Friday, 05 July 2019 10:00

Spirit of Fly Fishing Newsletter August 2019

Signing books...

Last weekend was strangely hot in Johannesburg, given that it's supposed to be mid-winter up there when Highveld evenings, as I remember them from my youth anyway, are shivering cold and daytime sunshine always feels like some heaven-sent blessing. In fact, basking in pools of sunlight like a somnolent rock rabbit is something I remember fondly from the winters of my Highveld youth.

Not so this last weekend. It was just plain hot – night and day. Global warming maybe? I don't know.

The purpose of my visit to Johannesburg was to sign copies ofYet More Sweet Daysat the Frontier Fly Fishing store in Bryanston, where I was the guest of the owners, Tom Lewin and Dean Riphagen. They had piled books on a table inside the store and outside they laid on fresh coffee and muffins. We stayed busy from 8:30 to 2:00, when I left to take a plane home from Lanseria.

The book signing was a success, if only, as Tom Lewin later remarked, in that we had managed to dodge John Gierach's amusing take on a book signing he once did where only two people approached his table all morning, one of them to ask if the toilet was out the back.

I met like-minded folk as you would expect, who uniformly made me feel a lot more important than I really am, although this, I now sense, is more the sort of reverence reserved for the older members of society than the simple reverence rightfully deserving of anyone with life's equivalent of a full-colours blazer for fly fishing. 

Among the many interesting folk I chatted to wereMarlon Nair, fly fishing's ultimate enthusiast; my friendAndrew Levy, author ofReflections On The River, who would make a fine professor of fly-fishing at a prestigious American university, like Yale or Harvard;Petrus Gouwswhose whole world is wrapped in high-end medical science, guitars, music and fly fishing (and not necessarily in that order);Roy Furywho I last saw when we played as schoolboys in a Transvaal Nuffield cricket trials (which we worked out was in 1959 when he was the most feared fast bowler around and had the surname to go with it); andKen Quick(there's another appropriate name for a fast bowler), who asked me to sign his books and then casually showed me the most impressive micro-patterns I have seen in a long while. He ties them with a neat quill body, a post and a parachute hackle, right down to size 32! That's the size of a match head!.(See below.)

And then there wasNikki Lewin, the ever-patient wife of her bamboo-berserk husband, Tom, both good people to share time with. There were others, but editorial space and reader-tolerance have limits.

Ken Quick's size 32 dry fly pattern

Hook: TMC 518 #32,
thread: UNI-Caenis 20 denier,
tail: Spanish CDL,
abdomen: dyed peacock herl tip,
hackle: Whiting from the top of the neck,
post: TMC Aero Wing,
dubbing: 2 strandsHendsIce Dub in peacock.

What could go wrong...?

On the Friday evening before the book signing I held a fly-tying demo for a small group of Johannesburg and Pretoria-based tiers at a venue in my old school, St Stithians College, and predictably tied two of my own patterns, the Zak and the DDD, and then a high-water version of Tony Biggs' iconic RAB.


Tony Biggs' RAB (at least, my high water variants of it), with grizzly wings (above) and honey dun wings (below).


I knew there would be some skilled tiers in the audience (for a start, JP Gouws of Catskill school of dry flies fame was there), and, probably as a result, I had the disquieting feeling something would go wrong, which it did. First, in the middle of tying the DDD the hook suddenly sprung out of the vice with a loudping; and then as I was about to wind a hackle on the RAB one of its spent-wings mysteriously fell off. You can't write a script for things like this, except to say you can bet good money on something going wrong when you demo anything to a bunch of discerning cognoscenti?

Here they are:

Denise van Wyk; Self; Michiel van Rooy; Don Mc Lennon

Back Row: Peter Dilley; Alan Weakley; JP Gouws; Martin Rudman; Brett James Beattie; Alistair Franks. (Photograph by Darren Fowler).

Lest we confound future historians about the RAB dry fly, understand, please, that 'it depends...'

During the tying of the RAB, JP Gouws happened to ask when Tony Biggs winged his RABs and I answered,'Itdepended', which was a way of saying that although Tony and I fished together for more than a few years, I really didn't know, or worse, couldn't remember. It worried me a bit, though, so when I got back to Cape Town I called Tony to ask him when exactly he did, or if you like did not, wing his RABs, and he replied, after some thought, 'Well, Tom,that depended.'
I'm not making it up.

Of course, the exception would be when we fished in a rare fall of large mayfly spinners that the Holsloot River was known for. The adults were a speckled slate-grey with particularly long wings and often a bright yellow egg sack.

Tony also reminded me that there is no such thing astheRAB. Rather the RAB is atypeof dry fly that evolved into a pattern with many guises that is always at once impressionistic, untidy, long-tailed, long-legged, long-hackled, full of movement, as light as thistledown, aVarianttype dry fly combining any of mainly two hackles, from red, through black, brown, white, dun or badger – whatever was at hand and suitably long-fibred – and whether you winged them or not, well, thatdepended.

Then, yesterday, at the Cape Piscatorial Society Conclave held in the Kelvin Grove Club pavilion in Cape Town, Ed Herbst, Tony Biggs and I were on stage for an hour or so to answer member's questions. (You will read more on this below). At the conclave Tony outlined the origins of the RAB and described his earliest prototypes (from the 1960s) as being tied with red thread (no bobbin holder; he never used a bobbin holder all his tying life), a tail of three to 12 wisps of stiff white cock hackle, a stripped peacock herl abdomen, two or three turns of red, ginger or brown cock hackle at the back, a white spade hackle upfront and Egyptian Goose primary fibres for legs. (He later threw these out as too rigid and heavy). They were wonderful flies. I know. I stole hundreds from him.
The best illustration of the 'original RAB, and the most valuable historically, is to be found on page 42 ofSouth African Fishing Fliesby Peter Brigg and Ed Herbst, which I include below. (I find this a most important reference book by the way.)

The original RAB. 'Look, Ma, no wings!' from page 42 'South African Fishing Flies'

RABs tied by Tony Biggs (above and below) and photographed by Stephen Dugmore. Note the variation in hackle colour and the ultra-long wings.


A certain elegance and an unmistakable pedigree...

On the morning of the book signing Dean Riphagen gently dropped a few no-hackle dry flies on my table,all elegant and delicate, all tiny, all in naturally muted colours and tied in thatperfect proportional harmonythat left no question as to their high-end pedigrees. They looked like they were about to hatch and fly off the table.

They included a Pale Morning Dun (PMD), a Mahogany Dun, a Flav  (Lesser Green Drake), a Callibaetis and a Trico, all tied variously in sizes 16 through 20 I'd guess. They were from Rene Harrop of Henry's Fork fame. Dry fly tying just does not get much better than this. My view anyway.


The No-hackle Callibaetis, Mahogany Dun and Pale Morning Dun (PMD).

Rene Harrop, an angler I have always admired, has had lifelong ties with the Henry's Fork River, often known, and for good reason, as the Graduate School of Fly Fishing.More about this later.

From Clem Booth in London
Clem says

I had a lovely day on the Itchen on Friday. The same stretch fished by Lord Grey of Fallodon. As much as I fish these chalkstreams, the sense of history never leaves really. I left my camera at home so the images below are with the iPhone. Decent quality although using an iPhone is clunky in practice; I much prefer a “proper” camera. 

Some magnificent grayling and the odd trout too, so a good day! 


From Alex Hathorn

I’m heading off on Tuesday for a week on Kiritimati Island (Christmas Island – CXI) wading the flats chasing lots of bonefish, and hopefully trigger fish and maybe a giant trevally. Quite topically, I’ve filled up my tropical fly box for the trip and confess to using copious amounts of indispensable, clear, hard Solarez in the process. It protects the flies from hard mouths and abrasive coral as well as making the colours “pop”.

 Here is a photo of the one hundred or so Gotchas, Christmas Island Specials and Chilli Peppers that I take along in a wide variety of weights and sizes, not to mention another similar fly box packed with GT brush flies, small Clousers, shrimps and crabs.

California Golden Trout 

The State fish of California, the California Golden Trout, once occupied about 450 miles of stream habitat in the upper South Fork of the Kern River and the adjacent Golden Trout Creek. Currently, it is native only to two high-altitude watersheds in California’s rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Formerly called theVolcano Creek Golden Trout, this is one of the most colourful trout in the world.


California Golden Trout caught by Ian Douglas from a tiny creek in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and Ian seen fishing this creek below.


These fish are found at elevations from 6,800 feet (2,100 m) to 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above sea level. They are a threatened species and in 1978 the Golden Trout Wilderness was established within Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Forest, protecting the upper watersheds of the Kern River and South Fork of the Kern River.

(I include this trout, and will be including other subspecies of trout in newsletters to come, as I am studying the species, subspecies and strains of salmonids thatmay havemade their way to South Africa from Europe and the United States. The California Golden Trout was not one of them – at least as far as I can tell.)
Brent Flack-Davison at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
Says Brent

 I have five Sage rods for sale. With a 14 month old, I don't have as much time to fish anymore and sadly they are just gathering dust - these rods deserve a better home.
All the rods come with bags and original tubes. 
 Sage ONE #6 – R6600. Sage SALT #9 – R6600. Sage Xi3 #10 – R6600. Sage Xi3 #11 (extended cork) -R6750

Tom Burgers

Tom Burgers

I was sad to hear from Tony Biggs that our friend Tom Burgers had passed away, a gently-paced fly fisher, wine connoisseur, would-be trombonist, writer and professional photographer who lived a creative life well into his 80s.  

Tom Burgers on the Smalblaar River circa the late '60s (Tom Sutcliffe photograph.)


I first got to know Tom on the Cape streams, mainly the Smalblaar River, in the late '60s and early '70s, and even back then he was not so much out to catch the Smalblaar's unsuspecting trout on dry fly as to capture its imposing grandeur on celluloid – with John Beams as a central figure in most of his compositions. They were lifelong friends. I was lucky enough to use one of his photographs on the cover of the first editionHunting Trout;John fishing in late afternoon light on the Smalblaar. A more evocative photograph of this beautiful trout stream I have yet to see.

The cover of the first edition of Hunting Trout by Tom Burgers


Later in his life, through the 80s and early 90s, Tom made regular trips to KZN to fish the lakes in the Impendle district above the Dargle Valley, especially the legendaryOld Damwhere his modest rigs – sinking line, level leader, Red Setter or Walker's Killer – produced enough trout to keep him a convert. One of those fish, at least, was memorable, a hen rainbow of 8 pounds, taken back when theOld Dam'srainbows often shaded nine pounds at just over two years old.

So Tom became known, at least in our circles, not so much for his angling skills as for his devotion to atmospheric studies of fly fishing in its rich variety of moods and occasions. He was an accomplished author, writing and illustrating two books on the Karroo, both photographic essays,The Cedar People,centred around the greater Cederberg area, andKarroo Pastoral,published in 2010, a ballad of words and images on the Karroo that Philip Todres described in a review as '... capturing Tom's love of the silence and timeless moments, the tremendous contrasts and the authenticity of the Karoo environment. '

From his book, The Cedar People

South Africa has produced exceptional photographers, the likes of David Goldblatt, Sam Haskins, and Alf Kumalo, but as a landscape and mood photographer, Tom Burgers was never out of place in their company. His love of fly fishing was not so much for the pure sake of fly fishing, as for the beauty he saw surrounding it.

Flies sold for R5000...

A bid of R5000 got Trevor Freestone a framed set of flies tied by Tony Biggs, myself and Ed Herbst. The flies were auctioned in aid of funds for theHaenertsburg Trout Association. The HTA, one of the oldest fly fishing clubs in South Africa, has rights on two streams, the Broederstroom and the Helpmekaar, and on seven pristine stillwaters.

Peter Bradfield, HTA Chairman, Trevor Freestone, and Giordano (Zamps) Zamparini.

The Broederstroom and a brown trout from it.


The Cape Piscatorial Society Conclave

As I said this function was held in the Kelvin Grove Club pavilion in Cape Town. We came in on a presentation by Garth Niewenhuis (Protea team fly fisher) on Euro-nymphing that was fascinatingly technical but lucid and logical and I am glad I didn't miss a word of it, if only to remind myself of the sage adage, 'Close your eyes and the world moves on'.

There was a late afternoon slot with Ed Herbst, Tony Biggs and myself, who variously hold positions of President (Ed Herbst) and Vice-President (Tony and myself) of the CPS.' It was an informal Reddit-style AMA (Ask Me Anything), and we were tasked with fielding questions from the audience on fly-fishing related topics, such as, 'Where have you poached the most?', that sort of thing. It was fun.

Finally, on graduate schools of fly fishing ... 

On the matter of theHenry's Fork Graduate School of Fly Fishing, just to let Tom Lewin and Dean Riphagen know that there is an equally prestigious department of fly fishing, apostgraduate facultyno less, situated on the banks of the Upper Itchen in Hampshire. Former alumni include Harry Plunket Greene, WM Halford, George Marryat, James Mottram, GEM Skues, Frank Sawyer, Dermot Wilson and, of course, Oliver Kite.

Faculty buildings, Stoke Mill Campus, Upper-Itchen Postgraduate Faculty of Fly Fishing.(Tom Sutcliffe photograph.)

A typical classroom.

A typical subject!

  1. Appreciations

    Many thanks to the boys atFrontiers, Dean Riphagen, Tom Lewin, Mike McKeown and Keegan Finlayson for hosting the book signing in their accustomed professional way, and my appreciations also to all who attended.

    My thanks to Denise Van Wyk (JacarandaFly Fishing Club) and JP Gouws (Fly Crew, Benoni) for the fly-tying evening's arrangements. A thank you toSt Stithians College, and to staff member Alistair Stewart, for providing an outstanding venue for the fly-tying evening.

    Thanks to theCape Piscatorial SocietyCommittee, (with a special mention for Tudor Caradoc Davies), for inviting us three senior members of council to bring our great collective wisdoms to the broadest attention and benefit of

    Next week I am fishing a stream with my buddy Robin Douglas and will report on it in my September newsletter.

    Of interest, there are now nearly 2500 subscribers to this newsletter that began in 2012 and goes to 16 countries around the world.

Tom Sutcliffe


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