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. 

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