Sometimes You Take What You’re Given

Some ten or fifteen years ago some friends and I attended a conference near Underberg. We had all ditched our kids with a motley assortment of aunts, grandmothers and casual passersby and had booked into an old stone farmhouse on the very banks of the Pholela. 

Ah, the Pholela! In the distant mists of my notoriously foggy memory I could remember an enticingly fishy reference to the Pholela. More specifically I could remember a massive brown that had, I think, been dispatched to the resting lands of its ancestors by a herdsman with a knopkirrie and a hankering for fresh fish. That it had happened almost a century prior to my arrival was a minor detail and was of little consequence to my rapidly developing plans. I could already see myself dressed in my best silk gown, seated on a wingback chair and smoking my pipe while admiring a stuffed 10lb fish mounted over my fireplace (if you’re going to dream at least do it properly).

Whatever the story was, the house was on the Pholela and I had a rod as well as what, from a fish’s point of view, was murderous intent. 

I was back then a raw novice at stream fishing. I had in a terribly clunky and unsuccessful way fished a stream before. While my intent may have murderous, my actions in those days would have bordered more closely on a teenager for the first time negotiating the clasp of a bra strap – a lot of sweating, tugging and words of encouragement but without that satisfying tug on his line. 

The first time I fished a stream was in the company of a lifelong friend; a man with a pathological fear of snakes. He made it abundantly clear that we were going prepared for any serpentine eventuality or not at all. The Friday afternoon before our first outing was spent buying a pair of gumboots and a grass slasher each. 

Now, I’ve subsequently spent a fair amount of time on streams since those days and I have infrequently happened upon other anglers in the course of my ramblings. I’ve witnessed on or about their persons a lot of what can only be described as tools and implements of the trade, but I believe that we are probably the only two anglers in history who have alighted bankside with grass slashers in hand. 

Despite my selecting what I thought were some likely pools and runs the fishing was generally rather poor. I caught nothing at all that day. I did however see some fish move, swiftly, in the general direction of far, far away. 

With some experience under my belt (and having now read some frightfully austere angling tomes) I’ve happened onto the idea that perhaps, just maybe, the furiously swinging glint of a slasher in the bright sunlight as it hacked at snake-ridden spring grasses from the bank adjacent to the flow may have contributed to our lack of success. Some further research and field tests of this hypothesis may be required, but I think there’s something in it to work with. 

This time around my mind was focussed like a laser on trophy brown trout from a famous Berg stream and I was willing to risk snakebite to have at them. 

The weekend before we were to leave one of my friends called and suggested that he’d fish with me while we were there. Pleased as punch I drove over to his house with a rod, a reel and my treasured Joe Humphries stream fishing video. 

I don’t know where I got the video (it was a decade before these sort of things were available through the Internet) but I had watched it so many times that it was starting to become stretched in places and Joe’s foreign drawl was becoming quite unintelligible. Joe is the self-styled “Arnold Palmer of Flyfishing”, but why on earth he aspires to be like a golfer is beyond me. Perhaps he just likes ridiculous trousers. 

I taught myself to almost-cast from that video. It ingrained into my muscle memory some poor casting habits that I’ve lost all hope of ever shaking off. Every time I walk onto a stream I hear good ‘ole Joe repeating two parts of that video that became a bit of a mantra to me – “back, tap, forward, tap; in a little circular motion” and “a trout is a wily critter“. I’m sure that at least one of those statements is true, but I wouldn’t like to venture a guess at which one it is. 

I recently saw a picture of a now much older Joe Humphries fishing during one of those get-togethers at the Catskill Museum. You’ll know Joe when you see him. Rather than wearing a chest pack what he’s done is to strap an average sized steel office filing cabinet to his front. How the hell he fishes with that thing on God alone knows, but he seems to have done alright. He’d just better not fall in. You’d need a harbour derrick to pick him back out. I dare say his paperwork will be irretrievably damaged though. Serves him right. 

  
My favorite sequence from the video is where he’s demonstrating how to quietly slide into the stream and how to make a tight cast to a rising fish. You see him make the cast and not long after that land the fish with a satisfied “thars a purdy liddel rainbo”. That he’s wearing a slightly different shirt to the one he was wearing when he made the cast and that it doesn’t even seem to be the same stream shouldn’t cast aspersions on what I’m led to believe are his prodigious talents. 

But I digress. 

I arrived at my mate’s house in a howling 30km/hr south wester. The wind was howling is what I mean – I drove a Corsa van at that time. I handed him the video and threatened him with his life should he lose it (which reminds me, I never did get it back). 

I strung the rod and despite the wind decided to demonstrate my best back, tap, forward, tap; in a little circular motion. I knew that it was hopeless in that wind and I don’t even know why I bothered to try. 

Looking up for a suitable casting target I saw a juvenile cypress tree about 15m away in the front yard. The steel stake to which it had been propped in its early youth had worked loose and lay at a slight angle maybe 12″ under the lowest branches of the tree and a yard or so in. 

I lined up my cast and loosened my wrist. I suppose that it’s a bit like when you’ve had a few too many and decide to hit on the hottest girl in the bar. You know you’re going to leave with the whole room laughing at you but you have a crack at it anyhow. Drinking, like exhibition casting in gale force winds, requires you to check-in your self respect at the door.  

“When you’re really good, like me” I said straight faced (despite an absolute conviction that I was about to lose all credibility), “you’ll be able to make the most difficult cast in any weather condition. You just need to compensate for it sufficiently. Watch closely and I’ll lay a cast at the stake under that tree.” I did my best back, tap, forward, tap; in a little circular motion, and neatly cast the leader under the lower boughs of the cypress tree and allowed the tippet unfurl and to come to rest draped neatly over the stake. I still don’t believe that I made that cast. It was – no, it IS, an impossible cast given the circumstances (primary among those circumstances being that it was I who held the rod).

It’s at times like this when you take the good fortune that the universe has just bestowed on you and try not to overthink it.

“Best you watch that video and practice every day” I said with granite features “if you too want to make casts like that.” 

I swear that his mouth was hanging open. 

“Also always remember” I added without flinching “that a trout is a wily critter.”

 

 

{Joe Humphries is legend as an instructor and flyfisher. I have both maligned and misquoted him mercilessly and untruthfully.}

{Serves him right.}

On Jargon

I’m busy tossing a few things in a bag for a trip with a few mates to waters around Nottingham Road. It’s a scene of chaos and upheaval not too unlike, I imagine,  the sacking of Rome. I’m packing randomly, without system or direction. I should make a list as the mental checklist that I’m working from is pretty much useless. 

When prepping for a fishing trip there are two things that you should never leave to chance. The first is beer on ice. You assume the regularity of rural Midlands liquor store trading hours at your peril. With your luck its market day somewhere and the proprietor is out selling overpriced turnips to tourists and you’re left staring down the dirty barrel of two days of sobriety. It’s not a pretty thing. 

The second is the weather. Until recently it was all a little dicey with the word ‘forecast’ being used in a quaint and almost whimsical way. The most watched programme on TV for decades was the utter mess of half-truths that we called the ‘weather report’. It had a slickness of production usually witnessed in pre-primary school concerts. It starred a hapless civil servant, a large map and much gesticulating with a telescopic radio aerial that had until recently been a component of a mid-seventies Ford Granada. 

There’s a low pressure system over ‘Gordonia’, you say? Where the hell is Gordonia, I say? They still had proper synoptic charts back then – the ones with the little stick placed at weather stations that pointed in the forecasted wind direction. Wind speed was denoted by little lines off the main stick. My middle age myopia was (despite what you may have been told) caused by squinting and straining my eyes to count these lines ahead of fishing trips. At best this ‘forecast’ was an educated guess – a 50% probability of being almost, but not entirely, totally inaccurate. 

Nowadays we honour the ritual by browsing various weather ‘apps’ and websites on the internet. These things are ridiculously detailed. The problem with them is that to understand them you need an advanced degree in meteorology.

For instance, what exactly is a 4m/s wind? If I understand it correctly it suggests that this breeze would cross my bedroom in about 2 seconds. That’s pretty quick. I couldn’t do that in my prime and in my best running shoes.

By comparison, when I squeeze out a sneaky one in the bedroom it takes a lot longer than that for the missus to start waving her arms about. Purely to benefit your understanding of relative wind speeds and to promote and extend my existing body of personal scientific investigation I’ve done some calculations and have concluded that I fart at about 100mm/second. I was hoping that it would be a lot more impressive than that but it’s returned a most useful comparative outcome. 

We all know that a fart ‘wafts’. We also know that a waft is a lovely breeze in which to cast a fly. Clearly a 4m/s wind it a bit faster than that and may be at least a little irritating to an angler casting upstream dries, hell bent on tight loops and delicate presentations. A waft is around 1 or 2m/s and that’s the sort of wind you’re looking for. But that’s the thing with weather reports – they’re really hard to get your head around and could sorely use some simple explanation. 

In my mind weather reports should just say it as it is. “You’re going to need to use that silly chin rope thing on the bottom of your hat.” Gotcha, Simon. Best I fish my 4 weight. “Westerly wind that makes the surface of the stream move in the opposite direction to the current flow.” I’ll just weight my nymphs heavily so that they actually fall to the water and don’t flap like a flag in the wind a metre above the surface on the presentation cast. How simple was that? Metres per second just creates unnecessary confusion.

When it comes to meteorological straight-talk, temperature should be no different. “Ball-numbingly cold with a high probability of your line freezing to your rod”. I get that immediately and may lie about in bed for an extra hour or two. Something like “cold enough for your nose to drip long silver streaks down the front of your waders” is absorbed instantaneously. On the other side of the scale “so hot that your line gets too limp to cast and, despite your best attempts, you’re going to be drinking warm beer”. Just stay at home. 

Still on the subject of temperatures, this ‘discomfiture index’ and ‘wind chill factor’ malarkey blows my mind. 21 degrees but feels like 30? 15 degrees but feels like 3? How the hell do you prepare for that? I don’t understand how this can be considered a forecast. Some weatherman grown tired of constant abuse made that up as the ultimate meteorological cop-out. There’s a whole lot of science out there that I know I don’t understand but, let’s be honest, a lot of it is nonsense and this is right up there with the best of it. 

And how much, exactly, is “3mm of rain over a five hour period”? It doesn’t sound bad at all, does it? I have some experience in this. Experience that I could have avoided if the bloody thing had said “expect miserable pissy rain, the kind that hangs in the air and sort of sinks through your clothing and into the darkest recesses of your soul – the sort of rain that compliments depression and increases regional suicide rates”. All that “clearing from the west” means is that you’re waterlogged and miserable in the Southern Berg but it’s a balmy evening in Camps Bay. 

However, for the ultimate expression of wanton gibberish look no further than tackle reviews. They’re written around the fact that the average angler is a sucker for the sort of near-science that weather forecasters revel in. I especially love their explanations of drag strength. I fish relatively small streams and as a result I pay little attention to things like drags and spool capacity. I look for a not-too-ugly, functional, fit-for-purpose reel (read: cheaper than grass). 

These tackle reviews describe drag efficiency using a measure called ‘drag torque’. What is ‘drag torque’? This is a concept stolen from the motor industry (specifically clutch design) to firmly hook the ever-impressionable angler.

“This one has 20 drag torques.”

“No. Bloody. Way. 20 drag torques? This is unbelievable. Honestly, I would not have thought it possible. You sure? 20?”

“20. I swear. Take off your shoes and count them. As many, nay, more than you’ll ever need. Shall I just put some backing onto the spool?”

“Backing? Is that really necessary? This thing has, after all, 20 drag torques.”

Drag torque is a very simple concept and I may be unfairly maligning it. It is neatly described in the following diagram and is, for your edification, further reduced to a basic formula. Really, I can’t understand why this isn’t printed onto a poster and displayed on tackle shop walls so that we can make informed choices. 

  
Good grief, this is worse than wind speeds. Why can’t they just say it in good old fashioned English? 

Forget drag torque. I can propose no better test and rating scale than my own ‘Pork Chop Rating’. It’s a really easy test to perform and provides a fundamentally easy to understand and intuitively digestible expression of the relative strength of a reel’s drag. No advanced mathematics is required. All that you need are several pork chops, a small cross-section of dog breeds and a little open space.

Set up a rod and attach the line to the collar of the smallest breed first. Take out a pork chop, hold it under the nose of the dog and then throw it (the pork chop, not the dog) about as far as you can. You want the dog to take off for about 15m or until it reaches terminal velocity, then engage the drag and try to stop it dead in its tracks.

Even the lightest available reel should stop a Yorkshire terrier and will be adequate for a high altitude stream. For medium rivers you want to be able to stop a corgi. Small still waters a wire hair terrier. Large still waters a Dalmatian. You get the picture.

I humbly submit that it would be a great deal of benefit to the consumer for reel manufacturers to indicate on the side of the box a picture of the species of canine that it can restrain. Browns on the middle Mooi? A pointer is way too much, take the Scottish terrier. GTs? A Pitbull. Bonefish? A whippet. Simple, straight-forward and effective. 

But, typically, I find myself way off topic. I only wanted to point out that when planning a fishing trip what you really need is to have a decent list.

Staring Into the Sun Will Blind You

Andy Warhol was a strange guy. An unsettling, challenging, label-defying, all round strange guy. As a creative mind he was a genius of the highest order; but he was a strange guy, that’s for certain. 

In my uneducated opinion the thing that separates creative geniuses from the common or garden variety genius is their unique way of seeing the world. The very definition of genius, for me, is the ability to cut through the clutter and to see the truth contained in a thing – be it an object, an emotion, an interaction or a transaction. 

A creative genius is different to the other types in how his vision manifests. He not only sees through the noise and makes the connections but he does it is a very different way. He doesn’t draw flow charts or devise complex mathematical theorems and techniques; he demonstrates these connections (these truths) through sensory stimuli. The Mona Lisa, Stairway to Heaven and calculus are different expressions of the same ability.

It’s a rare thing, creative genius. It is like watching a master illusionist- I see what they do, but I have no idea how they do it.  

  
***

I’m a terrible student. I have a great many interests, but no passions. I have studied very little about very few of the things that I’m interested in. 

***

My father played guitar. It’s my first and most enduring memory of him. 

I am told that on the night that my mother and I returned home after my birth my father’s band rehearsed in our home. Obviously I don’t remember that – but I like to think that it would’ve sounded great on my bio if I had ever have trained hard enough to become a working musician. 

When I was ten years old I hurt my spine. I hurt it quite badly and it took some surgery and many months off school until I recovered enough to more or less pick up my life where it had been suspended. 

Around this period I was given my first guitar – one of those nylon string Spanish things. I wasn’t allowed to play much sport and I suppose it was there to help me to pass the time. 

I was, and am, grateful for it. 

 
I picked it up and put it down in intervals of a few months, but by the time I reached the middle of my high school years I could play rhythm on a few songs. My father was, at that time, paying bills by playing music in a restaurant a night or two a week. I would play rhythm while he would pick some Shadows instrumentals. 

I would sit in a booth in a corner, well obscured by the high back of the bench, and all that anyone would see was a guitar lead coming out of the booth and straight into the PA. It must have looked strange to see him calling chord changes to an invisible partner. 

My confidence and competence grew and by my last year or two of school I was sitting in with him, or sometimes a band, a few times a week. I was an acceptably ordinary guitarist and I was starting to learn to sing in tune and even to sing harmonies. This pleased my father and, as a result, pleased me. 

At this point (as with so many kids that age) I became absorbed with music. I was also singularly in love with the guitar as an instrument. 

I played for hours every day. I discovered Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, the Cure, the Smiths, the Doors, Led Zepplin and hundreds of other bands. I wanted to be them. 

When I left school I studied in Port Elizabeth and slowly immersed myself in what was a vibrant music scene. With the added stimulus I improved (where I grew up I was the only kid I knew that played). I had a few friends who were career musicians and I wanted to get to their level. 

I started studying formally and practicing seriously. This was a different practicing to what I was doing a few years earlier – that was discovering chords and rhythms and sounds, this was hard work. 

The more I practiced the less I enjoyed it. The more I deconstructed a piece the less it meant to me. The joy was removed. 

I suppose it was like when an illusionist’s methods are revealed; it’s just never the same. 

***

I was gifted my first fly rod for my twenty-first birthday. A friend and I read a book and hung around and picked up a few tips. Slowly we picked up a few fish; not many, but enough to keep us coming back. 

I got to a point, I suppose, where I’d taught myself a trick or two and fairly regularly caught fairly good fish. We had a lot of fun. We never took it very seriously. When the movie came out we were already flyfishing and it bought us some sort of outdoor credibility. Mainly we had a lot of fun. 

I moved to KZN about fifteen years ago and have slowly drifted back towards casting a fly. I do it alone and, as far as is practical, I do it on rivers. I am overwhelmed by it. (Not catching fish, there are easier ways to do that.) Flyfishing for trout in moving waters is a complex and multilayered thing that I don’t have the skill to describe to you. 

I’ve spent a lot of days over the last few years alone on a river. I’ve camped out alone or stayed over somewhere and in the last three seasons have walked through the soles of two pairs of wading boots. I’ve learned some stuff in the process. 

What I like about what I’ve learned is that it’s come hard but it’s come naturally. You read a bit and buy a fly or two and then you go apply it all.  In the course of applying it you learn the truth and you make the connections that you don’t make in a lecture or get from reading a book. 

I suppose that if you count the number of rods on our rivers in a weekend I’m no worse than half of the guys out there. Solidly average. 

Not quite a year ago I met and started fishing with a group of friends and sundry acquaintances. They’re good guys, every one of them, and I’m grateful that I’m spending time with them. 

I’m doing a bit of other stuff related to flyfishing. Some of it is creative and I am fulfilled by it. Some of it it virtual and it compensates for my social anxiety and relative inability to interact with strangers in person. 

I’m having a lot of fun. 

I’m just trying to keep it fun. 

 
***

Warhol was a creative genius. He was visionary in many ways. 

He said that “the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel“. 

I am so frightened by that; the possibility of feeling better and emptier.