#wheresmarkusjooste?

Once a week or so The Solicitor and I meet for coffee before work. It’s nothing fancy, a few tables in the back of a garage shop, but the coffee is fair and the break from the mind-numbing tedium of the working week is always welcome.

The Giant joins us frequently and he inevitably interrupts our earnest discussions to ask sarcastically whether we’ve solved the world’s problems yet. No, we tell him, and it’s not that we couldn’t. It’s simply never occurred to us to try. We focus our conversation instead on the pressing pisco-political issues of the day and we debate these with a fervor that would make the most fiery Southern preacher appear timid.

The Solicitor apologetically extricates himself from the current debate and heads off to an appointment. Having some time before my day begins I order a third cup. A guy walks in and our eyes meet briefly. I see a look of opportunity flash across his face and I regret it immediately. You can tell from a mile away a guy who earns his crust in personal finance. His shoes have a bright, dustless glint and are pointy enough to kick a snake in the asshole. He walks over to greet casually while trying his best to look like an average Joe. His jeans must have cost what a guided trip in the Seychelles does and his shirt is so crisp that you can hear it crack as he sits down. Not a nose hair protrudes inelegantly beneath his titanium frameless spectacles and his eyebrows are impossibly neatly groomed. His hands are the colour of wedding cake icing and are as soft as orchid petals. His watch is roughly the size of an RDP house. He is testament to a life of unfettered privilege in the same way that a stained overall and steel capped boots are to a life of honest work.

He’s an expert on matters financial. I know this because it’s what he tells me as he pushes a gold-leafed business card towards me. “A registered financial expert” I read aloud to myself as I fight the urge to roll my eyes. Let’s be honest here, any guy who can use the future-value function on a financial calculator is met with a certain level of distrust by those of us who struggle with long division. He is a snake-oil salesman in the grandest tradition of the occupation.

His decaf mocha soy latte arrives and as he stirs an aspartame-free sugar substitute into it he leans in towards me and whispers in a conspiratorial tone. “Bitcoin” is all he says and he leans back, nodding. “Cryptocurrencies are the future“, he opines, “and you have to be taking strong positions before, as in the case of those who bought into Steinhoff late, you’re left behind“, he adds while tapping a magnificently manicured finger on his business card.

He reeks of Old Spice and bullshit as he goes on to quote percentage returns on investments and some more nonsense about elevators and getting in on the ground floor. Instantly cauterizing the membrane on the inside of my throat I down my coffee in an inelegant gulp, slap a note down onto the table and excuse myself.

I spurn his expert advice and later that day invest part of my annual bonus across a diverse portfolio of alternate investments: a case of Heineken quarts and a quick-pick for the R100 million lotto jackpot – the rest of it I just wasted.

I like social media. It’s the fetid mud hole in which the proclaimed experts and the garden variety idiot can wrestle without a winner ever having to be declared. It’s like the colosseum of old, the great leveling ground where everyone is a gladiator and they’re all equal. There’s a lot to learn there if you have a mind to, and I suggest that over time you will, but the point is that you don’t have to if you don’t want to. There’s something very rock ‘n roll about that, and I love it.

Perhaps my perspective on and characterization of social media and it’s participants is unfairly condescending. The point is that it doesn’t really matter either way. I mean, it’s just my opinion, it’s not an expert opinion.

Sure, to be better fishers we should be heeding the experts, reading Walton through LaFontaine, practicing our casting to flags on the lawn, learning the encyclopedia of knots and memorizing the Latin names and life cycles of common aquatic bugs. In an age where the shelves of the average bookshop are dominated by self-help books (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nymph Fishermen will be available as soon as a decision is made as to whether it belongs in the sport, hobbies, science, philosophy or personal growth department) the average angler is looking for a safe, non-competitive place where he can wear his tatty hat, play with expensive toys, drink strong spirits from a tin cup and share some sort of intimacy with friends. And that’s where social media communities have become relevant. They extend this sense of human connection (you don’t need to point out the irony of that statement) from the river bank to the living room. The growing group of people that I consider to be fraternal brothers I almost exclusively met online. Most of them are experts in one way or the other, but you’d never know it to talk to them.

I’ve been involved in a social media group of several thousand members for some time now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that his sincerity defines the member. If someone is insincere they need to be put on a stool and pelted mercilessly with rocks until quite dead. Using hashtags to create the impression that you’re a member of some “pro-team” or that your efforts are in some way endorsed? Get up on the stool. Chastising people for keeping fish where the rules allow it? Get onto the stool. Mocking first attempts at fly tying? Get onto the stool. Looking down or being disparaging towards users of entry level, cheap or old gear? Get onto the stool. Contemptuously dismissing other opinions? Get onto the stool. Dispensing advice like a sage but not admitting to making mistakes? Get onto the stool. Taking yourself overly seriously? Don’t be shy, jump up on the stool, there’s plenty of rocks to go around.

When all is said and done you’re going to be judged by the company that you keep. If you take your advice from fools you’re likely, and not altogether unkindly, going to be judged a fool. But the way I see it that’s your own business and by now you should know how I feel about things that make you happy. Just be mindful of the nature of expert advice, I’ve seen enough print articles on “ten indispensable flies for summer streams” being dispensed with by the same writer a year later. Changes in opinion are fundamentally what keep magazines in print. Find me two experts that agree on most stuff most of the time and I’ll eat one of them. Honestly, in the world of fly fishing if you can separate the expert from the egomaniac you’re a giant leap ahead of the game.

Oh, and as for my investments, I got three numbers on the lotto and won my money back. The deposit on the empties from my case of quarts was substantially more than I would have been left with had I invested the same sum in bitcoin – and I got to drink the beer.

Getting Older

Had you been drinking?

Huh? What? No. Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous, I told you twice already, I was fishing. Besides, it was the middle of the day.”

I’ve had this conversation a few dozen times over the last few weeks and it’s beginning to wear me down. I suppose, as in the case of the acceleration of the rate of teenage pregnancy, heavy drinking isn’t necessarily limited to the hours after sunset, but that’s the way that I prefer it (I can’t answer for teenagers, but I suspect that they’re fairly opportunistic). Indeed, I never drink when I’m around water – much. Why people associate fishing and drinking is something that I’ve never understood anyway.

As a student we invited a lecturer (he had a four wheel drive) to fish with us in the Transkei for us for a weekend. “No need, thank you“, he said, “my wife allows me to drink at home.”

——

With a velocity belying his age the Supermodel exploded from the gate, galloped down the very steep slope and came in first by two lengths. His opening cast went tight into a small but very athletic brown. He has a habit of doing that sort of thing; catching the first, last and biggest fish of the day. He’ll tell you that it’s because he’s a great angler. Everyone else will tell you that it’s because he’s a bloody grandstander and a complete bastard, but they admire him all the same.

Rockhopping at a furious pace to get in on the action (or at least ahead of MacGupta) I elegantly ducked a backcast, leaped through the air with the sublime grace of the principal dancer in the Bolshoi Theatre and onto a wet rock that would, I reasoned, afford me an uncluttered casting position. On landing I was transformed immediately into something not entirely unlike a baby giraffe taking its first steps on a greased marble floor. I went from the Bolshoi to a Vaudeville tap dancer, slipping and then smashing and bruising the inside of my left knee against the rock. After a few quick rubs and a selection of words that you never learned from Sister Agnes I was more or less mobile again – with a determined expression on my face and a roughly 15 degree list to port. By then the pool had been spooked and my theatrics were entirely wasted.

We continued downwards for several kilometers through the gorge to a dark pool with overhanging trees, undercut banks and a clearly defined bubble line. It was a pool thick with possibility and where, while attempting to enter from a waist-high bank with maximum stealth and cunning, the bank disappeared beneath me. The shredded remains of my dignity were left in that most treacherous of holes as I harnessed the power of gravity, my not insignificant mass and all available inertia to catapult myself into the river, my already tender leg staying behind. My habitual angling partners are a stoic and forgiving lot and I’m quite certain that the number of times that they mentioned my ruining the pool was intended solely for the benefit of my ongoing tuition in all matters piscatorial.

Single malt whiskey! Ah, the finest apothecary at the pinnacle of his art could not formulate an elixir so singularly uplifting to the human spirit and so positively restorative of bodily vitality. From deep within a pack a handsomely wrought flask of pewter with leather bindings emerged and was solemnly and unselfishly proffered. A pang of conscience gripped me as I realized that so focused was I on my own misfortunes that I had obviously not noticed my partners receiving injuries of their own. Truthfully, so deeply did they dip into the little pewter flask of wellness that I had no option but to conclude that they had as urgent a need as I to seek succour for our ailments.

My coup de grace was finally administered during the mid-afternoon when I stepped between two rocks and my knee finally gave up any desire to bear me onwards. It remained stubbornly pointed towards twelve o’clock while the rest of me crumpled over in the general direction of a little after nine o’clock where I teetered for a while as though undecided as to what to do next. A decision was announced with a fleshy, ripping sound and I went in a direction that neither through the blessings of creation nor the march of evolution the knee was designed to go. The pain was truly blinding and the sound of the river was reduced to white noise around me.

In response to my modest cries of “a little help here” and “please may you move a little faster” MacGupta made his way toward me. I was humbled to have a friend who was that visibly concerned as to my predicament, so deeply were lines of genuine shock and concern etched into his face. Grabbing my rod from my white knuckles he paid it the most slow and careful inspection and, with a deep sigh of relief, declared it to be undamaged – although the reel apparently had “a bit of a scratch, but not too bad“. As comforting as that was to know, what with my knee bent at an angle that would make the most double-jointed flamingo wince I, in my most level and gentlemanly tone, encouraged my young friend to please hurry and help me up. He’s a thoroughly likable young man, is MacGupta, but as a first responder he is desperately woeful.

Fighting back tears and doing my best to following the prevailing advice to “walk it off, big guy” I not only walked it off right the way out of the godforsaken gorge but I had the last cast of the day too. While that may sound pretty heroic neither my general practitioner nor the surgeon who has subsequently had to fix the mess recommend a long, strenuous hike out of a gorge as therapy for ruptured ligaments and a shattered meniscus. My surgeon, bless his well-intentioned heart, did make an attempt to lift my flagging spirits by pointing out that my previously undiagnosed but largely suspected arthritis is at “stage three” and that at “stage four” I’ll be having a full knee replacement. The long-term effects of my current injury, in his educated judgement, would be obviated by my new knees and wouldn’t bother me at all as I get older. The attractive young physiotherapist who visited me in my hospital bed remarked that at my age I’d probably already have had experience using crutches and wouldn’t need her help. When I told her to “sleep with one eye open, bitch“, my discharge was remarkably rapid.

——

I’m not going to lie to you – getting older and the possibility of not being able to wade a stream frightens me in ways that I find myself unable to describe.

——

That we’re getting older is becoming a regular theme with my friends. For more than six weeks now, for example, our fishing chat group has been discussing the pros and cons of prescription polarised lenses and whether single vision with those stick on magnifying things trump multi-focal lenses. We are aware of every ground-breaking development in the field of optics to the point that I believe that we could quite comfortably appear as the guest speakers at an annual conference of opticians without embarrassing ourselves.

Coincidentally, just this afternoon my wife called me from a shopping centre in a state of high excitement to tell me that she saw an advert in a shop window for heavily discounted prescription polarised lenses. I wept in joy and immediately spread the word on social media. It was met with great enthusiasm.

Perhaps fly fishing is after all a game for old farts.

Footnote:

If anyone out there benefitted from discounted lenses following my post and should happen to stumble onto a pair of discounted replacement titanium knees (size medium) I’d appreciate them returning the favour.

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”.

Off-Season Lessons

It’s late August. In less than a fortnight, depending on where you stand on matters of law, the revitalising benefits of self-imposed abstinence, the rights of a fish to enjoy a respectable measure of conjugal privacy or simple convention, we can again fish our rivers.

Opinions on the necessity for a closed-season vary. In many parts of the world a closed-season is not observed and regulations may even differ between provinces of the same country. This is something that you really should check before planning a trip. In a turn of events that I swear to you is true a friend recently wrestled himself free from the horrors of international air travel to find himself, waders up, on the South Island. At eleven time zones from home he was quite nearly literally on the other side of the world – during the closed season.

The same seasonal rule does not apply on the North Island, as he now knows and really should have checked before leaving. Assuming that regulations are standard within a country is potentially fatal and while the indigenous place names over there may all be fairly confusing to the touring angler (the Fish and Game website for all the world appears to have been designed by a well-intentioned and, it appears, largely successful member of PETA) it’s the sort of oversight that can drive an otherwise stable man of balanced temperament into a dark, vast abyss of despair and self-loathing.

In my group of friends a schoolboy error of this kind would have not too improbably resulted in his either being abandoned on the side of a deserted road to die or with his brutal murder at the hands of his companions. I don’t pretend to know how many blows with an aluminium rod tube a man needs to receive or where they need to fall before he expires from blunt force trauma, but I’d expect that it’s rather a few and that they would continue until long after it was absolutely necessary. One can only dream to live in a world where justice and common-sense prevails and where before a jury of their peers his tube-wielding companions would be found not guilty on the grounds of “the bastard bringing it on himself“. It’s not a judgement that I’d rush to take on appeal either; but then I like a bit of Old Testament style justice as and when a point needs to be unequivocally made.

In the Northern Hemisphere, where winters are miserable bloody things with lead-grey skies punctuated by frequent squalls and frozen rivers, anglers have this season of idleness a lot easier than do we in the south. For the average pasty Northerner spending as much time as possible indoors seems a little less like a spell of incarceration and more like a pleasantly cosy form of self-preservation. Sure, confining a person with a love for the outdoors will, given time, most likely drive him crazy, but I believe that nothing is harder on a stream fisher’s spirit than walking around during the closed-season in short trousers and a tee shirt while his diary is uncongested and there’s river not much more than an hour up drag. (When I say “walking” understand this to mean moping about and muttering swearwords under one’s breath.)

As a pious monk repeats a well-worn mantra I’m doing what I always do at this time of the year – phoning and messaging people who live on or near our rivers for updates on prevailing conditions. Apparently, for example, today saw a berg wind in the Kamberg that a local farmer and good friend tells me will result in the perfect rate of melting of the recent snow that still covers the surrounding peaks. I’m not even sure that I can comprehend what constitutes the perfect rate for snow to melt, or that it even has one, but I’ve learned something new to ask in future off-seasons. To get my head around the concept I asked my friend to hike up and perhaps video it for a few minutes for me but he instead suggested that I indulge in a bit of sex and travel.

It has for me indeed been a winter of learning. I learned, for instance, that draining a great many free craft beers and then mischievously trying to drive up the bids at charity auctions (it was a great cause and there was the not so insignificant influence of the aforementioned ale) is a great way to leave the party with an expensive new vice, a blinder of a hangover and a lot of explaining to do when you get home. The vice stood in my cupboard for weeks and when I could no longer stand what I took to be its constant judgemental glare I gathered myself and set about trying to tie some flies.

My education from that point accelerated as I went on to learn that modern fly patterns are not tied with the same materials that I bought back in the summer of ’91 and which are largely still in their original unopened wrapping. With the names of a few vogue materials scribbled down on a list, I went shopping. Stopping by a few tackle shops and grabbing a couple of bags of stuff that claimed to be everything from glow in the dark to having a relative density higher than the current crop of American voters and what amounted to, at best, a few milligrams of hooks I learned another valuable lesson – fly tying materials today make the purchase of a 1kg brick of premium quality cocaine feel like handing loose change to the homeless guy at the traffic light. I’ve done the maths and the seven flies that I’ve tied thus far each work out to roughly the same price as a small but discretely renovated French chateau.

In between their own hours at the vice my friends spent the winter in a single-minded quest to see who can amass the most tackle. Two in particular have drawn the unwanted attentions of customs officials, so frequently do parcels from foreign lands arrive at their doorsteps. Between them they’ve driven the market in collectible tackle to stratospheric heights. Just listening to them talk is enough to drive you nuts. Reciting those names makes them sound as though they’ve stepped out from the pages of a Tolkein novel and are leading an army of Dwarvish soldiers in a rousing battle song.

Megoff, Saracione, Ballan and Zwarg.

Hart, Bogden and Mohlin.

Fix them onto a Garrison or Payne,

Up the rivers a’strollin’

Right now my small circle of closest stream fishing buddies is active on a chat group that is beeping incessantly from where my phone lies at my left elbow. This distraction is causing me lapses in concentration and is resulting in some truly atrocious poetry.

The discussion is varied. Everything from how fishing nymphs in favour of dries may very well determine your sexual orientation, the minimum creature comforts necessary in a decent fishing cottage and an all-out no-holds-barred pissing contest on who caught the biggest / prettiest / most or strongest fish last season has ensued. Photographs posted prove or are intended to disprove wild assertions. Shots have been fired and the wounded are being mercilessly bayoneted where they fall.

The lads are restless. I empathise deeply.

If I have to explain to you the excitement of what waiting for the season to open means to a fisher of streams then you are not, in any sense of the term, a fisher of streams.

On Ethics

The Pro and I were working our way up the beautiful Ruakituri River which lies just about 50km the other side of nowhere from Wairoa. At least I think that the Ruakituri valley is beautiful – we never saw more than six yards of it in any direction at any one time. The weather had for days been that ubiquitous New Zealand variety of foul that makes you want to alternately wave your fists and scream into the howling wind or, more often than not, just sit in your tent idly slashing away at your wrists.

Leaning on a tackle store counter and simply suggesting that such and such a valley (be appropriately vague about it) was almost totally unaffected by the recent rains will result in several thousand vehicles immediately firing up their motors and criss-crossing those islands in search of that little piece of heaven; their chance to be the guy on the postcard in the tourism kiosk (the one with the photo that you suspect to have been shot in a studio). New Zealand is one of the closest places on earth to trout fishing nirvana, but for only a day or two a year. The other 363 days are best prepared for by practicing laying out long delicate casts from the foredeck of a Southern Ocean fishing trawler in heavy seas.

We were battling what were for us unbelievable current flows but had managed between us to scrape together a half dozen ‘bows and browns in the 20″ range. It has taken the passing of several months and much foggy retrospection to imagine that the needle on the fun-o-meter ever moved anywhere nearly out of the red that day. (I added that for dramatic effect – it was one of the best days of my life.)

On the stretch below the Ruakituri Hilton (a 12’x8′ plywood box and a long-drop shithouse) we were surprised to pass another angler. With the exception of the odd farmer and his sheepdog on a quad bike and a pair of kids out hunting wild pig (successfully, I might add) with nothing more than a folding pocket knife people around there were spread pretty thin on the ground. He was moving downstream carrying spinning tackle. It’s called threadlining and it involves casting a weighted nymph on conventional spinning tackle.

Most people that I tell this to recoil immediately in horror. The fact that someone would be fishing one of the North Island’s prime trophy rivers with a flick-stick is not something that they can reconcile in their minds. “Well, I don’t care if it’s legal”, they tell me, “It’s totally unethical”. They will not be moved by the explanation that it is actually a really effective method of nymphing; the thin mono cuts through the screaming flows and delivers nymph quickly and drag free to the fish below. No. They’re having none of it. It’s totally unethical.

I want to press the benefits of the technique but I bite my tongue. At fear of being hounded off into the piscatorial wilderness I also don’t mention that we were fishing an ‘Iron Maiden’, a fly that consists solely of two 4.5mm tungsten beads and some wraps of the seriously no-nonsense type of plumbing lead. The Pro adds a bit of flash as a tail to his, but I think that he does it just to show off. These things are heavy. The only upside to catching one to the back of the head is that you’d wake up somewhere warm and dry where nice nurses fuss around you in the weeks that it takes for your memory to slowly return. I almost lost a fingernail trying to get one out of the foam slot in my box – but I think I’ve made my point. We fished a standard PTN a short distance behind this and I was the only person to actually catch a fish on the Maiden. It was a rather sickly looking 21″ brown that in its last few days set his own ethics aside (browns are notoriously the most stiff upper lipped of the salmonidae) in favour of a meal from the denser end of the periodic table of elements.

That incident came to mind while I was Sunday-scrolling through the annals of a favourite fishing blog. The author describes tying a hook within a conventional yarn strike indicator. We’ve all had fish slashing at our yarn or putty indicators and it’s not too big a leap of logic to suggest putting a hook into the indicator. As a concept it is not as unique as he thinks. A year or two ago a local fella suggested the same thing. He even produced a range of sample “hooked” indicators for various applications. He’s a really nice guy but he took a lot of stick for the suggestion on the grounds of it being totally unethical (“unethical” is always preceded by “totally”). I don’t think that it’s unethical at all. It’s just a little unnecessary. I use hooks in my indicators all the time. I just call them stimulators or hoppers, and they raise more fish than a blob of putty or a chunk of foam does. I’m not entirely sure where ethics come into it.

Still, there’s that word again. Unethical.

A friend took issue with the whole indicator thing and argued about flies becoming lures and that indicators should not conceal hooks. He only fishes proper, imitative flies, apparently. He has a certain high ethical standard, I believe he said. “Got any orange woolly buggers in your box?” it was asked. “Yes” came the reply, “but I fish them imitatively.” That felled me dead in my boots. Imitatively of what? What on earth is bright orange with a big brass head and crosses dams at entirely impossible entomological speeds?

Recently I shared the bank of a private dam with a few club friends. One described a slab of a fish that he had caught there a season or two before and how he was derided for catching it on a long shank, purple marabou tailed Mrs Simpson. Now I’m not going into what makes a fly a fly and when it becomes a lure. I just don’t understand it; mainly because it’s all so drearily subjective that I don’t even bother to try. What you see as a fly and how you choose to fish it has nothing at all to do with me. Frankly, I don’t care if you strap a hook to a Barbie Doll and trawl it behind your motorized float tube, watching the fish finder as you go. If it makes you happy, to quote Sheryl Crow, it can’t be that bad.

Just lately I’m a bit turned-off by the highbrow attitude disguised by their idea of “ethics” that a lot of our fly-casting family are directing at other types of anglers and, more depressingly, at each other. Don’t worry; I am far too frequently guilty of this myself. Ethics are the things that we should be concentrating on in how we speak to one another, interact with the environments in which we live and how we treat the living creatures that are the object of our art.

Walking in downtown New York City one of the most profound statements that I’ve ever read was written casually on the wall of a neighbourhood greengrocer. It said simply “I am not defined by your prejudice”.

I have decided to not define other anglers by my own narrow prejudices. 

 I’m hoping that it catches on.

First Do No Harm

My favourite fly rod and reel, at full replacement value, would today cost a little bit more than my education did. Granted, I haven’t factored in the ravishing effect of inflation and that I last studied some time ago – but I think that I make my point.

I discovered to my astoundment that the Doc can mentally convert to the smallest fractions of millimetres the difference in size between rod ferrules of 12/64 and a 13/64 of an inch. On the other hand I, if asked, would shrug noncommittally and give the answer as being “really very, very small”. Because it is. And because sometimes that’s about as much as you need to know of a thing. 

The importance of a small difference was demonstrated one recent evening at a meeting of a local angling club. Members were entertained by a presentation on the making of split bamboo rods and witnessed the fact that one sixty fourth of an inch (or 0.3969mm for those who have stepped out of the dark ages) can be the difference between a resounding success for a rod maker and abject horror for an attorney. 

The Solicitor that fine evening strolled out onto what was until then a pretty normal variety bowling green but which had subsequently been repurposed as a rather fine casting lawn. He selected from the display table a beautiful rod in the taper of a Payne 101 – with gleaming but tasteful nickel silver reel seat hardware on an exotic hardwood spacer and crimson silk whipping on the guides. The flawless finish to the blank shone deep and translucently under the floodlights. Giving it an obligatory wobble, setting his glass of red to one side and after bestowing on it his earnest approval he assumed his favoured casting position. If you can picture the wide stance and slightly lowered centre of gravity of the Emperor’s most revered sumo wrestler and the broad-chested attitude of the celebrated bare-knuckle boxers of old you’ll more or less have grasped his unique style and, more importantly, his intent.

The Solicitor had once been both a mountaineer and an international surf ski paddler and winding up like an ancient trebuchet in preparation for an assault on the thick stone walls of an enemy fortress he began to sweep that most excellent stick with the might gained from years of upper body muscular conditioning. Harder and harder he loaded the groaning fibres and deeper and deeper he bent the rod. Ten o’clock came and two o’clock went as the tip moved authoritatively through both time and space with a haughty disregard for either. The guides glowed like the coals of a blacksmith’s forge as the friction of the line moving through them heated them to melting point. The gathered throng oohed, ahed, “bloody helled” and then fell as one into an expectant silence as the line sailed on the front cast in the distant direction of ‘Bowling Green No 4 – In Loving Memory of Echbertus duPlooy’ and way, way over the top of the adjacent car park on the back cast. 

Now old man Payne, God rest his soul, could never have been reasonably expected in the formulation of his spectacular taper to account for the stresses to which it was currently being subjected. With the first beads of sweat just starting to run down his forehead our Solicitor made his final strained effort and punched the anguished rod forwards in a last attempt to rocket the arbour knot and many, many yards of trailing backing through the tip eye. The rod, to its credit, held its own. The joint between the ferrule and the butt section of the rod sadly proved to be somewhat less resilient to the massive forces passing through them and parted company with a sound like a thousand of the stoutest masts on a thousand of Her Majesty’s finest vessels being simultaneously snapped. It was so sharp and so loud that even the dearly-loved and long-departed Echbertus duPlooy sat bolt upright in his grave and left a small and thoroughly unplayable mound in the middle of the bowling green which carried his name and under which he had been laid to rest.

You see, the rod maker in his haste to finish the rod for the exhibition had used the only ferrule that he had in his stock at the time. The ferrule was precisely one sixty fourth of an inch undersized. In this instance (the machinations of the Solicitor aside) this “really very, very small” difference (0.3969mm, remember) transformed a perfectly beautiful piece of design, skill and craftsmanship into a very expensive and rather naughty bedroom toy (assuming that the whole ’50 Shades’ stuff is your thing). 

This is, give or take, a true story and explains exactly how catch and release works. (Try to keep up.)

  • I’ve read the science (it’s often a vague and incomplete collection of disconnected research conducted on a myriad of species under a host of conditions and ends with the all too obvious truism that fish were not designed to live out of water). 
  • I’ve heard first-hand accounts from those who earn their crust in the field of aquaculture of just how much stress a fish can take without showing any signs of harm (I’m not sure of their complete impartiality or that the conditions under which their experience has been gained are reflective of those under which we catch fish, but I have no real cause to doubt them). 
  • I’ve been subjected to the preaching of the true believers (I saw the photographs and know that one sermon was actually given from an actual mount, but the words rang true). 
  • I’ve entertained nonsense like “a fish can hold its breath out of water for as long as you can hold your breath under water” (how, exactly, does a fish hold its breath when it doesn’t have lungs?) 

I agree, more or less, with all of these points of view. I just don’t understand the conditions under which one gains ascendancy over another. 

My mind, as barren as it is of an answer to how much stress on a fish is too much stress on a fish as my study wall is of certificates and diplomas, has processed the argument to a simple logic – Primum non nocere, or first do no harm. 

It’s kind of the safest bet. 

Glossing quickly over the uncomfortable fact that we spew tons of environment-altering carbon into the atmosphere as we travel across the earth to drag a terrified animal around a stream or lake by its jaw in a life or death struggle for survival and call it ‘sport’, that science is somewhat inconclusive as to how much harm is ‘too much harm’, that in the experience of many pundits a fish is more resilient than, say, a Payne 101 with an undersized ferrule and that some guys are ‘just full of shit’ I put it to you that when it comes to returning fish to the water you cannot afford to be too careful with them. How wide is the line? How big is the difference between a successful release of a fish and killing the fish? I don’t know. But I suspect that it can sometimes be really very, very small.

On the eve of my son’s 18th birthday I was overwhelmed with the self-imposed paternal duty to give him some solid life advice. I did my best. “Try not to be a dick”, I told him. 

I think that the same rule applies quite easily to the catching and releasing of fish. 

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. 

Consciousness – Part III

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. 

Consciousness – Part II

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…

Consciousness: Part I

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. 

End of part one