February 2021 Spirit of Fly Fishing Newsletter
It was Patrick MacManus who said the best time to go fishing is when it’s raining, and when it ain’t, so in keeping with this wisdom, Robin Douglas and I braved the heat that characterised January's weather in the Cape and fished the ponds on Lourensford a few times.
As happens, there was an outing when we couldn't buy a trout and then just a day or two later, an outing where the fish had done a u-turn and we took three in our first three casts, confirming once again the contrary disposition of trout.
On another trip, we put up an owl. Well, let's say an owl suddenly swooped over our heads and landed in the fork of a large tree, which naturally led us to believe she had a nest. It was a brief but dramatic sighting and we agreed it was a spotted Eagle Owl. No sign of her since, though, so we aren't so certain about the nesting bit.
Photographs per kind permission of Warwick Tarboton
I also fished alone on the ponds one morning under a brassy sky when again it was fiercely hot and windless, the only sounds the soft melodies of birdsong. I expected the trout would be slow and wasn't wrong. Three fish eventually took my nymph and then, contrary to the run of play, a few started rising, so I tied on a yellow DDD. It drifted enticingly but was ignored, which brought to mind my old friend Hugh Huntley. He had been extolling the virtues of his Red-eyed Damsel Nymph at a fly-fishing clinic one day when an eager youngster of about 12 asked, 'But Mr Huntley, what if the fish don't want a Red-eyed Damsel?'. And he famously replied, 'Then they can go without, my boy.'
Photograph from my archives
Lee and Joan Wulff on a 1984 visit to South Africa as the guests of FOSAF
Fishing Datus Proper's spring creek in Montana many years ago, a stream called Thompson’s Creek, though he referred to it as Humidity Creek in his writings. Datus drowned in July 2003 while fishing Hyalite Creek 20 miles south of Bozeman Montana. An author of four books, most noatbly 'What the Trout Said', Datus was a regular contributor to Field & Stream and a former U.S. diplomat. He was 69.
Tom Burgers' iconic photograph of John Beams fishing the Smalblaar River the Western Cape's most celebrated fly stream
Bill Duckworth (Tom Sutcliffe photo)
“His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, this was a man!”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Such is the wording on the memorial plaque to Bill Duckworth after whom the DDD dry fly, Duckworth's Dargle Delight, is named.
The plaque is fixed to a bench that looks over 'Trophy Dam' on the iNhlosane fishing syndicate that we belonged to for many years. It's a large farm with four beautiful lakes spread in a mountain basin in the Dargle area of KwaZulu-Natal.
A few of Bill's friends, colleagues, and members of his family have gathered here annually since 2014 for a weekend's fishing and to celebrate of his life, when the only fly allowed is, you guessed, a DDD.
The gathering for a DDD weekend
Just where the calm water meets the riffles in this photograph is exactly where Bill Duckworth stood waist deep one grey afternoon and caught himself a string of trout on a floating fly we thereafter named the DDD. At year's gathering from left to right are:
Simon Bergman (married to Bill's grand-daughter); Chris Hadley-Grave; Martin Bigalke (Bill's son-in-law); Mark Hadley-Grave; Henry Aucock; Doc Caldwell; Michael Bigalke (Bill's Grandson); Blair Hutchings (Bill's son-in-law); Mick Forder; Etienne Grobelaar; Adam McLeave; Brett Cullis; Rob de Bruyne; Albert Fivaz (crouching at front). Picture by Shane Cullis.
(I am indebted to Chris Hadley-Grave and Shane Cullis for drawing my attention to this historic event.)
No Name Creek
From Andrew McKenzie in Australia
A number of us Sydney fishers had a trip to Tasmania in early January ’21 but there was a small cluster of cases reported in the city and the Tassie border was shut. A friend, Barry, suggested a trip to the Snowy Mountains which we have fished twice this season. It's about a 6-hour drive from Sydney but still in NSW and given the change in climate it's the most reliable trout fishing on the mainland. He could only manage a four-day trip which gave us two and a half days fishing.
I have been fishing up in the Snowy area for 40 years but as the numbers of fish from the major rivers and lakes have dropped off I had switched my attention to New Zealand. But around six years ago a good friend, Marty, invited me to spend a week with him, staying in the ski lodge in Perisher NSW where he is a member. In winter this area is full of skiers but in summer there are barely any people at all. We had a fantastic time fishing new water every day. All tiny creeks where a 12” trout is a trophy. So successful was this trip that over the following winter I spent a heap of time pouring over topo maps and cross-checking thin blue lines on maps against Google Earth.
One creek on the map intrigued me. A mere trickle where it crossed a track, it then appeared to open out into a lovely alpine meadow. It would take some serious backcountry walking to get there though. Finally, after three years of looking at it online, we went in. No tracks, just bush, tussocks, boulders and a little creek. We caught a lot of fish on 2-wt rods and tiny dry flies, fish of around 6 to 10” with a trophy 12”+. The fish, both browns and rainbows, might be small but they aren't stupid. A poor presentation or drag and, like wild fish anywhere, they won’t eat. Skylight yourself on the bank and they are gone. On top of this, casting is very tricky with alpine winds and light lines, and lots of streamside vegetation. You quickly learn a tight casting stroke and close line management– or you spend a lot of time fighting tangles in the bush.
The creek is a mix of alpine meadow and gorged sections. In the early season, you find large fish staying up thereafter spawning, but at the height of summer, this little creek won't hold them.
Arriving in Jindabyne we booked in and headed out for a quick fish in a small stream nearby. While water levels were much lower than our trips earlier in the season, we did OK, ending up with five for the afternoon to 1 1/4 lb, all sighted, all on dry. Great start. Getting back late we rushed a meal at the last place open and checked the forecast. It looked good, so we got ready - water, food, snake bite compression bandages, emergency shelter, fire starter, leaders, tippets and fly boxes checked - the usual. Good to go.
We woke around 6.30 to cloudy skies, forecast now saying a small chance of rain, so quick breakfast and we were on our way into the Kosciuszko National Park. We set up by the roadside and there were a few drops of rain on a cold wind. We wondered if we had been too optimistic. We picked our way through the bush breaking out into a beautiful alpine meadow with our small creek flowing through it.
The no-name creek
Making our way slowly upstream we came to a shallow pool with a nice undercut bank. Marty had caught a magnificent 1.5 lb fish here a few seasons ago and I had been smoked by something similar on a trip before. I spotted a fish around 12” towards the back of the pool and put a cast out to cover it, but a gust of westerly wind blew my fly off course into slack water in the middle of the pool. A fish saw it from a couple of meters off and smashed it. I paused, struck and had him on for a brief moment before the fly came back. Next cast landed midway down the run and the fly ran perfectly under the overhanging tea tree. No one home. Second cast landed perfectly just off the bank and after drifting quietly disappeared in a nice rise. Having learned the value of a decent pause I struck and came up fast. I was pretty sure this was the same fish that had smoked me on the previous trip. Netted it weighed 1.5 lb and while you could still see the damage to the underside of his tail from spawning he was in really good condition. Great start to proceedings.
Great start to proceedings.
The weather improved. Barry caught a magnificent rainbow and I spotted movement further upcoming around the corner towards us, “Fish coming down, cast…” was about all I had time to say. Barry cast to the centre of the pool as the fish turned. It saw the fly land and got eaten. In the net it weighed 1.25 lb, in great condition and the best rainbow I have yet seen in the creek.
And that’s how we spent our day. We slowly made our way up the creek taking turns at good spots and ended up landing five each. We got smoked a couple of times too. These fish have plenty of food, the water is cold and they are fit. I am always reminded of John McInnes' New Zealand trilogy when I'm here; 'Tread Quietly, Look Closely, Cast Lightly.' Just a sublime total experience.
We fish contrasting rigs. Barry fishes a new Sage Dart 7’6” 2 wt. This rod is a weapon, lightning-fast, very accurate and would probably cast the whole fly line. I fish a Sage II Light Line 7’9” 2 wt about 35 years old now and slow as a wet week, but they both get the job done.
Photographs of the month
I am fortunate to have permission to use this image. It was taken by P-A (Anders) Nilsson, an internationally published and acclaimed Norwegian outdoor and fly-fishing photographer. His Instagram page is wonderful to see and well worth a visit.
Thank you to Nardee Brims (Cape Town) and Ian Douglas (California) for almost simultaneously sending me this photograph.
General ignorance; the February 2021 Quiz
1. What have the majority of these names in common and which are the odd ones out?
Buck Metz, Tom Whiting, Bill Keough, Henry Hoffman, Preston Jennings, Charlie Collins, Sylvester Nemes, Hugh Spencer, Doug Ewing, Ted Herbert, Andy Miner.
2. Who developed and popularised the Woolly Worm?
3. In what country (or countries) are these famous rivers?
The Rio Grande, the San Juan, the Skeena system and the Naknek River.
4. The name of the above lake? Perhaps South Africa's most famous stillwater?
Some lighter side angling quotes this month
1. Arnold Gingrich from 'The Well Tempered Angler.'
To vary the figure, the wiles you must exercise to seduce a salmon are tantamount to picking up an out-of-town buyer during market week, while luring a brown trout is like getting a demure colleague on the Sunday-school teaching staff of your local church to pack up and run away with you.
2. Oliver Kite from 'A Fisherman's Diary.'
A friend from the next village went with a companion last year to fish for salmon and sea trout on a remote Hebridean loch. They were sharing a rod, using a point fly and a dropper, when the companion had the misfortune to hook the two Gaelic-speaking ghillies simultaneously, each on a separate fly and each through the right ear. My friend comes from the West of Ireland and himself speaks a fair bit of the ancient tongue. In the next few minutes, he tells me, he learnt a great deal more!
3. Patrick McManus from 'Never Sniff a Gift Fish.'
The best evidence I've been able to come up with that the human race is increasing in intelligence is that parents no longer give their kids hatchets for Christmas.
When I was a boy the hatchet was a Christmas gift commonly bestowed on children. In an attempt to cover up their lapse of sanity, parents would tell their offspring, 'Now don't chop anything'
(If you decide to read McManus be warned it's a life-changing experience. Do start with 'A Fine and Pleasant Misery' and don't miss 'The Bear that Ate Goombaw.')
Do you notice anything interesting or unusual in the following two photographs? Answers are at the end of this newsletter.
I took this photograph of Tony Kietzman on a stretch of water on the Sterkspruit on Birkhall known for its productive upstream nymphing, although that's not the point of showing you this. It's one of my screensavers, but until recently I'd missed something any fly fisher worth a pinch of dry flies would not have. Take a look and see if you can spot what eventually caught my eye.
Notice anything in the photo above? Parked off at Highland Lodge, a world class stillwater and wing-shooting venue in the Molteno district of the Eastern Cape Highlands.
I still can't decide whether Ogden Pleissner (1905–1983) or Winslow Homer (1836 – 1910) is my favourite artist in the fly-fishing landscape genre, as both are masters of watercolour, especially of the subtle art of transparency, a technique developed in late 18th and early 19th century, in which JMW Turner was the most notable exponent.
Ogden Pleissner – A big one hooked
Winslow Homer – Boy fishing (1892)
Then to my surprise I discovered Arthur Shilstone (1922 – 2020), also American. His work, above, though more modern, is pleasing.
To this talented group you must add one exceptional watercolourist, John Singer Sergeant (1856 –1925), who although a portraitist, had an interest in fishing and a remarkable ability to paint streams with a few bright, abbreviated brushstrokes and an almost gauche-like lack of transparency. To my eye his paintings are very pleasing, if in a different sort of way.
Books I dip into time and again
Searching for quotes this week I got the idea to list books that I dip into time and again. Here, in no order of importance, are my favourites:
A Fly fisher’s Life by Charles Ritz. This is the first book that made me realise that it’s possible for a man to devote his life to fly fishing.
Bush Pilot Angler by Lee Wulff. Incomparable adventures and incomparable angling unfold as Lee opens some of fly fishing’s newest frontiers in Newfoundland. He did this in 1947 flying a bright-yellow J-3 Piper Cub fitted with floats when he was told by other pilots that the weather and wind in Newfoundland would crash his Piper and kill him. This is very readable fly-fishing history from the man who brought us the fishing vest and the concept of catch and release.
Getting into his J3 in chest waders in which he frequently flew.
Trout Bum and View from Rat Lake by John Gierach. Thomas McGuane said of this book ‘…it captures the passion, confusion, and left-handed poetry of modern fly fishing.’ And still he continues to enrich our sport.
Jerusalem Creek, The Habit of Rivers and Inventing Montana, all by Ted Leesom. Nick Lyons said of angling writers, 'It is getting harder to winnow out the best, with so many people in the pool... ' Exactly right, but Ted Leeson, full of wit, surprise and shrewd observation, I suspect would get my nod as the best living angling writer, but such things, I know, are personal choices.
The South African Fly Fishing Handbook by Dean Riphagen. It’s been how many years now and still I turn to this book, discover new things time and again. Is it the best angling book ever to come out of South Africa? I think so. It rates right up there with Presentation by Gary Borger, the premier book in its genre, I believe.
Tying Catskill-Style Dry Flies by Mike Valla. This is the best of many books about an era that is perhaps the most elegant in the long history of the dry fly.
19-TS My recent pastel sketch of a Quill Gordon dry fly
On the Spine of Time by Harry Middleton. Like Norman MacLean in A River Runs Through It, Middleton makes fly-fishing a religion and every bit as personal.
A Fisherman's Diary by Oliver Kite. This is the best dip-in, dip-out, hit-the-sack, bedside book I own.
Trout Madness and Trout magic by Robert Traver. Either will do. They are both wonderful, from the man who wrote Testament of a Fisherman, arguably the best summary of anglers ever put to pen, a large printed version of which is pinned to the door of the toilet in Frontier Fly Fishing's store in Johannesburg.
Bright Rivers by Nick Lyons. For my money Lyons is like all your favourite authors wrapped in one.
Big Two Hearted River by Ernest Hemmingway, who far more learned people than I consider the finest angling prose ever written.
Lest we forget ...
I have cherry picked three angling books I think we should not forget.
Trout from the Hills by Ian Niall – Filled with lyrically poetic and beautiful prose. Niall’s book is about fly fishing lakes, with a focus on the high country ponds of Wales.
The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. A book the whole family will love, sans exception.
The River Why by David James Duncan – If A River Runs Through It is fly fishing’s version of The Godfather, then The River Why is Godfather Part II.
Is your name Henry and would you like a copy of the third edition of Hunting Trout for the price of the courier service only?
I sell my books from home and recently had an order for five copies of Hunting Trout to each of which I had to add a sketch, inscribe a name and sign my name. Among the five recipients was a fly fisher named Henry, but when I came to parcel the books for the courier I found I had two books inscribed to him!
So if your name is Henry and you would like a gratis copy, drop me an email and I will send it to you (on a first come first served basis).
It's a mistake I've made before. I still have a copy of Yet More Sweet Days made out to Alan. So similarly, if your name is Alan and you would like a gift copy of Yet More Sweet Days, drop me an email.
Interview with Tony Biggs
Tony and I had lunch together just before Covid upended the world and we hadn't seen each other since. So it was good to visit him and his partner Sinead in their Kenilworth flat, to chat and enjoy a few of those do-you-remember-when trips down our assorted riffles and runs of nostalgia.
Tony Biggs tying RABs 2021
Tony was born in Kent in the UK on 29 January 1932, making him 85 years old. He came to South Africa when his father was sent out during the war and grew up in Simons Town, fishing the gullies and diving for crayfish. He joined the CPS in 1964, taught himself to tie flies using feathers burgled from his mother's pillows and came on the RAB, he told me, through an evolutionary processes aimed at developing a dry fly large enough, bright enough and high–floating enough to easily follow on the Cape's corrugated dry fly streams.
Tony is a great angler, no doubt, and Clem Booth says of him, 'The best ever to come out of Africa.' I remember him as a sort of trout whisperer – half technician, half magician, not quite the driven angler John Beams was, not the graceful caster Mark Mackereth was, but artful, relaxed, gifted and very, very good.
Biggs on the Smalblaar River Western Cape in earlier days.
His RABs, of course, are legendry. I reminded Tony of the day we arrived to fish the Hampshire Bourne when the keeper on took a look at his box of RABs and politely advised him to put them away. Any number of trout later, all on RABs, the keeper had left shaking his head and muttering to himself. Tony loves that story.
From Tony's recent batch of RABs
Biggs was a master of the ethereal Western Cape brown trout stream, the Witte.
The good news, and the main reason for including this is that Tony is tying RABs again, in limited numbers and is prepared to sell some. I have a few on hand. Let me know if you are interested. RABs tied by Tony Biggs are now as rare as snowstorms in the Sahara.
Book review: Trout and Flies – Getting Closer; Peter Hayes and Don Stazicker.
Would you like to be able to see your fly through the eyes of the trout? This book will get you as close to that as is now technically possible. The authors break new ground in fly fishing instruction after four years of painstaking research that calls into question many of the 'accepted truths' of fly fishing in its 350 pages, 340 high-resolution photographs and 36 linked HD videos.
Peter during the making of the book
All their material is viewed forensically, rather like a TV whodunnit – the evidence laid before you in detail, scrutinised, logically dissected and finally diagnosed. They set out to see what actually happens on the stream, what responses anglers get from trout, what things we do right and what things we do wrong? And from this they ask, 'How can we improve what we do to get a better response?' This is a technically powerful production and all for the price of a superior bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Peter Hayes and Don Stazicker in meditative repose
The book is available from Amazon.com in South Africa by following this link:-
"Trout and Flies--Getting Closer"
In any country in the world, an internet browser search on the title will find it available on the relevant Amazon website.
Underneath the purchase box (“Kindle from $12.53”) you click on “Read with Our Free App”. The authors emphasise that you can access the book on a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. You do NOT need a Kindle Reader.
Answers to the quiz
1. What have all these names in common and which is the odd one out?
All were hackle breeders or were involved in the selection of birds to breed genetic hackle, except for authors and fly tiers Preston Jennings (A Book of Trout Flies, 1935) and Sylvester Nemes (The Soft-Hackle Fly Addict, 1975.)
2. The Woolly Worm was made popular by Donald S. Martinez (1903-1955), an American commercial fly tier, fly shop owner and angler.
3. In what country or countries are these famous rivers?
The Rio Grande - The Rio Grande is one of the principal rivers in the southwest United States and northern Mexico. However, there is the Rio Grande located on the island of Tierra del Fuego, Chile. It arises in western part of the island and flows through the Argentine and into the Argentine Sea. At its mouth lies the city of Río Grande. The river is famous for its strong and consistent runs of sea-run brown trout averaging 8-10 pounds with some catches exceeding 20.
The San Juan is a major tributary of the Colorado River in the south-western United States.
The Skeena River is a steelhead river system in British Columbia, Canada, its excellent tributaries including the Kispiox, the Babine, the Bulkley and the Suskwa.
Naknek River and its streams in the surrounding Katmai National Park offer some of the finest Alaska rainbow trout fishing in the world.
4. Perhaps South Africa's most famous stillwater? This is The Old Dam, looking toward the pines from 'the shale heap'.
Finally the Do you notice anything? photographs
What I had missed for ages in the photograph is the inviting rise (conveniently arrowed for you) at the head of the run.
The day the back seat of my truck caught alight.
Well, that's what it looks like in the photograph. But in fact, it's just a play of light from a Highland Lodge sunset where the sunsets are like no others I have known. Here's another example, my friend and internationally renowned fish sculptor, Chris Bladen, seemingly floating in a furnace of molten gold.
Chris Bladen, seemingly floating in a furnace of molten gold.
And staying a moment with Highland Lodge a photograph of Johan Van der Westhuizen and his son, Johan jnr. at one of the Highland Lodge lakes.
A Steve Boshoff bamboo rod on auction
And just in passing do look at the latest issue of The Complete Fly Fisherman magazine. The editor, PJ Jacobs, has a rod on auction made by Steve Boshoff with all the proceeds going to a charity, the Red Cross Children's Hospital Trust for the upgrade of the emergency unit. The opening bid was R20 000 and bids are still open.
I was a trustee of the RXH Trust for many years and have long supported this worthy organisation where every Rand given goes to the cause you donated it for. There are no hidden admin costs. For more details please drop me an email.
I hope you have enjoyed the read
Tom Sutcliffe Cape Town February 2021.