SPIRIT of FLY-FISHING NEWSLETTER for SEPTEMBER 2019
Opening the season with slow, studied care...
Robin Douglas Opening Day, Lourens Stream 2019
The day was pleasantly warm, almost breathless, the fishing relaxed, the water just fine, the trout roughly where you'd expect them to be, in the plumpest parts of the better runs, which on small mountain streams can contrarily suggest they aren't on the feed. Or at least suggest they are not strongly on the feed, when they move out of primary lies to hunt hatching bugs in secondary lies, and on small streams these are often in the unlikeliest, shallowest places. This is not one of the immutable laws of the Medes and Persians, of course; nothing in fly fishing ever is. But it strongly points to the need for slow-paced, heron-like approaches on all clear-flowing mountain streams. (Maybe the non-negotiable need for heron-like approaches should be one of the immutable laws of the Medes and the Persians.)
'Sitting out'– boldly on show in a secondary lie – Oh, so easily spooked! There's a lesson in this!
But we saw no bugs and the trout remained glued in primary lies, where they stayed more or less lukewarm to our drifting dry flies all day. The few we got were tiny, but then just as pretty and wild-looking as you'd expect on a stream like this.
As pretty and wild looking as you'd expect
I used my Tenkara rod – don't ask me why, perhaps for its simplicity, or its poetry, I'm not sure – and Robin Douglas fished his 2-wt Sage, which was more sensible. On a mainly bushy trickle like this a long rod – my Tenkara is over 11 ft – can feel like its purpose is to trim the leaves off high lying branches rather than drop dainty dry flies onto sweet little runs.
I don't think the patterns we used on the day mattered for much. Well, not as much as I always imagine they are going to matter when I sit down to tie them, all primed with entomology and quasi-river science and brimming with intent to high deception. The patterns I used – that is before they were variously treed or snapped off, and not on any big fish – included a Kite's Imperial (for nostalgia) and Peter Brigg's Spider (for bugginess and floatability), a marvellous pattern to imitate Wolf Spiders (Pardosa amentata, below), not uncommon on most streams.
Pete's Spider, a high-floating and very dependable imitation, especially on swift water
The Spider was easy to follow, even in the soda-bubbly water, though trout only took the fly when it had broken out of the swift white corrugations and settled into a sedate drift, as long as there wasn't any drag of course. Where, I wonder, do naive little stream-born trout learn about the dangers lurking in even the gentlest suggestion of drag? Is there some mysterious sub-aquatic College of Drag that we don't know about, with as many satellite campuses as there are wild trout streams, colleges that teach kindergarten fish the advanced principles of drag detection and bulletproof ways to outwit us? If so, they provide a fine education. And it's free.
Where do these fish go to college?
The valley was hot by the time we left the fishing, mid-afternoon, to wade downstream, back through the water we'd just fished, over slippery boulders with boot-trapping cervices that by the time we climbed out hot, scratched and flustered made me realise I am old. Not getting old. I am old. In my youth I moved around these streams like a dragonfly darts across over water. Now I nurse myself along them with slow, studied care and for the next few days I hobble around as if I'd made an ascent on the north face of the Eiger. But the sweet sense of anticipation I get on streams, the sudden surprise of a sipping trout, the pleasant drag of cold water around my legs, swallows sewing loops in the riverbank sky, all this atmosphere of the river lingers on like a beckoning drug and I long to be back, never mind the tortured joints, the creaking chassis. So Robin and I have made plans, as you might have expected, to fish again next week. This time I'll take my 2-weight Sage.
Of RABs in a light breeze on a warm summer's evening – and things they don't teach you in fly-tying books ...
A pinch of 'talking' Zaks tied for my friend Sharland
I looked down the other day on a dozen Zaks I'd tied for my good friend Sharland Urquhart, who has resolute faith in this pattern, and I swear they spoke to me.
What they said was this; 'With a little more practise you will get this right. But so far it isn't bad. At least we feel just untidy enough to be buggy; under- not over-dressed, properly segmented in the abdomen, dark enough in the thorax, suitably tailed (barred, long and wispy; certainly not a toilet brush) and we note that you paid respect to the fact that our progenitors, the noble family of the mayfly nymphs, have only six legs not sixty. Which isn't to say you can't improve; just that you're getting better'. That's what I heard.
It's not unusual, of course, for flies to take on a life of their own after tying, just like Pinocchio did when the Blue Fairy answered his woodcarver father Mastro Geppetto's wish upon a star.
And here's further proof of flies taking on a life after tying:
Tony Biggs, the inventor of that commendable dry fly pattern the RAB, once told me, without a hint of its improbability, that years ago he woke after a long night tying RABs – he did flies for a local tackle store for pin money – to find them all moving in a shoebox he had them in. He said he realised then that he'd cracked it. I've sometimes seen this myself with RABs, though trembling is perhaps a better word than actually 'moving', so that whenever you look at a clutch of them, good ones that is, they never seem still, seem restless. Some -- especially the winged ones – look like they will get up and fly off as soon as they get near a riverbank in a light breeze on a warm summer's evening.
A clutch of seemingly restless RABs
And even more proof:
I once asked Jimmy Eagleton, aka the Shark Man, what crab patterns he likes best and he said, 'The ones that crawl sideways out of my fly box when I open it'. See what I mean?
Of course, this is not something they teach you in fly-tying books, though they should if only to add an anthropomorphic dimension to the usual characteristics of imitation; shape, colour and size. Then when someone picks up a fly you tied, holds it up to examine it carefully against the light, and asks, 'Does it catch fish?', you can keep a straight face and say, 'Go ahead and ask it'.
The Cape Piscatorial Society Conclave
A function was held by the CPS in the Kelvin Grove pavilion in Cape Town last month with the late afternoon slot taken up by Ed Herbst, Tony Biggs and myself, respectively President (Ed Herbst) and Vice-Presidents (Tony and me). We were featured in an informal, Ask Me Anything, cluster interview with a wide audience of CPS members. I must say they all responded with tolerable patience to our rambling 'When we -' type answers.
Seen here in the hot seats:
Self, Biggs, Herbst. Photographer James Leech.
There's the very rare Apache Trout – then there's the rarest trout in the world ...
The Apache Trout (Oncorhynchus apache) is not quite as rare as its neighbouring cousin the Gila Trout. The Apache is found only in the headwaters of the White, Black and Little Colorado Rivers above 1700 metres in the White Mountains of Arizona where it is the State Fish. They are discretely spotted, have olive-brown backs and golden-yellow bellies touched with hues of lemon and blue. Once near extinction, they have been restored to much of their natural range and limited fishing for them is now allowed. Because they live in small streams, most only grow to around 12 inches, which no one complains about.
Apache Trout. ( TS Watercolour 2019).
Another rare trout also native to Arizona and to parts of New Mexico is the Gila Trout (Oncorhynchus gilae), possibly now the rarest trout in the world and limited only to the high-altitude headwaters of a single stream and its tiny tributaries, the Gila River near Phoenix, Arizona, which is not far from Las Vegas, just to orientate you. Habitat loss due to a variety of natural and human causes, including drought, climate change and wildfires that leave toxic ash deposits, drastically reduced the population of Gilas.
Map of the Gila River course
The Gila was once very much on the threatened species list back in the 1950s, when fishing for them was closed as they were all but non-existent. But the recent Gila story is one of challenges, triumphs, and cautious optimism. Conservation work using anything from pack mules with panniers filled with young trout, to helicopters dropping tanks of fish along remote streams, or people carrying in freshly fertilized trout eggs in backpacks, has improved the lot of Gila Trout, and the number of places where you now catch them in their native habitat has steadily grown. In 2011, after the herculean efforts to re-establish them, fishing was opened for the first time in half a century under special provisions called the 4-D rule, Wildlife America’s 10-year vision for their endangered species.
The Gila Trout. This golden-brown and yellow trout is sometimes referred to as the 'Sunset Trout'. (TS Watercolour.2019).
Not at all similar in colouring to the Apache, Gila Trout have smaller, more profuse spots than the Apache and parr marks along the sides in younger fish, while parr marks are absent or very rare in Apache Trout. The Gila also has a faint rose pink flash along the lateral line, again missing entirely from all life stages of Apache Trout. Their natural habitat is obviously also small streams, so like the Apache, they rarely grow to much more than 12 inches. Again, who's complaining? Today, only a handful of fly fishers have ever caught a native-born Gila, and sadly, I am not one of them.
A lovely gift just recently christened.
Blessed I am with thoughtful daughters and the notion of Father's Day!
Signed and personalised copies of Yet More Sweet Days are available from and buyers a welcome to ask for a drawing on the opening page.
Overseas buyers are welcome and quotes will be provided for either courier or postal services. I have a small stock of Yet More Sweet Days with my daughter in Perth.
At present, I cannot take orders for my watercolours as I am busy with commissions. However, a few of the original art used to illustrate the pages in Yet More Sweet Days is still available. Please let me know what page of any artwork you're interested in getting.
Blasts from the past
John Beams, born in the UK in 1932, died in KZN in 1984, was a fiery character, very, very bright, tirelessly competitive, the creator of the Beams Woolly Worm, author of a useful booklet, Introducing Fly Fishing in South Africa, a great fly fisher and a great friend.I used to say if I had to fish for my life against anyone in South Africa I'd fear John Beams the most. He was very much the thinking angler.
In this photograph, he has coffee mugs decked atop a frozen water trough somewhere in the wintery Midlands of KZN. Note too, the flies on his lapel, something of a sartorial signature adopted by many anglers of the time. In the photograph below, Beams is fishing a pretty stretch of the Little Mooi River on the farm Stagstones in KZN.
Back on the streams – but with a twist...
There was an interesting twist to our second outing this week when Robin Douglas and I fished another clear mountain stream that we drop in on from time to time. The twist was that Robin announced he was going to fish a Kite's Imperial dry fly all day, and nothing else, come what may. Which he did. I thought it was risky. More about this to follow.
A traditional Kite's Imperial
We again had good weather, the stream was bubbling, the occasional trout took something off the surface, probably adult mayflies (I thought I'd spotted a dun drifting by just before a trout rose pretty near where I'd seen the bug), or maybe they were mopping up the last of a hatch of mountain midges, common enough on all our streams hereabouts. But rises were scarce and sporadic. I used a RAB, then a CDC and Elk tied by Gordon Van der Spuy, which caught fish, and then I changed to a One-feather CDC Midge for reasons not rooted in deep science, and got fish on that as well.
CDC and Elk by master tier Gordon Van der Spuy
Robin as he promised stuck to the Imperial and caught more than a few trout, even after the fly began to fall apart. It wasn't a traditional Imperial. He had no purple thread and no true honey-dun hackle, but I aim to fix that for him. I have supplies of both.
He fished this Imperial all day until it started to come apart. Note the neat thorax.
I suspect one particular fish will stay in his mind a long while, if not forever. In fact, he said as much. It went like this. We'd got to a pretty run with a belly of deeper water running through it and we nodded in agreement that it must hold a decent fish. Robin landed his bedraggled Imperial as light as a windblown dandelion seed and let the fly drift as free as a sailboat. A nice trout came up and hung under the fly for a few exquisite moments, at the same time neatly aligning itself so that the fly would drift precisely over its nose. How they do this so swiftly I don't know. The fish took the fly, leapt knee-high, then ran downstream like giant crabs were after it. It was a beautiful hen fish, a fin-perfect wild rainbow and the best fish of the day. We photographed it underwater, released it carefully, then offered up a toast to the late Oliver Kite. I hope he heard it.
Fin-perfect wild rainbow on the bedraggled Imperial
The last fish of the day conveniently rose under our noses just as we were leaving the stream and Robin took it – again first cast – to a minor round of applause from me.
Reading this, it might sound like we got 100 fish. Well, we didn't. In fact, I don't think we made much more than double figures. But it felt like 100 fish. It was that sort of day. The trout were suitably cautious, but not overly fastidious, every run seemed to hold promise and if some disappointed many more didn't. The fish weren't huge, but I have stopped making excuses for my devotion to small-stream trout no matter their size because they make up for it in so many ways, and, well, because catching big fish actually isn't the point of this kind of fishing.
Small stream trout. Not big, but they make up for it in so many ways.
We walked back to the truck through a garden of flowers scattered above the stream between the proteas and restio grasses.
Typical of the fynbos tapestry
There were stands of violet-coloured heather, blue sage, snow-white chincherinchee, scatterings of sulphur-yellow irises and daisies, the typical fynbos tapestry of an unspoiled Cape stream in springtime. My friend Taffy Walters once said of the Bushman's River in KZN that its banks were 'blushing with flowers'. You can't improve on that.
The Bushman's River 'blushing' with flowers
How to catch trout in Rhodes...
The Old Iron Bridge
...a view over three different trout streams in a single glance...
When I next arrive at the Old Iron Bridge that spans the Kraai River between Rhodes and Barkly East up in the Eastern Cape Highlands, a bridge that offers a view over three different trout streams in a single glance (the Bell to your left, the Sterkspruit to your right and the Kraai River right under your feet), I am going to walk out to the middle of that famous bridge, lean over its railings and pay homage to the River Gods in the hope that it helps. The homage I have written goes as follows;
River Gods, O' River Gods, view me with pity,
I am wearily-travelled from a far-distant city,
So bless me please with a few of your trout,
All pretty enough to write home about.'
So ends my lesson for the month.