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.
My mind is a whirl of flaming Lombardy poplars, water clear and cool; of shafts of sunlight cutting across the mountains and igniting the yellowing veld.
Whisky from the bottle cap, ice on boots, and rocks on two wheel tracks. Rods, flies, cussing, jokes and dust.
Cold wet socks.
Nuts, mussels and biltong from the backpack.
The Birkhall porch: swirls of light and clinking glasses in the night. Tobacco smoke and fishing plans. Roads: ever curling , descending, rising, twisting and demanding another gear.
The veld: whisked and brushed by wind, seed-heads bowing and bucking, in browns and pale sun-washed ambers.
Footfalls: plodding and tired in wet boots, stumbling on stones, sliding into the water, jarring knees, and pushing aside ever resisting swathes of grass and current.
Fatigue. Freedom. Beer. Faces of true friends ignited in the day’s sunlight, smiling, jovial and a little reddened. Steaming plates of hot food. Coffee. Sleep. Tea. Frost. sunlight and wind.
Punching fly-casts. Fish, fleeting, fleeing, watery and dreamlike. Sheep paths. Tippet and gink. Wet poplar leaves. Tongues of current and water spreading over pale gravel and stone.
Drifts, flicks, drag, and lightning takes. Sleep, drive, walk, fish, walk, drive, drink, eat, sleep.
Easter time, or more specifically late March through all of April, is a magical time for us trout fly-fisherman here on the eastern seaboard of South Africa.
We have just come out of the stifling heat of February, which is about as “un-trouty” as you can get, and those of us with European origins are feeling ever so slightly more comfortable, no matter how African we profess to be.
Our rainy season is drawing to an end. We can still get rain at this time of year. In fact we can get rather a lot, but the wild unpredictability of our thunderstorms is abating.
A month ago, there was a not unreasonable chance that the river would turn into a raging torrent of chocolate while you were on your way there, or while you were busy fishing it. And I am not talking about Easter egg chocolate here. I am talking about mud. Mud was in January and February, and it came with water that more often than not was over twenty degrees C (68 degrees F). The weather was humid too, so that even on a cloudy day, you could feel sweaty.
There were trout to be had for sure, but all the talk was around releasing them carefully and water temperatures vs oxygenation.
Now, as the season turns, mornings have a crispness to them. Stepping into a stream in the morning is a thing that you hold your breath for. The moment that the stream clutches at your old ragged wading longs, you find yourself standing on tip toes!
The grass changes too. This part of the world is all about grass. It its natural state, and thankfully our mountain streams are largely in that state, there is barely a tree to be seen. The grass bolts and produces seed heads in late February. By late March it has taken on a yellowness. One doesn’t really notice this insidious change, but when you look at your December photographs, against the ones you took yesterday, you suddenly see it.
I don’t know that the trout feed more, or are more willing. It is hard to tell. Being a cold water fish they are supposed to be happier, so we tell ourselves that they are. In reality it is probably that we are happier, and fishing better as a result. We certainly get out more, so we catch more fish.
The light gets a little softer. It makes for great photography. The rain that falls is invariably cooler, and raingear and a change of clothes become important. In mid summer, it didn’t matter if you got drenched: you were either wet and warm or dry and warm. Now you want a jacket on the back seat.
When the sun is shining, it can hang above you in an azure blue sky all day, and you don’t have that feeling that its rays are penetrating your skin and boiling your blood beneath.
I for one feel a little safer not having to rely on an unseen layer of sunscreen alone to protect me from certain incineration! Days of sheltering in the shade at some point of the day, and returning home physically drained to swat mosquitoes all night, are thankfully gone.
Now you can walk the veld with something of a spring in your step.
It is a magical time, but it passes all too quickly. It is a time when the rivers will be at their best, and although the stillwaters will be good too, they will be good right through the winter, when the rivers are closed. So, figuring that one should make full use of this fleeting opportunity I advocate getting out there on our streams and rivers.
It is an Easter thing.
End of lent.
Good river trout are to be had.
Go get ‘em!
A celebration of our upland Trout streams on video://player.vimeo.com/video/117028709
View on Youtube:
In the summer months, I often have occasion to fish some tiny streams. I really enjoy those waters. Delicate strands of water, in which any trout that you do succeed in catching, is a miracle of nature.
Delicate strands of water
Sure, the words “miracle of nature” are over-used, cliched, and bordering on corny, but consider this:
We have just come through a spring drought, both in KZN, and the NE Cape. You just have to drive through the Kamberg valley, as I did yesterday, to see that despite all the green grass, the dams are still not full. That would have a little less to do with how much rain we have had in the last few weeks, and a lot more to do with what happened from August to November. We are prone to dry spring seasons here, and this year was one of them. To top that, it came after a winter in which we did not receive our customary inch of rain (together with snow on the berg) in July.
So if we can still see that in the level of the dams, especially the ones from which the farmers irrigated, then try to picture the little stream you fished this week, two months ago. With that mental image, try to picture a trout living in there.
I remember one unseasonably dry December, Petro and I hiked up a small side-stream on the Bokspruit that Ben Vosloo had directed us to. Ben’s instructions had been clear, so there was no doubt that we were on the correct stream, but I stared at the trickle in disbelief.
My disbelief deepened, when a hundred yards further we saw trout. We could not have missed them. The poor creatures were lying in solid rock basins worn by the river over many centuries of better flow. When I say “basins”, picture the basin you shave over. They were almost as small, and they didn’t have as much cover . Your basin has the arm of the tap over it, these had no such luxury. When the fish spotted us, all they could do to save themselves, was to zoom around that pool at the greatest speed they could manage. Consider for a moment, that their only food was delivered to them down a tiny trickle of water flowing over warm rock, from the basin above, where a few other trout had picked off whatever was in that water. Maybe a gust of wind might bring them a hopper. And they survived until the next rain. A miracle of nature indeed!
I for one, often under-estimate the ability of trout to survive in these extreme conditions. Such conditions are almost a certainty in a small stream, where there are no, or few, great big pools, where a trout can hunker down in a drought.
One year Basie Vosloo took a few of us up a small feeder stream on his farm. We were looking for trout, just to know if they were there. Basie stopped the F250 in the valley basin, where the nchi-chi grew thickly, there was plenty of cover, and a half reasonable volume of water.
We surveyed the stream, and while we saw nothing, we pronounced it OK for trout. Then Basie drove further, and stopped again. Together with the dogs, we picked our way to the stream, and looked again.
It was getting pretty thin right there, but Basie insisted we go further. I said nothing, but inside I was thinking that this was just a little ridiculous. Almost as if to make a point, Basie drove us twice the distance we had come. We stopped at a stream crossing, were the water trickled through a pipe, and oozed over a rock embankment. Impossible. Ridiculous. But following the enthusiastic dogs, we walked a few yards down. I hung back and let the others go ahead. I was not going to waste my time.
And then “Yup! Here’s a rainbow” came the call.
I had to see this with my own eyes. Sure enough, there it was: A miracle of nature.
What this all comes down to though, is that when fishing one of these little gems, one has to be realistic, and patient. Consider for a moment how that stream may have looked in the dead of winter. Unlike the stocked dam, the presence of trout cannot be assumed. In that context the scarcity of the trout becomes expected, and those that you do catch become wonders.
The days that you can’t find them become exercises in patience and humility. The fish that you do find, should be cause for celebration. Rest assured, that celebration at the 8 inch brown you just caught from a full rushing stream in summer, will not be understood by some of those to whom you tell of its capture.
“It was how big?” . You show them the photo.
“Lovely” they say, with just the slightest hint of condescension in their tone. You flip to the next photo to show them some more in the hopes that they will get it. You have a picture of just how small the stream was . You can put this all in perspective for them. You flip back to show them the other pictures from the drought months to bring your point home.
But they are pouring tea, and discussing the new hardware store that just opened in town.
Additional photos sent in by Tom Sutcliffe, of the feeder stream on Basie Vosloo’s farm, and some fry and paired trout in that delicate water. Thank you Tom.
I often find that a thermometer is a poor measure of temperature, in terms of our experience of the fishing day.
Leaving aside the wind chill factor, which we all know well, a thermometer reading tells very little about what it feels like to be out.
Just the other morning, it was 13 degrees when I got up. On a winter’s morning, that is a very high overnight temperature, and one that on the face of it, should have the global warming guys saying “You see!”.
But strangely it didn’t feel that warm at all. The thing is, that as the day developed, the light remained dull from some high cloud, and although we had no wind to speak of, a southerly front oozed over, and the daytime temperature never went over 16 degrees. It was a cool day.
Likewise a 29 degree day in May and one of 29 degrees in January are two entirely different things. I suppose in that example you could put it down to a difference in humidity and you would be right.
The guys at Accuweather have this “reelfeel” thing, which is quite useful. It’s accuracy is, and always will be, debatable, but the fact that they felt a need to come up with such a concept, means that I am not the only one who sees the limitation of the mercury. But I don’t believe that the guys have it waxed yet. For example, I have a thermometer out front of my house and one out back, that give different readings. The difference between the two will vary considerably on two consecutive days when the reelfeel temperature is the same. I can’t get my head around such an abstruse outcome, except to say that our experience of the weather is complex.
Us fishermen are quite obsessive about our weather readings, and we add to that the water temperature, clarity, flow, and other factors, in an attempt to solve our Trout riddles. However, as I look through my fishing log, the temperatures, cloud cover, wind details and the like are never enough, and there is always a sentence in my notes that adds a descriptor. That sentence often deals with the degree to which it was miserable , or dull, or bright. One of the key things in there is a description about the light.
If one thinks about it, a day varies from those clear crisp type of days after rain, to the hazy ones. And the clear bright days after snow in winter, seem that much more pellucid and bright than the ones in summer when we have had rain.
And if I had to make a great big generalisation, I would have to say that a cool bright day is one that gets the fish going. Remember that this might be a sunny or an overcast day, but there will be a clarity to the light. The opposite of that would have to be a brassy day.
I often survey a landscape and declare it brassy with an air of disgust, since I believe it doesn’t auger well for the fishing. PD and I have a common understanding of what constitutes a brassy day, and we label them as such with an irritated clucking. Its somewhat of a code that we have, and the others don’t get it. You could probably measure all this scientifically, but to do so would cut into time fishing or in the pub.
My wife asked me to define this brassy classification the other day. There was a veld fire nearby, and the sunlight had turned yellow. She asked if this qualified as a brassy day, and without hesitation I said no. The coppery light was localised because the fire was nearby. Then she started to ask about days when there are fires everywhere and it is coppery all over. That would just be a collection of localised fires. Would that make it a brassy day? I don’t remember what my answer was. I do know that within 15 minutes I had contradicted myself, and she had caught me out! But PD and I still know if it’s a brassy day, without really being able to define why. We continue to use it consistently as an excuse as to why we didn’t catch any fish. It’s particularly handy since no one can dispute it.
Other anglers have similar things going. I remember my friend Kevin, who despite owning a thermometer would dip his finger into the water with an air of unassailable authority, and declare it cold enough to fish a Mickey Finn. I will often pack up when a still evening is ruined by a cold Easterly wind, but apparently that should not put me off if the clouds are hanging on the hilltops.Guy used to stay out in the most miserable of weather blown in by a cold front from the South, provided there was a nasty drizzle , and return with an enormous thirst and tales of big fish allegedly landed. Sometimes these syllogisms are obscure and relate to things like a favourite hat left at home on a cloudy day.
The best one that comes to mind is the one relayed by Jim Read: Eddie Combes use to ask the late Hugh Huntley if he had shaved that morning , and if indeed he had, Eddie reckoned you had no chance at all of catching a Trout!
Yesterday I headed out along the Kamberg road. Sunday past, this had been the scene of a wild and awful wind. One that lashed the dry veld angrily, kicking up dust and tossing branches. Inevitably, fire had been involved too. The farmers were now on guard. Houses, and even lives were lost down Kokstad way. Yesterday was calm. In fact it was calm all day, and with Sunday’s wind fresh in everyones memory, the farmers were out in force burning fire breaks.
Palls of smoke rose from a few spots up the valley. Something was burning up in the berg, South East of the Giant. There was a plume of thick white smoke on the slopes above the Crane foundation. I thought it might have got into the timber there, but luckily not. A black smoke rose from somewhere off on the Loteni road too.
In the morning the Giant seemed way off, bathed in a screen of white. By the afternoon that mountain was obscured in a haze which seem amplified by the late winter sun. That sunlight cut sideways across the landscape, through the dust and smoke, making the entire vista seem more vast and distant. Hills seemed miles away in the pale purple, and a yellowness on the veld close-by, made it all seem old. Like the page in some faded book, left open for far too long.
Our dry winters of dust and smoke make it hard to believe that there is any water out there at all.
When one considers how crisp and clear the outline of Giant’s Castle is after a rainstorm, it is difficult to believe that it can be obscured in haze , even from as close as the top of Vaalkop.
This is not city pollution. I suppose our farming activities increase the incidence of fire and our vehicles add to the dust in suspension in the air, but perhaps all this stuff we are breathing in is as natural as it gets. Perhaps I need to accept that ugly days are part of the deal. That berg winds, smoky days, severe heat waves, and all the other things that have a way of bringing on a bad mood, are just natural things, put there for us to endure, in order that we might appreciate the beautiful days.
Having travelled to Durban this morning, and witnessed that landscape, I very quickly appreciated the smoky Kamberg valley of yesterday. I realised that in fact I am a hillbilly, in as far as I am something the opposite of a city person. As I drove into Durban, I realised that I had been there far too long already.I managed to do what I needed to do without even switching off the engine, and I beetled back out of there as fast as I could. Tomorrow I will be up early. I will be out in the frost, kicking up ash in the burnt veld beside a Trout dam. Watching the sun rise through an orange lens of particulate matter.
The water will be ice cold and startlingly clean.
Maybe I will get a fish or two.
And maybe the dust isn’t so bad after all.