake knife back home, the one with the split wooden handle, bound with string. One that must be pressed and worked, and tilted to cleave the days and leave autumn aside, and winter to be coped with. Autumn with the rivers still open, and their small shy browns spooking at my clumsy casts. On that last day, my wading boots slid into the clean water. Water so clean I had to put my hand into it to be sure it was there. When it seeped through the neoprene onto my skin, my breath knew it was there, and it escaped from my chest in alarm. The fish were rather offish. The ones I found were the ones I spooked, or were rising, but there were few of both. The rising ones only needed one cast to dissuade them, and I couldn’t make them gentle enough. Not even with whisper fine 7X tippet on the two weight, and CDC dries. They just didn’t want them. And I suppose I just didn’t need them either. What I needed was the cold water, and warm sun weak enough not to roast me. I needed the Prussian blue and blackened purples of the shaded side of Baboon hill as my backdrop; and I needed the willows still with leaf but a sorry lemon lime hue leaf, not a lush green one. I needed silk surfaced fields, pale and dotted with bales, each one throwing a shadow as black as charcoal. I needed those trout too, but I only needed them to show themselves to me. I didn’t need to posses them. I only needed to possess autumn.
But the knife has pressed and cleaved the seasons now, and autumn can’t be possessed any longer. I drive further on rippled, bone shaking corrugations, and I throw dust clouds in the wake of the bakkie. At the bridge I pretend not to look at the river that jilts me. It runs clear, and strong enough to make me think of spring, although I deny the thought. My thoughts must run with the season.
I alight from the vehicle into wiry, tawny grass, and am greeted by warm sun and a raw breeze. The air is coming at me from the north across the cerulean ripples of the lake. I need a jacket. Later, I push the toe of my boot through iced muck, sticking to the cattails and reeds in the boggy margins. Just beyond, a band of still water laps in inky rolling waves that curl into the cattails and are tamed. At the outer edge of that bank, the mesmerizing ripples start, glinting fierce sunlight across at me and in, under the brim of my hat to hurt my eyes. Although I have to squint to look at it, its that transition that I am after, and I throw a team of flies across there. It is close enough that I am cautious not to move, and that a false cast is not needed. The black DDD alights, and the rice-bead corixa imitation plops just behind it. I hold the rod high, and still, poised expectedly. “The hang” they call it. It feels more like a long wait to me. Nothing happens. I try it a few more times, but winter fish are stubborn, and averse to our formulas. You will have more luck calling the cat.
Before long I am moving from spot to spot. My focus has changed to seeking warmth from the sun between wind gusts, casting in a direction in which I save my eyes the glimmer, and achieving crisp loops and pleasing distances. I have long since changed to a single fly, and I retrieve faster than I want to.
It seems slow, and there is a lot of time for considering the world, and the lake, and the season past. I am small and I am perched on a high vista in the wind, and the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes run repeatedly through my mind. I have to remind myself that this is what winter fly fishing is about. I consider a day back in the eighties, where I fished Triangle dam like this all day, and in which I was rewarded with one Rainbow. Only one Rainbow; but it was big and angry and I still have the photo. “Stick it out” I tell myself, but I needn’t, because I always do stick it out. It is merely an exercise in getting one’s mind alignment right. Standing there alone, with more thoughts than time, and all the time in the world to pick which ones to use, you never know if you have that alignment right. Never will.
Many hours later I am jolted by a silvery rainbow. It’s lively, but it is a small one. Later, another takes the fly as I lift it, but for the rest the fish are off the prod, and this day will remain one of wind and sun. “Meaningless. Meaningless”.
As I step out of the cab to close the last gate behind me in the gloom of evening, my senses are hit by the silage-like scent of dead, dewy winter grass, and my entire childhood washes over me in the time it takes to close the gate.
It is winter now.
In the early eighties, or thereabouts, the government of South Africa was handing out subsidies to farmers to build farm dams. It was all about building infrastructure, and I guess on some level about food security in an isolated, alienated apartheid nation.
Farmers in our neck of the woods (KZN midlands) built dams. Pretty ones. Some had London planes planted next to them, or liquid ambers. There were concrete benches, and braai places built. Trout were stocked. Some irrigation happened, but I don’t think there was as much of that as the then government expected or hoped.
Those Trout grew fat.
In my youth our fly-fishing very quickly became all about big fat dam fish…bigger fatter ones than any river fisherman could have dreamed of. Trout fishermen strapped on big “Walker’s Killers”, and went and dragged them around dams in boats, or flung them in from the edge, and the results were spectacular, even if in hindsight we acknowledge that the path to those results was somewhat less refined and challenging than what river fishermen had been used to.
In his 1974 booklet “Introducing Trout Fishing in South Africa” John Beams writes “ For me there are really only two reasons for for fishing still water. Firstly , there is always the chance of a big fish, and secondly, if the rivers are muddy……”, but that book has pictures of big fish that outnumber those of small fish and streams put together. Also in Bob Crass’ 1986 book “Trout in South Africa” he confirms John Beams own comment elsewhere in his book, that he “transferred his business activities from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg largely, so he led us to believe , because he enjoyed catching the big trout to be found in Natal dams.”
In contrast, books like “a Trout fisher in South Africa” by Kingfisher (1922) and “Trout Fishing in South Africa “ (1916) contain no references to dams or stillwater at all, but boast exceptional fish of two to four pounds in weight, with a skinny five pounder being worthy of a lord.
When I came into flyfishing in the early 1980’s, there was a fair amount of chatter about stream fishing, both in Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles (that were to become his first book), and in the fly-fishing books that one could buy at the newly launched “Flyfisherman” (Africa’s first fly fishing only tackle shop…est 1981) . But to be honest, outside of that, I really didn’t encounter all that many people who actually fished streams, or certainly not fishermen who preferred streams, or spent more time on them than they did on dams.
If I look at my collection of flyfishing books, which is nearing some 300 titles in total, even now, I am only able to identify 3 titles that cover stillwater flyfishing specifically.
One of those is the American book “Stillwater Trout” edited by John Merwin (1980). In this book Merwin’s very first line is “Ponds and Lakes are the poor sisters of American Trout fishing”, and he goes on to describe how “our quiet waters have remained quiet” and how American anglers, spoiled for choice in rivers, battled to get to grips with fishing still water, when they had been brought up on streams.
This ironic, discrepant state of affairs persists to this day. Stillwaters hold favour here, but the fly-fishing literature, and quite honestly even the South African literature is weighted towards streams. Even Youtube videos and Facebook bear the slant of the printed stuff.
But here is the thing: Those dams that our Dads and Granddads built on the farms, are starting to be used extensively for irrigation. Some have levels that fluctuate so much nowadays, that they are no longer stocked with Trout. It simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, dams are sadly becoming overrun with bass. Two or three dams seem to fall to this fate almost every year in this neck of the woods. At the same time, the environmentalists have quite righty identified the lack of wisdom in building dams, so very few new ones are coming on board. Added to that, the government environmental authorities are hell-bent on putting legislation in place that will enable them to shut down hatcheries at will, which means dams (where Trout don’t breed) may not have a source of stocked fish in future years.
Then consider that considerably more than half of the new members joining our fly fishing club here in the midlands either claim to be stream fishermen, or express a desire to get into stream fishing. I recently put forward to my colleagues in the local club, that we had been offered access to another stretch of stream, but that I questioned whether we should pursue it, because the stretches immediately upstream and downstream of it, are very seldom fished. The guys around the table were unanimous: “sign it up” they said. They said that we need to look to the future, and secure access and custodianship to good river water, regardless of the here-and-now usage statistics.
Add to the picture above (am I joining the dots adequately for you?), that there is only a finite number of kilometres of Trout river out there. In fact, if we think about it, it is finite and shrinking with the effects of population on the planet and the landscape. There are rivers mentioned in Bob Crass’ 1971 book “Trout fishing in Natal”, that are quite simply, no longer trout streams. Writing in a chapter he titled “First aid for rivers” in the book “My Way With a Trout” (1985), Tom Sutcliffe says that “the time is over for excessive irrigations, over-grazing, ploughing too close to the banks, allowing wattle to choke the life out of the river, and cattle to crumble its banks.” He goes on to say: “most of the fishing areas in this country [he is writing about rivers] need , or are soon going to need, this sort of special care and attention”
So, in joining the dots a bit further, we have more people resuming their interest in streams, and now we have fewer streams, or fewer kilometers of stream viable for Trout. And to coin Malcolm Gladwell’s term, I foresee a tipping point at some future date, where suddenly a lot of flyfishers will be rocking up on the same streams on Saturdays and finding less elbow room than they once enjoyed. Suggesting they strap on a big Walkers’ Killer and go tow it around a bass dam probably won’t sway them.
At least we may have more river fishermen to digest all the appropriate literature out there.
Maybe some who know me and are a little puzzled with the river conservation bug that has bitten me, will offer a small nod of understanding? Or perhaps they will merely continue to humour my obsession with killing bass and wattle trees.
I really only started using indicators on stillwater quite recently….just a few years ago. I have used them on streams since the early 1980’s, and have written about them extensively, but somehow I had a complete blind spot when it came to using them on stillwaters. What I find unusual is that I viewed an Orvis video recently in which Tom Rosenbauer said that using indicators on stillwater is considered bog standard in the USA. Speaking in the context of my own friends and colleagues over the last twenty years, that has definitely not been the case here in South Africa. While a few of my buddies do use them on stillwater, I believe that many of us do have a blind spot.
If you happen to have a similar blind spot, consider these applications:
- 1. You are using a midge pattern during a hatch, and you seem to have hit it right: a #12 black suspender midge. You are catching fish every few casts. The fly becomes more and more waterlogged, and the hatch is coming to an end. You stop catching fish. It is because the midge is sinking below where the fish are. You are fishing a 2 fly rig, and you don’t have the time or energy to change to a fresh fly. Rig an indicator heavy enough to hang the fly under, cast out, and start catching again.
- 2. It is spring and the lake you are fishing has just filled up some. The trout have moved right up into the cattails and you are experiencing swirls right into the grass off to your right. You cast out there, but the wind is drifting your fly into the shore, and you cant quite see when your fly gets close, so you are possibly lifting the fly off way too early for fear of catching the vegetation. Put on an indicator to se exactly where your fly is in the chop.
- 3. You are fishing into the silvery surface of water in low light, to rises. You can see the odd rise, and you cast there, but light conditions are such that you just can’t see if your fly is landing in the right zone. Put on a black indicator for maximum contracts, and use it to see where the fly is landing at the end of a long cast.
- 4. You are fishing a peeping caddis under an indicator. As the clouds come and go, you can sometimes see the orange yarn, and other times it seems invisible in the wavelets. Pull it in, remove a few orange fibres and replace them with brilliant green, white, red or black, to get a bi-colour indicator that you will be able to see one way or another.
- 5. You are fishing in shallow water to skittish cruising trout. They seem to spook each time you cast, but recover soon after and feed again. The problem is, by the time they start feeding again, the sub surface nymph you are using to imitate what they are taking, has sunk onto the bottom, and they are all looking up. Add an indicator to suspend the fly where you want it, cast out and leave it for a very long while. When the fish come back on the feed your fly is amongst them, at the right depth, AND you can see where it is.
- 6. I have written before that hanging a fly under an indicator in stream fishing is often a cause of drag, and that I prefer to use a loose arrangement, with the fly not dangling below an oversize indicator that has the flotation to suspend it. I stick by that, but on stillwaters, and of course with only subtle currents, I have great success doing exactly that: Hanging the fly at the required depth under an indicator.
- 7. I always preferred to use a dropper dry combo, using the dry (normally a DDD) as the indicator. The merit of using a yarn indicator instead of the DDD is simply that you can put it on really fast, and you can choose the colour (including bi-colour as described above).
- 8. On a lake you are often casting a long distance. When casting to rising fish with a small dry, you might not be able to see which rise was the one to your fly. An indicator used with a tiny dry fly helps you to guess which one is yours , and hence when to strike.
- 9. We all tend to retrieve too fast when we are imitating midges or caddis or other small naturals on a stillwater, and we lose concentration. A bow-waving indicator looks so ridiculous and causes such a fish scaring wake, that it tends to save you from this bad habit.
- 10. Remember, you can use an indicator to suspend a fly at distance X below the surface, but you can also think of it differently and use it to suspend something like a chironomid lava (blood worm) at distance X off the lake bed.
- 11. Yes…you can still use an indicator with a 2 or even a 3 fly rig. And yes…there is more that can go wrong.
- 12. And the the obvious one: You are fishing into choppy water. You are of course casting further than one does on a stream, so you can’t see the leader or tippet, and you have had enough “knocks & scratches” that you believe you must be missing fish. You probably are. Put on an indicator and watch it like a hawk!
I use a New Zealand Indicator with their yarn, and l use any other interesting colours of other maker’s yarn I can find , but the above points apply whichever type of indicator system you prefer (except perhaps the flexibility of the ‘any-colours-you-want’ bi-colour thing….think about that…for me it is a deal maker/breaker). Many people will tell you that yarn indicators don’t float high enough or can’t suspend heavier flies. This is true, but I am not putting a speed-cop under my indicator…..I am putting smaller imitative patterns, and I can, within reason, add more yarn to the bunch for better flotation.
Here are some other good references on strike indicators: