A Prime Lie

On the Mooi, beneath the tightest knot of overhanging ouhoudt, live a pair of wild brown trout. Over the course of a dozen years I have watched them as they move in and out of the shadow of the black branches and hanging weavers’ nests.

When they turn from their mottled lie with its cavernous undercut and alongside into the run they can be reached with a lazy upstream cast. Lying in their ordinary station they are torturous to reach and are impossible to draw out.

These two fish have elicited from me the full spectrum of human emotions; from excitement to frustration, elation, anger and most frequently abject depression. That they are not the same two fish that I first saw there is obvious, but it’s clear that it is a two-fish-lie and that the lie is a good one because there is always a brace in it and each of them is always significantly heavier than the average for that water. A prime lie, to quote from books that they have never read.

Unless they move into open water I no longer bring myself to try to pin either of them to my line. These days I sit as a common voyeur on the bank adjacent to them, sometimes with a drink but most often with a pipe, and I watch them tend to their daily affairs. I see their heads turn and their mouths flash white as they sway to nymphs and I smile when spray drips from the foliage above after they’ve savagely crushed terrestrials that have fallen from the trees. That my activity (or lack of it) is a distant second place to actually catching one of them now rarely occurs to me – and it’s not that they can’t be caught.

It is possible to drift a fly over their heads or past their snouts, providing that your quiver of fundamental skills and special trick-shots is full. It’s possible, but it’s unlikely.

What is required to get to them is to cautiously move upstream and then to slide gently into the stream from the chest-high bank. The bank sufficiently masks a silhouette but tight behind it is a maize field. The best time of year for this is mid-autumn but in this season the maize is still tall and full and it necessitates a crisp steeple cast that unfolds down and across some 18 or 20 yards toward the far bank. As textbook quartering of the stream will have the fly squarely in the branches a more acute bearing is called for; somewhere in the region of 30 degrees downstream of square to the bank. This in itself poses the problem of actually getting the fly line across a severe current change and down to where it needs to be without dragging the presentation wildly. Execute a puddle cast that has a, at least, 18′ leader snaking into a stretch of no more than 6′. Somewhere in all of that find the awareness to reach a full rod length upstream, then immediately throw in a long mend and raise the tip to high-stick over the slack water for as long as possible.

If you get all of this right you’ll get one good drift past them – for a distance of about 2′.

Do not permit yourself a second for a self-congratulatory sigh, smile or whoop as you’ve only cleared the gate and it’s all about to become rather more tricky

Should this shortest of drifts result in a take the set will be upstream. Hold your breath together with your instincts to raise the rod tip in tight check because if you strike too soon the result will be a confused fish and a fly whistling past your ear. Assuming that the fish moved upstream to intercept the fly you’ll need to first lift the coiled result of all of your hard-executed puddling, reaching and mending from the surface in order to make contact. If you think this is easy you’ve forgotten that your arm is already above your head as you’ve been high-sticking over the current change.

Once you’ve hooked it it will probably run toward the culvert of the bridge and it’s anti-erosion chain-link and rock abutment below it. Good luck with that.

I’ve made this cast. Once. I’ll never make it again, rest assured. It’s simply too complex a thing for a man more comfortable with a hammer than a delicate rod in his hand and with less than average physical coordination to repeat on demand. I’ve done it and I no longer try.

But what a cast it was.

The line unfolded almost vertically behind me, came forward in a tight loop which, as it straightened, was followed by a forward extension of the arm to form the puddle, a pointing of the tip hard to the left for the reach and, once this had settled, a perfect shooting mend. My para Adams bobbed unhindered among the bubbles, a neb broke the surface in the last inches of the drift, took, turned first downstream until it felt the iron and then turned and ran upstream. It was quickly subdued.

I told my shrink about it. I described the moments of perfection, the poetic fluidity of it all – how physics and nature sometimes, for the most fleeting of moments, merge into something that transcends the sum of the parts. How time stands still and how everything that you thought that you knew is cast aside and is replaced by what can only be described as grace.

I spoke of the reflection of sun on water, of the impossible polished blackness of stream-edge ants. Of ancient trees and unbroken horizons. I told her of the momentary angelic perfection of the mayfly dun and the toils of its nymph. I spoke of the rhythm of the well-timed cast and the sound of the line through the guides. I described the deep gleam of nickel silver in late afternoon sun and the warm familiarity of worn cork in the hand. I told her of the yellow of the belly and the crimson of the spots on a brown trout and the biblical promise that runs down the lateral line of its cousin. I explained the electricity of the fight and the satisfaction of the release. The contentment of looking back into the dew-laden grasslands and seeing two lines through it and the joy of another’s success. The warm canteen, the dry sandwich. Boots that fit just so and the pride in a fine hat. Elegant rods and smooth reels. Eland like the paintings against the rocks and the circling of vultures. The depth of iridescence in the dragonfly and the kingfisher.

But mostly I told her of those spots on the brown; the red ones with the bronze haloes that I’ve tried to draw a thousand times and which still elude me.

Yes“, she said, looking up at the clock on the wall, “and it’s very good exercise”.

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