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.}


3 responses to “Sometimes You Take What You’re Given

  1. Joe passed away this year, but you can still listen to him on a recent Orvis podcast. He talks about strapping immense weight to your leader, (perhaps to balance out the filing cabinet?) and says a few other things too, but the sound quality is bad, and I think there is a background wind of 30 kms/hr. He may well say something about “wily critters”.

    Entertaining as always Savs!

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