Good Friday, 2016

“Nice fish. What fly?”
“Umm, a DDD”
“Oh, a dry, so you’re a purist?”
You’ve spent much of the day on the really small stream flowing below the campsite. Further up it quickens into smaller pools and fast glides as it climbs up through the reserve and into the mountains proper. There’s not a lot of holding water up there, but what you find is deep, dark and well protected. 

You doubt that many people fish this water; certainly very few fish it seriously. 

The small ‘bows up here are game and very nearly every cast that you don’t peg into a branch raises a fish. You raise what must total a hundred fish in not many more casts than that. You hook almost as many and land not many fewer than that. 

Clearly you’re one of the guys who fish this stream seriously. You’d like to think so anyway. You’ve taken comfortably more than, what, fifty fish today? That’s serious. Or it was; for the first half-dozen or so. 

After that it was just carnage (in a nice catch-and-releasely kind of way). This happy go lucky catching and releasing of mostly palm-sized, parr-marked, dumb-as-shit rainbows is occasionally punctuated by a fish between 8″ and 10″ and then you’re a study of seriousness for a cast or three; but it doesn’t last and you find yourself screwing around again. 

You take a 13″ fish from a deep pool and it’s far and away the best fish of the day. The three landed from the same pool brought no satisfaction and tying a weighted soft hackle from the bend of the dry turned out to be right choice. It’s a cool thing, getting it right and you smile to yourself a little. 

The nice thing about fish hell-bent on the annihilation of their species is that you get to test flies objectively rather than using your usual half intuitive way of rating them. 

Terrestrials are shunned with scorn. Your floating and trailing sunken ant combo, a deadly duo, receives upturned noses and clenched jaws. Caddis aren’t on the specials board today; that’s as true as tomorrow’s sunrise. A rise in every ten casts, give or take. 

Today, like many others this high up, is mayfly day.

An Adams gets you a rise in every seven casts. A parachute Adams begets a slash every five casts. 

Ok, you reason, you want them lower in the film, do you? 

You tie on the funny little para RAB emerger thing that your friend tied for you. He has a technique that he claims makes them superior to everyone else’s. 

No amount of squinting your eyes reveals the secret to his technique and they look a hell of a lot like every other bloody para RAB you’ve ever seen – but damn if the trouts don’t love them today. It’s not cast for cast stuff, but it’s one every two and a half casts at least. 

When the sun begins to leave the tight valley you pack it in. Your daughter has requested trout for dinner and you would walk over hot coals for that girl. 

She loves trout; it’s her favourite meal by a long, long way. Perhaps it’s some vestige of your primitive self but you treasure the act of stopping by the lake, catching something of a reasonable size and preparing and cooking it for her. As a hunter-gatherer you’re not the most skilled around. Frankly you’re more of a gatherer and are genuinely surprised when you’re able to provide dinner; regardless of how many times you’ve done it in the past. 

The dam is a little above the river. Screw it, you drive up. The air here is thin and as the sun dips below the high peaks the chill sets in. Your soaking wading boots and trousers begin to make your joints hurt. 

The water is a fairly large one. One guy is on a float tube and judging by where he is and the action on his casts you determine that he’s casting a full sinking line and is dragging a beast of a fly along the bottom. Wrong choice, you just as quickly determine. 

On the windward bank are four or five guys casting from the bank and retrieving too quickly. Strip-strip-strip-jerk-wiggle-pulse-pause-strip-strip. The whole thing, between casting, retrieving and casting again takes about 30 seconds. 

A quick ask reveals that there are no fish about today. The stunted conversation, if that’s what it is, turns to amber liquids and log fires. 

One of the guys on the bank has a cigarette hanging from his lip and it jars with his exceptionally graceful cast. It entirely messes up what would be a beautiful picture. 

He lays out a long line and strips more line off the reel. The click-click-crrrrrrrrr sound that you hear is one made only by a seriously good reel. You know the difference – because none of your budget Korean reels make that sound. 

He’s putting a full line out now with as little effort as he puts into dragging on the smoke in his lips. He doesn’t touch it and the front of his vest is gray with ash. 

Soon he’ll just be an intermittent red glow on your right. Evening is coming down fast and you’ve got to get a move on. You really hope he’ll pick up a good one though because that reel is really going to sing as the backing peels from the spool. 

You’ve left the two weight in the truck and have your five with you now. You’ve been here before and you know what works. It’s not intuitive, it’s a law of nature, carved in rock and handed to a prophet on a mountain top. 

You’re on the windward bank, there’s a slight chop on the water and the sun is fading. You have a largish, ragged DDD with a small nondescript flashback under it at around 30cm. 

You pull some line off the reel and envy your neighbour for the sound that his made when he did the same. You cast maybe 15m and stand dead still. The wind brings the fly back and you repeat the process a few times. 

On the fourth or fifth time you see a swirl and set the hook. The water isn’t deep but he appears to have come up almost vertically because his head broke the surface. You could have sworn he took the dropper and think that you got lucky with that early hook set. 

He drives hard up and down the bank. He doesn’t run for deeper water at all. You want to shout to your neighbor with the sweet reel to get his line the hell away from your fish but you just muscle it into the net as quickly as possible. 

His weight you estimate at around four pounds; perfect. You notice that the dropper is fixed firmly in the roof of his mouth and the dry is hooked into the outside of his mouth. You smile because for once in your last few times on a still water you got it absolutely right. You club him on the head and turn for home. 

There are probably a few more that you could deceive but you can no longer feel your feet in your wet boots. 

Someone is talking to you but it takes a while to register the fact. 

“Nice fish. What fly?”

“Umm, a DDD”

“Oh, a dry, so you’re a purist?”

You smile. Because you can’t find the right words. You walk back along the wall with the faint smell of fresh fish rising from the net at your side. 

Float tube guy shouts out. His rod is bent a little. 

He must be a purist. 

Of Birds & Barometers

I read somewhere that the old folk used to say that if the cows were feeding in the pastures the fishing would be good. 

Sounds a bit like rustic, folksy crap to me. 

Perhaps what they said was that is they were lying chewing the cud then the fishing would be bad. I don’t recall and they’re probably the same thing in any case. 

Yup. Still sounds to me like rustic, folksy crap. 

There’s a problem though. I’m an out-and-out sucker for rustic folksy notions and I pay very close attention to them.

Over the years while driving up past dairy herds in the Kamberg valley while I haven’t exactly slowed down to check the status of beasts that I passed I’ve shot a general look on their direction and have made a mental note of what I’ve seen. 

The problem with mental notes, and mine in particular, is that they’re fairly useless for any practical scientific purpose. You tend to need to introduce them into conversations with phrases like “the old folk say..”.  Any deductions made from them are almost incidental and are certainly based on nothing more than a feeling; a sense of correctness rather than some even marginally educated stab in the dark. 

This whole cow feeding / not feeding thing has bugged me for a long time. I want to believe it. Nay, I do believe it. Sort of. Unless the moon is full. And you’re wearing your lucky cap. And provided that you wind the left side of your blood knot forward over the leader and not behind and under it. 

Seriously though, I believe it. More or less. 

I just want to believe it I suppose – because it’s rural cool and everybody wants to be a little rural cool when they’re wearing a stupid hat and are engaged in a blood sport. 

There’s just something undeniably attractive to be said for the observations of people from a time where things were less hurried. Back then people had the time, as well as the inclination, to stop and look around them and in the process to notice certain patterns. For heaven’s sake, that’s how modern science started in the first place. 

Sunday a week ago the doc and I found ourselves on a very seldom fished section of a river (don’t even ask, this is a fragile area and can do without the traffic – with the exception of mine; I’m spending every free minute I have up there from now). The conditions were sublime. The stream was flowing a little slower than I expected but was in otherwise perfect condition. 

A cold front had recently passed, dropping the first snows of the season onto the higher peaks and the water was perfectly clear and bracingly crisp. The sky was that particular indiscribable shade of blue that you get on cold days after the dust has been washed from the atmosphere by precipitation of some kind. 

The walk in over a steep hill drove the chill from our bodies. We turned at the mark and pressed on down through the valley to the river without the benefit of a footpath through tall, dry and razor-edged grasses. We sighted several species of antelope and pricked our skins on wild brambles. 

The river was beyond perfect. A gentle upstream breeze assisted in the way that it does; by hiding us and allowing us to turn long fine tippets over the ridiculously clear water. 

We should have taken more than our fair share or fish that day. I still battle to believe that we didn’t. I would have bet your hard earned money on it. We fished well enough, of that I’m sure, but we didn’t even see a fish move until I practically stood on a silly bugger late in the day.  We didn’t even so much as have a fish rise half heartedly at a well presented fly – and this in one of the most prime bits of stream that I’ve ever fished. With all the gold in the world on this day we couldn’t buy a fish.

Only on the walk out did we realize that we had seen no insects. At all. Neither did we see or hear birds. The entire valley was still other than for the occasional flick of an ear on the head of one of a few eland in the far distance, and had been all day. 

I don’t believe in coincidence. 

I’ve been thinking about this almost obsessively over the last week and some sort of grainy, out of focus picture is forming in my mind. 

A day or two before we set out on our fruitless expedition the barometer fell as fast and as hard as Icarus did a few moments after the melting in the heat of the sun of the wax that held the feathers of his home-made wings together.  It fell fast, hard and despite what economists call a ‘dead cat bounce’ pretty much stayed there. (Whether Icarus bounced is unimportant for the purposes of this analogy.)

Now I’ve seen and I know that when the glass falls all insect and bird activity slows down markedly. 

We had it again this weekend up at Bernie’s Lake in Impendle where a front dropped the record volume of rain in a 24 hour period over Durban. We saw two eagles perched forlornly on telephone poles and four cape vultures circle over our heads as we practiced our casting on a private lake, but other than that not a bird, dragonfly nor a caddis took to either the skies or to song. (The vultures were only there as a dramatic statement, I suspect. The universe apparently has a sense of humor.)

Here’s the thing, and this is fact. On both days the barometer was indicating extremely low air pressures. No birds nor insects stirred. The fish disappeared as trout are wont to do. I’ve seen this pattern before. 

You can bet your arse the cows weren’t grazing either. 

Conversations With Will

I spent last night in Richards Bay. Having finished up what work I needed to do this morning I popped by the office of a friend to check in on him. 

In the process of chatting to him I discovered something pretty profound about my flyfishing. 

He’s had a fairly crappy year by most professional standards, has my mate, and I’ve been nudging him into joining me to cast a line. By nudging I mean bludgeoning him; digging my metaphorical elbows into his metaphorical ribs. Fishing a high altitude stream is my solution to all of life’s problems. Ok, maybe it’s a distraction more than a solution, but I honestly think that if George W and Saddam had have shared a morning on a stream then middle eastern politics would have left a lot less blood in the sand. 

This friend of mine is probably the nicest guy I know. Seriously. Some people are just good people; and he’s right up there. He’s always first with a smile and an encouraging word. The world would be a better place if there were more like him on it. I would be in a better place if I were more like him. 

Ideas regarding how to make a living from our various interests ping-ponged to and fro as our discussion meandered. I don’t think that our day jobs have been real interests for a long, long time now. Don’t raise an eyebrow, we’re anything but unique in this. 

We didn’t take long to settle in agreement on the idea that sometimes you do what you have to do during the day and you use what time is left for that which actually makes your heart beat slightly faster. We talked about some plans that he has for a sideline business that he is busy registering. I like that that the name of it is so important to him. Words define us and I know that ‘what’s in a name’ is, well, everything. 

I am really looking forward to him moving up to Pietermaritzburg early in the new year. Like every conversation I have with anyone lately the topic turned to the pursuit of trout and in this case his soon to be close proximity to them really fuelled the discussion. I insisted that I take him out onto some water just as soon as he’s settled. He has a rod lying somewhere but I don’t think that it’s been cast in years. 

He went on sort of sheepishly (I’ve heard this so many times before from anglers, artists and musicians) about how he hasn’t fished in ages. The next part that comes is always to dispel high expectations and to protect the ego – “the last time I went out I just enjoyed the mist off the water at sunrise more than anything. I love the quiet. But I never got into fish.”

You hear this so much from people – include me in this – who are wary of exposing their shortcomings to a cruelly judgmental world. It’s a really natural response to what we may see as performance anxiety of some kind. “You’d need to help me out with flies and stuff.  I have an idea that you need to look at what’s going on and match it and stuff, but I’d need some pointers.”, he continued. 

I interjected assertively. I have a fragile self esteem and I understand better than most do that it’s essential to dial down the heat sometimes. If you can remove the danger you can remove the need for defense. 

“I suppose”, I said to him, “that from time to time there is some selective feeding that you need to be aware of and to adjust to. But I prefer to fish small streams where hatches are irregular and are bitterly sparse. The fish will overwhelmingly take what it sees coming by over its head – provided that it looks and behaves reasonably naturally.”

Selective feeding in these places comes in a distant second to what I call ‘preferential feeding’. I don’t know whether this is a thing that actually happens or whether anyone else has noticed it, but I think that while trout in a small stream are not terribly picky about their diet they do have their favorites. 

This brand new theory of mine on preferential feeding states that a fish will rise to just about any life form floating down a small stream but that it prefers some over others. This is harder to explain than it should be but my observation is that certain types flies just work a little better a little more frequently. It’s not to say that the others don’t work at all, but some are just more accepted by the fish. Empirically I can offer you no proof to my assertion and that doesn’t even bother me – I like that about theories on a flyfishing, they just have to be right every so often to be acceptable to us. 

I suppose that it’s a bit like a hotel buffet – the cauliflower doesn’t get hammered nearly as frequently or as hard as the roast lamb. But it does get eaten and is never totally ignored. Don’t get ridiculous about this though, nobody ever touches the brussel sprouts and they won’t touch the fly that came with a R299 rod, reel, line and fly combo. You will get fish on the rod combo but you’re best throwing those flies away. 

“No”, I rambled on (as this idea crystallized in my consciousness I suddenly realized that I was speaking more to myself than to him), “success on a small stream within reason isn’t down to flies and gear, it’s about what you do when you arrive onto it. If I can suggest one thing it’s to stop casting so much.”

I wonder whether a flyfisher’s prowess has always been solely defined by their casting or whether this is a relatively new thing. 

Don’t misunderstand me, you have to be able to pull off a good enough cast frequently enough, but I’m getting a sense that rod marketing and the need to drive sales of the increasingly repetitive cycle of new models has made it all about the cast and the distance that you can achieve. As a result everyone lately seems to be laser-focussed on casting. They seem to forget about focussing on their fishing. Honestly, how many times a season (indeed, in a lifetime) will you need to cast half a flyline with a two weight? I suppose it’s nice to know that it can do it, but nah, it’s not necessary. Ask someone what their rod is like to fish with and they tell you how well casts; it’s not the same thing. 

“Get into position to make your cast count.”, I said settling into an evangelical posture and speaking far beyond my ken. “Make that one cast as perfectly as you can. This doesn’t suggest that your cast has to be perfect, I am an indifferent caster, but get it as good as you can get it.”

“You’re going to have to be awake and hyper-engaged to pull this off but there are some things that’ll help you.”

“Get into the water. Get out of those clunky waders. Lighten or remove your pack. Jettison anything that distracts you. Go into full leopard mode. Rest frequently to keep your concentration up when you are actually fishing.” 

“Look carefully at potential lies and try to figure them out. Study the water. You’re going to need to slow right down. Look for what you can’t immediately see until it reveals itself to you.” (I said with the bearing of an oriental sage.) “Brown trout are, for example, said to hold where you least expect them to be. I’m not so sure anymore that this is altogether true. I think that we just don’t look at the stream properly enough.”

“Being in the water allows you to see it as the fish would. Perhaps it’s parallax or a trick of the light but when you’re looking straight up the throat of a run it can look a lot different to how it did from the bank. ”

“You won’t get this level of application right every time. I don’t get it right very often at all, but when I do it is incredibly fulfilling.” 

“You see”, I continued, “when you’re keyed in and you’re thigh deep in a stream seeing and feeling and sensing the flows and the topography of the bottom and are finding lanes and the edges of shadows and undercuts you just become fundamentally connected to the stream. Not to the fish; to the stream. It is a special thing and you’ll know it when it happens.”

“Oh”, he replied, looking at me oddly and then grinning, “you should write that down.”

Sometimes You Take What You’re Given

Some ten or fifteen years ago some friends and I attended a conference near Underberg. We had all ditched our kids with a motley assortment of aunts, grandmothers and casual passersby and had booked into an old stone farmhouse on the very banks of the Pholela. 

Ah, the Pholela! In the distant mists of my notoriously foggy memory I could remember an enticingly fishy reference to the Pholela. More specifically I could remember a massive brown that had, I think, been dispatched to the resting lands of its ancestors by a herdsman with a knopkirrie and a hankering for fresh fish. That it had happened almost a century prior to my arrival was a minor detail and was of little consequence to my rapidly developing plans. I could already see myself dressed in my best silk gown, seated on a wingback chair and smoking my pipe while admiring a stuffed 10lb fish mounted over my fireplace (if you’re going to dream at least do it properly).

Whatever the story was, the house was on the Pholela and I had a rod as well as what, from a fish’s point of view, was murderous intent. 

I was back then a raw novice at stream fishing. I had in a terribly clunky and unsuccessful way fished a stream before. While my intent may have murderous, my actions in those days would have bordered more closely on a teenager for the first time negotiating the clasp of a bra strap – a lot of sweating, tugging and words of encouragement but without that satisfying tug on his line. 

The first time I fished a stream was in the company of a lifelong friend; a man with a pathological fear of snakes. He made it abundantly clear that we were going prepared for any serpentine eventuality or not at all. The Friday afternoon before our first outing was spent buying a pair of gumboots and a grass slasher each. 

Now, I’ve subsequently spent a fair amount of time on streams since those days and I have infrequently happened upon other anglers in the course of my ramblings. I’ve witnessed on or about their persons a lot of what can only be described as tools and implements of the trade, but I believe that we are probably the only two anglers in history who have alighted bankside with grass slashers in hand. 

Despite my selecting what I thought were some likely pools and runs the fishing was generally rather poor. I caught nothing at all that day. I did however see some fish move, swiftly, in the general direction of far, far away. 

With some experience under my belt (and having now read some frightfully austere angling tomes) I’ve happened onto the idea that perhaps, just maybe, the furiously swinging glint of a slasher in the bright sunlight as it hacked at snake-ridden spring grasses from the bank adjacent to the flow may have contributed to our lack of success. Some further research and field tests of this hypothesis may be required, but I think there’s something in it to work with. 

This time around my mind was focussed like a laser on trophy brown trout from a famous Berg stream and I was willing to risk snakebite to have at them. 

The weekend before we were to leave one of my friends called and suggested that he’d fish with me while we were there. Pleased as punch I drove over to his house with a rod, a reel and my treasured Joe Humphries stream fishing video. 

I don’t know where I got the video (it was a decade before these sort of things were available through the Internet) but I had watched it so many times that it was starting to become stretched in places and Joe’s foreign drawl was becoming quite unintelligible. Joe is the self-styled “Arnold Palmer of Flyfishing”, but why on earth he aspires to be like a golfer is beyond me. Perhaps he just likes ridiculous trousers. 

I taught myself to almost-cast from that video. It ingrained into my muscle memory some poor casting habits that I’ve lost all hope of ever shaking off. Every time I walk onto a stream I hear good ‘ole Joe repeating two parts of that video that became a bit of a mantra to me – “back, tap, forward, tap; in a little circular motion” and “a trout is a wily critter“. I’m sure that at least one of those statements is true, but I wouldn’t like to venture a guess at which one it is. 

I recently saw a picture of a now much older Joe Humphries fishing during one of those get-togethers at the Catskill Museum. You’ll know Joe when you see him. Rather than wearing a chest pack what he’s done is to strap an average sized steel office filing cabinet to his front. How the hell he fishes with that thing on God alone knows, but he seems to have done alright. He’d just better not fall in. You’d need a harbour derrick to pick him back out. I dare say his paperwork will be irretrievably damaged though. Serves him right. 

  
My favorite sequence from the video is where he’s demonstrating how to quietly slide into the stream and how to make a tight cast to a rising fish. You see him make the cast and not long after that land the fish with a satisfied “thars a purdy liddel rainbo”. That he’s wearing a slightly different shirt to the one he was wearing when he made the cast and that it doesn’t even seem to be the same stream shouldn’t cast aspersions on what I’m led to believe are his prodigious talents. 

But I digress. 

I arrived at my mate’s house in a howling 30km/hr south wester. The wind was howling is what I mean – I drove a Corsa van at that time. I handed him the video and threatened him with his life should he lose it (which reminds me, I never did get it back). 

I strung the rod and despite the wind decided to demonstrate my best back, tap, forward, tap; in a little circular motion. I knew that it was hopeless in that wind and I don’t even know why I bothered to try. 

Looking up for a suitable casting target I saw a juvenile cypress tree about 15m away in the front yard. The steel stake to which it had been propped in its early youth had worked loose and lay at a slight angle maybe 12″ under the lowest branches of the tree and a yard or so in. 

I lined up my cast and loosened my wrist. I suppose that it’s a bit like when you’ve had a few too many and decide to hit on the hottest girl in the bar. You know you’re going to leave with the whole room laughing at you but you have a crack at it anyhow. Drinking, like exhibition casting in gale force winds, requires you to check-in your self respect at the door.  

“When you’re really good, like me” I said straight faced (despite an absolute conviction that I was about to lose all credibility), “you’ll be able to make the most difficult cast in any weather condition. You just need to compensate for it sufficiently. Watch closely and I’ll lay a cast at the stake under that tree.” I did my best back, tap, forward, tap; in a little circular motion, and neatly cast the leader under the lower boughs of the cypress tree and allowed the tippet unfurl and to come to rest draped neatly over the stake. I still don’t believe that I made that cast. It was – no, it IS, an impossible cast given the circumstances (primary among those circumstances being that it was I who held the rod).

It’s at times like this when you take the good fortune that the universe has just bestowed on you and try not to overthink it.

“Best you watch that video and practice every day” I said with granite features “if you too want to make casts like that.” 

I swear that his mouth was hanging open. 

“Also always remember” I added without flinching “that a trout is a wily critter.”

 

 

{Joe Humphries is legend as an instructor and flyfisher. I have both maligned and misquoted him mercilessly and untruthfully.}

{Serves him right.}

Staring Into the Sun Will Blind You

Andy Warhol was a strange guy. An unsettling, challenging, label-defying, all round strange guy. As a creative mind he was a genius of the highest order; but he was a strange guy, that’s for certain. 

In my uneducated opinion the thing that separates creative geniuses from the common or garden variety genius is their unique way of seeing the world. The very definition of genius, for me, is the ability to cut through the clutter and to see the truth contained in a thing – be it an object, an emotion, an interaction or a transaction. 

A creative genius is different to the other types in how his vision manifests. He not only sees through the noise and makes the connections but he does it is a very different way. He doesn’t draw flow charts or devise complex mathematical theorems and techniques; he demonstrates these connections (these truths) through sensory stimuli. The Mona Lisa, Stairway to Heaven and calculus are different expressions of the same ability.

It’s a rare thing, creative genius. It is like watching a master illusionist- I see what they do, but I have no idea how they do it.  

  
***

I’m a terrible student. I have a great many interests, but no passions. I have studied very little about very few of the things that I’m interested in. 

***

My father played guitar. It’s my first and most enduring memory of him. 

I am told that on the night that my mother and I returned home after my birth my father’s band rehearsed in our home. Obviously I don’t remember that – but I like to think that it would’ve sounded great on my bio if I had ever have trained hard enough to become a working musician. 

When I was ten years old I hurt my spine. I hurt it quite badly and it took some surgery and many months off school until I recovered enough to more or less pick up my life where it had been suspended. 

Around this period I was given my first guitar – one of those nylon string Spanish things. I wasn’t allowed to play much sport and I suppose it was there to help me to pass the time. 

I was, and am, grateful for it. 

 
I picked it up and put it down in intervals of a few months, but by the time I reached the middle of my high school years I could play rhythm on a few songs. My father was, at that time, paying bills by playing music in a restaurant a night or two a week. I would play rhythm while he would pick some Shadows instrumentals. 

I would sit in a booth in a corner, well obscured by the high back of the bench, and all that anyone would see was a guitar lead coming out of the booth and straight into the PA. It must have looked strange to see him calling chord changes to an invisible partner. 

My confidence and competence grew and by my last year or two of school I was sitting in with him, or sometimes a band, a few times a week. I was an acceptably ordinary guitarist and I was starting to learn to sing in tune and even to sing harmonies. This pleased my father and, as a result, pleased me. 

At this point (as with so many kids that age) I became absorbed with music. I was also singularly in love with the guitar as an instrument. 

I played for hours every day. I discovered Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, the Cure, the Smiths, the Doors, Led Zepplin and hundreds of other bands. I wanted to be them. 

When I left school I studied in Port Elizabeth and slowly immersed myself in what was a vibrant music scene. With the added stimulus I improved (where I grew up I was the only kid I knew that played). I had a few friends who were career musicians and I wanted to get to their level. 

I started studying formally and practicing seriously. This was a different practicing to what I was doing a few years earlier – that was discovering chords and rhythms and sounds, this was hard work. 

The more I practiced the less I enjoyed it. The more I deconstructed a piece the less it meant to me. The joy was removed. 

I suppose it was like when an illusionist’s methods are revealed; it’s just never the same. 

***

I was gifted my first fly rod for my twenty-first birthday. A friend and I read a book and hung around and picked up a few tips. Slowly we picked up a few fish; not many, but enough to keep us coming back. 

I got to a point, I suppose, where I’d taught myself a trick or two and fairly regularly caught fairly good fish. We had a lot of fun. We never took it very seriously. When the movie came out we were already flyfishing and it bought us some sort of outdoor credibility. Mainly we had a lot of fun. 

I moved to KZN about fifteen years ago and have slowly drifted back towards casting a fly. I do it alone and, as far as is practical, I do it on rivers. I am overwhelmed by it. (Not catching fish, there are easier ways to do that.) Flyfishing for trout in moving waters is a complex and multilayered thing that I don’t have the skill to describe to you. 

I’ve spent a lot of days over the last few years alone on a river. I’ve camped out alone or stayed over somewhere and in the last three seasons have walked through the soles of two pairs of wading boots. I’ve learned some stuff in the process. 

What I like about what I’ve learned is that it’s come hard but it’s come naturally. You read a bit and buy a fly or two and then you go apply it all.  In the course of applying it you learn the truth and you make the connections that you don’t make in a lecture or get from reading a book. 

I suppose that if you count the number of rods on our rivers in a weekend I’m no worse than half of the guys out there. Solidly average. 

Not quite a year ago I met and started fishing with a group of friends and sundry acquaintances. They’re good guys, every one of them, and I’m grateful that I’m spending time with them. 

I’m doing a bit of other stuff related to flyfishing. Some of it is creative and I am fulfilled by it. Some of it it virtual and it compensates for my social anxiety and relative inability to interact with strangers in person. 

I’m having a lot of fun. 

I’m just trying to keep it fun. 

 
***

Warhol was a creative genius. He was visionary in many ways. 

He said that “the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel“. 

I am so frightened by that; the possibility of feeling better and emptier. 

On New Tackle

I shudder to my core when I see what some anglers spend on flyfishing tackle. I wouldn’t say that I’m envious of their gear; I am genuinely incredulous at what they paid to acquire it and of its superior quality and workmanship, but I’m not envious of it.  

I’m not even sure that ‘tackle‘ is the right word. ‘Equipment‘ sounds a little better but still doesn’t do this sort of kit the justice that it deserves. It’s like calling a Van Gogh a ‘picture‘. The eLotheni a ‘river‘. Charlize Theron a ‘chick‘, and so forth. There’s probably a suitable noun and a few adjectives available to name and describe this sort of kit, but none that I know adequately do the job.  

I’m a simple man of modest means. I know not the feel of a truly fine rod or reel in my rough, artisan-like hands. Most of what I take to the stream I’ve made myself or I’ve repurposed from something else. The remainder of my kit has come my way from the bags, boxes and garages of friends by means of a neatly tailor-made long-term lending scheme. (That these friends are not always aware of the existance of the scheme or even to whom their kit has been lended is a matter between me and my conscience and your mother cautioned you not to be judgmental.) 

I recently bought a nice new rod. Most flyfishers I know say this at least once a year but I, in glaring contrast, have been fishing the same stick for almost ten years now. I have to tell you though, this new rod is quite something. 

It’s fast, light and delicate but can lift a long line neatly from the meniscus and drop a fly delicately onto a predetermined speck of water somewhere in the middle distance. It is fast and sweet and true. It is fast and is made of materials and to tolerances that were previously reserved for the manufacture of deep space telescopes. It is fast and it is fantastic. It is a monumental convergence of art and technology and it represents the pinnacle of the triumph of human endeavors. 

This new rod of mine is well made. Ridiculously well made. It is made to a standard that would make the most anal retentive master craftsman blush in shame in its presence. There is not a wrap of thread or a micron of varnish that is not exactly, microscopically the same as the ones around it. I often lie awake in bed at night ashamed at the number of Spanish cork oaks that had to needlessly perish in order to get enough perfect, blemish free material to make that one grip, and for my part in fueling the industry that led to their wasteful demise. 

This is a great rod. A fast, delicate masterpiece of a rod. 

And I hate it. 

Every cast is an anxious nightmare, every mend is a chore and I genuinely live in fear of it. How I’ve escaped serious injury with it in hand is more a testament to some form of divine protection of my mortal soul than than it is to my fumbling skill set. 

How fast is it exactly? This demonic pole is so fast that I’ve felt the hook penetrate the flesh of the back of my neck on the return cast before I’ve fully completed snapping my eyelids shut to avoid the fly being embedded in them on my initial back cast. What the hell do you need a rod that fast for? Seriously. This thing is as rigid as a sixteen year old on a nudist beach. 

Delicate? I don’t really do delicate. I’m the guy sticking his spurs into the ribs of the bull in the china shop. As for the need for distance casting, I haven’t made a cast longer than ten meters in several seasons. (In fairness, this has more to do with compensating for my failing middle-aged eyesight and my recent propensity to be looking two or three meters distant from where my quarry has neatly spat out my dry than it has to do with any tactical advantage that I might gain from it.) 

I like my old stick. That thing is as forgiving as a favorite grandparent. It’s just a good, honest working man’s fly rod. It reacts to my overhead ministrations at an unhurried pace as it and I slowly amble up brisk mountain streams, picking her pockets as we go. 

I feel compelled to describe what makes this old piece of unpedigreed graphite so special, but it isn’t easy to put into words. I think that what separates her from my newer, satanic stick is that she’s got a ‘feel’; a lightness of touch that is hard to explain. 

‘Feel’ and ‘lightness of touch’ are an important quality in both a rod and an angler. I have a mate (who sadly I lost contact with after he travelled overseas, went out for a drink and was never heard of again) who possessed a singular lack of feel or deftness of touch. His hands were like granite and his senses were dull. He came to visit me one vacation while I was living in Dwesa Nature Nature Reserve on the Transkei Wild Coast. 

While the episode that I relate does not involve the casting of a fly line the general principles of angling are, as I’m sure you agree, universal. 

This buddy of mine modelled himself as something of an outdoorsman and looked more than a little upset when I handed him, on his arrival, a rod and asked him whether he could cast a Penn 49. By way of compensation for the unintended slight I led him to my favorite and most productive spot. 

Cast one landed on the rocks at his feet with a sound not unlike what I would imagine a lollipop being swiftly removed from a frog’s arse would sound like. (A sort of tight sucking sound followed by a loud slapping noise.) Nonchalantly wiping the smear of atomized sardine fillet from his spectacles he took some time to compose himself.  I stood paralized in silent laughter and bit back the temptation to offer him an Afro comb to undo what was an over wind the likes of which were last seen when the Gordian knot was tied. 

Cast two followed cast one in general trajectory but was fortunately a yard or two ahead of his standing position. It slipped over the ledge and into the rip below. 

I watched his bait slide slowly underwater perhaps a yard off the ledge and as he seemed inclined to just leave it there I said nothing. A short while later I noticed that his bait had been dragged a little further offshore. I then observed that it was being dragged parallel to the shore, offshore and back in again. 

“Strike”

“Huh?”

“STRIKE!”

As he raised his rod tip sheer, unadulterated hell and anarchy broke loose in a symphony of swearing and screaming reels and shouting and instructions and swearing. There is nothing that a five kilogram kob likes less than being furiously wound up a jagged, barnacled rock face (other than being furiously wound up a jagged, barnacled rock face without the opportunity to at least put up a good account of itself). 

Our hysterical cries of “The gaff! The gaff!” fell on deaf ears and the fish, brain in turmoil trying to work out what the hell was going on, made its tethered way up the ledge, over various sharp edges capable of severing a shad trace and, a wee bit later, onto my dinner plate displayed nicely next to a lemon wedge.

I may be belaboring the point, and I suppose that it goes to show that feel isn’t the most important quality for an angler provided that he also has a more than ordinary amount of luck, but it’s something that I look for in a light fly rod. 

My faithful old stick is not too delicate either. She has handled almost a decade of her reel seat being used as a bottle opener without showing much more than a scratch. Screw titanium, it’s good old fashioned cast iron that you’re after. (It’s a neat trick, this opening of beer bottles with your reel seat. Pop by anytime with a case of imports and I’ll teach you.)

It is a peculiarity of a bygone era that we bond with our tools and possessions; that we would favour them above those which are newer and ‘better’ and more handsome. We forgive them their minor inadequacies and compensate for their poor sense of fashion and frustrating old world eccentricities. 

That old rod presented the fly onto the Little Mooi that landed me my first wild brown. She is the only witness to a 22 inch fish on a piece of the Mooi that you wouldn’t believe holds anything bigger than 12 inches of stippled beauty. She is an extension of myself and a part of my soul. 

I once read that you don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. 

I get that. 

On Resort Dams

I would love to call these (often) little bits of water lakes, but they have to be the furthest thing in the world from being a lake. They hold water and are often at the right altitude – this is a barearsed guess, I have no idea what the right altitude for a lake is – but to refer to them as lakes is pushing it a tad over the limit. In a sense it’s not a lot different to referring to the young lady at the bar as being ‘pretty hot’ just as the clock strikes two in the morning; when the conditions are right and it’s the only game in town you tend to find them more attractive than you may find them in the cold, objective light of an ordinary day. 

To my mind a lake is something that you can at very least put a small yacht on. At the bottom of my street there’s a puddle with an honest to god yacht floating on it. It is not this sort of look, rub your eyes, look again and shake your head madness of which I speak. To be a lake you have to be able to raise a sail on the yacht and cruise around like someone in a Peter Styvesant advert of days gone by. Tits and tobacco. Gins and grins. Now that’s a lake. 

I’m speaking, of course, of the typical resort dam. It’s a little bit better than a last resort dam; that puddle of almost stagnant water that holds the odd recreational trout. Please don’t misunderstand me, there is no recreational benefit to the trout that has been so unceremoniously dumped into this puddle to live out it’s pitiful days. This battery-run trout is there for the sole recreational pursuits of the angler. (I’m aware that suggesting that a badly stocked trout can be compared to a battery-raised fowl may lead to the opening of an ugly ethical can of worms and that I may unintentionally introduce another pressure on our imported, Eurocentric sport that it doesn’t, at this crucial point, need. I do it simply as a literary device to draw attention to the plight of the much overlooked can-interned worm; the freedom struggle of which is a cause for which I am passionate.)

This last resort dam is the kind of water that holds the kind of fish that looks only too pleased to be whipped out by a #6 Mrs Simpson wielding tourist in white oversized wrap-around sunglasses with mirror blue lenses, a baseball cap festooned with his favorite surf or motor cross brand, a pair of camouflage cargo shorts and yellow flip-flops. Those are horrible waters. Tepid, smelly-at-sunset pools where as you get out of your car in the nearby car park you can, above the spit of the wors roll vendor’s skillet, hear the poorly conditioned trout gasping for air and the eternal mercy of a well directed priest. 

Don’t fool yourself either, there’s a lot of this sort of thing around. I have a silent snort (of the not-exactly-snobbish but slightly condescending variety of snorts) when I read Sunday evening social media accounts of weekends spent on these grotesque waters. To put this into perspective, the Sunday evening posting is generally a denouement of the Wednesday morning post enquiring whether anyone knows if such-and-such a puddle has been recently stocked. 

Recently stocked? What we’re talking about here is a 48 hour window from being wrenched free from a hatchery pool to being impaled on your hook.  Look, don’t get me wrong, a day spent with rod in hand beats a day of shopping arcades and domestic chores by a country mile – provided that it is spent on the banks of an at least remotely sustainable and not-too-far-from-natural fishery. 

You don’t need to remind me that in this country we have precious few (less than a half-dozen I would expect) natural fisheries. These are truly sustainable and natural in the sense that fish spawn and populate them without a human hand in their husbandry. They are entirely unnatural in the sense that the fish is entirely exotic and has no natural right nor reason to be there, but at least they’re a step or two removed from being a fishy petting zoo. 

You are probably justifiably confused at this point by my rambling discourse so let me try to explain how I rate still waters. 

The worst of them I’ve already described. They are the steaming cesspools of the industry where fish are introduced a few days prior to a busy weekend and where their denizens did not grow to their pretty reasonable size by evading humans. Rather, they were chucked in at no less than two pounds and on average at around four pounds and seem to swim up to poly-pocketed vest wearing bipeds in eager expectation of their next meal. I hear you muttering your objections to my assertion. But I see your posts. Got them on large, dense dries, snails and beetle patterns, did you? Like last time? Deadly fly, works every time? Uh-uh, no you didn’t. You got ’em fair and square on hatchery pellet imitations. I’m not mocking. I’m suggesting that you matched the typical hatch perfectly. (Ok, I’m mocking, but I too have hit on ‘babes’ in the wee hours of a morning. When it’s the only game in town, etc.)

On the extreme polar opposite end of the scale is the ‘natural’ fishery that I described earlier. If you’re going to get a fish here you best get your shit together. These fish aren’t stupid. Stop slapping the water with your false cast (in fact, ditch eight of your ten false casts, the fish are very near to you) and work on some sort of a presentation. These fish know better. Crouch. They were stocked by their parents as a surprisingly not ugly-looking blend of eggs and spermatozoa. Their parents ditched them shortly after the consummation of their brief marriage and their orhpans grew up hard and mean or not at all. This life is all they know and they’re damned good at it. They didn’t run the gauntlet of predation, environmental stresses and anglers and grow large by accident. Get a four pound fish here and you can feel good about yourself. Get a six pounder and earn yourself the right to tell your mates that you’ve got your shit together and that they’d best pull themselves a little closer toward themselves or, by God, they’ll need to find another fishing buddy. 

These waters are pretty. Very, very pretty. It is because they’re natural. Nothing planted, nothing trimmed and nothing mowed. Is that long grass hampering your back cast? Then feel free to fish elsewhere. Who does one have to sleep with to have your beer delivered to you at the water’s edge? Your mother is on her way with a chilled six pack. This is no-nonsense, as near as you’ll get to the real thing on this continent, fishing. If you get to visit one of these waters more than once every two seasons or so you can count yourself as being privileged. 

Second to best among our still waters are well managed private waters. These are generally situated on local farms, are reasonably large and are stocked with fingerlings as opposed to ‘stockies’. These fish are fairly wild (whatever the hell that means). What I mean is that they are very close to natural (whatever the hell that means). Look, this is all very confusing in a mock-scientific sort of way. Fish go in small and in small numbers. Rod pressure is minimal. Competition is minimal. Conditions are pretty good. If they make it through their childhood the fish grow quickly large and are typically well conditioned. If there are inlets and springs and the like feeding these dams they can be very close to the real thing (whatever the hell that means). Weed beds often abound and there is abundant structure. 

A drawback of these dams is (apart from you seeing the photographs but never cracking the nod to fish one) that they’re on some bleak ‘Berg farm and particularly in winter are in really shit looking surroundings. That is unless a dust covered and dun colored landscape is your thing – because in that case you’re going to love it. I get that the drawn hardness of a high altitude winter is a thing of beauty in itself but these dams generally have a little reedy triangle like a feminine pubic mound at the shallow end, dusty straw colored and red clay banks along each side and a thoroughly unimaginative earth wall at the deep end; they weren’t constructed for leisure and as enticing photo backdrops. Those in the Midlands often fare a little better in agriculture’s winter beauty pageant than those in the high ‘Berg, but not overwhelmingly so. No, for the most part they’re flat, boring things with big healthy fish. 

These dams have fairly grand names, but not ostentatiously so. They generally take the name of the farm that they are on. If there are two dams on the property then one will be assigned the title ‘upper’ and the other ‘lower’. Alternatively ‘big’ and ‘small’ are used interchangeably with upper and lower. If there are three dams the whole system starts to go awry. There’s no ‘in-between’ or ‘mid-sized’ name assigned and, as so often happens two of the three are in any case similar in size. In this instance (and in the rare case of there being more that three dams on the property) the correct thing to do is to just number the dams. Trying to explain the ‘north’ dam to some city dweller who can hardly hear you above his air conditioning fan and through the leather padded walls of his million rand, absolutely essential company four wheel drive SUV (this trip has been recorded as being a conference and till slips are collected for later reimbursement) is a waste of time. This guy couldn’t tell you in which direction the sun rises or sets as much as he can’t tell the difference between a Jersey and a Friesland. 

Every now and again some farmer’s wife decides to name each dam. This is pretentious bullshit and if I hear you calling a dam ‘trutta’ and the one next to it ‘salmo’ them I swear you’re buying the beer for the rest of the trip. I wince as I write this because my favorite two dams in the whole world have these very names. I call them the top and the bottom dam. So should you. 

Really good, rich and productive dams of this class are well-protected secrets. My mate Terry Andrews assigns to them an interesting nomenclature that starts with ‘Secret Dam #’ and then the number of the dam in, I have to assume, the order in which he has stumbled onto them. There is an inherent problem in this system – Terry, like the rest of us has reached the point in his life where his memory of specific things has somewhat dulled over time. What I mean is that I’m not certain that he is sure whether he is at any time at Secret Dam #81, Secret Dam #43 or just some random irrigation dam that he pulled up next to as a result of his losing his way on the drive. That he catches exceptional fish is beyond question. That he catches them where he thinks he catches them is extremely doubtful. But he’s a really large guy and when the farmer’s daughter yells “daddy, there’s some guy at the dam” and Joe Farmer looks out the window at a six foot something ginger inflating a kick boat he probably figures it’s best to stay indoors and just let it pass without incident. 

Second from the bottom (or third from the top, dependent on how you see these things) is the resort dam. Don’t confuse this with the last resort dam, what I’m talking about is the dam at the average ‘Berg holiday resort. The backdrop of mountains is usually pretty stunning. The lawns are mowed, but not normally around the entire waterline and birds and plant life abound. They are fishable, but mind your head for golf balls in flight. 

In fact, that is probably the most irritating part of a resort dam – other people. I’m not a fan of company generally (whether it spurns me or whether I spurn it is something of a chicken and egg argument) and some of the worst company in the world is to be found on these dams. Golfers are, quite simply, deadly and best avoided altogether. Every guy with annual timeshare features himself as the next Arnold Palmer regardless (or possibly oblivious) of his obvious lack of skill. Those ‘Big Bertha’ type drivers are weapons-grade stuff and ought to be considered by whichever body updates the Geneva Convention. A golf ball makes a very distinctive shushing sound as it flies past your lug hole and I would imagine an even worse one as it embeds itself in your sternum. A tip in this regard is to peer through your Polaroids at the bottom of the dam. If it contains a pox of white spots then those are golf balls and you’re about to have your relaxing fishing session suddenly turned into an extremely dangerous adventure sport. 

Then there’s the group who feel that they have to walk up to ask you whether you’re catching. I’m not sure what that means. Are they looking for a stack of fish at your feet or one on your line? How do you even answer them? Yes, sometimes I am, indeed, catching. Other times I am not catching. At yet other times I am alternatively casting, changing flies, tying knots, untying knots or taking a piss just behind that long grass and in full sight of the bustling sundeck. I am nothing if not versatile. Please reframe your question. 

Kids are the worst. (Other people’s kids. I’m sure that yours are darlings.) You can be a few hundred meters from the closest human life, pushing long casts into a channel when a few of them run up with inane questions and conversations. That they ruin your day and that their parents look proudly on as they do it is a given, but hook one of them in any part of their body on your back cast and all hell breaks loose. It’s as though you did something wrong. Or rather, that you intentionally did something wrong. They aren’t allowed to parade back and forth in front of a golf tee box just waiting to be cruelly decimated like a game of Atari Snotty Space Invaders so why would you let them stand in line with my back cast?

The only upside with these bankside idiots is that you can really give the old ego a little stroke if you have half a mind to and the requisite skill set to pull it off. (Also, it goes without saying, that the fish need to be in an obliging mood.)

Every resort dam holds a head of would-be anglers. Everybody has to learn their angling skills (if you have half a brain you would realize that every outing is another step upwards on the learning curve) and I’m not claiming superiority or suggesting that they shouldn’t be fishing. What I’m saying is that when you are among once-a-years or beginner anglers you can truly strut your stuff.

I’m a very, very mediocre caster but when I stand next to a guy who is trying to ‘throw’ his fly at the dam and I pull off a flawless, tight-looped 18m cast with a fine presentation (I may be exaggerating the loop and the presentation somewhat) I look like a pro. After a season of untying wind knots and removing  flies from bankside flora it’s a good feeling. The oohs and aahs make you feel all warm and mushy inside. Just don’t offer these guys advice, they’ll shadow you for days. 

Then there’s the small matter of catching a fish. I may be a rampant narcissist, but there’s nothing better than arriving at water where you are assured that the fish have been off the bite for a few days and landing a quick few fish. I’ve had this happen to me several times. In fairness, it’s mainly because the guys who were there before me just can’t read the water and adjust to circumstances prevailing. I’m no master of this, but trial and error have resulted in a smattering of lessons that have improved my catch rates notably. 

I once arrived just before sunset at a resort dam near Bushman’s Neck. A few guys had been fishing it for nine hours a day for three days without success. For the purpose of intimacy let’s name them Simpson, Hamill and Walker. That fish were feeding a little below the surface on emerging something or others was obvious. That whatever it was that was hatching was not a size eight was equally obvious. That it wasn’t moving at 50 miles an hour was depressingly obvious. I tied on a emerger thing that hung on the surface and a nondescript #18 nymph a few inches below it, New Zealand style. First cast and a neat, plump four pounder was netted. The abuse that I took from the winter-sherry guzzling crowd would make a sailor blush. I came back the next morning for less than an hour and on the same rig caught four decentish fish in quick succession. When I left I gifted them with a roll of suitably thin tippet and a dozen or more small flashback nymphs. Despite them having seen the results of fishing small and light they still wouldn’t believe that a large (or any) fish would take so small a lunch and it took some convincing to have them change their methods (assuming that they ever did). 

That’s the thing with fishing, adapt or eat toast. I’ve caught fish in resort (and other) dams a few times where others have not and every time it was because I adapted to what the fish were doing rather than trying to convince them to change to what I wanted them to be doing. Fish are like that – inflexible bastards. Make no mistake, I blank more often than not but a resort dam is a forgiving thing and you will inevitably punctuate your day’s casting with the odd take and fight. This draws a bit of an audience and for someone who spends most of his time fishing solo it’s quite a strangely satisfying feeling being watched while doing it. We all want validation. Why should I be any different?

A half decent resort dam is actually fairly large and while it is regularly stocked with ‘stockies’ the odd one slips through and grows to a respectable size. I only go to resorts with the family and, although this is strongly disputed, spend very little time on the water. I therefore don’t take it seriously and just unwind catching stockies and such by the methods I prefer – stalking around reeds with a light rod and more often than not a dry. Understand this clearly, you will be taken by surprise every so often by a fish that has no reasonable right to be there. When that happens it’s a mad scramble to get your concentration where it needs to be and your net from under the pile of beer cans somewhere along the bank. 

I really like taking big fish. I take very few of them mainly because I don’t consciously fish for them. I’m an equal opportunity taker of trout. I love the silly stockie that hasn’t learned to be too afraid. I like that mid-sized fish that has learned enough to occasionally turn away when the leader flashes a little too brightly or when he spies you standing on the bank. If a big fish throws enough caution into the wind (or perhaps that should be the current) I’ll gladly oblige by piercing him in the lip and praying that my thoroughly unsuitable tackle and lack of experience marry well enough to get the job done. 

I suppose that with a resort dam that’s the beauty of it. There’s no weight of expectations. You can stuff up and not feel bad about it. You can try something new and possibly waste your time but that’s the only reason why you’re there; to slowly kill a bit of time. 

I understand that from time to time I just like the unhurried leisure of casting a line while someone replenishes the bucket of beer at my side. 

There are much worse things in this world than that. 

Waiting for the season

As I write this the calendar slowly, desperately and unbearably slowly, runs to the end of July. If you think that a watched pot never boils then you’ve never spent three months staring at a calendar. It makes watching paint drying seem like an adventure sport. It’s like the week before your ninth birthday, the day before Christmas and the night after your cancer test all rolled into one. 

The rivers have been closed for exactly 56 of 92 days now (60.9% of the closed season) and my last cast up one was exactly fifteen hours short of nine weeks ago on a fantastic day on the Upper Bushman’s under the relaxed guidance of Jan Korrûbel. We took a pair of fat little fish almost straight off the bat and a few more intermittently during the course of the morning. Lunch was a relaxing affair on a small midstream island that was made more special by the almost unnoticed arrival of a small herd of buck right next to where we were sitting. The afternoon was fishless but it was the sort of day where great company and meandering conversation makes details like that entirely unimportant. 

In the time since my last being on the water and today my feeling of restless uneasiness has grown steadily, like the approach of a great storm, silently and malevolently. With it has come a distinct crankiness that I won’t try to deny or even to downplay. 

I’m not a gregarious person but in the winter I find myself a lot more open to leaning on tackle shop counters shooting the breeze and just cloyingly trying to maintain a connection to that which occupies so much of my mind but right now seems so distant. 

It’s a bad thing, all this waiting. As the off-season winds on interminably my general bluesy demeanor slowly develops and grows. I try to hide it, but it reveals itself with something like what poker players refer to as a ‘tell’. Firstly, I start to do the fishing related chores that I so flatly ignore doing in the season. 

It’s with a feeling of mild surprise that I find myself busy taking my tackle out from behind the seat of my truck – their now ten month old home. Reels are oiled. Lines are cleaned and treated. Various over-priced and probably unnecessary preparations are applied to ferrules and eyes. Nail knots are checked and retied. The ages of rolls of tippet (yes, JLK, I DO know the difference between a leader and a tippet) are guesstimated and those that break on being tugged are discarded. I even find myself staring at cork grips and wondering whether they would benefit from a few rubs with a bit of 400 grit water paper. Ok, ok, I don’t do most of these things, but writing them down gives me, I’d like to think, an aura of knowing what the hell I’m talking about. The fact that I’m even thinking about doing them speaks volumes as to my current state of mind.

Lines. These I do attend to. With a ‘soft, mild detergent’. (My wife’s expensive face wash.) As I clean them I check their condition and wince a little. When did they get so expensive? I’ve got to go a little easier on them. I also need to start keeping a record of the first time I say “it’ll last another season”. My current favorite line (a sink tip, float, sink, float, sink, float a bit more in lengths not more than a foot at a time – mending this thing in the current looks a bit like a breakdancing move) was designated a final purgatory season, I think, about four seasons ago. I have a simple formula for the replacement of fly lines (and by extension, reels). When I’m tackling up for a day on a stream and I realize that I’ve forgotten a reel at home I just buy another one. Every line that I ever purchase is a grudge purchase but, despite that, I make certain to buy only fine reels. I rush back from the stream into the the nearest town and the into nearest tackle shop gesticulating and demanding loudly for a reel to be set up. Quickly. The tackle jockey jumps to it and fires back “will this be OK?” and I answer “yes, that’s fine”.

Probably the single worst case of unnecessary tackle purchasing ever recorded (or at least until now) occurred in the wee hours of one morning in the village of Nottingham Road. I was attending the launch of a new product as a guest of one of our suppliers. A month or three before I had managed to convince them that if I attended another golf weekend I would be forced to shoot myself, that golf is for morons and that real men cast a fly. In an uncharacteristic show of concern for my wellbeing (or perhaps to defend their manly honor) the supplier arranged a weekend of fly fishing  punctuated only by sessions of heavily drinking and the occasional reference to their new products. (That’s not really true, it was heavy drinking punctuated by fly fishing in tee shirts promoting their new product.)

Our hosts hired the services of the local tackle shop to provide gear, casting instruction and guided fishing on one of their managed lakes. Guests started arriving at Notties Hotel shortly after lunch on Friday, grabbed a beer and headed to the lawn for casting instruction. I can use a bit of casting instruction as much (or more) than the next man but as I seriously dislike being told what to do I made my way to the bar. We were told to be at dinner at seven, but I seriously dislike being told what to do and I stayed in the bar. By midnight we were on that slippery precipice where the evening could go one of two ways – either to bed or to hell. We opted for the latter. 

Come 1AM we were telling the inevitable stories of fish lost and won and some newbies in our party began to feel a little left out and probably embarrassed at using rented tackle shop gear. “Never fear” say our guides in well-practiced unison “we’ll open the shop, it’s only a three minute walk away.” My eyes welled up and my chest warmed in gratitude toward these hardworking young men who would open up a store on their night off just so that we could gear up for the next morning’s outing. 

Now I’ve often arrived home after the euphoria of a quick stop at a well-stocked and friendly tackle shop has worn off to look at the credit card slip and feel just a little faint. Let me tell you, come 6AM on this particular Saturday morning there were a dozen guys clutching bags of new tackle, staring at credit card slips and shaking their heads in abject fear of their wives founding out. 

Breakfast followed by assistance in tackling up and discussions about prime areas to fish, etc. was planned for 06:30. Our guides (having taken ample advantage of our host’s bar tab) arrived at 10:00. By this time Andre Joubert, the ‘Rolls Royce of fullbacks’ (got to drop names) and I had decided against assisting our colleagues, had worked a weed bed and I had a nice five pounder browning over a fire. 

[This anecdote is of no bearing to spending a winter waiting for the season to open, but it helped me kill an hour’s downtime. Back to off-season gear maintenance.]

I do this off-season maintenance more carefully than most things that I do. The off-season is a long, drawn out thing and you don’t want to be rushing what you can drag out. Don’t believe for a second that I do it properly, I just don’t rush it. 

My next ‘tell’, the equivalent of being dealt four aces, is when I take out my vice. Winter just got real. I am, to not put too fine a point on it, a really shit fly tier. I probably fish (if I’ve had a blinder of a tying session) one out of every twenty flies I tie. My flies are about eight parts superglue to every one part tying materials. I can’t even recycle the hooks of my bad flies because I can’t get the dressing off. If you see me and I’ve got bits of fluff and feathers stuck to my fingers and lips and with one eye glued shut go easy on me. I’m not a natural fly tier. 

From time to time I post onto social media a photo of a fly that I think represents a giant leap forward and upward in my progression on the fly tying learning curve. I posted a week or so ago what I thought was a really nice stimulator type caddis. “Great hopper” came the comment. I got more encouragement recently with some favorable comments on a caddis pupa that I apparently posted. It was intended to be a GRHE. I suppose you can’t be good at everything. I’m walking testament to that. 

There are, I recognize, a few worthwhile things that I could be doing during the off-season. For one, I could improve my casting. I can cast a bit – enough toget by, but honestly, not much more than that. I know, none but the bravest or most drunk in our community will admit that they are good casters, but I am not very good at all. I’ve bought some pretty good instructional books and videos in my time – I’ve even watched and read them – but I can’t be asked to stand on a school sports field doing the exercises. I’m sure that most of them work and that they’ll improve my skills but casting at field mice is just a little sad. I could get an instructor. I could do a bunch of stuff. Seems a lot of effort though. Especially in winter. Standing in a field casting a line with the rivers closed is just too poignant and sad a reminder of how empty my life is in this bleakest of seasons. 

I should, could, and do, fish a lake from time to time in the closed season, but it’s not really my thing. It’s not an unworthy expenditure of my efforts and I do get a thrill from the hooking and playing of a large fish but, well, it’s just not the same as a day on a stream. I find this hard to explain as I really enjoy lake fishing. But… There’s always a but attached to it. I’m not sure what the but is always for. I think that lake fishing just doesn’t result in the same sensory fulfillment that stream fishing does. Particularly if the size of the fish that you catch isn’t important to you. I suspect that I’m in a tiny majority of anglers who fish for a reason other than number or size of fish. I can’t tell you why I fish but my therapist and I are exploring this and (provided that my medical aid funds hold out) I am assured that a ‘break though’ is nigh. As an aside, if you think that tackle shops burn through a child’s university fund you haven’t seen what a therapist can do. At least with a tackle shop you get something for you money that you can’t blame on your mother. 

I could, I suppose, do a little out of season stream fishing somewhere where I can get away with it. The National Parks no longer give a blind damn what you do and there are isolated private waters where you can get it done. I don’t though. Anymore. I have in the past, but that was years ago when my worldview was challenged by some hard experiences and when I didn’t give a shit about myself, much less a fish and his sex life. No, I refuse to fish a river in the wintertime – and so should you. (Insert picture of man shaking his finger at you here.)

The off-season turns me into an enquiring amateur meteorologist. I understand that our predominant sub-Saharan high pressure cells move closer to the equator and drag behind them the low pressure cells that sit closer to the antarctic during summer. These low pressure cells are responsible for the Cape’s wet winter weather, but if they’re powerful enough they can push inclement weather into the summer rainfall zones. I look for inversions and cut-off lows and celebrate them when I find them. 

I know the patterns of frontal systems moving along the escarpment and I learn the place names of towns that are no more than a Main Street and a farmer’s co-op but which lie on this path. I know how much rain was recorded there and what the chances of it coming our way is.  I dial daily into the webcams of our few ski resorts and try to distinguish real from artificial snow. 

Yes,  precipitation in the most far-flung corner of the country suddenly becomes of prime importance to me. There was snow just outside of Queenstown? Rain in Qumbu? Not Qumbu, Cala? How much? Could it be moving up the coast? Ah, shit, it’s confined to the coastal belt. Richmond had 18mm? Mooi River only 1mm? Damnit. But there’s a second cold front moving across the Cape and the mountain ranges have a smattering of snow. Yes, it dusted Lesotho, but we want it on this side of the Berg. (Now that had me reaching back into my high school geography learnings. Hope I got some of it right.)

This is a dry continent. Our streams are a boom and bust affair. There’s a whole bunch of science involved, but it all crystallizes in the fact that if we haven’t had much winter precipitation (particularly water table feeding snow) there’s not going to be a lot of water in the streams come the first of September and, obviously, not a lot of fishing either. Add to that the threat of late summer rains and the whole cycle is on its arse until possibly February; with me standing forelornly watching, rod in hand and heavy hearted. 

Inevitably though the rains will come and the rivers will be fishable. Right about them a new set of anxieties manifest themselves. The first day of the season is a seriously hit and miss affair as the fish are generally still sluggish, but not as sluggish as I am after the forced break. 

I am never up earlier than I am on that first actual fishing day of the season and I never drive quite as fast to get there either. 

Despite my fumbling attentions my fly boxes are brimming over, vibrating, with their ample contents. My leaders have been tied and retied and my line is clean and slick. My hands shake in anticipation and I take my breath in short, shallow draughts. 

Isn’t that all that fly fishing is, anticipation? The anticipation of what’s around the next bend, what they’ll be feeding on, where they’ll be lying, how to present to them, whether they’ll accept your offering, what they’ll look like when they come to the net and whether you have it in you to repeat your success. 

I suppose that if an off-season heightens this anticipation then it’s not too bad a thing. 

On Nice Stuff

I started this on a whim and it took me in directions that I could not have guessed at. I’m happy that it did. 

………………………………………………….
Theres some thing about owning something really good and rare that that is difficult to explain. Trout fisherman know the feeling – they’re the biggest horders you’ll ever come across. 

We’ve all got that one (some of us may have more) items that are totally indispensable to us and which have a value far more than what they are worth. I myself own very little by the way of rare or expensive tackle. That which I hold dear are really very little, insignificant things by comparison to most. 

I am always amazed by the dichotomy of thinking when it comes to things of great value. We tend to want to offer money for things that we hold to be priceless. It’s a really strange thing; let me explain with an example. 

My wife’s grandfather lived in Worcester in the Cape for most of his adult life. By the time I met him he was already of some considerable age. He was a simple man and was well loved and respected in his community. He cared for his neighbors and they, in turn, looked after him in his old age. 

Oupa Hannes was renowned for his garden and orchard, the fruits of which he and Ouma Bettie would turn into wonderful jams and preserves. Much of the bounty of his orchard he would share, as a gift, with his community. I can still not get over his genuine surprise every time one of the community would reciprocate. Their relationship with the world was a rare and special one. 

Worcester is where the KWV brandy cellars are situated. They are the producers of brandies and ports that are in many cases far superior to cognacs or ‘real’ ports. Of the gifts that he would regularly receive I was most interested in those that came from this cellar. He obviously had a relationship with someone at KWV and had been receiving gifts from them for many, many years. 

On one visit to Worcester we took Oupa Hannes on something of an outing in the district and, as we do, stopped into a large wine co-op. In a glassed-off display within the store was, among others, a bottle of extremely old KWV port. While the exact age of the bottle I do not recall this particular vintage would by now be very close to being a century old. 

Oupa Hannes stood looking into the display until a member of their management arrived to ask if he could be of assistance. 

“How much is that port?”

“It’s not for sale”

“If it were to be for sale how much would be asked for it?”

“It’s not for sale.”

“I understand that, but what would be the price were you to sell it.”

“I said that it is not for sale.”, came the familiar response, but this time more tersely and with a certain rolling of the eyes. 

“Yes, it’s not for sale, I understand that. All that I want to know is what it’s asking price would be were it to go on sale.”

“Oom, let me explain this. That port it very, very old and it is very, very valuable. It is of an exceptional vintage and there is not a lot of it left in this world. Many people have tried to buy it from us. The only time that it would go on sale would be at an auction and the bidding would determine the price. The price will be beyond the means of most people. Why do you persist in asking, are you trying to buy it?”, came the slowly enunciated response of a younger person frustrated with an aged one.  

“Oh no, it’s just that I have at home a case of the same port of exactly the same vintage and I was wondering if they were worth anything.”

“What do you want for them!”, was the quickly fired-back response. 

“I’m sorry, young man, they’re not for sale.”

This is exactly what I’m talking about, how we try to put a price on that which is intrinsically priceless. We covert most that which we cannot have; the ownership of which we somehow believe will make us unique or special. 

I like nice stuff. No, I really, absolutely like nice stuff. I think however that I just have a very different idea of what nice stuff is. It is very hard for me to try to put into words what for me constitutes nice stuff, but I know that it’s not simply expensive items. 

Expensive stuff isn’t necessarily dear to me. With a suitably swollen wallet I could easily own a picket fence of cane rods and fine, handmade reels. I would appreciate them and would be awed by their workmanship, but other than for the recognition of the hand of artisan they would not be of any great value to me. You see, things need to be bound to oneself in a different way to really be of value. 

As a teenager I met a man who later employed me for a few years. Peter Thorburn was a civil engineer and a partner in his own extremely successful practice. He was also a devoted fisherman and was proficient in many disciplines of the sport. He was an amazing guy; unbelievably intelligent, a former Springbok athletics captain, a farmer and completely off the wall in many ways. 

I remember driving up to his farm one day and finding him welding up a broken trailer. He couldn’t find his welding mask so as he held the welding rod in one hand he held an empty quart beer bottle up to his eye with the other. With Peter this sort of thing wasn’t unusual. His trousers were hemmed with staples and superglue and he would trim his nails with a large knipmes. 

I think that he entered into fly fishing later on in his life and he took to it like most things he did – with a singular ability and unique perspective. His flies were really basic, simple things. He used to use crab patterns made of old carpet fibre to deadly effect on trout. His saltwater flies were just as crude but he took great fish on them. I think that he would be cast out of most fly tying clubs the second he opened one of his boxes. He knew his stuff though. In the age of fast sinking rocket taper lines and Walker’s Killers he only fished a floater; in our eyes this made him truly eccentric. 

He passed away suddenly and his death affected me profoundly. He wasn’t a mentor in the “come let me help you” way. In fact, he would tell myself and a friend when we’d talk about learning the double haul or clever techniques or smart flies “that’s your problem, you want to be a bloody hero”.  I think that it took his death for me to realize that he was at all a mentor to me. I was in my mid twenties and thought, like most of us did at that age, that death happened to old people. The church in his adopted hometown, Komga, couldn’t hold those at the service. Neither could the tent they erected for it. I was a poor married student at the time and I spent the last of our grocery money that month to buy petrol to drive up from Port Elizabeth for the funeral. I arrived just in time and stood outside the tent and cried; as I am now. 

His wife, for reasons I will never know, saw fit to mail me some of his things a few months after his passing. It was nothing of any value. It was just some priceless things; some flies, oddities of small tackle and a poem that he wrote. 

In the package was something liquid. I’m not sure what it was, but the package was clearly badly mishandled and the liquid drenched the contents. Much of it was damaged. I marched into the postmaster’s office and vented at her with much emotion. 

“Wasn’t it insured”, she asked’ “is it worth much?.

How do you even begin to answer that?

I think that to reach the end of your days and to have collect just a little of what is truly priceless is the mark of a life lived well. I’ll let you in on a secret; it’s not that collection of rare tackle – that stuff is going to go for a song at a garage sale a generation hence. No, while it enriches your existence and is a joy to have near you it isn’t priceless. 

While I write this (excuse me my emotions – this was intended to have been something entirely different when I started it) there is a bigger sign of a life well lived, and it has stuck me like an epiphany. 

When you have left someone else with something priceless then you have gone some way to enriching the world by your time spent on it. That, I think, is the challenge of life. 

On Photos of Trout

I am not afraid to admit it, I’m petrified of posting pictures of the fish I’ve caught. 

In fairness, I don’t have many photos to post as I don’t frequently take photos of fish that I’ve landed. I fish in, by most people’s standards, small waters and while I’ve taken some decent enough fish from them they are still small fish. The memory of a day spent on a stream is enough for me and I really don’t feel much need to photograph the actual fish. I start reaching for my camera and then just leave it and tweak the fly loose. 

The fish that I do photograph are generally because of some particular marking or coloration that I find alluring and that I want to record to draw later or to show to someone who I think may be similarly interested in them. Most photos of fish (and drawings of them, for that matter) just look like a dead fish. I get no particular pleasure from the hundreds of photos of fish that I see every week courtesy of social media. The pictures that I do like are generally because of some unique feature rather than being because of size or number. 

On reflection, I think that I don’t photograph many fish stems from my lack of need to possess them in any way. I own many things that I love, but I don’t possess them in the way that some do. I prize them for their existence and proximity to me but even inanimate objects of value have a soul and I cannot claim to possess a soul in the same way that drawing in a deep breath does not place me in possession of the wind. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. 

There are a lot of guys who are posting onto social media pictures of some exceptional fish. All too often they are taking an exceptional lambasting for it. 

These contributors are getting an on-line tongue lashing for how they are holding the fish, wearing gloves, lying them down on the bank and for many other reasons. This has made me really rethink how I photograph fish and their catch and release in general. 

Firstly, let me say (again) that the whole notion that you are a Neanderthal for keeping a fish is simply nonsense. That one needs to limit one’s catch for reasons of conservation or improving the sport I agree with fully and completely. That one fishes (especially an impoundment) and is out of line on ethical grounds for keeping a fish for the table is just ridiculous. 

This whole ‘ethical’ debate is running far too hot in the circles that I frequent. 

There is a movie called ‘Powder’ recorded in the 90’s that had a scene that has stayed with me until today. The story is about a boy with some sort of advanced mental capacity that enabled him, among other things, to feel what another living thing feels. It sounds like nonsense, but it is a deep and moving story about how we can’t accept that which is different even when it is far more advanced and profoundly more beautiful than anything that we can imagine. 

The scene I refer to is where the youth enters a cabin that has trophies of hunted animals hung from every wall. Later he is with the hunter when he shoots a deer. The youth touches the dying animal and then touches the hunter who recoils in horror on feeling the pain of the animal. The hunter, inevitably, stops hunting. Watch the movie. It will move you. 

If I relate this to the lauded and much vaunted  ‘ethic’ of catch and release it starts to cover the whole idea with a certain shadow. 

That fish are not mammals I am well aware. Their capacity to feel pain is, as I understand it, diminished to the point of being non existent. Trout neither nurture their young or raise them in the mammalian sense. I don’t understand the science involved in arriving at these conclusions so I can’t offer comment. 

What I do understand is that a fish, when pricked and made to feel the tugging resistance of the line, certainly feels something. To my mind the emotion (an anthropomorphism, but the only one within my frame of reference) that they feel is terror. Pure, cold, unrestrained terror. 

A fish knows only a few things. It knows how to feed. It knows how to evade predators. (These two are closely related and the line between them is blurred.) It knows to procreate. There may be a few minor other bits of cognitive stuff going on, but for an angler this is all we need to focus on. 

When hooked in the jaw every instinct that it has turns to escape. The runs, jumps and evasive tactics that we celebrate as sportsmen are an indication of the unsurpassed level of terror that the animal experiences. In most cases the extent of this terror is simply off the charts. 

Where am I going with this? 

We speak of catch and release as though it is a behavior which has a source the angler’s bleeding heart; that we are doing the fish a great service. Bullshit. Let me make one thing very, very clear. Angling is a bloodsport. The fish derives nothing but abject discomfort from our attentions. 

Having said that, I don’t feel overly ashamed of what I pass off as sport. I am an apex predator and the fish is there for my taking. I fish by methods that make the task more difficult and exacting. I could just as well use a cast net to sighted fish, or scoop a few out of a hatchery pond; but I enjoy deceiving it with cunning and skill. (Whatever that means.)

We don’t fish for the reasons that we think we fish. I’ve accepted this as a truism and I don’t much think about it any more. I think that I’ve reached an age or a level in my development where I can let some questions remain rhetorical; I accept them. What fires our adrenaline as an angler comes from somewhere very deep in our ancient brain and it defies, certainly my, attempts to understand it. 

So, let’s go back to catch and release. We’re starting to go over the top. That fish need to be treated with respect and are not to be possessed or dominated stands to good reason. That breeding stock or smaller animals need to be protected is perfectly pragmatic an approach to the management of a food source; the same applies to hunting and agriculture. That in order for them to grow and for them to breed they need to be returned in as fit shape as possible is to state the obvious. 

All of this requires us to treat our catches with respect and to handle them with great care. I understand that. What I don’t understand is this current obsession that sees the fish as being entirely fragile. That simply looking at it the wrong way will result in its rolling belly up and dying on the spot. 

I’ll tell you something else. I’ve seen a few of the catch and release self-appointed clergy fishing and their bite is very different to their bark. Not that I’m judging them, most of us are unintentionally duplicitous to some degree. When the adrenal glands squirt that magical elixir into our bloodstreams we all do the sort of things that we would prefer ourselves not to. 

Where, then, does this leave me on the subject of photographing fish? Let me sum it up. 

  1. I don’t feel much need to photograph fish.
  2. I eat some of the fish that I catch and this does not make me less ‘ethical’ than, perhaps, you. 
  3. I return wild breeding stock, undersized fish and fish that I won’t eat absolutely fresh. 
  4. I, not through conscious decision but by virtue of my nature, deeply respect the fish that I catch. 
  5. Fish that I return I try to treat as gently as possible and I consider myself blessed for my brief contact with them. 
  6. Catch and release edicts are entirely valid. 
  7. That these edicts often wildly overcompensate for the weaknesses of the fish I understand them as being necessary to ensure that our minimum efforts in handling the fish are some way above the point at which mortality may occur. 

I think, in final conclusion, that the whole debate boils down to what I advised my teenage son recently on the subject of the fairer sex and life in general; don’t be a dick. (Whichever side of the C&R line you choose to place yourself.)