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. 

Create!

This past Saturday I did a ‘talk’ at the Natal Fly Fishers / Federation of South African Flyfishing annual general meeting. 

I’m not comfortable in rooms full of relative strangers. It’s not that I’m shy or anything, I’m just not great at small talk and making quick social connections. What I am is cripplingly self-conscious. Still, I was asked after a few pints (my Kryptonite) and a mix of that and a great respect for the guy who asked me (my other Kryptonite) had me saying yes immediately. 
While I quite often talk in front of groups of relative strangers in my business life it’s pretty easy to do; the subject matter is known and there are rules and a common culture that allows you to slip into it quite comfortably. In the instance of a room full of strangers the dynamics change quite a bit. Firstly, they’re there (one assumes) to be entertained as well as informed and secondly, you run a real risk of looking like a knob in front of your peers (at least 80% of people in corporate stuff look like knobs, but they’re protected by the culture). 
 Anyhow, I was asked to talk on how I make wooden landing nets. I’d hardly said yes to the idea when I realized that two problems immediately presented themselves:

1. It’s a mindnumbingly boring topic

2. Making nets funds my fishing addiction and the competition is already pretty stiff

I couldn’t just dismiss the request and do whatever I felt like doing (I’m starting to earn a somewhat less than exemplary reputation for being a bit ‘disrespectful’), as well as that respect thing that I mentioned above. 

No. Clearly I’d have to find a third option. I started working on the presentation far too close to the date of the event and covered the ‘how-to’ bit fairly quickly and, I think, succinctly.  The part that I was looking for as the main theme came to me almost immediately in the process. I’d like to share it again, with your indulgence, as I think that it’s important – rather, it is important; so pay attention. 

[It was written to talk to. It doesn’t read very well. But that’s not the point.]

———————–

  
My aesthetic does not require perfection. There is beauty in imperfection; often profound beauty. The principle that underlies what I do, regardless of what it is, is creativity. 

Creativity is the process making of entirely something new from something that already exists. 

You are a flyfisher. 

Your success relies on observing your environment (often down to minute detail) and by creatively mimicking this in your lure and its presentation to your target. By the fact that you haven’t given up the long rod in favour of a golf club leads me to suspect that you’re probably pretty observant and creative already. 

Fly fishing is the ideal vehicle for creativity. It is inherent in an activity that takes you to places and gives you experiences that raise the spirit and which fuels the creative process. Cricket has hollowed out watermelon hats. Rugby has – what? Blue balls beneath HiLuxes? No, no other pastime out there rivals fly fishing for the amount of creativity required to be remotely successful at it. 

Allow yourself to be inspired by these influences. Acknowledge them and seek them out voraciously. Immerse yourself in them until they overwhelm you. 

I urge you to then take these influences and to use them to create that which fires your soul – paint, draw, write, split cane, bend sticks, tie flies, take photographs, machine a reel, write a song (the “windknots-suck-and-I-lost-a-bloody-bus-in-the-weeds talking blues). Ok, Maybe not a song. 

Allow yourself to be creative and to create. 

I can almost guarantee you that you aren’t going to be the next Garrison, Hardy, Skues, Gierach, vom Hofe, Young, Maclean, Etc.. 

I can’t guarantee that you won’t be the next Sutcliffe, Brigg, Boschoff, Geldenhuys, Erwin, Bertram Smith, Fowler, Etc. 

What I can absolutely guarantee you that you’ll be a better version of yourself. 

In the end that’s all that matters. 

The Longest Winter

Your iPod shuffles on to some Springsteen. You don’t mind this at all as it’s settled on a favourite classic. 

“You waste your summers praying in vain for a saviour to rise from these streets.”

It doesn’t exactly fit what you’ve been thinking about, but its close enough to have made a connection.

The winter was a long one. Every winter is long as you wait for the river season to reopen. It sounds trite and forced when you see it on the page, but it’s true and you force down the urge to delete the line. You think to yourself that as you’ve grown a little older (you want to think that you’ve matured, but you know that it’s a lie) you’d have learned some patience. Sadly this isn’t true and the wait for the season is still as unbearably long as it always was. You want to use the kid on Christmas Eve metaphor, but that would be forcing it.

This winter was the longest one in your memory. You wonder why that would be and settle precariously onto the conclusion that it is because the previous summer was such a great one. Last season you spent a lot of time on the water. You felt more at ease than you ever have and while your fish count didn’t necessarily rise – you’ve never counted them or maintained a diary so this is a guess – it just felt right. 

Your last outing of the season was in its last week and while the conditions were not perfect you raised a few fish and enjoyed yourself more than you have in many years. Coincidentally you fished it with a local guide. This was the first time in your life that you fished a river seriously in the company of a like-minded adult. That the guide moved on to becoming a friend has left you feeling that perhaps there is something to be said for the company of other people. But you don’t want to overthink it and accept the feeling superficially. 

When you cleaned your lines and serviced your reels at the end of the season it was with a feeling of deep contentment. Contentment. It’s not a feeling that you experience very often and you are not quite sure how to come to terms with it. You remind yourself again that that there is no requirement to come to terms with it and you choose to look at it without prejudice; as though you’re staring at it through a window of ambivalence. 

During the late season and throughout winter you are dragged into participation on social media forums. To your surprise you enjoy this. You become quite active on them. It’s probably not a great thing, but it’s not a bad thing either so you just do what is natural to you. 

You write a bit – or rather you publish what you’ve already written – and it’s mostly met with approval. It results in some people thinking that you know more than you really do so you try not to take yourself seriously and you hope that it catches on.

Bending a few landing nets from exotic timber also catches a modest amount of attention. Your mother and wife are proud of you and you have to admit that you’re a little proud of yourself too. For a fleeting moment you imagine that you could make a living from all of this but you’re a very conservative thinker and laugh off the idea almost as soon as it crystallises in your mind.

You meet some well-known anglers and socialise and correspond with them. You find this quite daunting and very fulfilling. Two in particular are very supportive and you’re not too sure sometimes whether to thank them or chastise them for egging you from out of your cocoon. The jury is out on this so you let it go and stare at it through that window that you’re starting to gaze out of a lot lately. 

 You’ve fished a few stillwaters with one of these friends and enjoyed it. At various times you’ve discussed fishing a stream with the other but you’re not sure that your anxiety will allow you to – streams are special places to you and to let yourself down on one in the company of people that you like and respect would be something that you’re not too certain that you could recover from.

All of this gets you through the winter. You’re alternatively writing, crafting or raising hell on social media. When you’re not doing these things you’re talking about them. Winter snowfalls are above recent averages and you’re gearing up for what may be a stellar river season.
As the last weeks of winter draw to a close any reasonable snowfall stops.

 You get nervous as the spring rains don’t come as they should. Spring rainfall has been erratic over recent years and you start a daily countdown on social media in the two weeks leading to the opening of the season in spring. You joke about prayer and rain dances and cloud seeding but it’s clear that this season will again start late.

After a small smattering of early spring rain you venture onto a stream. The first time is with a new friend. It’s a desperately cold and blustery day and you see one fish rise all day and raise none. On the drive home you cross the bridge adjacent to what you refer to as ‘poachers pool’ and two good fish are rising where they always are. You are caught red-handed by the land owner while casting to them, but it turns out to be a good meeting. He doesn’t shoot or assault you and you’re pretty incredulous at how you seem to get away with that so often. He even invites you back – but you’re not sure whether it will be as much fun without the added pressure of avoiding long range rifle shots.

The second outing finds you more or less guiding a more or less stranger. When he starts paying attention to what you’re telling him you put him onto his first wild brown. You don’t fish much that day but you take a couple of fish with one of them being bigger than average. The water levels are really low but are fishable (you’re borderline but don’t think that you’re hurting the fish). You post online some hopefully sage sounding wisdom that October will be the month. Maybe late October; but you have faith.

October comes and goes and you haven’t cast a line. The same applies to November and the words of this article occur to you on the first of December – it is now summer and ground temperatures are rising steadily. You see a few pictures posted of fish recently caught and thoughts of mortality rates in warm, thin water come to mind. You want to grab a rod and scout around but you know that you may not be able to stand what you might see. You stay at home and bend even more nets and read and write and sketch like a madman. It’s a lot like jogging on the spot. A lot of furious effort that gets you no further from where you started out.

They come and go, these cycles, you assure yourself. But this time you’re not too sure. You’ve been close enough to the land to understand that our hands are changing it irrevocably – you see it and feel it deeply. Like stalling a car on a railroad crossing you’re waiting for the season where it all goes to hell and stays that way. 

 You don’t leave the tap running while you brush your teeth and can’t remember when last you backwashed the pool. You tell yourself that soon we will have thunderstorms to provide flow and oxygen but you also shudder at the thought of the damage that they are going to cause as they run down dusty hillsides. Images of brown streams and cancerous erosion flood your mind.

You find yourself starting to wish that it was still winter.

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 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. 

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. 

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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. 

Wagon on the Mooi

In a field on the side of the Mooi lies the remains of an old wagon. 

The remains are really, very old. They lie there like the skeleton of a great beast; bleached white where the African sun strikes them and soft and mossy where it does not. The iron has taken on a patina that speaks of countless summer rain showers and frosted winters. 

I stumbled onto them while taking a short cut between two pools and around a tree fall that made casting impossible. It’s on a part of the river that is not considered highly among fly anglers and I’m quite certain that very few people have seen them. There are no paths leaving the nearby village that run anywhere close to it and the field shows no agricultural scarring. 

These remains have been imprinted indelibly into my mind; that grey day where intermittent rain kept me shivering, the walk through the fields hopping fences as I went and that beautiful skeleton of a wagon almost covered by grass.

Reaching the pool that I sought I found that my mind could not focus on the bob of the indicator. From time to time, and happily fairly frequently on that day, a fish more suicidal than most would single-handedly impale itself on my hook and my thoughts would snap back to the present. The interruption of a truly wild thing on my line would pass quickly and my mind would drift back to that lonely wagon. 

As I waded methodically through the river I created in my fantasies a picture of the people who owned it. I wondered whether it was used on a farm or by one of the early settlers who crossed the Drakensberg in search of their Babylon. I wondered how it came to be lying in this spot, so forlorn and isolated. 

Was it the vehicle of the intrepid people who were moving up from the Cape? Did it carry their entire worldly possessions, the family bible and keepsakes from a distant European life? What did the ancient San people think of it as it passed through their ancient lands? Did they foresee their demise in it?

I imagine that I can hear the groaning of its timbers under the force of the lumbering oxen that pulled it; the crack of the long whip and cloven hooves on solid rock. 

Perhaps it was just a more recent agricultural convenience used to travel to markets and to convey implements around a bustling farm. I can see it loaded high with fencing poles and sacks of grain. I picture people in their best outfits traveling on it to church on a Sunday, proud, dignified and unwavering in their faith. 

I’m sure that it has value either as a historical artifact or in the hands of a collector. Perhaps it would colour in a small part of our history if it were to be studied. Doubtless someone could trace its ownership or its provenance. It may be linked to a farm whose boundaries have long been forgotten. Perhaps it holds some greater significance in the rich cultural tapestry that is our history. 

I’m not going to tell you where it is and it’s unlikely that even if you searched for it that you would find it. It is in a place unremarkable, unhidden and close to what is a fairly busy rural road. Still, I could give you many years to look for it and you could stub your toes on it without knowing that it is even there. 

I like it lying just where it is in the lonely field that is it’s final resting place. This is the way of many things that I hold to be rare and beautiful treasures. 

I’ll be back in that place when the rains come and the river dances between the roots of trees, around rocks and over ledges. This time I’ll take a better look at it and I will inevitably be overcome by its sense of mystery; of being so out of place. 

I’ll take for you a picture of it as it lies there in its glorious ruin, but don’t expect to be able to pinpoint it’s resting place by recognition of the surrounding hills; there will be no backdrop to this picture lest pieces of it become an ornament in someone’s garden. 

This being done I’ll move on upstream, richer for having being able to peer back through the window of time and for the flight of imagination that it allowed me to take. 

Writing About Trout

There are some guys out there who are writing fantastic contributions to fishing publications. 

There are others who are not. 

This is for the both of them. 
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It was going to be a hot day, I thought as I headed out from home to meet up with my best friends for a well earned three days of fishing. On the drive through the midlands we joked about who was going to get the biggest fish. It was a perfect day as our rods rattled in their tubes and we remarked how green it was after the recent rains. 

We arrived at the dam under blue skies with abundant birdsong to keep us company as we inflated our tubes. I prefer a pontoom boat to a vee boat and we argued their respective merits as we went to work. In the end I conceded that the vee boat was better only because I had forgotten that little thing that goes into the valve and Charlie wouldn’t let me use his until I did so! He’s a kidder, that Charlie. 

I chose to take three rods out with me that day. I took two five-weights – one with a floating and one with an intermediate line. I had done some research on the various lines available on the market and had selected one with a density that matched the altitude of the dam within 30 meters or so. You don’t want your slow sinking intermediate acting like a medium slow intermediate now do you! I also took a seven weight in case the wind picks up like it sometimes does in these parts. You can’t be too prepared is what I always say. 

All was quiet for an hour or so after we kicked out into the dam. I was covering the channel in textbook fashion with my intermediate line and a 13.5 foot leader while Charlie and Mike were fishing the lanes between the weedbeds with floating lines and 23.89 foot leaders. I was just thinking that I should change tactic when Charlie shouted out “ISN’T THIS THE MOST MINDNUMBINGLY BORING THING YOU’VE READ IN YOUR LIFE!!!!!!”

Sorry, fellas, I can’t do this anymore. I know that there’s a market for this. I’m absolutely certain that it’s bigger than the market for the shit that I spew out with perplexing regularity, but it’s all a bit insulting isn’t it?

How is it insulting? I’ll tell you how. It suggests that just because we are so starved for anything flyfishing related in this country that we will consume it, know no better and be grateful for it. If I memorized one of these stories and recited it at the bar I would lose my audience to the toilet, their urgent phone call, stomachs ache, faked seizures, etc. – anything to get away from me as I tell it. 

There are nuggets of literary gold that land up in the pan with the silt that is most angling writing, but they are too few and too far between. 

You think I’m speaking crap? I’m arrogant? Well, you’re probably half right. You pick which half. 

But maybe I’m not. I want you to think about something. 

What are, in your opinion, the finest flyfishing related books to have come out of this country?  I only have two on my list. 

Top of my list is ‘Rapture of the River’. Second to that is ‘Call of the Stream’. I can’t think of anything else immediately (except perhaps Wolf Avni and Andrew Levy’s stuff, but that’s mainly on account of the writing style and off the wall context. I’m a sucker for that.)

I punt out those two titles and the first answer I’m going to get is that it is just not possible for a monthly magazine to maintain that level of writing and that its job is as much to inform as to entertain. And I won’t argue that for a second. You are quite right. That it’s ALL they have bothers me. 

I’ve been writing in notebooks, on paper napkins and the back of public toilet doors for 30 years now. If I keep practicing for another 30 years I will not have amassed enough decent material for a single sentence in either of the two books that I mentioned. I have many, many colorful delusions but none of them are about my writing. 

The point I’m laboring here to make is hidden in plain sight in the titles of these two books. Look at them again. Can you see it? They speak of emotion. Of being moved. They speak of the human condition or at least that part of it that wants to connect to nature. To be a part of it. To just raise its bloody head and see the world in terms that aren’t plagiarized from a bloody (I’m tempted to use a stronger word here) Hallmark card. For heaven’s sake, he called it ‘rapture’. 

I don’t know Mr Hey and I’ve only recently been introduced to Mr Brigg but I can assure you that there is not a part of them that looks for the sort of validation that most of the writers of this boring, over-technical crap are clearly looking for. That they would want respect and recognition is patent and it’s fine by me; it is well earned. 

Is there a place for technical ‘crap’. Of course there is. I own masses of it. But it has a place. My coffee table is literally sagging and touching the floor in the centre so overloaded is it with books on fly fishing, motorcycles and art (pop over for a beer sometime and see for yourself). But none of it is technical. My workshop manuals are in the workshop (or, as my wife likes to call it, the kitchen). My fly tying guides (for as much good as they’ve done me) are with my fly tying materials and my drawing tutorials are with my pencils and brushes in my art room (see reference to kitchen, above). 

When I get home after a long day under trying circumstances I open a volume on the works of the masters and I’m taken away to a place of Claude’s pastel water lilies and cities shrouded in fog. Vincent gives me haystacks drying in the abundant summer sun. Soppy? Trite? Probably. But let’s just agree that Mr Monet and Mr Van Gogh describe a sunset a hell of a lot better than most angling writers do. Have you seen Vincent’s nights? Breathtaking. 

Why then am I forced, when looking at photographs of the most breathtaking exotic destinations, to read such mundane garden variety text?

How is this related to writing? It’s not really. It’s related to living. 

Living an authentic life. Of not trying to be some sort of genius, rock-star, shit-hot property. Of just opening your eyes and taking it in. And then of writing about it with compassion and energy and, dare I say it, with just the tiniest little piece of your soul hanging out. If, in the process, you can teach me something I’d be glad to learn it. (But refer to me as ‘neophyte’ or ‘tyro’ and I’m going to take your head off. For fuck’s sake, buy a thesaurus.)

My writing? It’s total nonsense. Bollocks. Horse shit. Im not going to argue that with you. ‘From my keyboard to your dustbin’ is how I refer to it. But, the reason I started doing it was as a counterpoint to (stretch this out as you read it, putting emphasis on every syllable of every word) the retelling of every-bloody-boring-Hardy-Boys-description-of-every-bloody-boring-cast-you-made-at-every-bloody-boring-sunset-of-every-bloody-boring-trip-you-ever-took. 

Oh, the photos will evoke some emotion and give a sense of it all? Charlie on his tube gripping a fish straight faced staring at the camera and a caption of ‘Charlie with another good fish’. Where, for the love of it, is the whoop and the face-splitting smile and the bottle of scotch around the fire in the evening? Where’s the high-five and the “give me my fly back you bastard”. Maybe an endless stream of 11 pound fish is what our man Charlie expects and that, frankly, he’s a bit disappointed with how the trip has been playing out. 

By all means, explain your technique and flies. Describe your equipment, the scenery, the lodge and whatever else you think we should know. Tip your hat to whoever paid for the trip and is looking for some fulfillment of a commercial agreement. (I saw a post by a writer today with SEVENTEEN hashtags relating to sponsors.). Remind us of how shit hot you are. Drop names. 

But whatever you do, tell us how it made you feel. Be authentic. Open up. You might just find that you’ll enjoy your life just a little more when you add some color to it. God knows we’ll enjoy reading about it a lot more. 

But seriously, I’m being too harsh. I’m entirely myopic in my judgement. We aren’t all gifted writers and its a technical sport; I get that. But we do it primarily for fun, so have some fun. 

Let your soul hang out a little. 

A Debt of Gratitude

I spend a bit of time pitching flies at speckled fish. Over time I find myself spending a lot less time on still waters and as much time as possible on rivers. 

The thrill of catching a really good fish is indescribable, but over the last few years fishing lakes has been offering me much less by way of validation and satisfaction for the time I’ve put into it. I stare into my still water fly boxes and can’t make sense of the mess of woolly buggers and large size damsels and dragons. They seem like caricatures of life best suited for pinning onto Christmas trees and I can’t get my head around them. I pretty much these days fish lakes like I fish rivers; light tackle and small, imitative flies drifted naturally around structure. Does it work better? I don’t know. I’m not good enough to know enough of a difference to enable me to offer comment. It’s a hell of a lot more satisfying though. 

On a stream what it is I’m trying to imitate or achieve just makes more sense. I’m flippin’ useless at it, but I think that I understand the principles a bit better. I mean I vaguely understand them and feel I respond more intuitively to what is going on in the world around me. 

I’ve fished a couple of rivers here and there. Not as many as most, but enough for a clear set of preferences to have emerged. One thing that is abundantly clear to me is that I love being on small streams. 

Small streams hold small fish. This is not an issue to me. I get that a lunker in these waters is, maybe, 25cm long – and I’m perfectly happy with that. I don’t really count the number or the size of fish that I catch. I just love sharing their environment. I love the giggling nature of streams high up in the mountains where the gradient makes the stream move and bubble along like a bunch of school girls running for the gate after classes on a Friday afternoon. I love the call of baboons and that moment when you look up and notice a buck staring at you in a game of ‘see who flinches first’. 

When the realization that I prefer little silver trickles of water to deep, dark expanses struck me it left me a bit perplexed. Actually, it left me very perplexed. It went against everything that I thought should be thinking and resulted in some profoundly illuminating introspection. 

I grew up in the Transkei and, like all of us there, fished in the ocean. Your prowess was measured by the size of the fish that you caught. Case closed. 

Suddenly there was this penny dropping and it held the suggestion that size no longer mattered. And it was disconcerting. When I showed the (very) occasional photo of a fish I caught or described them to friends I was getting some very strange and incredulous looks. I am extremely self conscious and I started to think that there was something wrong with me and I avoided talking about my fishing outings. I described them as being “very nice thank you”. 

Our family has timeshare just outside of Underberg at a resort called Drankensberg Gardens. When we’re up there I get to cast a line in an unhurried way and I try to book the odd beat on nearby rivers. On this particular occasion I had fished some beats of the Mzimkhulu River and had enjoyed it a great deal. What was bothering me was that on my return from this famous river I would stop on the tiny tongue of a stream that runs into the resort and cast a line and have a complete blast. I’d grin and smile like a total lunatic as I worked my way up this tiny ribbon of water. 

I love the way small fish slash at flies and how they launch themselves vertically from the stream bed at dries; like mini Polaris missiles.  I never get over how the tiniest depressions on the stream bed hold a pretty little speckled thing. I’m in awe of how small waters twist and flit their way over and around rocks and of the sound that they make. 

Clearly, I assured myself, there is something wrong with me. This can’t be right. 

That year at Drak Gardens some really poor weather moved in and we were confined to cover and warm fireplaces. I’m not terribly fond of, nor am I terribly good at, just ‘sitting and relaxing’. I put on my warmest gear and drifted out towards the small shop on the resort to buy some playing cards. 

I was killing time looking at the various curios on sale and I found a book that I thought might be worth a read. It was called ‘The Call of the Stream’ and, was written by a certain Peter Brigg. The author’s name rang a faint bell and reminding myself not to judge a book by its cover, I bought it on the strength of the cover photography. “Whatever”, I thought, “I’ve got another four days of this shit to sit out. This will see me through a few hours of it.”

I tramped off back up the hill into a steady headwind cursing the fact that our unit was furthest away from the hotel and up a steep hill. I got in, threw the book down on a table and set into a few hands of cards with the family. 

I didn’t think of the book for a day or two. When I did, I cut off the plastic wrapper and settled down for a quick flip through it. 

I took in every photograph in microscopic detail. I read and reread every caption to the photographs. And then I read, slowly and languidly, every word written. When I had finished I simply started again. Over the past few years I’ve read that book over and over and over with an almost Calvinistic fervor. 

You see, there are a few narratives running parallel to one another within that book. Maybe, like some Shakespearen scholars, I’m reading too much into it. 

Of the narratives the first is visual. The pictures in the book tell a story that runs independent of the words. Just as I cannot adequately describe a sunrise I cannot describe this other than to say that there is a fluidity of layout and subject that defies the need for words. Each picture is an adjective, each page a skyscape. 

The words are beautifully crafted but are in themselves superfluous other than to reveal a scarcely hidden narrative that speaks of a soul appreciative of and in a state of awe and respect at the universe as it is condensed into mountains and the small streams that run through their many valleys. In a world where to admire simple beauty earns you a demeaning title and where the scale of beauty is measured in financial terms I find it uplifting to see beauty celebrated. 

The third narrative was my own. It told a story of a group of people living not far from me who see the world as I do. The story validated my own experiences and told me that I was not alone (not that I ever really believed that I was) and that there was in fact a potentially large group of people who enjoyed what I enjoy. (To be clear, what I enjoy is not the act of catching a fish.) In a world of global connectedness this may seem bizarre, but I am a fairly solitary creature who is not given to joining clubs or actively seeking like-minded company so the realization was a fairly happy one. 

I write on this blog and follow Peter on his. At some point I shared a post on how I go about bending and shaping wood to make landing nets for trout. Peter surprised me by asking me to make him one. I was shocked rigid but agreed to do it. It took me a while and it lay finished for weeks owing to my anxiety over handing it over to him. I even considered mailing it to him. How many stamps are required to mail a net 15 kilometers?

I’m not afraid of the guy. I don’t have heroes. I don’t bother that people won’t live up to expectations; I like the fallibility of the human condition. That I suffer from social anxiety is not news to anyone. I don’t really know what made me this anxious. I suppose it’s like a partially sighted person stepping out to open the batting on a green pitch against a premier fast bowler – totally overwhelmed and out-gunned. 

Last Saturday Peter and I met and chatted a bit over coffee. He was relaxed and gracious. He liked the net and while he seemed a bit embarrassed over handing me a fist full of flies in exchange for the net I was relieved. 

Relieved and happy for the opportunity to repay a massive debt of gratitude to the man. 

On Experts

I’m getting weary of a world filled with experts. 

Let me clear up some possible ambiguity in that statement. It’s the experts and not the world I’m weary of. 

The study of fairly arbitrary subjects in infinite detail to the point that all meaning and value are extracted from them bores me. While I like to believe that I am, compared to many I meet better read and knowledgeable on a range of topics I have no burning desire to become an expert in any of them. To be proficient, yes. To pull them apart to their core and then to reconstruct them, no. 

The problem with this study of minute detail is that you lose the feel for them. The sense of wonder that attracted you to them in the first place.

That a certain amount of detailed study is required for many disciplines or vocations is a given. It’s not really that of which I speak. Although, having said that, I have  friends who are surgeons and somewhere in their quest for knowledge they have certainly forgotten that they are physicians. I feel though that somewhere they’ve lost the sense of humanity that probably once inspired them. Perhaps they keep it hidden in order to protect themselves from what can be a painful occupation. 

I truly shudder when I see what are gentle pursuits being over analyzed, deconstructed and thoroughly demystified. Ok, not demystified but at very least having almost every bit of pleasure wrung from them in favor of mastering them and making them our dominion. 

You see this in art. If you need a book to be told how and why to appreciate a piece then something is wrong. Art should be pleasing and challenging or it should be balanced and soothing. What it shouldn’t be is appreciated because some proclaimed expert said it should be. I enjoy a great deal of modern art and very little photographically correct art so it is not that I just like a nice picture. 

Wine is the same. Music also. It moves you or it doesn’t. I don’t need a guide to tell me what I should taste or hear or feel. It is an intuitive process of appreciation. Certainly one can be guided and may develop a feel for more complexity; but just not for complexity’s sake. 

Nothing removes the pleasure faster from my trout fishing reading and fishing than an expert who analyses every aquatic environment, insect, water temperature, etc in order to make minute adjustments to techniques. Is there merit in knowledge? Yes. Is there an advantage to be gained? Absolutely. 

My problem is that when you listen to or read these expert discourses you will not hear about the quality of the experience. It becomes about a technical dominance over nature. There is hardly a word about that rush of blood when a fish rises to an imitation. Nothing about the sound of water dancing over a stream bed. It’s about the size of the fish, the description of the equipment and an attention seeking discussion of the technique used. 

Do these experts catch more fish? Probably. Do they enjoy the experience as much as the rest of us? Maybe, but for different reasons. Do they catch more fish than the experts of preceding generations of lesser informed experts? No. No, they don’t. I’ll guarantee you that they have a lot less fun than the rest of us. (Well me, anyhow.)

I wonder whether astrologists still stare up into the sky in wonder and childlike awe. I doubt it. 

Surely experts feel the weight of expectation on their shoulders? I’ve never asked one because I don’t hang around until the Q&A bit of the presentation. You’ll find me at the bar pretty early on in proceedings. 

I don’t want to be an expert. I distrust people with all the answers. The evolution of our species has proved that whatever we’ve elevated to the point of being an absolute truth is debunked later. Nowadays it’s debunked in a fortnight on average. 

Am I suggesting that we shouldn’t specialize? Not at all. Our species had a natural inquisitiveness. It is why we have endured. 

I just think that in some endeavors we need to remember why we wanted to do them in the first place, then slow down, breathe, look around and allow your spirit to dominate. 

Because, if you’re going to be there then be all there.