“Place and experience become reciprocal touchstones, each authenticating the other. The landscape swells with the meaning of what has been lived there, and the shape of that living has, in turn, been molded by the place. The landscape no longer exists as a backdrop or setting but as a medium of experience, a material from which the occasion is fashioned, a character in the story of life” Ted Leeson, Jerusalem Creek.
As I sit here at my desk, the cuckoo is lamenting “Meitjie, meitjie, meitjie” . That would be the Classless Cuckoo, with a gap in his front teeth, and flashing a ‘hang loose’ hand signal, as our family legend has it.
You will know it as the Klaas’s Cuckoo, and tell me that they don’t have front teeth. Either way, they often sound out their call of the jilted lover as the sun emerges after a few days of cool and rain. With that rain, and coolness, us flyfishers are all thinking of heading to the hills to get on a trout stream.
But we don’t do that, because they are all running chocolate brown. By the time they clear, it will be fiercely hot again. In fact it will probably be fiercely hot again by the time I finish writing this. Such are the dog days of summer.
Three writers from my fly fishing library spring to mind when I mention the Dog days of summer. Firstly , Ted Leeson, (whom I rate as one of the finest writers on flyfishing ever), explains the “dog days” term, its reference to the rising of the star Sirius aside the sun during the late summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The Dog star, as it is called, rising along with the sun, supposedly adds to the heat of the day, and thus the hottest days are “The Dog Days of summer”. He has a delightful chapter on this in his book “Inventing Montana”, in which he describes the sultry hot days of their American summer from the perspective of a holidaying flyfisher.
Across this side of the Atlantic, I reckon we trump the Americans in terms of heat, and thus true dog days, even though we don’t have the synchronicity of Sirius to add to the steaminess of the affair. Perhaps it is in fact no hotter here in January than it is in Ennis in August, but since I am the one sitting here sweating, I will claim the warmer ground. In his first book, our own finest writer, Tom Sutcliffe says “concentrate your fishing on early morning and late evening…… and put your feet up for the in-between time.” That is a line that was punted just last week on our local club chat group, and I paused a moment to contemplate how nothing has changed since Tom wrote that line above in 1985.
In fact, nothing has changed much since Oliver Kite wrote “ one morning in late July it was so hot that I left my jacket in my car“ in 1963. He was writing of the UK of course, and in this trilogy I would imagine he might be the least qualified to write of the dog days of summer, given that last year Hampshire’s highest summer temperature, according to Google, was 21 degrees, and the highest in the last 5 years was 25 degrees C. Here in SA our jackets are locked in a trunk for the summer!
But Kite writes not so much of heat, but rather of depleted fisheries, and thoroughly fished-over trout. We are lucky not to have that problem in my neck of the woods.
We do however have the rank growth on our stream banks, which Oliver Kite writes about, and we have the heat, which Leeson sums up beautifully as follows: (and I will end with this, because putting down a piece with Leeson’s words knocking around in your head is just special)
“ But when Sirius wanders in, circles once around southwest Montana, then lies down, curls up, and goes to sleep, the smothering weight of heat and airborne dust cannot be wished away. I number these among the least habitable days of the inhabitable narrative , a recurring leitmotif that grows heavier the longer it hangs around. The story of your fishing has nowhere to go because the main characters refuse to speak. Back at the ranch, there are iced drinks all around and much talk of the weather”
A friend made a valid point the other day. It seems obvious now, but consider this:
When you fish a stillwater, there is a very good chance that for at least a portion of the day, you will stand there, or sit there in your float tube, and think about work, or some domestic trouble. Now think back to the last day you spent on a river or stream. You scrambled up banks and slid down into the water, and waded over uneven rocks, and slipped and slithered , and hiked, and focused and cast and watched the dry fly or the indicator….all day long. I wouldn’t mind betting that you came home beaten…..I mean really physically tired….and mentally refreshed. I wouldn’t mind betting that you didn’t think about the mortgage, or that idiot at work either.
(Ted Leeson describes the concept of a “vacation” , and vacating the mind in his superb book, “Inventing Montana”…its worth a read!)
Maybe you got some Browns?
If you are a stillwater fisherman…..consider the streams….. Think of it as a “vacation”.
“But every angler who experiences bad fishing fears, above all else, that he’s the only one who’s experiencing it” Ted Leeson, Inventing Montana 2009.
When we were under the shadow of magnificent Ha Ha Lamolapo; when we were camped where the rushing water of Angel falls filled our ears at night; when we were spooking an 18 inch brown in the pool at Rooiwal in the driving rain; at all those times, we didn’t feel hard done by. We may have felt a bit bleak when the brown James swore was 30 inches long, would not open its mouth. I did swear just a little when a large brown spat out my Chief Nymph as soon as I tensioned into it up there between “Spooky Wagons” and “Opportunity Lost”. And we did set out on our last day on the river with a mild underlying sense of “now or never boys!”. But on the whole we were blissfully happy to be blanking up there in the mountains on our big trip.
The trouble started when we returned.
One friend knew the score before our drive home was over. He hastened to tell the others.
“You what!” friends said incredulously when we reported the tally. Sometimes before. They were not asking. Just damning us to eternal condemnation, at a place visible only down there off the end of their noses. A place where us lesser mortals wallow in the pity that comes with going to a fabled location and duffing it completely.
Then someone caught a 24 inch brown in our local water just up the road. I recognised the pool from the rocks in the background in the picture. It was 3 days after our return.
I landed a brown of 21 inches less than five months ago in a pool a couple of hundred yards above that spot. It happened on a day when I was not imbued with confidence. I just drove down to the river for a few throws on that hot humid afternoon, because it seemed wrong not to. I strolled upstream a distance shorter than a roll cast and caught my Trout, plus two other good ones, and then I drove home again.
Our big trip, on the other hand, involved 18 hours of driving, 70kms of hiking, and a whole lot more conquering, endurance, effort and most importantly, joy.
Joy in the wildness, the remoteness, the connectedness, the experience of it all. The big trip, and opportunity lost are joyfully etched in my memory forever.
This cuppa was brewed up in the mountains, when the rain and cloud and wind didn’t look like letting up. Waiting this stuff out is infinitely better with good coffee.
And on the subject of waiting it out: Ted Leeson’s writing continues to delight me in a way that has me laying the open book down on my lap, after reading a particularly erudite and poetic piece, and clucking and shaking my head in awe of his ability to capture a moment or concept, with which I identify immeasurably.
“Much of the technical fly-fishing literature at which anglers have suckled for over a century possesses acutely hallucinogenic properties. Ingesting it produces weird distortions, and never more so than in the matter of hatching insects and rising fish, which generations of recreational users have been induced to believe are the default condition of the average trout stream and a routine component of the ordinary angler’s experience in fishing. While never nakedly advanced, this gravity defying assumption hovers so invisibly in the background that it verges on a form of corruption.”
Leeson continues in this vane, in what is probably the my favourite chapter in “Inventing Montana”, called, so aptly and cleverly “Wading for Godot”.
If you identify with the message that Leeson delivers in this chapter, then you could rightly mothball most of the fly-fishing books in your personal library, but you would do well to keep this one out on the coffee table:
It deals specifically with those times when trout are NOT rising to a hatch. (i.e. 99% of your time on the water)
“We fished these streams with a weighty sense of proprietorship, and grave recognition that we might just be the only people on earth who cared that the Trout were there at all” pg 38, Jerusalem Creek, Ted Leeson.
These words struck a chord with me when I first read them, to the extent that I immediately wrote them down in my journal. That “weighty sense of proprietorship” is exactly the feeling I get when I walk and fish my local river; a stream long forgotten by most, which I have probably written about and referred to, too much. Too much in the sense that perhaps I extoll its virtues in excess of what they really are. But after fishing there again on Sunday, and notwithstanding that the browns had a bad case of lockjaw, I am again raving about both the beauty and proximity of the place.
On the way out, my friend Ray and I stooped in at Steampunk for a brew of their good stuff, which happens to be the bean I am grinding at home at present too:
It was a very disappointed thief who broke down my patio door in the middle of the night with an axe, in search of a flat screen TV.
All he got was an angry Great Dane and a sea of books. I only wish we had managed to give him some fast flying lead too….the bastard!
But let me put the angry thoughts of retribution aside for a moment and focus on his disappointment, and my delight: Books.
I hadn’t realised it, but books, and more specifically flyfishing books, have been in my blood for a long time. I remembered this favourite from my school days:
And I remembered my delight at being mentioned in one of Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles, when I was just a schoolboy, that later became part of his first book: “My way with a Trout”.
I remember taking fly-fishing books out of the school library …the same titles, repeatedly: “Where the bright waters meet”, by Harry Plunkett-Green, and titles by Skues and Sawyer.
And looking at my own collection now, I realise that it has swelled somewhat over the years.
And I think how I relish the titles by Middleton and Duncan, and Grzelewski and Rosenbauer and Engle, and Gierach, and French, and Traver, and Leeson, and where do I stop……. I have read them all, many several times.
“Where do you get the time!” proclaimed a friend the other day. He wasn’t expecting an answer, but I gave him one anyway: “I don’t own a TV” I said. And I realise now that while the man in the dark of night who threatened to shoot our dog spoke impeccable English, it can’t have been Graeme, because he knows I don’t own a flatscreen. (One step closer to catching the thief, you might say.)
My wife and I were out to breakfast one day, and I had parked the car out front of the restaurant. I was about to lock the car when Petro pointed out that I had left something of value in full view. I re-opened the door and hid whatever it was under the floor mat. Then she opened her door and together we hid a few more items….you know, used handkerchiefs, toothpicks, that sort of thing. The sort of thing that people break car windows for. Then our eyes moved simultaneously to the back seat where I had a stack of secondhand fly-fishing books that I had just collected from the post office. We looked at them and then at one another and fell into laughter.
Later over coffee we discussed which country we might emigrate to, if ever we did that, and we decided that we would choose a country where one’s fly-fishing books were at risk of being stolen.
I have an old friend who, when he is sitting comfortably in our lounge, and a truly classic piece of music comes on the stereo, closes his eyes as he listens.
I think he sways a little too.
He certainly zones out.
He escapes the confines of our simple human surroundings, switches off the world around him, and allows his mind to soar to lofty and beautiful places in which the depth of his appreciation knows no bounds. He transcends those in the room who nod in his direction and snigger, and he rises to a place above us all.
I may have sniggered along with the others at one time. I don’t know. But I no longer do.
I too now know that lofty place. I think we all need such a place, given that to go there is all we can do in this broken and often painful world.
That place is one in which the things you choose to immerse your consciousness in, take over from all else. It is a place where the love your soul has for images, and words, and music, and beauty holds sway. It is a place that defies description, and which is unique to you alone. It is a place that acknowledges and reveres your fondest memories, and houses your own aesthetic blueprint.
My such place encompasses mountains, landscapes, weather, trout (and the waters they live in), set against a watermark of stories, and songs; all in the context of very personal memories.
I am taken to that lofty place by images. Not just any images mind you, but collections of images played out in the context of personal connections, complete with birdsong, and the sounds of a rushing mountain stream.
Those images, and everything that goes along with them, are I suppose well represented by what I post on this journal.
Here is a fairly random and possibly representative sample of those: Image Library.
I identify with John Gierach when he says “The modern depictions of fly fishing in print and video are accurate as far as they go, but they usually run heavy on gratuitous fish catching and light on the long silences that characterize the sport”. I don’t suppose it is a coincidence that McGuane writes about “The longest silence”
My silences on the water, while they are just that: Silences; can be represented by favourite music.
- The sounds of silence: Disturbed …..no, not Simon & Garfunkel, although I love that version…but you’ve gotta listen to this!
And while their names don’t fit the topic quite as poetically, take a listen to these ones too.
- Sacrifice: Sinead O’Connor
- American Pie: Madonna Its just a pity she doesn’t sing the whole thing
- Favourite mistake: Cheryl Crow
- Thumbing my way: Pearl Jam
- The Boxer: Mumford & Sons
- You and me: Lifehouse
And beautiful stories are the echoes of my own stories:
Reading list….books in which, when I got to the end I felt I had “ just finished sucking the last precious drop off the last page of a beautiful book.” (to quote Robin Douglas)
My list of such books: It is difficult to single out just a few books of all those I heave read, but here is my attempt to do that:
- On the spine of time: Middleton
- The River Why: Duncan
- Chalkstream Chronicle: Patterson
- Hunting Trout: Sutcliffe
- The Habit of Rivers:Leeson
- Where the Trout are as long as your leg: Gierach (I know, they are all brilliant)
You are a flyfisher. You are reading this blog. I think you will get it. No one else will. Close your eyes. They will snigger.
To hell with them.