Archive for January, 2013

The Fishing Vest

January 18, 2013



There are a couple of near all-encompassing activities for the fly angler outside of the simple fiddling at the fly tying vice or casting over a river somewhere. They equate to things like “painting the Forth Bridge”, “Home maintenance”, or “Mowing the Lawn”. Endless pursuits, absorbers of time and effort offering temporary reward and a short lived sense of accomplishment only to turn back on you and leave you with a sense of deja vu as you go through the process in endless cycles of rebirth. A sort of karmic wheel of eternity, never allowing one to progress to the next level  a veritable hamster cage,where one is constantly running without the view changing.

One of them is of course the “sorting out the fly boxes game”, this can be endlessly fascinating and is even more exciting if accompanied by the purchase of yet another fly box,(Who amongst us isn’t trying to be the Imelda Marcos of the fly box world).


The idea is that you sort out all the fly patterns in such a way that you can find what you want, when you want it, even if you are staring down the rod tip at a trout the size of your arm. It starts off with a pragmatic sense of organisation, minimalism and functionality and generally (at least in my experience) rapidly degenerates into something very closely aligned to acute Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Or in my case CDO, which is the same but all the letters are in alphabetical order where they darn well should be.

I well recall opening one of my fly boxes in front of a client and his wife, standing next to a beautiful clear and remote trout stream in the Western Cape. The clients, that rare partnership of husband and wife who actually enjoyed fishing together, looked over my shoulder and the husband says “are all your spices and herbs in the kitchen cupboard in alphabetical order? Because hers are”… I suppose that pretty much sums it up.

I like neat fly boxes and I kid myself that it is a practical requirement for effective fishing, but perhaps it isn’t quite so pragmatic after all, not when you get to the point where you throw out perfectly functional patterns just because you don’t have six all the same and they don’t look nice in the box when all the others are in neat little rows of half a dozen at a time.  Mind you I’m not that bad, I know anglers who would chuck out a pheasant tail nymph because it had four tails and all the others in the box only had three, and at least one associate who uses forceps to place all his flies in neat little rows in wonderfully artistic order.  Removing a fly from one of those boxes is like taking the first slice of an ornate wedding cake, it seems somehow dreadfully destructive, so you end up using a tatty one that is in your hat instead. In short sorting out flyboxes can rapidly become something of a psychosis.


The other closely allied activity is “arranging the fishing vest”, similar to the fly box version but with a little more variety. In general it starts out as a juggling act, trying to find suitable pockets for all the nick naks (and now neatly arranged fly boxes), but do you put your forceps on the zinger or inside the vest so that they don’t flash. Should your fly floatant be on your lanyard or in your pocket and would it be best to reach it with your left or right hand?  It generally takes a season or two to sort out the finer points and settle into a norm where you can for the most part find what you want.

Eventually a bond of familiarity forms, although that only holds true if you are actually wearing the vest, try to find something or put something away with the vest hanging over the back of a chair and it takes on the form of a Rubik Cube. I am quite sure that you could lose an African Elephant, never to be seen again, if you put it into the pocket of a casually hung fishing vest on the hook behind your door. Fishing vests when not being worn have pockets that act like black holes; put something in one of those pockets and it will be lost forever.

Just when you have settled down, you have had the same vest for a season or two and finding objects can be achieved without having to raise your eyes from the stream and risk losing sight of your quarry the vest generally wears out.

Fishing gear seems to be spinning into an ever intensifying spiral of product development and as such the fishing vest will certainly not be directly replaceable by the time you need a new one. All of a sudden you find that your fly boxes no longer fit in the pockets of any new vest, if you are very unfortunate you will find that your favoured tippet spools won’t fit into the pockets either. Frequently a new vest  then necessitates the purchase of different fly boxes which then leads you back to the “sorting out the fly boxes game”, as said, it is endless, on a worse day I would say “bloody endless”.

Now it so happens that I recently needed to replace a fishing vest, having done too many trips with too much gear the seams parted and the shoulders took on the integrity of damp tissue paper. Items would emerge from the pockets caught up in streamers of loose threads, spider webs of frayed cotton and nylon, I pushed it well beyond stipulated retirement and had patched it with very limited sewing skills more than once, but in the end the need for change was inevitable.

Fly vests have now apparently taken on the guise of fashionability, and although locally we have avoided the garish pink and purple ones that seem to be popular with some lady anglers they still have all manner of bits and bobs sewn in, tied on and generally cluttering up what should surely be a practical piece of fishing attire.


My new vest, a copy of a number of other similar brands of piscatorial clothing, sports some sort of “hard shell structure” to the pockets, and millions of little tags, strings, hooks, urethane springs and lord knows what other nasty little line catchers of questionable import.

Fully loaded one staggers about the river like Mae West, seriously considering breast reduction surgery, wading proves impossible because one’s centre of gravity is all to hell and the risk of tipping over head first into the current has to be constantly controlled through the habitual development of a pronounced backward list. (the primary cause of FIBBS…Fishing Induced Bad Back Syndrome)

This one sports an “expandable rear pocket” for more gear or a “Drinks bladder” but that makes wearing a back pack when guiding dreadfully uncomfortable, the zips dig into my already troublesome spine, and it gets as hot as Hades on a warm day. One can no longer reach the net, particularly in extremis when actually landing a fish and it simply won’t fold up to be put into the bag which I always used to do on the walk out.

Actually the darn thing may looks sexy as hell in the car park, to the uninitiated it may well label me as a serious player, but actually it can’t have been designed by anyone who actually fishes.. When you are on the water with a breeze into your face the tippet material catches any one of the gazillion little toggles or finds its way behind the zips. One can barely see one’s feet when wading for the overhang of the front pockets, and if you actually did fill all of those you would be unable to walk more than a few hundred yards up a moderate incline without requiring CPR. Getting the darned thing over your shoulders is more like some Olympian “Clean and Jerk” than actual dressing.

My mother used to tell me that you “act in haste and repent at leisure” and I did buy this vest in something of a hurry, it was an ill-conceived purchase and I am ruing it more with each outing.  Funds don’t allow for a replacement just yet, but I have at least finally taken the razor blade to the darned thing and removed some fifteen, tippet catching, wind waving, jiggling and jangling tags from the zips as well as a couple of totally ineffectual and annoyingly troublesome “spring type zingers”, which seemed to serve no functional purpose other than to catch in everything from the fly line to mesh of the net.The surgery will solve a few of the problems and if I sort out the fly boxes further I may be able to reduce the bulk a little, but much of that is inherent in the design.


Truth be told, I miss my old vest, it was comfortably worn in, faded by the sun and smelled slightly of damp fish. I knew where everything was and it was sufficiently spacious to hold all that I needed without being so over endowed with additional recesses that one felt compelled to carry more.

As one of my good friends commented on a recent hiking trip, “If clothing is getting lighter, waterproofs thinner, and accessories more efficient, why should it be that backpacks are getting bigger?” It is a good point and it seems to apply to fishing vests in much the same manner.

I think that I am going to have to cast about for something a little more old fashioned, a few tippet pockets and four for fly boxes. I will happily skip the drinks bladder, the springs, tags, nick naks, strings, toggles, zingers and such and I really don’t want anything on the back which is going to try to perform a cerebrospinal fluid tap on my lumbar spine every time I lean back against a rock. Something that allows me to stand upright and not end up hunched over like some still evolving ape only recently descended from the trees.

I won’t look quite as sexy in the car park perhaps, but at least I won’t end up crippled after a day on the water.

I can still recall an ancient fishing book, ( you may recognise the description), where an angler stands wearing a shirt to which he has added two large and poorly sewn pockets to the front. The caption read something like “The author with his home designed fishing shirt”, actually at the time I thought that he looked a right tit, but in hindsight perhaps he was a lot smarter than me. Seems to me that we need to make these things simpler not more complicated. Good design of anything should include pragmatic functionality, on a trout stream I can well do without all the “whistles and bells” that just get in the way, and I am already tiring of looking as like a US marine dropping into a “Hot LZ” in some desert fracas.

Perhaps one of these manufacturers should run a competition for us real fishermen to send in designs. That would surely be better than something dreamt up on a CAD program by a landlocked artistic wannabee who can’t make up their mind if they are designing a wedding dress, a parachute harness or the latest in desert combat gear.

Right; now where are those forceps?  I need to sort out the fly boxes again.


A Universal Truth

January 16, 2013


The more things change the more they stay the same. Or how to call a spade a shovel.

Odd how things happen, a few days ago I was on the water with a beginner fly angler; at least I knew he was a novice and more to the point so did he. We had done some casting practise on the lawn prior to departure for the river but it was going to be tough.

The water hereabouts is now low, possibly not at its lowest but getting that way, the sun is in its zenith and the temperatures are soaring into the upper twenties. (That’s Celsius for those still living in the dark ages and measuring things in pints, gallons, miles and Fahrenheit).

All in all, tough fishing, and added to that every one of the beautifully spotted and elusive trout inhabiting these waters was born in the stream. They have seen every manner of fly and presentation and have been annoyed over and over in the course of the season by myriad anglers,  they have PhD’s in poor presentation and artificial flyrecognition. They will spook if a cloud crosses the sun, a dragonfly flits over their lie or a leaf falls from a tree  It isn’t the place to be taking a novice; actually it isn’t the place to be taking anyone who wants to catch lots of easy fish. Right now the streams are tricky. There are big fish to be sure but even the tiddlers can be heartbreakingly difficult to tempt- TOUGH.TOUGH TOUGH    .

Still we had been trying to put the trip together for the better part of a year and various commitments, combined with high water, low water, weather and such had meant that now there was a window of opportunity and we were going to take it. Come hell or low water.

It was of course no surprise then, as we worked upstream, spotting the occasional fish holding languidly in the low flows, that most of the time a wayward cast would send the fish running in panic.  The flat water was simply impossible and even for me with a 20’ 8x leader I wasn’t getting near anything so we focused on the moving stuff, the shade of the trees and such in an effort to give ourselves some slight advantage. Under these conditions the trout hold all the cards, it is an education and it can be fun with the right mind-set, but it is dastardly tricky.

I have fished in Wales, France, New Zealand, Spain and England, on waters ranging from rapid and slightly turbid freestone creeks to glassy chalk streams, there is nowhere (with the possible exception of a few waters in France) where the going is so technically demanding.

I am not talking technical in terms of selecting the right fly, any decent guide, fly shop or even someone with a smattering of entomological knowledge can pick out a fly most of the time. No the key is “Presentation”. Presentation, presentation, presentation, and whilst that might mean a whole heap of different things in different circumstances you absolutely have to be able to cast.

ElandsTroutThis guy may be small, but he knows more about fly presentation than most anglers

In the end we prevailed, the client got his fish (his first ever trout on a fly, and isn’t that a moment to savor), we landed a few more with tricky throws under the bushes and he had a great day, apparently enjoying the wonder of it, the sight fishing and the “heart in the mouth” moments of throwing a fly over a paranoid schizophrenic trout, with ADD and OCD all rolled into one.


 Gavin’s first ever trout on a fly, caught in the hard school and aren’t we glad we did that casting practise?

The real key however was that he knew he was a beginner and so did I, the trouble comes from those who aren’t so aware of their limitations and to be honest that is most anglers.

I estimate that over 80% of the clients I guide suffer the greatest limitation in terms of their ability or inability to cast well enough. Sure they can put it out there on the lawn when the breeze is cooperative, there is no intervening herbage and the target is somewhere near the rose bushes.

On the river with one cast, a nasty downstream breeze, clear water and a target about the size of a fleas wedding tackle the game changes. Nobody gets that right all the time but the better you cast the more chance that you have.

So I was most interested to be put onto a lovely piece of writing by a client and friend Jonathan Meyers, the post is from a blog called “The Trout Diaries” written by Derek Grzelewski, you will note that I have added it to the blog roll because it really is worthy or your time to read.

The Essence of Fly Casting – The Trout Diaries Blog..

TroutDiariesImageImage courtesy of “The Trout Diaries”.

I shan’t steal the thunder, you can go and read it but it seems that other anglers and, at least honest guides, recognise the exact same failings. A quote from the piece, and a reference to guide and tutor Stu Tripney “People often come to me psyched up for big trout and action-packed fishing,” he told me. “I look at their casting and say: ‘well, I can take your money, drag you around the river all day and show you the big fish but, casting like that, you haven’t gotta show to catch them.”

When you get right down to it, for all the fancy tackle, the aerospace reels, the dainty and complex flies and leader formulae that look like something from a quantum mechanics equation, if you can’t cast well enough you aren’t going to catch many trout and you sure as eggs aren’t going to catch the tricky ones. (which frequently but not always also equates to the big ones).

To hear that other guides have the same problems made me feel a whole lot better, and I frequently tell myself that I am fortunate that I am at least not asking someone to hit a bonefish at 25 yards on a windy Seychelles coral flat.


When you have got this in your sights can you make the cast?

Truth be told, the money you might spend on a rod, a guide or a fancier fishing vest might well be better invested in some quality fly casting instruction, but beware there are still plenty of people out there who profess to be able to help you and can’t. There are still videos suggesting you should use “The clock system” ( a pet hate of mine), and there are still those who suggest that you should hold a book under your arm, or similar rubbish.

Thanks to Jonathan for linking me up with Derek and his lovely blog, thanks to Gavin for allowing me to shout at him on the river and on the lawn, it proved to be worth the frustration for both of us.

Finally thanks to Stu, it is so nice to know that I am not the only one out there preaching the message and trying to politely call a spade a shovel.

Of course if you are interested in my opinion on how fly casting works and you would like to have some exercises to do which will help you make that trip of a lifetime more worthwhile you can download a copy of “Learn to Fly-Cast in a Weekend” from Smashwords. It won’t cost you more than the price of a few flies and not only might it help you but I think that it might well make the life of your next guide a lot easier too. Even if you don’t appreciate it, he probably will. 🙂


The Fish

January 5, 2013

The Fish Head

The stuff of dreams, or nightmares.

When you close your eyes at night do you dream of a fish? I mean a particular fish which haunts your slumbers, thoughts of which perhaps awake you with a furrowed and sweated brow. A fish which occasionally glints in the sunlight of your subconscious mind and fades into the shadows of your dreams, drifting away once more, uncatchable and mysterious?

I have such a fish, a trout which has me striking myself awake, twitching in the piscatorial equivalent of the “falling dream”. On the Cinemascope newsreel of the netherworld which plays endlessly in my mind through the dark hours she comes to torment me. The fly alights, swings quietly in the current, keeping pace with the bubbles, not a hint of drag. The amorphous shadow hiding under the bankside vegetation swings slowly on the current, venturing out of its shaded lair from beneath the protective curtain of overhanging herbage, tempted out by a perfect presentation. She rises in a languid swirl, the pace of the rise further indication of her size, the sun catching her spotted flanks in the clear and bronze coloured water as the fly disappears. In my mind I steal my nerves, delaying the moment of response, synapses jangling “hold, hold, hold….. strike”… Nothing, not the singing line of the poets, not the erotic bouncing of a tensioned rod tip or the sensuous buzzing of a straining reel, just air and disappointment. The disappointment which settles over me like a dark cloud as I awaken, ill-tempered and fevered as the dream, or nightmare, melts.

The trouble is that this fish doesn’t only exist in my mind, she is real, she is flesh and blood and inhabits a tricky little backwater on a local stream. I first found her on Christmas Day two years back and even then she was large, larger than average by a goodly margin, twenty inches at least and tucked under the bank where most anglers would remain ignorant of her presence.

On that day she was tucked behind a curtain of overhanging branches, just up from a tricky little riffle which made drag free presentations near impossible. Her throne room is guarded on one side by a large boulder and on the other by an inconvenient tuft of grasses which loiters with intent on the stream, ready to grab the fly of an errant cast. When the water is up a little, as it was on that Christmas morning, she need not venture out from behind her curtain, the current brings food right along the bankside in a neatly defined bubble line which allows her to remain undetected and out of reach.  She was rising regularly on that occasion, the ebbing rings revealing her presence for anyone watching carefully and just occasionally she would move sufficiently far from the shade for the sun to catch her silvered flank.  I couldn’t get a fly in under the bush, it proved impossible despite attempts from various angles and I eventually put her down when I hooked the greenery above her head.

A year passed and each time I ventured to that section of water I would seek her out, I didn’t see her until recently when she was there again. With the water a few inches lower the flow forced her on occasion to move just fractionally further from her hidey hole to feed and I had an opportunity. I have made that cast in my mind’s eye over and over for twelve months or more and was ready. The fly went out, paused momentarily in the flow and just before the inevitable drag set in, the line catching on the faster current of the intervening riffle; she rose and inhaled the fly. I struck and hooked my prize, she was indeed huge by local standards and a brief battle ensued before, as I readied the net, the hook pulled from her jaw and I was left to sit deflated on the boulders. I knew then that there were more nightmares coming, that she would continue to haunt my dreams, that opportunities to remedy the error and see her in the net would come seldom if ever again.

Then just recently I was on the same stretch with a client, one can view the water on the walk down to the start of the beat and I was able to point out the spot where my nemesis resided. Indeed we studied the flow from on high, planning an attack should she show herself; studying the currents and the obstructions in readiness should opportunity present itself later in the day.

We enjoyed a great morning’s fishing, some fish caught and some missed, not a lot of surface activity but fish willing to come to the dry if well-presented and after a number of hours of wading and fishing upstream we reached the designated spot. We sat and watched, and eventually she showed, drifting out from the bank just sufficiently for the sun to catch her scales and reveal her presence. She was feeding, although not breaking the surface, but we selected a dry fly, throwing a nymph close to that tangle of brush was a recipe for disappointment if not disaster.
Paddy, the client, made a few practise casts aiming short and finally made the throw; as soon as the fly alighted I was sure that it was on line and sufficiently close to the bush to tempt her. A flash of sunshine on her tail, a shout of “she’s coming, she’s coming” , the rise and the strike….. once again just air. We tried further with changes of fly and even risking the nymph eventually but she wasn’t up to make the same mistake twice and eventually disappeared to who knows what invisible retreat.

PaddyPaddy and a reminder of previous successes, a nice trout but not
“The Fish”. 😦

Now she doesn’t only haunt my dreams but Paddy’s too, we can both now waken in a cold sweat, nerves jangling and disappointment in our hearts. Of course that is fishing, it’s the ones that get away that you really remember, but I am going to have to net her at some point to break her spell.  I know that if I don’t catch her, before she disappears for ever, she will lay waste my dreams, trouble my mind like a lost love affair and I shall take images of her spotted flanks glinting in the sunshine to my grave.

It can be a bitter-sweet thing this fishing lark, and whilst one doesn’t wish to take it too seriously most of the time, there are occasions when perhaps success takes on the guise of medical necessity. I need to catch that fish for my own sanity to return and for my dreams to remain untroubled, if I can take a picture perhaps and send it on to Paddy I can offer him some respite from his disturbed sleep too.

It is perhaps a measure of her hold on me that this post was written at two o’clock in the morning, but mostly it isn’t about furrowed brows and troubled dreams but the joy of fishing, the pleasure of great friends and clients like Paddy and the wonders of a natural world which we all too often take for granted. Even as nightmares go this one is better than reminiscences of being caught in traffic. 🙂