A Debt of Gratitude

I spend a bit of time pitching flies at speckled fish. Over time I find myself spending a lot less time on still waters and as much time as possible on rivers. 

The thrill of catching a really good fish is indescribable, but over the last few years fishing lakes has been offering me much less by way of validation and satisfaction for the time I’ve put into it. I stare into my still water fly boxes and can’t make sense of the mess of woolly buggers and large size damsels and dragons. They seem like caricatures of life best suited for pinning onto Christmas trees and I can’t get my head around them. I pretty much these days fish lakes like I fish rivers; light tackle and small, imitative flies drifted naturally around structure. Does it work better? I don’t know. I’m not good enough to know enough of a difference to enable me to offer comment. It’s a hell of a lot more satisfying though. 

On a stream what it is I’m trying to imitate or achieve just makes more sense. I’m flippin’ useless at it, but I think that I understand the principles a bit better. I mean I vaguely understand them and feel I respond more intuitively to what is going on in the world around me. 

I’ve fished a couple of rivers here and there. Not as many as most, but enough for a clear set of preferences to have emerged. One thing that is abundantly clear to me is that I love being on small streams. 

Small streams hold small fish. This is not an issue to me. I get that a lunker in these waters is, maybe, 25cm long – and I’m perfectly happy with that. I don’t really count the number or the size of fish that I catch. I just love sharing their environment. I love the giggling nature of streams high up in the mountains where the gradient makes the stream move and bubble along like a bunch of school girls running for the gate after classes on a Friday afternoon. I love the call of baboons and that moment when you look up and notice a buck staring at you in a game of ‘see who flinches first’. 

When the realization that I prefer little silver trickles of water to deep, dark expanses struck me it left me a bit perplexed. Actually, it left me very perplexed. It went against everything that I thought should be thinking and resulted in some profoundly illuminating introspection. 

I grew up in the Transkei and, like all of us there, fished in the ocean. Your prowess was measured by the size of the fish that you caught. Case closed. 

Suddenly there was this penny dropping and it held the suggestion that size no longer mattered. And it was disconcerting. When I showed the (very) occasional photo of a fish I caught or described them to friends I was getting some very strange and incredulous looks. I am extremely self conscious and I started to think that there was something wrong with me and I avoided talking about my fishing outings. I described them as being “very nice thank you”. 

Our family has timeshare just outside of Underberg at a resort called Drankensberg Gardens. When we’re up there I get to cast a line in an unhurried way and I try to book the odd beat on nearby rivers. On this particular occasion I had fished some beats of the Mzimkhulu River and had enjoyed it a great deal. What was bothering me was that on my return from this famous river I would stop on the tiny tongue of a stream that runs into the resort and cast a line and have a complete blast. I’d grin and smile like a total lunatic as I worked my way up this tiny ribbon of water. 

I love the way small fish slash at flies and how they launch themselves vertically from the stream bed at dries; like mini Polaris missiles.  I never get over how the tiniest depressions on the stream bed hold a pretty little speckled thing. I’m in awe of how small waters twist and flit their way over and around rocks and of the sound that they make. 

Clearly, I assured myself, there is something wrong with me. This can’t be right. 

That year at Drak Gardens some really poor weather moved in and we were confined to cover and warm fireplaces. I’m not terribly fond of, nor am I terribly good at, just ‘sitting and relaxing’. I put on my warmest gear and drifted out towards the small shop on the resort to buy some playing cards. 

I was killing time looking at the various curios on sale and I found a book that I thought might be worth a read. It was called ‘The Call of the Stream’ and, was written by a certain Peter Brigg. The author’s name rang a faint bell and reminding myself not to judge a book by its cover, I bought it on the strength of the cover photography. “Whatever”, I thought, “I’ve got another four days of this shit to sit out. This will see me through a few hours of it.”

I tramped off back up the hill into a steady headwind cursing the fact that our unit was furthest away from the hotel and up a steep hill. I got in, threw the book down on a table and set into a few hands of cards with the family. 

I didn’t think of the book for a day or two. When I did, I cut off the plastic wrapper and settled down for a quick flip through it. 

I took in every photograph in microscopic detail. I read and reread every caption to the photographs. And then I read, slowly and languidly, every word written. When I had finished I simply started again. Over the past few years I’ve read that book over and over and over with an almost Calvinistic fervor. 

You see, there are a few narratives running parallel to one another within that book. Maybe, like some Shakespearen scholars, I’m reading too much into it. 

Of the narratives the first is visual. The pictures in the book tell a story that runs independent of the words. Just as I cannot adequately describe a sunrise I cannot describe this other than to say that there is a fluidity of layout and subject that defies the need for words. Each picture is an adjective, each page a skyscape. 

The words are beautifully crafted but are in themselves superfluous other than to reveal a scarcely hidden narrative that speaks of a soul appreciative of and in a state of awe and respect at the universe as it is condensed into mountains and the small streams that run through their many valleys. In a world where to admire simple beauty earns you a demeaning title and where the scale of beauty is measured in financial terms I find it uplifting to see beauty celebrated. 

The third narrative was my own. It told a story of a group of people living not far from me who see the world as I do. The story validated my own experiences and told me that I was not alone (not that I ever really believed that I was) and that there was in fact a potentially large group of people who enjoyed what I enjoy. (To be clear, what I enjoy is not the act of catching a fish.) In a world of global connectedness this may seem bizarre, but I am a fairly solitary creature who is not given to joining clubs or actively seeking like-minded company so the realization was a fairly happy one. 

I write on this blog and follow Peter on his. At some point I shared a post on how I go about bending and shaping wood to make landing nets for trout. Peter surprised me by asking me to make him one. I was shocked rigid but agreed to do it. It took me a while and it lay finished for weeks owing to my anxiety over handing it over to him. I even considered mailing it to him. How many stamps are required to mail a net 15 kilometers?

I’m not afraid of the guy. I don’t have heroes. I don’t bother that people won’t live up to expectations; I like the fallibility of the human condition. That I suffer from social anxiety is not news to anyone. I don’t really know what made me this anxious. I suppose it’s like a partially sighted person stepping out to open the batting on a green pitch against a premier fast bowler – totally overwhelmed and out-gunned. 

Last Saturday Peter and I met and chatted a bit over coffee. He was relaxed and gracious. He liked the net and while he seemed a bit embarrassed over handing me a fist full of flies in exchange for the net I was relieved. 

Relieved and happy for the opportunity to repay a massive debt of gratitude to the man. 

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One response to “A Debt of Gratitude

  1. Lovely writing again – I really enjoy you style. Thank you for your kind words, it is humbling and also rewarding. I hope we can share a stream next season. I share also similar thoughts on aspects of fly fishing and seldom have more that a single companion with me. And, sometimes like you, I prefer my own company and fish alone.
    The handcrafted net is a gem, thank you.

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