OCTOBER 2019 SPIRIT OF FLY FISHING NEWSLETTER
I was fishing alone and lazily on a bright morning on a quiet stream last week. The stream was still early-summer cool and full and it was enough just to be there. The gentle passage of the day was punctuated only by the happy shock of a few cooperative trout.
The stream was a mosaic of familiar shapes and colours, and then, slowly, as if seen through the tumbling glass colours of a child's kaleidoscope, a garland of autumn-coloured leaves gradually blended in my eyes to the unmistakable shape of a slow-sliding puff adder.
Not the first snake I've seen on this stream, it won't be the last, and it's always the same; there's the electric jolt, even before my mind registers; then the moment of recognition when I sum up the danger and if its small, stand quietly to enjoy the macabre fascination of being in the close presence of a snake in the tumble of a river.
The snake left the stream slowly like an unfolding conjuring trick, its yellow and black patterned chevrons moving rhythmically along it sides like hinged leaves, until it was swallowed in the shadows of the riverbank.
Every step I take then is a very cautious one until I relax enough to accept I'm not actually wading through a wall-to-wall spread of hovering serpents, and my world settles once more into the harmless tapestries of a familiar trout stream and life goes on.
The One Feather CDC Midge
Shortly before I bumped the puff adder I was thinking of fly patterns. I am not particularly obsessed with the relative merits of one fly over another, well not on small mountain streams, but something interesting happened this day that I thought warranted a few words.
I'd started the morning after a brief downstream hike at a run so perfectly pretty it belonged in a text book. The Elk Hair Caddis I floated though it looked like it would be swallowed at any moment, but no fish showed. After two more drifts, I changed to a Para-RAB, but again if the look of the drifts and the fly on the surface pleased me, they didn't please the trout.
I remembered my friend Robin Douglas telling me he'd recently had repeated refusals to a number of dry flies throughout a morning's fishing on a nearby stream and could only hook fish on a One Feather Midge. So I changed to it and hooked a trout on my first cast in that same pretty run, and another on my second. And the story was repeated, twice, on different runs in the same stream on the same morning with the same patterns. The Elks and Para-RABs were refused, the One Feather Midge not.
A clutch of CDC Midges
It will require a lot more evidence before this becomes anything like some biblical truth, but let me put it this way: early season, on a bright morning on a Western Cape stream I'd not wager money that One Feather CDC Midge won't work. And that's mainly because hatches of tiny mountain midges on all swift-flowing upland streams are common and often go unnoticed.
I fish the Midge in sizes 16 and 18, tied with natural dark dun CDC. Use a spotter of your choice. I like orange Poly Yarn. It's easy to follow and easy to use.
The tying of the CDC Midge is on my website.
From Rene Vosloo - Escape to Branksome Country House
Branksome Country House is the brainchild of Rene Vosloo, Basie Vosloo's sister, Basie being the owner of the farm Birkhall up in the Eastern Cape Highlands about whom I have written more than a few pages.
Branksome sits at the top right of this loop of the Sterkspruit
Branksome is the next farm up the road from Birkhall on a section of the Sterkspruit River I have also often written about; and with good reason, because it includes one of the Sterkspruit's most productive beats, the Gorge section, and above that, the water up-and downstream of a pretty bridge with a weir above it is also productive and very picturesque.
A fish in the Gorge section
The weir and the bridge sections of the Sterkspruit
Rene tells me she has converted two of the historic sandstone sheds on Branksome into a fine country house. The milking parlour, built in the 1920’s, has been converted into five large rooms with bathrooms en suite and patios to take in the vast mountain views. What I really liked hearing is that each room is decorated with old family furniture collected over many generations of Vosloos.
The shearing shed and bull stable are now The Trout and Hound, a pub and restaurant, with little change to their original and beautiful sandstone structures. Most of the material used in the bar has been repurposed – a Bedford Chassis with poplar planks hewn from trees felled on the farm and the old floorboards were used to set up the shelves.
The restaurant offers a farm-to-fork dining experience using seasonal local produce. Our meat is sourced from the certified Birkhall Butchery providing the best quality grass-fed lamb and beef. Breakfast is catered to suit your schedule and Ploughman platters are available all day. The dinner menus are created each day.'
Crossing the Bokspruit River on horseback
'Hiking and mountain bike trails and horse rides are a different way to explore the countryside. Branksome’s horses are famously sure-footed, coming from blood-lines specially bred for endurance in mountain country. The area surrounding the farms has wonderful birdlife with sightings of vultures, lammergeier, crested cranes and many raptors.
Mario Cesare on Branksome
'Many of the sandstone caves are decorated with rock art documenting Bushman life in the valleys.
'The room rate is R950 and includes breakfast.
'The Trout and Hound pub and restaurant menu changes daily and booking is recommended. Horse rides can be arranged for guests and day visitors. Please call ahead to book rides. The cost per rider is R250 for the first hour and R500 for half a day.
'The Sterkspruit River is easily accessed from the guest house. A day permit is R150 and a half-day is R100, payable to The Wild Trout Association (WTA).'
Micro-midges for Mountain Dam - by Ed Herbst
(This is a long article, but it is a very valuable resume of the latest on fishing micro-patterns in stillwaters. My many thanks to Ed Herbst.)
Two years ago Alan Hobson posted an article on this website about a substantially increased yellowfish catch rate at Sterkfontein Dam through using 7-8 x tippets and flies size 18 or smaller.
Since then, as Alan has progressed to yet smaller flies, his catch rate at Mountain Dam at Somerset East has improved significantly and 2kg trout are regularly being caught on #24 flies.
Alan Hobson with a Mountain Dam rainbow trout which was fooled by one of his micro-patterns
Wanting to contribute to this research, I ordered some #26 Gamakatsu C12-BM barbless big-eye hooks.
A #26 spent mayfly imitation tied on the big-eye Gamakatsu midge hook
I also ordered the #24 Allen N304 which, like the Gamakatsu, is a medium-wire, scud-type hook. Looking at it through the 4x magnification of my Donegan Optivisor, I was delighted to find that it has a spear-point design pioneered by Tiemco on models like the TMC 2499 SP – BL.
Alan finds most micro-pattern hooks of #22 or smaller straighten on the fish in Mountain Dam and at Sterkfontein and he is also partial to the superb medium-wire Ahrex hooks which are made in Finland. Craig Thom of Stream X can source them for you.
Three of the medium-wire micro-pattern hooks favoured by Alan Hobson for his trout and yellowfish flies. They all have larger-than-normal eyes.
In his 1996 book What the Trout Said: About the Design of Trout Flies and Other Mysteries, Datus Proper wrote that trout accept size 16 and smaller flies with less suspicion than larger patterns.
Five years ago, in an article on this website, Tom Sutcliffe posted photographs of trout stomach contents that showed that most trout prey is less than half a centimetre in length.
I have watched trout feeding hard on mountain streams near Cape Town, darting from side to side and capturing prey too small for me to see.
Ralph Cutter who has spent dozens of hours snorkelling trout rivers in the USA makes the same point from an underwater perspective in his stellar book Fish Food :
'Scientists will tell you that a trout's vision is somewhat less acute than a human’s. How they know that, I can’t tell, but I can tell you that in a fish's world, a trout sees much better than we do. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times I have finned in the water just behind a trout and watched as it cocked its fins, flared its tail, and raised its nose in eager anticipation of an approaching morsel of food.
It is a body language common to all trout in all waters across the world.
Rarely do I see the food item drifting toward us before the trout sees it. Invariably it is the fish’s behaviour that alerts me to the item. Many, many, many times I can't see the item until it is inches from the trout’s nose, and far too many times to count, I'm unable to figure out what the trout saw at all. From several feet away, trout can see Daphnia and copepods and mayfly egg masses the size of the period at the end of this sentence. They see, or otherwise perceive, these minute flecks against a swirling background of bubbles, swaying vegetation, and drifting debris.
I don’t have a clue how they do it.
Nine out of ten people use a ﬂy that is too big. Three reasons: It is easier to get the tippet through the eye of the fly; it is easier to see on the water; and to us, live flies simply appear larger than they really are.'
Alan Hobson says Mountain Dam is a veritable soup of tiny insects - spent Caenis, micro-caddis, Chironomid and Chaoborous (Phantom Midge) not to mention the even smaller Daphnia upon which it preys.
Chris Wood fishing Mountain Dam during a Caenis hatch
During the late afternoon there are huge Caenis hatches and a fascinating article on the Partridge website reveals how trout feed at such times.
A typical late-afternoon Caenis hatch on Mountain Dam
Spent Caenis at the margins of a dam. A scanned photo from Dean Riphagen’s stellar book Stillwater Trout in South Africa (Struik, 2004)
As the sun dips behind the horizon, dipterans in their thousands emerge, crawling up one’s waders. In the morning, their bodies blanket the margins and the wind lanes and they are dispersed at all levels of the water column by wind-generated currents.
Emerging Phantom Midges use Alan Hobson’s waders during a hatch after sunset on Mountain Dam.
For me the breakthrough tying tiny flies came when I discovered Uni-Caenis thread, the thinnest on the market. I had bought it about two years ago from Morne Bayman at the African Fly Angler online shop, but had never used it because I had been told, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was so weak that it would not hold the weight of a bobbin.
I put a spool onto my favourite bobbin, the Tiemco Adjustable Arm Bobbin, lubricated the spool holes and the bobbin arms with Mucilin to make the spool turn with less friction, and, after that, tying size 24/26 flies became routine.
After a dab of superglue is applied to the hook shank with a toothpick, I wind on a few turns of spaced Semperfli or UCT ultra-thin wire using a Stonfo Bobtec bobbin.
The two bobbins used by the author for tying midge patterns and the invaluable Optivisor equipped with the Quasar LED lighting system
The first layer of UV light-cured resin – (Loon Fluorescing) - is applied to further lock the wire onto the hook shank and because it adds a subtle blue glow. After that, I apply some thicker Solarez Topaz Sparkle resin which contains minute blue specks of reflecting material.
You can replicate this effect by mixing glitter dust - which is available from craft shops - into your favourite UV resin.
The Wasatch cement applicator is very helpful in holding a tiny drop of UV resin and then applying it evenly to the hook.
The UV light-cured resins used by the author when tying midges and the Wasatch cement applicator
The Uni-Caenis thread is now attached between the eye of the hook and the resin-covered wire. You will, at some stage, break this thread but it does not immediately spiral off the hook shank in coils – you just re-attach it and continue tying.
I find it easiest to attach a single wing pointing backwards using Fishient Gliss’n Glow Clear Ice which is a clear plastic strip with horizontal striations. Other possibilities are pearlescent micro Crystal Flash, Antron, CDC or Coq du Leon barbules.
To illustrate the tying sequence and make the photography easier I have used the #24 Allen N304 hook
Step 1 – the wire is wound onto the hook shank which is covered with superglue dispensed via a toothpick from a Zap-A-Gap bottle equipped with Flexi-Tips
Step 2 – the wire is covered with fluorescing resin which shines through the second coat
Step 3 – Solarez Topaz Sparkle is used for the top coat. Note the blue glints
Step 4 – The completed midge showing the Gliss ‘n Glow wing
A midge tied on #26 Gamakatsu hook using Micro Crystal Flash for the wing
To cover the wing at the tie-in point and mimic the insect’s head I use Quick Descent Dub which is made of extremely fine aluminium shavings.
The late Shane Stalcup raved about this dubbing in his book Mayflies from Top to Bottom and with good reason because I have never tried a dubbing material that is easier to use and there is nothing better for tying tiny flies. It almost magnetises itself to the thread and you need about two strands for midges which means a packet goes a long way.
The suggestion that it sinks nymphs ‘like a rock’ is simply advertising hype written by someone who has never used it.
It is no longer made unfortunately, but some shops still stock it.
I also wax the thread and use the fuzz stripped from peacock herl. Other alternatives are mole fur and Kreinik silk dubbing, a favourite of Ed Engle, author of Tying Small Flies.
Micro-midge success for Alan Hobson on Mountain Dam in Somerset East.
Alan’s research into the importance of predaceous diving beetles in trout diet was a singular step forward in the evolution of dam fishing tactics for trout.
A photograph on Alan Hobson’s cellphone of predaceous diving beetles eaten by a Mountain Dam trout along with examples of the closely imitative flies he crafts to imitate them
The air bubble on a predacious bubble which is trigger for the fish feeding on them. Photo by Charles Griffiths.
The air bubble as imitated on this Diving Beetle pattern tied by Alan Hobson
Here’s Alan’s advice on fishing micro-patterns for stillwater trout and yellowfish:
Fishing midges is challenging but oh, so rewarding. What is so special is that it is far from an exact science, as what works today does not necessarily produce the same success the next day.
After a 45- year fly fishing journey I can say that identifying what is hatching is imperative as correct fly selection does increase one’s success dramatically.
The other big factor is observing the fish’s behaviour to see how they are feeding. What makes fishing midge hatches so exciting is that ninety percent of the time you can see where the fish are feeding. Presentation, however, is always key element in success - you must get your flies into the zone of vision of the fish - to where it is in the water column.
My leader set –ups vary according to the species I am targeting and the prevailing conditions. I prefer using a longer leader, ten to fifteen feet. Ten feet if you are fishing with a wind blowing and fifteen feet to eighteen feet if it is a calm day. Generally I always use two or three flies.
The main section of the leader is made of Maxima Ultragreen and I use Stroft tippets.
To use long leaders effectively, slow your casting stroke down and open your loop.
I connect my leader to the fly line using a Surgeon’s Loop and build my own leader using blood knots. The blood knots act as a buffer for the free running dropper system. What is critical is that the mono the dropper runs on is at least two pounds breaking strain heavier than that of the dropper, i.e. if your dropper is 5x then make sure it runs on 4x, preferably 3x, the dropper should be a maximum of 6 inches long.
At the end of the dropper, opposite the fly, I tie a small loop. The loop is held against the leader and the fly is threaded through the loop which is then tightened.
This enables one to quickly change flies without cutting the leader.
I use a Uni-Knot to attach my fly to my tippet for two reasons. The small loop allows the fly to move and, on the strike, there is a little give as the knot tightens which makes the tippet less likely to break
The key factor in fishing micro-patterns on dams is that the fish are not prepared to chase them down, because they would expend more energy chasing tiny insects than they will receive in protein-return.
The takes are either a very quick, fast bump or, when the water surface is covered in tiny insects, more subtle. In the latter case you have watch the leader with concentration because they reject a fly in a split-second.
Don’t waste time casting blindly and furiously because the result is always a spooked fish. Rather wait until you see the fish or its movement and present without lining it. If you battle to detect takes then use a small strike indicator - one that does not make a loud plop - to help spot any deviation in the leader.
If the wind blows a bow in your line, keep moving the tip to maintain one continual bend with the rod and line. Don’t hold the rod at ninety degrees to the line because you will battle to set the hook. Let the wind do the work for you as it drags the flies below the surface. If conditions are calm, ensure you are in touch with the flies and watch the line for the slightest movement. If you spot or sense a take, lift the rod gently to strike and let the reaction of the fish set the hook.
When I started researching stomach contents of fish caught in the Somerset East area, I quickly discovered that predacious diving beetles were a staple in the diet of trout and yellowfish throughout the year. I now use them on all my three-fly leader set-ups with the beetle sometimes functioning as a strike indicator on the point. If I want to fish it beneath the surface, I’ll use a weighted nymph on the point to pull it down a few centimetres.
My close-copy diving beetle patterns have proved extremely successful. The foam is shaped with a Dremel tool and the decoupage paint is applied in separate drying stages which take four days. I use the technique pioneered on Sterkfontein Dam by Dr Hans van Zyl with his ‘Good Doctor’s Beetle’.
One of the problems that Alan’s clients have is snapping the required 7-8x tippets on the strike and he is collaborating with Pretoria-based custom rod builder, Koos Eckard on a fibreglass model based on a CTS blank which will cushion fine tippets more effectively than carbon fibre rods do.
It will incorporate the Ritz-based grip which he has developed.
The range of flies that Alan has developed and are for sale is shown on his website.
Useful information on the role of midges can be found at the following links: