Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

Posts tagged “Umgeni River

Stoneycroft then and now

Stoneycroft

If, in 1936, you had consulted the newly published guide to the “Inland Waters of Natal”, with a view to fishing the uMngeni (then spelt Umgeni), you would have been pointed to Mr WJ Mc Donald. This would have been through a listing of the various country hotels from which one might venture out to fish for Trout, which had been in some of these waters for close to 50 years. The guide shows that McDonald could have put you onto five miles of the Inzinga River, but elsewhere he is listed as the contact for 2 miles of Brown Trout fishing un the “Umgeni” at Stoneycroft.

If you go driving the Dargle district now, looking for the farm Stoneycroft, you will be disappointed.

Old Topo maps show a farm named “Stoneycroft”, which is now, and has for a long time, been called “Wakecroft”. The title deeds of Wakecroft indicate that the farm is a subdivision of Wakefield Farm , the upstream farm that still bears this name, given it no doubt by its first owner under the British Crown in 1851, Mr Frederick Edgar Shaw, who hailed from the Yorkshire town of the same name.

If you had fished there in 1936, we can imagine that you would find a clear flowing stream, passing through sweeping grasslands, broken only by patches of forest on the south facing slopes, and ribbons of forest pioneer species tracing the tributaries as they fell from the escarpment in the south west.

It is not clear where the boundaries of the two-mile stretch might be. If your permit allowed you upstream, you would  no doubt have been on the property belonging to Helli Lasch, possibly on to the next piece belonging to my grandfather, DS Fowler. Otherwise you would have gone down a little onto the farm Furth, where the Morphew family settled about the same time that Shaw did.

You probably would have fished downstream then, as was the custom, so the escarpment known as the “Heatherdon ridge” would have been on your right shoulder. You would have regularly had views of Inhlosane mountain to the south, but it is not impossible that its original Afrikaans name of “Spitzberg” might have lingered on the lips of locals.

Inhlosane Mountain circa 1930

Just off that mountain to the east the Speir family might have still been in residence at Mount Park. You would have caught Browns between half a pound and three pounds.

The absence of literature on this particular flyfishing experience hints at the fact that the stream would not have been heavily fished.

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If in 2023 (a mere 87 years later), you were to join the Natal Fly Fishers Club and book to fish this beat, you would probably be facing upstream as you fish, as is the custom of the day. The Heatherdon Ridge would be at your left shoulder, and if you occasionally glanced back you would see Inhlosane Mountain (and no one would know that it ever had another name).

The chances are you would be making a day trip, or you might be staying at Beverley Country Cottages or Mount Park, both of which are closer than Impendle (and Impendle would not be on the list of likely alternatives). If you scouted around the valley or spoke to some locals you would come across Morphews, Lasch, Fowler, Shaw and other names that were pinned to the landscape back in ’36 too.

You would get Brown Trout of between half a pound and Three pounds descended from the same Trout now 133 years in residence. I can tell you that you will not encounter other anglers on the water: It is lightly fished.

Stoneycroft

There is a timelessness to places like Stoneycroft.


Season’s Bookends

uMngeni River

I managed to fish the first pool of the day in shirtsleeves, but by the time I was throwing my dry fly into the tongue of current at the top I was shivering, and I didn’t stick it out as long as I would normally do. A cold , dry southerly wind had sprung up, and I was soon off up the hill. There I retrieved the keys from their hiding place in the rear wheel arch, and I was relieved to pull on my jacket, and stem the cold that had seeped into me. I could have tolerated the cold wind if I had been waded into warm summer water, but the water on the last day of the season was at less than 10 degrees C. I shivered one last time and returned to the river where Anton was diligently working the next run, swooning at the beauty of the water, and trying not to curse at a now buffeting wind.

The wind gained strength and threw dust and dry leaves up into the air over the river. As we drew closer to the forest, trees creaked and leaves rustled in a dry hushing sound, somehow distinct from the sound they make at the approach of a humid summer storm. I looked down the valley, where under the view of the same mountain that commands the south-western flank of the valley, I had fished in the sticky heat of summer.

I remember a day when I described the water as “beautifully clean”, but if I had to be honest, it was not a patch on the late season water up here, several kilometres up the valley. That day, was one of many where I watched the sky with suspicion and a modicum of caution, in the knowledge of the impunity with which those  heavy clouds are known to throw down storms.  In the final analysis, during the period from the season’s opening in September to Christmas, we weren’t often  chased  off the water with fearful lightning storms. Sure, we had those in December as we normally do, but September opened after late August rains, and the river presented with bountiful clean water from the get-go. Through the next 3 months we had days of soft soaking rains, the rivers stayed full and clean, and the heat stayed at bay. It was a glorious season, and I knew it. I have fished enough seasons to know that dry, hot, algal springs are more the norm, and the conditions that unfolded demanded a level of consciousness if you were to be awake to the brilliant flyfishing opportunities. I felt like an evangelist when I phoned my buddies and said things like “Just do it…just go…this doesn’t happen often…don’t miss out…just grab the opportunity”.  Some listened. I listened to myself. I went fishing, and I did it often. By Christmas I had chalked up a dozen trips to the uMngeni, and had visited Lotheni, the Mooi, the Ncibidwana.  The fishing was fabulous. 

When the deluge of late summer came, and streams were dirty everywhere for days on end, I was able to tolerate the situation in the knowledge that I had squeezed my fair share of  days out of the four months prior. I had landed my best brown ever on the uMngeni, and had had some great fish in other catchments too.

I was content to pick days and dash out to capitalise on narrow windows of opportunity that presented when the sun broke through and the flow subsided for a bit. My cup was adequately full that I could tolerate the odd long trip out to a stream that was more a danger than a delight. I shrugged, tried a few stillwaters to slake my need to be on the water, and wrote and tied flies and marveled at the levels of saturation in the catchments.  The Viking and I got caught in a storm on the Mooi, just like Rogan and I had a few weeks earlier. We discovered tributaries swelled to the point that they were now Trout streams, not trickles. We got stuck in the mud. We phoned one another, and hung on threads of news of streams that may just be fishable.

When April came around, we were off to the North Eastern Cape, where we encountered strong flows and dirty water. We fixed that by going upstream to the high mountain stuff, where previously dainty and almost fragile streams now presented bold flows, and strong fish.  We satisfied our desire for cold high altitude Trout, in successive days of indulgence.

On my return, I was back onto the local streams, to fish the patch between when it frosts at Moshesh’s Ford, and when it frosts at Drinkkop.  Lo and behold, I snatched what felt like just a few days here and there, and then we were into April floods. There was a short gap (which I took advantage of), and then we were into May floods, of all things. Just as those subsided, and three golden weeks of autumn perfection unfolded, I was struck down by COVID, and robbed of it all.

But here I was, back on the river, coughing now and then, but regained in strength enough to enjoy the last day of the season. The late autumn colours of a pin oak contrasted the deep green of the forest and the silver sparkle of the water from a low afternoon sun.

The contrast from my two days in the first week of the season on the same river struck me. It was enormous. Those days had been dark and brooding and warm. They were full of the pregnancy of spring, and the fish had been eager to pack on weight after the winter.

Today the fish were all but extinct. Perfect deep runs over pale, yellow speckled rock were apparently devoid of fish. We couldn’t even spook one. I glanced downriver, where just four weeks earlier I had landed a lovely 18 inch Brown. Today the paper dry wind moaned and the river flowed pretty and empty of willing Trout.  

We were there, I suppose, for ceremonial purposes. The water was pretty and clean, and the sharpness of early winter light threw deep shadows and startling contrasts.

The ceremony marked a full month of river days. They started on the uMngeni in September. They ended on the uMngeni in May. Between was a catalogue of well spent days with great friends across a dozen different streams. Today was the closing book-end. September was the opening one. The season was now packed away in a string of photos, memories, journal entries, and anecdotes.  It was done. We strolled back to the bakkie and I had my first cold beer in weeks.

I was fishless and happy.      


Grab a coffee

Brown Trout

This one is a little longer…..

The water colour is interesting in this video. In the bright morning sun it appears red-brown. Through the Canon SX60 it looks darker but more clear. The underwater shots show the suspended matter, and then later in the day, in different light it looks lighter and just a little milky. In one shot off the north bank with the Canon it looks crystal clear. For me, summer spate water colour like this is as difficult to define as a photographer’s light. Either way, it didn’t seem to deter the fish from taking a fairly small fly.


The Breath of a Kingfisher’s Wings

Furth Farm

I had started in just below the wetland, in a spot where enormous grasses cascade over the stream banks and trail in the water.

The only way to get the fly in there is to choose a spot where there is a slight gap or curve upstream, make a daring cast, and let the current take the fly into the slither of shade beside the bank. I had done that with a dry dropper:  an elk hair caddis, with a pheasant tail nymph of sorts strung below it, New Zealand style. Those bankside haunts had produced no fish. Not this time anyway.  Neither had the odd deep slot where the current bubbled over rapids and then rippled over a scoured channel.

A little further up I went through a side channel where I have spooked fish before, but never landed them.

Just above that, wading through a wide area of pocket water, I came across the shucks of two Stoneflies on the downstream side of a boulder.  I stopped to photograph them. 

I had been hunting for these for weeks, using a bug net and shuffling my feet in rapids before inspecting the sample in a white tray. After all that effort  these two just presented themselves to me when I had a fly rod in hand. Sometimes the lines between work and fishing are blurred.

As the sun came and went, and small flurries of warm breeze ruffled the water surface, I would lose sight of the dry, then find it again on the water. The clouds started to obscure the sun a little more often. There was a greying on the western horizon.  The weather forecast had predicted a storm in the early afternoon. From the moment I started, it was as though the egg timer was running. Having worked through some magnificent deep pools, with a third, very small, but dense fly now tied a few inches below the first nymph, I was still empty handed. A sticky humidity had descended and there was a rumbling, first ahead of me where I had been watching the horizon, and then, surprisingly, behind me. I turned my head, to see that the more imminent threat was closing in from the east.

After a few more casts, I reeled in and considered my route. There was a tight barbed wire fence between me and my vehicle, which I could see on the hillside about a kilometre away. Added to the barbed wire was a strand of electric. These fences are not easy to get through. There was a gate off to the left, and a stile up ahead alongside Bird Pool. I reckoned the cattle gate would give me a more direct route. I started pacing up the river bank to a logical point at which to depart and go up the hillside.  In the five minutes it took for me to get there, the weather lifted just a little, and I changed plans, choosing to walk up the river bank where I could watch for rises.  When I reached Bird Pool the weather looked heavy again, but I was closer to the vehicle now, so I elected to risk a few more minutes and threw a few casts in the pool.

  I have never done well there.  The white water cascades off the south bank and flows away across the pool, meaning that only the near seam can be fished.  The rest of the pool is a futile and frustrating drag avoidance puzzle which I have never solved.  I lingered and worked at the puzzle as I always do. Then I reeled in and climbed the stile, ready to cut back up the pool. I paused again feeling a reluctance to  leave the river. I looked at the sky. It had changed again. The cloud was higher. There was now a storm moving away from me to the south east. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the one which had been in the west, or the one in the east, but the field had changed in an instant, and I reckoned this storm, whichever one it was, was moving away.  I again curved back to the river, and made my way up to the Forest Runs.

Now I found myself standing beside the second deep run.  The lower one is good when there is a decent flow. Today was decent flow, and I had plied my dry and nymphs with the utmost care and concentration through that first run, without result.  Now I was at the even deeper and more appealing run: the one that didn’t require good flow to look unquestionably promising. I took the flies from the keeper and got to work. 

Up ahead of me on the right bank, was a forest tree that had collapsed into the water just where it slowed. There was a good sized Brown Trout under it.  I couldn’t see it, but I know Brown Trout, and there was no question. It was under there. I took some chances with my casts, getting the fly in close, and letting the current guide them in under the obstruction, millimeters from the snags. I held on in anticipation and with a great confidence that proved to be unfounded. There was not a touch.

Thunder rolled again. I decided on a few last throws with alternative methods. I cut off all three flies, cut back to a stronger, shorter tippet, glanced around as though to see who was watching and extracted my little film cannister. My clandestine vault of the uncouth. I extracted from it, a brown version of my Taddy Bugger. It is tied on a jig hook, with a slotted bead, a small dense tail of the most bulky marabou I can find. The tail has two strands of flash in it. The body is dubbed, and the hackle at the front is from an old hen badger cape. I strapped it on, moved to the top of the run, and let the thing fly out across the current. “Five swings”, I told myself, “then I am gone”.  On the second swing I brought the fly around just above the obstruction which I had just fished from below with my nymphs. Jiggle, jiggle. I could picture the marabou tail working its magic.

The fish took hard and confidently. I brimmed with self-assured vindication, and then quickly settled into a state of nervousness brought about by the painful knowledge of how many fish have simply come unstuck of late. I held my breath and concentrated as I worked to bring the fish under control. Holding the rod high, I outpaced it downstream, getting below it, and to a point where I could climb into the stream. I netted it there, and relaxed, a smile spreading across my face. I removed the fly and studied the fish as I held it in the submerged cloth of the net. It was a broad fish; something of substance in my hand. I lifted it a little and cast my eyes down its flanks. I put it at sixteen inches. It had magnificent blotches down its lower flanks, which tended more to orange than red. I put the rod under my arm, lowered the net, and reached for my phone in my top pocket to get a picture before releasing it.  As I positioned the phone and got my finger over the shutter, ready to capture the moment, the net tilted slightly, and the fish darted off between my legs and was gone.

Later, I would think back to the escape of the fish, and in my mind’s eye consider it a fish that had gotten away. The fact that I had no picture of it, tricked my mind with a sense of loss. 

Minutes later, I stood above the third run, swinging the same fly expectantly, when there was a tiny rush of wind that ruffled my shirt. In an instant a tiny blue kingfisher passed under my elbow, and flew under my rod, departing at breakneck speed straight down the river ahead of me. Its brilliant blue colour flashed in a patch of sunlight way below me, against the contrast of the deep green forest on the far bank, and it was gone.  I found myself smoothing my shirt against my body, as if to straighten it out after the commotion, and I said out loud “Gee, that was close!”. 

Had the kingfisher existed?

Had that fish existed?

There were more patches of sun.

Had the storm even existed?

I fished on, in a reflective mood. There was a short pull in the sweep below Pinetree Pool, but surprisingly nothing to be had in the pool itself. Up near the next stile  a fish flashed at the fly as I reeled in to move on.  Why hadn’t it taken a well-presented nymph, and instead gone for a reeled in dragging fly? I shook my head and looked at the darkening sky. The storm had not returned, but it had been replaced by a heaviness of the atmosphere that was palpable. One last pool, I told myself:  The Black Hole.

I approached with care. There are good fish at The Black Hole.  I know there are, I have seen them. I have caught them.  I put the Taddy Bugger back on. I could sense that it was called for here.

I dropped the fly daringly close to the overhanging sage on the far side, and wriggled the offering back to me. On the third retrieve a Brown ascended vertically from the depths and pounced on the fly before I could lift into the next cast.   It thrashed around, as Browns can do.  I descended the bank with the net outstretched, as the fish crossed the rim into the net bag, the fly pulled loose. It thrashed and before I could lift it, departed the way it had come. I measured it in my mind. Fourteen inches.  That one would go into the log book.

As I stood re-tying the fly, the buff spotted flufftail called its mournful electric call.  The sound resonated in the heavy air. Then a black cuckoo called in the distance. Next a roll of thunder rumbled off in the distance. It was warm and oppressive. Two more casts produced a strong take, and then I reeled in, and I was striding across the eragrostis field.

The first raindrops spattered on the windscreen as I started the engine. The storm that followed was vicious.

The afternoon was gone, like the breath of a kingfishers wings.


Sneaky!

Then and now

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.

Guy Robertson at Picnic Pool

Fishing the uMngeni in 1999

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 uMngeni river in the 1980s. Photo by Neil Hodges, courtesy of Tom Sutcliffe.

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!

 

 

uMngeni River

Brigadoon farm on the Umgeni


Pewter and Charcoal: Gierach and conservation perfection

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.

Bird pool view (1 of 1)

The black mist

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.

Stoneycroft (7 of 39)

The Viking was into a fish in the first run, as was I at the pool just above him.

Stoneycroft (1 of 39)

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.

Stoneycroft (6 of 39)

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.

Stoneycroft (13 of 39)

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.

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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.

Stoneycroft (37 of 39)

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.


A lie is a lie

Last season, I stood in the middle of a road drift across the uMngeni, and threw a fly upstream. I suppose it was not a tame road crossing. Not some concrete slab with guide railings, just a spot identified as a good one for tractor crossings, where years ago the farmer shaved the banks a bit. All the same, it felt just a little bit domestic to be standing there fishing, in the way that one feels when you stand on a jetty.

Anyway, I had seen a fish rise in a spot beside the chute at the top of the run, and I had spotted it in the water since. I put a fly over it, and got the fish. It was a slightly better size than the average…around 12 inches.

Upper Umgeni River-9

That was the 22nd March 2019. The spot where I had found it stayed with me.

Fast forward to this year. My friend and I were on the river again. When it came to dividing up who would go where, I confess, I sort of engineered it that I would get that spot again. A lie is a lie, and they stay good.

uMngeni spot (1 of 1)

I carefully surveyed the flow, reminding myself exactly where the fish was last time, and put in a cast. The fish took the fly first cast!  It rolled over clumsily as they sometimes do, and having showed itself, managed to wriggle free, despite my maintaining tension.

On the way back down to the bakkie that evening, we were crossing the river at the drift. I stopped, waited for my colleague to catch up with me, and instructed him to throw a fly “there”.  I explained the location in great detail, such that there was no doubt where the dinner plate size target was. 

He listened intently, and then delivered a cast right into the spot, and before you could say “predictable”, he had it.  But this time too, it wriggled free.

Four days later on the 19th March 2020, I was working in the valley. Late in the afternoon, when the others had packed up and gone home, I stayed on, and rigged up a rod.  I strode purposefully up to the drift, and waded into the right position. The river was up about 3 or 4 inches from a few days back, but the rock marking the target was still just protruding. I delivered a nymph 2 centimetres to the left and 13 centimetres  above. The indicator shot forward and I had him.

uMngeni spot (1 of 1)-2

Yes…I have checked the spots. It is a different fish.


Photo of the moment (111)

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This little fellow took a nymph in quick water on Stoneycroft farm, a place I have been hanging out at a lot lately.


Taking care of Comfort

I took a picture of the confluence of the Furth Stream and the Umgeni and prepared to sent it via whatsapp it to my friend George. George and I had met in the pharmacy that morning; he with a headache of undeclared origin (I suggested he reconsider his whiskey brand) and me stocking up on kidney pills.  He had asked about the river clarity. Everyone has been asking that this week….they want to get on some trout water on the weekend.  I said I would send a picture later.

While I was typing the explanation of the clean water from the Furth and the not so clean water of the Umgeni, there was a “gallumph” and a trout engulfed something off the surface in the exact spot I had just photographed. I ditched the message by hitting “send”, and took the second picture just as the ripples from the rise were subsiding.

IMG-20200227-WA0002IMG-20200227-WA0002~2

Comfort was just over the stream working the brush-cutter to clear a path through the blackjacks for our autumn fishing. I worried about leaving him alone to finish the job. Just the day before I had found him clearing grass stems wrapped around the blade shaft, with his bare hands and the motor still running. But I reasoned that since I had just taught him how to use a shifting spanner, and which way to turn a nut to tighten it, perhaps he was coming up in the world, and would be OK.

Him and I had been tightening nuts on the handrail supports of our bridge over the Furth. Every time something went “plop”, Comfort declared it a frog, and I did a quick inventory of my tools to see what to add to my growing shopping list from the local hardware store. 

The day before, I lead a team of guys rolling out erosion control mats above the Furth higher up. The choreography of “Rake, seed, fertilise, unroll to a pre-determined point, peg”…… and repeat, had proved difficult. We went back and forth for seed, and rakes and fertilizer bags, and the unroll direction of the mat kept veering down-slope, threatening to steer our trajectory into an uncontrolled  downhill unraveling. “Soos ‘n myn trok sonder remme” as they say. I took Comfort off the lead role, and things went a bit better.

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That gave me time to go and take a stroll along the stream.  It was flowing as clear as the water George forgot to put in his whiskey.  Although when you looked at the deep pools, you would have said it was off colour.

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Funny how it does that. Put an underwater camera in there and you see how clean it really is.  The Umgeni at picnic pool was the same this morning. The pool looked like milo, but taking a look at the rocky sections above and below, Alfred and I agreed, it was perfectly clean enough and called for a dry fly.

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A dry fly was what my friend Neil tried on the Furth stream when I lured him there this week, but he lucked out. Maybe it was Comfort who put the fish down. Comfort, the male, Zulu version of Marge Simpson, with a beanie perched on top of his weird hairdo, bobbing about on the river bank. On the drive home on Tuesday I took a look at the arrangement atop his oddly shaped swede , when I turned in the driver’s seat to see where the snoring was emanating from. It seemed that my Colter Wall, Jaimi Faulkner and Mark Knopfler from the stereo had this effect on Comfort. One minute his droopy bloodhound eyes were mesmerized by the yellow line zipping towards him, and the next he was a gonner …  Lulled to sleep by this somber music and a day of intense problem solving. 

Other problem solving we did this week, was trying to work out where the dirty water was coming from. Ok, the problem solving I was doing.  Comfort took the first amendment on that one. I met the farmer in a local shop, and he pointed me to where he thinks the problem might be coming from.  With all the rain on the way, I thought of doing a rain walk….a thing I learned of while in the UK: you walk a river in the rain to see first hand where the mud is coming from. I could take a fly rod to use above the offending tributary, go alone, ditch all the blood sweat and tears of river work, and go for a soul nurturing walk.

But then I remembered: Someone has to take care of Comfort. “Pick you up at the turnoff at 7am” I said, and he grinned back at me.


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Photo of the moment (106)

Upper Umgeni River-11


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Photo of the moment (102)

Umgeni River Trout-8


Lessons from the landscape: the 1600m contour

Here in the KZN midlands, altitude is accepted as a defining criteria for Trout water. It has long been held that trout will survive above 1200meters above sea level, and there is very little fishable water above 1800metres.   So within that band of 1800m down to 1200m, there are a few critical bands, and I would argue that one of them is the 1600m band.  I say that because every listed trout stream in these parts rises above 1600m.

So here is where that contour runs along the front of the Drakensberg:

The 1600m contour in KZN

Interesting isn’t it!

For me what makes it fascinating is that:

  • It shows deeply incised valleys where streams cross the line remarkably close to the escarpment
  • It shows that ridge of high ground that runs out into the province from the end of Giants Castle to Inhlosane mountain, very clearly
  • And from the few spot heights I threw in on the map above, you will see that there are many islands of ground above 1600m, many of which are a long way “from the mountains”.

One also  quickly concludes that the altitude alone is a poor measure of where trout thrive.  In studying a map in detail, you come to realise that trout will survive and indeed thrive in stretches of river at low altitudes where the valley sides rise to much higher altitudes, and cool short tributaries contribute to the river (Examples, The Inzinga and the Umgeni).  Also, if the drainage upstream of where you are standing is overgrazed or densely inhabited, or intensely farmed, then altitude becomes a less significant measure ( Example, The Bushmans below 1400m …below the clinic).  Also, if the stream is on a steeply drained area, where the cold fronts coming from the south west are forced up to generate orographic rainfall, the trout are better off.  So, for example, south of Giants Castle, the 1600m contour averages about 130 kms from the sea. North of the Hidcote ridge, where the berg tracks north, north-west, the sea is an average of 175 kms from the sea, and over 200kms in many cases.  Here it is drier, there are a lot fewer trout streams, and those that there are, have just a short run in the berg before they spill out onto flatter, warmer plains where they don’t hold Trout.  In fact, down south (and off below the limits of the map above), we know that in the Ingeli mountain area, trout are found as close as 80km from the sea at altitudes of under 1000m.  There the slope from the sea to Ngeli mountain is 25m per km.   From a similar altitude on the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, to the sea, the slope is under 8m per km.  Those southern areas get more life-giving mist and drizzle.  Did you ever notice how there are no thorn trees along the N3 from Maritzburg to Hidcote, then on the Estcourt side of Hidcote (the dry side), you can draw a line where the thorns start. Thorns like drier , and/or warmer climates.

Returning to our 1600m contour:  At a glance, it is encouraging to see how much land above this contour is in the Drakensberg park, and therefore conserved as catchment area.  The exception is where the land juts out from Giants Castle.  Parts of that area (top end of Dargle, Inzinga, Fort Nottingham, Western side of Kamberg etc) have at times been threatened by proposed developments. (I hope you will join me at the protests if they try again). 

 

See you in the highlands……above 1600 metres perhaps….


a Vote for messy

“So what I am suggesting here  is a complete approach to our waters where the competitive, lip-ripping edge is left back in the fast lane of societal superficialities and the joyful spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and involvement with nature are the main goals”.  Jerry Kustich

I get a sense that my fly-fishing is a more messy affair than it is for the guys I bump into around these parts. 

Take Squidlips from Smoketown for example:  He  drives his blue Nissan up to the Bushmans on an appointed Saturday, and a day later there are a dozen glossy pictures on social media , most of which are of oversized browns. In fact there are few pictures of anything else. Slick.

I, on the other hand went fishing for a day a few week-ends back  and did little better than get caught in a storm.  In fact I got caught in two storms on the same day, the latter of which convinced me to go home.

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On the way home the road was as dry as can be, and I threw up dust all the way back down the valley.   On my return I learned that squidlips had had a red-letter day in the adjacent valley. I had managed a 10 inch Rainbow, in total.

And the week-end before my wife and I carried a stile up a river valley and installed it in the hot sunshine beside a low river, amongst the brambles.

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On our return we found that the coating on the upright had been wet and our clothes were trashed. I threw that pair of board shorts away after even petrol failed to remove the treacle.    It was too hot to fish, and the river was hideously low.  On the same day squidlips got a stonker of a fish on a stillwater not more than a few kilometers distant from our expedition.

On a midweek foray up the same valley, I didn’t even take a fly-rod. I just went to look at the condition of the river, and as it turned out, I walked a good five kilometers up the river, and returned the same way, getting home at eight that night.

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On another foray to shoot clay pigeons, I did so badly that I very narrowly missed being awarded the “bent barrel” award.  Apparently Squidlips is a crack shot.

A few weeks ago, I accompanied two mates onto a stretch of river to do some fishing and filming.  The river was low, and it was hot.  I spotted two fish, one of which I photographed, and both of which I spooked. After that I spent most of the time walking and checking on the river and taking photos of my pal fishing.

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At sometime in between, PD and I stayed over at a cottage right on the shore of a dam, and fished the Saturday evening and Sunday morning.  The wind howled, and the water was dirty, and PD landed one fish, while I blanked. We spent a lot of time drinking tea off the camp stove and chatting, out of the wind.

Then on the way to fishing I picked up some coffee beans that just would not produce any crème on my espresso. I tried a finer ground, a harder tamp, and more coffee, all to no avail. All I got was a strong, bitter, over-extracted coffee. I swear I could hear the motor on my grinder straining!  Even the camp stove coffee that I made beside my vehicle at the river’s edge, had a thin acidity that made my lips curl.  Squidlips buys a generic, ready-made cappucino from the local garage, just before he hits the freeway on the way to fishing.  He reckons its perfect every time.

But here’s the thing:  I took the time to chat to the guy who sold me the coffee beans. He acknowledged a bad batch of beans and replaced the bag with a smile and no need for  a receipt.  He knows me from my regular stops there ….I tend to drop in either on the way to catching no fish, or on the way back.

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And  to add to that, this month, I learned the local  name of a mountain above a favourite trout water, which on all the maps, bears no label. And I walked miles up a beautiful remote river valley, re-orientating myself as to where the tributaries come in, and exploring the strength of their flow, and dangling my fingers in each one to see which is colder for future reference.

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And  at clay-pigeon shooting I re-acquainted with old friends and managed to confirm who owns a particular piece of river frontage. And on the way back from my walk in the hills I spotted a man who I needed to contact about some bramble clearing work, and we spoke at length in the dusk in the countryside.  Then this week I made some progress towards raising further funds for some restoration work on tributaries which Squidlips does not know exist (on account of them being too small to hold fish).

Squidlips phoned me midweek to ask about a particular piece of water. I tried to give him directions, but it was impossible, because he knew none of the features of the countryside to which I referred. He travels that valley all the time, but all he knows is the distances and road numbers, while I know the names of the hills, the owners of the farms, and the the mountain names (but no distances or road numbers)

Sometimes I beat myself up about my countryside distractions, that lead to limited fishing, coupled with duffer performance on the rare pure fly-fishing trips that do eventually come to pass. But then I  think about the clinical life of Squidlips, and I think that he can have his blue Nissan, and Smoketown and his grip and grin pictures.  Gierach once famously referred to his type as “city folk, with no poetry in their souls”.

I vote for messy.


Blood on my sandwiches

I had never hooked a trout before this week-end. That is to say, I had never held a fly between my two fingers, and used it to hook a trout. There is a first time for everything.

There is also a heavily wooded valley cut by a tributary of a favourite stream, which I had never entered. Here a reclusive and interesting man resides. I had never met this hermetic bloke before. What I have done before, is to go on a day’s fishing and not take my fly rod out of its tube. That happened once when PD and I holed up for breakfast at a favourite midlands haunt, and when the rain kept pounding down, and we tired of pigging out on coffee, we came home. This week-end I ended up at the same “piggly” place, but alas, they had run out of pork sausages. I pigged out on bacon instead, and then went on a circuitous fishing jaunt with Anton, in which the rod never saw the light of day. The fate of the stream in that same wooded valley was the same….never sees the light of day….owing to the rank woody growth that obscures the house tucked away in there, as much as it does the road in. We traversed that new road, right up to where it emerged within sight of Conniston Farm, where as a young child I collected tadpoles in a jar. So while the water held little promise, an orientation loop was neatly closed.

My friend Trevor throws a tight loop, which I was admiring when he caught a tadpole on Saturday. Well, it was in fact a brown, but it was of tadpole proportions. The tadpole capture was caught on film, as was the capture of my hooked trout, which was somewhat bigger, and for that I am a feeling a little smug.

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The first time I hooked it, it was perfectly legit. The second hooking was for the sake of the camera, so I don’t think it should tarnish the legitimacy of my success on celluloid. Later, when I was sneaking down to “Five Pounder Pool”, the cameraman observed that the TV viewers would see this in the background of the interview his colleague was conducting at the riverside, and he asked if that would be problematic. Picture the window-cleaner behind the TV presenter, or the kid who opens the door during a live feed from daddy’s study. The others felt that while I may have technically been poaching at the time, my sneaking around in the background would be “fairly legit”, whatever that means.

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The legitimacy of my excuse for not being at the hospital with my wife when her finger was stitched, is beyond reproach or question. I was fishing. Sort of. I was on that self same circuitous fishing trip, complete with bloody sandwiches. I do feel a little guilty that after the injury, I didn’t even eat the bloodied sandwiches, not because I am squeamish, but because I was lured to a pub with long cold glasses of lager, and jalapeno burgers. The pub with long cold glasses of lager, is where much of this weekend should have been spent, because it was too damned hot for trout. Tadpole sized or otherwise.

Anton offered to drop me off at the local sports ground on the way home so that I could practice my casting in the hot afternoon sun, but I declined. I had work to do, feeding sandwiches to the dog, and giving my wife a hug. Possibly wetting my wading boots under a tap and sucking on lager masking peppermints.

Earlier, after I had hooked my trout twice, and in response to a hair-brained idea involving a circuitous non fishing trip , he had asked me if my brain had disintegrated. The reply on my Whatsapp says “Yes, but I am fully expecting you to support me during this difficult time”. The reply was by my wife. That was when her typing finger was still OK, and before she took fright at Anton’s doorbell ringing and let rip with that new knife. And it was before Anton took me on a circuitous non fishing trip.

They say that reclusive bloke in the wooded valley is also a bit cooked, but maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. This heat has clouded my judgment.

They tell me it is going to snow this week. That might help.


Books, Boarding School, and Beats

“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed”   ……..

”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him” 

The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.

Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.

Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.

Frank Sawyer-1

In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.

In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass.  It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record.  I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.

My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers.  My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”.   I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black.  We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.

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What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.

Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music.  Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:

Artist Justin Townes Earle on Spotify

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And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:

A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago.  I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did  we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!

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It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….


Beats, Beans, Books…

Seasick Steve  does a wonderful rendition of “Gentle on my mind”   [click that if you have Spotify]  that I have been listening to lately at my tying bench.

Seasick Steve

But in case you thought “beats” referred to something else, I can give you some news on this river beat:

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That there is my movie making friend Zig, behind the lens. He and I were on the forest section of Furth Farm on the Umgeni last week, getting some pics of this lovely stream in a spot where it runs deep between rocky banks, shaded by a forest that now comprises only indigenous mistbelt species.  Post the stream restoration efforts, it really is looking great.  Next time I am up there, I am putting a Copper John through that deep water for sure! 

As far as beans go, I have been grinding some “end of the month” stuff….that is to say, some of the cheap stuff. It’s a gentle brew like Steve’s song….easy drinking with easy listening….. and it’s really good, especially in a common  run-through filter. 

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On the reading front I have just re-read “Stillwater Trout” by John Merwin, and then on a cold lazy Sunday, post the cold front, I tied up some Copper Johns, and to be sure I had it right, I referred to the book “Barr Flies” by the inventor of the Copper John himself, John Barr. As I was collecting the materials to start tying I stumbled on my “Daddy long legs” material [Hareline], and being one who struggles to follow a recipe, both in the kitchen, and at the vice, I used this material for the legs  instead of the feather fibres, as laid down by the originator of this pattern.

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I like how they turned out.  The Copper John is arguably a bit heavy for our streams before the summer rains set in, but it is good to be prepared for those stronger flows.

With the snow and rain over the week-end, I rather thought that we might have had a lot of moisture, but when we bumped into a farmer friend on the Kamberg road, where he was attending to a stuck milk lorry, he said they had had only 4 mm of rain.  Further along the road, my bakkie threw up a bit of dust, and the illusion of a good start to spring was dashed.  But the Giant was resplendent in snow, and the air was crisp and clear, and that was good enough.

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Photo of the moment (100)

Furth Umgeni-15

No 100 has some significance.  It shows a cleared section of the Umgeni, which is very close to my heart. It shows Inhlozane mountain, which I grew up within sight of, and it was taken on a day when we caught browns in numbers markedly higher than before the place was cleared. That’s Rogan in the the river…all-round great guy and son of my late river clearing and flyfishing  pal Roy.   Call me sentimental!


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Photo of the moment (95)

Umgeni River-7


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Photo of the moment (93)

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