It was the 18th April 1999. Guy and I were fishing the uMngeni on Brigadoon, on what my fishing log describes as “Blacks Water”. That was the section of river above the confluence of the Furth Stream, and at some time not long past, it had been the farm of John Black, and if memory serves, Derek Fly had bought it or taken it over, and its length was now added to the beat known to us as Brigadoon.
At that time all the riverside lands from the Furth confluence up to Picnic Pool were planted to maize, and the river banks were wild and rank. I have a picture of Guy, whose hairstyle at the time was also ‘wild and rank’, chest high in the undergrowth, throwing a fly into Picnic pool. He is clearly fishing downstream, and I know it would have been with a sinking line, and probably with a #14 Connemara Black or an Invicta on the end.
As we progressed above picnic pool I clearly remember entering a section of river that was a tumble of black rock, with a firm bedrock of the same colour. Tall grass overhung the river on all sides where it split into braided channels. There in that tumble of rock and tall grass that shaded the water as we waded up, I remember pricking and seeing small browns. I seem to remember that I took the left-hand side of the stream, and Guy took the right, and when we rejoined just a dozen yards higher up at the tail of the pool above, we had both seen and pricked numerous fish, and landed none. And that was after a day in which we hadn’t seen fish since we first started out into the valley below. I remember peering up the river into a wattle-shaded tunnel of darkness, and asking Guy where he thought the top boundary of Brigadoon was, and that he replied that we were pretty much there and that all above was overgrown. We retreated back to the bottom boundary where I landed two browns over two pounds that evening. That last run, however, stuck in my mind, and every time I have visited that stretch , I have fished it, with an air of expectancy built on that experience all those years ago.
I had started fishing Brigadoon in April of 1985, but always the lower section. Then in much more recent years I have become very familiar with the water at the top of Brigadoon, and above that on Furth Farm. I discovered that Guy was not wrong about the river being overgrown, but that in fact we were still a way from the top boundary of Brigadoon. I have since witnessed the wonderful transformation of that river, when the wattles were all removed, and the river came back to life.
It was probably in the knowledge of that, and how dear the river is to me, that Tom Sutcliffe sent me this picture from his archives a few months back:
The picture was taken by the late Neil Hodges, some time in the mid eighties.
There was an instant glimmer of recognition, when I saw that braided water in the foreground, but the hills didn’t look right and I started to doubt myself. During lockdown, I kept revisiting that picture, and working my way up the river in my mind, ruling out one spot after another. I was muttering to myself, things like “No…not there…the steep side is on the opposite bank”, and “no, no rapid in that spot”. I couldn’t work out where the shot was taken, and it started to haunt me.
When the end of lockdown finally set us free, I wasted little time in getting up to the uMngeni, even thought the season was closed. I had the picture open on my phone, and I drove up the valley, stopping here and there to look at the horizon, and the orientation of the river, and occasionally to walk down to the water’s edge, where I shook my head in puzzlement. I just couldn’t work it out. I sat in the driver’s seat for a while studying the horizon in front of me, and that in the picture. It all sloped the wrong way!
And then it dawned on me, and I put the bakkie into reverse and beetled back down the road to a spot where I could park. I strode down to the river muttering “Neil, you sneaky bugger” repeatedly, and with increasing conviction as I glanced up at the emerging profile of the horizon as I got closer to the spot. At the river I took my boots off, and waded through the icy clear water, before hiking up the steep hill on the other side. I maneuvered myself to a precise spot in the middle of a bramble patch, and checked the phone one last time. It looked perfect, but if I could just locate the fence-post in the foreground of the old picture…. I searched in the now overgrown area in front of me to no avail. Then I pointed to where I thought the post should be and ran my pointing finger up the slope, tracking the direction of the fence in the old picture. As I swung around , there behind me was a string of old rusted posts tracking exactly the same line, and it was then that I knew I was in precisely the right spot.
I phoned Tom, and accused him of being complicit in Neil’s sneaky attempt to conceal the spot: The photo had been flipped!
Rogan and I were discussing the nature of flyfishing as a sport while we walked along an overgrown river bank recently. Our topic is difficult to define, but I don’t think Rogan would disagree if I said that we were both bemoaning the low number of entrants to this thing who are able to embrace the ordinary, the uncomfortable, the companionable, the day without winners, and the less than glamorous. People happy to embrace adventure complete with failure and no social media exposure. People content to learn by trying instead of waiting for a Youtube video. People who fashion something from a stick with a pocket knife, make another for their pal, and use it for twenty years. What would you call that?
In an attempt to define the topic we were circling, Rogan described how he stopped to help a cyclist recently, and gave him a spare tube to get him back on the road. The rider tried to pay him for it. “No!” protested Rogan “You go buy a spare tube, and next time you see a guy with a puncture, you give yours to him” , and he told him to put his thirty bucks away. “That’s how cycling used to be” he said. We discussed how concepts like that are less than common in all sports, and that sadly, flyfishing may have gone that way too.
Then in a thoughtful moment, Rogan suggested that the Comrades Marathon maybe hadn’t gone that way. I am no runner, but I have heard enough stories to think that may be true. Certainly among the ordinary runners just trying to complete the thing. Rogan then recanted the story of his late dad Roy, and how he was once helped along the route by the great Alan Robb, and how in later years, he had an opportunity to help Alan in return, when he looked like he had gone to the wall, and may not make the finish line. “That’s where the red socks came from” he said.
Roy always wore red socks with his wading boots.
Earlier this season, Rogan and I fished this same river, and Rogan wore his Dad’s red socks. I wrote about that, not knowing the significance of it (LINK}
I Googled Alan Robb and his red socks. It turns out he once got them out of his Dad’s drawer too, wore them to run a comrades, and then adopted them as his thing, and only ever wore red ones from then on.
Roy was inspired by Robb and wore red socks. Rogan is inspired by Roy and wears his red socks. I am inspired by Roy and his tenacity in running as many Comrades marathons as he did, but also his “one twig at a time” approach to our joint passion for clearing a river. Rogan inspires me with the same unpretentious joy that his father carried in his soul.
The river is busy healing, and the aftermath of the wattles is a sea of blackjacks that crowd your socks (no matter the colour), your eyebrows, your gloves, your strike indicator and heaven knows what more.
Perhaps 10 more years of grassland management and follow-up work will serve to diminish the autumn “prickle”. In the meantime I am embracing the uncomfortable and the ordinary. Sometimes the soft light of setting sun and a little tiredness together with scratched skin, serves the onset of some sentimentality, and with it comes a picture or two that make it all look glamorous.
Don’t be fooled.
Rogan and I caught a few small fish. We didn’t keep count. Neither did Anton and I when we fished the same river a few days later. And when Sean sent me a video clip of two great Browns spawning on the gravel beds of the Umgeni, I forgot to ask him how many fish he caught, and he didn’t say. I was too excited about the spawning and the big cock fish! You never would have seen something like this two years ago! Roy would have celebrated that with me. He also would have smiled as I fished “Roy’s pool” on worker’s day, and struggled to get a fly in under the NchiShi bush, and caught nothing there.
No glamour. No winners. Just a couple of little challenging Trout.
Enough to Inspire you ?