JULY 2021 FLY-FISHING NEWSLETTER
About this month's Newsletter
This edition of my newsletter is largely devoted to my dear, departed friend Basie Vosloo, written from my sense of loss but also from a sense of gratitude; loss because his passing has left a hole in my life as if an important chapter had closed, and gratitude, which is never a good enough word in most circumstances, for the quarter of a century I was the fortunate recipient of Carien and Basie's limitless largess and friendship.
For those to whom Basie Vosloo is unknown, he was fabled in South African fly fishing circles, and to add some reference to my homage I have included a few of my most cherished photographs of him, and of Carien, and Birkhall and Gateshead and sprinkled the text with a few passages from Shadows on the Stream Bed, Hunting Trout and Yet More Sweet Days. These quotes are in italics and I centre the text. I hope the words help to conjure some imagery for you in what was a difficult passage of words for me to write.
Beyond Basie's sad passing, July was also very challenging in other ways and also rewarding. Let me explain. There were two cataract ops to restore my failing eyesight, done by young Cape Town ophthalmic surgeon Dale Harrison. Take a bow, Sir. The improvement is beyond miraculous, the delay getting it done (due to my concerns around Covid and the lockdown) intensified the improvement between my pre- and post-op eyesight. The world's colours seem bright again and detail sharper than ever before. I can now spot moths on the moon. Dale Harrison, by the way, is a keen fly fisher.
Then there was the week of mid-July madness when two provinces in South Africa, particularly KZN, staggered under a siege of lawless pillage that went unchecked long enough (around four days) to risk blowing our young democracy clean out of the water until an unaccountably somnolent government woke up and the police and army brought stability. Over 300 people died and looters left countless shops, factories, supply lines, even some strategic infrastructure like cell phone towers, destroyed or damaged. And I couldn't help thinking as I watched these anarchic incursions unfolding on television hour after hour, that they carried the hallmarks of an orchestrated insurrection. I’ve used the word ‘insurrection’, and on the face of it, that seems about right.
It's too soon to predict a final outcome, but not too late to point out the silver lining around these tempestuous clouds, namely the counterpoised and very evident successes of so many good South Africans from all walks of life to rise above these forces of evil. Still, the naysayers suggest South Africa hasn't the capacity to recover. I don't agree. I think South Africa has that capacity. We are nothing if not a resilient nation. But recovery will need swift justice for offenders and rigorous self-examination by the government.
My thanks to the many fly fishers from around the world who sent me messages of sympathy, hope, encouragement, and unity.
Two lovely pieces of writing
All this aside, there are a few other lovely pieces in this edition. One is by Justin McConville on fishing a stream in Wales and the River Loddon a chalkstream – my word he does write well.
Another is a most interesting book review by my friend and expert on global, but especially South African angling literature, Paul Curtis, who shares what will become a regular feature in this newsletter, a book by book account of the gems in early South African angling literature.
Then please have a look at Gordon van der Spuy's limited edition prints of all the yellowish species, drawn in exquisite detail and professionally scanned, an ideal companion piece for your fly fishing/fly tying den.
But let's first speak of Basie...
Johannes Arnold 'Basie' Vosloo - 24 May 1957 – 4 July 2021
The passing of a near-mythical figure in many South African fly-fishing and hunting circles.
I was introduced to Basie Vosloo 25 years ago by Ed Herbst when we arrived one night for a protracted fishing stay on his farm Birkhall, the car immediately swamped by enormous dogs with barks that rattled the windowpanes. I was scared stiff until Basie arrived with a torch to see me in. It was an embarrassing but portentous moment. Ten days later I'd got used to the dogs – or they to me – and had grown fond of Basie.
The farmhouse on Birkhall
Basie and Carien at home in Birkhall
My initial characterisation of Basie (in line with my narrow orthodoxy that farmers are generally rough and largely uninterested, or unversed, or both, in the affairs of the world), was way off. He had a gentle side, far-ranging intellectual horizons, as at home with the arts and literature (particularly the writings of Oscar Wilde), as he was grading wool or planting potatoes.
Basie and his mother, Patricia, in the shed at sheep-shearing time
But he was still your typical farmer in so many ways: in his warmth of spirit and generosity; in his love of the veld; in his industrial-grade self-belief in his farming skills; in his total delight in any bit of running water. And, not least, in appearance; a big man, with legs of a billiard table, always in shorts and open-neck shirt, even when that high-mountain cold turned our breath to clouds of frozen vapour.
But above all Basie had a presence; that opaque quality a few people have of radiating a definable sense of their own space.
Looking over Birkhall
Life on Birkhall:
Basie became known to hosts of South African fly fishers, if not personally, then certainly by reputation, as a man who took any angler's visit to Birkhall seriously, when a day's fishing might easily end around his pub for a celebratory libation. Accounts of many unsteady late-night departures of anglers in happy and assorted stages of incipient tailspin are now storied enough to be part of fly-fishing folklore.
Carien points to a trout taken from the Sterkspruit and mounted in that much-storied pub
Ed Herbst, one of Basie's dearest friends, on Birkhall's veranda; with ubiquitous pipe and matches.'
There were days, countless of them over the years, when we just sat chatting on the veranda on Birkhall, gazing across views along the tree-laced river valley, sometimes with an early mug of coffee seeing in a sunrise, or watching the unfolding drama of a thunderstorm or, commonly, a sunset gradually turning the surrounding blue-shadowed mountains to flame-orange.
View in a mirror of the valley from Birkhall
Sunrise over Birkhall
Down the tree-laved river valley
'We had a farm-style lunch the last day on Birkhall, a roast leg of home-grown mutton prepared by Carien. Later that afternoon a majestic storm played itself out in the Birkhall valley and pretty soon the Sterkspruit was too high and too discoloured to fish. In a way, I liked that. It’s easier leaving a place when you know the river is going to be out for a day or two anyway.'
The unfolding drama of a Birkhall thunderstorm
...the setting son turning blue-shadowed mountains flame-orange
'That evening on the Birkhall veranda, Basie grilled steaks as thick as roof rafters. He did them on a steel wok connected to a portable gas cylinder. The white-marbled meat was good in ways it’s hard to put your finger on, other than to say you can’t lose sight of the fact that it hadn’t come from a fridge in some city supermarket, but from a grass-fed animal slaughtered on the farm.'
Basie Birkhall veranda steaks
Basie was proud of Birkhall; proud of the way he and Carien farmed it, each with their own focus and energy and love, proud too of Birkhall's unmissable beauty.
Rainbows over Birkhall tend just to gild the lilly
Basie with anglers on Birkhall
'I’ve got into a loose routine over the years on my visits to Birkhall. I’m up early, at about 6 a.m., pad into the kitchen, switch on the kettle, add a heaped teaspoon of coffee to one of the mugs that hang in the glass-fronted cupboard directly above the kettle. They are white mugs with big red polka dots on them. They have been in the kitchen since I can remember. I add farm milk, thick with cream, and a spoon of sugar. I sip the coffee and wait for Basie. Or else Basie has beaten me to it and he’s there sucking on his pipe in clouds of blue smoke, his wet hair combed flat. The dogs are let out and they bark at the fading moon or the rising sun, whatever. They just bark. We talk farming or fishing, and then eat breakfast; eggs and bacon and (homemade) Russian sausages, toast and marmalade, more coffee. Then Basie is gone, Carien leaves on one of her endless errands, and I am alone. I have a hundred choices where to go fishing. Or I might write up my diary, or set up my vice to tie flies on the veranda... Life here is richly coated with choices, all strung across lazy days that drift slowly by like sail ships on a light breeze.'
...they just bark at the fading moon, or the rising sun, whatever...
Some years there was drought and I seemed to live through those with Basie, right down to the sorry day the Sterkspruit stopped flowing ...
'The rivers had perked up a bit but, despite the rain, it was still pretty dry. Basie said the only thing still green on the farm was the indicator light on the dashboard of his old F 100 truck.'
Basie and pointer Biggles, Archer at the back in the old F 100 adorned with Koki penned Adams dry flies (tied Catskill-style?).
Birkhall spring water
Birkhall has a garden pond fed by fresh spring water where Carien grows watercress and at times Basie grew out trout. We hooked countless fingerlings on wet flies in the Sterkspruit, kept them in laundry baskets immersed in knee-deep runs, later loaded them into buckets to stock the Birkhall lake below the house.
Some fingerlings went into a reservoir in the garden for 'the sheer joy of having a few trout nearby' Basie said. I once hooked a monster here on a dry fly with Ed, that I never landed.
And the presence of fish and frogs and tadpoles meant kingfishers were common visitors. It's a lovely feature in their garden.
Basie and fly fishing...
When Ed and I first met Basie his approach to fly fishing was a little downstream of high culture, but over years he moved from stripping Buggers on heavy rigs to dry flies on light rods and gradually acquired an appreciation of small stream fishing with all its obsessive oddities and minimalist refinements Ed and I had obsessed over almost exclusively from the day we first met him.
Basie fishing the Sterkspruit
But on the rare occasions I actually fished with Basie, mainly on the Sterkspruit and the Bokspruit at Gateshead, he was always only part-fly-fisher-part-farmer, never totally able to surrender to the day without half an eye on the farm. So you might look up from a run and suddenly find him high up a bank straightening a fence post or counting ewes in a paddock.
Basie on the Birkhall Sterkspruit
Basie on Bokspruit River at Gateshead
Of all the rivers in the district, and there are many, Basie loved the Sterkspruit beyond all, not for its strong fish alone, but for its winding beauty, its endlessly interlinked tapestries of runs and riffles and braids and pools that are so characteristic of this stream's anatomy no matter where you step into it.
Sterkspruit river landscape
The gorge water on Birkhall as it borders Branksome
Typical tapestries of the Sterkspruit River
The Sterkspruit above and below the Lindesfarne Bridge
Basie and Gateshead...
Basie and Carien at Gateshead cottage
Basie also loved their high mountain farm Gateshead, a place where the essence of life is dressed in its loveliest simplifications. He was proud of its remoteness, at the very end of a road that crossed bridges of cold water straight off mountains; the clear, clean air; the timeless Victorian pastiche cottage, prettily latticed veranda fronted by privet hedges and flanked by fruit trees over a century-old...
On the way up to Gateshead...
' The flow of water spilling under the bridge made the steady, softly sibilant, sucking sounds of a stream in good flow. We stepped out of the truck and could smell the water and the leaves, a compressed mix of cold freshness, wet loam, and mulch, the air so saturated with a fragrance that made you want to breathe in deeply. Above the bridge was a long pool of clear, thigh-deep water; below it the stream ran white and rough. A trout weaved in the pool above, at first not easy to see but later so obvious it seemed strange we hadn’t spotted it straight off...'
At a bridge on the way to Gateshead
'The cottage sat on the lower slopes of the Gateshead Mountain facing a narrow, steep-sided sweep of hills and falling river...'
Basie just loved to gaze across the hills from the Gateshead veranda
Nights on Gateshead were good, cold, starlit, around a campfire, crate of beer, watching shadows lengthen, lapsing under jeweled night skies into assorted philosophies until the cold of dying embers (or the fast aggregating heaps of empty bottles) saw us off...
Simplicity. The kitchen stove on Gateshead
'An orchard of fruit trees so old that naming them wasn’t something you could ever feel sure about.' (I now know they are a mix of cherry trees, apricots and apples.)
'We laid in a wood fire between stones in the tiny boma off the kitchen at the back of the cottage, cooked thick streaks on the fading glow of hot coals, drank good red wine, and relived a spiritual day where we had all hovered briefly on the outskirts of heaven.'
Formal dinner on Gateshead: Phil Hills, Luke Rossler, Basie, and self.
Days out with Basie on horses were glorious but too rare, he always the master of these animals, often on Apla his headstrong black steed that everyone else was too scared to ride.
Basie rounding up at Gateshead
Basie on Apla
Basie had a special love for Archer, an English pointer. Feathers, also an English pointer, was next in the line of Birkhall's canine hierarchy, then followed a later pointer, Thomas, that I collected for Basie as a puppy from a breeder in Johannesburg and drove down to Birkhall with him in my truck. Don't ask me about that trip. The dog arrived safely and ended up named after me. But Archer somehow lifted himself to near holiness among the many gun dogs in Basie's life, and he has since had a room named in his honour in the Branksome Country House, a lodge run by Basie's sister Rene on the next farm upstream of Birkhall. (By the way, there's also the Ed's Hopper room in that lodge. As I said, Ed held a special place in the Vosloo's lives.)
His Royal Highness Archer
Archer on a day out with me on the Bokspruit River
'That night we tied a few flies by gaslight .... When we finally turned in, the air was like frozen steel. I crawled under a heavy mountain of blankets and blew out the candle. Moments later Feathers started to inch her way onto my bed with deliberate and measured stealth, trembling paw by trembling paw, convinced I was unaware of her subterfuge. I let her sink onto the bed. She lay dead-still and eventually we fell asleep. In the morning she was curled up warmly at my feet and her son, Archer, still a puppy, was deep inside my duffel bag with only his nose showing.'
On Gateshead : Feathers and Archer
If the dogs sit out in the morning sun on Birkhall, they sleep inside at night around the warmth of the Agar stove.
A momentous visit with Basie to a lake under construction...
One morning we visited Basie's new lake above Birkhall. He was finishing the wall with heavy machinery. I left him in dust clouds and hiked up the thin feeder stream, a wisp of water no wider than a stride, and discovered in its meager flows a brace of trout and a bunch of fingerlings. Basie said I was hallucinating, so we wandered back up the creek, found the evidence and I watched first Basie's astonishment and then I saw utter delight appear on his face. 'Thomas,' he said 'you have your uses.'
A slip of stream
...with fingerings in it
Finally completed. The new lake on Birkhall
To explain more aptly my privilege in knowing the Vosloos, here's what I wrote under the appreciations in Yet More Sweet Days:
'Those who stand out are Basie and Carien Vosloo of Birkhall, who are more part of my family than just good friends. ...Without them there would be no story to tell. '
A moment with a humourous side...
'That night Basie said it was too cold to snow and I offered to light the fire in the lounge. He quickly said, ‘Don’t worry, leave it to me.’ I suspected this was a deep survival response that got embedded in his mind when I last lit the fire in his lounge one particularly cold evening on a previous trip. The wood was slightly damp and the flames just wouldn't take hold. Basie suggested I add a little ‘starter’, a turquoise-colored, high-octane inflammable gel. I poured a little gel onto blackened embers that I could have sworn were nowhere near still smouldering. Bad call. The bottle burst into flame in my hand, and I reflexively tossed it straight into the fireplace. There was a massive whooshing sound, and the entire chimney lit up in a blinding sheet of orange flame. For a few long moments, it looked like the Taliban had scored a direct hit on Basie’s lounge. No serious damage done, but Basie needed a stiff drink before he could speak. Around nine that night the colour finally came back into his face.'
On leaving Birkhall...
'That afternoon I packed my fishing gear and loaded my truck. I left the next morning later than planned because Basie insisted on cooking a grand breakfast. We ate in the kitchen, just the two of us...'
Basie maling breakfast on Birkhall
Final thoughts ...
It was as hard not to respect Basie as it is to fall upwards, his life lived in primary colours rather than in any anti-climatic shades of grey, even into the backwash of his cancer and then the pandemic. I called him often. He was always the same; no confected dressing up his dire situation; the same jovial human being; the same connectedness with family, friends, farming, hunting, fishing, the weather, especially rain, with the community, in fact just as he was from the first time we met one night in wobbling torchlight amid a bunch of baying dogs.
We are all of us lifted by our most cherished moments, not so?
Tom Sutcliffe 03 August 2021
Oh! I have slipped the surly bounds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-filled wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.
John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)
Rest in your well-earned peace my dear friend.
Justin McConville on fishing a stream in Wales and the River Lodden
I was meant to travel to Normandy in the last week of June to fish two of the French chalkstreams, but Covid restrictions put paid to the trip. Limited to the confines of mainland Britain, I chose to visit Wales instead. Not a chalkstream in sight, of course, but Wales does possess some of the finest trout fishing in the world. Innumerable rivers drain the country’s verdant valleys, and almost all of them will have brown trout. Our holiday cottage sat perched on a hill above the River Cothi, once famed for its runs of sea trout. I spent a warm day on the thin upper reaches of the river, at the site where a Roman fort once guarded a valuable gold mine, soaking in the sheer sense of history that pervaded the place and occasionally tempting the river’s wily trout to take a dry fly. The waters of the Cothi are acidic and the trout I caught measured no more than 6 or 7 inches. Tiny slips of life in a harsh environment, hardwired to survive against the odds. It felt like ‘proper’ fishing.
The Cothi in Camarthenshire, running as clear as a chalkstream.
Back home in the south of England, the weather has been very unsettled from mid-June, with some locations in Hampshire being the wettest in the whole country with over three times their average June rainfall. Several of my fishing plans were washed out. We seemed to turn the corner in mid-July and on a glorious day when the mercury went north of 30°c I took up a kind invitation to fish the Loddon, a small chalkstream which rises in the town of Basingstoke in Hampshire and flows north for 28 miles until it joins the Thames.
My host casting a fly in a likely looking run of the Loddon
The clear water hurried over gravels and ranunculus, the perfect picture of a chalkstream in miniature. Lush bankside vegetation grew tall, and watercress and reeds flourished in the river’s course, confining the lower summer flows into an even narrower channel, where ranunculus thrived untended. It called for precise casting, aiming the fly for the small gutters of gravel and leafy margins, where the trout were willing to take a well-placed fly. My best was around 12 inches.
A typical wild brown trout from the Loddon
The Loddon is a private chalkstream in its upper reaches and I was pleased to tick it off my list and receive an invitation to return next year to fish its even smaller tributary, the Lyde.
Thanks Justin. Please let us know when you have dusted the Lyde. TS
Paul Curtis on African fly-fishing books – Book No. 1
Trout Fishing in the Cape Colony (1908) by Dumaresq Manning – Argus Printing and Publishing (Cape Town)
I doubt that when Cape Colony civil servant, Dumaresq Manning, sat down to write 'Trout Fishing in the Cape Colony', he realised he was the first in a long line of authors writing books about trout fishing in Africa. Or that his 97-page book (plus 30-page appendix) guide was the first book on any sort of sport fishing on the continent. Fresh or saltwater.
There had been earlier articles on fishing and trout in magazines such as Cape Illustrated and in the UK in Fisherman’s Gazette and Hardy Bros catalogues, and a few chapters in books – but not that many.
'Trout Fishing in the Cape Colony' was written, as the author says: ‘primarily to bring into prominence that [trout] acclimatisation in the Cape Colony is an encouraged fact, and to encourage angling’.
The book has a detailed history of trout acclimatisation in the Western and Eastern Cape and a large map of where trout had been stocked – which is almost everywhere from Table Mountain in the south, to Carnarvon in the north and eastward to the Natal Colony border. In fact, everywhere the South African Railways network covered. Which was not surprising as the early head of the railways, ardent fisherman Sir William Hoy, had instructed his train drivers to release ‘carboys’ (large glass flagons) of trout at the end of every line and branch line they went to – wherever there was water.
Manning also gives a district-by-district review of the fishing and suggests what flies to use: ‘March Brown , Alder, Zulu, Teal and Claret, and Alexandra, and where there is no rise of any natural fly such as would be seen on any English river, it is only expected that trout, naturally cannibalistic should take those feathered monstrosities known as Salmon Flies’.
What is surprising that in his list and description of the species of trout that the angler might expect (brown trout, Loch Leven, and rainbow) he mentions Atlantic salmon stocked in the Breede!
There is also a chapter, of particular interest today, on catching indigenous fish, the wittevisch on the fly. Manning writing; ‘This fish, a species of barbel and very like a chub in appearance running to several pounds in weight’.
There are appendices including the legal requirement to fish, the closed seasons, how to build fish weirs, hatching boxes and several government proclamations on the protection of trout under the signature of Governor-General Sir Walter Francis Hely-Hutchinson. God Save The King!
There are numerous black and white photographs of fishermen and large bags of fish and one full colour plate of a brown trout.
'Trout Fishing in the Cape Colony' is an extremely rare but important cornerstone of any African fishing library. I was fortunate in my early days of collecting to find a copy (map included) in good condition. But I was even more fortunate not too long ago, to buy on auction in the UK a second copy – this originally belonging to, and with the signature of, G.E.M. Skues in it and dated in his hand – I VIII 08.
Manning doesn’t appear to have written any other fishing books, although one was planned – I have a pre-publicity leaflet put out by Cape publishers Maskew Miller promoting The Golden Rivers of the Western Province. In the leaflet there is even a note on the Mayor of Cape Town’s letterhead with the then mayor, the aptly named William Fish, claiming he had read the book and recommended it. Maskew Miller has no records of publishing it though. Let me know though if you ever find a copy …
The Golden Rivers of the Western Province
Limited edition prints of all yellowfish species
The artist in Lesotho
Print size 68 x 44 cms
Says Gordon van der Spuy:
The project started during lockdown last year after I completed my book. It was commissioned by a young man named Luke Leatherbarrow from Johannesburg. The brief was to draw SAs nine yellowfish species with the focus on capturing the character of each species. Along the way we learnt that yellowfish taxonomy is pretty much incomplete currently and that there are probably more species than we believe there to be. The project took over a year to complete. Many thanks to Garth Wellman, Leonard Flemming, Horst Filter , Warren van Tonder and Luke Leatherbarrow for reference pictures.
(If I may add a word of advice. If you don't get one of these prints you will be kicking yourself down the road 5 years from now ! TS)
Finally, I just spoke to Ed Herbst who said he wanted to add a piece on Basie's passing. It's an important read.
I first met Basie and Carien Vosloo in Barkly East in April 1992 at a function held to establish the Wild Trout Association.
I attended the function as editor of Piscator, journal of the Cape Piscatorial Society and you can read my account of that meeting here.
A three-decade friendship with Basie has now ended and, like so many others who knew him, I have a hole in my heart because he and Carien were family to me.
The rivers in Barkly East produce double-figure rainbows and most of these fish have been caught in deep pools or from undercut banks using streamers and, when I first met Basie, he was firmly wedded to this technique.
“The trout in Barkly East want steak not sandwiches”, he would tell me as his #6 Mrs Simpson produced another five-pound trout.
He was using a five-weight fly rod when I met him which I called the G5 after the 155 mm howitzer used by the South African infantry at the time.
Every time I acquired a new ultra-light line fly rod, I passed its predecessor on to Basie and he quickly changed tactics, fishing the flies which Tom and I tied for him.
I remember fishing the Sterkspruit with him using a laboriously-constructed double-taper leader which I suggested he try.
His first cast saw the fly firmly affixed to a rock face on the opposite bank and, without hesitation he stripped off on a cold and cloudy day and swam across the river to retrieve it.
Over the decades hundreds of fly anglers have sat in the lounge at Birkhall enjoying the hospitality for which Basie and Carien were justifiably renowned.
He played a singular role in establishing the Wild Trout Association which has been instrumental in promoting fly angling tourism in region to the benefit of the local economy.
He invited Dave Walker of Walkerbouts Country Inn fame to move from Bloemfontein to one of his farms and it was there that Dave and Martin Davies conceptualized the idea of a conservancy which would protect and promote the resource to the benefit of both farmers and fly anglers.
His son Arnie and his daughter-in-law, both doctoral graduates from the University of Stellenbosch, have given up their academic careers and moved to Barkly East to help run the Vosloo farms.
I draw comfort from this seamless inter-generational transition which will see fly anglers continue to walk the banks of the Sterkspruit at Birkhall and Branksome and the upper Bokspruit at Gateshead which Basie once fished with so much joy and vivacity.
Great words and sentiments, many thanks, Edward.
Tom Sutcliffe 03 August 2021