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.