I am deeply fortunate to be able to able to identify the symphony and serendipity in ordinary things, or perhaps I am fortunate in that overtly serendipitous things do in fact befall me more than others. Either way, these things are not lost on me. Far from it…I savour them.
So here’s one. You tell me if this is a delightful chance, or if its just me being a sentimental fool:
So…I found myself in Stockbridge, in a fly shop, being served by a fellow South African. And the shop had a better collection of books than the one over the street. In fact I found myself with a pile of “must haves” that would simply not fit in my luggage on the return trip, and I had the agonising choice of which ones to put back. One of those was a book called “The Healing Stream” by Laurence Catlow. It is a book I had not heard of before.
I read a few pages, and decided it was on the “keeper” list, and by that night I was reading it. My decision was an unequivocally good one. The book is a delight and a treasure, with words that flow like pure prose.
A short way into the book, the writer starts to suck the reader into his love affair with one particular river. He rights lyrically. I quote:
“….drive up Garsdale to Hawes, where you turn left and head up through Gayle and over Cam Houses; then it is down to Oughtershaw and Beckermonds before following the beginnings of the river through Yockenthwaite, Hubberholme and Buckden, through Starbotton and Kettlewell and so, after the rough poetry of these northern names, down to the main beats of the Kilnsey Club.”
Those names washed over me as I put the book on the nightstand and fell asleep.
The next day, I found myself on a bus, travelling up a river valley in the Yorkshire Dales. The purpose of that bus ride is the topic of another discussion, but suffice it to say that it was not directly fly fishing related. The bus wound its way up a river valley in ever tightening bends, and over bridges that hardly seemed wide enough for a bus. As we progressed the valley became more and more lovely, until it started to literally take my breath away. The rain spattered on the windows of the bus. That was an excuse not to take photos, but at some stage I took a decision not to attempt a photo, because the beauty was so stunning that I knew that a weak attempt to capture it all, would in this case, serve only to tarnish the memory of such a heavenly place.
As we made our way, I started to take note of names. The village of Kilnsey. Kettlewell. Starbotton. Buckden. Hubberholme.
I am a bit slow, and putting something in reverse is sometimes quite adequate a move to fox me, but at this point I did awaken to the fact that I was travelling the valley I had read about the night before.
Of all the valleys in that fair land, I was in the one I had read about the night before. This freak event deepened my sense of appreciation for where I was. It awakened in me an awareness of how special this beautiful trout stream is to at very least ONE angler. An angler and writer, who I might add is brave enough to admit that his own sense of nostalgia and appreciation on the banks of this river regularly drive him to tears. He even comes a little unhinged.
Having seen his valley, I completely understand those tears. The beauty of the Wharfe River valley in the Yorkshire Dales defies description and capture on celluloid.
It is other-worldly , and to visit it is an experience bordering on the religious, especially when you have by sheer chance read the paragraph describing it the night before.
Perhaps its just me? My mates say I am a little unhinged myself.
If I haven’t posted for a while, its because I am trying a new style of things, and that meant I had to acquire some new skills. And speaking of Style….here’s the first V….log:
Isn’t it funny how, when you are searching for one thing, you find another. We went in search of backpacks stolen from foreign hikers in the mountains and found other things.
I had gone looking for trout, and found cold driving rain at Highmoor. From there we infiltrated the next valley, where vagabonds and miscreants, might descend from the hills and make their getaway with their loot, and we found:
A trout stream.
OK, so we knew the Trout stream was there, but I hadn’t been there in a little while, and I wanted to show it to Anton. In the Trout stream, Anton found some weird bugs that looked like a cross between miniature crabs and aquatic ant lions, but they escaped in short bursts, and when I asked him if he would be able to identify them in a book back home, he said he thought not. I suspect a water bug or water cricket.
But Gaffney identified me when we met her on the way out. She and I had met before, while waiting for the King to arrive. (For four hours in the hot sun…I remember the sunburn). Gaffney was delivering an officer who had returned from leave, back to his mountain outpost in the Ncibidwana valley. An outpost which lay directly in the path of any vagabonds or miscreants who might make a quick getaway from Highmoor with their loot. We discussed the stream with her, and plans to conserve it. The water had been warm, but the flow was good, and we had seen promising ripples tight against the bank in the first pool we came to. The clarity was good, and Anton and I agreed it looked suitably Trouty. Gaffney brimmed with pride at our appreciation of her Trout Stream. It turns out that Gaffney is a champion of wattle eradication, has achieved great things on the Little Mooi, and is likely a perfect ally for efforts to maintain the Ncibidwana.
Just before saying our goodbyes, Gaffney asked if we had seen Pienkie. Hell no. Pienkie….custodian of great Trout fishing at Highmoor has been missing for ages. We had not found Pienkie. There was some confusion, but it emerged that Pienkie was now stationed at the self same outpost up the Ncibidwane valley! To hell with Nemo….we had found Pienkie. (We did wonder what deed or crime might have lead to her banishment though…..)
We failed to find two of our fishing club beat markers elsewhere in the valley. They were simply…..gone. Like backpacks.
Of those that remained however, we found one with bullet holes in it. Now, I don’t know why, but somehow this discovery filled me with joy and pride. The fact that our signs had garnered sufficient merit to become the targets of wild vagabonds and miscreants with rifles, somehow triggered in me a sense of satisfaction and happiness. I can’t really say why. We inspected the holes, and held a discussion about what calibre may have been used, and how poor the aim of the shottist was.
While the level of the Bushmans River was fair, and vastly improved from a few weeks ago, the temperature was too high, and there was nothing to celebrate there. But we stopped at the Vulindlela Tavern anyway, to celebrate…..the bullet holes….or something. There I received a bear hug from one of the patrons, and two ice cold Zamalecs from the bar lady, who acted without surprise, suggesting that she serves storm-drenched flyfishers all the time.
We drove back, drying steadily as Anton’s bakkie seats slowly wicked away all the rainwater from our backsides. The conversation was good too.
I had gone looking for Trout, but instead I received a dousing, experienced good company, explored a good Trout stream, and found joy and pride in some bullet holes. We also found cold Zammalecs.
And we found Pienkie!
To hell with Nemo! We will catch him when the weather cools.
“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed” ……..
”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him”
The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.
Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.
Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.
In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.
In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass. It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record. I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.
My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers. My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”. I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black. We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.
What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.
Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music. Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:
And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:
A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago. I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!
It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….
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:
The word “advocacy” is used extensively by Greg French in his recently published book ”The Last Wild Trout”.
In reading the context in which he uses it, the meaning is abundantly clear, but for a simple starting point here is the definition as found on Google:
ad·vo·ca·cy ….pronounced ˈadvəkəsē/ : noun
public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.
example: "their advocacy of traditional family values"
synonyms: support for, backing of, promotion of, championing of;
I found that French’s book in general, and the repeated use of this word in the informative “conservation notes” at the end of each of his chapters, resonated with me.
Each chapter deals with a Trout or salmonid or char species, the purity of its genetics, and an example of its range or location. These are locations that French visits over a number of years. What is refreshing is that he doesn’t fly in by chopper from some exclusive lodge. In fact most of the time he finds his way to spots for just a few days while on a trip with his wife to visit a friend. He no doubt sneaks in the fishing with a cleverly altered itinerary, as us mere mortals would do, and in his closing comments he mentions, without despair, some top notch places he hasn’t been able to afford to get to. I like that.
But coming back to his word: advocacy. French recognises that the future of a drainage, or lake, or species, is very closely linked to the number of people who appreciate it. For a place to have a brighter future, it needs to be valued, even revered by enough people for it to stand a chance. In Fly-fishing terms, that means people who fish it. Not just “fish it” perhaps, but rather visit the place with interest, reverance and appreciation. Those fly-fishermen don’t necessarily have to pay top dollar, or line the pockets of the owner of a fancy lodge. They just have to pitch in with a fly rod, take offence at any litter or pollution, tell their mates about it when they get back home, and say “ooh” and “ah” enough times to be irritating. They need to revel in the view and the water clarity and the beauty of the fish. They need to want to go back. If they never do get to go back, they need to count it as a “once in a lifetime” experience that they will never forget. If they do get to go back, it won’t be to just haul in more big fish: it will be to immerse themselves in the whole experience, to build memories, and to elevate the status of the place to those heights obtained only in moments of fond nostalgia.
For each of his venues or species, French sums up the level of advocacy, and ties it to the outlook for its future.
I share his view that the link between advocacy and environmental sustainability is the very strongest thing. In a similar vein I share the well informed view of those like the late Ian Player, that hunting is the salvation of conservation, and without it, many species are doomed to extinction. The evidence for this is so enormously overwhelming, and it frustrates me when disconnected “conservationists” with “no poetry in their soul” like Aldo Leopold’s “educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa” fail to understand this….but don’t get me going on that subject…..
It is no secret that I work hard to drive up the level of advocacy in respect of the Trout in my home waters here in South Africa. I am fearful for their future. “Hunting Trout”, to quote Tom Sutcliffe’s book title, is my thing. I recently encouraged someone to go and fish the upper Umgeni for its pretty Browns. He responded with surprise and stated that he had been keeping away while our stream restoration initiative there is underway. I was at pains to explain to him that the very best thing he could do was to come and fish the stream. As an afterthought, the very next day I arranged for the manufacture of a dozen more fence stiles, so that when he comes, he won’t even have to climb through a fence. I do so hope he comes more than once!
Roy Ward fishes the Umgeni beyond one of three fence stiles donated and erected by Trevor Sweeney of the Natal Fly Fishers Club.
I am deeply appreciative of our Trout waters. I visit them with reverence, that onlookers may at times think exceeds the quality of the experience. To them I say “open your eyes!”, and I say to them now, “Appreciate these waters today, as though they will be gone tomorrow”.
And perhaps that way, they will not.
* I was able to buy French’s book online and have it shipped to me by Boomerang Books, one of the only ones I could find in OZ who would do international shipping.
At the tender age of seventeen, I would have been hamstrung and home-trapped, had it not been for Plunkington. Plunkington was eighteen years old. He also, as luck would have it, had both a driver’s license, and a car that got us to fishing water with almost respectable reliability.
There was a time, the memories of which are sufficiently hazy, that I struggle to place it in the continuum that was my growth into fly-fishing, in which that car transported us to Midmar. Midmar, small tents, mealie pap, and carp. Deck chairs and booze from brown paper bags completed the scene. The memories are hazy, but Plunkington, the character, is not.
A tall, lanky bloke, with a wide frame, low energy that never dried up, and a slow, long, methodical stride, Plunkington’s level of excitement never rose above the volume of his music. He listened to AC/DC, ZZ Top, and various other noisy rock bands, at volumes that were barely audible. The music emitted from either the poor quality tape player in the old car, or an even lower quality portable radio, that he would take with him in his boat. Given that I could never hear the thing, I stopped short of complaining about it, but I did venture that music on a boat was far removed from the fly-fishing scene I had in mind. Plunkington would not have replied. Some things are better left un-said. In Plunkington’s case, he believed that to be true for most things.
We would arrive at a dam, and Plunkington would begin to tackle up in dead silence. There was nothing to compete with my babble about which fly I planned to use, what strength mono I thought might be appropriate and the like. He answered questions, and then only if they were direct enough, and an absence of wind prevented him from pretending not to have heard. Typically, I would still be talking, only to look up and find that he had rigged his heavy fibreglass rod long ago, and had mooched off to throw his Walkers Killer, leaving me with a lot less wind in my sails than had emitted from my mouth.
Plunkington claimed bad knees. He didn’t speak about that, or moan, he just moved slowly and deliberately. He climbed through fences in slow motion. He tied on flies, stashed his net, and landed Trout in the same way. Grenades may or may not have changed that. I suspect the latter would have been the case.
Plunkington fished a cheap sinking line on his cheap rod. He stuck to old fly patterns, swore more than was necessary, and caught more Trout than all of us. He drank his beer in quarts, from the bottle, and in the bath. He handled blank days badly, but fished them harder. His response to filthy weather was to stay out even longer than he would do in fine weather, and keep us waiting, shivering at the locked car. If you went out to find him, and plead that sanity prevail, you were inclined to find him rowing the boat away in the mist to a new spot, even further away from the landing. And the reception you would get was more icy than the weather.
Nothing deterred the man. After seven blank days in a row, he would drop me off at home, and ask “where to tomorrow?”. The next morning he would be there, his wet clothes still on the front seat, and junk all about the car. He would clear a space for me and say quietly “We are going to KILL them today!” He would plead poverty, and have me paying more than my share of the petrol, or he would demolish my sandwiches on account of his local shop having run out bread. Coupled with that his demons inspired in him tall stories, which at first we all believed. His self-confidence hovered around rock bottom, and emerged like a flower that blooms fleetingly in a desert, only when he caught more Trout than us. For the rest he was either on an even keel, or he was somewhere between gloomy and uninspired.
At the end of every days fishing he would claim in all seriousness to have lost the car keys. After a frantic search, and detailed contemplation of how we would have to spend the night out, or walk twenty kilometres for help, he would miraculously find them. Plunkington drank too much, rolled cars, told lies, got in a huff, and caught way too many Trout.
“So why on earth did you stick it out?” my wife asks.
We talked fishing. We fished. We spent long hours in small boats together. We got cold, and we got hot and we suffered the elements. We got caught in storms, and witnessed strange things together. We laughed a lot, at stupid things, that no one else would have got. We compared flies and spoke tackle and fly-fishing venues, and personalities. We shared our hatred for bass in our Trout waters. He came up with wild and quirky ideas. We shared our mutual teenage awkwardness by escaping to Trout waters, and in so doing largely avoided it altogether.
On a blank day he would lie on his back in the grass chewing a grass stem, and after a long silence he would proclaim: “Bugger-all fish in this water. We should really stock carp here”.
So I don’t know why I stuck it out. But I do know that I would do it all again.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Ok “Bru”, here’s the deal. I really don’t know why, but when it comes to the upper Umgeni River as a Trout stream, I am a bit obsessed.
I am obsessed with getting it back to, or maintaining it at, its former glory as a premium Trout stream. I have had this obsession since I was a varsity student. I conducted a sort of study of, and evaluation of the Umgeni as a prime fly fishing stream, when I was conscripted in the army. I visited farmers, asked them about their view of the river as a “trout asset”, photographed it, and wrote some or other report under my blankets at night in an army bungalow in far off Potchefstroom. In 1996, on a long car drive to a fly-fishing festival in Somerset East with Jack Blackman, Jim Read and others, I remember boring them all with my dream of the Umgeni as a well organised, conserved and revered fly fishers destination.
In years gone by I have put landowners and fishing clubs in touch, and put conservationists in touch with conservation minded farmers along the banks.
I am still not letting up.
Last year the Natal Fly Fishers club organised two work parties clearing wattle and bramble from river banks. Trout SA made a short video clip. Also, over the last year or two the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) has been working in the catchment to reduce the number of water sapping wattles. It seemed to make sense to get alongside that initiative while there is groundswell. Then at the same time Penny Rees and her DUCT team did “River Walks” blog about their walk from the source to the sea.
Penny has since walked most of the major tributaries of the Umgeni and journalled of her experiences on the blog. Like me, she is passionate about restoring this important river, her for her reasons, and I for mine.
This Saturday the NFFC is holding its third cleanup day. This time the club has thrown some serious resources at the task, hiring in a crew of professional tree-fellers, and with the landowner on board with tractors and staff. Here is a short clip on that: Video.
I have used the opportunity to create a hashtag (do you launch one, or create it……I don’t know. Maybe you hash it!)
Blue Ribbon Umgeni
What is it all about? It is about recognising and valuing the upper Umgeni River as a trout fishery. In this way we hold it up as something that has value. People look after the things that they value. So my “shout-out” is to fellow flyfishers here in the midlands of KZN to go and fish the Umgeni, catch its stippled beauties, photograph them, and tell people about it. Attend the NFFC work-party on Saturday 12th September, or the one on the 17th October, or next year’s ones.
While the internet has rightly been accused of ruining good fishing spots, I am going out on a limb here and guessing that there are few enough river fishermen in South Africa, that those we do have, practice catch and release, and that sharing my favourite fishing spot with them will do a LOT more good than harm.
So #BRU is also an invitation:
Come and fish the Umgeni with me bru!
I am also going to ask you for some money soon. Money towards wattle removal. But you will get something in return. More on that in coming weeks.
The mornings have been cold. Lake fringes, boats and tackle have been laced with ice. The sun has been golden, sweet and welcome. The water has been sparkling, clear, and shimmering blue in contrast to the dusty veld. The Trout have been willing at times. We have had small strong silver fish, and larger Rainbows, flushed in deep colours. We have warded off the chilly breezes with jackets and gloves and “buffs”. Hot coffee has been essential.
The sunsets have come quickly.
It started with mosquitos the night before. They had bugged me half the night, buzzing around my ears frequently but at irregular intervals. I could hear them, and I guessed at their location for the purpose of aiming my ineffectively flailing open hand.
The ants required the same open hand, but thankfully the blows were one hundred percent effective, crushing the little buggers milliseconds after they delivered a painful bite to the back of my neck. I had picked them up at a fence crossing. They must have been crawling on my back. There was this pole you see. A sort of “H” frame that kept the fence tension. It was that taught wire that was the problem. I stood on it, while I was astride the pole, and the thing I have feared for several decades might happen, happened. That is why I stayed on top of the pole long enough for the ants to climb on board. Long enough to start breathing again. Just last week I pointed out a fencing staple and a notch in the pole that could have injured PD in this way, and now it befell me.
Anton disappeared around the bend chortling. Chortling repeatedly. After he had left, I could still hear him chortling. In fairness he had showed some concern for my health at the time that the wire snapped, but now, having fed me smoked sprats and whisky for breakfast he was chortling.
Despite the ants, and despite the mosquitoes, the day had promise. I found fish rising, and I even had one on briefly, but it threw the hook. Letting the pool settle after the splashes, I went and found Anton and beckoned for him to come and catch one.
He did catch browns too. So did I. Lovely buttery little fellows.
They were willing, even if they were a little incompetent at hooking themselves at times.
By evening they were throwing themselves after caddis, but during the day they were doing more strange things like gently sipping hoppers. Go figure!
That’s browns for you.
On this same river the browns have “shown me a toffee” more times than I care to remember. That was an expression Kev used a lot. And since we and our varsity buddies had fished this stretch, back in the eighties, I had been shown a toffee here more often than is reasonable to expect. Back then though, this was glory water. Us youngsters had succeeded in getting the fishing club thrown out of here. We fished it too often, and the farmer grew tired of all the foot traffic. I can’t blame him. We were pests. You would have been too with fishing that good. A tired pest that is. Maybe Anton will become a pest. He was back there the next day, hungry for more brown trout action. I would have gone too, but there is this career thing that I have.
Back then none of us had such encumbrances. We were footloose and fancy free. Car free too, but Kev had a VW Golf. That was one smart car! We went fishing in it, and we came back late at night. In the blackness and tiredness the dashboard lighting glowed bright orange. The tape player was similarly illuminated , and it spewed forth excellent rock music that I often hadn’t heard before, but which sounded so good on that stereo. The beer was cold and the euphoria of a great day on the water, together with the loud clear music carried us home in a mild buzz. Anton’s dashboard glows the same orange, and his stereo played “Marillion” at a healthy volume. Great stuff. Cold beer too. And a euphoric buzz to boot. We had a great day on the river.