Waters & words : a celebration of flyfishing

Posts tagged “uMngeni River

Just walking, just looking

Brown Trout

The other day I had the privilege of being on the river for work reasons (again). I know that it is not an infrequent occurrence, but I still consider it a privilege. Anyway, I took a break while the crew were having a lunch break, and I went for stroll. The light was brilliant, and the water was as clean as it gets. I didn’t have a pair of polarised specs, but the angle of the midday sunshine, and the east flowing stretch of river just aligned in a way that it made no difference…I could see everything! Flow was pretty decent, since we had rain all the way into early May this year. So in summary it was perfect.

At Picnic pool, I spotted a small fish come up to take something near the head, where the water rushes in. It was a small dark shape, that snatched and ran. Above that pool is a big shallow bedrock tail-out, but the run gets deep on the south side, and runs with just a bit of a ripple under overhanging grass. I saw nothing there. Surprisingly.

Above that is a piece of water that holds deep memories for me. The river runs over shallow rock, but it divides, such that there are 4 river banks in all, and they are covered in clumps of huge cascading grass tufts. Despite the shallowness of the water, and the bedrock, I have often seen, caught, and spooked fish here.

It started way back on the 18th of April 1999…… I was fishing with a pal (since departed), and we came upon fish here. I didn’t know this part of the river well back then, and after we had caught, seen and spooked several fish here, I asked “Are we at the top boundary yet”, as I peered into a tunnel of offending wattle trees upstream of us.

My colleague replied that we were very close to the end of the beat, and so we gave up for the day and headed out. I now know that he was not entirely right. There was about half a kilometre to go.

Anyway, I spotted a fish here again. I spooked it in fact, and saw it shoot away in panic.

Just above the next rapid, I was passing between two big clumps of the same riverside grass, when I saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. (Did you know that your peripheral vision is more alert to movement than your direct gaze?) I stopped to process the image my brain had received. I am often fooled by a shadow of a bird flying overhead, and I need to stop and analyse as I now did. Was it a little too quick to have been a fish? Was it moving in too straight a line? Was its path of movement strangely inconsistent with the features and obstructions of the river bed? I stared at the water as I thought these thoughts. I decided it was just a bird. But as I was about to avert my deep-thought (and doubtless unblinking) gaze, I noticed something.

It was a Trout’s eye.

Strange to find a Trout’s eye right in front of you, on a bare rock riverbed, barely a rod’s length away….

I blinked and “zoomed out” in my minds eye, and blow me down, it turns out that what I had seen was attached to a motionless fish!

It didn’t move a fin, so I guess my peripheral vision wouldn’t have picked it up. It was my blank stare that did it for me.

I had a camera with me, but the battery had gone flat, so I very carefully pulled my phone from my top pocket and switched on the video camera.

What a treasure to see, watch, video, and appreciate a decent sized brown on this water.

It is at times like this that I don’t really need a rod at all. Sometimes I can just walk; just look.


Verdurous evening glow

uMngeni River

I have just been churning out a batch of damselfly nymphs.  Four bottle green ones and four of a more yellow/olive colour tied from a different batch of marabou. Then I did five of a different pattern, one from John Barr that uses a nymph skin down the back, and a mono rib, that looks particularly good.

Damselfly nymph

It’s not that I needed more flies. In fact I have all my fly boxes out on the coffee table at present, and that prompted my wife to ask, if I really do need more. She makes a good point, but in my audit, I decided I was dissatisfied with the damsels I had in stock. I needed more smaller ones, and I looked at the eyes on the ones I had and decided they were overstated. I could also picture damsels in the deep green water of summer, and a mental image started to build for next week’s trip.

It is a stillwater trip, because that’s where the cottage is. A river would have been great, because my stream trips have been made sparse by excessive flow. But then again, the rain is drumming down on the roof and rattling the gutters as I write this, and had it been a river trip, I might have stared at a chocolate brown torrent for five days.

As it is I managed to sneak in a few hours on a stream this week, and like last time it was clean, but flowing mighty strongly.  It was one of those warm, humid summer afternoons: totally clouded over, and with the air as thick as syrup. The prospect of rain hung heavily over the landscape. Baboon hill was dark and clear against a backdrop of charcoal skies, and somehow seemed closer. The bands of forest were as dark as emeralds in the shade, and the near hillsides were lit in light reflected under the canopy of cloud.  The grass had suddenly taken on a rankness that was not evident two weeks back, but it was lush in its summer hues, and not yet brushed in the golden tint of late summer when the plants become all stalk and seed.  Frogs leapt ahead of me in the veld, and I was mindful of snakes. The Black Cuckoo sung mournfully, the river rushed by in fine percussion, and the trill of crickets added treble. The air did not stir, but it was vibrated by peals of thunder that seemed nearer, and then further. Rain drops made their way down into the valley in a way that could have been the tail end of something or the start of something.

I threw flies into the quiet water along the banks, and discovered back eddies that weren’t there in the low flows of spring.  My attempts to avoid drag were challenging. I would get the fly into a seam for a few drifts and then it would be in the thalweg, and next it would spin out into side channels that were static and silty.  The stems of bankside grass were freshly combed by quick flows.  Rafts of detritus were washed up in the veld, and clung to branches and rocks, suggesting the passage of wild weather, and I couldn’t help wondering which of the recent storms had made passage there.   How fresh was that clump of sticks and ash and leaves? How did it get that high, since the grass wasn’t laid flat?  Was it wash off the veld, or did the river get that high?

My indicator glowed in the soft light, and I focused on its every quiver. I threw a fly into my favourite spot at the road drift, and tensed in anticipation of the take. It didn’t come. I tried a channel to the right, under a cascading plume of grass, which seemed more likely now than it had last time. There was now enough flow there to cover the back of a Brown. There hadn’t been last time.

Nothing.

The thunder got closer, and the raindrops seemed larger. I walked back to the bakkie, and as I arrived there I thought I may have retreated too early, but my thought was interrupted by a loud bang, and I took the rod down promptly and climbed into the cab.  It was sweaty and humid in there. In a few minutes the rain stopped, so I escaped the confines of glass and steel and set about making a cup of coffee. The rain started again. The stove sputtered.  Two donkeys watched me. The rain stopped. 

I finished my coffee and set the rod up again. I had another hour and a half on the water, making my way slowly up to boundary pool. With the high flows, the big pools fished like runs, and the normally shallow riffles suddenly seemed more promising despite the speed of flow. I whisked a fly through the pockets. The indicator kept glowing, and it shuddered as the fly scraped the gravel on the bottom, but it didn’t dart off anywhere.  The rain didn’t let up, so I stopped and put on a waterproof jacket. Even with the zip-pits fully open I started to sweat, so I took it off again, preferring to get wet.

As I reached the boundary pool, tendrils of fog started to come up the valley, and for the first time I felt coolness in the air. I plied my nymph in the slower tail-out, and then I switched to a small Woolly Bugger as a last resort. The fish sent no sign of approval.

The light started to fade, and more fog patches drifted between me and the hillsides to the south. I packed up, and strolled across the wet field, with my shirt clinging to my shoulders, and my wading longs clinging to my calves. My footfalls found sodden ground, that somehow brought back memories of summers past.  I became aware of a chorus of frogs that hadn’t been there a short while earlier, and my mind turned to next week’s time beside a full lake. I could see the water level so high that I will have to leap over waterlogged grass to reach the start of the jetty.

 I can hear the evening frogs, and am starting to look forward to the long hours after the storm but before dark, when the world is quite. When the inky water surface looks like it will bulge and ripple at any moment. When the light takes on the verdurous evening glow, and the Diederick’s cuckoo calls.      


Freedom of a captivated mind

The Fextal

“As I weakened I set myself landmarks to be reached in order to earn regular rests of a few minutes in that hellish, barren land.  My one great desire was to go to sleep in a pool of cool water under a tree, a pool and a tree such as the ones nestling in the lovely rolling hills of my native Dargle Valley in faraway Natal, a valley green in summer when storms and gentle rains water the land; tawny under blue skies in winter when little or no rain falls. There on the farm at the foot of the ‘Nhlosane’ mountain – Zulu for ‘budding breast’- I used to run and ride and fish for trout in the pristine streams.”

Jeff Morphew, describing his escape from his “Tommy” , shot down by German F109’s on 4 June 1942, Libya.

from: Five Frontiers to Freedom:  Jeff Morphew, Vinyard publishers 1999

Before  Jeff Morphew died in 1993, he was the only man living to have escaped from an Italian POW camp in World War II while Italy was still at war. He had grown up on the farm Furth, in the Dargle, where he was born in 1918.

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The only prior record (before this year)  that I have been able to locate of trout being caught in the Furth stream (a tributary of the uMngeni) , was a verbal account from Jeff Morphew’s nephew, about Jeff catching trout on forays to this small stream from his retirement home at “The Fextal”, which overlooks the stream.

Yours truly, with a small brown from the Furth Stream, 21st March 2020. (Photo Sean Rogers)

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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)

Pewter and Charcoal, Walden and Furth

Pewter and charcoal….a series of sorts, that aims to couple the timelessness of a black and white image, with the timelessness of quotes from our fly fishing literature.

To kick it off, here is the uMngeni on Furth farm:

geni (1 of 1)

…and here is something from Walden…that unsung American writer, from his book ‘Upstream and down’, published in 1938:

“Streams with reputations do not always live up to them and the obscurer brooks often hold a big trout or two. ……/../… Fishermen rather than fish perpetuate and enhance the reputation of a stream. By story and legend, the magic euphony of a name, the prestige of a river is won and held. Beaverkill, Willowemoc, Neversink, Esopus, Brodhead – such names owe their celebrity as much to the tongues and pens of fishermen as to the numbers and weight of trout between their banks”

I will just leave those two here…..


Photo of the moment (113)

Stoneycroft (1 of 1)-2

It was late afternoon, and even the dark red colour indicator was proving difficult to see against the silver surface. I stopped and took this picture, then headed back to the bakkie where I lay back in the grass and watched the clouds, waiting for the coffee to brew.


Circling back and the Kraai River Buffalo

It was Monday 13th April 2015.  PD and I were on the lower water at Kelvin Grove, having a spectacularly unsuccessful day. It was just one of those days where it didn’t come together. It was also the first day of our trip, and I suppose we hadn’t found our mojo.  Later in the day a pressing wind started to blow, and a million little polar leaves would shower down into the water, meaning we would hook leaves on every cast.

Kraai (35 of 37)

We had set off with unbridled enthusiasm, and walked so far down stream, that I guess you could say that we had bitten off more than we could chew.

After a while we chucked it in, and walked a long way back to Orlando’s. There was a moment as we ascended the hill up to the cottage where our unfitness manifested itself  on account of laughter trying to break through our breathlessness. My cousin related a very personal moment in which he and his siblings struggled to break open the box containing the ashes of his late father, aside a high mountain where they were to be scattered. It was not cheap laughter. It was borne on the wings of celebration of the life of a man who introduced us both to this lifelong affliction of fly fishing The laughter  was also sanctified in the fact that we lost a Dad and an Uncle respectively, and had worked through that for a number of years, and now there poured forth mirth that he would have participated in joyfully had he circled back to be with us. And besides, if some small dose of punishment was justified: have you ever endured bellyaching laughter while out of breath. Its life threatening I tell you!

Kraai (37 of 37)

Upon our return we found the cottage empty, and we were instantly jealous of Anton and Roy, for they must surely have been enjoying success. In fact we spotted them in the valley below us, and we could have trotted back down that same hill to enquire and put our curiosity out of its misery. We sat on chairs on the lawn overlooking the river and drank cold beer instead. We sure as hell weren’t going to climb that hill again! Besides; we still had a lot to laugh about, and that is a safer prospect sitting in a chair.

That evening Roy grinned at his new label, given him by Anton:  “The Kraai Buffalo”. It turns out that Anton had had to tap him on the shoulder, when they met on the river bank, and tell the deaf guy to stop making so much bloody noise when entering the river.

My memory of all this was jogged by this piece from that delightful book by John Inglis Hall:

Fishing a Highland Stream (1 of 1)

“A Few years ago I met a Polish Scot or a Scottish Pole from the wartime immigration fishing here and getting nothing, only because he was a clumsy wader. He was a big man and fished well but roughly, trained probably by the violence of the Scottish winds to press, and insist on the fly hissing out at all costs. He stamped about in the water like an amphibious, legged tank, purposefully but very noisily. After we had smoked together for half an hour in the lee of a bank, resting, out of the wind, I went and took two trout from where he had just been fishing. He watched me smiling and with a decent grace in spite of the insult, then summed the matter up in a memorably peculiar phrase:

‘Ah! I, too much splash! Must make rehashmentation method of walking in water? Yes.’

He winked as we spoke, and, a huge man, demonstrated by tiptoeing absurdly along the grass in mightily exaggerated silence how quiet he must now be. I never saw him again, but I am prepared to bet that he got more fish after this incident.”

I laughed out loud at this, and my mind turned instantly to the Kraai Buffalo who would, if he could circle back, have laughed until his belly ached.  I believe he made considerable “rehashmentation” after Anton’s comment. He certainly displayed a whole lot of decent grace both before and after that incident; something I have been working through for a few years now. In fact, just the other day, I went to look at work done on the banks of a beautifully restored river pool which I have named after the Kraai Buffalo himself.

Wattle trees (6 of 10)Roy's Pool-1

It is a pool in which Roy was spectacularly unsuccessful, but him and I dreamed together about re-establishing a forest on the north bank. Roy once told me that he wished he could win the lotto so that he could buy the indigenous trees needed to get it going. Now if that isn’t decent grace! The north bank is now clear of wattle and a couple of indigenous forest fringe species are starting to flourish. The bramble on the south bank has been sprayed. Graeme and I have both caught Browns there. I have worked through things and now I am ready to go buy the trees, lotto winnings or not. Its looking great.  I am excited.

Standing there alone beside the pool, I shouted into the pressing wind and to him:“Take a look at this Roy!”   Shouting into the wind is something John Inglis Hall admits to in his book.  It seems I am not alone, Kraai Buffalo!


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.


Fishing with Worms

At a time when so many South Africans are emigrating and the grounds that there is nothing left worth staying here for, it was refreshing to see at least our fishing, through the eyes of a foreign visitor this week.

“Wow, Wow, Wow!”  were the words that Bert Worms kept repeating, as we drove up the valley, and as we stopped to look out over the vista before us. It is a valley that I travel to most weeks, and it has become old hat to me.  You can see Inhlosane mountain off to the south, and northwards is the Kamberg mountain, maybe even Monks Cowl in the distance on a clear day, and Ntabamhlope in the north east. Looking back down from where we had come you see the tops of Lynwood, Miracle Mountain and Mount Ashley.  In between are endless folds of rolling hills coloured anywhere from emerald green to the deep dark shade of pine plantations. You don’t see much habitation in between. I looked at it and started to think that it did look quite cool, as Bert uttered his twelfth “Wow”.

Then we trundled down to the river to cast a fly.

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On the way Bert and I chatted. He is the chairman of a small fly angling club in the Netherlands, as well as a much larger, general fishing club.  He spoke of our local fly fishing magazine that so impressed him and I asked him about their local magazines. “Yes, we have one” he said “but everything they publish is about fishing somewhere else!  We have hundreds of kilometers of river fishing in the Netherlands, and they just write about how good it is over there and over there” .  Interesting, I thought.

At the river, I lent Bert a rod and we strung up.    The water was a bit off colour from a storm 2 days earlier, and I found myself apologising  for the state of our river. “Yes, he said “It is off colour, and at home we probably wouldn’t fish this, but look at this!” he exclaimed, waiving his arms at the wide open space” 

There was a pause, and then he added “Wow!”

Later, a storm threatened from the west, and as the lightning grew closer, I looked at Bert to read his appetite for more. We seemed to sort of resign ourselves to throwing in the towel.  Then as we drew closer to the fencing stile, I had a quick rethink, despite the few raindrops that had started to fall. “If you are happy to take a short walk down there, there is a very beautiful pool I would like to show you”  He seemed keen, so we instantly and silently resolved to extend our short time on the river.  At the big pool, the rain started to pelt us, but Bert was not deterred, and kept throwing a fly, until he was rewarded with a pretty Brown.

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“Wow!” he said, and we wended our way home, chatting happily as fishermen do, when they know they have shared a good day, and a good place.