AFTM Numbers

May 15, 2022

What’s this?
A new initiative to post some information primarily designed for novice fly anglers, if you see “The Beginners Page Logo” it means that the post is primarily designed to help novice anglers but of course everyone is welcome to read and comment. I hope that you will, it might help end up with a better product overall.

The Beginner’s Page logo is designed to show that the post is primarily aimed at novice anglers.

The Beginner’s Pages: The AFTM system, it seems logical and sensible but the system has real problems which you should understand, at least a bit.

The AFTM system is nominally a means of matching line weights to the rod and on the face of it a pretty simple and sensible way of doing that. AFTM stands for Association of Fishing Tackle Manufacturers.  

You will almost definitely be aware that at least to some degree “the line should match the rod”, that is to say that if you are casting a weighted line then you need a suitable rod to cast that particular weight most effectively.

So, the AFTM system is designed to provide at least some sort of guidance as to which line to cast on which rod. The system defines the mass of any given fly line based on the weight of the first 30’ of line (excluding any level portion at the front) by measuring that weight in grains and then converting to a simple number.

In case you are wondering, a grain is a pretty small measurement of mass; approximately 64.79 milligrams. There are a thousand milligrams in a gram and a million in a kilogram. There are then approximately 15432 grains in a kilogram. Grains are small amounts of mass, that’s the point.

Taking the lines, weighing them and giving them a number is at least objective, you should find that any line measured as, let’s say, a five-weight line, should perform similarly to any other line with the same AFTM rating. You do know at least that the first 30’ should weigh the same.  (We will see in a minute that all is not necessarily as it seems, but at least we have a pretty objective test to start with).

The second part of the equation is that every fly rod has a designated AFTM rating supposedly showing the ideal line weight to be used with that rod, again it seems pretty straightforward, except that whereas the weight of the line is at least measured in some sort of scientific manner the designation on the rod is little more than a guess. There is no standardized means of determining if a rod is a #4 or #9, so unlike the weight of the line the designation written on the rod is highly subjective, pretty much just the opinion of the rod builder.

Much of the time that will still suffice for the novice angler, and as a base point it is probably the best option to simply mate the rod designation with a line of the same designation. (It is highly recommended that if you are a novice, you get some help from the guys at your local fly shop).

Where the problems come in:

Firstly: there is a very simply issue and that is that there is no standard as to what line casts best with which rod, one angler may prefer this and another angler prefer that. Not to mention the guy on a small stream is casting a lot less line than the angler on the side of a lake. In reality you can (perhaps with some difficulty) cast any line on any rod, so the numbers aren’t set in stone. 

Secondly: The line weights as designated #4, #5, #6 etc include lines within a band of weights, so, even measured correctly two different #5 weight lines may not actually have the same weight for the first 30’. Looking at the table above you can see that the maximum variation for a #5 line to still be a #5 line is approximately 8%. Imagine if you and your mate both ordered a beer and your glass contained 8% less beer than his, you might feel rightfully miffed. 8% is a pretty large variation.

Thirdly: Even if the weight of the first 30’ of two different lines is exactly the same there is the issue of the taper. The taper, is the shape of the fly line; fly lines are universally tapered, they don’t work properly if they are not. But there are hundreds of variations of taper, usually designed for different casting or fishing situations. In essence what the taper and the AFTMA number mean is that if you are casting 30’ you should be casting the same overall mass. BUT, and it is a big BUT, if you are casting 20’ of line with two different #4 fly lines the mass most likely won’t be the same.

Fourthly: There is no clear means of defining which rod works best with which line, for a start, a lot of that is up to the caster, the way they cast, the distance they want to cast etc.
In fly casting, it should be obvious that there is no one ideal weight to be casting with any given rod. We are casting different distances all the time and as the line has mass each time we change the distance we change the mass we are throwing. So, with the best will in the world there is no ONE weight that can be said to be correct. (if lines were level and not tapered a #5 line would weigh 4.66 grains per foot. If you cast 30ft the line would weigh 139.8  grains and would behave like a  #5 weight, BUT, if you cast 35ft it would weigh 163 grains equivalent to a line designated as #6 weight. As Simon Gawesworth at RIO fly lines often explains, the difference between a #5 and a #6 line at 30’ is about the mass of a standard business card !!! (about 25 grains). The whole system, although at first glance simple, is actually complicated and confusing I admit.

MORE PROBLEMS:

The above issues are problems which are entirely built into the system as it stands, an error allowance of something like 8% and the fact that we cast different distances and therefore different mass all the time. Plus that there is no specific means of measuring the AFTM number of a rod in the first place, that all makes it more tricky that it looks at first, however there are further problems with the way it all works.

For some time, fly rod manufacturers have been driving demand for what they refer to as “fast action rods”, supposedly they recover from bending more efficiently but at the same time they are to all intents and purposes simply stiffer. Perhaps one way of doing so, although I couldn’t prove this actually happens, would be to simply take a rod that was previously designated as a #5 weight and call it a #4 weight. With a #4 line on it, it would seem stiffer when casting and this has been something of a trend now over a number of years. One equally needs to bear in mind that fly rods are flexible levers which bend in a progressive manner, the more force applied the more they bend into thicker sections of the blank, so again there is no ONE answer to what mass works best. Push that too far and the average angler can’t cast rods that are that stiff, (fundamentally because they don’t match up well to the lines being used).

So, the line manufacturers started to come up with lines which are heavier than designated by AFTM. Generally, they give them some sort of additional notation such as AFTM + or similar, but in effect they are cheating the system. Also, they often don’t tell you, so you have no idea that your lovely and easily cast #5 weight line is in fact a #6 with a different label on it. (I have to admit though that the line manufacturers have to some degree been pushed into this by the rod manufacturers, because actually few people can cast these “fast” action rods, which they keep pushing, without “overloading” them)

As a general rule, particularly if you are a novice ,it feels much easier to cast a line heavier than the one specified on the rod, a LOT of that is due to poor casting technique but one expects that with a beginner. What has happened though is that this “overloading” either intentionally or otherwise has become almost standard.

It is a bit of a joke because the rod manufacturers are all saying “people want fast action rods” and the line manufacturers are saying “overload them to slow them down”.. Who is right?

I would still say that as a general rule if you are a novice you should go with a line nominally rated the same as the rod, if you can get expert advice from a pal, the fly shop or whatever go with that. But beware, what was once a rather subjective but at least simple system has become a minefield of complexity and I might be tempted to add, dishonesty too.

As things stand, about the best that can be said for the system is that it offers a loose guideline to matching lines and rods, a very loose one. If it is at all possible you want to test out different lines with different rods before you purchase them. Equally if you are a novice, I highly recommend that you don’t get trapped by the “fast action rods are better” mantra of the marketing department. It is true that they perform more effectively when an expert caster is aiming to cast the furthest in a casting competition, but that in no way relates to what you generally want when on the water.

The top end of competition but not much good for a trip to the shops.

It may well be the case that Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One Mercedes is the quickest thing on the road, one could reasonably perhaps prove that to be true. However, it probably isn’t going to be the ideal transportation for a family of four, heading to the shops for some retail therapy. Even if you could manage not to stall it when leaving the driveway, where would you put your parcels? or for that matter the kids? The point is that what might arguably be “the best” in one situation, is undoubtedly NOT the best in another. Super fast (stiff) fly rods used for distance casting competition have no place out fishing and there is little if any reason to assume that they would be of any benefit to the angler, novice or not.

To my way of thinking this obsession with super fast action rods simply doesn’t make sense when compared to most fishing situations, after all, these things are fishing rods not casting rods. They need to provide the angler with some “feel” and control and to be able to perform at different distances with some level of comfort. In general rod and line combinations which are “slower” in action and provide more feel for the caster, particularly the novice caster, are going to perform better and feel much more pleasant to fish.

For a more humorous discussion on the subject you may also enjoy reading a post from this blog from some time back. https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/an-aftma-fairy-tale/

Fly Casting is Difficult, isn’t it?

May 6, 2022

The Beginners Pages: Is fly casting difficult?

Having become more than a little frustrated with a lot of the “fly fishing instruction” I find on-line and so I have decided to embark on a “mini-project” of addressing some issues which I hope may primarily be of interest to novice fly anglers or those simply thinking of starting out with fly fishing.
What I intend to call “The Beginners Pages”

Where a post on “The Fishing Gene Blog” is designated with “The Beginner’s Pages” logo the idea is that it is primarily about something which I hope might be of particular use to the novice. Of course, that doesn’t mean that anyone else can’t gain something from it. Hopefully, if some more advanced anglers have ideas or comments, that might help this grow into an even better resource. Novice angler or experienced expert, if you have some comment or input, please do feel free let me know in the comments section. Equally if you have suggestions for topics I would love to hear from you.

To start off I want to address this notion, which seems widely held, that fly casting is tricky, that it was somehow invented to make things harder, to frustrate us all and leave us scowling on the riverbanks with hooks in our ears and in the trees. Something far too difficult for mere mortals to so much as attempt. I have, sadly, known more than a few fly anglers who delayed their start in the sport because they always thought that it would be too difficult to learn. Later, as accomplished anglers they bemoan the years of opportunity lost simply because they thought they would never manage something that now gives them endless pleasure. Fly fishing isn’t fly casting, but of course, you can’t be proficient at the former without mastering the latter. It is something that puts a lot of people off where it shouldn’t. Perhaps understanding a bit about how fly casting evolved helps, it wasn’t invented to make things hard, it was invented to provide a solution and anyone can learn to do it.

“Why is fly-casting so weird?”

The apparent origins of fly fishing came from some ancient Greek guys tying bits of red wool on a hook and tempting the fish to eat it in the belief that it was food, specifically insect food.

Whether the Greeks imagined this more effective than other forms of fishing or if they were just tired of getting worm guts all over their nicely starched togas isn’t clear. But certainly, even back in the times of the Ancient Greeks, it would be pretty obvious, to even the casual observer, that some fish, particularly trout, eat insects. One can easily watch a hatch of flies on a river and see the fish intercepting them. If you were up for some sport, or simply hoping for a bit of protein to add to your olive oil and eggplant supper after swinging swords and throwing javelins all day, trying to imitate the flies that the fish were quite obviously eating would seem like a pretty cunning plan.

Even the casual observer would realise that fish eat flies.

So, with that idea, came more than a few problems, one of them, but far from the most difficult to address, is how to imitate tiny insects on a hook? Another, in fact more problematic consideration, how are you going to “throw” that imitation far enough to catch a fish, given that it has no weight?

Flies, both real and artificial don’t weigh enough to be thrown

In essence, those two considerations are the exact reason that even today fly-fishing gear and fly-fishing techniques look very different to almost any other form of angling. It is important for the novice to understand however that fly fishing isn’t more clever or more difficult than any other form of angling (I might add that a lot of us do find it more rewarding, but that’s a different discussion).

The, “how to imitate an insect on a hook” problem was initially solved by the very simple “cheat” of attaching real bugs to the hook. Even today this form of fly fishing is practiced, with live “Daddy Long Legs” or “Mayflies” in a style known as “Dapping”.

But in time the need to imitate insects on hooks so as to fool those feeding fish in the river gave birth to the “art” of fly tying. If you are a novice, you can comfortably skip this step, at least for a while and simply purchase the flies you want or need. In time you will no doubt wish to start making (tying) your own.

The bigger problem, both for the Ancient Greeks and the modern newcomer is to find a way to “throw” these diminutive flies far enough to catch fish. That is the idea of fly casting, and there seems to be some sort of fear of it, that puts off numerous anglers from ever even trying, but in reality, it is simply another way of casting and fishing. Not unlike perhaps the difference between driving, what the Americans refer to as a “stick shift” and an automatic transmission vehicle. Just another way of achieving the same goal.

Now to start with, nobody came up with a better solution than having longer and longer rods, from which they might dangle their flies over the water. In Europe, at the time, rods were made from wood, usually Greenheart and they were heavy. The longer they got the heavier they were so there was a limit to how much of a rod a normally muscled individual could manage.

Interestingly in Japan the rods were made out of bamboo, a far lighter material and with that the length of the rods could be considerably greater and reach more distant fish without effort.

With the length of the rod being quite a severe limitation eventually the idea was born (and I have no idea by whom), that perhaps you could put the weight into the line rather than the lure (as is the case with almost all other forms of fishing and casting).

Over time the materials to manufacture weighted lines for fly casting have varied from horse hair to silk and on to modern plastics, but the only really important part is that now, with a weighted line, one could, with a different technique, cast near weightless flies some distance.

(Do bear in mind that weight and density are two different things, so that one can have a relatively heavy line that might still float if constructed to do so).  So, anyway, with the birth of the weighted line; fly casting was born. Back in Japan, with lighter and longer rods the need for weighted lines was less and the method of “Tenkara” became standard practice for “fly anglers”.

Tenkara Angler, there is no reel or rod guides, just the line tied to the end of the pole, that is very close to the original origins of fly fishing, before the invention of casting and special lines.

(Incidentally, Tenkara has seen a rise in popularity in recent years, the main difference being that the rods are long and light and the line is only attached to the tip of the rod, there are no guides or a reel in the setup, ).

Now the rub is that if the weight is in the line, and not at the end of it, you need a different means of “throwing it”. (Don’t ever use the word throw amongst fly anglers, they get upset about it, the correct term is “cast or casting”). That is the only real difference when it comes to fly fishing tackle, the gear is designed to cast the line and pull the fly along as a passenger, in most other forms of fishing the mass is at the end of the line and the line gets pulled along as the passenger. That’s it! The only REAL difference and this certainly shouldn’t be enough to put off any aspiring fly fisherman from starting out. If some ancient guy in a worm-stained toga can manage it then so can you!

It isn’t as though someone dreamed up a “more difficult” means of fishing just to annoy us all, but rather that a different technique is demanded by the mechanics of how fly-fishing gear works.

So, the real point here is that the mechanics are different to other forms of fishing simply because of the physics involved, but there is absolutely no reason for that to put anyone off fly fishing, don’t get hung up on it, if you can walk and chew gum you can learn to fly-cast.

Of course, as with any new skill, it is a huge advantage to get some proper tuition from a certified instructor as early as is practicable. Learning the correct technique from the outset will save a lot of frustration later on. There are several organisations which certify casting instructors in various parts of the world. The one I belong to: Fly Fisher’s International provide an on-line resource to find a casting instructor near you on the following link: https://www.flyfishersinternational.org/Get-Involved/Connect-with-FFI-Members/Casting-Instructors

Some additional fly casting posts on “The Fishing Gene Blog”:
https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/casting-about-2/
https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/more-casting-about/
https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/casting-accuracy/

Tough Days

March 28, 2022

Tough days aren’t always bad days

Things for many of us are returning to some sort of normal after all the upsets of Covid lockdowns, vaccinations and the like. I can freely enter a bottle store and purchase some kind of alcoholic beverage and legally now transport that in my car without fear of arrest or harassment.

Business is near back to normal, there are some work projects afoot, even a couple of quite interesting ones and gradually the cash flow is improving after long periods of no work and no income.

Perhaps one of the more exciting elements of “the new normal” is that once more we see the occasional plane in the sky, the tell-tale contrail that travel is opening up and the tourism industry (particularly crucial to the economics of a place like Cape Town) is beginning to once more find its feet.

Flights are opening up, tourism coming back to life

Although my income streams have, for a very long time, been something of a mixed bag of handyman and building work, fly casting instruction, fly fishing guiding and a smidgen of book publishing the balance has changed constantly, all the more so over the past couple of years with all the challenges that everyone has faced.

So, it was very nice to receive an inquiry from a visiting angler about the possibility of some quality angling on a Cape Stream during his brief visit to the country. All the better that he was recommended by my good friend Gordon van der Spuy (aka: The Feather Mechanic). Guiding operations have been extremely limited for quite some time, with the lack of international travel at the heart of the problem.

We are coming to the end of our fishing season here; the water is still very low after the long summer and to provide the best of things it is necessary to put in some legwork to reach higher sections of river and with that cooler water and more active fish.

Thankfully the client was up for that, a fit 30 something year old, willing to put in the hard yards for a better outcome.

Our first planned day was moved last minute as a cold front pushed through with prospects of heavy rain in the mountains but we were able to reschedule aiming at a better weather window and plans were set to head out the following Saturday morning.

I tend to try to avoid weekend days of guiding, it is nice because there is less commuter traffic to worry about but I feel motivated to try to leave such days for other anglers where possible as generally both myself and clients can fish on a week day and not spoil things for others desperate for a day on the water after a long week in the office.

Images for interest only, forgot to take the camera along 😦

Equally weekends tend to see more hiker traffic and congested parking, all the more so since the Covid lockdowns which have had the unintended consequence of seeing hoards of people “discovering the outdoors”. Whereas in the past one might see the occasional vehicle, weekends how see outdoor venues clogged with those desperate to “get out and about”.

I have just moved home, which meant a much longer drive to pick up clients and a tortuous morning journey in the dark, over the serpentine and precipitous “Chapman’s Peak Drive”. Unsure of the timing of my new route I was up at four in the morning and on the road by 5.00, it was going to be a long day.

However, I picked up Chris at the designated spot and we were on our way to the river, an hour’s drive even without week day traffic. Things were going swimmingly until on the N1 we ran into a massive tail back, caused, as it would turn out, by the closure of one of the two lanes.

Now I do understand that you can’t put as much traffic through one lane as two, but I don’t see how that should result in a five-mile tailback of stationary trucks. The real problem, that the police simply put out three little orange cones, didn’t provide any forewarning for motorists to move into the active lane well in advance and made absolutely no effort to speed things up. Apparently standing next to your government vehicle, lights flashing and coffee and doughnuts on the menu is about as much as one can reasonable expect from those designated to make our roads safer and more efficient.

The problem is totally inefficient traffic control, not a closed lane

Fortunately, at least we were able to pull off for coffee and wait out, at least some, of the inconvenience. But it did mean that we were running late with still a long hike into the headwaters ahead of us.

The designated parking was clogged with “hikers”, thankfully it turned out that few were heading in the same direction as us, and the four-wheel drive truck made it easy to nab some sort of parking spot on broken ground that the sedans were unable to utilize.

Gear was packed and we were on our way, the weather fine and the prospects looking more than promising. The hike is not for the faint of heart, an hour-long slog at a good pace over some fairly hilly ground on a rudimentary path. After all that time sitting in traffic, we were keen to push on, but both leg and cardiac muscles do put something of a brake on things, even when one is anxious to press harder.

We reached “Cave Pool”, the start of our beat, high in the hills and rigged up gear, chatting all the while about prospects, presentation, my obsession with sharp hooks and long leaders and all the general banter commonplace at the start of a day on the water.

The water however something of a concern, this stream, which is ALWAYS crystal clear, perhaps with a hint of well-watered whisky to it, was looking quite murky. To be honest that is unknown in my experience of fishing here over thirty years, it was a worry, would it spoil the fishing?

The water is usually this clear, on the day it was far from that. A worry.

We set about getting Chris comfortable with the gear, the leader much longer than he was used to and having some practice casts to get set up for the day. A few fish rose in the murky pool but we didn’t really target them, there was better water ahead.

The first, and as it turns out only, hikers to head our way arrived and took it upon themselves to swim in the pool, it didn’t matter, we weren’t planning on targeting that piece of water. That the girls chose to swim topless probably further ameliorating any frustration we might have felt from being crowded out.

Soon we were finding feeding fish, not a lot be enough to keep Chris busy casting and me busy climbing trees to retrieve wayward casts, but it was going according to plan.

High summer conditions, such as this, often require an adjustment in approach and we moved carefully, constantly trying to spot fish before making a cast or two. This very targeted style works well when the water is low and the fish have been pressured over a long season already. Chris was getting the hang of things and put some trout in the net.

We headed further into the gorge finding and for the most part catching some fish, spotted in the still noticeably cloudy water. I think that keen as we were to catch fish it was also apparent that each step higher and further upstream, each pool and run fished and passed by would mean a longer hike on the way out.

The upper reaches of the Elandspad River offer great fishing but require a fair hike, both in and out.

Chris proved to be a more than willing and able student and angler and his fishing improved as the day progressed, I am sure that the lessons learned are going to see him have one of his best seasons ever when he gets back to his home waters in the UK.

Getting close to the point where we needed to turn tail and head back, we spotted a fish, holding shallow and in front of a large submerged boulder. The fish swinging effortlessly on the pressure wave of the water in front of the obstruction and clearly on the look out for food. This one was “a real sitter” and I was certain that the first good presentation would result in a take. The diminutive parachute landed ahead of the fish, in the bubble line and immediately the fish adjusted its fins and intercepted the imitation, but Chris missed on the strike.

On these rivers the fish very very rarely will come again to the same fly if you miss, but he was still there and still holding in his spot, so we changed to a #20 ant pattern. A favourite of mine and one which the fish will frequently react very positively to, even in the absence of any other ants. The cast was made, the drift now perfect on the long fine leader, the fish moved to intercept and Chris missed again.

After a few moments it was clear that the fish didn’t seem overly upset and was back on station, we waited until it moved to intercept some genuine food items, both on the surface and below and resolved to this time try him with a nymph. A tiny indicator of yarn was added to the tippet, a minute #20 brassie attached to the 8x tippet and again the cast made, the first too short, the second too far left and the third right on line. The fish moved, the indicator dipped and Chris was into the last fish of the trip. Not a massive trout, but gorgeous, as all these wild rainbows are, memorable not for its size but for the efforts we put in to catch him. A fish we will both, I am sure, recall to mind more than once in the coming months if not years.

In the end a diminutive and simple brassie resulted in a hook up.

It was getting quite dark by now in the deep river valley and time to head home, twenty minutes of scrambling back to the cave, a further hour or so back to the car and then the long drive back to Chris’s accommodations before I could finally wind my way back over the Chapman’s Peak toll road and be home. It was gone 9.00pm by the time I unloaded the gear and locked the car. A long day.

Not the best of days and far from the worst, we had met the challenges of blocked roads, long hikes, blue skies, spooky fish and murky water. It hadn’t been easy, and as I write my muscles are sore and my back complaining. But then memories of that last fish and the day seems more than worthwhile. A great day, a pleasant, enthusiastic, motivated and appreciative client who I think will take the lessons learned and become a better angler for it.

That the highlight of the day was a diminutive trout in a small pocket rather than two aquatic amazons swimming semi-naked in the Cave Pool, simply goes to prove that I am either far too dedicated to this fishing business or perhaps just old. The way my legs feel this morning, I think it is because I am too old.

8x Challenge

February 13, 2022

I have long advocated that with correct technique one can catch fish, and more than likely a lot more fish, using finer tippets; a recent trip to Lesotho proved the ideal setting to experiment a little and push the boundaries a tad further.

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt remember a piece from some time back, a somewhat mathematical exercise in evaluating the best way to play fish, particularly with light tippet in mind. https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2018/01/18/trout-torque-or-thoughts-on-playing-fish/

It is true that one requires different tactics and much heavier tippet in saltwater situations but in freshwater, many of the “snapped off and bent hook open” moans and groans can’t be substantiated by equipment failure, but rather by limitations of the angler.

What size fish could we safely land on 8x tippet? Apparently larger than any of us thought.

In the above mentioned article I was able to demonstrate that it is near impossible to break even 7X tippet when it is tied to a broom handle, if used in the correct manner. Of course, for the most part stream trout don’t offer up too much of a challenge on this front, although that doesn’t stop me giving all of my clients (usually nervous of the terminal tackle in use) a demonstration of the effects of line and rod angles when playing fish. After all, no guide wants clients to snap off fish, for the sake of the fish, the angler and the guide.

It may be a good point here to provide a link to another blog post from the past on this site referring to line control issues, playing fish is a package, failure on any one point can lead to tears and a dry net. It is a failing that as anglers we tend towards discussion on flies, lines, casting, presentation and more but ignore the techniques which are most likely to assist in landing a fish once hooked. https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/line-control/

A week of good company and cracking fishing

So, a few weeks back I was on the Bokong River in Lesotho chasing smallmouth yellowfish , (Labeobarbus aeneus). Here there are fish which will undoubtedly test your mettle. For one thing they can attain considerable size and equally, for those that don’t know the species, they are incredibly strong, fast and vigorous. They also tend to frequently hold in very strong currents which they put to their advantage. In short, the average smallmouth yellowfish, would drag a trout of similar dimensions about with little effort. They are remarkable fish, fit of fin and as solid as a house brick. Every trip I have done to this venue has seen me blow up the drag on at least one reel, mostly because I can’t afford a Shilton, 😦 but make no mistake that with smallmouth yellows, the hook up is only the start of the game. They will speed off and take you into backing without hesitation, if they get the chance to recover in the oxygenated waters of the pockets they are more than likely to take off and do it all again. These are not trout in another colour, they are serious quarry and can test tackle, tippets and patience in equal measure.

Head guide Kyle McDonald changes his mind about fishing light

It happened that we had caught plenty of fish, an excess of fish to be honest, and we would entertain ourselves by restricting our activities to “dry fly only” or “pockets only” or whatever distraction we might dream up to keep things interesting.

It was at this point that I suggested that I was going to catch a yellowfish on 8x tippet, and immediately some of the more experienced crew as well as the guides guffawed into their beers and coffees and declared the idea close to insane.

To be fair, my original intention was to only catch one small yellow to show it was possible and then revert to 5 or 6X which is pretty much viewed as standard in these parts.

Some video action from our 8x challenge on the Bokong River

It so happens that I really like fishing dry flies, and all the more so on long leaders and fine tippets, you just get so much better presentation and it is something that I am used to and comfortable with. I should mention that I also exclusively use Stroft GTM for my dry fly work and have immense confidence in the stuff. Plus I have great confidence in “The Penny Knot” showed to me by Tasmanian fishing guide and Master Caster Peter Hayes, it is the only knot I now use for linking the fly to the tippet. Also previously reviewed on this blog https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/in-for-a-penny/

I was quietly confident that I could manage at least one small yellow on the gear.

It turned out that the episode was as educational to me as it was to the guides, I hooked and landed a moderate yellowfish and (being lazy) carried on only to hook a larger one, and then a larger one still. Everyone (including myself to a point) was amazed by this success rate, I landed fish of all sizes and in fact never went back to the heavier terminal tackle for the remainder of the week.

The initial goal was to catch one smallish fish to prove a point

Did I break off some fish? Yes but then everyone does, (the average trout angler has little concept of how hard these yellowfish fight), and much of that is due to abrasion of the leader on the rocks in the rapids. Often times it would be the case that the leader parted in the 6x or 5x section and not at the tippet, an indication that it was abrasion more than tippet strength which was the limiting factor.

On one day I was able to demonstrate to the guides that I could, at least some of the time, steer the fish and even bully them on this fine tippet, you just need to be ready to let go if they get a bit upset, I am pretty sure that the guides had something of “a moment”, because they had not considered it possible.

The only real limitation that we found was casting to fish along a rock face about 17 meters across river, and here we experienced a number of break-offs directly on, or after the take. I was fishing half a double taper #3 fly line. I do this for reasons which are economic but also to provide additional backing on the reel (I got down to only two turns of backing on a fish earlier in the week). It also helps to reduce line drag in the water. (line drag is an issue, smallmouth yellowfish will run out line like freight trains and can quickly leave you in serious trouble)

We could only just reach the fish against the rock face, with a little bit of backing off the reel and had several fish break us off on the take. It seems that at this point, the drag of the line on or in the water, is enough to provide sufficient tension to snap the tippet no matter what the angler does. Outside of this rather abnormal situation (we are rarely casting dry flies that far on these streams), the 8X held up as well as any other tippet and many of the clients on the trip were somewhat aghast that it was even possible.

To me it simply proves the point, that we spend too much time worrying about casting, tying flies and hooking fish and not near enough on what to do when you actually do hook one. Good technique when playing fish, quality line control, a smooth drag and “soft hands” will allow you to land a lot more fish than you might imagine. Yes fishing 8x to these fish is pushing the limits but it isn’t going beyond those limits most of the time.

It was an interesting exercise and, as said, I never went back to the heavier stuff for the rest of the trip, the guides, I know, were somewhat set back by this revelation, although I doubt that they are going to recommend it to their clients.  But the upshot was that I was able to raise a lot more fish using longer leaders and thinner tippets without actually losing a lot more as a result of the fine terminal gear. All of the fish shown in this post were landed on 8x tippet, makes you think?

A few more points from this exercise:

As you will already know, I don’t believe that softer and lower rated rods mean that you land fish less quickly, in fact the maths shows that done correctly, you land them faster and can apply more pressure (so long as the tippet can handle it).

In fact heavier gear with heavier and thicker lines will provide more drag in the water and are more likely to snap fine tippet.

Young Guide Angus gets in on the action

In the end the exercise was vindication of my limited maths skills, it proved that you can indeed land large and powerful fish on light gear, as or more effectively than heavier stuff if you know what you are doing.

The angler can do little about line drag or rock abrasion, but those things which are within your control will allow you to effectively fish lighter to good effect.

A few points related to fishing fine tippets and light gear:

  1. It is crucial that the drag on the reel is smooth as silk and set at a point only just sufficient to prevent overwinds. (At one point during the trip my reel drag failed leaving me fishing with a free spooling drum, that made things interesting, but I would rather have no drag than too much)!
    I was able to assist several anglers in camp who were losing fish because their drag systems were set far too high.

  2. Additional line control/drag control applied with your reel hand becomes important, you can apply braking and release it far faster than one can adjust the drag on the reel.

  3. Sharp hooks are happy hooks, you require a lot less force to set them on the strike, always sharpen your hooks.
  4. Develop “soft hands”, the ability to hold fish and let go fast if the rod tip gets dragged downwards.

There is a lot more information about playing fish in other articles featured on this blog and I would recommend that you review the articles mentioned previously:

Trout Torque https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2018/01/18/trout-torque-or-thoughts-on-playing-fish/

Line control: ttps://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/line-control/

The Penny knot: https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/in-for-a-penny/

Thanks to the guys from African Waters who looked after us so well and the other anglers on the trip who provided great company, entertainment and encouragement.

Lesotho Diaries Part One

February 7, 2022

After literally months of planning and interruptions related to COVID regulations last year we finally got our moment ‘in the sun’. Our trip to the Bokong River in the highlands of Lesotho was on.

It’s a long trip from Cape Town, on the Southern tip of the African continent to reach the “Mountain Kingdom”, even longer to reach the Makangoa Community camp on the banks of the Bokong River, tucked away on the furthest corner of the massive and convoluted Katse Dam.

The Journey from Cape Town to Makangoa Community Camp is a long one, we are praying it will be worth it.

Katse is part of the “Lesotho Highlands Water Project” which supplies both hydroelectric power and water to the Witwatersrand area of South Africa. It is a truly massive impoundment with a maximum capacity of 1950 Km3. That is a LOT of water; enough that during construction the mass was sufficient to cause “induced seismicity”, that’s man-made earthquakes to you and me. Causing your own earthquakes seems a bit extreme but then there is the positive side, a lot of water available in a country rather devoid of such resources, and a pile of yellowfish trapped within the system and nowhere to spawn but to run up the Bokong River.

If you have ever fished the Bokong when the yellowfish are running up river, you would have to ask yourself if at least a few cubic kilometers of the above estimate are not in fact simply fish. Not two years back the dam dropped to 17% of capacity, during one of the worst droughts on record, and one has to wonder exactly how much of that 17% was really water. It might not be a far fetched fantasy to imagine some soccer mom in Sandton, turning on the faucet and having fish drop into the sink. Put plainly the system holds a lot of fish!!

Smallmouth Yellowfish running the Bokong River

So, phase one of the plan, after exhaustive fly-tying sessions, truck servicing, brake disc skimming, packing and more, was to drive for 12 hours to Bloemfontein. It is serious commitment but, in some respects, the easier part of the journey, at least the road is pretty straight. (There is no such thing as straight road once you enter Lesotho).

Our overnight stay was at “Tuff Top”, a grass turf growing and accommodation/wedding venue which offers far more comfortable and friendly lodgings than one might expect from the less than romantic name. That said we really only needed beds and a shower, the focus was on sleep and moving forward with our journey in the morning.

Sleep on these trips can be something of a fitful affair, one is tired from the journey, but excited and worried about the prospects at the same time. The mosquitos did their best to interrupt our fevered sleep and we all said silent prayers for good conditions on the river.  Fishing the Bokong is a crapshoot, too much rain and you are crying into your beer for days on end, too little and the river runs low and the fish depart. It is a gamble, as are many fishing trips, so we scratched “mozzie bites”, dreamt of crystal clear water and had nightmares about raging floods.

It should, of course, be pretty apparent that a watershed which can fill a dam of nearly two thousand cubic kilometers gets a lot of rain, we were simply hoping it wouldn’t fall during our stay.

The following morning, we were off before dawn, on our way to Ficksburg and the Lesotho border post, armed with, apart from tons of fishing gear and donated clothing and other paraphernalia for the community, a plethora of paperwork proving our citizenship and more importantly COVID test negativity. We had all needed to be tested within 72 hours of crossing the border and after last year’s debacle it was a relief to test negative. The alternative, would have been another year lost and possible a good deal of money too. A fishing trip with great mates can be one of the most relaxing things one will ever do, but the price is untold stress prior to departure, especially in this day and age.

Ficksburg is a small town, showing plenty of evidence of decline, the roads have more pot-holes than tar and traversing the town we frequently had to dodge vehicles on the wrong side of the road. The drivers, with good reason, more afraid of the gaping crevasses than the prospect of head on collision. You need a four-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance to drive all the way to the fishing camp, but then again, the same functionality proves pretty darned useful just driving through Ficksburg.  That said, the town has more than a few upsides, it boasts a “Cherry Festival” for which it is famous, and one of the best “Fresh Stop” shops where we always pick up a breakfast of toasted sandwiches and crispy chips. (although generally a “flexitarian” who normally eschews fast food I have to confess that junk food is near mandatory on a road trip, on a fishing road trip, doubly so.)

Crossing the border, although we have done this trip more than a few times, can prove taxing. There is no apparent order to things, and little or no signage. Cars park all over the place, an entirely haphazard array, it is less than apparent which window you need to go to with your passport and COVID paperwork, and of course, apart from the vehicles there is a good amount of foot traffic too. Having crossed the Mohokare River and once again dealt with paperwork and payments we were in Maputsoe, the Lesotho border town which effectively twins with Ficksburg, unexpectedly the roads here, whilst bad, showed some improvement compared to those on the South African side.

Maputsoe on the Lesotho side of the border is an exercise in organised chaos.

The strip, of what is officially titled, Sir Seretse Khama Road, is a hive of low-level entrepreneurship. Tiny tin shack “shops” with scribbled signage in fading paint; offering everything from walking sticks and hats to cooked “Mealies” (corn on the cob). There are endless hovels selling Vodacom airtime, haircuts, ladies’ fashion and of course more “mealies”. Mealies appear to be especially popular and numerous little barbeque fires line both sides of the street roasting them ready for sale.

Apart from the low level, but bustling, roadside commerce, one becomes immediately aware of fleets of taxis, designated, and I can’t find out why, by yellow stripes down the sides of the vehicles and little “taxi” light up signs on the roofs. Lesotho is a poor country and vehicle ownership (other than ox wagon), is for the privileged few. As a result, there are yellow striped taxis everywhere, that means not just in all locations but all over the roads as well. Whether the roadside piles of wrecked vehicles, most of them sporting yellow stripes and lights on the roofs, are a result of bad driving or the mountainous terrain isn’t easy to tell.

As we drive we think on the fishing prospects, we hope we will be fortunate

One thing is for sure, once you head to the central highlands, it is obvious that this is mountainous country, there is no such thing as a straight road in Lesotho, not too much by way of level road either for that matter. One seems to be perpetually traversing hairpin bends, gut wrenching climbs or brake smoking descents.

There are few places where one could safely exceed 60km/hr and thus as we near our destination progress slows as anticipation builds. We passed through several police check points and it seems, from the pressed uniforms and hospitable interactions, that the cops take more pride in their appearance than do their South African counterparts across the border. In fact, the Basuto people seem to be remarkably friendly, happy and proud of their country, we were frequently asked in broken English if we were happy to be there, and indeed we were very happy. The weather was looking good and the fishing prospects more than promising.

A brief attempt to capture some of the elements of our tortuous journey and the sights and sounds of glorious Lesotho

Having traversed the verdant lowlands past Pitseng, we headed into the hills, and the geographical barrier of the Mafika Lisiu pass. It is the most glorious, if terrifying, drive, with serpentine climbs, amazing views and water and rock falls in equal measure. The apex is some 3000 metres above sea level and the truck struggled a little in the thin air and progress was slow. Even up here you will find shepherds and their flocks wandering the roads, sheep and cattle provide as much of a road hazard as hair pin bends and taxis, but goodness me it is spectacular.

Once we summited the pass, we crossed the very top of the Bokong river, but are still hours from our final destination at the Makangoa Community camp. Katse dam isn’t simply large but boasts a complex and extensive coastline. It is in effect, a combination of two flooded and very large river valleys, made up of the Malibamatso River and the Bokong River, meaning that driving around it to reach camp takes a LOT longer than you might imagine.

The size of Katse Dam is deceptive, but it is huge. The camp lies at the top end of the Bokong arm on the left of the image.

We are on the long descent now and pass-through small hamlets and increasing numbers of donkeys, horses, sheep, cattle and remarkably school children. The children all dressed in neatly laundered regulation uniforms. Anyone considering complaining about walking to school should check out the distances and terrain these kids endure, all at an altitude equivalent to a third of the way up Mt Everest.

We stop at a “Shebeen” (informal liquor outlet) to buy a few cases of Maluti Lager, parking the truck between half a dozen donkeys whilst we go inside. As always, the proprietor is cheerful and pleased to have visitors. The shebeens are easy to spot, the primary indication being locals lounging on the front porch sipping out of beer bottles and of course the taxi rank of donkeys outside. These hamlets all appear somewhat disheveled in a quaint sort of way, but one never feels threatened or unsafe. When it comes to minimalism the Basutho have it aced.

Maluti Premium Lager - Maluti Mountain Brewery - Untappd

We pass through Lejone and are on the final leg to Katse Lodge and the kidney juddering track around the western arm of the dam to the camp. We are almost there. The dam and surrounding countryside is breathtaking, all the more so now that Katse is once again full. Levels rose from 17% to 100% in less than two years, we start once more to worry about the rain.

Bare Midriff Ant Pattern

January 12, 2022

Some nineteen years ago I was privileged to participate in the 23rd World Fly Fishing Championships in Jaca in Spain, as part of the South African five-man fishing team. The fishing was tough and not least because, as a result of heavy winter snows and then very warm summer weather, each day many of the rivers would flood as the snow melted and turned the streams from crystal clear waterways to muddy and unfishable flows within minutes.

Jaca is an old city with buildings dated back to the 11th Century

This is a spectacularly pretty part of the world; if one has notions of Spain based only on the Costa Del Sol and its overabundance of British tourists, fish and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel then the surprise at the glorious tranquility and wonderful scenery is near overwhelming.

Jaca, the host city for the competition lies in North Eastern Spain in the Huesca region, right at the base of the Pyrenees. It sports a number of medieval walls and buttresses surrounding the 11th century cathedral as well as, as I recall, both a girl’s school and a military base; one has to wonder if this represents as much a headache for the officers as it might for the parents.

Recollections of the place include glorious mountainscapes, wonderful hospitality and crystal-clear streams, running at base of deep mountain gorges.

The Spanish Pyrenees are spectacular

As is frequently the case with such events the fishing venues were often quite far apart and as a result of the terrain not always being that accessible, competitors faced long hours on buses being transported, dropped off and again picked up along the sectors they were due to fish.

In short, such competitions require a good deal of transportation and a lot of dead time sitting on coaches, either planning one’s strategy or reflecting on mistakes made. Such times however provide the ideal opportunity to discuss things with other anglers and most of us take that chance to meet up, befriend and share ideas with fellow competitors. Actually, despite the competition, those championships I have been fortunate enough to attend are really rather like going to “Fly Fishing University”. There is a plethora of knowledge and, for the most part, it is shared freely, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone was giving away secrets related to the fishing during the event, but fly anglers are generally a friendly and helpful lot, they are happy to discuss almost anything else, fly fishing related.

So, it was on one of these winding coach trips over serpentine mountain roads that I found myself in conversation with a Scandinavian competitor about some streamer flies he had shown me. They were unusual in that the fly was tied in two separate parts, the tail and then the wing, with bare hook shank between the two segments. 

Generally speaking, and certainly at that point to my knowledge, most flies are simply tied in one go. It would be normal to take the thread to the bend of the hook, tie in the tail, body, ribbing and finish off with a wing and a whip finish. These flies were different, the tail had been tied down and then operations curtailed before reattaching the thread near the eye of the hook and adding in the wing. What purpose the bare shank in the middle? Turns out that the theory, and to me a pretty sound one I would imagine, is that these flies were designed for toothy fish such as pike or perhaps Zander and the lack of dressing mid-hook make it harder for the fish to bite down on the dressing and prevent the fly moving during the strike. Essentially then, designed to allow the hook to slip between the teeth of even a heavily clamped jaw and allow for the fish to be hooked.
I can’t actually say if it works, but it at least makes sense and I am a sucker for a good theory, so long as it ticks the boxes of logical thought.

I don’t have the opportunity to fish for any such toothy critters so I have never been able to genuinely put the theory to the test.

Now it so happens that I have, of late, been tying quite a lot of flies and even more so quite a lot of ant patterns. The primary reasons are that we have a planned trip to Lesotho at the end of the month and ants are one of my primary “go to” flies up there on the Bokong River. The resident yellowfish are particularly susceptible to terrestrials, hoppers and ants mostly. The second reason is that we have had a lot of late rains here in the Cape, and to be honest that hasn’t done the fishing any favours. It has been a poor and slow start to the season, with the fish behaving more as they might in spring than in summer. The rains do however offer at least the possibility of a flying ant fall, which if it happens can provide a red-letter day on the water, so long as you have an ant pattern to throw. (if you don’t you might as well go home and drink some beer).

It is an unfortunate happenstance for the ants, although a potential bonus for the angler,  that many of insects end up in the water, trapped, helpless and at the mercy of the fish.

I tend to carry a number of different ant patterns on the Bokong. The yellowfish love terrestrials and ants in various forms are a must have.

Ants hatch and then fly out to meet a mate and set up a new colony and they tend to do this after rain, because the wet earth is softer and easier for them to dig out their nuptial burrow, which, if they are successful will become an entire new colony in time.

Of course, that might not happen on any day I am on the river, but it pays to be ready and with that I have increased my stock of minute flying ant patterns just in case.

I have a particular soft spot for ant patterns, mostly because so do the fish, both trout and yellowfish tend to become fixated on ants if they are available and it definitely pays to be ready, as said, if you can’t copy them, you are in for a very hard time of it, if you can, you are very likely to experience an exceptional day.

One of the interesting things about imitating ants seems to be that the fish key into the segmentation of the body, all ant pattern designs at least attempt to mimic or better still, exaggerate the segmentation. Little black mayfly patterns simply don’t work if the fish are tuned into ants, a near identical pattern with a distinct waist will do the business nine times out of ten. So segmentation is, to me at least, a crucial factor in a good ant pattern.

The most obvious features of most ants are the segmentation and the very thin waists of these insects.

I have already experimented with a number of effective copies of ants, the Compara-ant, from my book Guide Flies, is a case in point. To better emphasize that segmentation and waist there is no hackle, no post, no anything that may detract from the obvious ant shape. (it is a failing, in my opinion, that many commercial ant patterns don’t do a good job of imitation, tending to be overdressed and not obviously segmented.

In my opinion, many commercial ant patterns fail dismally to exploit the obvious narrow waist of the natural.

This recent fly tying session had me tying parachute ants, size 18 parachute ants to be precise and it is pretty hard to get a distinct segmentation with a small hook and a parachute pattern. But then my mind wandered to those streamers I was shown in Spain, all those years back, and it dawned on me that should I skip any thread or dressing on the middle of the hook I might more easily exaggerate the required waist on the fly. There is after all no real requirement to dress the middle of the hook, real ants have tiny almost invisible waists and by tying the gaster and thorax as two separate operations I was able to achieve what I think to be a far better pattern.

Sparse hackle and bare midriff accentuate the segmentation of the natural

It seems odd really that it should take close to twenty years for one innovative idea to spawn another, in fact I doubt that I could be the first person to think of this or even to attempt it, but I am pleased with the results. Now if the fish decide, for once, to play ball, and if the ants, sitting in the warm dark of their mounds have been keeping an eye on the weather and figure that the next couple of days might be a good time to kick the teenagers out then we might just be in for some great fishing.

It is still after all the holidays and I am overdue for a good session. What I am pretty sure of though, is that if that all comes together I will have some great patterns to try out and I am more than confident that they will work, possibly better than other previous designs.

Some conventional ties and some with bare midriff’s, the segmentation of the latter is more obvious in my opinion

Coitus Interuptus

January 9, 2022

Almost a year ago we had planned to revisit the spectacular fishery of the Bokong River in Lesotho. Even in normal times this is something of a crap shoot, the water can be too high or too low, the fish may move in or move out and probably like many destination fishing adventures the entire enterprise tends to be fraught with risk of failure.

Most anglers simply accept that risk, it is part of the game. Your flight into Alaska might be grounded by bad weather, your trip to the Seychelles may accidentally coincide with Hurricane Hilda or your exhaustively planned trip into the Rio Negro could be interrupted by civil unrest. Let’s face it travel is a gamble, fishing trips probably doubly so. But we tried. We tried because this venue, when you hit it right can provide you with the fishing of a lifetime.

So, our fervent attempts last year, in this era of Covid lockdowns, governmental intervention and panic, nonsensical regulation and more resulted in what? Nothing; no trip, no flights, no entry into the country and more to the point no refund of our expenses. It was a disaster not simply financially but emotionally too.

The scenery is almost as good as the fishing

One sees the images on line of fly-fishing destinations, almost all of them far too far outside of my budget. Fly fishing on line has become the theatre of the wealthy; exotic locations and even more exotic fish. Sure, I wouldn’t sneeze at giant trevally or schools of bonefish on a tropical flat, I don’t begrudge those who can wet a line on “Jurassic Lake” or chase “Golden Dorado” in the jungles of South America, but those things are not within the realm of my existence. Lesotho, and its spectacular fishery for yellowfish is (just) within the scope of my financial limitations and it isn’t any the less special for that.

To be honest, the main reason I can afford to go (giving up some creature comforts in the course or the year to do so) is that Yellowfish are yet to hit the headlines. Thankfully, a remarkably ignorant public with eyes on the media, have yet to cotton on to just how magnificent these fish are or how spectacular the fishing on the Bokong can be. It probably won’t last; this blog may even lead to the downfall. This place is special, and for those of us who have chased it, there is something of a love/hate relationship. When she rewards you, you are on cloud nine, but the system is an unforgiving mistress

Yellowfish are almost unknown to most fly anglers but they are a spectacular quarry, solid muscle and they like flies.

She can give you a glimpse of her stockinged thigh and leaves you for dead when you attend the party, she can tempt you, offer up just enough that you become enthralled, leave the sweet scent of that first kiss on your lips, only to draw back again. The waters may run gin clear on arrival only to flood in rampaging spate just as soon as you unpack your bags or alternatively there is just not enough rain to bring the fish into the system

Yes, it is madness, it is addiction, it is the gambler’s chant that “this time I will win”, it is the addict’s mantra “one more time”, it is the ingrained hope of every lover, every wallflower at the town dance that somehow, this time the God’s will favour us, and I can’t argue with that. Because when she rewards you, when the river runs clear and the fish move in, when large yellowfish in their hundreds pick and choose over your dry fly, when your reel screams and you are well into backing, all those slights, all those inconveniences and sacrifices burn away like morning mist on a hot day.

Small mouth yellowfish are really carp which have been redesigned by Enzo Ferrari

So, in short, I am planning a return; I thought that my previous trip was the last, then we planned another, interrupted by foolish Covid regulations which had little basis in truth or reality. Equally I had planned to be off this continent by now, but again viruses and regulations push one back and it is easy to feel like Sisyphus eternally pushing his boulder up hill. Governments will do what they do, they need not explain, they don’t have to consider the emotional or indeed financial costs to others, they simply impose and, in that imposition, they have contrived to ensure that I am still here, at the tip of Africa, and my best shot at amazing fishing is to once again, hope against hope, plan a trip to the Bokong.

The emotion is worthy of consideration, there is massive excitement, anticipation and planning but with them equally, the sweated dreams of potential failure. In the past I have been rewarded, perhaps just sufficiently to maintain the addiction. When it is good, it is out of this world, the scenery, the people, the friends and the fishing, but the entire affair spins on a pin head. One thunderhead too many, one last minute governmental mandate and all is lost. In short it is a gamble. I feel like some piscatorial meth head, knowing that I am addicted, knowing that perhaps I should focus my efforts on less ephemeral objectives but unable to tear myself away from the perceived prize. As I said, when it is good, well it is better than you might ever imagine, so hope springs eternal. With all the interruptions and disappointments, perhaps this will be the year?  I have previously been welcomed into that embrace, I have touched that stockinged thigh and I want more, I am prepared to risk all and perhaps humiliate myself in the pursuit of happiness, because make no mistake, if you are a dry fly angler and you catch the Bokong on a good day, happiness is assured.

On a good day, happiness is assured.

The Three Fish Rule

May 9, 2021

Fly fishing is supposed to be a relaxing pursuit, one where your worries are carried away on a light upstream breeze. Where the daily grind recedes from one’s mind as you focus on the pursuit of fish. A quiet amble next to a trout stream, a hike into the Lesotho Highlands with little more than goats for company. Perhaps quietly bobbing in a boat on the gently lapping waters of a lake somewhere. But of course, much of that tranquility can disappear like an early morning mist if there are other anglers close by, if they are catching fish all the worse for you. If you are sharing a boat with one, the proximity is tangible, the temptation to be swayed almost irresistible. In competition angling all the more so. Whether you think you are competitive or not the truth is that the capture of a fish by someone else whilst your net remains dry can be a deflating experience which can put you off your game.

If you are sharing a boat, either with a buddy or for that matter a competitor from a different outfit, the pressure is easily on. Someone has to catch the first fish and if it is you, you are going to feel pretty darned chuffed, you might even be tempted to start the fishing equivalent of sledging banter with your down at heart proximal fishing mate. If however you are still fishless and it is your “partner” with the bent rod then you are likely to be the one a tad miffed, in a competition not only miffed but perhaps panicky too.

What all to often happens, is that one guy catches a fish, or perhaps only gets a take and misses it, but now you are thinking “I must be doing something wrong”… “Perhaps I have the wrong fly, am at the wrong depth etc etc and confidence pours out of you like water from upturned waders.

I have seen it all too often, one angler catches a fish and his compatriot starts to cast more fervently, retrieve faster, his heart beats faster and with that, all his skill, confidence, style, knowledge and more go straight out of the window.

So for many years now I have operated on what I call the “Three Fish Rule” when boat fishing, either competitively or socially for that matter.

The three fish rule is based on the very simple and very logical concepts below.

  • Someone has to catch the first fish
  • One fish doesn’t mean a thing, it could be simple and straightforward luck
  • A second fish can equally be a matter or good fortune, not worth changing anything because you might be the next lucky guy.
  • A third fish means that the other guy is doing something right that you are not!! It isn’t to my mind likely that a three fish lead is a matter of fortune, now there is a theme, a sequence of events suggesting that there is something that you should well consider changing.
When your boat partner hooks up, do you have a plan or do you panic? Image courtesy Steve Cullen Fly Fishing

I have used the same little bit of mental gymnastics to good effect for years. Firstly it obviates panic, if the other guy catches a fish I do absolutely nothing different, I might well change lines or depths or countdowns as part of my basic approach but I won’t start to copy the other angler.

I can remain calm and focused, stick to my guns (which may well turn out to be correct in the long term)

If my “partner” goes two fish ahead, same thing, no changes other than those I would make normally, it is entirely possible to be fortunate twice.. but THREE, if he goes three fish ahead I change, without question without preamble, without hesitation I change. I will firstly change lines to approximate the depth I think he is fishing, I might even make a fly change.

That doesn’t matter if the “score” is 3/0 or13/10, three is the magic number and I stick to it religiously.

What you absolutely don’t want to happen is to be sitting there confident with your approach, fly selection, leader, line, sink rate and countdown and change it all because one guy catches one fish. That is madness, it is as likely that you both end up being wrong as being right.

I have on numerous occasions fished like this, got ahead of my boat partner and then fallen behind, perhaps one fish or two fish, and we are still both catching and the “score” undulates, 6/8..7/8…8/8..8/9..8/10..9/10..10/10..11/10..11/11..11/12..11/13..11/14 CHANGE..

Normally I will first change lines to hopefully get to the right depth, bear in mind that the right depth might change over the course of the day and I am making changes anyway, but if my compatriot goes three fish up I change to whatever line they are using. that is if they tell me. If not, I have to make a guess.

Actually the point of the “Three Fish Rule” isn’t simply to catch more fish, it is to counter the panic and doubts and lack of confidence which so easily overwhelm one when fishing in close proximity with someone else. It works and I am not the only one who uses it. Almost all of my social boat partners use the same method, sometimes my success will “force” them to make a change, sometimes I change to follow them, and quite often neither of us give up on our choices and still do well.

Socially and even competitively (if one can get the cooperation of your boat partner) the “rule” also means that you can both quite confidently fish two different set ups and cover more water whilst trying to find fish. That you both know the way it works means that you actually can work better as a team, in short it isn’t about you winning, it is about you both winning, both doing better than you would on your own. In essence it isn’t a competitive technique for the out and out “win at all costs” angler, it is a method of sensibly approaching a day on the water wherein you improve both your chances of success and that of your partner.

If things go quiet you can go back to your normal changes and experimentation until hopefully one of you cracks the code again. For me at least it simply makes the fishing more relaxing not less so, I have a plan, even if that plan is simply to keep doing what I am doing unless there is good evidence to do otherwise. But jumping in and changing because the other guy got a fish to swallow his fly isn’t a sensible approach.

As they say one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

The Molenaars Beat

May 7, 2021

The Molenaars beats on the Smalblaar River in the Limietberg reserve outside of Cape Town have always been a favoured section for me to fish early and late season. Truth be told the parts of the river are too warm during the summer months for good fishing and any fish caught are likely to die as a result, so I forgo the pleasure for more than half of the fishing season.

The name itself is something of an oddity, this beat has been the Molenaars beat for several decades at least, but confusion reigns because when the Huguenot tunnel was built the engineers and/or the roads department decided to rename the Smalblaar River the “Molenaars River” for no apparently good reason. Head down the N1 for another five kilometers and turn right into the small town of Rawsonville , and then after negotiating the main street  you can cross the selfsame stream proudly announcing that it is the Smalblaar River, with an official plaque on the bridge supports to prove it. How can a river can change its name in less than a few miles?

Mind you none of that was particularly on my mind last week when I had a precious day of solitude to venture out onto the water. The winter chill is just starting up in the mountains and overnight temperatures are cooling the water nicely, whilst a tad of early winter rain has raised the flows to near perfect levels. It of course helps that the polluting fish farming activities higher up the stream have apparently been curtailed and what greeted me in the morning was a crystal-clear river, flowing smoothly under a bright autumnal sky.

The beat is well known for the quality of the fish

The conditions were, after a number of previous weather affected fishing attempts, PERFECT!! A light, almost immeasurable zephyr of a breeze, which turned upstream by mid-morning a touch of warming sunshine and clear blue skies overhead. The trek into the stream was a bit of an issue, I don’t think that it has seen too much foot traffic and the path has become badly overgrown, but then again I have become quite used to clambering down cliffsides never quite knowing if one is standing on solid ground or little more than an illusion of security made up of broken branches and greasy palmiet fronds. I had left the rod in the bag and had the reel tucked in my vest in anticipation of this battle with the foliage and the slippery underfoot conditions and arrived at the water’s edge safe and sound.

My God, the river looked pretty, just enough flow to make it fishable and there in the tail out of the first pool, a fish… I could see the shadow on the river bed but whilst trying to find the actual fish some inadvertent movement must have become apparent and he spooked. It didn’t really matter, the rod was still in its bag and I had yet to tackle up. It was however an indication that the fish were more than a little gun shy, and spooky in the bright conditions.

Before I even started fishing it had warmed sufficiently for me to ditch one layer of clothing and then I headed upstream, as always playing about with the leader set up to insure that I was happy with the presentation.

The first few runs were really practice, checking casting efficiency and aiming at imaginary targets, I had to adjust a little as I repeatedly fell short until I lengthened the leader to well over two rod lengths.

Often the shadow is more obvious than the fish

A few runs without sign of a fish and then on a long section of shallow pocket like water I spotted a trout, languishing in the current, not rising but definitely “on the fin”. A cast with a #20 parachute olive and he swung back and followed downstream before a half hearted take. I am not sure that he ate it, but raising the rod tip didn’t produce a result, despite that my quarry remained on station. The next cast of the same fly saw him swing away as it drifted past and I was sure that the game was up. The next cast and he spooked, somewhat expected, but the sun shone and hope sprang eternal, I had been at this for less than 20 minutes.

The next fish I spotted was in near impossible conditions, thin water and little flow, I feared even the 8X tippet might cast sufficient shadow to spook the fish, but at least he was active subsurface and very occasionally coming up to the top. I threw the same 20ft 8X leader and #20 fly with somewhat limited confidence, he didn’t spook but ignored the fly. I resolved to change tactics.

I added another foot or two of tippet to the dry fly and a diminutive CDC soft hackle with all the physical presence of an anorexic comma. It is late in the season and I haven’t tied many flies, so these were the “dregs” under dressed to a degree of near absurdity. On the very next cast after the change the fish swallowed the soft hackle and so it was to be for the rest of the day.

You don’t need GPS, the old swingbridge still acts as a marker at the bottom of the beat, although it has seen better days and won’t last forever

Time and again I presented the tiny dry and the soft hackle combo to visible fish and each and every time they chose to eat the soft hackle. I would include an image but that it is too small to photograph with the equipment at hand. The pattern is short dressed on a #20 hook, about half the shank is covered with 14/0 black thread and the collar is a whisp of “Bisque” CDC tied in a split thread style. As already stated, these flies were the runts of the litter, left in a corner of the fly box as being really a little too sparse even for me to have faith, but the fish didn’t care. They gobbled these things up like toffees on a sweetshop counter.

The fish down on these lower beats are in tremendous condition, remarkably given that the river down here runs very warm in summer, spectacularly warm if you are a northern hemisphere angler, perhaps topping 27°C at times. But the fish were fat and fit and the best of the day, around 18” you would have been more than happy to pull out of a Stillwater.

It really is a privilege to be able to fish these waters and to experience the beauty of both the surroundings and the fish. It is technical that’s for sure, the trout are twitchy and nothing less than perfect presentation will do. I spooked more than a few with the line in the air, and bear in mind that most of the time the only thing getting remotely close to the fish is the leader. Drag is a no no, shadows are a no no, large flies are a no no, near perfect presentation on a long thin leader was the order of the day and that’s just the way I like things. Even then the flies in the film outperformed those on the top by a factor of over 90% and again I am convinced that freestone trout like the easy pickings when they are available. Even in a hatch situation, which on this day there was not, the fish seem far more at ease chomping down on some apparently hapless drowned bug.

I have fallen in love with my rather ugly but functional “photographic net” makes handling of the fish far easier and less fraught with risk.

As something of an aside I have been experimenting with my “photographic net”, a pool noodle modification of a normal one. When fishing with such small flies unhooking requires that I first seek out my reading magnifiers and then the forceps. All too often I then have to unhook the top dropper from the mesh of the net and other fiddles, all of which represent delay and possible injury to the fish. Now I can leave the trout in a backwater, happily holding station whilst I “sort myself out”. It is a bit ugly I admit, but I am convinced better for me and for the fish. A few times the tippet snapped as a result of the top dropper catching the mesh, but with this set up I could easily remove the fly from the fish before release. With a different set up I think a few of those trout would have swum away with the midge still stuck in their mouths..

The fly fishing literature is filled with patterns that are “emergers” “stillborns”, “drowned duns”, “shuck stuck” and more, but in reality I think that they are simply “damaged” ( I thought of a less polite term and decided against it).

Having run out of #20s I resorted to #18s but still sparse!! Genuinely I took several fish on the fly in this state of “undress”

I have fished regularly with the same or similar soft hackle to tricky fish but I have rarely if ever cast flies so very tiny and so very sparse with this level of success. We are limited, as humans, as to what we can perceive and the notion that a fish will target something so tiny and insignificant really pushes the boundaries. That the darn fish can even see the fly is a miracle, I can’t tell if I have lost it from the end of the tippet without close inspection. The only real clue is if I don’t get a take from the fish the fly is most likely missing.

Fly Casting and “The Barometer Question”

February 24, 2021

The “Barometer Question” is really a test of the correct positioning of a question when used to measure the understanding of the person answering it. It has seen several variations but the central theme is much the same.

In the barometer question, the query is “describe how you may use a barometer to measure the height of a tall building” the expected, some would suggest required, answer is that if you take the difference in barometric pressure between the base and the top of the building you can estimate the height.

But there are of course a number or correct answers which may not necessarily demonstrate any great understanding of physics.

  • You could tie the barometer to a string, lower it from the building and measure the length of the string.
  • You could measure the length of the shadow of the barometer and the building and a simple ratio given the height of the barometer would tell you the height of the building.
  • You could go to the supervisor’s office and offer him a nice new barometer in exchange for him telling you the height of the building.

There are more possible answers: but the essence is that none are actually incorrect, they just don’t demonstrate any real understanding of the physics of the issue. In effect it is a clear illustration that all too often there is more than one answer and at one level it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t the answer you were expecting. It is, for example, quite possible that using the shadow is going to give you a more accurate answer than using barometric pressure despite the fact that the former is technically not the correct answer.

That brings me to much of the on-line discussion of fly casting, some of it is wildly inaccurate or at least apocryphal, much is well meant and moderately true, at least in a simplistic sense, and to be frank nearly none of it is absolute fact in terms of quantum physics.

The problem is that most of these discussions (read arguments if you wish) relate to teaching fly casting, not in fact the physics of it, and I would suggest that teaching anything requires that one fib, at least just a little bit, if not actually lying, one at least is going to be forced to simplify things beyond what a bone fide geek would accept as factually correct.

This really is the norm when it comes to teaching near anything. We were all taught the same basic structure of the atom in physics in high school. That the electrons whizz around the nucleus (containing protons and neutrons) usually illustrated with something like the diagram below:

Informative perhaps but definitely untrue

Speak to anyone who really knows this stuff and it is wildly inaccurate if not indeed untrue. More “advanced” models have the electrons in an electron cloud with probabilities of their position changing based on wave function.(yes and if that lost you, as it did me, that is the point of the discussion).

Equally and more simplistically I could point out that in reality an electron is about 10,000 times smaller than a proton, but of course how the hell would you draw that on a piece of paper?  Physicists should be screaming from the roof tops that we are teaching our children inaccuracies, and threatening to burn books. We have been teaching lies.

In fact the structure of an atom, as we best understand it, means that a solid isn’t actually very solid at all and is mostly space, and yet with the simple diagrammatic representation above and our concept of what solidity is, none of us worry about sitting on a table for fear that we might fall through and end up with a Higgs Boson up the bum.

It should come as no surprise that I like fly casting, and recognize that it is a functional skill which will no doubt catch you more fish or at the very least make the catching of fewer fish less frustrating. But I like it, I will cast on a lawn with no prospect of catching a fish and still be happy.

I am not sure that I am a card-carrying member of the “casting geek” fraternity, but I could be, I may even aspire to be. My problem comes with much of the on-line discussion related to fly casting, most of which is targeted at learners or the instructors of those very same learners.

It is, I would imagine, imperative, that as an instructor you know more about your subject than your pupil, I would suggest that it is equally important that you don’t necessarily try to convey all that you know during the first class.

I see endless debate about SLP (straight line path) or hard and soft stops at the end of the strokes, I see what are to my mind overly pedantic discussions about the minutia of rod flex or arguments about what is or what isn’t a tailing loop. All good, perhaps if you are an instructor you need to discuss this stuff, I can certainly enjoy the debate, but I don’t believe that you need to baffle your student with it.

The above image supposedly demonstrating SLP (straight line path) and adjustments to casting arc with increased rod bend is in exactly the same class as the atomic diagram. It is wildly inaccurate. There is virtually no translation (stroke) the arm movement is questionable, there is some degree of curvilinear hand movement etc. we can discuss it ad infinitum, but for most novices it is probably “good enough”.

Teaching is, by definition, explaining something to someone who currently doesn’t have knowledge of the subject. To do that, educators require some basic format to work with and it is likely that the format will become more complex and possibly more accurate depending on the level of the education. In fly casting for example, Bill Gammell’s “Five Essentials” have stood the test of time, not perhaps because they are the final word but because they do offer up a workable framework in which to position instruction.

For the average, or even relatively advanced student, the casting equivalent of the above atomic diagram is more than sufficient to convey what needs to be conveyed.

Certainly, our understanding of some things has evolved, as indeed should be the case, by all means question everything, but the reality is that students often need to understand things in a more practical than scientific sense.

So, the old “casting clock” system of moving the rod between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock has been debunked, it is pretty easy to prove that that isn’t a reliable manner of casting a fly line and I wouldn’t accept anyone using that as a reasonable method of tuition. Even for a complete novice such instruction, although simple is perhaps “too wrong” to be reasonable.

Other things however, if still not entirely true on a quantum level, are to my mind “good enough”. Suggesting that a student try to move the rod tip in a straight line is probably a fair explanation of what we are aiming for. That some of us recognize that a true SLP isn’t possible and quite likely not even desirable doesn’t matter a jot. The student is trying to improve their casting and “SLP” is a reasonable approximation of the truth, at least until they reach considerably more advanced levels.

So, a recent on-line discussion as to whether the rod tip in a video by Carl McNeil actually moved in a straight line as he suggested, is on the one hand a fair and reasonable discussion, on the other hand what Carl is attempting to demonstrate in a video aimed at relative novice casters is to my mind “good enough”. Actually, more than good enough, he produces in his “Casts that Catch Fish” series some excellent tuition, all clearly filmed and in glorious surroundings. I would recommend those videos to any aspiring fly caster.

Virtually all of my academic education was focused in the sciences, it is essential that from that perspective we continually update our knowledge, question the status quo and explore better explanations, it is equally important that we don’t become overly dogmatic and accept new evidence as it is presented. The demise of the “clock system” is evidence of the benefits of doing exactly that. But the vilification of a teaching method because it isn’t “entirely true” probably over steps the mark.

Most five-year old’s have a fairly limited understanding of physics and most fly anglers cast poorly, neither group requires the quantum mechanics explanation of cosmological string theory to help them better function in the world. What they need are clear and simple explanations which whilst perhaps not entirely accurate are “good enough” for them to progress.

It is probably important to be as accurate as one can when teaching something, but absolutes rarely exist and if they did may still not be entirely desirable.

For all of that, if you are a novice caster I would highly recommend to you that you get proper instruction from a certified instructor at your earliest convenience. Most of us (instructors) spend far more of our time undoing ingrained faults in anglers who have been taught poorly than we ever do with beginners who with a few simple instructions can improve greatly.