The spring rains come late and the rivers are reduced to narrow tears running down the dusty cheeks of the mountains. You write about it for a magazine and having reread the piece recently are genuinely surprised at how morose was your mood.
The signs are not good. The Pro, who gets his water from a borehole, typically pumps from the water table above 20m. He’s pumping below 80m.
As summer approaches the rivers warm up. Before they become too warm (a relative concept) you make a trip or more onto them. You tell uMadala that the population of your mutually favourite beat has been decimated. He says that a friend of his got a few up there a few days earlier but you remain skeptical. Besides, uMadala and his ilk could raise a fish in a roadside puddle – if there were two fish left in the river they’d return a brace.
uMadala did however fish an ordinarily very productive river in the Southern Berg and found it to be devoid of fish. Reasonably heated debate ignites over whether the rivers in a few districts need to be restocked, so great is the anticipated toll.
Arguments conflagrate around whether to leave the remnants of the population alone (an argument apparently favoring natural selection) or whether to introduce fish bred at Rhodes University to be heat resistant (the “science to the rescue” approach). You quip that it must take a long time to cook a heat resistant fish – but the debate continues at its furious pace with a pretty sharp joke, you think, collateral damage.
In preparation for an overseas fishing jaunt the Supermodel and you fish a bigger section of river. The morning is hard and absolutely blank in that way that only a trout stream can be blank. Swallows pick tiny mayflies from just above the surface but other than that nothing moves. You blame it on the completely miserable weather and obviously lower fish numbers.
By a little after lunchtime the Supermodel offers to buy you lunch in the village, which you eagerly accept, and while you whip off a few last-casts he walks around the corner for a look at a long turbulent run. He calls you to tell you that there’s a fish rising and suggests that as you’ve got a dry on you might as well have a shot at it. You argue feebly for a few seconds, pretend to blush and protest meekly, all the while shuffling into a better casting position.
The fish is moving in those fluid S shapes that are so unique to a trout and is picking bugs off the surface as they are drawn through the gap between two rocks. It only takes you 20 casts and around 3 missed takes before you hook the fish – and even that after you lined it. It’s a lovely brown over a foot long and you grin happily.
The sun is out now and dropping a dry in the shaded side of obstructions on the bed raises a fish every third or fourth cast. It’s frenetic and you each land a brace and drop or are snapped off by a few more (including one that schools the Supermodel authoritatively). You wish that you could hardware certain things into your approach to streams. Like fishing the shaded side of rocks. Every so often you need a reminder. The alchemy of observation and response doesn’t come as naturally to you as to others that you occasionally fish with.
You spend much of November on the North Island and don’t fish again until a polite duration of time elapses following your return (by which time the Supermodel is fixated on rivers and is single-handedly driving up the international trade prices in desirable, if not necessarily rare, tackle).
By December there has been reasonable rain and the braver amateur meteorologists are calling the drought broken. Around Christmas you fish the same piece of stream that you fished with the Doc, but this time with the Pro and the Supermodel. You catch around three fish a piece but towards midday the water temperature drifts ominously towards 20C and you swim and play about as much as you fish. It’s the first reliable sign of fish for the season but you’re not convinced. More rain is needed before thereally hot months come.
McGupta joins the three of you in the week between Christmas and New Year and you fish a river renowned for not giving up its bounty very easily. It’s a grey day and the river is nice and quick; almost bank-to-bank. You raise a very decent fish that sips the dry in textbook fashion, runs downstream and snaps you off around a branch. It’s the only fish any of you see all day. But it’s a hard river and you’ve done worse on it. McGupta keeps reminding you that it was a “proper” fish and that you “stuffed it up properly” (or words to that effect). How he saw the fish you’re at pains to explain because he spent the entire day untangling his flies from every piece of flora that lined the riverbank and several a good cast away from it.
Early New Year finds you on the stream with your son. He leaves for ‘varsity in a few weeks and he has suddenly developed something of a taste for small streams. You’re happy about this. Stream fishing is something that will help him deal with the stresses of his studies and, damnit, he’s a good man to be spending time with.
You fish twice together. The first time you get a few and he has one of those days where he does very little wrong but can’t keep the hook into a jaw. You take his rod to demonstrate a presentation and hook and land a fish. You keep him in front of you for the rest of the afternoon fearing patricide by way of a well-aimed rock.
You go back a few days later and you the both of you do fairly well. The Solicitor joins you just a few days after that and other for one that you wheedle out of a cranny with a hopper early on the rest of the day is blank. (In the interest of preserving his dignity you won’t mention the hog that the Solicitor dropped from a spot in a pool exactly where you told him it would be.)
During all of this you ruminate on the state of the rivers. There have been reasonable days, but not too many of them. You interact with a lot of anglers but no clear picture of the health of the rivers emerges.
In the Midlands / Giants Castle drainage system the word is that it’s “OK”. In the South it’s still dismal. You can’t remember when they finally opened the club beats, but it was very late in the season.
One thing that you do notice is that there are no small fish around. In some of your favorite beats the rivers are naturally diminutive and tiny, snatchy-grabby fish abound – those 3″ things that pounce greedily on the fly before the bigger one you were aiming at can get a look in. The previous season, for instance, McGupta claims to have witnessed as many as six little fish slash at your fly during the course of one drift. You write his recollection of the day down to his youth and therefore abundant quantity of narcotics that he obviously must consume. One thing is for certain – this season they simply aren’t around.
uMadala has a theory that with the gravel beds exposed for much of the winter the fish simply held tight in what was left of the current and had no gravel on which to lay eggs. You have often been hooking small bushes and grasses towards the outer banks of the stream, well within the banks, and you agree with him.
It rains some more and the fishing gradually improves. Word is coming through that we definitely survived a catastrophe more-or-less intact and you breathe a conscious sigh of relief.
Then, without warning, it absolutely explodes.
To be continued…