Confessions Of A Fly-Buyer

I buy my flies.

There you go, I said it.  

I see you recoil in horror. 

Calm down, I don’t buy all of my flies. Some of the patterns in my boxes are of my own tying. Be that as it may, I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that I overwhelmingly fish flies that I’ve bought from stores or stolen from naively trustful friends.  

Once or twice a year I sit down dutifully at my vice to fill gaps in my boxes. It always brings back vague and distant memories. Disconcertingly, the memories are of attending my kids’ pre-primary school plays.  

Enough with the gasping already – I know that you share my pain. 

I’m aware that it’s important that I’m supportive and I remind myself that there’s nowhere in the world more important for me to be – but somehow my mind drifts off and I stifle a scream as the crowd hushes and the house lights dim.

Weeks of preparation go into these endeavours as I drive around collecting fabric and threads and beads and all manner of ‘essential’ costume trimmings. The list seems endless and no expense or labour is spared in my efforts to turn out the best dressed cast member that I can. In this theatre artistic rivalry is acute and the costume is considered infinitely more important than any actual talent on the part of the player.  

When the curtain goes up I sit there aghast as various unrecognisable life forms adorned in their new vestments pass before my eyes and under the glaring spotlight that is focussed down on them. I look around at the smiling faces and proud looks of the other parents and wonder what it is that I’m missing. They’re all taking photos, patting backs and congratulating each other as they point out the fine qualities of the costumes that have been hung on their little ones’ backs.  

The curtain comes down at last and I rise with a feeling of profound relief. The show is over for another year. The spotlight cools and dims and I busy myself with packing away the discarded bits of feathers and fur that surround me at roughly the same diameter of a Boer laager of old. (I’ve learned to pack up properly. Decent capes in these troubled economic times are worth roughly the annual GDP of the average African country. A domestic cat, I’ve discovered, likes nothing more than to chew on the rancid desiccated skin of a cape. Right now there are four of the feline bastards stalking the perimeter of my laager, just waiting for a chink to present itself.)

The truth is that I am just about, almost but not quite, discerning about the flies that I fish. I’m not terribly certain how to explain this other than to say that I know what constitutes a good fly and I go out of my way to fish the best tied fly that I can. This isn’t to say that I don’t fish a bad fly – I just don’t fish truly terrible flies. 

I cannot abide this kind of fly, but at least they’re really easy to spot. They have the close, buttoned-down look of a Sunday morning part-time real estate agent in a cheap, shiny, tight-fitting suit with a necktie like a silk 1X tapered leader and barely visible through the fumes of what can only be the result of a recent bath in Aqua Velva. They look nothing like what they purport to be. Hell, they’re not even close. 

A truly terrible fly performs badly too. Grab one and lightly rotate the dressing and the hook in opposite directions. The dressing will easily turn around the fly. Now take another and pull the dressing either forward or backwards and notice how easily it slides on the shank. You will by this time also witness various bits falling off it, thread unwrapping and dye marks on your fingers.

Grab another handful. Pin the point into the counter and pull at the eye. I guarantee you that it will straighten or snap. Do this a few dozen times; statistical variances will be slight. 

You should have by now realised that a terrible fly is both a visual and a mechanical abomination. By all means point this out to the tackle shop jock – right now he’s standing over your shoulder pointing at his sign that says “lovely to look at, lovely to hold, but if you break it consider it sold”. Without a hint of irony you can tell him that you refuse to pay as the trash that he’s selling is neither lovely to look at nor lovely to hold and that you didn’t break them as much as subject them to a righteous mercy killing. 

No, a truly terrible fly is like actually meeting the woman on the other end of the phone sex line. Despite how attractively they’ve described themselves they are always going to look like an emaciated grandmother dressed in nylon, laddered stockings, a lurid grin, too much make up and reeking of a lifetime of disappointment. 

On the other hand, a pretty bad fly looks just about right and is a tempting buy.

Its singular fault is that it’s proportionally wrong in the way that those chubby ladies in the tight dresses and skyscraperesque heels that you see at the airport or award shows are proportionally wrong. They’re wearing the right labels in the right places but they somehow don’t seem to pull it off very convincingly. They sort of wobble along with a bulge that appears here, disappears there and then catches you unawares by popping back out where you were least expecting it. (If you can picture a chunk of polony wrapped too tightly in cling wrap you’re on the right track.)

When you look at them in dim light or after a drink or two they appear to be the real deal and you snap them up hungrily. When you wake up the next morning and have a half-good look at them you realize that your judgement was a bit wayward and that you’ve got to find a way to shake them off without having anyone’s feelings hurt too badly. 

We all own more than a few pretty bad flies. I’m fortunate enough to have not tied these myself and I dispose of them by giving them to my son (I know, but at least I’m blushing as I write this) or by simply throwing them away. The guy who invested hours into filling his box with flies from his vice only to realize that many of them are pretty bad doesn’t have that luxury. 

When they come off your vice it is like having spent a great deal of time and money wining, dining and softening up that generously proportioned lass in the telescopic heels. In the morning you’re left regretting your poor investment and wondering whether there’s a slim chance of recovering some of it. Some of guys will hang on in this relationship for a remarkably long while as they try to at least extract some conjugal dividend from their mistake but, in the end, they have to reconcile with the fact that they are, ironically, screwed. 

My personal aesthetic doesn’t require perfection. I’m quite happy with workaday flies that get the job done. 

Ignorance, in my case, is truly bliss. 

Good Friday, 2016

“Nice fish. What fly?”
“Umm, a DDD”
“Oh, a dry, so you’re a purist?”
You’ve spent much of the day on the really small stream flowing below the campsite. Further up it quickens into smaller pools and fast glides as it climbs up through the reserve and into the mountains proper. There’s not a lot of holding water up there, but what you find is deep, dark and well protected. 

You doubt that many people fish this water; certainly very few fish it seriously. 

The small ‘bows up here are game and very nearly every cast that you don’t peg into a branch raises a fish. You raise what must total a hundred fish in not many more casts than that. You hook almost as many and land not many fewer than that. 

Clearly you’re one of the guys who fish this stream seriously. You’d like to think so anyway. You’ve taken comfortably more than, what, fifty fish today? That’s serious. Or it was; for the first half-dozen or so. 

After that it was just carnage (in a nice catch-and-releasely kind of way). This happy go lucky catching and releasing of mostly palm-sized, parr-marked, dumb-as-shit rainbows is occasionally punctuated by a fish between 8″ and 10″ and then you’re a study of seriousness for a cast or three; but it doesn’t last and you find yourself screwing around again. 

You take a 13″ fish from a deep pool and it’s far and away the best fish of the day. The three landed from the same pool brought no satisfaction and tying a weighted soft hackle from the bend of the dry turned out to be right choice. It’s a cool thing, getting it right and you smile to yourself a little. 

The nice thing about fish hell-bent on the annihilation of their species is that you get to test flies objectively rather than using your usual half intuitive way of rating them. 

Terrestrials are shunned with scorn. Your floating and trailing sunken ant combo, a deadly duo, receives upturned noses and clenched jaws. Caddis aren’t on the specials board today; that’s as true as tomorrow’s sunrise. A rise in every ten casts, give or take. 

Today, like many others this high up, is mayfly day.

An Adams gets you a rise in every seven casts. A parachute Adams begets a slash every five casts. 

Ok, you reason, you want them lower in the film, do you? 

You tie on the funny little para RAB emerger thing that your friend tied for you. He has a technique that he claims makes them superior to everyone else’s. 

No amount of squinting your eyes reveals the secret to his technique and they look a hell of a lot like every other bloody para RAB you’ve ever seen – but damn if the trouts don’t love them today. It’s not cast for cast stuff, but it’s one every two and a half casts at least. 

When the sun begins to leave the tight valley you pack it in. Your daughter has requested trout for dinner and you would walk over hot coals for that girl. 

She loves trout; it’s her favourite meal by a long, long way. Perhaps it’s some vestige of your primitive self but you treasure the act of stopping by the lake, catching something of a reasonable size and preparing and cooking it for her. As a hunter-gatherer you’re not the most skilled around. Frankly you’re more of a gatherer and are genuinely surprised when you’re able to provide dinner; regardless of how many times you’ve done it in the past. 

The dam is a little above the river. Screw it, you drive up. The air here is thin and as the sun dips below the high peaks the chill sets in. Your soaking wading boots and trousers begin to make your joints hurt. 

The water is a fairly large one. One guy is on a float tube and judging by where he is and the action on his casts you determine that he’s casting a full sinking line and is dragging a beast of a fly along the bottom. Wrong choice, you just as quickly determine. 

On the windward bank are four or five guys casting from the bank and retrieving too quickly. Strip-strip-strip-jerk-wiggle-pulse-pause-strip-strip. The whole thing, between casting, retrieving and casting again takes about 30 seconds. 

A quick ask reveals that there are no fish about today. The stunted conversation, if that’s what it is, turns to amber liquids and log fires. 

One of the guys on the bank has a cigarette hanging from his lip and it jars with his exceptionally graceful cast. It entirely messes up what would be a beautiful picture. 

He lays out a long line and strips more line off the reel. The click-click-crrrrrrrrr sound that you hear is one made only by a seriously good reel. You know the difference – because none of your budget Korean reels make that sound. 

He’s putting a full line out now with as little effort as he puts into dragging on the smoke in his lips. He doesn’t touch it and the front of his vest is gray with ash. 

Soon he’ll just be an intermittent red glow on your right. Evening is coming down fast and you’ve got to get a move on. You really hope he’ll pick up a good one though because that reel is really going to sing as the backing peels from the spool. 

You’ve left the two weight in the truck and have your five with you now. You’ve been here before and you know what works. It’s not intuitive, it’s a law of nature, carved in rock and handed to a prophet on a mountain top. 

You’re on the windward bank, there’s a slight chop on the water and the sun is fading. You have a largish, ragged DDD with a small nondescript flashback under it at around 30cm. 

You pull some line off the reel and envy your neighbour for the sound that his made when he did the same. You cast maybe 15m and stand dead still. The wind brings the fly back and you repeat the process a few times. 

On the fourth or fifth time you see a swirl and set the hook. The water isn’t deep but he appears to have come up almost vertically because his head broke the surface. You could have sworn he took the dropper and think that you got lucky with that early hook set. 

He drives hard up and down the bank. He doesn’t run for deeper water at all. You want to shout to your neighbor with the sweet reel to get his line the hell away from your fish but you just muscle it into the net as quickly as possible. 

His weight you estimate at around four pounds; perfect. You notice that the dropper is fixed firmly in the roof of his mouth and the dry is hooked into the outside of his mouth. You smile because for once in your last few times on a still water you got it absolutely right. You club him on the head and turn for home. 

There are probably a few more that you could deceive but you can no longer feel your feet in your wet boots. 

Someone is talking to you but it takes a while to register the fact. 

“Nice fish. What fly?”

“Umm, a DDD”

“Oh, a dry, so you’re a purist?”

You smile. Because you can’t find the right words. You walk back along the wall with the faint smell of fresh fish rising from the net at your side. 

Float tube guy shouts out. His rod is bent a little. 

He must be a purist. 

Create!

This past Saturday I did a ‘talk’ at the Natal Fly Fishers / Federation of South African Flyfishing annual general meeting. 

I’m not comfortable in rooms full of relative strangers. It’s not that I’m shy or anything, I’m just not great at small talk and making quick social connections. What I am is cripplingly self-conscious. Still, I was asked after a few pints (my Kryptonite) and a mix of that and a great respect for the guy who asked me (my other Kryptonite) had me saying yes immediately. 
While I quite often talk in front of groups of relative strangers in my business life it’s pretty easy to do; the subject matter is known and there are rules and a common culture that allows you to slip into it quite comfortably. In the instance of a room full of strangers the dynamics change quite a bit. Firstly, they’re there (one assumes) to be entertained as well as informed and secondly, you run a real risk of looking like a knob in front of your peers (at least 80% of people in corporate stuff look like knobs, but they’re protected by the culture). 
 Anyhow, I was asked to talk on how I make wooden landing nets. I’d hardly said yes to the idea when I realized that two problems immediately presented themselves:

1. It’s a mindnumbingly boring topic

2. Making nets funds my fishing addiction and the competition is already pretty stiff

I couldn’t just dismiss the request and do whatever I felt like doing (I’m starting to earn a somewhat less than exemplary reputation for being a bit ‘disrespectful’), as well as that respect thing that I mentioned above. 

No. Clearly I’d have to find a third option. I started working on the presentation far too close to the date of the event and covered the ‘how-to’ bit fairly quickly and, I think, succinctly.  The part that I was looking for as the main theme came to me almost immediately in the process. I’d like to share it again, with your indulgence, as I think that it’s important – rather, it is important; so pay attention. 

[It was written to talk to. It doesn’t read very well. But that’s not the point.]

———————–

  
My aesthetic does not require perfection. There is beauty in imperfection; often profound beauty. The principle that underlies what I do, regardless of what it is, is creativity. 

Creativity is the process making of entirely something new from something that already exists. 

You are a flyfisher. 

Your success relies on observing your environment (often down to minute detail) and by creatively mimicking this in your lure and its presentation to your target. By the fact that you haven’t given up the long rod in favour of a golf club leads me to suspect that you’re probably pretty observant and creative already. 

Fly fishing is the ideal vehicle for creativity. It is inherent in an activity that takes you to places and gives you experiences that raise the spirit and which fuels the creative process. Cricket has hollowed out watermelon hats. Rugby has – what? Blue balls beneath HiLuxes? No, no other pastime out there rivals fly fishing for the amount of creativity required to be remotely successful at it. 

Allow yourself to be inspired by these influences. Acknowledge them and seek them out voraciously. Immerse yourself in them until they overwhelm you. 

I urge you to then take these influences and to use them to create that which fires your soul – paint, draw, write, split cane, bend sticks, tie flies, take photographs, machine a reel, write a song (the “windknots-suck-and-I-lost-a-bloody-bus-in-the-weeds talking blues). Ok, Maybe not a song. 

Allow yourself to be creative and to create. 

I can almost guarantee you that you aren’t going to be the next Garrison, Hardy, Skues, Gierach, vom Hofe, Young, Maclean, Etc.. 

I can’t guarantee that you won’t be the next Sutcliffe, Brigg, Boschoff, Geldenhuys, Erwin, Bertram Smith, Fowler, Etc. 

What I can absolutely guarantee you that you’ll be a better version of yourself. 

In the end that’s all that matters. 

Of Birds & Barometers

I read somewhere that the old folk used to say that if the cows were feeding in the pastures the fishing would be good. 

Sounds a bit like rustic, folksy crap to me. 

Perhaps what they said was that is they were lying chewing the cud then the fishing would be bad. I don’t recall and they’re probably the same thing in any case. 

Yup. Still sounds to me like rustic, folksy crap. 

There’s a problem though. I’m an out-and-out sucker for rustic folksy notions and I pay very close attention to them.

Over the years while driving up past dairy herds in the Kamberg valley while I haven’t exactly slowed down to check the status of beasts that I passed I’ve shot a general look on their direction and have made a mental note of what I’ve seen. 

The problem with mental notes, and mine in particular, is that they’re fairly useless for any practical scientific purpose. You tend to need to introduce them into conversations with phrases like “the old folk say..”.  Any deductions made from them are almost incidental and are certainly based on nothing more than a feeling; a sense of correctness rather than some even marginally educated stab in the dark. 

This whole cow feeding / not feeding thing has bugged me for a long time. I want to believe it. Nay, I do believe it. Sort of. Unless the moon is full. And you’re wearing your lucky cap. And provided that you wind the left side of your blood knot forward over the leader and not behind and under it. 

Seriously though, I believe it. More or less. 

I just want to believe it I suppose – because it’s rural cool and everybody wants to be a little rural cool when they’re wearing a stupid hat and are engaged in a blood sport. 

There’s just something undeniably attractive to be said for the observations of people from a time where things were less hurried. Back then people had the time, as well as the inclination, to stop and look around them and in the process to notice certain patterns. For heaven’s sake, that’s how modern science started in the first place. 

Sunday a week ago the doc and I found ourselves on a very seldom fished section of a river (don’t even ask, this is a fragile area and can do without the traffic – with the exception of mine; I’m spending every free minute I have up there from now). The conditions were sublime. The stream was flowing a little slower than I expected but was in otherwise perfect condition. 

A cold front had recently passed, dropping the first snows of the season onto the higher peaks and the water was perfectly clear and bracingly crisp. The sky was that particular indiscribable shade of blue that you get on cold days after the dust has been washed from the atmosphere by precipitation of some kind. 

The walk in over a steep hill drove the chill from our bodies. We turned at the mark and pressed on down through the valley to the river without the benefit of a footpath through tall, dry and razor-edged grasses. We sighted several species of antelope and pricked our skins on wild brambles. 

The river was beyond perfect. A gentle upstream breeze assisted in the way that it does; by hiding us and allowing us to turn long fine tippets over the ridiculously clear water. 

We should have taken more than our fair share or fish that day. I still battle to believe that we didn’t. I would have bet your hard earned money on it. We fished well enough, of that I’m sure, but we didn’t even see a fish move until I practically stood on a silly bugger late in the day.  We didn’t even so much as have a fish rise half heartedly at a well presented fly – and this in one of the most prime bits of stream that I’ve ever fished. With all the gold in the world on this day we couldn’t buy a fish.

Only on the walk out did we realize that we had seen no insects. At all. Neither did we see or hear birds. The entire valley was still other than for the occasional flick of an ear on the head of one of a few eland in the far distance, and had been all day. 

I don’t believe in coincidence. 

I’ve been thinking about this almost obsessively over the last week and some sort of grainy, out of focus picture is forming in my mind. 

A day or two before we set out on our fruitless expedition the barometer fell as fast and as hard as Icarus did a few moments after the melting in the heat of the sun of the wax that held the feathers of his home-made wings together.  It fell fast, hard and despite what economists call a ‘dead cat bounce’ pretty much stayed there. (Whether Icarus bounced is unimportant for the purposes of this analogy.)

Now I’ve seen and I know that when the glass falls all insect and bird activity slows down markedly. 

We had it again this weekend up at Bernie’s Lake in Impendle where a front dropped the record volume of rain in a 24 hour period over Durban. We saw two eagles perched forlornly on telephone poles and four cape vultures circle over our heads as we practiced our casting on a private lake, but other than that not a bird, dragonfly nor a caddis took to either the skies or to song. (The vultures were only there as a dramatic statement, I suspect. The universe apparently has a sense of humor.)

Here’s the thing, and this is fact. On both days the barometer was indicating extremely low air pressures. No birds nor insects stirred. The fish disappeared as trout are wont to do. I’ve seen this pattern before. 

You can bet your arse the cows weren’t grazing either.