We fished on up the stream. If anyone had been watching, and this far up there definitely would have been no one, but if they had, they would have seen two tough fly-fishermen. Fly-fishermen far from the comfort of a cottage or a car. Far even from a cave, or any other shelter, and plying their nymphs rhythmically and unaffected by the approaching storm. Relaxed fishermen, confident in their plodding steps. Bold and unaffected men. Guys who maintained a singular focus on the finesse and accuracy of their casts. Guys, who in the face of a darkening and foreboding sky, paused and considered a change in fly pattern, which they then exercised unhurriedly.
The old man wore a wide brimmed hat of gunmetal grey. It was one of those with hard deep stitching, that keeps its shape and looks as timeless as it does serious. Beneath it he clenched his teeth against the fine nylon and expertly pulled the new knot snug and tight. He handled the nylon with a ceremonial tug to check the knot, even though he knew it was good. Then he swung the rod tip out, carefully peering about with narrowed eyes to check that the leader swung free for the cast. It snagged a little on his sleeve and he gave the rod a short shove, pushing the slightest pulse of energy into the trailing line, and bouncing the tippet off the snag. Then in a smooth movement he pushed out a loop, allowing the fly to rest briefly on the wind ruffled grey water surface in front of him. The fly plopped in a way that satisfied him, and he lifted off into a smooth cast, delivering more line until the rod loaded and the fly was on its merry way into the run.
Into the run, piercing the surface and immediately entering the competition of currents and gravity in that mysterious watery place below. With the brisk and swirling wind, and the sudden absence of sunlight, what was below the water was obscured from view. Earlier sun patterns had danced on yellow and ochre stones on the streambed, and the hope of spotting Trout was real. Now the surface shone and glistened in a low silvery light. Each wavelet gave off a face of black and a face of grey. Neither were bright, or welcoming. Both were greeted by an ominous roll of thunder. A deep, close, and threatening rumble. A rumble as deep and throaty as that of a large dog that means business, but at a volume which signaled a storm threatening more than a mere hound could ever do. The reverberating rumble seemed to narrow the valley. I looked about nervously, as if looking for an escape route. I wasn’t. I was trying to get a sense of how imminent the storm might be. No looking around would answer that. There was no need to answer that. The storm was definitely on its way. There was no question that things would get worse.
I looked downstream at the old man. He was un affected. He plucked his nymph from the slick grey surface, and using the tug of resistance on the departing line, he loaded the rod in first one and then another line shooting stroke. He angled the line slightly further out into the current than the previous cast, and placed the fly like a croupier places the first card on the felt of the table. Placing it down on an exact spot selected quickly but purposefully and without doubt.
The wind swung wildly for a moment, ripping my line from the water a few inches. I cast quickly, more to get the line out of a potential tangle. Just to get it out there where a fisherman would. And with it out of the way I glanced nervously about and back down at the old man. His face was set in concentration. His focus somehow seemed to smooth the lines of his weathered face, and as so often happens, his unabated enthusiasm placed a youthful spring in his apparent demeanour. His eyes attempted to pierce the dull gun metal water surface, but they danced at the same time. They were light and receptive in their gaze. Young and inspired in their quest to find a Trout. His shoulders were hunched forward. His feet were anchored in the current that swirled about his shins. His mind was occupied with his quest, and another loud crack of lightning was in some parallel world in which he had yet to show interest.
I swung my gaze back and cast furtively, and only because it is what one does when one is standing in a river. The old man’s toughness gave no home to my nervousness. I retrieved too fast and looked back up at the sky, trying to assess its intentions, its earnestness. The hilltops were obscured in cloud now, and the cliffs up at the head of the valley had long disappeared. The cloud hung low enough that we were almost in its mist. A mist white as linen in places, but thin enough in others that the deep dark thunderclouds could not hide themselves. The light had suddenly gone out of our valley, and a darkness the nature of which foretold of endings, enveloped the exposed grasslands. The valley became small and intimate in a way that made me claustrophobic. Large raindrops suddenly let loose from the sky and pelted the brim of my hat and the grass stems that hugged my calves as I strode from the shallow stream, winding my reel furiously as I went. I wound the fly clean up to the end eye of the rod, keeping the rod tip low and not daring to wave it as high as I would have needed to hook the fly into the keeper ring.
The raindrops had moved the old man. I shot him a glance. Mine was a fearful glance. One of someone trapped and wondering where help might come from. He returned the glance, at first seriously and with determination, and then he broke into an easy smile. A warm comforting smile that shone through the now furious deluge of raindrops. He stowed his fly carefully in the keeper ring, and I waited for him to draw up alongside me.
The old man had hiked not only these mountains, but those above us, many times in his youth. I knew what to do, but he was practiced in what to do. He said nothing. I said the obvious. “Let’s put the rods down here” I shouted above the din of the storm, “and go sit it out in the open over there”. He nodded.
I dropped my rod quickly and scuttled to a spot worthy of the place name “over there”. He looked around as if to get his bearings, and placed his rod deliberately beside mine, taking a moment to re arrange it slightly. It was as if he were choosing a spot in a room for a piece of furniture.
I was already huddled over my own knees. I had checked my rain jacket and drawn it tight over as much of my being as I could. The hood was up over my head and secured by the drawstring and my eyes were narrowed against the stinging rain. My head was bowed low, as if to avoid the next bolt of lightning, which came quick enough. I was trying to make myself smaller than I already felt.
The old man’s shoulders were drawn confidently back. His rain jacket was zipped closed, but not to the last tooth of the zip. The various drawstrings swung loose from his jacket, un used and apparently not needed. He strode over towards me slower than I am able to walk even in good weather. He sat down beside me, but not close enough for us to achieve conversation in the roar of the storm.
We sat it out there. Our Trout water was barely visible through the haze of stinging rain. Our ear drums were beaten by thunder so much louder than those first peels. The grass about us was drenched and rivulets flowed under us wetting our backsides with water a whole lot colder than the morning stream.
When it was over, the sun returned quickly to the valley. It came in from the west, piercing through under the last drifting clouds as suddenly as the relief and bravery washed over me. I sported a furtive smile of relief, and tried not to give away my surprise at having made it out alive. I failed and grinned stupidly for a moment. The old man’s face lit more sedately, and he delivered a creeping and unmoved smile of knowledge, self assuredness and comfort.
He stood up slowly , and started for the rods.
“I think I am going to switch to the dry fly” he said over his shoulder, as he plodded back to to his rod, and the stream beyond, at the same speed at which he had left it earlier.
Just after ‘new years’ this year, we were staying in a farm cottage in the midlands. It so happens that we have permission to fish the dam on the neighbouring farm. And so, most days that we were there, we drove across there at some point to throw a line.
We were catching fish every day. Nothing spectacular. Just rainbows of a pound or two, but all very pleasant.
On the 6th January, we ventured out later than usual, because of stormy weather. In fact my journal records that it stormed at lunch time, after a hot morning, and then again at 4 pm. As soon as that downpour was over, the entire family piled onto the back of the bakkie, and we slithered off to the dam. The roads were very slippery indeed, which slowed us down, and we arrived at the dam with very little daylight left.
Over the years, there have been more occasions than I care to remember, where my colleagues have out-fished me a dozen to one, or where they have caught fish and I have not, or perhaps I caught all the small ones, and the other bloke landed several ‘lunkers’. Those are the days when you try to copy their retrieve. You borrow an identical fly, and then at some point they will start giving you advise, or let you take their spot. This just makes it worse, as you try desperately to bury that nagging human nature called competitiveness.
I am not talking about a casual tally where you caught a few fish less than the other guy. I am talking of those days where, on your return, your wife will ask you what was wrong with you. Those times where you are hopelessly and completely outgunned to the point that you lose your confidence and feel like a complete beginner.
I can think of one day in particular, on a club water in the Kamberg. PD and I had fished carefully and well, all day. It was a fairly miserable misty and drizzly day, and after about eight hours out on our float tubes, at around four in the afternoon, we took a mutual decision to throw in the towel, and be home in time for an early dinner. We had caught two fish each I think. Small ones.
We paddled over towards the launching spot, and just before we reeled in and paddled the last 20 yards through thick weed, PD put out a long cast, and hooked a fish.
“What fly?” , I asked.
I had a muddler in my box. I would change if he hooked another fish.
Bam! he hooked another.
I changed to a Muddler.
Then he caught another. I hadn’t had a touch.
He lent me one of his Muddlers. I fished right next to him. I emulated the retrieve.
We ended the day with him 12 fish up on what I had caught. It was ridiculous!