By Andrew Fowler
Flyfishing off the beaten track
“It takes time to know a trout stream, but if you visit one often enough to learn at least some of its idiosyncrasies, you begin to fish the water not only with a greater expectation of success but with an increasing sense of affectionate familiarity, even on those days when the trout hand you your hat.” Ted Leeson, Jerusalem Creek
I knew there had to be a fish in the deep dark water just above where the fish eagles nest. I had returned there several times in the season. Once with James, to take photos in the early morning on a hot day.
Deep dark water
Another time with Graeme and Garth, and a third occasion…..I can’t quite remember when.
Garth Niewenhuis on the Umgeni
All had been without result at this spot.
Graeme had landed a fish up ahead at “Nannaberry pool”, and both Garth and I pricked a fish on separate visits at a pool just above the forest, but nothing from this pool.
Here the water is black with depth, and there is a succession of overhanging bushes on the north bank…a few Ntchishi’s and a Sage bush.
Each time, I had stopped to change to something smaller and heavier. I needed a sleek heavy nymph. It needed to plummet, but without a splash, so it had to be a #16, and on a 6X tippet. I know I used the Troglodyte this time, and being the creature of habit that I am, it was probably a Troglodyte last time too.
Same place, same fly. In fly fishing you can try the same thing over and expect a different result.
Earlier in the season the open southern bank beside the stream had left me exposed. The vegetation was at ankle height, and the only means of avoiding detection was to remain below the skyline behind, and approach upstream in the belief that the fish was looking the other way.
Belief that this stream will produce you a fish now and then. Belief that persistence will pay off. Belief that this deep pool, of all the spots on the river MUST hold a fish.
Each time I stood at that spot, I believed and I dreamed. When the dagga (marijuana) had been waist high, I fished with belief and hope. I expected the take as the fly passed silently through the black water. Weeks of summer had now passed. We had had heat, and spate, and the river valley was thick with the product of humidity and sunshine. The river ran clear now, and a little lower, but the vegetation was at its peak. Stems had bolted, and seedpods had begun to dry. One not so much walked along the bank, but waded through a forest of weed and grass, an act that on a warm March day had you sweating and reaching for your water bottle. Now as I stood amongst blackjacks and dogweed that stood shoulder high, I believed again. I dreamed briefly of that fish from the Lions River back in the late seventies…the five pound Brown that made the newspaper and surprised everyone.
Chris Hadley-Grave’s Lions River Brown
I dreamed, and I believed that if that could be repeated, then of all spots on the Umgeni, this is the one that might do it for us.
“Plip” went the Troglodyte. It landed just off the sage bush, exactly where I wanted it to go. No snag in the weeds behind me. This time I didn’t hang it in the bush, and it landed as near as I could have hoped to the overhanging limb.
Belief. Expectation. Nothing.
I repeated the performance a few yards higher at the overhanging ntchishi.
Belief. Expectation. Nothing.
And then I saw a dimple opposite the shrub above. The dimple was like that of a falling seed or stick, but there was no wind, and it was too far beyond the overhanging bough to have fallen from it. I looked more carefully into the blackness of the water. I had the mid afternoon sun in my face, as I looked westward to where a ghost may be. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom into which I peered , I began to make out the streambed in the slow water. There were more pale forms below the surface. Rocks on the streambed. The water was not as deep here as that which I had just fished, so I did not cast. My fly would likely hang up on the streambed. I only observed. Then I saw it. It was unmistakable. It was a fish. As I adjusted my perception of what I was looking for, it became clear. I could now see and track the fish. It was about twelve inches long. A pretty Brown.
A pretty Brown
Not the five pounder, but that moment of discovery held no space for disappointment.
I watched it finning in the current. It was feeding actively, moving this way and that, and I would see its white mouth open and it ingest food coming slowly down to it in the pedestrian-speed current.
A wary Trout A wary Trout , finning shallow in slick meadow water like this would ever be easy.
I moved forward to within casting distance, but with the weeds reaching my nose, I was comfortably concealed. Next I dropped my rod and photographed the fish. This is something of a standard procedure. A fish spotted in the difficult conditions of a midlands stream is not to be passed up. Our sometimes slightly coloured water, the relatively low fish population, the shading of much of the water, and the cautious nature of the dappled Browns themselves, make an observed fish a rarity in this neck of the woods.
A rarity that should be observed, photographed and reveled in before one executes a cast.
With some photos of the feeding fish safely captured, I commenced a change of terminal tackle. The indicator came off, and a small unweighted nymph went on. The fish was barely breaking the surface, but was holding shallow, and would not see something passing beneath it. The splash of a heavier fly also wouldn’t do. My habitual right hand shepherds crook presentation, would be perfect here. Mercifully so as the left hand one is not a sure thing for me. My tippet felt fine. I checked the vegetation behind me. It was consistently shoulder high. “Just throw it into the sky behind you”, I told myself again, and I did.
The cast landed a little further left than I had planned, but the fish was left-most of its circling when the fly landed, and within seconds it spotted my nymph , and finned confidently over to it. Then it turned to follow the nymph down. It’s mouth opened slightly, but instinct told me it was a few inched short of my fly. The mouth opened a second time, a little more obviously. The tippet was upstream of the fish, and in an arc that may aid the hook-up, but the fish was still facing me, and that required an agonizing delay in reaction.
Delay, delay (Belief, expectation) and lift.
I just pricked it, and it was gone in a flash.
The day before a club member had fished Brigadoon, just downstream of where we were. He had had two follows from fish and had remarked “I will be back”.
The following day an angler got an eleven inch Brown on the same stretch. Just one.
The middle Umgeni
This is the middle Umgeni. It is the closest thing we have to a spring creek here in KZN. It’s source is in a vlei that trickles water into the system year round, but if you want to put a fine point on it, it is still surface water, and the river is rain-fed rather than receiving the cool water that a limestone sponge would give. So it does suffer the vagaries of drought and heat like all our other streams do. The nature of the river however is more akin to a limestoner than a cascading freestone stream. The path of the river is characterised by an open valley of deep fertile soils and it is farming country. Riffles of babbling water there is, but more often the river slides over solid bedrock, and then flows over a lip into a deep shady pool below. The resident browns are sulky fish, that present when they see fit, and not when you have a movie crew. Vegetation is taller and more rank than streams at higher altitude. While this makes for difficult casting in late summer in particular, it is also responsible for a lot more shade than some other streams can boast. Likewise the Umgeni lacks those boulder strewn sections where white sun baked rock heats the water. It therefore offers us a microclimate suitable to Browns, close enough to town that if you were determined enough you could go up after work to fish the evening rise on a week-day.
The fishing is not for everyone. Firstly, many sections present casting challenges, and even walking the river banks is more strenuous than what one experiences in the berg, where the veld is short and the river shallow. Having said this, after a winter burn, the banks of the Umgeni in September can be an absolute pleasure. In summer, and if the water is up after rain, it is often discouloured. At best, in high summer, it is still a ginger beer tone. Of course the fish move about in these conditions, and streamer fans are fast discovering this secret of the Umgeni…. For the rest, and when the flows are down and the water crystal clean, one’s fly fishing day is not necessarily one in which you work steadily upstream fishing every pocket. Rather you target a pool, and fish it, before extracting yourself and looking for the next likely spot and planning an attack. If you are after fish numbers, and enjoy picking off Trout at will, as one might expect at Injesuthi for example, then this stream probably isn’t for you.
Here you will creep about and target a single fish.
Targeting a single fish
A red letter day: one of those rare ones when the Browns are ‘on the prod’ may see you land say half a dozen fish, a dozen at very most.
But if you enjoy the hunt, and the challenge of difficult Trout. If you are prepared to invest in blank days and lessons deeply etched. If you are one for off-the-beaten-track, different, eclectic and skill nourishing fly fishing; then maybe you would like to fish the Umgeni. There might be no better way of familiarising yourself with what it has to offer than spending a morning on a guided walk along the middle Umgeni.