Consciousness – Parts I, II & III

It just sort happens. You wake up one morning, go through your mundane daily routine and it occurs to you. It doesn’t come as a revelation. There is no bright beam of light and the harp-song of angels. There’s just you, a half eaten slice of peanut butter toast and a strange new awareness. A consciousness. 
In the corner of the kitchen lean a few rod tubes and cases. You’ve rediscovered the sweet feel of the two-piece rod, but they are a little cumbersome to store. You’ve fished some still waters over the course of the last two weekends and haven’t had the energy to exacavate a hole deep enough in your gear cupboard to bury them again. That’s fine. You like them leaning as they are in the far corner next to two of your guitar cases and more unfinished landing nets than would be considered “prompt customer service”. It’s a big kitchen, the corner is more an alcove than anything else and they’re in nobody’s way so you may as well leave them there. The nets will get finished when they get finished and the guitars will get played sometime – neither make you anxious anymore. 
You’ve been fishing stillwaters. It’s not really your thing. You fish them, and you mostly enjoy it, but it’s the clumsy stepsister of trout fishing. There’s an undeniable satisfaction to be had from catching fish that occasionally give you a glimpse at your backing but somehow that’s never really been what has captured your interest. Sure, in the early days when all you wanted to do was catch a fish it was perfect, but you’ve been doing this for more than half of your life now and simply catching a fish is no longer as much of a problem for you as it once was.  
Everything about a stillwater is the antithesis to a stream. In this country it’s an almost totally artificial environment (although in the better ones it’s fairly hard to tell the difference). The fish are the same species as in the streams that you fish but beyond that it’s feels for the most part like a continual pissing contest rather than a meditative place. Obviously that’s not entirely true, but it does feel that way. Longer casts. Bigger flies. Bigger fish. Weights and lengths and numbers. Somehow when you describe a fish from a stream as being 12″ it’s just a device to assist the listener rather than being a relative measure of accomplishment. Sure, when you say 16″ or, rarely, 20″ you’re making a statement – but it’s not the same one as when you say 60cm or 4kg from a dam. In a river the fish is validated for attaining a large size rather than the angler is for catching it. It’s a narrow cultural distinction – but it’s absolutely true. 

While catching a fish in a stream may no longer pose too much of a problem to you that’s not to say that you never blank. You took a friend out onto a stream to help him out a little and reassured him just before you left that he’ll be fine – you very, very infrequently are skunked. He’d been working rivers fairly hard for zero return and you wanted to get his confidence up ahead of stringing his rod. And you weren’t skunked this time either. He battled though and missed and dropped fish with alarming regularity. There’s no substitute for time on a stream to increase your confidence and with it your returns. If only new entrants to the sport would pay attention to a few simple things they would be met with almost immediate success. You can tell them and coach them and while some get it quickly only time (and that inexplicable and tenuous alchemy between observation and your reaction to what you observe) is what finally does it. 
You’ve made an effort over the last few seasons to join inexperienced fishers for a day on a river and the way you see it there are two basic mistakes made by all of them. The problem with trying to resolve these mistakes is that they appear to be such a fundamental part of the art that your guidance seems to them to be paradoxical. The first lesson is to stop casting. After weeks spent on the lawn in practice trying to explain to a guy that he should place his fly with as little casting as possible is practically impossible. The poor confused buggers hit the water and barely give the fish a chance, so little time does the imitation spend on the water. The second problem would be solved by telling your friend to leave his fly box at home and then on his arrival giving him one dry and one nymph pattern only. Between casting and changing flies the most suicidal of fish stands no chance of success. In an infinitesimally small fraction of the time your fly box holds the panacea to provide you with a full creel. As a sweeping generalization remember that no fly works all of the time, no fly works none of the time and that most flies work most of the time (but only if you give them the opportunity to do so).
It’s now mid-winter. The worst of the cold is still to arrive but you’ve lit the fire for the second time already. The rivers open in two months and five days. From where you’re sitting it may as well be five years, so slowly does the time drag past. 

Winters are for tying flies and doing chores (when you don’t occasionally capitulate and cast a heavier rod over an impoundment; something that you have precious little respect for and just can’t take seriously). You bought a custom version of the Rolls Royce of fly tying vices on a whim at a charity auction recently in the steadfast belief that it would galvanize you into using the impressive collection of other tools and materials that you own and that you would start off the next season with boxes plump with your own rough, but serviceable, flies. Retail therapy, they call it. 
You’ve yet to open the bag to even look at the vice but, again, it’s a really comfortable thing to have around. (And, by God, it’s beautiful – like the geek who snags a underwear model it’s far, far too good for you.) 
What you’ve been occupying yourself with is looking ahead to the new season. As you do every winter. 
Last season was one of two halves. Late snowfall brought to your favorite rivers a bit of respite from the crippling drought and come September they were a little more than just fishable. Opening weekend saw you and a rag-tag bunch flogging away at barely moving streams. You fished the little bamboo rod that you made the previous winter and were surprised how good it was. At 6’3″ it is a little short but you made it specifically for a particular stream and are ecstatic with its abilities and marginally less so with its looks. 
Opening weekend was something of a bust. You paired up with someone who was to become a good and treasured friend and fished through the village. You saw one rise, executed a perfect cast to it and (its early season, you consoled yourself) – duffed it. Sitting on the bank you built your pipe and smoked in the gentle spring sunlight until it started rising again. Without hurry you loaded the wooden rod and dropped the caddis within millimeters of where you wanted it. A snatching rise, a well-timed set and you were into your first brown of the season. 
The rod that you made (one makes a bamboo rod and builds a graphite rod I’m told) fought the fish beautifully, bending right back into the corks and nursing the 7X tippet. You rarely take photographs of the fish you catch but twisting out the hook and throwing the line aside and downstream you lowered the rod into the stream for a quick picture next to the fish. Fumbling for the waterproof camera in your breast pocket the fish escaped your light grasp and shot, at great speed, in the general direction of as far away from you as it can get. 
It would have taken more than this to spoil your mood and with a chuckle you pick up your rod, slowly becoming aware of some tension in it. Your fish in its flight downstream passed the fly and took it again. You get your picture as the rod, as good rods should, notches up its first story to be told over tackle shop counters and around fire pits. Other than for one from the small dam on the way back it’s the first (and the second?) and the last fish of what was a long day on the water. The conditions this season are going to be hard, you reason, but it’s going to be a cracker. Provided that it rains soon. 
The next day everyone leaves while the Doc joins you on a hike to fish higher up. Both fishing the grass rods that you made you leapfrog pools and smile and encourage one another as your spirits steadily start to wane. Collectively you spook one fish. You neither raise not prick a single one. You tell each other that the stretch is known for being difficult and in water this clear and slow you didn’t stand a chance to begin with. It’ll pick up, you reassure one another uncertainly, opening weekend is always awful. 
Two months later you’re getting seriously concerned. 

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, as 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. 

Word has it that the fishing has really picked up. Your ear is never very far from the ground and your network of confidants, informants and casual acquaintances tell you in hushed tones that they’re finding fish everywhere; in good sizes and numbers. There’s a sort of reticence to discussions on this success; it’s as though confronting it, like a wild animal almost tamed, may scare it off forever. 
You join the Supermodel on a downstream section of river where the fish are usually bigger than average. The river is far too fast for the tackle that you’ve brought along and by midday you agree unanimously to chuck it in and drive upstream for more a look at conditions than anything else. You drive as far as you can go and string up even lighter rods than before (your companion is still collecting gear and now carries a two page print-out of which line is on which reel and which rod it matches best). You practically jog across the hills to try to squeeze as much fishing time out of the day as you can muster. 
You reach roughly the point where you decided to start fishing from and split up. The Supermodel moves upstream while you drop down a steep ravine into a black pearl necklace of pools that you normally don’t fish owing to the effort to access them. 
You drop a fish on the first cast. It takes you by surprise despite the fact that the lie that you cast to was desperately obvious. Four more casts result in three refusals. You change flies and the game changes immediately. You’re taking fish almost at will now, the first being a beautiful hen from a wide eddy to the side of the very, very quick main flow. You watch it come up from nowhere, are surprised that it doesn’t see you and spook, and see it confidently sip the fly. 
“It’s wild. Wild!”, is the Supermodel’s greeting as you catch up with him. Your grin reveals your agreement with his précis of the afternoon’s action. You fish side by side and raise fish from every likely spot and a few less likely ones. They’re all of a good size, far bigger than average for this water, and are as fat as pork sausages with fins. Their colours are deep and bright. You’ve never bothered much with understanding condition factors but you know that these must be right at the top of the curve. The absence of a spawn and the inevitable swarms of small fish has resulted, you think, in less competition and more rapid growth in those that survived the winter. Couple this with nature’s tendency to bounce-back from hardship and, well, it’s wild man. Wild!
The Supermodel is fishing a simple caddis dry that you tied during the previous winter. It’s the one with the slightly extended wing that you’ve found they often marginally prefer. He’s getting on a bit, is your mate, and is often found looking a yard or more to the left or the right of the fly but they’re hammering it and despite his middle-age myopia he’s responding to the take perfectly. At some point he’ll also need spectacles and clip-ons like yours but for now he’s hanging on. He’ll go on to fish that single fly as his dry for the rest of the season and by the time that he retires it you would be hard-pressed to identify the pattern. You get ribbed mercilessly for tying with superglue but that fly somehow holds up for something like sixty fishing hours and takes somewhere around fifty fish so you’ll stick to your guns. In the end it’s just a lump of furry superglue impregnated thread. 

At the last pool your companion drops a half dozen fish in an area the size of a kiddies inflatable pool. They are all more than happy to come up four or five feet to smack at the dry. By then it’s all just a joke and you’re laughing loudly with every miss.  
You fish until a rapidly approaching storm forces you to find cover rather than risking a lightning strike on the ridge that you have to cross to get back to the truck. By the time you’ve packed up your gear and have turned the nose of the truck downhill darkness falls. You arrive home late, exhausted and happy. 
Your regular fishing buddies find more time to be on the water than you do over the next few weeks. Every day is as good as the one before. They just can’t go wrong. You can’t remember it ever being this good and you’re sure that it doesn’t get any better than this. 
You are wrong. 
You grab at a tussock to support yourself as you’re about to slide down a bank into the stream and disturb a flurry of grasshoppers. You tell the Supermodel to go ahead of you as you stop to clip off your fly and change to a late-season hopper pattern. (I threw that in to sound clever. I just picked a hopper at random.)
You persuade him to get into the river lower down than normal as with the higher flows the riffle water will be, you think, productive. As he does that ubiquitous little shake thing to free his nail knot from the tip a fish slashes at his fly. He calls out in surprise. A good omen. You both have nymphs below your dries and by the time you’ve changed to the hopper and slid in he has one on the dry. You haven’t yet moved more than five meters from your starting point. 
In the first run you get four to his one and all but one of these on the nymph. He asks for one of your nymph patterns so that he can catch up to you but when you recommend that he simply extends his dropper he’s back in the game. The morning is insane. You’re catching fish hand over fist and they’re all good fish. Really good fish – and this from a stretch where you managed only to spook one fish just a few months before. 
In one run you take close to ten fish between you. You’re hardly moving upstream and are just making progressively longer casts from where you stand and are pulling the browns downstream as they take, lest they spook the run. They’re taking both the nymph and the dry but with a 70/30 ratio in favor of the former. 
Not even a early morning frigid full-length belly flop in your partner’s attempt to net one of your fish dampens spirits and by the end of the day you have in excess of forty fish between you. You don’t normally count and don’t measure the success of a day by the number of fish caught, but this is special. It’s just so much fun. The fish aren’t stupid, mind you. You have to do the fundamental things right. A brown, make no mistake, doesn’t often reward a sloppy angler and these were no exception. After lunch your catch rate is slowing but this is probably more a result of your edge being dulled by catching a little more than an “elegant sufficiency” (to quote the Solicitor). 
How good was the day? At a recent club presentation statistics for some beats lower down were presented. We caught in one day more fish than for one of those beats for the entire season and with an average length almost 2″ bigger. That sounds boastful, but it’s not intended to be. It is a statement of fact and that fact being that we stumbled into a day of a lifetime. Wild man, wild. 
Your friends spend more time on the water that you do over the remainder of the season and spend time targeting bigger fish. They are not disappointed. They catch several fish over 16″ and a few over 20″. It’s a rare and special season and you have plans to crown it off properly. 

The Doc, Goose, the Ranger, McGupta and the Supermodel are your companions on a very special river for what was to be three days of fishing. Day one sees a very high river and a few fish. You’re chased off by a storm and aren’t able to get back onto it. It’s a disappointment but it only makes you more excited to get back onto it next season. You show your wife a picture that was taken of you working a pool and she says “is that one of your New Zealand pics?” It’s that sort of river. 
You get out a few more times but the season is on the wane. The days are still special and the morning that you spent with a friend from Cape Town stands out prominently among them. Good fish are still being caught as the days grow shorter, but there are fewer of them in days with steadily declining returns. For the first time in years you don’t fish the closing weekend. Elegant sufficiency. 

You’re standing in the kitchen staring vacantly at your rod tubes and cases in the corner, a half eaten piece of peanut butter toast in your hand. You’re working out dates and places in your head for the next season. Lesotho is on the cards, there’s Rhodes that needs to be visited, the season opening weekend, an invitation to fish in Barkley East, ditto for Maclear, Sterkfontein for a few days again, your ‘home’ waters and a return that magical river. There are two streams that you need to fish for the first time as well as a few sections of the ones that you do fish that you need to get back to for the first time in years. Your lines needs to be replaced here and there and there’s a 1wt blank arriving shortly that you’ll need to build. You’d like to make a 864/3 bamboo rod too. McGupta has a fly and material list that you need so that you don’t sit aimlessly at that new brass vice of yours. You have a magazine column due in the morning and you haven’t started it yet. Your wading boots won’t make another season, that’s for sure, and you’re going to need to finish a few of the nets in the corner for the ones you want to replace them with. You make a mental list of people you’ve either promised to fish with or would like to fish with. 
It just sort happens. You wake up one morning, go through your mundane daily routine and it occurs to you. It doesn’t come as a revelation. There is no bright beam of light and the harp-song of angels. There’s just you, a half eaten slice of peanut butter toast and a strange new awareness. A consciousness.  
You’re a fly fisherman. 


2 responses to “Consciousness – Parts I, II & III

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