“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake
I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.
While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:
- The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
- The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.
Think on that.
I started out the morning with a #16 ant pattern in the dropper position, on some 7X tippet, and trailing about two foot below that, a #20 Pheasant Tail nymph with a small matt tungsten bead on it.
The flow was quick enough that the point fly didn’t sink the ant over a 10 to 15 foot drift and a fish went for the ant on the second drift. The problem was that I couldn’t see the ant. When you can’t see the dry fly, the take surprises you, and that slows your strike time to the point where you will most likely miss the fish. I could have added a drift indicator (AKA Strike indicator), to help me locate the dry…a kind of reference point, but knowing these small fish, some of them would take that instead of the dry. I hooked a small fish on the very next drift on the nymph. I had managed to track the dry on that particular drift and its sudden disappearance was my signal to lift into the fish. But soon after that I got tired of trying to find the dry on the surface, so I pulled it in and put on a parachute dry , tied with pale grey CDC halo hackle.
Since the fish were looking up, and the parachute was on a barbless hook, I left the nymph on my fly patch for later, and just fished the parachute on its own.
That worked, and I landed several fish in the next two runs. Then the fish began to ignore the dry. I switched to something with a barb, that I could quickly tie the little nymph back onto, with its piece of 7X still trailing from my patch. That was a #14 Ed’s Hopper, which I chose because it had a highly visible red wing, and because the breeze was blowing hard enough to imagine that a hopper might land in the stream. From mid-December onwards, there tend to be enough hoppers around that I can fish the Ed’s Hopper without feeling like I am fishing an attractor pattern.
The fish continued to ignore the dry, and I did begin to wonder if they might have had a go at the parachute pattern if I have left it on. I do that a lot: second guess and start to doubt the wisdom of my fly change. Anyway, I had some fish go at the nymph on the point. I missed two of them, merely seeing a flash below the surface. A flash that I think a great many anglers probably don’t even see, especially if they are diligently locking their vision onto the floating indicator fly. Then I landed a fish on the point fly. Soon after, I switched the dropper to a larger nymph (#14), lengthened the distance between the two flies, and put a yarn indicator on.
That larger nymph, a slightly different looking Pheasant Tail Nymph, was heavy in the hand, but in fishing it, I quickly realized that the point fly was sinking much faster, and that the larger and seemingly heavier dropper fly, was in fact not helping things and was staying high in the water column.
Let’s dwell on that a moment. If you closed your eyes and dropped first the #20 point fly into your palm, and then the #14 dropper fly, you would quite correctly say that the larger fly was heavier. It was. But it was less dense. In other words, the size/weight ratio didn’t match that of the smaller fly. In fishing these two, the difference in sink rate was remarkable. Both were tied to 7X tippet, but that point fly was plummeting compared to the bigger pattern. The thing is, that the bigger pattern probably would have needed a 3mm tungsten bead on it to match the density of the point fly, and I didn’t want to be throwing a 3mm bead on my 2 weight outfit. So I changed a few things. I put on a more dense #16 dropper fly. I also started using a tuck cast, and I was careful to add enough slack in the cast by employing a bounce into the tuck cast. (Cast hard and stop suddenly so the fly bounces back, and at the same time end the cast with the rod high and tilt it down to point at the water from on high as it rolls out….it bounces back, and the flies enter the water column first) . So now I had two small, deep nymphs, fished under an indicator, light enough to throw on the two weight with pleasure. All set.
The problem is, I stopped catching fish. My colleague, who was employing different tactics altogether, also stopped catching. Learning that from him surely saved me from a time occupied more by fly changes than fishing. It is useful to share some info with mates. So I settled into focusing on where to find the fish, and I concentrated on some concealment and reducing my false casting. I also played around with distance…standing further back and battling drag with longer drifts, and then later, getting in close with short casts, but kneeling in the stream behind rocks.
Before I knew it, we were five hours into the day, we had covered I think 2 km of river, and our agreed departure time had already passed. Five hours of mental absorption and puzzle solving, in clear mountain air, with cold clean water tugging at my legs, and without a thought of work, or the world’s troubles.
Total immersion and distraction, and fuel for several days of mulling and musing. Isn’t this flyfishing thing a glorious pastime!
Sunday dawned hotter than all the rest. Hot and still. I was up at five in the morning, and set out through the wet grass to look for rising trout, and it was warm then. The sun was shining at a low angle across the water and my eyes ached as I scanned the water and tried to track my dry fly. A fish swirled here and there. Once or twice within casting distance. I changed dry fly several times: Beetles, para RAB’s, a DDD, and a midge, damsel and Copper John on the dropper. I held my hand up to screen my eyes. Later I stood behind a small willow, merely for the relief its trunk gave me. I positioned myself directly behind the trunk, in its narrow shade, and then side cast my fly under the willow fronds, merely to escape the piercing rays. It was then that I realized I was grateful for the slender shade of the trunk, and at the same time that it was now hot. It was 6 am.
I walked back to the cottage. As I did, I noticed more swirls, and also the dimples of fleeing minnows, and the formula dawned on me. My fly box with minnows in it was back at the cottage.
Later, after a hearty breakfast, and time with our feet up, my wife and I decided to set up under a willow, with bottles of cold water and our books. I moved the deck chairs, put on sunscreen, took off my boots, and sighed at the prospects of a hot day. The three days prior had been cloudy and windy and stormy and misty: all changing and interesting, and cool. Weather as interesting as a broken landscape, and with patches of great promise between, when the trout would surely come on the rise. Periods of wind change, or calm after a cooling storm, or breezy with scudding clouds and patches of mist. Times that breathed promise and opportunity. But I had yet to hit it right. I had not connected. Sure, I had caught 2 or 3 fish: one off the front lawn in near darkness on a dry fly. One on a dragonfly nymph just after the storm, that sort of thing. But I had missed fish, had takes, been broken off twice due to poor knots, and not landed more than two in any one day. On the Saturday I put in a solid six hours and all I had to show for it was a missed follow. You know the thing where you pull the fly out of the mouth of a following fish, and watch it turn as it sees you. And you curse your stupidity for hours thereafter. And that had been it.
Now, as I put the chairs down and resigned myself to a day of waiting out the stifling still weather, I saw one or two last bulges. Last remnants surely, of the morning’s minnow gluttony. My wife was still busy inside, so I found the box with minnow imitations in it, and tied one on. She still wasn’t out of the cottage yet, so I quickly threw all my stuff into the canoe, and leaving my water bottle under the tree, and wearing an old pair of crocs, I pushed off. Just off the front lawn I dropped an anchor, and started casting a minnow imitation in the direction of one or two more swirls I had seen. The water was a pea soup of food. There were midges, and ants, and corixae and damselfly nymphs. Dragonflies darted over the water, swallows swooped, and the sun beat down mercilessly.
Nature would surely take a break any minute now and sit out the searing heat of day as I was about to do.
Then a fish grabbed the minnow strongly, and set off for open water. I raised the rod tip triumphantly, gathered the loose line, and got my mind in gear to fight a fierce fish, which was pulling line. That’s when my knot gave in.
When I had finished muttering and swearing and analysing the errors of my ways, and tying on a new minnow pattern, I looked up, and saw more fish were moving. I threw the minnow out again. I retrieved in a manner as alluring and enticing as I could conjure in the dead calm sticky conditions. I sucked the minnow back in, just under the surface, there under a burning white sun. More fish were rising now. Porpoising. I had a take on the minnow….just a tug, and then it was gone. I threw it again, but fish were porpoising everywhere now, so after a few casts I changed to a midge. That was when fish started cartwheeling into the sky. I quickly rigged the other rod with a caddis, and threw that out before retrieving the one with the midge on. The next five fish porpoised. I tied a sunk buzzer below the emerger I had on the five weight, and when three casts of the caddis drew no result, I put that back out. Now the fish were swirling. I looked at the water. There were copper beetles. I took the caddis off and threw it into the canoe, and tied on a beetle imitation. The fish were back to cartwheeling. I threw the beetle. A hundred fish swirled. Twenty porpoised. A dozen cartwheeled. I looked into the water beside the boat. Caenis; hoppers; beetles (Black and copper); one or two winged ants, midges. I put on a tiny ant imitation, throwing the buzzer and emerger in the boat. I cast. The tops of my feet were burning. I threw off the crocs and dug in my vest for sunscreen, which I rubbed on my feet. I cast the tube aside. Fish were getting airborne again. My leader was sinking. I pulled it in and coated it in silicone paste, threw the tub in the boat, put the caddis back on and cast. I readied the other rod with a larger ant. The caddis was being ignored by fish that were taking insects either side of my line. There were a lot more winged ants around now .
The fish were going nuts now. I pulled in the caddis, and started tying on ants. I needed more tippet. Fish were rising right beside the hull of the boat.I was battling to see the fine nylon, and my hands were shaking. “Andy! Look behind you”, my wife shouted from the shore. “To hell with behind me” I muttered. The fish had practically been splashing water into the canoe for the last hour. “I Know!” I said politely. “Yes, but that fish is just rolling around on the surface continually” she said. Said she had never seen anything like it. My hands shook. I finally got both ants on, tossed the tippet spools in the hull, and threw the team out. This leader was sinking. I had treated the other one. I pulled it in, and went scrambling through the junk in the boat searching for the silicone paste. Fish started porpoising again, and my ants went unnoticed. I rigged the other rod with a big black DDD, and a few minutes later I cast that, and then changed the small ant on the point to a little black emerger. Threw the ant in the boat. Pulled in the DDD . Tossed the ant team. Fish were in the air again. I stood on the sun cream. Sweat ran down my neck. My line wrapped around a discarded croc. I kicked it away and I retrieved and threw again. My feet burned. Fish rose. The sun baked.
And then it happened.
To the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” , sung by a choir of a hundred maidens, and with an orchestra in grandiose accompaniment playing in my mind, a small and gracious rainbow, porpoised over my large ant in slow motion. I raised the rod in celebration, the hook set, and the knot held. My wife videoed from the shore. I took a photo.
The fish swam off. And the rise was over.
I paddled back, and tipped all the junk out of the boat to sort out later, and crawled gasping to the willow tree, croaking “water!”. The lake returned to the lifeless state of the past three days, The sun beat down hard, and I sat under the tree, took off my sweaty hat and shook my head in disbelief.
I wonder if this is what Isaak Walton had in mind when he said to “be quiet and go a angling”…
I’ll just leave this here.
I spent a winter’s afternoon on a local stillwater, and share some of the tactics and the experience in this short video.
I know. It is a contradiction. But consider the richness of contrast.
Just look at the contrast: of shade, texture, light and dark. Think of the feelings and depth of thought that it invokes.
And then, having done that, employ the technique of introducing colour, and relish the richness of it. No one does that quite like Middleton:
“With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other. On the far west ridge, damask reds and vermillion giving way to softer Chinese reds and the blunt reds of aged wine, and these in turn, mixed with leaves of moody sallow and the dull yellow of sulphur and raw cream, and among these were newly fallen leaves still bright as jonquils”
and he goes on with
“ ……pumpkin orange….daring blotches of apricot…wrinkled browns….and the colour of tarnished copper and well-worn leather “ Harry Middleton, On the Spine of Time”
Now look again:
It’s been fun exploring some quotes from books recently read and re-read. And exploring “Pewter and Charcoal”, but I will end this little series here, for a while…..
I hope you have enjoyed it.
I don’t always fish alone, and I often enjoy company. But some days are hermit days, full of thought and reflection, in which one becomes just a little misanthropic.
“Since fly fishing is a solitary sport, its hard not to think of other fishermen- collectively, if not individually – as the enemy” John Gierach: A Fly Rod Of Your Own.
“In trout fishing, and especially in mountain trout fishing, one angler and trout borders on the idyllic,or some version thereof. Two anglers and trout is a crowd, claustrophobic and unbearable.” Harry Middleton, On The Spine of Time”
“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.
I always take time to stop fly fishing and take a look at my hausberg. Its a wonderful term that. In short, and as translated to suit me, it means ‘the mountain that looks out over the district of my birth, upbringing, and current abode: a psychological anchor of place, and a symbol of purpose and direction, normally viewed from below, but sometimes, as a means of re-setting ones compass, from atop’
and I think La Branche would have identified with my obsession for the Inhlosane mountain:
“The man who hurries through a trout stream defeats himself. Not only does he take few fish but he has no time for observation, and his experience is likely to be of little value to him.” George LA Branche: Dry Fly on Fast Water 1914.
“Several times she has fallen asleep during my diatribes and I know perhaps the largest truth of this business of angling: it is private, and teaches privateness and the quiet satisfaction of something sweet and full inside” Wrote Nick Lyons in Seasonable Angler.
Lyons wrote a column by that same name in the magazine “Flyfisherman” for 22 years . Back when our currency had some value, I used to subscribe to it, and always read that column first. I have enjoyed his writing ever since.
I think this image captures the essence of privateness, quiet satisfaction et al:
Pewter and charcoal….a series of sorts, that aims to couple the timelessness of a black and white image, with the timelessness of quotes from our fly fishing literature.
To kick it off, here is the uMngeni on Furth farm:
…and here is something from Walden…that unsung American writer, from his book ‘Upstream and down’, published in 1938:
“Streams with reputations do not always live up to them and the obscurer brooks often hold a big trout or two. ……/../… Fishermen rather than fish perpetuate and enhance the reputation of a stream. By story and legend, the magic euphony of a name, the prestige of a river is won and held. Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, Brodhead – such names owe their celebrity as much to the tongues and pens of fishermen as to the numbers and weight of trout between their banks”
I will just leave those two here…..
On the eve of our planned trip, I happened to be up on the river. Call it a bit of a “forward patrol”. It was late afternoon, and I was peering into what looked like slightly brown water, squinting against the harsh afternoon rays of the sun, that were beaming in from the west to burn my corneas. “I think it could be clear by tomorrow” I reported to The Viking, factoring in the that there were 14 hours between us and our planned trip, as well as the fact that we would be about 3kms upstream.
I was not wrong.
Our Saturday dawned bright and clear, and when we arrived at the river in the dew, it too was “bright and clear” in the way that good Trout streams are in the early morning light.
The Viking was into a fish in the first run, as was I at the pool just above him.
From there the day unfolded in a delightful haze of small Browns grabbing at the fly; rounding corners and exclaiming “Aah, gee look at that!”, and brief moments looking skyward at circling birds of prey. Sure there were brambles, and the ‘khaki bos’ and blackjacks were at the point of seeding in a spectacularly bad display of what happens when we muck with pristine valleys. But all in all, and with the nostalgic review that accompanies the memories of a good day astream, it was a brilliant outing.
The Viking fished several stretches that I had explained I was going to fish. When he caught up with me, I translated my flailing hand signals, which were meant to convey that I had already fished it, and invariably he replied “I know, but it just looked so good” .
It did look good.
All of it.
The water was not as clear as the upper Bok in winter, but you could see every pebble on the streambed, and the Trout were not scarce. They were not big either. Somehow we got much bigger fish here last year, but it really didn’t matter. At one spot I climbed into the river, and seeing a dead tree behind me, I flicked the fly out in a half hearted roll cast, so that you would have been able to reach the strike indicator with a garden rake. That dark orange indicator (my solution to silvery afternoon light) positively leapt forward and I lifted into a fish that wouldn’t quite have made twelve inches, but it was my best of the day.
The Viking’s best had come earlier. I saw him hoist the fish aloft after a whistle to alert me to his success, and I rather suspect he had wanted me to go down there and photograph it. But I had moved into a good position in such a sweet run, that I pretended not to know that, and fished on with my dry fly.
Back at the car, the Viking produced the special “Black Mist” craft beer that he had been boasting about. It was cold, and it was wet, which are two good attributes of any beer opened at the end of a long sunny day on a Trout river. But I said I could taste undertones of Bovril, and peaty water from a bog in Scotland. While The Viking was deciding whether to be offended or not, I asked if I could have the second one. As we drove home our light mood battled our tiredness, and the elevating effects of the black mist, which we agreed was an entirely different thing to The Red Mist. But we agreed that if you drank enough of one, it could lead to the other.
We also agreed that it had been a day to celebrate, and in the morning I reviewed the pictures which helped support that judgment, with satisfaction.
It was late afternoon, and even the dark red colour indicator was proving difficult to see against the silver surface. I stopped and took this picture, then headed back to the bakkie where I lay back in the grass and watched the clouds, waiting for the coffee to brew.
I gave this young fellow a lift the other day as I drove up the river valley.
I was fishing this stillwater over the Christmas break, and I looked down and saw this one dragonfly shuck. Then I started noticing more, and more. There were dozens. I wish I had been there to witness the hatch !