On Secret Streams

Time, ahead of a much-anticipated fishing trip, rolls very slowly by. A group of us had set three days aside to fish what is about as close a thing to being a secret stream as you’ll find anywhere. 

When I say ‘secret‘ let’s be totally clear that it’s no secret at all. It is only a short distance away from the stomping grounds of the average fisher, but with a serious amount of sweat required to access it and without a quaint little town near to it for the wives to burn a little plastic in retaliation for being ditched during daylight hours it is all but forgotten. Sure, you cross it on the drive into a well known resort and several little business ventures in the neighborhood as well as hiking paths carry its name but few people pay it much by way of direct attention. It is, I suppose, like knowing that the son of someone in a circle of conservative friends likes boys a little more than he likes girls; more people than you’d expect know about – but it’s not something they talk about openly.

We knew of the river from someone who had previously lived in the area, who fished it extensively and who spoke of it in hushed and reverent tones. His mumerings supported what we could work out from the cloaked references made to it by a few people who venture there once or twice a year but who speak of it less often than they actually visit it. Credible and widely validated intelligence on the place was as thin as a kraal dog. 

Over the course of time I’ve carefully developed a sort of a network of people (whom I’ve mostly not ever met) who share with me tidbits of information from time to time in exchange for tidbits of information from me. It’s a strange and complex set of relationships where each of us believe that we are reaping more that we sow in respect to the information that we share. Hardly an evening passes that I don’t receive a call from here, a text message from there, an offer of information exchange, a thinly-disguised interrogation or a clandestine photograph. Meetings are convened in obscure coffee shops and seemingly random encounters on busy sidewalks are anything but matters of chance. It’s like a Cold War spy novel. Circles within circles. Shadows. Casual nods and heavily meaning-laden surreptitious winks. Anyhow, if you listen well enough and scythe through the bullshit and bravado you can find the tie that binds it all together. When you give it a bit of a tug you can watch the truth unravel before your eyes. 

What I discerned in my exercise of gentle prodding and poking for intelligence about this stream was that everything I’d heard about it was almost true. I say almost true because it seemed that my network of confidential informants, moles and secret confidants held back critical intelligence – the stream was even better than they were prepared to admit to. 

We spent the first half-day on the stream and caught a few fish. The mountains were oozing groundwater through the veldt like snot from a three year old and the river was running bank-to-bank and fast. The going was tough.

The Ranger will fish only dry flies, the Adams for most of that, and he took a brace. He has a particular outlook on life and is one of those sorts that pull it off without sounding superior or condescending in any way. When he tells you that he owns one rod and that as a conservationist does not see the need for excess it genuinely makes you examine yourself more closely rather than dismiss what you would normally term utter lunacy.  He is sublimely comfortable in the mountains and fished alone, slowly and methodically.  I watched him for a while and was deeply impressed by both his skill and his humility on the water. 

The rest of us pinned fish on the nymph, but not in any great number or with great regularity. MacGupta uncharacteristically blanked while The Doc and Supermodel showed us the pinnacle of catch and release practice by all but cornering the market on long-line releases. Their effort is more noteworthy as they spent the majority of their time throwing their aged and decrepit bodies onto sharp rocks, down mud banks and into almost any obstacle on the river. When on returning home and hanging up your wet clothing you see mud inside a guy’s underwear you know that the day didn’t turn out exactly as he had hoped that it would. The Goose and I got a couple – but we were made to work hard for them. 

The storm that drove us from the river struck precisely on time at 3PM and made our skins pink by spraying us unrelentlessly with hail the size of road grit. The rain didn’t abate for the next two days. We never got back onto the stream and we spent the rest of the time alternately tying flies, eating, talking flies, servicing reels, eating, sleeping, eating or drinking grown-up drinks while eating. Sometimes we cast pretense aside and just ate. We tried to fish a nearby river on the second day but it was pretty much futile. Besides, it wasn’t the river that we came to fish and after what we had seen the previous day it made a rather ugly bridesmaid. 

What was the secret stream like? Superb. Not another like it exists in our country, of that I’m certain.  The scenery around it is as breataking as the stream itself. There are two rivers in this world that have began to consume my sanity. This is one. The other is in New Zealand. 

This brings us full circle back to the rather touchy subjects of secret streams and whether I’m going to share this one with you. 

I’m not.

The secret stream, hole, stretch, pool or run is part of being a fisher. It is a concept that is woven deeply into the tapestry of this art. I don’t know why that should be because, I made this point up front, it really isn’t a secret. The one I’m telling you about was showed to me by a friend and, I suppose, at some point I’ll be tempted (and even might) show another friend. You can see it on maps and read about it in books. One such book lies on my bedside table as I write this. It is still in print. 

Quite a bit has been made lately of a series of articles in KZN rivers that in true Wikileaks (Truttaleaks maybe?) style introduce or reintroduce people to stretches of our rivers that have been ‘forgotten’ or have been kept a secret by a few fishers. Some of these I or friends and I have stumbled onto quite organically as we searched the waters for a lesser-fished spot. Most are stretches of our most well-known rivers. Others I was introduced to or deduced through my network of confidants. Either way, I was initially saddened that they have been shared so publically. I wasn’t angry, although I think that some were, but I was upset that I may now be sharing some water with others. 

The funny thing is that these waters are no better than other areas of the river by any great margin. I know that there are areas that some feel should be kept quiet to limit the number of feet through them and the consequent disruption of the ecosystem. I think that I mostly concur with this sentiment, but I’m not sure how to decide who the few are that should be among those who represent ‘enough’ traffic. 

The Supermodel and MacGupta today fished one of our ‘secret’ stretches of river and had a blinder. (It’s so secret that the hiking footpath is about 15m from the high water mark and crosses it here and there.) They tell me that the grass on the banks has now been flattened by fisherfolk. I’ve advertised certain stretches of river too much myself and now rarely fish them as a result of the traffic up their courses, so I’ll shut up. 

In my experience most fishers want to fish near their parked vehicles. It’s a tiring thing, this wading of streams at high altitudes, and walking for an hour or more to the river is something that they seem to spurn. Looking at the geolocation / tracker gadgets that hikers wear has shown us that stretches of river that we believed saw perhaps 50 humans a year in fact see up to 8 per hour on weekends. Mercifully hikers seem to know nothing of good trout water and god willing it stays that way. Anyhow, I’ve invited guys to fish with me in areas that require as long a duration of walking as fishing – with very, very few exceptions they’ve elected to go fish in some god awful hole in the ground for stocked fish. 

Flyfishing for trout is to me the greatest escape. I assign to it an importance that it really doesn’t warrant. The places in which trout are found and where I most connect with them are for me like the childhood forts that we built in the bush behind our neighborhood – a secret place where we could entertain our wildest fantasies away from the judgmental spotlight of adulthood. 

We would choose very carefully who was invited to our fort. I choose very carefully who is invited to my favourite stretches of rivers. We sometimes call each other ‘brother’ in the tone of our loose vernacular and would never admit to meaning it in the way of the concept of classical brotherhoods. Most of these had at their hearts the protection of a secret. I understand the melodrama of what I’m saying – and it doesn’t bother me. 

I don’t share my favourite spots anymore. Some took years to find or to work out the best way to access them and I don’t care that I’m being selfish. 

It’s not sharing a water that upsets me.  

But the intrusion into my special world guts me.