Waiting

June 21, 2022

Annually, in the small rural enclave of Rhodes, in the far Eastern Cape of South Africa, the people celebrate a “Stoepsitfees”. A festival of sitting on the veranda doing as little as possible. It is a celebration of, not exactly laziness, but rather the benefits of quiet contemplation and neighborliness.  It is certainly something that could only reasonably be appreciated in an abjectly rural setting. You sit there on your Stoep (porch), perhaps with a brandy in hand, and chatter to those passing by. People who find this level of inactivity tricky to master can perhaps knit a scarf, crochet a blanket or tie some flies whilst participating.

However, for most of us, mastering the art of doing very little is really quite tricky, before long one yearns to be moving, building, hammering, tiling, writing, casting a fly or whatever it is that blows your hair back. The entire process of doing nothing is really rather difficult for some, myself included.

Now it so happens that I have recently spent a month in the UK, a large part of that without my own transport, and waiting has become an intrusive but unavoidable necessity. Turns out that I am not very good at it.

Firstly, the link between flights from Cape Town to Schiphol and then Schiphol to Bristol, which used to be a matter of about an hour and a half, now takes far longer.  What was just enough time to grab a coffee and catch the next plane, has been extended to five and a half hours. Five and a half mind numbing, foot tiring, and expensive hours of boredom. I say expensive, because not only will I not get this time back, but of course in a desperate effort to diminish the frustration one buys stuff. First a beer that you don’t really want, then perhaps a bagel or burger to mop up the beer, then if not careful one is tempted into the duty free or motivated to set up one’s credit card to make use of the WiFi. Some of those temptations I avoided but not all. It is simply such a massive waste of time and it was only the beginning.

Waiting seems to be an unavoidable consequence of travel

Making use of public transport, wonderful as that is in many ways, means spending time waiting. Of course, bus and train trips don’t neatly intersect with seamless fluidity, but rather require hold ups and delays, one arrives early in fear of missing ones chosen conveyance, and then waits for the connection. If fortunate there is a coffee shop nearby and it isn’t pissing with rain. On other occasions one is trapped in a small bus stop, hiding from a downpour and trying to read what has now become a rather damp paperback.

And so it was with much of the first couple of weeks, wait for bus to Crackington Haven, wait for bus back to Bude, wait for Airport Shuttle, wait for shops to open, wait for the tide to turn, wait wait wait, it all seems such a complete waste of time.

Later, with a view to heading to Wales and some time spent both reconnoitering and fishing, much of the transport related wastefulness was avoided through the simple, but costly expedient, of hiring a car. In this case a diminutive, but comfortable Kia Picanto with a dashboard from the Starship Enterprise and a rather jumpy automatic gear box. I have to confess I rather liked the rear-view camera and the dash mounted “Sat Nav”, although the keyless ignition thing failed to impress; not least because I could never check if the boot was locked if the key was in my pocket.

It is a technological advance beyond my comprehension. One still needs to carry this “key” about, despite the fact that there is no actual key, and then each time one turns off the car you have to find it, because of course it isn’t stuck in the ignition where it would be readily located. To my mind it is something of a pointless affectation, without merit, but for the ego boosting sense that one might be James Bond or Captain Kirk when you press the “start” button on the dash and the whole thing bursts to life.

Neon lights and dashboard screens flicker in unison as one is warned that there is now a “vehicle systems check” in progress. I was never quite sure if I should just push the gear stick to drive or cry out “Beam me up Scottie”.

Anyway, with my own personal vehicle at hand, and no need to drag suitcases behind me at each turn, I headed to rural Wales with my eye on the fishing. It was of course summer in the UK, and that means long days, dawn at four in the morning and dusk only arriving some seventeen hours later. There is a lot of time to fish, in fact too much time were one to choose to spend the day at it.

I did however have some other commitments and chores to attend to, so generally headed out onto the water late afternoon. The fishing seemed slow, but perhaps the near continuous chilly downstream breezes put the fish off or restricted the insect hatches.

This wide gravel bottomed flat looked like prime water if only the fish would be persuaded to start moving.

One evening on a glorious section of the Wye I watched the insect hatches grow more and more dense as time passed. Small Yellow Sally Stone flies, Olives of various types and the occasional huge Danica May coming off, whilst barely a fish moved.

I did cast flies at the occasional sporadic rise, but on the calm flats it was tricky to pin down exactly where the fish had been and they weren’t feeding hard. A rise here, a splash there, nothing to allow any degree of proper “target acquisition”.

In the end I resolved to simply wait, I had had enough practice at it, although more in bus stops than on trout streams. I waited, the hatches solidified and finally on the far side of this wide flat there was a rise, then again and then another. A feeding fish that seemed to holding station and was coming up on a regular basis. The waiting, I hoped, was over, and I carefully waded across the flat to get into position.

My modified F fly at the ready, clinched to a 20’ leader, tapered down to 8x, and with plenty of space to swing the rod I was able to make a long cast, floating the fly down the line of current where the fish was showing. The take was immediate; one really does wonder sometimes, how a trout can hone in on a fly that fast. I set the hook as a glorious Wye Brown Trout leaped skywards, jumping over and over again.

Having convinced myself a long time ago that I could manage to land even large and feisty fish on such light gear was wasn’t overly worried, although of course, considerable care was taken not to make a mistake. After a spirited fight I slipped the net under a deep set and beautifully spotted prize, my best Wye trout. I am not good at estimating but this fish was several pounds in weight at the very least.

This large Brown Trout, targeted and stalked after a long wait made my day

It was enough to make my day and to confirm, that sometimes the best course of action is indeed inaction, that the Stoep Sitters up in Rhodes, might be on to something, and that maybe it is true that “all things come to those who wait”.

I did target and capture a number more fish, now that they were moving, but even then, the evening rise never reached its potential. It didn’t matter, my day was complete already, and I headed back to the car, through wonderfully verdant old growth forest, my thoughts turning from catching trout to downing an ale in celebration of a lovely evening on the water.

The walk back to the car, through lovely old growth forest.

Readers interested in more thoughts on fishing with light gear may enjoy these other excerpts on
The Fishing Gene Blog:
Thoughts on Playing Fish
8X Challenge
Line Control

A New Favourite

June 18, 2022

It is a funny thing, but one can pick up a fly box from pretty much anyone and pretty much anywhere and find a selection of hardcore fly patterns that are near universal in their appeal, to both the trout and the angler.

For the relative novice, still hooked on the idea that you have to have the right fly, or the besotted tyer slaving over a hot vice trying to come up with the latest “silver bullet” it can be something of a disappointment to realise that the same handful of patterns produce the goods a LOT of the time. Yes, nothing works all the time and there are situations and places where perhaps the fish demand something a little bit more precise than average. But on the whole the same standard flies make up the mainstay of many fly selections and account for many of the fish caught.

Most popular flies, such as the Adams, are great general patterns covering several bases

I can think of the Elk Hair Caddis, the Pheasant Tail Nymph, The Adams, Tabanas, The Diawl Bach and GRHE of prime examples of flies that can be found in just about every fly box in the world and they all represent a generic approach to copying insects. They are by nature non-specific; they are what I tend to refer to as “all things to all fish” flies. That’s an oversimplification but much of the time these flies work and there is little need to become obsessed with further detail.  

Even patterns which at first glance appear to be one thing can serve as a copy for another. The Elk Hair Caddis is quite obviously, as its name suggests, designed as a caddis pattern but can be put into service to imitate upwings quite effectively on occasion. Even the most classic of upwing patterns The Adams, was actually originally designed by its creator, Leonard Halladay, to copy caddis flies. The Adams is recognized as one of the most versatile of all dry fly patterns and can be pressed into service to cover midges, fluttering caddis flies and obviously a variety of the upwing mayfly species.

Cracking Brown Trout taken on they Wye during a mixed hatch using the modified F fly.

Now it so happens that after three or four days of fishing in Mid Wales on the Wye, Usk and Irfon Rivers I have a new favourite fly, one that deceived fish on all those streams, during evening rises and even drumming up fish which were not evidently moving that much.

It is a pattern which I have tied and played with for some time, but hadn’t really tested out that vigorously until this point in time. I have had some success on my home waters with it but I would hardly say that it was a favourite. In part because it isn’t particularly visible on those waters. (It is odd that some flies show up better on some waters than others and I do like to be able to see my dry flies clearly when fishing).

The fly Accounted for a few Grayling too

The fly is a modified “F” Fly, and I say modified because I never really liked the standard version, partly because, as with so many things, I imagined it to be a poor imitation of anything, only to find out that it isn’t actually, it is a more than fair imitation of a lot things. I have come to accept that it is easy to be wrong, and I have over time proven myself to be initially incorrect in my assumptions related to all manner of fly patterns. Parachutes I thought at one time to be an affectation, Comparaduns, well they didn’t look like flies at all, how would they work? Barbless hooks, what a foolish idea, etc. I have been wrong before and it is more than likely that I will be wrong again, but I do at least try to keep an open mind.

This is admittedly a particularly poor version of the original F Fly but illustrates the point, I think that it is lacking something.

First attempts with the “F fly” were disappointing, and convinced me of its lack of worth, the flies wouldn’t stay afloat for long and would never be capable of doing so once a fish was taken. Attempts with the pattern tended to result in frustrated fly changes after every fish. It turns out that this failure was primarily, simply the result of not having quality CDC and perhaps less than ideal fly floatant as well.

Equally though, the standard tie also lacked substance to my mind; I like simple patterns, but the original just seemed too insubstantial, too simple perhaps, lacking a certain “Je ne sais quoi”. It may be that it makes little difference to the fish, but an angler’s faith in a fly pattern can prove crucial to its apparent effectiveness. (See “The C Word”, posted earlier on this site, to further explore the importance of confidence) https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/the-c-word/

After some fiddling I have developed my own version, it differs only in that it sports split nylon paint brush bristle tails (whereas tails are omitted on the original) and it has a collar of spun CDC tied with a split thread technique. These two additions, to my mind simply make a better fly, and certainly one in which I have a great deal more confidence. ( I try to restrict any egotistical suggestion that this is a “new pattern”, I am not sure there is such a thing in fly fishing anymore, but it is a variation which I prefer and with which it turns out I have enjoyed increasing degrees of success)

The modified F fly has a collar of CDC and split nylon tails. To my eye, far nicer and more imitative than the standard version.

Initially I always saw the “F” fly as a down wing caddis type fly, but it turns out that it is probably a far better upwing imitation than one might imagine, with the addition of some tails and the collar it really does an exceptional job of imitating a wide variety of Ephemerids.

Back at home one rarely gets the opportunity to watch mayflys (olives, sulphurs or whatever) hatching and drifting down river. (I should mention that I use the standard SA and US nomenclature, and that to me “Mayflies” include basically any ephemerids; upwinged mayfly species, both spinners and duns. This might cause some confusion for UK anglers who tend to reserve the term for large Mayflies of the Danica and Vulgata species, do bear in mind, that irrespective of size the morphology of these bugs is pretty similar most of the time). At home, the hatches are not that dense and the flies are for the most part very small, too tiny to study easily on the water most of the time.

Gorgeous Brown trout from the spectacular River Usk

On the Wye, there were occasions where there were good hatches of insects, such that I could watch them over some time and in some detail. Yes, of course I have seen plenty of images and video of drifting mayflies, but no medium can beat actual on the water experience.

Watching the olives (and a few large Danica) drift down stream it became quite apparent that my “F” fly version sat on the water in almost exactly the same way, with the same profile and near identical win colour. Although the mayflies are generally referred to as “Upwings” , if you watch them drift on the current their wings are not upright at all, but rather slope back somewhat at an angle over the abdomen. The CDC wing, lifted slightly as a result of the collar, sits at just the same angle as the wing on the real insect.

On a long flat, where I had some considerable success with the pattern, it was quite clear, because the drifts were long enough to study for some time, that my version of the “F” fly, really looked, at least from the angler’s perspective, very very like the drifting Olives. The profile and wing colour making it quite difficult to distinguish the artificial amongst the naturals.

Broad flats like this one on the Wye produced some great fishing to targeted rising fish

Is this all new? No, I am not claiming to have invented anything, but I certainly have a new favourite fly and it worked wonders on the rivers in Wales during my most recent trip. I still dislike the standard version seen on most websites, but that might just be personal bias, if you are not confident in a pattern it isn’t going to work for you. This version I have confidence in, it is one of those “all things to all fish” type of patterns. One could pull out the tails and end up with a more than serviceable caddis pattern and obviously slight variations of colour are all that might be needed to provide more specific copies of a natural should that be required on occasion.  

No fly is a silver bullet, and of course there are still the standard issues of presentation and quality drifts required to illicit a result from the fish. On this occasion I was fishing a leader close to 20’ long and tapered down to a final 8X tippet. On this set up, putting the fly over a rising fish resulted in a take on the first drift about 70% of the time. If that wasn’t the case most fish took it within three quality drifts, and of course a few (the minority) of times the fish didn’t take and stopped feeding; more likely angler error than some fault of the fly.

I would add two other factors worthy of consideration when using such flies: firstly you require a floatant which works with CDC and doesn’t clog the feather fibres. The absolute best I have found for this is “Power Float” from C&F”. It isn’t always easy to find, might be seen as expensive and comes in a very small little toothpaste tube, but one actually uses such small amount that tube will last a long time. (I don’t have any affiliation with C&F or any financial benefit from telling you this, just so that you know)

Power Float is one of the very best floatants I have found to use with CDC flies.

The second issue worth noting is that after catching a fish it is important to wash the fly off to get rid of any hydrophilic slime from the fish, then blow it as dry as possible before squeezing the fly in dry pocket tissue and a final blow or false cast to dry it off. Done like that, on my last trip on the Wye, a single fly accounted for a dozen fish over a period of perhaps two hours without requiring replacement or
re-treating with floatant.

Pocket tissues offer an excellent and easily obtainable means of drying out CDC flies

I find it quite interesting that a pattern which initially failed to impress, both me and the fish in my experience, turned out to be a real winner. Some of that might well be the mechanics of manufacture and the use of poor quality materials, equally part of the success could well be attributed to better design and more confidence on the part of the angler. In short I have a new favourite fly and equally a new appreciation of the idea that you can’t judge a book by its cover or a fly from only a few experimental casts. One needs to keep an open mind. Quite possibly many, if not most, of my “favourite” patterns have been ones which I initially disliked or in which I lacked confidence. So I am forced to add the “Modified F Fly” to that list of patterns which have grown on me in time. Just as well, without the flies on that list I probably wouldn’t be catching anywhere near as many fish.

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.