On Fly Selection

I’ve been reading a bit of Tim Rolston lately. His perspectives on a lot of topics are quite interesting. One has really got me thinking and if I don’t write it down I’ll never get it straight in my head. So here goes. 

He often says words to the effect of “it’s not about the fly”. (He then goes on to describe leaders constructed of three full rolls of tippet material connected end to end and I just roll my eyes and sigh.)

A ridiculous notion, that. Not about the fly. Why the hell then do we lift rocks, sift through half digested stomach contents, peer into spider webs and seine runs if not to match what’s happening in the water at the time? Why do we carry so many patterns in so many sizes and colours? Surely just one would suffice? 

Pfft. Dumbass. Not about the fly. My arse. 

Let me tell you about my first fishing trip to a river in KZN and how it’s ALL about the fly. 

I fished a bit of trout in the Transkei. Yes, there are very trouty areas and on them a good time was had by all. I studied in PE and didn’t cast a line outside of the briny for some years.

Some years after moving to KZN I bought a three weight and set up to see whether I could hold my own on a stream. I had no idea where to go, was too self conscious to ask and didn’t know the region at all. 

A Round Table conference had taken me to Glengarry in the midlands a short while before. I had spotted a rise or two in the Little Mooi as it flows through the property and I figured that it was as good an area as any to begin. 

Loaded high with tents and cooler boxes my brother a mate and I headed out into the midlands. It was an eventful trip and that part of it I can remember was memorable. 

Day one saw our arrival. We pitched tents and sunk beer and generally did manly things. I prepared a potjie for dinner. “Chop some chili into it” came the instruction and I dutifully followed orders. Still in the role of ‘outdoorsman of sport and action’ I emptied my beer-laden bladder against an adjacent tree and settled back into my chair for a smoke, another beer, some convivial chatter and general fire gazing. 

Not long afterward my attention was steadily drawn to a warm, somewhat stinging sensation in my groin. As I pondered it, growing ever more uncomfortable, I felt I needed to take a look. Belt loosened, button undone and a discreet rub to settle matters down. Some more fire gazing safe in the knowledge that ignoring it would make it go away. Holy shit. There was a reinactment of the death of Joan of Arc taking place precisely on my knob. How my jeans did not burst into flames is a mystery and, frankly, a miracle right up there with raising the dead or turning water into wine. 

Much screaming, cursing and tears followed. The campsite wasn’t full but nothing draws a crowd like a grown man sitting by a fireside with his chop hanging in a glass of iced milk and tears streaming down his face. Mothers were clapping hands over their children’s eyes and fathers were coming over ‘to have a stern word’. 

What does this have to do with fly choice you ask? Nothing at all. But I thought it important to point out the danger of chopping chillies and immediately handling one’s dangly bits. Call it a public service announcement. 

Back to the fishing. The next morning dawned gun metal grey and foreboding. It had rained hard during the night. I strung my new rod and prepared to walk the 100 or so meters to the river. My brother and friend loaded the truck with beer (despite predawn promises of never drinking again), deck chairs and various other paraphernalia. Lots of bread, too. Lots. I never saw them eating any. Weird. 

I have two abiding memories of that morning: an aching head.

The river was a little more than ginger beer and belting along at a lively pace. I had worked my way upstream placing carefully measured casts into trees, banks and the faces of children tubing past.  I hit the river once or twice, but only when I shanked a cast.  There was much pointing and sniggering and I avoided glances and refused to make eye contact. In fairness, the only way I could have made eye contact would have been to suddenly drop to my knees.

The fishing wasn’t going well. I was steadily working my way without success through the patterns suggested in my pile of local magazines . Those bastards who call themselves grandiose terms like ‘contributing editors’. Shit recommendations. Every one. Looking back their ‘absolutely sure thing / indispensable / I never leave home without it‘ selections were crap. Crap, crap, crap. They never even mention those flies in current articles either. Ponder that one. You’d think if it wasn’t about the fly they’d just write one article and cease publication. Think about it. 

Muttering under my breath I continued upstream to find my companions sitting on the bank in nice, comfy deck chairs, beers in hand, a veritable Aztec pyramid size of discarded cans at their side, empty bread packets everywhere, nattering away with flies barely dangling in the water. At that moment the heavens opened. My companions made haste in the general direction of the tents chattering about moving over to Captain Morgan. I fished on, thankful for the rain that had soaked through my clothing and underwear and cooled my skin. 

I also liberated at this time from his bag my brother’s special top secret fly box without him noticing. I’ve never got to look into it before and was eager to steal a peek. It contained one pattern; the white death. About 100 of them. I asked him later why the preoccupation with this pattern and he just shrugged and said it looked like balls of bread. I wandered off a little confused, but thinking back I’ve never known anyone who packs as many loaves of government regulation white on trips as that boy. But, I digress. 

At three o’clock the river had raised appreciably and was bombing along. I found a few quieter bits to cast at. There was one more pattern I hadn’t tried. A black nymphy thing. With a properly heavy shiny beaded head (the sight of which brought back unpleasant recent memories and made me sob a little). Sighing I bound it to the tippet and chucked it forlornly into the foam. 

Bang! Fish on and I caught my first brown trout in a stream. What a moment. Forever etched in my memory. I swear to you, that moment is a bare second to the birth of my kids. I don’t have to describe it. If you’ve experienced it, and I hope you have, you know it. 

I had barely returned the finny thing to the water when my companions returned in a cloud of diesel fumes, laughter, profanity and clinking beer bottles. “Get in, we’re going into Nottingham Road” was the command. “I just got a fish!” the excited retort. “Just get in.”

Off we went to Nottingham Road. A quick stop at the bottle store (how much did they drink?), a decent braai grid and some awesome steaks having been ticked off our shopping list and we were ready for the drive back. 

“Want to stop into Notties Hotel?” “Yeah, but just for one.” – is my last coherent recollection of the day. 

At 9PM we were, for the first time, politely asked to leave. Look, if you’re going to close the kitchen at 8 you can hardly take offense at a couple of hungry lads braaing in the fireplace. They brought it onto themselves and necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. 

Muttering and protesting we left in the general direction of the Kamberg Nature Reserve. When we got to Impendle we decided that we were off course by somewhere in the order of around 180 degrees and headed back from whence we came. 

“Want to stop into Notties Hotel?” “Yeah, but just for one.”

A few hours lately we were again reminded that we should consider sex and travel and that we’d better consider it quickly and seriously. Being nice lads, well raised and brimming over with good manners, we moved along somewhat despondent that our youthful joie de vie had been mistaken for anything else. 

The rain just got worse and the next day my erstwhile companions again arrived to collect me stream-side but this time with all our belongings stuffed into one tent which had been unceremoniously strapped to the back of the truck. Looking like a group of down-on-our-luck gypsies we dragged our bedraggled arses home. 

What, you ask again, does this have to do with fly choice?

Hold your horses and I’ll let you into a secret. Fly choice is EVERYTHING. 

That summer was a wet one. That bloody rain just didn’t quit. Funny thing; that fly worked like a bomb right through the summer. Obviously, I reasoned, whatever insect was hatching in the wet conditions was being perfectly imitated. It that turbid water that black pattern with the anchor for a head did the trick. Consistently and in deadly fashion. 

When the rain finally started tailing off towards the end of the season it, to be honest, lost some of its effectiveness. But the next year! When the rains came! Ker-Ching! That anvil of a fly delivered the goods. 

Oh, wait, I sense a pattern forming here. 

Ok Tim. I think I’m starting to get your point. Disregard everything I’ve said up to now. 

No, actually, don’t. (Especially about the chili. Never forget that. That tip is pure gold.)

It is about the fly. Well, not the actual fly itself, but one’s confidence in it. If you believe in the fly your chances of catching fish with it multiply exponentially. Fact. When I tied that thing on I sharpened up and inevitably got into fish. My confidence improved my fishing generally. 

I started out saying that I needed to write this down to get it straight in my mind. I think I’m about there. Let me sum this up in a well constructed theorem:

You have to have the right fly, but it doesn’t matter what fly it is, as long as you’re totally confident that it’s the right one (despite it not mattering). 
Easy, right?


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