On Resort Dams

I would love to call these (often) little bits of water lakes, but they have to be the furthest thing in the world from being a lake. They hold water and are often at the right altitude – this is a barearsed guess, I have no idea what the right altitude for a lake is – but to refer to them as lakes is pushing it a tad over the limit. In a sense it’s not a lot different to referring to the young lady at the bar as being ‘pretty hot’ just as the clock strikes two in the morning; when the conditions are right and it’s the only game in town you tend to find them more attractive than you may find them in the cold, objective light of an ordinary day. 

To my mind a lake is something that you can at very least put a small yacht on. At the bottom of my street there’s a puddle with an honest to god yacht floating on it. It is not this sort of look, rub your eyes, look again and shake your head madness of which I speak. To be a lake you have to be able to raise a sail on the yacht and cruise around like someone in a Peter Styvesant advert of days gone by. Tits and tobacco. Gins and grins. Now that’s a lake. 

I’m speaking, of course, of the typical resort dam. It’s a little bit better than a last resort dam; that puddle of almost stagnant water that holds the odd recreational trout. Please don’t misunderstand me, there is no recreational benefit to the trout that has been so unceremoniously dumped into this puddle to live out it’s pitiful days. This battery-run trout is there for the sole recreational pursuits of the angler. (I’m aware that suggesting that a badly stocked trout can be compared to a battery-raised fowl may lead to the opening of an ugly ethical can of worms and that I may unintentionally introduce another pressure on our imported, Eurocentric sport that it doesn’t, at this crucial point, need. I do it simply as a literary device to draw attention to the plight of the much overlooked can-interned worm; the freedom struggle of which is a cause for which I am passionate.)

This last resort dam is the kind of water that holds the kind of fish that looks only too pleased to be whipped out by a #6 Mrs Simpson wielding tourist in white oversized wrap-around sunglasses with mirror blue lenses, a baseball cap festooned with his favorite surf or motor cross brand, a pair of camouflage cargo shorts and yellow flip-flops. Those are horrible waters. Tepid, smelly-at-sunset pools where as you get out of your car in the nearby car park you can, above the spit of the wors roll vendor’s skillet, hear the poorly conditioned trout gasping for air and the eternal mercy of a well directed priest. 

Don’t fool yourself either, there’s a lot of this sort of thing around. I have a silent snort (of the not-exactly-snobbish but slightly condescending variety of snorts) when I read Sunday evening social media accounts of weekends spent on these grotesque waters. To put this into perspective, the Sunday evening posting is generally a denouement of the Wednesday morning post enquiring whether anyone knows if such-and-such a puddle has been recently stocked. 

Recently stocked? What we’re talking about here is a 48 hour window from being wrenched free from a hatchery pool to being impaled on your hook.  Look, don’t get me wrong, a day spent with rod in hand beats a day of shopping arcades and domestic chores by a country mile – provided that it is spent on the banks of an at least remotely sustainable and not-too-far-from-natural fishery. 

You don’t need to remind me that in this country we have precious few (less than a half-dozen I would expect) natural fisheries. These are truly sustainable and natural in the sense that fish spawn and populate them without a human hand in their husbandry. They are entirely unnatural in the sense that the fish is entirely exotic and has no natural right nor reason to be there, but at least they’re a step or two removed from being a fishy petting zoo. 

You are probably justifiably confused at this point by my rambling discourse so let me try to explain how I rate still waters. 

The worst of them I’ve already described. They are the steaming cesspools of the industry where fish are introduced a few days prior to a busy weekend and where their denizens did not grow to their pretty reasonable size by evading humans. Rather, they were chucked in at no less than two pounds and on average at around four pounds and seem to swim up to poly-pocketed vest wearing bipeds in eager expectation of their next meal. I hear you muttering your objections to my assertion. But I see your posts. Got them on large, dense dries, snails and beetle patterns, did you? Like last time? Deadly fly, works every time? Uh-uh, no you didn’t. You got ’em fair and square on hatchery pellet imitations. I’m not mocking. I’m suggesting that you matched the typical hatch perfectly. (Ok, I’m mocking, but I too have hit on ‘babes’ in the wee hours of a morning. When it’s the only game in town, etc.)

On the extreme polar opposite end of the scale is the ‘natural’ fishery that I described earlier. If you’re going to get a fish here you best get your shit together. These fish aren’t stupid. Stop slapping the water with your false cast (in fact, ditch eight of your ten false casts, the fish are very near to you) and work on some sort of a presentation. These fish know better. Crouch. They were stocked by their parents as a surprisingly not ugly-looking blend of eggs and spermatozoa. Their parents ditched them shortly after the consummation of their brief marriage and their orhpans grew up hard and mean or not at all. This life is all they know and they’re damned good at it. They didn’t run the gauntlet of predation, environmental stresses and anglers and grow large by accident. Get a four pound fish here and you can feel good about yourself. Get a six pounder and earn yourself the right to tell your mates that you’ve got your shit together and that they’d best pull themselves a little closer toward themselves or, by God, they’ll need to find another fishing buddy. 

These waters are pretty. Very, very pretty. It is because they’re natural. Nothing planted, nothing trimmed and nothing mowed. Is that long grass hampering your back cast? Then feel free to fish elsewhere. Who does one have to sleep with to have your beer delivered to you at the water’s edge? Your mother is on her way with a chilled six pack. This is no-nonsense, as near as you’ll get to the real thing on this continent, fishing. If you get to visit one of these waters more than once every two seasons or so you can count yourself as being privileged. 

Second to best among our still waters are well managed private waters. These are generally situated on local farms, are reasonably large and are stocked with fingerlings as opposed to ‘stockies’. These fish are fairly wild (whatever the hell that means). What I mean is that they are very close to natural (whatever the hell that means). Look, this is all very confusing in a mock-scientific sort of way. Fish go in small and in small numbers. Rod pressure is minimal. Competition is minimal. Conditions are pretty good. If they make it through their childhood the fish grow quickly large and are typically well conditioned. If there are inlets and springs and the like feeding these dams they can be very close to the real thing (whatever the hell that means). Weed beds often abound and there is abundant structure. 

A drawback of these dams is (apart from you seeing the photographs but never cracking the nod to fish one) that they’re on some bleak ‘Berg farm and particularly in winter are in really shit looking surroundings. That is unless a dust covered and dun colored landscape is your thing – because in that case you’re going to love it. I get that the drawn hardness of a high altitude winter is a thing of beauty in itself but these dams generally have a little reedy triangle like a feminine pubic mound at the shallow end, dusty straw colored and red clay banks along each side and a thoroughly unimaginative earth wall at the deep end; they weren’t constructed for leisure and as enticing photo backdrops. Those in the Midlands often fare a little better in agriculture’s winter beauty pageant than those in the high ‘Berg, but not overwhelmingly so. No, for the most part they’re flat, boring things with big healthy fish. 

These dams have fairly grand names, but not ostentatiously so. They generally take the name of the farm that they are on. If there are two dams on the property then one will be assigned the title ‘upper’ and the other ‘lower’. Alternatively ‘big’ and ‘small’ are used interchangeably with upper and lower. If there are three dams the whole system starts to go awry. There’s no ‘in-between’ or ‘mid-sized’ name assigned and, as so often happens two of the three are in any case similar in size. In this instance (and in the rare case of there being more that three dams on the property) the correct thing to do is to just number the dams. Trying to explain the ‘north’ dam to some city dweller who can hardly hear you above his air conditioning fan and through the leather padded walls of his million rand, absolutely essential company four wheel drive SUV (this trip has been recorded as being a conference and till slips are collected for later reimbursement) is a waste of time. This guy couldn’t tell you in which direction the sun rises or sets as much as he can’t tell the difference between a Jersey and a Friesland. 

Every now and again some farmer’s wife decides to name each dam. This is pretentious bullshit and if I hear you calling a dam ‘trutta’ and the one next to it ‘salmo’ them I swear you’re buying the beer for the rest of the trip. I wince as I write this because my favorite two dams in the whole world have these very names. I call them the top and the bottom dam. So should you. 

Really good, rich and productive dams of this class are well-protected secrets. My mate Terry Andrews assigns to them an interesting nomenclature that starts with ‘Secret Dam #’ and then the number of the dam in, I have to assume, the order in which he has stumbled onto them. There is an inherent problem in this system – Terry, like the rest of us has reached the point in his life where his memory of specific things has somewhat dulled over time. What I mean is that I’m not certain that he is sure whether he is at any time at Secret Dam #81, Secret Dam #43 or just some random irrigation dam that he pulled up next to as a result of his losing his way on the drive. That he catches exceptional fish is beyond question. That he catches them where he thinks he catches them is extremely doubtful. But he’s a really large guy and when the farmer’s daughter yells “daddy, there’s some guy at the dam” and Joe Farmer looks out the window at a six foot something ginger inflating a kick boat he probably figures it’s best to stay indoors and just let it pass without incident. 

Second from the bottom (or third from the top, dependent on how you see these things) is the resort dam. Don’t confuse this with the last resort dam, what I’m talking about is the dam at the average ‘Berg holiday resort. The backdrop of mountains is usually pretty stunning. The lawns are mowed, but not normally around the entire waterline and birds and plant life abound. They are fishable, but mind your head for golf balls in flight. 

In fact, that is probably the most irritating part of a resort dam – other people. I’m not a fan of company generally (whether it spurns me or whether I spurn it is something of a chicken and egg argument) and some of the worst company in the world is to be found on these dams. Golfers are, quite simply, deadly and best avoided altogether. Every guy with annual timeshare features himself as the next Arnold Palmer regardless (or possibly oblivious) of his obvious lack of skill. Those ‘Big Bertha’ type drivers are weapons-grade stuff and ought to be considered by whichever body updates the Geneva Convention. A golf ball makes a very distinctive shushing sound as it flies past your lug hole and I would imagine an even worse one as it embeds itself in your sternum. A tip in this regard is to peer through your Polaroids at the bottom of the dam. If it contains a pox of white spots then those are golf balls and you’re about to have your relaxing fishing session suddenly turned into an extremely dangerous adventure sport. 

Then there’s the group who feel that they have to walk up to ask you whether you’re catching. I’m not sure what that means. Are they looking for a stack of fish at your feet or one on your line? How do you even answer them? Yes, sometimes I am, indeed, catching. Other times I am not catching. At yet other times I am alternatively casting, changing flies, tying knots, untying knots or taking a piss just behind that long grass and in full sight of the bustling sundeck. I am nothing if not versatile. Please reframe your question. 

Kids are the worst. (Other people’s kids. I’m sure that yours are darlings.) You can be a few hundred meters from the closest human life, pushing long casts into a channel when a few of them run up with inane questions and conversations. That they ruin your day and that their parents look proudly on as they do it is a given, but hook one of them in any part of their body on your back cast and all hell breaks loose. It’s as though you did something wrong. Or rather, that you intentionally did something wrong. They aren’t allowed to parade back and forth in front of a golf tee box just waiting to be cruelly decimated like a game of Atari Snotty Space Invaders so why would you let them stand in line with my back cast?

The only upside with these bankside idiots is that you can really give the old ego a little stroke if you have half a mind to and the requisite skill set to pull it off. (Also, it goes without saying, that the fish need to be in an obliging mood.)

Every resort dam holds a head of would-be anglers. Everybody has to learn their angling skills (if you have half a brain you would realize that every outing is another step upwards on the learning curve) and I’m not claiming superiority or suggesting that they shouldn’t be fishing. What I’m saying is that when you are among once-a-years or beginner anglers you can truly strut your stuff.

I’m a very, very mediocre caster but when I stand next to a guy who is trying to ‘throw’ his fly at the dam and I pull off a flawless, tight-looped 18m cast with a fine presentation (I may be exaggerating the loop and the presentation somewhat) I look like a pro. After a season of untying wind knots and removing  flies from bankside flora it’s a good feeling. The oohs and aahs make you feel all warm and mushy inside. Just don’t offer these guys advice, they’ll shadow you for days. 

Then there’s the small matter of catching a fish. I may be a rampant narcissist, but there’s nothing better than arriving at water where you are assured that the fish have been off the bite for a few days and landing a quick few fish. I’ve had this happen to me several times. In fairness, it’s mainly because the guys who were there before me just can’t read the water and adjust to circumstances prevailing. I’m no master of this, but trial and error have resulted in a smattering of lessons that have improved my catch rates notably. 

I once arrived just before sunset at a resort dam near Bushman’s Neck. A few guys had been fishing it for nine hours a day for three days without success. For the purpose of intimacy let’s name them Simpson, Hamill and Walker. That fish were feeding a little below the surface on emerging something or others was obvious. That whatever it was that was hatching was not a size eight was equally obvious. That it wasn’t moving at 50 miles an hour was depressingly obvious. I tied on a emerger thing that hung on the surface and a nondescript #18 nymph a few inches below it, New Zealand style. First cast and a neat, plump four pounder was netted. The abuse that I took from the winter-sherry guzzling crowd would make a sailor blush. I came back the next morning for less than an hour and on the same rig caught four decentish fish in quick succession. When I left I gifted them with a roll of suitably thin tippet and a dozen or more small flashback nymphs. Despite them having seen the results of fishing small and light they still wouldn’t believe that a large (or any) fish would take so small a lunch and it took some convincing to have them change their methods (assuming that they ever did). 

That’s the thing with fishing, adapt or eat toast. I’ve caught fish in resort (and other) dams a few times where others have not and every time it was because I adapted to what the fish were doing rather than trying to convince them to change to what I wanted them to be doing. Fish are like that – inflexible bastards. Make no mistake, I blank more often than not but a resort dam is a forgiving thing and you will inevitably punctuate your day’s casting with the odd take and fight. This draws a bit of an audience and for someone who spends most of his time fishing solo it’s quite a strangely satisfying feeling being watched while doing it. We all want validation. Why should I be any different?

A half decent resort dam is actually fairly large and while it is regularly stocked with ‘stockies’ the odd one slips through and grows to a respectable size. I only go to resorts with the family and, although this is strongly disputed, spend very little time on the water. I therefore don’t take it seriously and just unwind catching stockies and such by the methods I prefer – stalking around reeds with a light rod and more often than not a dry. Understand this clearly, you will be taken by surprise every so often by a fish that has no reasonable right to be there. When that happens it’s a mad scramble to get your concentration where it needs to be and your net from under the pile of beer cans somewhere along the bank. 

I really like taking big fish. I take very few of them mainly because I don’t consciously fish for them. I’m an equal opportunity taker of trout. I love the silly stockie that hasn’t learned to be too afraid. I like that mid-sized fish that has learned enough to occasionally turn away when the leader flashes a little too brightly or when he spies you standing on the bank. If a big fish throws enough caution into the wind (or perhaps that should be the current) I’ll gladly oblige by piercing him in the lip and praying that my thoroughly unsuitable tackle and lack of experience marry well enough to get the job done. 

I suppose that with a resort dam that’s the beauty of it. There’s no weight of expectations. You can stuff up and not feel bad about it. You can try something new and possibly waste your time but that’s the only reason why you’re there; to slowly kill a bit of time. 

I understand that from time to time I just like the unhurried leisure of casting a line while someone replenishes the bucket of beer at my side. 

There are much worse things in this world than that. 

Waiting for the season

As I write this the calendar slowly, desperately and unbearably slowly, runs to the end of July. If you think that a watched pot never boils then you’ve never spent three months staring at a calendar. It makes watching paint drying seem like an adventure sport. It’s like the week before your ninth birthday, the day before Christmas and the night after your cancer test all rolled into one. 

The rivers have been closed for exactly 56 of 92 days now (60.9% of the closed season) and my last cast up one was exactly fifteen hours short of nine weeks ago on a fantastic day on the Upper Bushman’s under the relaxed guidance of Jan Korrûbel. We took a pair of fat little fish almost straight off the bat and a few more intermittently during the course of the morning. Lunch was a relaxing affair on a small midstream island that was made more special by the almost unnoticed arrival of a small herd of buck right next to where we were sitting. The afternoon was fishless but it was the sort of day where great company and meandering conversation makes details like that entirely unimportant. 

In the time since my last being on the water and today my feeling of restless uneasiness has grown steadily, like the approach of a great storm, silently and malevolently. With it has come a distinct crankiness that I won’t try to deny or even to downplay. 

I’m not a gregarious person but in the winter I find myself a lot more open to leaning on tackle shop counters shooting the breeze and just cloyingly trying to maintain a connection to that which occupies so much of my mind but right now seems so distant. 

It’s a bad thing, all this waiting. As the off-season winds on interminably my general bluesy demeanor slowly develops and grows. I try to hide it, but it reveals itself with something like what poker players refer to as a ‘tell’. Firstly, I start to do the fishing related chores that I so flatly ignore doing in the season. 

It’s with a feeling of mild surprise that I find myself busy taking my tackle out from behind the seat of my truck – their now ten month old home. Reels are oiled. Lines are cleaned and treated. Various over-priced and probably unnecessary preparations are applied to ferrules and eyes. Nail knots are checked and retied. The ages of rolls of tippet (yes, JLK, I DO know the difference between a leader and a tippet) are guesstimated and those that break on being tugged are discarded. I even find myself staring at cork grips and wondering whether they would benefit from a few rubs with a bit of 400 grit water paper. Ok, ok, I don’t do most of these things, but writing them down gives me, I’d like to think, an aura of knowing what the hell I’m talking about. The fact that I’m even thinking about doing them speaks volumes as to my current state of mind.

Lines. These I do attend to. With a ‘soft, mild detergent’. (My wife’s expensive face wash.) As I clean them I check their condition and wince a little. When did they get so expensive? I’ve got to go a little easier on them. I also need to start keeping a record of the first time I say “it’ll last another season”. My current favorite line (a sink tip, float, sink, float, sink, float a bit more in lengths not more than a foot at a time – mending this thing in the current looks a bit like a breakdancing move) was designated a final purgatory season, I think, about four seasons ago. I have a simple formula for the replacement of fly lines (and by extension, reels). When I’m tackling up for a day on a stream and I realize that I’ve forgotten a reel at home I just buy another one. Every line that I ever purchase is a grudge purchase but, despite that, I make certain to buy only fine reels. I rush back from the stream into the the nearest town and the into nearest tackle shop gesticulating and demanding loudly for a reel to be set up. Quickly. The tackle jockey jumps to it and fires back “will this be OK?” and I answer “yes, that’s fine”.

Probably the single worst case of unnecessary tackle purchasing ever recorded (or at least until now) occurred in the wee hours of one morning in the village of Nottingham Road. I was attending the launch of a new product as a guest of one of our suppliers. A month or three before I had managed to convince them that if I attended another golf weekend I would be forced to shoot myself, that golf is for morons and that real men cast a fly. In an uncharacteristic show of concern for my wellbeing (or perhaps to defend their manly honor) the supplier arranged a weekend of fly fishing  punctuated only by sessions of heavily drinking and the occasional reference to their new products. (That’s not really true, it was heavy drinking punctuated by fly fishing in tee shirts promoting their new product.)

Our hosts hired the services of the local tackle shop to provide gear, casting instruction and guided fishing on one of their managed lakes. Guests started arriving at Notties Hotel shortly after lunch on Friday, grabbed a beer and headed to the lawn for casting instruction. I can use a bit of casting instruction as much (or more) than the next man but as I seriously dislike being told what to do I made my way to the bar. We were told to be at dinner at seven, but I seriously dislike being told what to do and I stayed in the bar. By midnight we were on that slippery precipice where the evening could go one of two ways – either to bed or to hell. We opted for the latter. 

Come 1AM we were telling the inevitable stories of fish lost and won and some newbies in our party began to feel a little left out and probably embarrassed at using rented tackle shop gear. “Never fear” say our guides in well-practiced unison “we’ll open the shop, it’s only a three minute walk away.” My eyes welled up and my chest warmed in gratitude toward these hardworking young men who would open up a store on their night off just so that we could gear up for the next morning’s outing. 

Now I’ve often arrived home after the euphoria of a quick stop at a well-stocked and friendly tackle shop has worn off to look at the credit card slip and feel just a little faint. Let me tell you, come 6AM on this particular Saturday morning there were a dozen guys clutching bags of new tackle, staring at credit card slips and shaking their heads in abject fear of their wives founding out. 

Breakfast followed by assistance in tackling up and discussions about prime areas to fish, etc. was planned for 06:30. Our guides (having taken ample advantage of our host’s bar tab) arrived at 10:00. By this time Andre Joubert, the ‘Rolls Royce of fullbacks’ (got to drop names) and I had decided against assisting our colleagues, had worked a weed bed and I had a nice five pounder browning over a fire. 

[This anecdote is of no bearing to spending a winter waiting for the season to open, but it helped me kill an hour’s downtime. Back to off-season gear maintenance.]

I do this off-season maintenance more carefully than most things that I do. The off-season is a long, drawn out thing and you don’t want to be rushing what you can drag out. Don’t believe for a second that I do it properly, I just don’t rush it. 

My next ‘tell’, the equivalent of being dealt four aces, is when I take out my vice. Winter just got real. I am, to not put too fine a point on it, a really shit fly tier. I probably fish (if I’ve had a blinder of a tying session) one out of every twenty flies I tie. My flies are about eight parts superglue to every one part tying materials. I can’t even recycle the hooks of my bad flies because I can’t get the dressing off. If you see me and I’ve got bits of fluff and feathers stuck to my fingers and lips and with one eye glued shut go easy on me. I’m not a natural fly tier. 

From time to time I post onto social media a photo of a fly that I think represents a giant leap forward and upward in my progression on the fly tying learning curve. I posted a week or so ago what I thought was a really nice stimulator type caddis. “Great hopper” came the comment. I got more encouragement recently with some favorable comments on a caddis pupa that I apparently posted. It was intended to be a GRHE. I suppose you can’t be good at everything. I’m walking testament to that. 

There are, I recognize, a few worthwhile things that I could be doing during the off-season. For one, I could improve my casting. I can cast a bit – enough toget by, but honestly, not much more than that. I know, none but the bravest or most drunk in our community will admit that they are good casters, but I am not very good at all. I’ve bought some pretty good instructional books and videos in my time – I’ve even watched and read them – but I can’t be asked to stand on a school sports field doing the exercises. I’m sure that most of them work and that they’ll improve my skills but casting at field mice is just a little sad. I could get an instructor. I could do a bunch of stuff. Seems a lot of effort though. Especially in winter. Standing in a field casting a line with the rivers closed is just too poignant and sad a reminder of how empty my life is in this bleakest of seasons. 

I should, could, and do, fish a lake from time to time in the closed season, but it’s not really my thing. It’s not an unworthy expenditure of my efforts and I do get a thrill from the hooking and playing of a large fish but, well, it’s just not the same as a day on a stream. I find this hard to explain as I really enjoy lake fishing. But… There’s always a but attached to it. I’m not sure what the but is always for. I think that lake fishing just doesn’t result in the same sensory fulfillment that stream fishing does. Particularly if the size of the fish that you catch isn’t important to you. I suspect that I’m in a tiny majority of anglers who fish for a reason other than number or size of fish. I can’t tell you why I fish but my therapist and I are exploring this and (provided that my medical aid funds hold out) I am assured that a ‘break though’ is nigh. As an aside, if you think that tackle shops burn through a child’s university fund you haven’t seen what a therapist can do. At least with a tackle shop you get something for you money that you can’t blame on your mother. 

I could, I suppose, do a little out of season stream fishing somewhere where I can get away with it. The National Parks no longer give a blind damn what you do and there are isolated private waters where you can get it done. I don’t though. Anymore. I have in the past, but that was years ago when my worldview was challenged by some hard experiences and when I didn’t give a shit about myself, much less a fish and his sex life. No, I refuse to fish a river in the wintertime – and so should you. (Insert picture of man shaking his finger at you here.)

The off-season turns me into an enquiring amateur meteorologist. I understand that our predominant sub-Saharan high pressure cells move closer to the equator and drag behind them the low pressure cells that sit closer to the antarctic during summer. These low pressure cells are responsible for the Cape’s wet winter weather, but if they’re powerful enough they can push inclement weather into the summer rainfall zones. I look for inversions and cut-off lows and celebrate them when I find them. 

I know the patterns of frontal systems moving along the escarpment and I learn the place names of towns that are no more than a Main Street and a farmer’s co-op but which lie on this path. I know how much rain was recorded there and what the chances of it coming our way is.  I dial daily into the webcams of our few ski resorts and try to distinguish real from artificial snow. 

Yes,  precipitation in the most far-flung corner of the country suddenly becomes of prime importance to me. There was snow just outside of Queenstown? Rain in Qumbu? Not Qumbu, Cala? How much? Could it be moving up the coast? Ah, shit, it’s confined to the coastal belt. Richmond had 18mm? Mooi River only 1mm? Damnit. But there’s a second cold front moving across the Cape and the mountain ranges have a smattering of snow. Yes, it dusted Lesotho, but we want it on this side of the Berg. (Now that had me reaching back into my high school geography learnings. Hope I got some of it right.)

This is a dry continent. Our streams are a boom and bust affair. There’s a whole bunch of science involved, but it all crystallizes in the fact that if we haven’t had much winter precipitation (particularly water table feeding snow) there’s not going to be a lot of water in the streams come the first of September and, obviously, not a lot of fishing either. Add to that the threat of late summer rains and the whole cycle is on its arse until possibly February; with me standing forelornly watching, rod in hand and heavy hearted. 

Inevitably though the rains will come and the rivers will be fishable. Right about them a new set of anxieties manifest themselves. The first day of the season is a seriously hit and miss affair as the fish are generally still sluggish, but not as sluggish as I am after the forced break. 

I am never up earlier than I am on that first actual fishing day of the season and I never drive quite as fast to get there either. 

Despite my fumbling attentions my fly boxes are brimming over, vibrating, with their ample contents. My leaders have been tied and retied and my line is clean and slick. My hands shake in anticipation and I take my breath in short, shallow draughts. 

Isn’t that all that fly fishing is, anticipation? The anticipation of what’s around the next bend, what they’ll be feeding on, where they’ll be lying, how to present to them, whether they’ll accept your offering, what they’ll look like when they come to the net and whether you have it in you to repeat your success. 

I suppose that if an off-season heightens this anticipation then it’s not too bad a thing. 

On Nice Stuff

I started this on a whim and it took me in directions that I could not have guessed at. I’m happy that it did. 

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Theres some thing about owning something really good and rare that that is difficult to explain. Trout fisherman know the feeling – they’re the biggest horders you’ll ever come across. 

We’ve all got that one (some of us may have more) items that are totally indispensable to us and which have a value far more than what they are worth. I myself own very little by the way of rare or expensive tackle. That which I hold dear are really very little, insignificant things by comparison to most. 

I am always amazed by the dichotomy of thinking when it comes to things of great value. We tend to want to offer money for things that we hold to be priceless. It’s a really strange thing; let me explain with an example. 

My wife’s grandfather lived in Worcester in the Cape for most of his adult life. By the time I met him he was already of some considerable age. He was a simple man and was well loved and respected in his community. He cared for his neighbors and they, in turn, looked after him in his old age. 

Oupa Hannes was renowned for his garden and orchard, the fruits of which he and Ouma Bettie would turn into wonderful jams and preserves. Much of the bounty of his orchard he would share, as a gift, with his community. I can still not get over his genuine surprise every time one of the community would reciprocate. Their relationship with the world was a rare and special one. 

Worcester is where the KWV brandy cellars are situated. They are the producers of brandies and ports that are in many cases far superior to cognacs or ‘real’ ports. Of the gifts that he would regularly receive I was most interested in those that came from this cellar. He obviously had a relationship with someone at KWV and had been receiving gifts from them for many, many years. 

On one visit to Worcester we took Oupa Hannes on something of an outing in the district and, as we do, stopped into a large wine co-op. In a glassed-off display within the store was, among others, a bottle of extremely old KWV port. While the exact age of the bottle I do not recall this particular vintage would by now be very close to being a century old. 

Oupa Hannes stood looking into the display until a member of their management arrived to ask if he could be of assistance. 

“How much is that port?”

“It’s not for sale”

“If it were to be for sale how much would be asked for it?”

“It’s not for sale.”

“I understand that, but what would be the price were you to sell it.”

“I said that it is not for sale.”, came the familiar response, but this time more tersely and with a certain rolling of the eyes. 

“Yes, it’s not for sale, I understand that. All that I want to know is what it’s asking price would be were it to go on sale.”

“Oom, let me explain this. That port it very, very old and it is very, very valuable. It is of an exceptional vintage and there is not a lot of it left in this world. Many people have tried to buy it from us. The only time that it would go on sale would be at an auction and the bidding would determine the price. The price will be beyond the means of most people. Why do you persist in asking, are you trying to buy it?”, came the slowly enunciated response of a younger person frustrated with an aged one.  

“Oh no, it’s just that I have at home a case of the same port of exactly the same vintage and I was wondering if they were worth anything.”

“What do you want for them!”, was the quickly fired-back response. 

“I’m sorry, young man, they’re not for sale.”

This is exactly what I’m talking about, how we try to put a price on that which is intrinsically priceless. We covert most that which we cannot have; the ownership of which we somehow believe will make us unique or special. 

I like nice stuff. No, I really, absolutely like nice stuff. I think however that I just have a very different idea of what nice stuff is. It is very hard for me to try to put into words what for me constitutes nice stuff, but I know that it’s not simply expensive items. 

Expensive stuff isn’t necessarily dear to me. With a suitably swollen wallet I could easily own a picket fence of cane rods and fine, handmade reels. I would appreciate them and would be awed by their workmanship, but other than for the recognition of the hand of artisan they would not be of any great value to me. You see, things need to be bound to oneself in a different way to really be of value. 

As a teenager I met a man who later employed me for a few years. Peter Thorburn was a civil engineer and a partner in his own extremely successful practice. He was also a devoted fisherman and was proficient in many disciplines of the sport. He was an amazing guy; unbelievably intelligent, a former Springbok athletics captain, a farmer and completely off the wall in many ways. 

I remember driving up to his farm one day and finding him welding up a broken trailer. He couldn’t find his welding mask so as he held the welding rod in one hand he held an empty quart beer bottle up to his eye with the other. With Peter this sort of thing wasn’t unusual. His trousers were hemmed with staples and superglue and he would trim his nails with a large knipmes. 

I think that he entered into fly fishing later on in his life and he took to it like most things he did – with a singular ability and unique perspective. His flies were really basic, simple things. He used to use crab patterns made of old carpet fibre to deadly effect on trout. His saltwater flies were just as crude but he took great fish on them. I think that he would be cast out of most fly tying clubs the second he opened one of his boxes. He knew his stuff though. In the age of fast sinking rocket taper lines and Walker’s Killers he only fished a floater; in our eyes this made him truly eccentric. 

He passed away suddenly and his death affected me profoundly. He wasn’t a mentor in the “come let me help you” way. In fact, he would tell myself and a friend when we’d talk about learning the double haul or clever techniques or smart flies “that’s your problem, you want to be a bloody hero”.  I think that it took his death for me to realize that he was at all a mentor to me. I was in my mid twenties and thought, like most of us did at that age, that death happened to old people. The church in his adopted hometown, Komga, couldn’t hold those at the service. Neither could the tent they erected for it. I was a poor married student at the time and I spent the last of our grocery money that month to buy petrol to drive up from Port Elizabeth for the funeral. I arrived just in time and stood outside the tent and cried; as I am now. 

His wife, for reasons I will never know, saw fit to mail me some of his things a few months after his passing. It was nothing of any value. It was just some priceless things; some flies, oddities of small tackle and a poem that he wrote. 

In the package was something liquid. I’m not sure what it was, but the package was clearly badly mishandled and the liquid drenched the contents. Much of it was damaged. I marched into the postmaster’s office and vented at her with much emotion. 

“Wasn’t it insured”, she asked’ “is it worth much?.

How do you even begin to answer that?

I think that to reach the end of your days and to have collect just a little of what is truly priceless is the mark of a life lived well. I’ll let you in on a secret; it’s not that collection of rare tackle – that stuff is going to go for a song at a garage sale a generation hence. No, while it enriches your existence and is a joy to have near you it isn’t priceless. 

While I write this (excuse me my emotions – this was intended to have been something entirely different when I started it) there is a bigger sign of a life well lived, and it has stuck me like an epiphany. 

When you have left someone else with something priceless then you have gone some way to enriching the world by your time spent on it. That, I think, is the challenge of life. 

On Photos of Trout

I am not afraid to admit it, I’m petrified of posting pictures of the fish I’ve caught. 

In fairness, I don’t have many photos to post as I don’t frequently take photos of fish that I’ve landed. I fish in, by most people’s standards, small waters and while I’ve taken some decent enough fish from them they are still small fish. The memory of a day spent on a stream is enough for me and I really don’t feel much need to photograph the actual fish. I start reaching for my camera and then just leave it and tweak the fly loose. 

The fish that I do photograph are generally because of some particular marking or coloration that I find alluring and that I want to record to draw later or to show to someone who I think may be similarly interested in them. Most photos of fish (and drawings of them, for that matter) just look like a dead fish. I get no particular pleasure from the hundreds of photos of fish that I see every week courtesy of social media. The pictures that I do like are generally because of some unique feature rather than being because of size or number. 

On reflection, I think that I don’t photograph many fish stems from my lack of need to possess them in any way. I own many things that I love, but I don’t possess them in the way that some do. I prize them for their existence and proximity to me but even inanimate objects of value have a soul and I cannot claim to possess a soul in the same way that drawing in a deep breath does not place me in possession of the wind. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. 

There are a lot of guys who are posting onto social media pictures of some exceptional fish. All too often they are taking an exceptional lambasting for it. 

These contributors are getting an on-line tongue lashing for how they are holding the fish, wearing gloves, lying them down on the bank and for many other reasons. This has made me really rethink how I photograph fish and their catch and release in general. 

Firstly, let me say (again) that the whole notion that you are a Neanderthal for keeping a fish is simply nonsense. That one needs to limit one’s catch for reasons of conservation or improving the sport I agree with fully and completely. That one fishes (especially an impoundment) and is out of line on ethical grounds for keeping a fish for the table is just ridiculous. 

This whole ‘ethical’ debate is running far too hot in the circles that I frequent. 

There is a movie called ‘Powder’ recorded in the 90’s that had a scene that has stayed with me until today. The story is about a boy with some sort of advanced mental capacity that enabled him, among other things, to feel what another living thing feels. It sounds like nonsense, but it is a deep and moving story about how we can’t accept that which is different even when it is far more advanced and profoundly more beautiful than anything that we can imagine. 

The scene I refer to is where the youth enters a cabin that has trophies of hunted animals hung from every wall. Later he is with the hunter when he shoots a deer. The youth touches the dying animal and then touches the hunter who recoils in horror on feeling the pain of the animal. The hunter, inevitably, stops hunting. Watch the movie. It will move you. 

If I relate this to the lauded and much vaunted  ‘ethic’ of catch and release it starts to cover the whole idea with a certain shadow. 

That fish are not mammals I am well aware. Their capacity to feel pain is, as I understand it, diminished to the point of being non existent. Trout neither nurture their young or raise them in the mammalian sense. I don’t understand the science involved in arriving at these conclusions so I can’t offer comment. 

What I do understand is that a fish, when pricked and made to feel the tugging resistance of the line, certainly feels something. To my mind the emotion (an anthropomorphism, but the only one within my frame of reference) that they feel is terror. Pure, cold, unrestrained terror. 

A fish knows only a few things. It knows how to feed. It knows how to evade predators. (These two are closely related and the line between them is blurred.) It knows to procreate. There may be a few minor other bits of cognitive stuff going on, but for an angler this is all we need to focus on. 

When hooked in the jaw every instinct that it has turns to escape. The runs, jumps and evasive tactics that we celebrate as sportsmen are an indication of the unsurpassed level of terror that the animal experiences. In most cases the extent of this terror is simply off the charts. 

Where am I going with this? 

We speak of catch and release as though it is a behavior which has a source the angler’s bleeding heart; that we are doing the fish a great service. Bullshit. Let me make one thing very, very clear. Angling is a bloodsport. The fish derives nothing but abject discomfort from our attentions. 

Having said that, I don’t feel overly ashamed of what I pass off as sport. I am an apex predator and the fish is there for my taking. I fish by methods that make the task more difficult and exacting. I could just as well use a cast net to sighted fish, or scoop a few out of a hatchery pond; but I enjoy deceiving it with cunning and skill. (Whatever that means.)

We don’t fish for the reasons that we think we fish. I’ve accepted this as a truism and I don’t much think about it any more. I think that I’ve reached an age or a level in my development where I can let some questions remain rhetorical; I accept them. What fires our adrenaline as an angler comes from somewhere very deep in our ancient brain and it defies, certainly my, attempts to understand it. 

So, let’s go back to catch and release. We’re starting to go over the top. That fish need to be treated with respect and are not to be possessed or dominated stands to good reason. That breeding stock or smaller animals need to be protected is perfectly pragmatic an approach to the management of a food source; the same applies to hunting and agriculture. That in order for them to grow and for them to breed they need to be returned in as fit shape as possible is to state the obvious. 

All of this requires us to treat our catches with respect and to handle them with great care. I understand that. What I don’t understand is this current obsession that sees the fish as being entirely fragile. That simply looking at it the wrong way will result in its rolling belly up and dying on the spot. 

I’ll tell you something else. I’ve seen a few of the catch and release self-appointed clergy fishing and their bite is very different to their bark. Not that I’m judging them, most of us are unintentionally duplicitous to some degree. When the adrenal glands squirt that magical elixir into our bloodstreams we all do the sort of things that we would prefer ourselves not to. 

Where, then, does this leave me on the subject of photographing fish? Let me sum it up. 

  1. I don’t feel much need to photograph fish.
  2. I eat some of the fish that I catch and this does not make me less ‘ethical’ than, perhaps, you. 
  3. I return wild breeding stock, undersized fish and fish that I won’t eat absolutely fresh. 
  4. I, not through conscious decision but by virtue of my nature, deeply respect the fish that I catch. 
  5. Fish that I return I try to treat as gently as possible and I consider myself blessed for my brief contact with them. 
  6. Catch and release edicts are entirely valid. 
  7. That these edicts often wildly overcompensate for the weaknesses of the fish I understand them as being necessary to ensure that our minimum efforts in handling the fish are some way above the point at which mortality may occur. 

I think, in final conclusion, that the whole debate boils down to what I advised my teenage son recently on the subject of the fairer sex and life in general; don’t be a dick. (Whichever side of the C&R line you choose to place yourself.)

El Dorado

I bumped into an old friend and sometimes fishing acquaintance of mine today. 

“Been fishing lately?”, he asked me immediately and somewhat predictably after the handshake and the, by now far too common and personal-space-invading, shoulder bump hug thing had been dispensed with. (I hate that shoulder bump thing. I don’t like being touched by other people. Also, this isn’t a hip-hop video. A nice cordial handshake will be perfectly sufficient, thank you.)

I hardly got the chance to answer him when he peeled off a story of a new found friend with a farm in the Dargle somewhere. He obviously didn’t sense my immediate discomfort and continued telling me about the two-and-a-half kilometers of the Umgeni running through it. 

Why, I ask myself, is it always 2.5km? Sigh. These farms with rivers running through them. They’re so predictable. Have you ever noticed that it’s never 2km or 3km of river running through them? It’s always the same, absobloodylutely consistent, 2.5km. I couldn’t tell you the width of a midlands or berg farm to the nearest thirty kilometers but, I can tell you to the meter the length of them – 2500 bloody meters. 

Please forgive me my apparent cynicism, but if you’ve also heard the stories of these farms (hearing about them is about as close as you’ll ever get to them) you will know what’s going to come next. I’ll give you a clue, it starts with the extension of the arms and then their slow parting in distinctly opposite directions. 

So you know the story of the guy in Bloemfontein who found Elvis Presley’s hand made Harley Davidson in a barn? He got the seat off what he though was a nice rare old pan head and there, to his delight, was a little plaque that recorded that the bike was a gift to Elvis from James Dean. The wording on the plaque differs depending on who you hear it from, but the story is always the same. He sold it for a few million dollars. 

Oh, you heard it was found in Kansas City? Dublin? Maine? Budapest? Dar Es Salaam? I could be wrong.
Well, wrong up to the point that the bike has been standing in the Harley Davidson museum since just after his death and that at one point they had to employ a person just to respond to the correspondence being received to let them know that it had recently been found. In a barn. On a farm. Somewhere in the midlands. On the side of a 2.5km stretch of prime trout stream. 

“Browns”, says my mate with ‘that‘ tone. You know the tone I mean. If you don’t then all that you need to picture in your mind is a pair of archeologists sitting in a busy, smoky North African bar discussing a recently discovered secret ancient treasure of gold that makes Tutankhamen’s tomb look like our old Mazeppa Bay long drop. 

“Browns”, he says, spreading his arms further and still further apart. 

Spreading one’s arms apart in description of the size of fish is a very specific skill and if you haven’t been schooled in it I suggest that you arrange proper tuition before making a fool of yourself. 

You need to start fairly rapidly and assuredly; you want your audience to get a feeling of concrete-like confidence in your description. As you continue to spread your arms you need to take very careful note of their body language right down to a micro level. Dilation of the pupils and a slight tightening of the skin around the mouth is a sure sign that their confidence in your description is being stretched. By the time the eyes begin to squint and an eyebrow almost imperceptibly raises you need to lower your arms and move swiftly on with your story. 

“Browns”, he said, focussing carefully on my smallest muscle contraction and dropping his arms exactly at the point where I stopped listening, and almost whispered, “big ones.” Yeah bud, I got that. 

There are a few points that are entirely consistent when these farms, rivers and their fish are being described. 

  1. The farm never has a name. 
  2. The farmer himself is never actually named. 
  3. The road that the farm is on is always a bit general in description. 
  4. The person telling you the story has never actually been there himself. 
  5. The fish are at least shoulder width and, if you’ve recently treated yourself to some youth prolonging Botox, even  bigger than that. 

You see, I’d like to believe that like some piscatorial El Dorado there is a farm in the Midland that holds brown trout of mystical proportions. (Try to picture me sitting here on my couch, with my feet on the coffee table, watching your face in a quite fixed and unsettling way and with my arms outstretched. If you’re able to picture me not blinking for a minute or two you’ll start to get the idea.) 

Few have seen this farm and all that we know about it comes from stories told by old timers around smoky fires. Ah, but what tales they are! A river (exactly 2500m long) that runs wild and holds a head of behemoth trout. 

The old timers speak of it in a low slow drawl, pausing only to stoke their pipes or to push an errant log back into the embers. When the flames flare you can, for the briefest moment, see a spark of youthful energy in their eyes as the years seem to roll back. Every hair on every neck of every listener within earshot stands to attention and the young and the old alike lean in to bask in the story; as though to absorb the information before the next man. 

Or, at least, that’s how I’d like to picture it. The reality is always very different. 

No, you see, you’re bound to hear of this farm and it’s river in certain very particular places and around a campfire isn’t one of them. 

The first is on bumping into an acquaintance as I’ve described above. Why the hell they feel the need to tell you this story is something that I’ll never work out. Perhaps I’m being unkind and what I should have said is ‘why the hell they feel the need to tell me‘. If you’re looking for some form of social or angling validation from me then you indeed have self-esteem issues. I really don’t care either way. Honestly, I couldn’t give a shit whether you cast upstream dries on the Test or trawl Barbie dolls with treble hooks attached to their ankles through drainage ditches. As long as you have fun and don’t touch the doll inappropriately I’m fine with it. 

The second place in which you’re bound to hear this story is at a berg or midlands hostelry where the inevitable arsehole who can’t sit quietly for more than ten seconds overhears your discussion and chips in with his inevitable story. You know the kind of fellow I’m talking about. He’s the guy who can’t tell you of a fish that he has either caught or lost but who seems to have been standing bankside while various friends, cousins and anglers of renown (a veritable shithouse full of fly flinging luminaries colour his every story) have reeled in fish after trophy fish. His stories always start a little before yours finish and always start with ‘that’s nothing‘. I swear, when you hear of my arrest for assault with the intention to cause grievous bodily harm you can be sure that it took place in a hotel pub somewhere in the midlands. 

The third venue is in a group of mates where you are introduced to a new guy. He always seems nice at first but is easily distinguishable from your real mates (they know but will never tell your embarrassing secrets) by the fact that he’s the husband of one of your wife’s new, insufferable friends. Find the friend that I’m talking about and her husband is the one. He’s normally a nice enough guy at first, but when he starts spreading his arms in my house he’s asking for a preemptive strike with a quart of beer to the jaw. Umtata style. The nice thing about the preemptive casting first of this proverbial stone is that his wife also pisses off home in his wake. To extend and slightly mix the metaphor, it’s a case of killing two birds with one stone. Look, you’re going to have to contend with a stoney-faced wife for a fortnight but when she says “do whatever the fuck you like” you might as well go cast a line. It can’t get any worse. 

The fourth place where you’re going to encounter this story-teller is in your favorite tackle shop. You know the drill, you’ve got a fist full of over-priced feathers and tippets, you’re leaning on the counter shooting the shit and passing pleasantries with the proprietor and some guy and his girlfriend walk in. The skinny jeans and wayfarer wearing knob suddenly wants to be part of what he thinks is an open convivial conversation. If he knew anything at all about the gentle art of angling with a fly he would realize that what they’re witnessing is the time-honored prelude to the inevitable request for discount. This is a slow process that needs time and space to unfold. It’s like a discussion in a kraal among the elders; slow, deliberate and respectful. We all understand this. You can’t just butt in with talk of 2.5km stretches of Midlands river. I mean, for feck sakes, look around, that blonde bombshell of a girlfriend of yours has no angling experience but is rolling her eyes and tapping her foot at your interjection. There’s also no chance of rectifying the situation by spreading your arms even wider; she’s already out the door tapping ‘dad come fetch me‘ texts into her phone. Now get into your Polo and piss off. 

No, I don’t hold with these fables. That there are farms in the Midlands with one and a half mile stretches of lovely riprarian frontage is entirely true. That they have some fairly large fish in them is also completely true. The farms are named. They have fences with ‘no fishing signs’ on them and you can’t just be popping in name dropping and expect to get permission to fish on them. Most of the farmer’s names I don’t know. They never introduce themselves (which I think is poor form, but at least it obviates the uncomfortable shoulder bump thing), no, they just wave their guns around and ask if you can read. 

Which is, I think, a pretty stupid question. But not half as stupid as talking shit about fantasy rivers.