Archive for October, 2013

The Self-fulfilling Prophecy.

October 28, 2013


The Self Fulfilling Prophecy:

I am sure that everywhere that trout swim we have all experienced one of these, “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies”, it is a common enough trap and actually quite a tricky one to get out of, even if you suspect that you may be a victim.

A couple of examples:

Years back I was a member of an angling club whose water, but not most of the membership, was based in Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape. Due to the lack of fly fishing opportunities in that neck of the woods and the relatively remote location of the water the members were scattered over a wide area. Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, East London and the Hogsback, all miles apart. Thus as a means of getting everyone together on at least one occasion per year there was , what for want of a better word one might call, a “competition”. This wasn’t anything like the structured and highly organised World Championships, just a friendly get together with someone maintaining a rough tally of who caught what.

I recall the first one of these events in which I participated, having come fairly recently from the UK I set about fishing the way I had always back home. Floating line, long leader a single fly, probably a Hare’s Ear Nymph I suspect. In fact I didn’t own a sinking line at all in those days; I modelled my angling on the thoughts of Brian Clarke in his excellent book “The Pursuit of Stillwater Trout” (A C Black, 1975). Everyone else, every single angler for the entire weekend fished with sinking lines and flies most of which I had never heard of. Parson’s Glory I do remember being a particular favourite amongst many of the protagonists.

GubuDamThe beautiful Gubu Dam, offering more than one way to fish if you are prepared to experiment.

The fishing hadn’t been exactly “On Fire”, but come the end of the weekend the winning angler had landed five fish or so, the next best four and a few of us down the order had caught three trout a piece.

As the results were being announced the angler next to me said in all seriousness, “you were the guy with the floating line weren’t you?” – “Floating lines don’t work around here”..

He wasn’t being unpleasant, I think that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, that was the generally held belief. That you needed a sinking line, preferably anointed with a Parson’s Glory, or some other pattern of questionable and undoubtedly colonial lineage. But if you look at it carefully there were some thirty anglers there for the weekend and something in the region of 20 fish captured. Of those twenty trout, three had been caught by “the guy with the floating line”.

Taking the stats a bit further (and I avoided stats throughout my college education so beware), the average catch of fish to the sinking line anglers was a bit over half a fish a person. The average catch of the anglers fishing a floating line (only me), was three. So on a mathematical front the floating line was six times more effective than the sinker, SIX times more effective, but the word was that “floating lines don’t work here”.

How is that possible?  You would think that it was obvious, but it isn’t obvious and it isn’t because we are easily caught up in the self-fulfilling prophecy. Up until I came along with my floating line (out of ignorance more than anything else), all the fish in that dam were caught on sinking lines, all of them.

Read the catch return book and it would be “sinking line, sinking line, sinking line” but of course a little more insight and you realise that the anglers at this dam only ever fished sinking lines, the apparent efficacy of the technique isn’t exactly a surprise when you look at that bit of the equation. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a circular argument spawned by a lack of innovation or courage, of intellectual incuriosity which never has anyone pose the question “Why”. Mind you I have to admit that with 29 other anglers telling me I was wrong, had I owned a sinking line I could well have been tempted and fallen into the well laid trap.

Parson's GloryWhy on earth should this fly be “the only one” that works, it doesn’t make sense.

Another example comes from an area to the far north covered in small stocked dams, it is supposedly a “fly fishing Mecca” to read the brochures from the marketing department, although it isn’t really my cup of tea. Most of the impoundments are not large, some sport wooden jetties sticking out into the ponds to ease the pain of the woefully inadequate casting of many of the visitors.

The place tends to cater for the neophyte or at least the uninformed but at the same time does offer sport and more than a few people have started their fishing careers at such venues. That isn’t really the problem; the problem is that if you ask for “local advice” you will be told to “fish a Walker’s Killer or a Mrs Simpson”.  The efficacy of those two patterns is clearly demonstrated once again in the catch return books where every fish caught has come to one of those two flies, page after page of entries to the point where the artificials take on near supernatural power.

Why on earth should that be so? It is highly unlikely that the fish are genuinely fixated on two specific patterns, particularly that they should remain so besotted irrespective of the season. Equally unlikely that there are many real food items left in those small and continuously re-stocked ponds which ever reach the size of these artificial concoctions, but there it is in black and white, every single fish captured comes to one of those two flies. Again powerful evidence until you question how many people fish anything else and the simple answer to that enquiry is none.  The self-fulfilling prophecy again rears its ugly head, beguiling evidence that one technique or fly works better than all the others, supported apparently by reams of data.


As mentioned previously I don’t like statistics, I avoided the subject like the plague at college, no matter that it was guaranteed to come up in final exams. Statistics  and statisticians are for the most part dreadfully dull, lectures in the subject can leave one seriously considering self harm as a means of staying awake, but stats’ do have a use. They afford us the ability to recognise the false prophecies handed down to an ill-informed public, piscatorial or otherwise.

No matter that you are looking at catch returns on specific water or wading through the marketing department’s endless assertions that XYZ shampoo removes up to 100% of dandruff flakes, one needs to be aware of the carefully fashioned falsehoods. Without studying mathematical models the best protection is to maintain an enquiring mind. That isn’t to suggest that you eschew all local knowledge, that would undoubtedly be a mistake, but it behoves us all to question the validity of some commonly held beliefs.

Perhaps the most valuable query of all is “Why”, why should that be so? Why should fish only feed in this way? Why should it be that all the trout are taken by one technique? It is quite possible that there is a good answer to the question; where perhaps the predominant food form available to the fish is indeed highly specific, or that the flow rates determine that the fish are all feeding deep down near the bottom of a stream,  but there is also a high probability that the figures don’t add up. That what you are looking at is a self-fulfilling prophecy based on poor logic and dare I say it “sampling errors”. (Apparently I did learn something whilst chewing my own fingers off at college)


It brings to mind the joke about the motorist who is pulled over by traffic department officials for driving straight past a clearly demarcated “STOP” sign. His defence? “well you see officer, I don’t believe everything I read”..

So keep an open mind, don’t “believe everything you read”, and that applies to this blog as much as anything else. Trust your instincts, experiment and question the status quo, don’t be afraid of standing out from the crowd. Had others in our history not asked “Why?” we would still all be learning about the geocentric nature of the universe in school, everyone but milk maids would be dying of smallpox and those well enough to travel would remain fearful of falling off the edge of a flat earth when heading for their holidays.

Various books by the author of this blog are available on line from and


In for a Penny.

October 26, 2013

In for a Penny

I like to imagine that I am open to new ideas, suggestions, hypotheses and such, although I must admit at the same time that I am not overly keen to listen to foolish notions without logical backup.

So it happens that some months back I hosted Peter Hayes, from Tasmania. Peter was in South Africa conducting clinics, mostly focused on fly casting. But then Peter is a man of unrivalled enthusiasm when it comes to fly fishing and he will pretty much discuss anything remotely related to the sport. Getting Peter to offer up some gem related to anything piscatorial is about as tough as getting an alcoholic to have “one for the road”.

He is as said, enthusiastic but equally thoughtful and he isn’t overly likely to put forward an idea that he hasn’t, in his own head, considered carefully.  Peter has more tricks up his sleeve than a bone fide member of the magic circle and when he is prepared to take a bet that “his knot” is better than “your knot” you are best off to keep your money in your pocket and listen carefully.

That then was how I was  introduced to something Peter refers to as “The Penny Knot” after the person that showed it to him. I suspect that the knot might well appear in other places under various pseudonyms but that doesn’t make it any less practical. According to Peter the knot for tying a fly (or hook if there are some lowly bait anglers reading this) to the nylon, maintains 100% of the strength of the monofilament. That is some boast, I would have told you an impossible one to be honest.

So we had “knot fights” the battle of one connection over the other, Peter didn’t lose, and so I had to revise my opinion. I have used a “Duncan Loop Knot” for years to affix my fly to the tippet, I use a lot of very fine nylon and have become quite fussy about knots in general. It took some persuasion to change and not an inconsiderable amount of retraining. I have probably tied well over a million “Duncan Loop Knots” in my life so was more than proficient at it. Now I had to practise, create new muscle memory so that I might take full advantage of a different attachment.

All I can tell you is that it was worth it, this simple and extremely small knot works well even in fine nylon and since converting I don’t think that I have broken off a fly in a fish, not once. Actually I haven’t broken off many in the trees either, the herbage seems to give way before the knot does much of the time.

Here is the knot as shown to me by Peter, you best learn it and use it, after some four decades of fishing and tying knots I haven’t ever come across one as reliable as this, actually not even close.

Not only is it an exceptionally good, simple and effective knot but equally it has proven that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.. 🙂


There are lots of other useful tricks in a variety of books by the author of this blog available from Smashwords and Inkwazi Flyfishing.


Where’s Summer?

October 25, 2013


It’s a common joke out on the river with clients, we look up at the sun drenched mountain landscapes, the bright profusion of flowers and perhaps an eagle in the sky or a klipspringer on the rocks and someone will say “nice office”.  It’s a bit of a giggle, because it is a nice office, taxing to reach perhaps but not in the same way as suffering the indignities of a two hour urban commute.

Reaching my office might require some tendon stretching hiking; you may end up with sore joints or bashed toes. But then to me at least it is preferable to cramp in your left leg from repetitive stamping on the clutch whilst edging your car through the clotted arteries of the early morning concrete jungle. The birdsong a more pleasant reveille than hours of mindless phone-in radio listening to some mumbling egotist request a song from Bing Crosby for his mother’s birthday.

There is however a flaw, the world is not perfect and the outdoors world suffers more than most from a lack of control, I have a nice office but the roof leaks and it has been leaking a great deal of late.

SummerfishingSummer fishing is supposed to be like this.

It is supposed to be summer, or at the very least it is supposed to be late spring. The winds should have swung to the south, the sun should be blazing out of an azure sky and we should all be worrying that the rivers are dropping at an alarming rate, hoping that the flows will maintain into the New Year.

But that isn’t what is going on at all, we keep getting inundated with late rains, sweeping cold fronts and temperatures that simply will not climb with any consistency. I have been out on the water already this season more than a few times in pouring rain and freezing cold. The streams have been pushing so strongly that wading has been a tricky, potentially dangerous, fraught with the risk of an unexpected and frigid swim. Rain jackets have been proven to be less than effective, clothing has become soaked and I have finally, after I must say a valiant struggle by my overtaxed immune system, succumbed to the flu. It isn’t supposed to be like this, it should be bright and warm, I should be at the drug store purchasing sunblock, not bloody pseudoephedrine HCL, I should be worrying about dehydration not consumption.

Summerfishing2Instead we have high water, frigid conditions, waders and rain jackets.

In short it is a flipping mess and turning into a costly one to boot, I have repeatedly had to cancel trips or at least reschedule them. One day we are casting micro caddis patterns at brightly coloured trout in gin clear water and the next battling Hurricane Hilda and praying that the sun might just peak out from behind the dark clouds for a minute or two to ward off imminent hypothermia.

It is all becoming a little tiresome; perhaps it is encouraging that the flows will still be strong later into the summer than usual. Prospects of better fishing should last well into the New Year, but right now my head is filled with cotton wool, I keep getting the shivers and my hands are shaking too much to replace the few micro caddis patterns that we have lost to trees on the good days out on the water.

Hot ToddyI am making these when I should be tying flies.

Just for the present, a comfy commute in a warm vehicle, albeit travelling at snail’s pace, is beginning to look more attractive than it should, it is probably the fever that’s doing it, but it is a worrying development none the less.

SummerWeatherThe forecasts are all a bit depressing.

A few more weeks of this and I could seriously consider a socially acceptable “proper job”, and ditch the fly rods for squash racquets, then the weather man can do his worst and I won’t have to worry.

Personally I blame the anglers up north; they have been suffering drought conditions and praying for rain, I need to have a word with them. When in contact with those deities responsible for precipitation I think that they need to be more specific, perhaps include GPS coordinates or something.  We have had enough rain down here in the south boys, more than enough.

Books available from the author of this blog from


What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

October 18, 2013


An interesting discussion this past week on the Flyloops Forum, “how much is fly fishing about luck”? Which was stimulated by a previous blog “The Last Word”, from “The  Fishing Gene Blog”. Undoubtedly there is some element of fortune, good or bad, to angling. There is far too much out of our control for there not to be. The weather, hatches, wind direction, temperature and such are all beyond our manipulation but how much of it is really luck?

Perhaps for the neophyte luck plays a significant role but for the more proficient success lies less and less within the realms of good fortune and more and more within the sphere of proficiency. In fact I would suggest that the same is true of much else.

Perhaps for me, the more important distinction is whether you believe it is luck or not. The concept that should you be successful you have been blessed in some way by celestial powers removes the idea that you have, at least some, control over your situation. The idea that it is all in the hands of the Gods diminishes your scope to be able to do anything about it when things go poorly and that ultimately to my mind disempowers you. I am quite sure the exact same is true of much else from business dealings to relationships. If you focus on your good or bad fortunes you are reduced to a mere rolling of the dice each time you venture out onto the water.


If on the other hand you embrace the idea that success or failure is based on your own actions, your own skills, you own determination, your own level of expertise, your experience and such then you are empowered.  With such a mind set you are now able to make adjustments, improve your skills, practise and learn and become more effective. As I say that is undoutedly true of anything, golf, tennis,  hunting, backgammon, photography, poker and more, I see no reason to imagine that it is less true of fishing.

It is a well accepted idea that 20% of the anglers catch 80% of the fish and that strongly suggests that the 20% of anglers are doing something that the other 80% are not. From a fly fishing perspective I believe that although there are a lot of factors one of the key elements is that the 20% of anglers who catch most of the fish cast well.  I can just imagine someone chucking a fly randomly into the water, the terminal tackle landing wheresoever the wind takes it and hanging on expectantly for a tug on the line. They are going to think that they had good luck should they be successful. On the other hand the more proficient, will put the fly where they want it, in the way that they want it, into places where experience tells them there are likely to be feeding fish, surprise surprise, they get “lucky” a lot more often.

It isn’t all about hi-tech analysis, much is simply common sense. I recall asking a client who caught a lot of salmon about what it takes, what’s the secret?  (I am not a salmon fisherman and know next to nothing about this branch of our sport). His eminently pragmatic and undoubtedly true comment was simply this “I only go fishing when I know that there are salmon in the river”.. I suppose you can see that would tend to improve his chances of succes by quite a degree. I suspect equally that a lot of his colleagues imagine that he is “just lucky”..


So here is a list of a few things which I believe are within everyone’s scope to improve your efficiency and effectiveness.

1) Practise your casting: as Gary Player famously said “the more I practise the luckier I get”,  for him it was swinging a golf club, for you it is being able to cast well and effortlessly all day. Not just distance but also accuracy.  If you can’t cast you can’t fish, simple as that.

2) Be prepared: There is a great deal out of our control when we go fishing, so it is all the more important to control what you can. Have your tackle in tip top shape, have your leaders prepared, your fly boxes filled with suitable imitations depending on the location, season and target species. And try to be ready for every eventuality that might occur when you are on the water.

3) Learn and understand the various elements of what most would call “presentation”. That embraces everything from how to achieve effortless drag free drifts on a dry fly to being able to put a weed fly in front of a feedling milkfish at 20 metres. Presentation is probably the most important element in the entire equation.

4) Sharpen your hooks, it sounds foolish but what is the point of going to all this effort only to fish with blunt hooks? Even modern “chemically sharpened” hooks can benefit from a quick once over with a quality hook hone. (My personal favourite is the Model “S” from Ezelap)

5) Avoid the “what fly are you using” mentality, certainly there are times when having the right fly counts for a lot, but not as often as you might imagine, casting well, presentation, fishing in the right place, having correctly structured leaders etc are all probably more important most of the time. Read “What Fly ” on “The Fishing Gene Blog”.

6) Dress conservatively, it amazes me how many people will pitch up to fish a clear stream wearing a white or fluorescent orange hat, that’s just stupid and you aren’t improving your chances. You don’t need to be kitted out with facepaint and camo like some piscatorial Rambo but it behooves one to be conservative. On a trout stream olive is “the new black”

7) Improve your casting…yes I know that I said that already but it deserves repetition. For most of the anglers I guide or coach their casting ability or lack thereof is the most significant limitation to their success levels. It doesn’t matter how many flies you have, how expensive your rod is or much else if you can’t cast well enough to put the fly where you want it most of the time.

8) Fish with people better than you are, it might open your eyes to all manner of posibilities which you weren’t aware of. You can fish for twenty years or you can fish the same year twenty times, the choice is yours but the benefits of the former are far greater than the latter.

9) Expect to catch fish, develop a mind set that says you will catch fish. It isn’t the power of positive thinking so much as the fact that if you expect to catch and you don’t you will change something. If you don’t expect to catch then you will write the day off as “bad luck” , keep doing what you were and end the day with a dry net.

10) Have a check list, getting to the water missing some piece of your gear is likey to spoil your day and at the very least put you off your stride.

11) Check and recheck, if you miss a fish, check the fly isn’t tangled or the point damaged, if you make a poor cast check there are no knots or tangles in your leader. Check every time.

12) Learn to wade softly, no amount of good fishing technique is going to help you if you are bashing the rocks about with your feet and scaring all the fish before they are within casting distance.

13) Practise good line control, such that you can mend the line to avoid drag, be in touch so that you can set the hook and not have yards of the stuff wrapped all around your reel or legs when you finally hook a fish.

14)Ditch the idea that luck has anything to do with it, to be honest it might, but that won’t help you. Believing that you are in charge of your own destiny, that you hold the cards when it comes to your fortunes, that will empower you to reach greater heights. Of course that doesn’t only apply to fishing, it probably applies to pretty much everything.

15) Practise and improve your casting. 🙂

If you would like to take some of the luck out of your fishing and gain a bit more control over the outcome perhaps you would like to read some of the book titles available from the author of this blog:


The Last Word

October 14, 2013


It strikes me that fly fishing, as a field sport, is alone in one very important respect, the fly angler doesn’t actually have control over the outcome.

Should you go hunting with a rifle, and with sufficient practise you are able to make your shot, the vagaries of wind, distance, muzzle velocity and such all carefully calculated then once the bullet leaves the barrel the demise of your target is assured. No matter how perfect your presentation of the fly might be, success is never guaranteed.  Fly fishing can be a humbling experience, in a world where we control so much, the fly angler lives in a space where control of the outcome has to be let go, because it isn’t within the sphere of our control.


Certainly other field sports put demands on the participants, you may have to ride a horse or stalk your prey, study the behaviour of your quarry and spend endless hours reloading or target shooting, but in the end, the final moment you make the decision. You pull the trigger and it is all over, your quarry doesn’t know a thing about it.

Even with bait fishing one might argue that the fish makes a decision but then that choice is a little bit fudged because you are offering up something that is at least eminently edible, even though it might disguise a carefully hidden hook.

With fly fishing you don’t have that advantage; the fly is quintessentially not edible, no matter the pains to which you go to make it look so. It doesn’t have the taste or feel of food, and the fish has to make a mistake. It has to choose to eat the fly and therefore, for all our machinations, plans and preparations the final moment of truth lies not with you but with the fish.

I would suggest that this above all else is what makes fly fishing far more of an intellectual pursuit than a mechanical one. Certainly being able to cast well helps, the ability to tie suitable knots in reasonable time, to read the water, to recognise the hatches, they all contribute to one’s success or lack thereof but you don’t ever have the last word. The fish always has the final say and that puts us all in a rather uncomfortable position, we can only ever attempt to outwit our prey, beyond that things are pretty much in the hands of the Gods.


Personally I suspect that this is why fly fishing tends to attract a rather thoughtful and intellectual band of followers. Not to say that one form of sport is superior to another, simply that with fly fishing you have to think about what you are doing and not simply do it.

Over decades of fly fishing I have met fly anglers from all over the world, people from completely different walks of life, with different educations and various philosophies on virtually any aspect of the human psyche that you might care to mention. Religious, Atheist, Republican, Democrat, professorial or pragmatic, taxi drivers, plumbers, business executives, Lords, Ladies and rock stars.  But always amongst the best of them there is a golden thread, they all spend a lot of time thinking about fly fishing and all have remarkably enquiring minds which are rarely still.


They have learned that, as one never has final control of the outcome, it behoves us all to control that which we can. So hours are spent reading, discussing, pontificating and analysing, everything is checked, rechecked and questioned. There are no rules for the best anglers, there are just guidelines, certainly over the course of time there are certain aspects of our sport that are pretty well defined but even then occasionally things that aren’t supposed to work do. Whilst avoiding drag on the fly is pretty much accepted as a necessity there are those days when swinging wet flies downstream is the ticket to success.

Matching the hatch can be effective but just now and then chucking out something far too large or completely different will result in a take when the best imitations of what the fish are consuming have failed to illicit a response.

You have to take the rough with the smooth, in the end the fish has the final say not you.

Good anglers will change flies when they are not working, but very good anglers change flies even when they are working. They are constantly looking for that edge, “if this one works maybe something else will work better”.  They lengthen leaders, adjust the diameter of the tippet and fiddle about until something works. Good anglers do what their fellows are finding successful but great anglers, at least some of the time, will do the opposite just to see what happens.

There is a thought process to fly fishing, an intellectual ping-pong game inside the heads of fly anglers that I suspect is primarily driven by the fact that we don’t hold all the cards and never will. It might well be expected then, that the fish that outwit us, those that refuse our best efforts and scoff at our imitations with a derisory flip of a pectoral fin are in fact the ones which we remember most clearly. At least for me that is most certainly the case and they haunt my memories in glorious Technicolor whilst the thousands deceived are but flickering and out of focus images fading to sepia in the photo album of my mind.

It’s not fun to be made a fool of by a cold blooded beasty (pretty though they are) with a brain the size of  pea, but I suppose that in the end the very fact that we sometimes fail is indeed the reason that fly fishing begets such passion. It would be dreadful if they all gave in too easily.