Firstly, because it’s fishy doesn’t make it a lie. Anglers have a propensity to return home, late at night with the truth not in them; but this is as real as toothache.
I love to fly fish rivers. I fish alone. The reason for this is dual. Firstly, I don’t much like other people’s company all that much. Secondly, I suspect they don’t like mine. Either way, it works for me and I don’t have to worry about my raging social anxiety. A win-win.
Because I fish alone I most often fish in one of the nature reserves in KZN. It’s not a case of it being the best fishing available, but it’s safe. When you’re alone in what are fairly unsafe environments (anywhere inside of our borders) it’s good to know you’re not going to die alone of snakebite or be robbed.
I most often fish the Mooi River in the Kamberg Nature Reserve. It’s under two hours from home and the river is pretty. The wild brown trout are accessible and it’s generally a nice place to be. The Mooi starts in the reserve so it’s unspoiled.
On the drive there, after turning onto the gravel road, you cross the Mooi on the Moller’s farm (Riverside) and then travel alongside it as you pass through Thendela village. It’s a small village and it hugs the Mooi for about two kilometers.
From the border of Riverside Thendela has always looked fairly inviting but my expectation has always been that the water quality would be low.
I was amazed when I read recently that a community project had been started in Thendela and that ‘Thendela Fly Fishing’ had been born. The river had been tidied up, guides had been trained and a pretty impressive admin office had been established.
I called Richard (the head honcho) on Thursday afternoon and set up to fish on Saturday. “How’s the river looking?”, I asked. “Not too high, not too low, not too fast, not too slow”, came the response. Pretty perfect then? A fly fisherman and poet. I was going to like this guy. He also told me to get there early as the Thendela team were headed off to Underberg to fish for the weekend. He didn’t ask me, he told me. He told me in the tone of someone who didn’t suffer fools hell bent on ruining his outing. I get that. No offense taken.
Now listen, I’m not one for convention or social norms or anything. Generally I look for them in order to ridicule them, much to the disgust of, well, everyone I know. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in the middle of a rural Zulu village to find a portly lady on the side of the gravel road, waders over her shoulder, flies in her hat, wrap around Polaroid sunglasses, rod tubes at her feet. All a little unusual. I loved her at first sight. My first female (or any gender) Zulu trout bum. I was incandescent with awe.
“You Andrew?”, she asked. “Yes. Are you for real?”, I asked. “I can cast a full line into a hurricane and land a 22 Adams on a 20 foot leader onto a champagne cork in a raging current.”, she told me. Ok, she didn’t, but I’m going to believe that she could. She was perfect. No House of Hardy sticker on the back of her million rand four by four; my kind of girl.
We traded names and I told her that I loved her. She must get a lot of declarations of affection because she didn’t flinch. She looked like the kind of girl who could remove a barbed streamer from her ear without flinching. “Richard is in that taxi, he’ll be here now-now.”
Richard arrived and we sorted out my beat. What a cool guy. He was so excited by the whole thing. He showed me a huge aerial photo of the river and explained that every beat was 380m long. I wasn’t paying attention. I signed some paperwork. “Be sure to read it” was the instruction. Blah blah blah. The sand was falling through the hourglass, just click accept and start the download.
Richard was such a difference compared to some of the illustrious personalities in the industry with their “I was fishing a select beat with Tom Sutcliffe / Lee Wulff / Jesus Christ when suddenly I remarked that the water temperature had dropped three three-hundredths of a degree and that I needed to change to a size 34 dodo hackled, etc, etc, etc.” This is a sport with so many pretentious dickheads associated with it. I call them a name that rhymes with ‘arsepole’ and they call me ‘can’t you read the signs, get off my river, I’ll effing shoot you if I see you here again’. While I’d like to explain to them South African law as it pertains to access to rivers I don’t fancy it’s nice to be shot. I’ve been shot at several times and even that is not an experience to be enjoyed. Also, when you’re cold and wet being shot must really hurt even more. Generally when I’m hauled off some guys river (how can you own water? it’s like saying you own air) I just leave all their gates open – I’m small minded that way.
Richard showed me a video of a client with a whale of a brown caught up in beat six, near the reserve boundary. He was bubbling with the energy of a child with an illicit fire cracker. “Beat three has many fish. Beat six has few fish. But they’re biiiiig.” Richard, my host, spare no time in pointing me to beat six, if you will.
As Richard gathered gear for his team’s outing one of his crew showed me to where I needed to park. “You are very safe here. No worry. Fish any beat. Beat three has many fish. Beat six has biiiig fish.” Either someone was pulling my socks or a largish fish or two had been taken from beat six. “Big pools, that’s the thing” I was told in reference to beat six.
I must say, the river below my car looked very inviting. In a smallish pool I could see the odd fish move. Boots on. Rod assembled. Reel on. Eyes threaded. Now for the small matter of the leader.
For generations a simple nine foot tapered leader took many trophy fish. But no, not in this enlightened technical age. Today it has to be as long as Route 66 and constructed of materials more typically used to construct deep space telescopes. There are about three living men with the mathematical skills to work out the formula for a modern leader. (Sadly, one of of them is Stephen Hawkin and he’s unable to actually tie a surgeon’s knot. A tragic loss to the fishing industry, but at least he can’t point a loaded .357 at me when I poach on ‘his’ river.) I think that leader configuration is one of the last vestiges of the dark arts in modern culture.
By now I was champing at the bit. I hurriedly cast some bones, incanted a few incantations, inverted some religious symbols, constructed a henge and withdrew some blood from a virgin. It was slow going. Virgins are not at all easy to come by these days.
I selected a fly using the timeless method of ‘that looks nice’. I lie, I remember reading somewhere ‘dark day, dark fly’ so I selected a Zak. It’s black. To look at my fly box you could easily be fooled into thinking that I only fish on dark days. 90% Zaks and Pheasant Tails. The remaining 10% are a hodgepodge of crap I tied when I got bored of tying Zaks.
In truth, it was a dark day. No rain yet, but it was coming. A meteorologist is vary rarely right. When it comes to forecasting weather that can screw up your precious and sparse leisure time the bastard is never wrong. In fact I’m pretty convinced he calls it in.
Job done and I walked down to the river. The pool a bit below beat six, to be precise. I thought I’d loosen up my casting arm and test the performance of my leader. Also, I needed to get that blood off it.
Cast 1: fly not sinking well. Lead shot attached. Leader seems to be ok. That was some primo virgin.
Cast 2: strike indicator slows, rod tip rises, fish on! Bloody stupid spotted thing heads straight beneath the skirts of an old lady rinsing her laundry on the adjacent bank. She took it as well as can be expected given that she was first surprised by a cold fishy thing swimming between her thighs and then by a guy trying to control a bucking rod, yelling and waving a net with his free hand. We had a good laugh after I netted and released it. (True story.)
Cast 3-6: uneventful and surprisingly relaxing. I think missed a few takes as a result of slowness. This was to be the theme of the morning.
Cast 7: fish on, then off. No need to be that relaxed.
Cast 8: set aside in favour of profanity resulting from cast 7.
Cast 9: another fish. Smaller and very tame.
With that being done and feeling very, very confident I moved up to beat six.
I’m not a big one for tradition, but for the next few hours I observed a time tested personal tradition. I hooked branches. I snapped tippets. I lost flies. I casted badly. I missed takes. I dropped a roll of 7X tippet and a pair of scissors somewhere. I got floatant in my eye. (A quick note to dry fly fisherman: it’s just industrial grade soap with some sort of acid in it. Sulphuric, I think. Save some cash and make your own to this recipe.) I twisted an ankle. I turned the air purple with expletives.
The weather went from bad to worse.
As the rain hit I considered grinning and bearing it. A flash of lightning had me biting off the fly. As I did this I caught a splashy rise out of the corner of my eye. I paused and looked up to where I thought it had come from.
It didn’t take long and another slash broke the surface. My word, this was a proper fish. Well over 20 inches.
Now I’ve caught a 22 inch fish in the reserve. (Is that a good fish? It is for me.) Anyone who’s seen me fish will at this point pull the sort of face that could best be described as being incredulous. But, I swear, it’s true and they’re just getting even at my frequent embedding of flies in their personages.
I was in the river below the upper dam. There’s a long deep section covered by branches. It’s largely impossible to fish. I lit a Marlboro (your mother warned you not to judge) and stared up under the trees. A perfect head and tail rise met my gaze. A great fish, but how to get to it? This was going to require some swimming.
I looked around, found that I was alone, and stripped down to my skinnies. A short swim had me balanced on some root structure with just about enough room to get a cast in. A short flick and the lightly weighted nymph broke the surface film.
A swirl and a fish was on. When the hook was set I paddled my way back to where I could stand. It’s not easy swimming while fighting a fish. A brief fight and I netted the fish. A stunner.
Whenever I set the hook into a decent fish (which is really, really rarely) I immediately and involuntary start to sing that theme song from the tv show “you’re not the boss of me now”. God alone knows why I do it. My therapist has suggested that I don’t fish for any of the reasons I think I do. She hands out the most marvelous medication so I keep her around despite her theories on bloodsports.
As I danced semi naked around the bank with my net in hand a family of hikers came around the bend. To say that they looked surprised would be to say that there is some salt in the ocean. One of their kids hummed along to my song. I lay on a rock warming up and just tried to live in the now. It was a very odd morning.
But I digress.
The fish on this particular day was clearly rising at sedge. With the water surface pitted by what was now quite heavy rain I tied on a rather large imitation. Something I could see.
I looked up to determine my strategy. Right about then my spirits sunk in the way that my favorite reel sunk last season when I dropped it off my kick boat into the green depths of the larger of the two Highmoor dams. Quickly and assuredly.
A brown trout holds in the most awkward areas of streams. Under banks. In the roots of trees. Around structure. This one was no different. In fly fishing parlance we call them ‘bastards’.
The section of the river on which I stood made a tight bend. Recent summer rains had eroded a section of the bank leaving a small island of around a square meter about a meter from the bank. Both the island and the bank had long grass on it. The grass formed a canopy over the channel.
The current split at the island. Most of it went inside of the island leaving a fast flow going through the channel. I would have to put a fly under the overhanging grass and into the channel where it would sit for the shortest of time before being ripped away by the current.
My casting abilities are, to overstate then wildly, just a little iffy. I sort of aim at the river rather than any particular point on it. A good cast is one that hits the water without embedding a fly in my face. A great cast hits the water within, say, three meters of the spot I was looking at.
Also, I’m fishing 7X. If this thing runs in any other direction than toward me it’s lost. My game plan is to set the hook and get it into the main channel as quickly as possible. Seems a good plan. *insert profanity here*, I wish I could cast.
Cast 1: in the grass. Fly retrieved.
Cast 2: short. Ripped away by the current like a slalom skier in take off. My inner voice at this point of proceedings reminded me I had a flask of hot coffee in the car and why don’t we laugh off this futile preoccupation in favour of something warm?
Cast 3: into the grass. I tweak it off and it falls just about in the zone. I see the white of his mouth as he turns away. My hands are shaking. My elevated blood pressure almost blows my hat off my head. My word, it’s chucking it down now. I hadn’t noticed. I’m cold.
Cast 4: I know I should tie down to a smaller fly but I have bok-koors and I’ve got to get a cast in. In the grass. Snapped off. Good, I need a longer tippet for that damned drag and a smaller fly. I tie a perfect wind knot nine casts out of ten but extending the leader with these wet, frozen hands was proving almost impossible.
Cast 5: in the grass. Fly retrieved. Get a grip on yourself, you’re all over the place. I know that, but my hands are cold and in that channel lies a whale. Concentrate, damn you.
Cast 6: ooh, in the grass but well placed. I tweak it loose. It fall exactly in the zone. My three kilometer long tippet is holding off drag. Nothing happens. The tippet straightens and the fly skates slightly with the drag. Damn, probably spooked him. SLASH! I see the whole fish as it takes the fly. That butter yellow belly shows as it takes and rolls. This is a great fish.
Fish on: I consult the gridiron football style whiteboard in my mind and make my carefully planned play. I put pressure on to get him out of the channel. This is working out perfectly. Damn, I’m good. A fly fishing god.
A slight popping noise and what’s left of my tippet almost smacks me in the eye.
I’ve screwed this up. Horribly.
I run back to my car now acutely aware of exactly how hard it’s raining and how violent the lightening around me is. There’s another noise that I can’t place for a while. Oh, that’s it, my heart beating like a wild thing. A thunderclap drowns out a series of decidably grown-up words.
I make the car, throw my rod on the grass and pile in. I’m shaken and want to cry. I pull out my pipe for a relaxing smoke but I can’t light it because my hands are shaking too much. I consult my hip flask.
It’s now Monday afternoon and I’m writing this over lunch. Also, I called Richard this morning. I’m off fishing again this weekend. He’s arranging me a beautiful Zulu maiden as a guide. I’ll try not to swear so much. Maybe she’ll love me back.