From atop the bridge pilaster I gazed into the swirling water of the pocket on the upstream side. It is too small a piece of water to be called a pool, but it is bigger than many of the others. Put it this way, it’s a place you would put a fly if you were rock-hopping up this way. My eyes followed the tongue of current…the thalweg…to its point of dispersion. That point where the rush of water dissolves and spreads enough that you know a brown trout will take up occupancy there. A rainbow would go above that into the faster flow, but a wise old brown, that’s where he would sit. The water was clear as ice, the peat stain of mid summer all washed out of it, but the surface swirled and the sunlight danced, and my eyes lied to me, and I couldn’t see a fish. I decided to follow what the texts say and just keep staring stubbornly and with resolve at exactly the same spot, believing a Trout into existence. The river bed was a dappled mix of pale yellows and fawns…remnants of sandstone which line the river bed between clusters of black igneous boulders. It should be the perfect backdrop against which to spot a Trout…more akin to a Cape mountain stream that a KZN Midlands one…this shouldn’t be difficult.
Then the Trout moved. This gave away the colour I should be looking for. In this light it was a grey. Not a dove grey, but a charcoal smudge on a rough textured sketch paper. I find that defining these visual clues to myself helps me. So I will spot a ghost of a fish, and immediately come up with the words to describe the colour, or shape or movement, or perhaps the position. I will even speak them out loud. “Directly in line with that dead stick”; “nose pushes forward from black to pale rock”; “a few inches to the right of the rounded stone with a light patch on it”. This helps me find the fish again if I lose sight of it. It also forces me to think about how I spotted it…what gave it away. And if a stranger heard me speaking to myself this way it would probably serve to scare them off, fearful of this strange and possibly dangerous nit, creeping around amongst the Ouhout, speaking to himself.
The fish, or rather the image of it, came and went. A billow of water, a passing cloud, or a random spilling pattern on the surface would obscure it, and then I would find it again, using my self-talk as a guide.
I looked around. The spot was tight against the bridge. It was also cut off from the perfect casting spot I occupied by a barbed wire fence. A tight new, authoritative type of fence that shouted “No trespassers” , without needing a sign to say that. I don’t have permission to fish this stretch. I also don’t own a one weight, or a bamboo fly rod, and I reckon those would be the only proper options with which to grace a fish like this.
Below the bridge, I do have permission to fish, and the stream is that much bigger there, such that I have decreed the two weight to be the appropriate tool. Of course the stream cant be bigger below the bridge. That would be illogical.
The quantity of water flowing in under it is identical to that flowing out from beneath it 15 feet lower, but one needs a line, just like I needed a line to keep my vision locked on that sleek, almost motionless Brown. A line between the charcoal smudge and the pale ochre behind it.
The day prior, I had used the two weight on the stretch below, despite my faith in my own formula wavering. My own formula being ”Two weight above the Wakecroft Stream confluence, 3 weight below, and 4 weight down below the Furth Stream confluence”. My doubt was tugged at by the thought of wind, and more so by the fullness of the stream, but in the end I stuck to the paint-by-numbers formula. 4,3,2….and I stuck to the 2 weight. A 2 weight for an 18 inch brown in May; a 3 weight for a 17 incher in February, and a 4 weight for a 19 incher in September. It has been a good season.
I smiled to myself at the memory of the big fish the day before. Caught late on a pretty afternoon, with the slanting sun throwing rose tints on the view of the homestead above. Baboon Hill and Fowler’s Folly behind it. A tiny nymph (#20) sunk deep beneath a dry fly. 18;20;2.
The delicate parachute dry just started mooching off like a dog hearing its bathtub being filled. It didn’t scud, or dart, or tug. It just mooched, so subtly that I would say it didn’t even drag. But I had been focused on the spot, because I had faith that there was a good fish in there. It was a bit like the faith you need when the paint-by- numbers instructions say “purple here”, and you have seen the photo of what you are painting, and there aint no damn purple in it!
Like the faith I needed to muster to use my 9 foot 4 weight on this same stream. It was a season or two back. I had not used anything heavier than a 3 weight on this stream in decades, but with my mate Ray being so addicted to his 10 foot dry fly rod, I started to develop an itch. What if I had more length to get the rod tip up above the high summer growth, the autumn blackjacks. What if I could fish the lift properly without yanking the fly out too early. Not bowing to the anxiousness of duffing the next cast with a snag at lift-off? Ray had described that reach. Ten foot added to his arm. The high dangle. The fly held out over the flow ahead, almost below the rod tip, dancing on the water enticingly for moments longer than I could do with a shorter rod. “But what of the delicacy of presentation?” I had thought. “Paradoxically the heavier the line the more lightly you can make it fall upon the water” answered Huish Edye from the pages of my bedtime reading that night.
So I had faith, and I tried it. 19 inches. 4 days into the season, on the 9 foot 4 weight. Size 12 Bugger. My best ever Brown from the stream. 19; 12;4
In between. February. The 3 weight. A 17 inch Brown, on a #18 Troglodyte. 17;18;3.
Can you see the purple patch in the numbers?
When I looked back into the stream the Brown was gone. I guessed it’s length at 11 inches.
I have its location now. All I need is the bamboo rod, and permission. Oh, and a way to cast from the bridge over the barbed wire fence, and then if I get the fish, a way of netting it. I think I will need an accomplice hiding in the bushes to the side of the stream.
As you can see my flyfishing, and the Trout I pursue don’t fit to formulas.
Blackjacks and puffaddders making the best of the last autumn sunshine. That is what I expect on the river tomorrow. I don’t expect to be able to avoid the former. I hope to avoid the latter. I have had thoughts of putting my landing net in some sort of canvas bag on my back to avoid having to pick blackjacks out of it for hours on end, but maybe that will just be a damned nuisance. I don’t know. I also don’t know if crossing the river will be easy or even safe.
For that I will put up with the extra clutter of a wading staff. I do find those useful for poking about on the path ahead of me, which is my snake defence. If I am to carry a wading staff (and maybe a bag for the net), I think I will go light and use the belt pack, rather than a full vest. But then again, the autumn colours are just so damned spectacular that it would be remiss of me to go without my bigger camera. If the water is as clear as I am told it will be, then the little underwater camera would be good to have on hand, and that doesn’t fit in the waist pack.
Rods: despite the predicted absence of strong wind, I might go with the 3 weight rather than the significantly more delicate 2 weight in my arsenal, because I may need to throw some nymphs, and a bit of an up-kick in the wind is predicted for the evening. But then again, what could be sweeter than catching an autumn brown on a delicate dry on the 2 weight.
I don’t know.
I wonder if the Browns will have already gone off a bit as their breeding instincts may have been triggered by these cooler conditions. Certainly the rainbow I caught in a Stillwater earlier this week had a protruding ovipositer. Or maybe the headwaters we are going to will have received some of the lunkers which have migrated from downstream, like Rhett experienced on his home stream in the last fortnight, and maybe they will still be hungry enough to go for a fly. I don’t know.
The farmer was doubtful about the road in. He said he traversed it on a horse last week, but didn’t take enough notice of it to comment on whether a vehicle would make it. He said we should maybe try the valley route, but I pointed out that the stream crossing had been damaged in the recent deluge and that it was thick with sticky mud. We might not get through that way. He nodded thoughtfully but didn’t offer a solution. I think we will take the hill road. I don’t know.
The strange thing is that people call me all the time, asking questions, because they think I know the answers.
But I do know that embracing the prospect of possible failure has become more alluring to me the less I seek out proof of my own conquest, as measured by fish numbers. Maybe that is why I find myself attracted to the less popular, the less explored.
I don’t know.
“Turn onto the bunny”. These are the cruel words I was reminded of, as Ray and I strained into the rearview mirror to see if the rabbit had missed the wheels as it dashed in front of us on our route back from the pub to our abode on the Bell River. The words had been emitted by none other than “Matilda”, the ice-queen who delivers driving instructions from within the GPS. She had been directing me to the River Test in Hampshire, where I was to meet with the keeper. I didn’t think she would lower herself to delivering doom to small innocent bundles of fly tying material.
As we contemplated the fate of the rabbit we had just passed over, we agreed that Jan would have had us stop, and would have subjected us to carrying the carcass around until he could find a pinning board, tacks and salt. But we were tired from a long day on the river, and mercy was not in our plan. We were not going to stop for the bunny.
We had walked our socks off, and we had doubled down on fine pizza, washed down with cold beer, with an enthusiasm akin to that with which the trout had been smashing our hoppers on the Riflespruit.
Those Trout displayed no mercy. Doctor Harry had passed by behind me, and then from the high bank ahead he directed me to a crack in the rock: a shelf over which the water flowed, and which would surely harbour Trout. He wasn’t wrong. The Rainbows were lined up there like troops, and they clobbered the hopper with gusto each time it drifted over the lip. I would immediately angle the rod low, to draw the thrashing fish downstream, away from the lie, so that I could fool another on the next delivery.
I landed 6 fish from the spot. Each one came up as innocently as an ignorant traveller turning onto a small country lane. They smoked the hopper and I landed them with impunity.
But as the cock crowed in the dawn, the tables would turn. A day or two later I missed fish after fish in a pool on the upper Bokspruit. Thinking back on it now, the fish lost in that particular pool, numbered precisely six. One brut snapped me off after a spirited fight. The others just didn’t connect to the hopper. My mates standing behind me, taking videos, were swooning and swearing and ultimately taking pity on me for my bad luck. They offered me the best pools thereafter, as if to give me opportunities at redemption.
It just got worse…I missed even more fish as the afternoon wore on. The situation was one bereft of all mercy. I felt like a run-over rabbit. If truth be told, I still feel that way. I have unfinished business on the upper Bok. In my dreams, I see the neb of a rainbow pop out of the jumbled current to suck down my hopper, as if in slow motion. Others cruise into the air and turn on their sides to land with a raucous splash. It is unclear if they take the hopper on the way up, or the way down, but either way, they smash it with a cruelty that seems unnecessary. As unnecessary as a flyfisher hauling in his quarry to photograph its spots before sending it back, panting and shocked like a rabbit that just missed a wheel.
Things are not as they seem. “The Bunny” was a small country lane leading to a bridge over the river, where swans pirouetted in the current and Trout swam.
My colleagues had said that my GPS wouldn’t find it, and they gave me a photocopy of the ordinance map. As it turned out the Ice Queen knew exactly where the bunny was, just like Dr Harry knew there would be Trout in that seam. The Trout which engulfed bits of bunny fur used to represent the thorax of that hopper. That hopper that didn’t work on the merciless, beautiful Trout of the upper Bokspruit.
” …..a light that is abstract and tender, just the right light to shield the fickle, often mysterious movements of the brown trout” Harry Midleton; The Spine of Time
This morning was cool. In the garden, I noticed that the little crocosmia “falling stars” have started to lose the brilliance with which they greet hot February days. A stroll to the rain gauge revealed yellowing leaves on a London Plane across the road, but only on the southward side of the giant tree. The gauge itself was full from the last week’s rain, and I remembered that the cicadas have been sounding for days now. I don’t recall hearing them this late, and I know that they were not active in time for the Christmas just passed. Yesterday the Diedericks Cuckoo was competing for the airwaves, and as I sit on the porch to write this, the heat of the day is presenting itself beneath a bright sun. Last night friends reported over a cold beer that they had measured water temperatures of 22 degrees C in recent days. These are signs of mid-summer. But as we chatted we agreed that signs of autumn were suddenly getting difficult to ignore.
On Thursday the Inzinga river was a raging torrent, and quite unfishable. The uMngeni was not quite in that category, but I judged it too fast and too coloured to warrant a visit. A friend listened to the broken English of an inhabitant of one of our upland valleys in which he was told that the river was both clean and dirty. He decided he would drive up there today to see for himself, and of course he is taking a fly rod and will send me pictures later. I told him to watch out for an apparently innocent pothole near a stream crossing which caught me off guard last week, and saw my bakkie bottom out on a hidden rock. The flooded stream had washed it out more severely than was apparent!
In the heat of the day, the riverside veld is alive with hoppers but the air temperatures up in the berg are suddenly markedly more pleasant than down in the towns. The light is somehow almost imperceptibly softer. I have a trip to the mountains coming up in just a few weeks, and I know it will be autumnal by then. The change of season is upon us, and there are Trout to be caught. I am fixing my leaders today and putting my fly tackle back in my bakkie again. I have some flies I need to tie. It is time!
I had started in just below the wetland, in a spot where enormous grasses cascade over the stream banks and trail in the water.
The only way to get the fly in there is to choose a spot where there is a slight gap or curve upstream, make a daring cast, and let the current take the fly into the slither of shade beside the bank. I had done that with a dry dropper: an elk hair caddis, with a pheasant tail nymph of sorts strung below it, New Zealand style. Those bankside haunts had produced no fish. Not this time anyway. Neither had the odd deep slot where the current bubbled over rapids and then rippled over a scoured channel.
A little further up I went through a side channel where I have spooked fish before, but never landed them.
Just above that, wading through a wide area of pocket water, I came across the shucks of two Stoneflies on the downstream side of a boulder. I stopped to photograph them.
I had been hunting for these for weeks, using a bug net and shuffling my feet in rapids before inspecting the sample in a white tray. After all that effort these two just presented themselves to me when I had a fly rod in hand. Sometimes the lines between work and fishing are blurred.
As the sun came and went, and small flurries of warm breeze ruffled the water surface, I would lose sight of the dry, then find it again on the water. The clouds started to obscure the sun a little more often. There was a greying on the western horizon. The weather forecast had predicted a storm in the early afternoon. From the moment I started, it was as though the egg timer was running. Having worked through some magnificent deep pools, with a third, very small, but dense fly now tied a few inches below the first nymph, I was still empty handed. A sticky humidity had descended and there was a rumbling, first ahead of me where I had been watching the horizon, and then, surprisingly, behind me. I turned my head, to see that the more imminent threat was closing in from the east.
After a few more casts, I reeled in and considered my route. There was a tight barbed wire fence between me and my vehicle, which I could see on the hillside about a kilometre away. Added to the barbed wire was a strand of electric. These fences are not easy to get through. There was a gate off to the left, and a stile up ahead alongside Bird Pool. I reckoned the cattle gate would give me a more direct route. I started pacing up the river bank to a logical point at which to depart and go up the hillside. In the five minutes it took for me to get there, the weather lifted just a little, and I changed plans, choosing to walk up the river bank where I could watch for rises. When I reached Bird Pool the weather looked heavy again, but I was closer to the vehicle now, so I elected to risk a few more minutes and threw a few casts in the pool.
I have never done well there. The white water cascades off the south bank and flows away across the pool, meaning that only the near seam can be fished. The rest of the pool is a futile and frustrating drag avoidance puzzle which I have never solved. I lingered and worked at the puzzle as I always do. Then I reeled in and climbed the stile, ready to cut back up the pool. I paused again feeling a reluctance to leave the river. I looked at the sky. It had changed again. The cloud was higher. There was now a storm moving away from me to the south east. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the one which had been in the west, or the one in the east, but the field had changed in an instant, and I reckoned this storm, whichever one it was, was moving away. I again curved back to the river, and made my way up to the Forest Runs.
Now I found myself standing beside the second deep run. The lower one is good when there is a decent flow. Today was decent flow, and I had plied my dry and nymphs with the utmost care and concentration through that first run, without result. Now I was at the even deeper and more appealing run: the one that didn’t require good flow to look unquestionably promising. I took the flies from the keeper and got to work.
Up ahead of me on the right bank, was a forest tree that had collapsed into the water just where it slowed. There was a good sized Brown Trout under it. I couldn’t see it, but I know Brown Trout, and there was no question. It was under there. I took some chances with my casts, getting the fly in close, and letting the current guide them in under the obstruction, millimeters from the snags. I held on in anticipation and with a great confidence that proved to be unfounded. There was not a touch.
Thunder rolled again. I decided on a few last throws with alternative methods. I cut off all three flies, cut back to a stronger, shorter tippet, glanced around as though to see who was watching and extracted my little film cannister. My clandestine vault of the uncouth. I extracted from it, a brown version of my Taddy Bugger. It is tied on a jig hook, with a slotted bead, a small dense tail of the most bulky marabou I can find. The tail has two strands of flash in it. The body is dubbed, and the hackle at the front is from an old hen badger cape. I strapped it on, moved to the top of the run, and let the thing fly out across the current. “Five swings”, I told myself, “then I am gone”. On the second swing I brought the fly around just above the obstruction which I had just fished from below with my nymphs. Jiggle, jiggle. I could picture the marabou tail working its magic.
The fish took hard and confidently. I brimmed with self-assured vindication, and then quickly settled into a state of nervousness brought about by the painful knowledge of how many fish have simply come unstuck of late. I held my breath and concentrated as I worked to bring the fish under control. Holding the rod high, I outpaced it downstream, getting below it, and to a point where I could climb into the stream. I netted it there, and relaxed, a smile spreading across my face. I removed the fly and studied the fish as I held it in the submerged cloth of the net. It was a broad fish; something of substance in my hand. I lifted it a little and cast my eyes down its flanks. I put it at sixteen inches. It had magnificent blotches down its lower flanks, which tended more to orange than red. I put the rod under my arm, lowered the net, and reached for my phone in my top pocket to get a picture before releasing it. As I positioned the phone and got my finger over the shutter, ready to capture the moment, the net tilted slightly, and the fish darted off between my legs and was gone.
Later, I would think back to the escape of the fish, and in my mind’s eye consider it a fish that had gotten away. The fact that I had no picture of it, tricked my mind with a sense of loss.
Minutes later, I stood above the third run, swinging the same fly expectantly, when there was a tiny rush of wind that ruffled my shirt. In an instant a tiny blue kingfisher passed under my elbow, and flew under my rod, departing at breakneck speed straight down the river ahead of me. Its brilliant blue colour flashed in a patch of sunlight way below me, against the contrast of the deep green forest on the far bank, and it was gone. I found myself smoothing my shirt against my body, as if to straighten it out after the commotion, and I said out loud “Gee, that was close!”.
Had the kingfisher existed?
Had that fish existed?
There were more patches of sun.
Had the storm even existed?
I fished on, in a reflective mood. There was a short pull in the sweep below Pinetree Pool, but surprisingly nothing to be had in the pool itself. Up near the next stile a fish flashed at the fly as I reeled in to move on. Why hadn’t it taken a well-presented nymph, and instead gone for a reeled in dragging fly? I shook my head and looked at the darkening sky. The storm had not returned, but it had been replaced by a heaviness of the atmosphere that was palpable. One last pool, I told myself: The Black Hole.
I approached with care. There are good fish at The Black Hole. I know there are, I have seen them. I have caught them. I put the Taddy Bugger back on. I could sense that it was called for here.
I dropped the fly daringly close to the overhanging sage on the far side, and wriggled the offering back to me. On the third retrieve a Brown ascended vertically from the depths and pounced on the fly before I could lift into the next cast. It thrashed around, as Browns can do. I descended the bank with the net outstretched, as the fish crossed the rim into the net bag, the fly pulled loose. It thrashed and before I could lift it, departed the way it had come. I measured it in my mind. Fourteen inches. That one would go into the log book.
As I stood re-tying the fly, the buff spotted flufftail called its mournful electric call. The sound resonated in the heavy air. Then a black cuckoo called in the distance. Next a roll of thunder rumbled off in the distance. It was warm and oppressive. Two more casts produced a strong take, and then I reeled in, and I was striding across the eragrostis field.
The first raindrops spattered on the windscreen as I started the engine. The storm that followed was vicious.
The afternoon was gone, like the breath of a kingfishers wings.
I took a break from work the other day, and fished for about two hours on my local stream in the late afternoon. I thought I would share it here….warts and all (Including not catching, losing fish, catching little ones, and hooking logs).
It is not refined videography, and it is not New Zealand; but it is real.
Perhaps it will encourage those who feel outdone by all the slick perfection on offer on the internet. Perhaps some locals will have their eyes opened to what we have on our doorstep in these parts.
I hope you enjoy it.
“Sometimes it requires considerable strength of mind to break the chain of business and go where we long to be, but such “a stitch in time save nine,” and even a few days on the streams in the spring time, while the air is fresh and bracing and all the world is young, will do much for a man’s health and strength.
The bit of sport and change of scene renew his youth, and he feels like a boy again.
The spirit of a boy lies dormant in many of us, and only needs to be released by just going fishing.
The above lines were penned by Theodore Gordon in February of 1913.
I was chatting to a friend the other day and we were reminiscing how, as varsity students, we would jump in a borrowed car with insufficient fuel in the tank, and head for the hills hoping to get to a trout stream with enough daylight hours left to get a fish. We may have taken some peanuts, and we probably forgot a rain jacket. What was important is that we got out there. We got stuck in the mud; we lost huge fish; we witnessed hatches and sunsets; and we took grainy photos that we still gaze at with the fondest of memories.
Nowadays, it could be said that we fiddle around for hours making sure we have what we need. We check the weather; fill the car; buy new boots; consider whether its worth going considering travel time vs time on the water; make elaborate lunches; and worry about a week old report that says the river was low or dirty.
And we fish less.
It occurs to me that all those preparations and considerations and fancy sandwiches are sometimes the problem. Sure, it is fun to contemplate the trip and make ones preparations, but as one’s mind atrophies, these things also become the excuses we use for not getting out at all. Life is busy, and the gaps available for fishing trips are rare and short. When there is a gap, we may find ourselves thinking it is too narrow an opportunity to fit in a trip to the stream. We mull over how long it will take, and we build into the time required, all those things that put our comfort ahead of the goal of making it happen.
I now carry some peanuts, a can of bully beef, and a flask of water in my bakkie along with my fishing kit, and a bag with a change of clothes in it. If a gap opens, all I need is my car keys and the right attitude. I am fishing a lot more. Sadly perhaps, much of this is alone. But regardless of whether it is alone, whether I forget the camera at home, get wet, or find the river as dirty as they said it would be, that spirit of the boy is not as dormant as it once was.
September is a varied time. It is the month in which we are most likely to get snow, and at the same time, daytime temperatures of 30 degrees are far from uncommon.
Here where I live, when a September cold front comes in, we get eleven degrees and drizzle, and at that temperature there won’t be snow, not even on the high berg. If it drops to seven degrees then we expect some white stuff up on top. In the event that it hits five degrees, snow on the Inhlosane, the little berg, and hey, maybe even Karkloof is a possibility. Either way, that cold front is a valued thing, all the more if it drops some reel rain and lifts us up out of our dry winter.
In between, its typically what I call a “flat white”. Bright hot sunshine. No wind. White, flat light that is a photographer’s nemesis. Not fishing weather at all, it seems.
The truth be told, it can actually be quite good in these conditions if you go higher in the mountains, where it is cooler, and all the more so if we have had rain, like this year. My pal Ray fished a mountain stream the other day and commented that it was hot. But as he said the fish were “on the prod”, and he got enough of them to make the drive seem well worth the trouble. But I sit here on a bright Saturday morning, feeling a little disinclined to tramp up a river valley smothered in sunscreen and looking out for snakes. Instead I am tying flies, with a bottle of chilled lemon and mint water at my elbow. I have half an eye on the weather app. It predicts one of those eleven degree things later in the week, complete with drizzle. Heck….who knows, it might even rain! Now THAT has my attention. I saw the Viking yesterday and he had spotted it too. I said something about a mid-week adventure and his smile indicated he had been thinking the same thing.
So for now I am tying some streamers too big to show my sophisticated mates who think more of me; and some emergers so small that they belong in something magnetized, so that they don’t blow away when you open the fly box at the streamside.
I may tie up something in between just to balance things out. I’ve been listening to Paul Proctor’s chat with Pete Tyjas on his one hundredth podcast (Well done Pete!) , and I am about to check my tippet spools, and move a bunch of flies from the patch back into the box. Theodore Gordon’s collection of letters and “Little talks” are on my nightstand, and I am just a little inspired.
There will be a ‘seven’ or an ‘eleven’ to end this ‘flat white’, and I will be ready.
The Letort Regulars used to meet for Sunday morning breakfasts, or for picnics at Charlie Fox’s place on the Letort spring creek, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. * Vince Marinaro and others would stay over at Charlie’s fishing hut, which he built on his property even before he built himself a house to live in.
It was in that hut that they had a fly tying kit , donated by one Bob McCafferty, and their meetings, experiments and trials drew the attention of visitors like Lefty Kreh, George La Branche, ER Hewitt and Joe Brooks.
This band of fishermen, which included the likes of Ed Shenk, Gene Utech, Tommy Thomas, Ross Trimmer and others, were ground breakers. Their home water was what is still described as one of the most difficult trout streams in the world.
Stories abound about how spooky the fish are, and how clear the water is. The banks are sodden marshes in many places, the whole stream is only 9 miles long, and the fish are apparently all but impossible. Online searches reveal much evidence of these difficulties expounded in recent times. But reading Vince Marinaro’s “A Modern Dry Fly Code” (written in 1950) reveals that not much has changed in this respect. Marinaro humbly paints a picture of himself as a duffer, saying things like ”This stream has always been a difficult one for me to solve and for many others too. The capture of one good trout in an evening’s fly-fishing was quite an achievement” and “….the usual result in these cases is a violent reaction on my part intended to be a strike, something I fervently wish I had never learned, and the matter is concluded by a sudden parting”.
As a relatively slow flowing limestone creek (AKA Spring Creek, chalk stream, Limestoner), its trout have all the time in the world to inspect what the fly fisherman has to offer, as well as a remarkable abundance of food besides. These characteristics make the stream a veritable university of fly fishing technique. Puzzles and riddles needed to be solved there, because although early fly anglers could see the trout, they couldn’t catch them.
What makes this interesting, is that the likes of the Letort Regulars had other streams they could go to, where the trout were easier, but they didn’t. That is to say that they chose not to abandon this near impossible challenge in favour of easier waters. They fished other waters, for sure, but their identity as “The Regulars” formed around the most difficult stream in the Cumberland Valley, the one of which Marinaro said: “the Letort is a hard task master and does not treat lightly any violation of dry fly technique”.
This challenge saw them entertaining the mother of invention: necessity. If they wanted to work out the puzzle, they had to get serious about it, study the trout and the insects and learn by trial and error. And so a great “university” was borne.
I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Ed Shenk’s books, and I am sure there are many other enlightening ones besides that I am not aware of, but I have devoured books by Mike Lawson, Ernest Schwiebert, Darryl Martin and Vince Marinaro.
These articulate writings of a bygone era reveal a level of enquiry, dedication, observation, and let me say obsession, which is rare nowadays. A Google search will reveal tidbits, videos and anecdotes, and people who are quick to boast that they knew the Letort Regulars, but like me, they don’t add to the body of knowledge of flyfishing technique.
The discoveries of the Letort regulars were significant. They pushed the boundaries. They looked for the smallest hooks and finest tippets they could find and tied flies on them, and tried to land big fish on them. They spoke and wrote with deference to Halford and Gordon, but then gently introduced the flyfishing world to the new frontier of terrestrials. They pushed back frontiers. In the 1970 edition of “The Code” which I own, Marinaro writes with wry amusement about how he meets anglers out on he stream who offer him their tiny flies, complete with words of instruction and encouragement, oblivious to the fact that it was he who started the whole thing.
It is also interesting to read on modern forums, how the benches, stream improvements, access paths , footbridges, and passages across the streamside bogs are all gone. Quite apart from the fact that a highway bridge now crosses the river where Fox’s hut once stood, the attentions of this dedicated band of fishermen are seemingly a thing of the past. How strange that is!
Consider for a moment, that when the likes of Charlie Fox fished the Letort, it was probably not as famous as it is now. At that stage it did not have attached to it the history of some of the great personalities of flyfishing, and neither was it described as the birthplace of modern terrestrial imitation, as it now is. And yet, despite its ordinariness, it received the loving attention of these pioneers. That would be attention both in respect of hours spend studying its trout and how to master them, and also hours spent with spade and saw, making it into something great. Now in the glow of its fame, there is little evidence that any of this still takes place.
Instead there are some brass plaques, and there are those who claim to have known the men who made it great. There are also stories about how difficult it is to access the neglected sections, and there are dreadful stories of fish kills and pollution.
One forum commentator enlightens his colleagues as to the names of various stretches, pools and meadows, presumably because these exist only in the memories of ones like him, who witnessed the Letort in its halcyon days.
(I must hasten to add that I have never visited the stream – I wish I could- and that my conclusions are based on desk-bound research, but I can find no evidence that refutes what I claim here)
This whole state of affairs puzzles me. Notwithstanding the burgeoning and ever pressing demands of the human population, the fact that an iconic and revered stream lies unkempt and at least in part, neglected, is an irony. So many other places have been killed by too much attention: turned to theme parks with gift shops and tourist centres, but this one, like many trout streams I read of, suffers neglect instead. I suppose I have to be careful what I wish for, but could I perhaps put in a request for something in between? I mean, could one of the people who revels in the nostalgia of the greats, not round up his buddies and go cut a path and lay a boardwalk to one of the pools? Maybe these fellows actually have it waxed. Maybe they fish there three times a week, meet in secret, and keep their wonderful exploits off the internet. That would be great I guess, and from thousands of miles away I may never know, but nothing leads me to suspect that this is the case.
Turning for a moment to the observations, and technical developments of the Letort Regulars: Has anyone seen Marinaro’s assertions on the body colours of the spinner vs the dun espoused, refuted, or even discussed since the 1990’s? It is quite possible that I am missing something, and that in fact these technical issues have been built upon since that era of great flyfishing books. But my mates and I just throw Para RAB’s. I know: Our particular streams are fast freestone waters, and fish will bite Humpies and DDD’s, so maybe the Letort/Marinaro model doesn’t apply here, and maybe modernisations of his work are widely applied elsewhere..
But, we do have some slower sections of river. Late last season a friend and I were foxed by some fussy trout in a series of slow pools.
Our frantic changing from a para RAB to a beetle to a CDC emerger simply didn’t work, and our conscious repertoire didn’t extend to significantly different solutions. We concluded that we were fishing one of the most difficult trout streams around, and I for one would have been happy with just one trout that evening. I can’t help thinking that Marinaro, if he was watching, would have labelled us as guys who “Stomped the banks and flailed the water”. And I can’t help thinking that all of us fly anglers have gone just a little bit backward. Our enquiries extend to scant viewings of Instagram pictures, and the odd YouTube video in which the tattoos and the brand of fly rod are the main feature. We don’t meet at the riverside to inspect the insects and discuss the finer points of the hatch, and life is too busy for a fisherman’s breakfast every Sunday.
We recently lost Lefty Kreh and Ed Shenk.
There might have been a code once, but I think its broken.
‘ * Errata. I am grateful to John Fiorini who had this to add in respect of the “Letort Regulars”:
The term “Letort Regulars” is capable of a couple of meanings. A loose group that adopted the name (and of which I was a member) was formed in the late 70’s and met for dinner at a local restaurant on the first Fri. of each month, with a picnic in August on benches at the “Nineteenth Hole” on the river behind Charlie Fox’s house. (That is also where an ad hoc gathering of locals often held a “prayer breakfast” on Sun. mornings.) Charlie was a regular attendee at our “meetings”, but Shenk and Marinaro were not. The latter-day Regulars sort of faded away in, I think, the early 90’s.
Seeral others also forwarded me pictures of the cloth badge of the Regulars
And in respect of the conservation of the river, John adds:
I don’t live in the Carlisle area and haven’t followed the recent status of the Letort carefully, but I know that both the city and the Central PA Conservatory have done a lot of rehab work on the river.
And Eric Richard added:
A letter written by Charlie Fox at the group’s inception was titled Super Trout in reference to the Loch Leven strain of Brown Trout. The Loch Leven was the mover. Defined by it’s movement and recognized by these anglers for their value they met to propagate and manage these misunderstood fish. The-book is an historical document. A federal fish hatchery biologist dismissed them with the assumption that all brown trout were crossed. You should be happy to know that while standing on the shoulders of C. Fox a grassroots movement of anglers in PA successfully petitioned for the protection of the Letort’s breeding population during the post spawn when they are feeding in the downstream watershed.
This particularly interested me, because my home river here in South Africa was once on record (and forgive me, but for the time being I forget where the reference comes from , except that I know it is quoted by Duncan Brown in one of his books), as that containing the most pure genetic population of Loch Leven Browns in the world. Sadly I know that this is no longer the case, but a few of us keep pictures of our Browns from the river, and compare notes and are looking to see the degree to which the later introduced European browns remain in evidence, interbreed, or perhaps reduce in number as the supposedly now adapted Loch Leven’s hold sway.
“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.
There suddenly came an October day when I heard the rumble of thunder. I heard it in the early hours of the morning, and then it got hot and humid. Smudges of pale cloud hung in a white sky. Then in the early afternoon, the pasty blue sky over the berg rumbled at us, and taking a look at it, I discovered that it may in fact be grey, not blue. I took my glasses off; then put then back on again. Somehow those colours were barely distinguishable as I squinted westward. We were sharing a rod and throwing dries at some tiny trout in hot treacle sunshine. The water was low, but it was cool, and clean, and soothing to be beside. Small Trout flashed at the flies.
We dipped our fingers in the water. Then we went back to the truck, packed up in the shade, and drove on. Later we put the vehicle in four wheel drive and drove it up a bank to get the bonnet under a pine tree, after the biggest hailstone in the valley hit the windscreen, scaring Trevor half out of his seat.
That was after we had explored two valleys, stopping at vantage points and on bridges and peering at clear water to better assess the flow and maybe spot a Brown. The flow was slow, and the runs held no cover. The pools were reasonable though, and we had no difficulty imaging trout in them, even if we couldn’t see them. We drank a lot of water, and the sweat trickled down our collars. At one spot, high above an enticing blue-green glide through a dolorite channel, we debated whether to rig a rod and clamber down the hill. It was stifling, and we couldn’t dally too long. In the end we allowed laziness to conquer us both and we merely spent an extra minute or two looking wistfully down the slope at the thing. Then we drove into welcome raindrops.
Once the risk of hail had passed we drove south through countryside that glistened following the passing of the storm. At the next river the flow was still low, but gulches and road drains poured red earth into the river in billowing, widening clouds, that contrasted with the slow clear flows.
We picked our way towards home on a back road that I had not driven before. We chose it because it took us all the way down the valley and then crossed the river again on the way back. We slithered along on wet roads, and then suddenly we were on tar again. The rain had stopped but it felt steamy again.
I recognised hills, and reported our position to Trevor. Then I got some hills wrong, and had to re-orientate, until I was nodding confidently again. Then we were back on dry roads, but soon after I dropped Trevor off there was more of that grey/blue sky and lightning. As I climbed out of the cab at home I was greeted by thunder, and a piet-my-vrou. I put my feet up on the veranda, after a long day of driving, and had a cup of tea, looking out over the lawn and sniffing the petrichor.
The next day was hot. We washed the mix of winter’s dust and summer mud off the bakkie, and the inside got a spring clean. Boots were dried. Winter clothing was removed, and I re-stocked the vehicle with a repaired tow rope (after we broke one helping someone out) and made sure there was a raincoat in there, and snake gaitors.
Later we holed up in the cool of the house, barefoot and in shorts, and feeling the humidity. I checked my stream box, and resolved to tie up a few more dries. I hadn’t looked in there until now.
Its uncanny how you can’t really tell the blue sky from the grey but thunder serves to sharpen the focus a little, and suddenly you realise it’s a storm. A bit of thunder and humidity signals the passage from spring to summer, and suddenly you know it is here.
Strong, invigorating river flows. (we hope!)
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.
“It was one of those times that I think come to all fishermen: when we win back something of the vision of our angling boyhood, but at the same time experience it with the deeper gratitude of a grown man” Laurence Catlow, The Healing stream
I think Catlow’s comment is befitting of those times, when you land a Trout, even a very small one, and in the moments before you release it, you admire it and think “Damn I love these fish, and I love this pastime”
On obsessing about conservation while fishing, Gierach once wrote:
“I can’t say I spent a lot of time brooding about this: the fishing was too good for that, and I also understood that if you chase perfection too far down the rabbit hole, you can end up growing your beard down to your belt buckle and carrying a sign that reads “The End Is Near”. “
(A fly Rod of your Own: John Gierach)
I am trying to avoid the beard and the sign, but I do relish this one place, which to me represents a degree of conservation perfection attained. It is very dear to me.