In the early eighties, or thereabouts, the government of South Africa was handing out subsidies to farmers to build farm dams. It was all about building infrastructure, and I guess on some level about food security in an isolated, alienated apartheid nation.
Farmers in our neck of the woods (KZN midlands) built dams. Pretty ones. Some had London planes planted next to them, or liquid ambers. There were concrete benches, and braai places built. Trout were stocked. Some irrigation happened, but I don’t think there was as much of that as the then government expected or hoped.
Those Trout grew fat.
In my youth our fly-fishing very quickly became all about big fat dam fish…bigger fatter ones than any river fisherman could have dreamed of. Trout fishermen strapped on big “Walker’s Killers”, and went and dragged them around dams in boats, or flung them in from the edge, and the results were spectacular, even if in hindsight we acknowledge that the path to those results was somewhat less refined and challenging than what river fishermen had been used to.
In his 1974 booklet “Introducing Trout Fishing in South Africa” John Beams writes “ For me there are really only two reasons for for fishing still water. Firstly , there is always the chance of a big fish, and secondly, if the rivers are muddy……”, but that book has pictures of big fish that outnumber those of small fish and streams put together. Also in Bob Crass’ 1986 book “Trout in South Africa” he confirms John Beams own comment elsewhere in his book, that he “transferred his business activities from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg largely, so he led us to believe , because he enjoyed catching the big trout to be found in Natal dams.”
In contrast, books like “a Trout fisher in South Africa” by Kingfisher (1922) and “Trout Fishing in South Africa “ (1916) contain no references to dams or stillwater at all, but boast exceptional fish of two to four pounds in weight, with a skinny five pounder being worthy of a lord.
When I came into flyfishing in the early 1980’s, there was a fair amount of chatter about stream fishing, both in Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles (that were to become his first book), and in the fly-fishing books that one could buy at the newly launched “Flyfisherman” (Africa’s first fly fishing only tackle shop…est 1981) . But to be honest, outside of that, I really didn’t encounter all that many people who actually fished streams, or certainly not fishermen who preferred streams, or spent more time on them than they did on dams.
If I look at my collection of flyfishing books, which is nearing some 300 titles in total, even now, I am only able to identify 3 titles that cover stillwater flyfishing specifically.
One of those is the American book “Stillwater Trout” edited by John Merwin (1980). In this book Merwin’s very first line is “Ponds and Lakes are the poor sisters of American Trout fishing”, and he goes on to describe how “our quiet waters have remained quiet” and how American anglers, spoiled for choice in rivers, battled to get to grips with fishing still water, when they had been brought up on streams.
This ironic, discrepant state of affairs persists to this day. Stillwaters hold favour here, but the fly-fishing literature, and quite honestly even the South African literature is weighted towards streams. Even Youtube videos and Facebook bear the slant of the printed stuff.
But here is the thing: Those dams that our Dads and Granddads built on the farms, are starting to be used extensively for irrigation. Some have levels that fluctuate so much nowadays, that they are no longer stocked with Trout. It simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, dams are sadly becoming overrun with bass. Two or three dams seem to fall to this fate almost every year in this neck of the woods. At the same time, the environmentalists have quite righty identified the lack of wisdom in building dams, so very few new ones are coming on board. Added to that, the government environmental authorities are hell-bent on putting legislation in place that will enable them to shut down hatcheries at will, which means dams (where Trout don’t breed) may not have a source of stocked fish in future years.
Then consider that considerably more than half of the new members joining our fly fishing club here in the midlands either claim to be stream fishermen, or express a desire to get into stream fishing. I recently put forward to my colleagues in the local club, that we had been offered access to another stretch of stream, but that I questioned whether we should pursue it, because the stretches immediately upstream and downstream of it, are very seldom fished. The guys around the table were unanimous: “sign it up” they said. They said that we need to look to the future, and secure access and custodianship to good river water, regardless of the here-and-now usage statistics.
Add to the picture above (am I joining the dots adequately for you?), that there is only a finite number of kilometres of Trout river out there. In fact, if we think about it, it is finite and shrinking with the effects of population on the planet and the landscape. There are rivers mentioned in Bob Crass’ 1971 book “Trout fishing in Natal”, that are quite simply, no longer trout streams. Writing in a chapter he titled “First aid for rivers” in the book “My Way With a Trout” (1985), Tom Sutcliffe says that “the time is over for excessive irrigations, over-grazing, ploughing too close to the banks, allowing wattle to choke the life out of the river, and cattle to crumble its banks.” He goes on to say: “most of the fishing areas in this country [he is writing about rivers] need , or are soon going to need, this sort of special care and attention”
So, in joining the dots a bit further, we have more people resuming their interest in streams, and now we have fewer streams, or fewer kilometers of stream viable for Trout. And to coin Malcolm Gladwell’s term, I foresee a tipping point at some future date, where suddenly a lot of flyfishers will be rocking up on the same streams on Saturdays and finding less elbow room than they once enjoyed. Suggesting they strap on a big Walkers’ Killer and go tow it around a bass dam probably won’t sway them.
At least we may have more river fishermen to digest all the appropriate literature out there.
Maybe some who know me and are a little puzzled with the river conservation bug that has bitten me, will offer a small nod of understanding? Or perhaps they will merely continue to humour my obsession with killing bass and wattle trees.
At the tender age of seventeen, I would have been hamstrung and home-trapped, had it not been for Plunkington. Plunkington was eighteen years old. He also, as luck would have it, had both a driver’s license, and a car that got us to fishing water with almost respectable reliability.
There was a time, the memories of which are sufficiently hazy, that I struggle to place it in the continuum that was my growth into fly-fishing, in which that car transported us to Midmar. Midmar, small tents, mealie pap, and carp. Deck chairs and booze from brown paper bags completed the scene. The memories are hazy, but Plunkington, the character, is not.
A tall, lanky bloke, with a wide frame, low energy that never dried up, and a slow, long, methodical stride, Plunkington’s level of excitement never rose above the volume of his music. He listened to AC/DC, ZZ Top, and various other noisy rock bands, at volumes that were barely audible. The music emitted from either the poor quality tape player in the old car, or an even lower quality portable radio, that he would take with him in his boat. Given that I could never hear the thing, I stopped short of complaining about it, but I did venture that music on a boat was far removed from the fly-fishing scene I had in mind. Plunkington would not have replied. Some things are better left un-said. In Plunkington’s case, he believed that to be true for most things.
We would arrive at a dam, and Plunkington would begin to tackle up in dead silence. There was nothing to compete with my babble about which fly I planned to use, what strength mono I thought might be appropriate and the like. He answered questions, and then only if they were direct enough, and an absence of wind prevented him from pretending not to have heard. Typically, I would still be talking, only to look up and find that he had rigged his heavy fibreglass rod long ago, and had mooched off to throw his Walkers Killer, leaving me with a lot less wind in my sails than had emitted from my mouth.
Plunkington claimed bad knees. He didn’t speak about that, or moan, he just moved slowly and deliberately. He climbed through fences in slow motion. He tied on flies, stashed his net, and landed Trout in the same way. Grenades may or may not have changed that. I suspect the latter would have been the case.
Plunkington fished a cheap sinking line on his cheap rod. He stuck to old fly patterns, swore more than was necessary, and caught more Trout than all of us. He drank his beer in quarts, from the bottle, and in the bath. He handled blank days badly, but fished them harder. His response to filthy weather was to stay out even longer than he would do in fine weather, and keep us waiting, shivering at the locked car. If you went out to find him, and plead that sanity prevail, you were inclined to find him rowing the boat away in the mist to a new spot, even further away from the landing. And the reception you would get was more icy than the weather.
Nothing deterred the man. After seven blank days in a row, he would drop me off at home, and ask “where to tomorrow?”. The next morning he would be there, his wet clothes still on the front seat, and junk all about the car. He would clear a space for me and say quietly “We are going to KILL them today!” He would plead poverty, and have me paying more than my share of the petrol, or he would demolish my sandwiches on account of his local shop having run out bread. Coupled with that his demons inspired in him tall stories, which at first we all believed. His self-confidence hovered around rock bottom, and emerged like a flower that blooms fleetingly in a desert, only when he caught more Trout than us. For the rest he was either on an even keel, or he was somewhere between gloomy and uninspired.
At the end of every days fishing he would claim in all seriousness to have lost the car keys. After a frantic search, and detailed contemplation of how we would have to spend the night out, or walk twenty kilometres for help, he would miraculously find them. Plunkington drank too much, rolled cars, told lies, got in a huff, and caught way too many Trout.
“So why on earth did you stick it out?” my wife asks.
We talked fishing. We fished. We spent long hours in small boats together. We got cold, and we got hot and we suffered the elements. We got caught in storms, and witnessed strange things together. We laughed a lot, at stupid things, that no one else would have got. We compared flies and spoke tackle and fly-fishing venues, and personalities. We shared our hatred for bass in our Trout waters. He came up with wild and quirky ideas. We shared our mutual teenage awkwardness by escaping to Trout waters, and in so doing largely avoided it altogether.
On a blank day he would lie on his back in the grass chewing a grass stem, and after a long silence he would proclaim: “Bugger-all fish in this water. We should really stock carp here”.
So I don’t know why I stuck it out. But I do know that I would do it all again.