In the last week we have switched on the under-floor heating in the lounge, and I have worn a jacket of some sort most days. By my reckoning that signals the close of number 36….my 36th contiguous flyfishing season since this thing bit me all those years ago.
Sitting here in my living room , armed with a good cup of coffee and a reflective mood, I have just paged through my journal, and tried to get a sense of how it was. Tried for a capsule that sums it all up. Something that captures it in a way that lets me roll it around in my mind without missing any of the good bits.
One can add the numbers I guess: 200 hours of fishing over 45 days on ten stillwaters and eight different streams, and just under a hundred Trout. A fair season by those numbers I guess, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
130 of those 200 hours on streams, x number of Browns vs Rainbows, so many on dries, so many on nymphs. I have all this info. I could probably add up the kms travelled the diesel burnt, the coffee, beer and whisky drunk.
I think it is better summed up as follows: (in terms of the piscatorial quarry at least)
We broke the rules and started 3 days early on the very lower Bushmans, where we were shown a toffee. That is always a good way to start. There were some trips to the Lotheni, a few months apart, but they were lean. The trips to the Mooi were not, and there were more of those this season than last. The Mooi and the Bushmans produced some big fish for me. Bigger ones for my Facebook buddies it seems, or was that camera angle?
I was happy with mine. The Umgeni showed me more good fish, and more toffees than ever before. It was real “Rub your snout in that” stuff! . The lower Sterkspruit and the lower Bokspruit were challenging, but the upper reaches of both offered up their bounty. The Vlooikraal was as special as it always is.
A 17 incher in the sleet with Jan in October at Reekie Lyn.
A 19 incher from Krantz pool with PD.
PD’s 18 incher from the Sterkspruit…
……sure it wasn’t my fish, but you asked about memorable fish right? And you didn’t ask if I caught them.
My first day of an Eastern Cape trip got me a 14 inch Rainbow on a nymph fishing with Roy. My last day got me a 14 inch Brown on a dry …stalked, fooled, hooked and landed with PD as my witness.
“Book-ends!” he remarked after he had congratulated me on that last fish, and I thought about that over a cup of streamside coffee off the camp stove while he went fishing.
There was a fish of some 13 inches on the Bushmans right towards the death, that was special. Several fly changes, lots of stalking and creeping about, and eventually I fooled him, alone, and without witnesses. The solitude of a good fish on an empty river with no one to ‘high-five’ you is, I think, a healthy thing.
But the fish that had my eyes swirling in the same way that Kaa the snake was able to dazzle Mowgli, was that Umgeni fish at ‘The Black Hole’ . Like PD’s one on the Sterk, I didn’t catch it. Unlike PD’s on the Sterk, no-one caught it. I however, photographed it. Twice. I put about 10 different fly patterns over it. I spotted it feeding no less than four times, and I rose it three times, pricking it on two of those occasions.
That fish had me beaten. It is also the one thing that has me looking forward to no 37.
Now that, my friends, is surely the fish of the season!
……….My next post will be the season between the fish……………which in so many ways is larger and more significant.
I try very hard to do things right, and to do them the right way, but we all have to compromise sometimes.
Last week I fished for a sighted Trout downstream. Peril the thought!
It was rising in Bird Pool up on Furth, but it was rising against the rock shelf that you just can’t physically get downstream of. The current plunges into the pool, and runs parallel to the shelf, straight into a steep and wooded bank. So I had to use the riffled water at my feet as my screen from the trout’s vision, kneel in the shallow water on the step above where it plunges down into the pool, and deliver my delicate dry directly downstream. Of course I threw in some slack and did it all drag free.
And now best I confess another downstream misdemeanour. Quickly, before Anton spills the beans, because as he read the paragraph above I swear I heard him reaching for the keyboard , or perhaps the magaphone, to say “Tell them about the fish on the Bushmans , you Philistine!”.
It was a very big pool. VERY big. Very deep too. The water was also cold, and we were under-gunned with 3 weights. The big fish would be at the bottom, under the tongue of current coming in at the top. As far as I could see, that may have been 10 foot down, and the current was strong. I requested a stillwater outfit, which, may I point out, Anton duly provided with complicit aplomb, and not a squeak of admonition. We….OK, I, swung a deep sunk GRHE (a big one OK) right into that pool, and let it swing on the current. Big, nasty, deep………
I don’t like digging up river banks and leaving big ugly scars that are at risk of eroding. Its wrong. But I do like to arrange serious machine power to pull felled invasive trees from the river. Our machines ground up the river banks in places, but we removed dozens of tons of alien timber, rather than leave log-jambs. As a redemptive exercise I subjected myself (And my wife) to 2 mornings in miserable cold drizzly weather, scattering grass seeds on the bare scars.
The bull was another one were I was forced to bend the rules. I had been guiding a group of people up the Umgeni, showing them the river clearing and what have you, and by mid morning, repeatedly promising them that they wouldn’t have to climb through a fence again. “No more!” I told them with confidence, after I had watched several pretty ladies crawl under the barbed wire on their bellies in the dust. “From here on I PROMISE its all stiles and gates”
“and we haven’t far to go either” I added convincingly to one whose spirit was visibly flagging”
But then I come over the hill, and there is a bloody Jersey bull, standing at the gate we need to pass through. He was bellowing and pawing the ground, and his harem of cows stood meekly away from him, while he vented and snorted. I didn’t have a white horse, but I pretended. He had his ladies, and I had mine, and I wasn’t going to have mine climb through a fence. I charged at him with gusto making wild cowboy noises and waving a piece of black pipe above my head. Whooping and whistling like a madman, at full sprint and forgetting entirely that the cameraman had attached a wireless microphone to my lapel .
The bull didn’t budge. In fact he put his head down and came straight at me defiantly.
I lost the fish in bird pool, after pricking it 3 times. I caught the sixteen incher on the Bushmans.
The grass seed didn’t germinate on the Umgeni, but I promise to go back again when its really cold and do it again. I smacked the bull square between the eyes with my pathetic plastic pipe. Luckily it seemed to stop him, albeit only 2 foot from me. I retreated slowly with my heart pounding but my dignity in tact (sort of), and helped everyone through the fence.
Sometimes you just have to compromise.
I have had the privilege and the satisfaction over the last three years or so, to work alongside some seriously committed fly-fishing conservationists on the Umgeni River:
- Roy (whose doctor told him to get some youngsters to haul logs instead of suffering another hernia)
- Anton (who had an adverse reaction to bramble spray, but carried on anyway)
- Penny, who isn’t scared to get dirty
- Lucky and Zuma….two of the hardest working guys you will find
- Bob…who is just always there and quietly gets on with it
- Russell….who has committed diesel and machines for many, many hours and tidied up after we left.
etc, etc….I cannot name them all!
What these guys have achieved is commendable and fantastic. They have cleared kilometers of river. Stuff that was horrible to access. The landscape on this stretch of the Umgeni is completely transformed. You come over the hill and it is not recognisable. Take a look at the #BRU site for the full story.
Come and see the fish eagle’s nest; learn some history about the valley; climb over the fence stiles; learn the names of the hills and farms; get some exercise; and take home the booklet I am busy producing all about the Umgeni as a trout fishery. I will show you the honey holes, and show you how I fish them.
Someone will collect us at the end and bring us back to our cars.
Fishermen, if you are from out of the province and are here to attend the main evening event (mentioned below), and you want to be off somewhere sampling the stillwater fishing: here is something for your wife and kids to do instead of shopping in a mall.
We will be back at Il Postino in time for a superb lunchtime Pizza.
..….and if you are also attending the dinner that night……..
You can go home, have a snooze, get changed into your smart clothes, and come and attend this auspicious and prestigious event, that will raise the money to start #BRU2, and continue the work you will have witnessed in the morning.
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.
“Opening Day – 1 September 1990”
After a winter of repeated tackle cleaning, fly tying and general pent-up abstinence, fly fishermen, myself included, seldom miss an opening day of the season.
It was the first day of spring and we were to have the privilege of fishing a small stretch of the upper Umgeni River. The old Merc bumped, lurched and scraped its belly down the stony track towards the farm “Knowhere”, with its large house overlooking the bend in the long pool and the downstream flats along the southern bank of the river dotted with grazing sheep. We parked by the side of the track near the top of the hill, briefly admiring the idyllic setting below us, then opted to walk the last few hundred metres to the farmhouse rather than risk doing serious damage to the underside of the car.
After exchanging courtesies with the friendly landowner and fending off three large, overenthusiastic farm dogs, we were at last free to stroll down to the river bank to see what condition the water was in following some early spring rain two days before. The river level had risen and, while slightly off colour, was just clean enough so one could see the fly in the water and just discoloured and turbulent enough to allow fishing from the high banks without being spotted by the wily browns that live in this stretch of river.
I rigged up a five-weight outfit for my girlfriend Jacqui and a three-weight for myself. The leaders were topped with small, bright orange foam strike indicators and the light tippets finished off with a freshly tied “Peacock Woolly Worm” on the five-weight, and the three-weight with my favourite “Wezani” nymph. The Wezani is a somewhat simple, but very effective, olive green and black seal’s fur nymph that Paul de Wet and I had developed and refined on several trips to the forested streams above Weza in southern Natal. The Wezani is best tied well weighted with wine bottle lead, or with plumber’s lead if you don’t drink wine. These flies seem to improve after catching a couple of fish when they become more tattered around the thorax.
Within the first hour or two of the morning’s fishing I caught and released a number of small, feisty browns around half to three-quarters of a pound. They were typical ‘geni browns – beautifully coloured and healthy. The fish were eager and hungry after the long winter but, as usual, tricky and evasive.
Approaching midday, I wandered over to the high bank from which Jacqui had been casting to hear that she had just hooked and lost her first ever brown trout. She appeared to be taking it quite well and wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have been. I sensed that I would only be getting in her way and that any offers of consolation or tuition would not likely be welcomed, so I continued a short distance downstream and squatted down behind a clump of bush to continue the steady rhythm of casting and drifting the nymph slow and deep along the bank.
The foam strike indicator dipped once more, but this time more decisively, and disappeared into the green depths. I lifted the rod gently and struck hard. A large, brightly speckled brown more than half a metre long flashed its long flanks, writhed and then dived to the bottom of the stream. The soft little rod bucked hard and my road arm trembled as the fish thumped and knocked against the stream bed and then dived headlong into some submerged reeds against the opposite bank. It showed itself on the surface one more time and then sounded again.
Almost half an hour later after a dogged battle interspersed with powerful runs, we beached the grand old fish into a clump of weed about a hundred metres downstream. As I reached down to slip my index finger into its gills, the small fly shot out of its mouth with an audible “ping”. I jumped into the water up to my thighs and, using both arms, scooped the exhausted monster onto the bank. With some sadness, I reluctantly administered the Coup de Grace. It was well beyond reviving after the unnecessarily long fight. I had not come prepared for fish this size.
The old cockfish was long and wiry with a large head, a pronounced rounded snout and a hooked jaw. His big, round spots were charcoal-coloured, with some bright red ones surrounded here and there by large silver rosettes. It was stunning. Measuring 57cm and weighing 3lb 15oz., it was my largest brown and by far the biggest stream fish I had ever seen, or had ever hoped to see on any trout water.
Those of you who have fished this stretch of the Umgeni River will probably agree that its landscape and the very long, slow pools around its middle section are quite unlike other classic ‘berg and midlands waterways.
Under normal water levels, this section is typically slack or at best slow-flowing and there are no riffles or fast water to impart movement and action to your fly, or to excite the downstream angler. The high banks demand a stealthy, upstream approach and the fish, while fairly plentiful, can at times be a real challenge. A good measure of patience, concentration and sharp reflexes are required as you crane your neck watching your barely moving leader, waiting and begging the strike indicator to stop and dip into the murky depths. And then you pick up the line and repeat the exercise, cast after cast.
Strike indicators are a matter of personal preference. I don’t mind them and in situations like this I like to use a small polypropylene yarn or a stick-on foam indicator at the very top of a short leader, typically 7 to 8 foot long. Just about any small nymph will do the job, but after several trips to this part of the Umgeni I can vouch for a generic Peacock Woolly Worm in sizes 10 and 12 as a confidence-boosting, backup pattern when the water is dirty, and a well weighted Wezani (or similar) nymph in sizes 12, 14 and 16 to cover various depths to structure when the water is on the clean side.
The beautiful early spring day was capped off when Jacqui eventually landed her first Umgeni brown late that afternoon after several frustrating near-misses. Around sunset, we trudged wearily but contented back up the steep hill and turned the car homeward to “sticky troutless, Durban”* (with sincere apologies to Neville Nuttall).
On the drive home, my thoughts inevitably returned to the day and it was only then that I remembered the 3lb 10oz. fish that Paul de Wet had caught on a nearby stretch of the Umgeni the year before and the apparently much larger fish that our friend Conrad Raab had lost earlier in the 1988 season. While the Umgeni is certainly better known for its browns of half a pound or sometimes up to a pound if you are lucky, 2 pounders are not unheard of and, as we now know, a trophy fish is never out of the question.
This is indeed a special and very different stretch of river and only a small part of a much larger, diverse waterway that demands our time and exploration.
Brett is an old friend, who now resides in Australia with his wife Jacqui.
Photos supplied by Andrew are more recent, but were all taken on the stretch of river in question: “Knowhere”, which is now NFFC club water.
Since I am more interested in rivers than history, I have yet to establish whether the original farms “Manor Farm” and “Brigadoon” actually share a common boundary or not. I have been busy working on a river instead of pouring over old surveyor general maps, which I would also like to do, if I could just find some time. What I can tell you is that you can see one farm from the other, and that the Umgeni River flows first through Brigadoon and then Manor farm. Brigadoon being on the southern bank, and Manor Farm on the northern one. The current owner of Brigadoon is our friend Russell Watson (who also happens to be South Africa’s most capped international polo player). And the owners of Manor Farm for many years have been the McKenzie family, that being the same family of the famous General Duncan Mckenzie. And it so happens that Russell is related (by marriage of his elder brother to the grand daughter of the brother of General Duncan Mckenzie), to the owners of the farm across and down from him.(‘”) Russell hails from farms in the Underberg district, including Seaforth (which happens also to be on a good trout stream), which was the family farm of the same MKenzie family into which his Brother married. Had my plans not gone pear shaped I would ,ironically, have been on the Umgeni at Brigadoon and five days later on the river at Seaforth. It could be seen as a migration in reverse of that of the bloodline, but only if you apply a lot of license, and as much imagination.
Lower Brigadoon, looking towards Manor farm
This interconnectedness and irony repeats itself everywhere. Take General Duncan McKenzie for example. He , among other things, built the road from Dargle to Fort Nottingham. With a bit of imagination you could say he built the road to Lions Bush, the farm of Peter Brown, since it is along that way. And then the politicians of the day go and re-name the Maritzburg freeway offramp to “Peter Brown offramp”, it having previously been named after none other than the man who built the road to Peter Brown’s farm: Duncan McKenzie.
I didn’t say I had no interest in history: as you can see I love to roll around the connectedness of things through history. In the same way I like to roll around the connectedness of things in nature, and perhaps science too. I also have an interest in that river that runs through the farms of Watson and McKenzie, as many of you will know. We cleared some more wattle trees from that river two weeks ago. While we were doing that I noted that a particular tributary was flowing quite strongly, despite the recent drought. It joins the main river at a spot where I have caught Brown Trout before, and I wonder if the feeder stream is not perhaps cooler than the main river.
The small stream enters from the left , joining the main river in the dead centre of this picture.
Or maybe it has some favourable chemistry, the complexity of which we may never be able to measure or understand. Then again that side stream runs in a very tight kloof on Furth Farm. A kloof that will undoubtedly stay shaded much of the time due to the topography it enjoys. Unfortunately though, I noticed that the same deep kloof has, like the main river, become infested with wattle trees.
I would like to rid that tributary of those wattles, because it would improve the water flows further, but it gets me thinking: Do we just chop them down and let the trunks lie where they fall and rot there, or do we poison them standing. Either way, the wattle stems, with their tannins, and whatever other chemistry they may introduce to the system, will remain part of it for many years to come. So perhaps they need to be cut, cross-cut and removed. That will have to be done by hand, as no tractor will get in there. So it would be a monster task, and it would be a whole lot easier just to drop them where they stand. Or poison them. But what might the effect of that be on the water that runs through the farm that the daughter of my great grandson might buy one day? The effect that would be, of either the poison, or the rotting wattle trunks.
And that gets me thinking in turn: we are removing lots of shade from the river that should, by reasonable deduction, cause the water to warm up. Pre global warming (if indeed you believe in global warming), and pre wattle trees, the Trout thrived. So the clear-felled river should be fine right? Or have the invasive wattles cooled a river that would otherwise have become non-viable for Trout. Or were the natural forests bigger back then, and so the water not as warm as we might make it now. Perhaps we might need to plant some indigenous trees on the forest fringes to enlarge those forests again. Does anyone have very old photos of the pockets of forest, or do they appear on old surveyor general maps? Maybe we need to find time and go pour over those old maps after all, lest we poison our great grandchildren. Or at least dash their chances of quality Trout fishing on the Umgeni.
(Heck! In which case we had might as well poison them and be done with it.)
(yes, I refer to the great Grandchildren…not the Trout or the wattles)
‘* my information was gleaned from a book entitled “The first 100 years of the Underberg Himeville district”
This is the third year that the Natal Fly Fishers Club (NFFC) is arranging volunteer days to clean up on the Umgeni river.
The next two such days are 27th Feb (next Saturday) and 12 March.
We are trying to rid the river of alien invasive wattle trees, restore good flows, terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, and yes: good fly-fishing.
Many South African fly-fishermen have probably read about this somewhere, so I won’t bore you with the background and history. If you do need any more info, you can visit this blog. This is just about the here and now and to ask for your help.
The WWF has a parallel program on the river that wraps up in April 2016. In addition to that , many trees on the river banks have been poisoned. If not felled in the next approx 6 months, they will die standing, in which case they “die hard” and chew through chainsaw blades. In addition to this, we have had some good press in the Fly-fishing magazine and elsewhere. This thing is happening NOW.
The time is ripe.
So with all of the above in mind, we are looking to hit the task hard in the first quarter of 2016…….get stuck in while we have some groundswell, and before this project becomes stale, and everyone has had enough of it.
I would really appreciate whatever help we can get in the next 3 months.
What can you do to help?
- Attend a volunteer day, complete with a saw, chainsaw and at least one friend. They are being held on 27 February and 12 March this year. Full details HERE or here
- Buy a hard cover copy of my book. I feel very uneasy shoving anything down anyone’s throat, but hear me out. The proceeds of R350 per book are going to this project. I have the last few books to sell, and this needs to happen to raise the cash in excess of the costs. I would like that to happen sooner rather than later so that we can get going.* In addition, if you buy a book, I have one special couple who will match the money raised! READ MORE ABOUT THESE WONDERFUL PEOPLE HERE. I also hopefully will soon have a second entity who will do the same …so buy a book for R1,295, and as much as R1,050 goes to the project! (the money is to be used to hire contractors with equipment to work alongside us volunteers. Zero wastage on admin)
- Spread the news and enthusiasm for the project for us, on your facebook page, in your newsletter, at dinner parties, or wherever else you can.
* In fact we have thrown caution to the wind and already hired in a contractor for 27th February….I can hear the pleasing roar of chainsaws already!
If you have any contributions, ideas, donations, or would just like to touch base, mail me on trutablog “at” gmail.com. You can mail me on this same address to buy a book too.
Thanking you in advance.
On Sunday it was roast beef and veg in Notties, and as the storm passed, and cool mist and drizzle set in, beers at the Notties pub amidst talk of Trout. Tuesday I was in the city: Lusaka. As I write I am looking out over the Kavango at hot sticky Angola, and with a bit of luck, I won’t miss my flight to Cape Town on Saturday.
Stop the word, I want to get off.
But we can’t get off. We need to look after it instead. Here in Northern Namibia their issues are food for thought. Flying in this morning, I was struck by how clean the water is in the Kavango. It is in stark contrast to the fertiliser polluted Orange river further south, which looks like pea soup when you see if from the air. Apparently that is due to all the fertiliser leaching back into the river from agricultural projects along the river.
If that happened on the Kavango, I guess pea soup would enter the Okavango delta!
That won’t happen will it?
Well, consider this. Namibia, like most of Southern Arica, is in the grip of a drought at the moment. The last maize crop failed. Completely. (Well, their dryland maize failed completely, not their irrigated maize). People are hungry. They are buying maize in from Zambia at present. Zambia is also in a drought. I don’t think they will sell all their maize.
Flying along the rivers of the caprivi strip, I was struck by how development seems to be mushrooming along the rivers.
This would not have been possible years ago, because of the war. But as we landed in Rundu, the old South African army base lay in ruins and the people of Rundu were setting about the business of fulfilling their role as the custodians of the bread basket of dry Namibia. A bread basket that can only stay that way if they irrigate. Like they do on the Orange river.
I haven’t researched this at all, I am just sitting here looking out over the Kavango joining some dots.
And we can’t stop the word, and we can’t get off.
What on earth does this have to do with Trout ? (Everything on Truttablog has SOMETHING to do with Trout!)
Well I just figure that if you stress about every environmental problem in the world, you will probably just get stressed, maybe even depressed, certainly disheartened.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds” Aldo Leopold
I received a call that interrupted my writing a moment ago. It was from a landowner, who, it turns out, shares my deep concern for the Upper Umgeni (Read “Trout”!). We spoke about what each of us could do about the problems in that catchment. I was encouraged by his enthusiasm. I am going to return with renewed commitment to do something about my “Kavango”. That is all I can do. I will leave the other Kavango to the guys who drink from that river. I hope they are committed and concerned and energised to do something.
What is your Kavango?
What are you doing to look after your little patch of the planet? Please be encouraged and energised and committed. At the risk of sounding corny, “the planet needs you”.
I know, I have become a bunny hugger. It is hard not to.
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.
I recently remarked to someone, and I can’t remember who it was, that big river Trout are often caught in riffle or rapid water in close proximity to a good pool. I expanded the theory a bit. “Fleshed it out”, as one tends to do with a good fly fishing theory. Big “peachy looking” pools often disappoint. You expect that you will get a lunker out of there, only to be disappointed with a tiddler or two. Then your best fish of the season comes out of some shallow run, or frothy white water, with just an inkling of a pocket in it, You often hear “I would never have said there would be a fish in there, let alone such a good one !” . And I got to thinking about some of the better fish I have pulled out of such thin or fast water, and it dawned on me that there was often a monster pool close by.
Graeme Steart raised some good fish one day last season, on a fast stretch on the Mkhomazi.
He failed to hook them, but I was watching, and they were GOOD Trout. I got my best ever river Brown in a shallow run in the river, that was just above a very deep hole. Some of the better Browns on the Umgeni come from the rapids at “The Bog” which is above the longest pool I have ever fished. I could go on.
Then lo, and behold: I was reading Dave Hughes’ excellent book “Trout from Small Streams” the other day, and I stumbled upon these words ”my only guess is that the trout view the depths of the nearby pool as a bomb shelter and stay near it so they can dive into it when they come under attack”. This is in a paragraph (Page 99 in the second edition) wherein he describes rivers with good looking pools that turn out to be barren on account of their featureless rock bottoms, and where trout are more plentiful in the fast water between pools.
He describes how a pool may contain very little by way of sand, mud and gravel that sustains insect populations, and how a trout that may choose the pool for its depth and sanctity, may need to venture out to find food in more fertile spots. So like all good theories, I was certainly far from the first one to come up with the idea.
Looking at some local permutations of this: On the Umgeni, in a severe drought, pools like “Three quarter mile pool” always have plenty of water, and the area seems to act as a nursery for fish, from which the water is “re seeded” when flows return to normal.
Deep pools lack the degree of sunlight shining through to the bottom that more shallow stretches of water enjoy. Re-flooded shallows always seem to offer terrestrial food turned water borne food, and therefore attract both insects and things that feed on those insects. We all know this in the stillwater context, but I wonder if we think about it much in the context of rivers?
The other aspect that might be worth a thought: Often a pool contains one lunker, and several little chaps of similar size to one another, but considerably smaller than said lunker. If you are a little guy, and you leave upstream on a bug hunt, when you get back you may be way down the pecking order, and lose your spot at the tongue of current up front, and have to fight your way back. If you are the lunker, you can go on a veritable safari, and when you get back, the little guys shove off in respect for your size, and you can merely take up station at the front of the dinner queue when the current delivers morsels to you first. So a really big fish, might be more inclined to move about, secure in the knowledge that he can return.
With these things in mind, it makes sense to fish just above and below deep pools with the greatest of anticipation, and all the stealth and care that comes with that. This may be an even more highly recommended practice after a normal dry winter, or after a drought has been broken. The theory would be that the grandpa of the pool is hungry, and heads out into more fruitful waters to hunt and re-gain his summer condition. He can go back to deep water and snacks when he feels the need.
I don’t know why, but I sense this is more likely to be a practice of Brown Trout than Rainbows. Maybe it is something I once read, or perhaps it is just one of those things that has sunk in over the years. It could be drivel too! All I know is that the season starts this week, and I live in Brown Trout country.
Maybe all this is more the stuff of dreams than pure science. It is more fun than trying to decide whether to fix ones mortgage rate though.
Of that I am sure.
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.
Some days will always be slow ones. There will be those days where a long week will catch up with you, and instead of heading out at 5 am, you will put your alarm on snooze, get up at 6:30, and have a decent breakfast, complete with a cappuccino. Driven as one might want to be to get out on the water, sometimes fishing days will turn out that way. The rigors of a business week will catch up with you, and your body will rebel and tell you to “chill”.
On Sunday, I obeyed. Egg, bacon, beans, toast, ended off with a good coffee and a resigned but satisfied sigh. The river would have to wait.
When we did get up to the Umgeni, it was off colour. We paused at the bridge where the tar road ends and inspected it. Unlike the slate grey of a mountain stream in spate, we got cheap weak instant coffee colour. As always, there was hope that further up it would be better.
Arriving on the farm we met Russell. “It was crystal clean yesterday” he said. There had been a storm. He didn’t get it, It happened up there. He gesticulated in the direction of the source.
We went down to the river anyway. We crawled under the electric fence and went down to the water’s edge. It was still cheap coffee coloured. Damn!
I always peer into dirty water, normally along a protruding stick or log, to try to get a sense of how far into the water I can see, and therefore what the visibility will be for the trout. This time the dark shades of a wet branch disappeared within a few centimetres. Not good. Often the Umgeni appears a little ginger beer like, but this was nothing like that. I always wonder how much muddy water a Brown Trout can tolerate through its gills in a season. There must be a red line somewhere.
We strolled down the river, looking into each pool as though we expected, against all odds, to suddenly find a clean one.
I pointed out the log jams of wattles, and explained how these and other alien trees were the major contributors to the water colour we were seeing. Not only do wattles (Acacia mearnsii) contribute tannins, which give the Umgeni its yellowy brown hue on the best days (see What makes rivers different colours), but on the worst ones like today, it is the clearfells and Allelopathy that give rise to erosion. Years of apathy have lead to widespread patches of wattle, and they are especially prevalent on the farms of absentee landlords, and in road reserves. They also predominate on farms where licensed commercial timber is grown, but where there has been scant effort to contain plantations within the approved plantation blocks. The farm opposite us that morning is one managed by a corporate poultry concern. Their lack of veld burning and the absence of cattle to devour small wattles has lead to a wasteland of weeds and increaser species (the precursors to afforestation which are associated with poor basal cover).
We walked back to the car, and drove up river, stopping at another spot higher up.
I pointed out a recent clear-fell on the hillside in the distance. The commercial timber plantation there had been felled. It is a very steep slope, and it could be argued that no timber should ever have been allowed to be planted there. But the deed is done, and now we should be looking at how to minimize the damage. When last I was up there in the clear-fell last year, I noticed that the timber trash had been laid in windrows lying straight up and down the hill. An opportunity to use that trash as a soil holding device, by laying it along the contours, had been missed. I shudder to think how many tons of topsoil this caused to wash into the Umgeni river!
The section of river we were looking at there within sight of the clear-fell was dirty too. No surprises there. The banks at that point are planted to pasture. The pasture land extends too close to the river bank, if one is to follow the law to the letter, but one has to be pragmatic about these things. The cows grazing in the field near us have devoured any small wattles. The ground is also secured by a mass of grass roots that bind it all together, and there is no sign of erosion on this well farmed commercial enterprise.
Driving further up the river we passed onto the tenement above. While it is now owned by the same farmer, its history is different. Maybe no cattle were around to eat the emerging wattles many years ago. Maybe a fenceline kept the cows from the river bank, which on the face of it is a good thing. I do know that this piece of land was not owned by a man whose elderly father was a fly-fisherman. On the farm below, where we had just been, this was the case. Derek used to run a tractor down near the river with a mower, so that his ageing dad would be able to fish it in the late summer without undue effort. Twenty years later, it shows! The farm below is relatively clear of wattle. The one we were looking at now has a ribbon of big wattles running up the river banks. They are big trees now. In my estimation the cost to remove them would run to about….let’s see: A conservative estimate: R500,000 ($50,000). That would be to remove them properly: cut, pull from the river, stack, burn, and do some follow up management. On second thoughts, my figure is way too low, and that is just for a few kms of river. There are many more kms above this farm with the same problem.
My mood turned. I became dejected. It was not because I was not getting to fish on Sunday. Sure, that was a pity, but it was bigger than that. It was about our apparent collective apathy in handling this conservation problem. The same type of apathy that had me ignore my 5 am alarm clock, is the very thing that is at play here.
In recent years I have witnessed wattle infestation high up berg rivers, and in other places, where no one has noticed, and no one is doing anything about it. In many places those trees are already large and the job of removing them seems insurmountable. In other places the trees are still small, but no one has noticed. The passage of time alone will surely multiply the extent of the problem to something beyond our grasp.
On the way out I witnessed freshly felled wattles along side streams, where a WWF initiative is underway. At other spots I saw an absolute mess where a contractor appears to have pillaged the useful timber and done a runner with the money, without finishing the tidy up job he was employed to do. It was an emotional see-saw in which I tried desperately to interpret the mixed results as an overall win. I am unsure if we are going backwards or forwards in this river valley at present.
We stopped for a beer and a pizza at il-Postino to cheer us up.
It worked. It was a relaxed Sunday, and it was pleasant to sit on the porch of what was our local trading store in my childhood. From there we pulled in at Steam Punk, a simply superb coffee shop in the most obscure of places, where I had a “Coppucino” ( a cappuccino made the Syrian way, with Cardamom, just the way I like it).
It is easy to just enjoy the beer and the coffee and forget about it all.
On Saturday we were out fly-fishing in the Underberg area. We had a storm in the early afternoon. Nothing special: just some wild wind, and 10mm or so of rain, and later the front moved in with a cool wind, a rumble of thunder and some rolling mist. Back home in Hilton that night I could hear a little rain on the veranda roof. That was it.
On Sunday, we took a drive under grey skies up to the Mooi River.
Here in South Africa, and certainly in my own home waters of KwaZulu Natal, our river fish are not expected to grow very big.
Some time back, I fished the Trout Bungalow section of the Mooi River with a good friend of mine. It was a magical April day. We arrived late morning, perhaps a little too late, as I like to be on the water by about 10:00 am at the very latest. We tackled up quickly and headed upstream to do battle.
I carried a particular air about me that day. It was an air of curiosity and comparison. An introspective sense of evaluation, and an acute appreciation of the nature of this river. The reason for this is that the outing was hot on the heals of a visit to Rhodes in the North Eastern Cape.
Now those rivers are unquestionably different. We had done well at Rhodes, and refined our skills a little more. We had adapted to those rivers and moulded our approach around them, and here I was back on home water. Now I was asking myself whether I would fish this river as I had at Rhodes, and if not, why not.
The first observation was that Guy and I remarked on the clarity of the water on the Mooi. It was full, and sparkling, and looking great. However it was not a patch on the clarity of the Bell or the Bokspruit.
Clear water on the Bokspruit at Welgemoed. (Can you spot the Trout?)
In KZN we generally don’t do our fly-fishing for Trout in big strong rivers. As a result there is not a lot written about wading and wading safety or difficulty in these parts. But of course at this time of the year, it is not impossible to find yourself on a fast piece of water, that is still clean enough for you to want to fish it.
Generally the Umgeni is unfishable from a water colour perspective, if it is too fast to wade. The Mooi, and the Bushmans on the other hand, can run a pale slate grey colour, with lots of white water, and be fishable. Fishable that is, with a fair amount of lead on the business end, if you are working a nymph.
And as I have written elsewhere, our KZN rivers are not as easy to wade as those of the North Eastern Cape, where one has the luxury of long gravel beaches and spurs to wade along. The Mooi has many stretches of nasty angled rock, tossed into runs like those “dolosse” on a breakwater. Sharp angled pieces, that scatter the river bed, with deep crevices and holes between them. Then on the upper Bushmans there are stretches where the water’s edge signals a vertical drop into the river channel, and in high water to step off there would see you in 4 ft of fast flowing water.
A good few years back, my son and I accompanied my father and his brother on a Saturday sortie to inspect a farm in the midlands of Natal.
It was not just any farm this one. It was the farm of my roots in a way. It was the place where my father grew up.
Umgeni Poort is situated near the headwaters of the Umgeni river, in a tight little valley which stretches South East from the little known Mpumulwane mountain.