Posts Tagged ‘catch and release’

Catch and Release

September 2, 2016


Trevor Sithole, a very bright young lad from the most rural of environments in Natal, recently posed a question on social media about catch and release. Essentially asking for advice about how to respond to people who question the logic of capturing a fish only to let it go, you know the thing “why catch it if you aren’t going to kill it?”

I am sure we have all faced variations of this question in our angling lives and some of us might still be battling with that very same conundrum within our own minds.

Trevor comes from a tribal background , deeply rooted in animal husbandry, having grown up in Thendela in the Kamberg. A place were communal values still hold sway, where the elders enjoy both respect and influence, an environment where the spirit of “Ubuntu” (Human Kindness) combined with a level of understanding and respect for the powers of both the natural and supernatural drive behaviours and social structures.

CARThendelaImage courtesy of Thendela Fly Fishing

Trevor’s people live to a large degree in harmony with nature. Certainly they harness it, control it to some extent, breed cattle selectively to get the results that they want but despite most lacking a formal western education, or perhaps because they lack that western view, they see themselves as part of the natural world not apart from it. It is incredible how important that space after the  “a” can prove to be..  That all got me to thinking, “why would we go to the trouble of catching a fish only to release it?”


Let me say that my views weren’t always along the same lines, there was a time where I pursued trout with worms and spinners, by fair means and foul. Where any fish of “legal size” was dispatched to be enjoyed later with brown bread and butter. My thinking has however changed over the years.

I can recall a “postscript” in the book “The Trout and the Fly” by Goddard and Clarke on the subject of “barbless hooks” and thinking “ what a couple of tossers”. (I have to confess I am a little embarrassed to recall those thoughts, but they are part of my history none the less.)

I can still see in vivid detail the very first sizeable trout that I released, the monumental psychic struggle to give up my bragging rights not to mention supper. This all well before the advent of waterproof digital cameras and social media. Equally at a time where such actions weren’t mandated by regulation.  I put that fish in and out of the water half a dozen times before I managed, finally, to release my grip and in that moment life changed. Watching my prize swim free was suddenly worth giving up any thoughts of lunch. To me, watching that fish swim away was the most amazing thing to experience; it looked far better finning in the crystal clear water than it ever would have in a frying pan. From that day on I have rarely killed a trout and never one from a breeding stream.


Fishing is probably unique in that it is the only field sport where the demise of one’s quarry isn’t assured. Once you have captured your fish you now find yourself in, the perhaps unenviable position, of tremendous authority. You now have the power of life or death literally in your hands. You have the influence of the Gods, the Thumbs up, Thumbs down , life or death paradox of the Roman games and with such power comes undoubtedly tremendous responsibility.

Just because, as human beings, we have the power to destroy something, doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of consideration as to whether or not we should. The majority of fly anglers can’t claim that they “need” the fish for food, the price of the average fly line would keep you knee deep in sushi for the better part of a year.
Outside of the medical professions, and the occasional homicidal and sociopathic dictator, anglers are some of the few who genuinely get to hold the choice of life or death over another being within their grasp, and it is a power that really needs to be considered very carefully.


It is perhaps equally a metaphor for much else that we humans do to our planet, our technological advances have given us massive power over our domain. We can drill holes into the very floor of our home to extract oil and gas, we can rape the seas of all life and dangerously we convince ourselves that we can protect each other from the consequences. We imagine that we can kill all the fish in the sea and then make up for the loss of food by genetically engineering other sources. With such power comes great responsibility and one has to wonder if most of us behave as responsibly as we should.

Going back to Trevor’s apparently naïve query it turns out that the question isn’t quite as simple as it first appears. All creatures, given the opportunity to breed hold within them the very matrix of survival. They represent the seeds of future generations and something that the tribesmen of Thendela understand, which sadly most modern westerners don’t, is that a living animal with breeding potential holds within it the power of compound interest. That a bull left unslaughtered can produce more of its kind, that when nurtured instead of exploited the natural world can provide for us almost endlessly. Indeed it has done so for tens of thousands of years.


Were a herdsman to kill all his stock he could potentially have a fine feast, but of course the very next day he would be poor. So it is with fish, if you kill a fish , not only do you deprive everyone else of that fish but equally of its potential. You steal the existence of that fish’s progeny not just from other anglers but from future anglers, from your children and grandchildren. And of course you end a blood line that has evolved over millennia. In effect, just like the herdsman who has a feast and becomes poorer as a result. When you kill a fish you make all anglers poorer, indeed you make the very planet poorer.

It is nice to imagine that, what we consider to be, more primitive people, live harmoniously with nature in some utopian fairyland, understanding that they are part of the whole, that over exploitation will see their own demise. It is simple to think of these people as foolish or naïve, failing to take more than they need in fear of upsetting some imagined deity. To dream that the Salmon People of North America don’t take too many salmon in case the salmon spirits cease to visit their home rivers. To think that the Yanomami tribesmen of the Amazon basin view the forest as their nurturing mother, seeking constantly to avoid offending her.. It is a nice notion, and to a point true, but equally they don’t have the power to exploit. They don’t have the technology to catch or kill more than their share and are therefore not obliged to exercise the same restraint which seems all too lacking in modern westernised society.


In reality then, it is our very advancement which brings with it greater responsibility, with our technology, our cars, our freezers. With our carbon rods and fine nylon tippets, our chemically sharpened hooks and hi tech plastic lines, we have enhanced our effectiveness to the point where we are able to do real damage. Add to that our numbers and one quickly realises that it would only require that each angler took one fish to decimate a population.

All of that is too much for a conversation in a pub or on a river bank, so I have found that when asked “why don’t you eat the fish you catch?” I generally just say “I don’t kill them for religious reasons”.. Remarkably everyone seems to be quite happy to accept that as an answer.. If I told them it was for the future of the planet they would more than likely laugh their heads off.

In the end, the argument for releasing the fish that you catch is the same as it should be for much else. Humans have the power of life or death over great swathes of our natural heritage. We have the technology and numbers to rape the oceans, to fracture the foundations of our home in search of gas, to chop and burn and drill and slaughter to our hearts content. We have the power to kill and destroy, to consume and exhaust all manner of natural resources. But as I said to Trevor: “Having the ability to do something doesn’t mean that one should do it, and certainly doesn’t absolve one of the responsibilities that come with such power.”

Basically I don’t kill the fish I catch because I choose not to, and that’s about the best answer I can come up with.

“When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money”.

“If you like flowers you cut them and put them in a vase, if you love flowers you leave them in the garden and water them daily”.

“With great power comes great responsibility”.


Brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing Cape Town's best fly fishing guiding service.

 Brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing. Cape Town’s #1 full service fly fishing guiding operation.

Getting the shot.

June 2, 2013

Getting the shot head

Is photography taking over from the barbed hook?

With the advent of the digital age it seems almost incumbent on us as anglers to have photographs of our fish. The ol’ “grip and grin image” is near mandatory and doubly so should one claim capture of a trophy specimen.

Now people head to the river with waterproof cameras, cell phones and on one occasion I had a client whip out an Apple iPad right there in the middle of the stream, I am glad I wasn’t insuring the darned thing I can tell you that. Electronics and H2O don’t generally make happy bedfellows and I have drowned a few cameras and cell phones in my time.

Trouble is that it appears with the digital age, people won’t just take your word for it, it is almost expected that you should have a photo of your catch and expected that you then spread it about a variety of social media. If you don’t have a picture you can see people’s eyes glaze over a fraction and the doubt that your fish really was 20” is written all over their features.

A few specimens are gaining near celebrity status on the world wide web and what with YouTube, Facebook, eMails and such it has reached the point that one can hardly be taken seriously unless you have a photo of your fish plastered about the ether.

SwittersBA lovely shot from SwittersB, not that the fish is still in the net, the mesh is soft plastic. The photo captures the beauty of the fish and it’s glorious colouration without any handling.

To be honest my “check list” for my fishing box, which used to feature such reminders and Lanyard, Water, Rod, Reel, Spare leader, Bandana and Polaroids; now also sports “Camera” and “Spare Camera Battery” added to the spreadsheet.  It is tricky not to get caught up with this stuff.

There are numerous articles and blog posts on subjects such as “Fishing Photography”, the camera has become a near essential tool, right along with the nippers and forceps and apparently it isn’t enough anymore to simply snap a quick image. Now you need to have the light right, the sun behind you, perhaps some elegantly framed foliage or your uber-expensive serpentine handled bar stock aluminium reel in the frame too.

DarrylA superb image from Darryl Lampert, who produces some excellent on stream photography. Again note the fish is over the net, the angler’s hands are wet, the fish is horizontal and still partly in the water.

It does however cross my mind that this may not all be that good for the fish. Years back I was part of the fight, if you can call it that, to change the management structures of our streams to Catch and Release only. We managed, after some considerable dissention from a few of the older fishing crew, to mandate barbless hooks and no kill limits. The fishing has undoubtedly improved as a consequence and even the old hands who argued that “it wasn’t really fishing if you didn’t have a frying pan” have acknowledged that the system works better and there are more and larger fish to be caught.

DeniseHAnother emotive shot from Darryl, capturing the location, the fish and the angler (Denise Hills). Again the fish is over the net to prevent mishap, wet hands and obviously no messing about with the fish out of the water.

I personally strongly dislike barbed hooks, they are dreadful things and to my way of thinking have no place on the end of the line of any serious fly angler. They are bad for you, they are bad for hook-ups and most importantly perhaps they are bad for the fish. So we have made things better for the trout in these parts, barbs are out and damage done on hooking a trout is really minimal. Over time we have all taken to using nets with soft knotless bags, all with a view to protecting the fish from harm.  Where we would once eschew nets as troublesome accoutrements we now mostly recognise that with fine tippets and small flies, safely releasing the fish is far easier with a net and minimises trauma. You need not play the fish to complete exhaustion if you have a net and you don’t run the risk of dropping the fish at the last minute whist extricating the hook and leave the poor thing with a nose ring.  We all now wet our hands, nurse the fish back to strength before letting them go and have been known to dive into the water to retrieve one that seems to be less than recovered.

BrownieAgain, over the net, supported by both hands and water, minimal stress to the fish.

We have, over time come to take greater and greater care of the fish, and I always warn clients that during the moments that there is a fish on the line or in the net my priority is the wellbeing of the trout and that they had better fend for themselves for those few moments in time.

But it concerns me that after all these advances and for all the new found respect and care taken of our fish, once the camera is out of the pocket there is a temptation to cave in to craven desire and abuse the trout in an effort to get the perfect image.

When fishing with a partner it isn’t quite so troublesome, the angler can look after the fish and the partner can look after the pictures. There can still however be a temptation to overdo things and I have seen a number of still and movie images of trout which are undoubtedly being abused for little more than the self-gratification of the angler.  I have watched on video some very large trout be hoisted unceremoniously into the air, jaws clamped in a Boga Grip, something that has no place on trout waters as far as I am concerned and more than a few images on line suggest that by the time the light was right, the focus perfect and the backdrop selected the trout had been held captive and stressed for a good deal longer than it need to have been.

On one’s own, and to a point, without a witness there is more pressure to preserve your moment for posterity, the photographic thing is then even more problematic. Early last season I took a 21” brown trout whilst angling alone, it was very hard to get a picture at all and sadly the ones that I did capture didn’t really show the true size or magnificence of the trout, but at the same time I wasn’t prepared to overstress the fish just to get the shot, in the end it is an act of dreadfully selfishness to do so.

TimNot a great shot of mine, but on my own I did manage to record the moment without removing the fish from the net and without handling the trout much at all.

Only recently an image was posted on line of a lovely brown trout, dragged on shore and apparently pinned down with the angler’s foot whilst its picture was taken. I can understand the desire to have a record of such a fish but that should never outweigh the wellbeing of the quarry. Anglers and hunters alike, whether planning to eat or release their targets should feel and demonstrate respect.  In this particular photograph the footwear of the photographer would suggest novice status, and here may be some level of mitigation in that, but abuse is abuse and a lack of knowledge isn’t an overriding excuse for such. I have always laughed at the idea that in Germany you need to take an exam before you can go fishing, now I am not so sure that it is such a bad idea, although in fairness in Germany you are not allowed to practise Catch and Release either so maybe it is a poor example.

BadThis is NOT how you do it, stress and damage to the fish is virtually assured.

One of the great problems with social media is that it is universal, not only do anglers see these images that whizz about the globe faster than bird flu, but so do the detractors of field sports. Bear in mind that whilst you may be keen for your mates to see photographic evidence of your catch so equally it becomes available for the detractors, the gainsayers, the protestors and all the rest who are just dying to find evidence that catch and release fishing should be banned. Indeed in a few countries it already is.

I have on occasion posted video of trout fishing and frequently received comments from non-anglers along the lines of “Wow, I can’t believe you take that much care of the fish”. That is nice to know, it puts out a good message to people who don’t understand fly fishing. But equally providing global digital evidence of abuse isn’t good for the cause, that it isn’t good for the fish should already be apparent.

Having gone through the evolution that we have, having removed the damaging effects of barbed hooks, knotted nets, dry hands and all the rest of it are we perhaps negating it all in our efforts to record our catches? Is it possible that we are doing more damage now than before the digital age caught up with us?

Consideration and respect for our quarry should be a given, I don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as the bass anglers who transport their catches to football stadia so that they can hoist them by the lip in front of a crowd of screaming fans. That we all to some degree traumatise the fish that we catch is probably a given, I like to think that this is no more stressful than being chased by an otter or swooped on by an osprey, but it is incumbent upon us all to minimise any stress, to release the fish as cleanly and quickly as possible and if taking photographs increases the stress we should stop.

A few points:

  • Do not remove the fish from the water (keep it in the net) until you are ready to take the shot.
  • Keep the fish over the net, so that should you drop it there is no additional damage.
  • Wet your hands, it is remarkable how many videos and DVD’s show supposedly experienced anglers failing to take this simple precaution.
  • Use a net with soft mesh and no knots.
  • Personally I prefer to remove the hook after the shot, that way you can prevent dropping the fish and releasing it prematurely when not recovered fully.
  • Limit your time, if you don’t get the shot within a minute or so just give up and let the fish go.
  • Obviously barbless hooks should be used whether you intend to take photos or not.
  • Support the fish’s weight and keep it horizontal, hanging fish by the lip or gills can cause untold damage to vital internal organs.
  • Do not put the fish on dry land, rocks or similar or force the fish to support it’s own body weight in any way.
  • This is what Lefty Kreh has to say about releasing fish

It is wonderful that we now have the opportunity to record our successes, and that we can share those images around the world, but a good shot isn’t worth a life. There is little point in following all the catch and release recommendations only to harm the fish whilst fiddling about with focus and the lens cap.


A Barbed Comment

February 19, 2013

Barbed Head

A barbed comment:

I recall an episode from my youth, the only time I ever received any formal fly fishing tuition, a weekend at the Arundell Arms in Lifton in Devon. The hotel is renowned for its fishing, fly fishing courses and is surrounded by numerous trout, sea trout and salmon rivers. I was only in my early teens and was on a weekend course run by Roy Buckingham. In my youthful arrogance I wasn’t overly interested in the casting instruction; I just wanted to get to fish their waters and was champing at the bit to do so. On the second day we were left to our own devices, fishing for the resident brown trout and I struck late at a slow rising fish ending up with my fly hooked firmly in my neck. As I remember it I think that the fly was a Royal Coachman Dry and being as pragmatic then as now I simply cut the nylon, left the fly in situ and continued to fish, but of course had to admit to the error on returning to the hotel.

Arundell ArmsThe Arundell Arms in Lifton, an English Fly Fishing Institution.

The problem was viewed by the staff as a simple one, the local GP down the road had , as you might imagine in such a location, removed countless hooks from numerous anglers and we all expected the problem to be resolved in short order. The only problem was that the local doctor was apparently taking leave, lounging on a sun bed in the Bahamas’s or something and we instead found a locum with very little experience of GP practise, or at least little of removing barbed hooks from youthful necks.

He became instantly besotted with the artistry of the fly and didn’t wish to destroy it, I simply advised that he should pull the hook all the way through, cut off the barb and be done with it. He was however reluctant to destroy what to his eye was “feather art”. One fly represented a substantial investment of pocket money to me, but I was more than willing to forego its future use for the benefit of my hide. The young doctor was having none of it, convinced that we would be able to free the barbed hook from my skin.

Barbed in FaceThis is when you start to think “I should have taken the barb off”.

I am going to ask you a question; “have you ever seen your own neck without the aid of a mirror?”  Because I have, foot on chair, forceps grasped in both hands and local anaesthetic administered the aforementioned medic (some might venture butcher), pulled and pulled until I had a clear view of my skin, stretched taut as a bow string. Eventually the hook bent, the skin ripped, the doctor nearly fell backwards onto his rear and the offending dry fly released its overly robust grip on my epidermis.  Now it was just a matter of stitching up the hole that had been torn out of my throat, I suppose I might have protested but in reality I was happy the offending pattern had been removed and thankful, given the less than efficient technique used, that my thyroid hadn’t been ripped free with it.

Barbed fly hooks are an anathema to me, they are ineffective and as the above story will confirm, potentially dangerous. At least that was my neck, but what if an eye? I don’t like barbs on flies, simple as that and I don’t see any point in having them there.

Barbed Coachman

A beautifully tied pattern, would it be less so with the barb removed?

Where I fish the waters have been under compulsory Catch and Release and Barbless Hooks Only regulation for over a decade by now. Not that that is really a milestone, many of us were fishing barbless well before that. The oddity of it is that our decision had very little to do with the wellbeing of the fish, or the wellbeing of ourselves for that matter,  at least at that time. We were fishing light gear, #2 weight rods and 7X tippets, and before you think that wasn’t particularly light the only #2 weight rod at the time was the original Orvis superfine which was far softer in action than more than a few #1 weights and such that one sees on stream these days.

It became apparent that the barb was a serious setback in terms of hooking and landing fish on light gear. With ultra-light gear and fine tippets you simply cannot pull the wedge of a barb into a fish and you either snap off or drop the fish early in the fight. I am one of many anglers who have absolutely no faith in barbed hooks, they simply are not as effective particularly when fishing fine.

In some bizarre twist of fate that has proven an advantage in international competition, some teams who fish with barbed hooks in their home waters lose confidence when fishing barbless, for us it is just normal.

To be frank after some forty five years of fly fishing, using both barbed and barbless hooks I have come to a conclusion that the only real disadvantage of barbless hooks is that the easily fall out of your hat. Beyond that there is no comparison and yet barbed hooks in flies persist.


Spiders are simple and quick to tie, surely leaving time to remove the barb.

It seems that for some the presence of a barb offers some sort of comfort, a superstition or act of faith that the barb is helping them to catch fish, whereas my personal experience tells me that the barb is a hindrance and a potentially dangerous one to boot.

I suppose that it is fine that we all make up our own minds, but in searching my mind I cannot really find a good reason for using them. Certainly not for trout anyway.

Barbless hooks penetrate faster, with less force and less damage to the fish, in fact virtually no damage as can be attested by the number of times I have inadvertently stuck one in my finger without ill effect.

So no I don’t like barbed hooks, they are offensive to me, the fish and the thoughtful angler, and they serve little to no purpose.

What is bothering me though is that surfing the net, reading magazine articles, blogs, books and such I keep on seeing images of flies with barbs on them. Barbed hooks in vices, barbed hooks in trout and occasionally, (oh blessed karma that is it), barbed hooks in ears.

Barbed SmallFish

This barbed fly is very likely to cause unecessary damage to a juvenille trout.

I really see no need to fish with barbed hooks, they are counter intuitive in terms of hook-ups, dangerous to the angler and to the fish. Those who write, publish, blog or whatever would do us all a great service if they took a little more care in showing pictures of hooks that have been de-barbed or are barbless.

I don’t wish to pick on anyone particularly but throughout this post are images of barbed hooks which were collected off the internet. I have against my normal policy, not provided credits, for the very reason that I am not suggesting anyone is worse than anyone else. Some of the images come from anglers who I know personally fish barbless all the time. Some of the patterns are so beautifully tied that one would expect they come from experienced and thoughtful anglers. I am just trying to illustrate that perhaps we need to be more careful about the images we use.

Barbed DDD

I am certain that this pattern comes from an angler who fishes barbless.

Let us all demonstrate some leadership here and make a commitment to avoiding images of barbed hooks in the same way that most have, over time,  given up on those pictures of dead fish strung on a fence. I believe that writers and editors have a responsibility to their readership, to show some moral guidance and to, over time, sway public opinion; publishing only images of barbless fly patterns would be a small step forwards in convincing others that barbs are unnecessary.

BarbedStringerImages such as this are generally now viewed as unacceptable, perhaps barbed flies should be viewed in the same way?

Barbed hooks will cause untold damage to the fish that you wish to release and perhaps worse still will not easily come out of fish should you break off during the strike or the fight. I have only caught a trout with a hook already in its mouth twice in over twenty years of fishing our streams. Both hooks had barbs on them.

Barbed Adams

So I am hoping that we can all avoid the use of images of barbed hooks, that we can continue to influence others in terms of being more responsible, and promote sustainable angling and safety at the same time. Once one realises that fishing with barbless flies is a win win, for you and the fish, the decision to switch is a no brainer.

Barbed in Finger

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Brain Power

November 20, 2010

Are the fish smart or are we dumb?

(A not very serious look at getting skunked)

Flyfishing is one of the most written about subjects on the planet, more than likely at least in part because there is so much that can’t be explained. One generic theme that repeats itself constantly in various writings is that what with all our computing power we can’t get it right all the time.

How is it that a trout, a cold blooded and slightly slimy creature (albeit pretty and much loved one) can outwit us a lot of the time? What is it that means that a fish, with a pretty limited view of the world and a brain the size of a pea can drive us to distraction with its antics?

Hell all we are doing is trying to con the fish into thinking that a simple twist of fur and feather is actually a real and edible food item, surely that shouldn’t be too tricky, I mean we are smart aren’t we?

We have massive brains, computers, graphite fly rods, ultrathin tippet, fancy vests, myriad fly patterns and all that angling literature, it should be a doddle but frequently it ain’t.

Sure if you mess about with fly fishing for very long you start to realize that there are various means at the trout’s disposal to avoid making a mistake. The colour, shape and size of the fly being used, the presentation and of course that all important little corollary the onset of unnatural drag to give the game away, but still come on we are at the top of the intellectual food chain here, we should be winning the race.

Many people, both anglers and non anglers alike keep asking me “but surely the fish can’t be that smart”, I mean really they can’t actually learn stuff or process information in an organized cognitive fashion the way that us smart and highly developed hominids can manage?

Well it would appear that our arrogance once again proves to be a failing; recent research into the ability of fish to feel pain, (another generic theme that runs through angling literature on a regular basis) has apparently shown that fish can learn a whole lot more than we previously imagined. Of course if you have a PhD and torment fish in a laboratory your opinion is perceived as more valid than if you simply spend a lifetime trying to catch them, but I don’t need a doctorate to know that at least some of the time my best efforts aren’t enough.

That trout can learn is, at least to my mind, more than adequately explained when you watch the change in behavior over time on waters that are transformed into Catch and Release venues where the fish have the chance to add to their experience without paying the ultimate price for the first error of judgment.

Over time the rise forms become more subtle, refusals of the artificial fly and inspection rises to have a better look at what is on offer become more common and what the English refer to as “short takes” catch us out on a far more regular basis.

The evidence may well be subjective but the sheer volume of it has to stand for something and for my money the fish are getting smarter and they are becoming more and more tricky to fool. I have heard it said that trout aren’t hard to catch because they are smart but because they are too stupid to recognize a good thing when it comes along and simply eat the same old same old one after the other during a hatch. I don’t buy that for a moment apart from anything else I need to believe that they are smart to justify my own failings. It is one thing to be skunked by a highly evolved self protective mechanism in a thinking fish, quite another to admit defeat at the hands, or in this case fins, of an unworthy opponent.

However having spent years pontificating on the subject I have come to the realization that there is indeed an explanation, one so remarkably succinct, so simple , so logical that I absolutely had to share it.  Our brains are in some ways our biggest limitation, we look for complexity in everything, even when it isn’t there.

So perhaps the following charts of what goes on in both human and trout brains during the day will offer some explanation, perhaps a little solace and if nothing else a valid excuse for those days when your net remains dry.]

So there you have it, that is why, when you are struggling to come to terms with failure and the world is on your shoulders you can’t get the fish to take. In the end perhaps the most important part of fishing is to clear your mind, it may give you something of an edge when you get right down to it.

This blog post is brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing Safaris, Cape Town’s premiere fly fishing guiding service.

Brought to you by Inkwazi Flyfishing Cape Town's best fly fishing guiding service.

Happy Birthday Paracaddis

June 6, 2010

A year in the life of the Fishing Gene Blog.

Goodness me, it is pretty much the Paracaddis Birthday and what started out as a means to occupy some time and perhaps do a little good in the cold days of a Cape Winter has turned into something a little bigger than expected and perhaps a little smaller than was hoped.

The paracaddis blog has to date published some 34 Posts, received 35 comments and had well over 4000 views. Not exactly Facebook I suppose but the activity has been pleasing none the less and it certainly has been an interesting project.


Of all of those posts the most visited in a single day “The Ultimate Catch and Release” was in fact not directly a fishing one at all, but about the release of two Ragged Tooth Sharks from the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. The blog not only focused on the release of the sharks but also the dreadful abuse of the sharks of our seas and the seas in general for that matter. Great to know that there are so many concerned and eco-minded people out there.

The release of two sharks back into the wild and its focus on the plight of our much abused marine life proved the most popular piece of the year.

Over time the most visited blogs were related to fishing small streams, particularly those in the Cape Province of South Africa.

Fishing Cape Streams part 1 focused on preparing for a new season. Primarily about what could be done over those gray weekends of winter to get ready.

Fishing Cape Streams part 2 was all about the tackle that would serve best and what modifications you could make to be best prepared for your new season.

Fishing Cape Streams part 3 featured information about all those gadgets and gizmos some of which you might actually need.

To start with though with the rivers closed most information related to fishing stillwaters:

Drift boating: a bit about experiences with this style of fishing, particularly in a place where it is still a fairly new phenomenon, where lakes don’t have their own boats or bailiffs or day tickets. It was one of the first posts on this blog and set the tone for many of the future posts.

First find the fish: Experiences in drift boating when the going is tough and the mantra of all boat anglers is to “Find the fish, find the depth, find the fly”.

Targeting Daphnia Feeders: Experiences with targeting deep water daphnia feeders. A frequently difficult proposition but one that can be over come with the right search tactics and a handful of flies.

All of the above posts received a good amount of attention and that was most rewarding as above all else it was always the hope that this blog would actually help people enjoy their fishing more, primarily by getting better at it.

Of course it couldn’t all be too serious and there was the odd post that was more than a little tongue in cheek. Perhaps the most notorious being the rather naughty new version of the DDD, perhaps one of SA’s most famous flies.

Would the real DDD please stand up?: Well what can I say? This post elicited more comment than most, it seems to still get regular hits and when all is said and done perhaps reminds us that sometimes we take this fishing lark all a tad too seriously.

Duckworth's Dirty Dangler, caused some comment.

On the flip side, there were some onerously detailed, near scientific bits, such as the piece about weighting flies and the myths and unscientific assumptions of anglers about what difference more weight on your fly has. Sure it took a bottle of Jack Daniels, a late night on the keyboard and the revisiting of some long lost school boy maths but the results were interesting. Sink rates, Brass, Tungsten and the great unknown took a seriously detailed look at beaded flies.

Just occasionally we included complex mathematics and got serious.

In the same vein sometimes I took the view that what was really needed was some “talking turkey” and of all the limitations of most fly anglers it is my belief that it is their casting that provides the most trouble, and creates the greatest limitation. Fly Casting Is Yours letting you down? An exploration of why it is that people don’t tend to sort out their casting once and for all. Maybe not what people want to hear but more than likely what they should, call it social responsibility or maybe crass marketing of my book “Learn to Fly Cast in a Weekend”, either way that post still gets quite a bit of attention.

Finally there were a few bits about flies and fly tying, you can’t really have a blog about fly fishing without including some stuff on flies and fly tying I suppose.  Flies, Compara’ and Spun Duns. A pretty detailed look at what I consider to be some of the very best dry flies ever invented and a step away from the more normal Halfordian, Catskill style and parachute patterns.

All in all it has been a busy year, those weeks seemed to whizz by and often times fishing took a back seat, having something worthwhile to write about was on occasion a struggle when I hadn’t been on the water. But now a year later I hope that those efforts provided all the readers with something of interest, something to amuse and occasionally something that really did help you enjoy your fishing more and improve your catch rate.

When I was a child the recipe for our Christmas stockings went along the lines of: Something to eat, something to play with now, something to use long into the future, something educational and something frivolous and my mother would try to include all those things. Hopefully the mix of this blog hasn’t been too different.

Variety is as they say “the spice of life” and one hopes that in writing this blog over the past twelve months I have achieved enough variation to entertain, educate, annoy, amuse and stimulate the readership. Thank you to those who have supported the blog and taken time out to read the musings contained within. If you are a newcomer then I hope that some of the past posts will still prove worthy of your time and that future blogs will prove to be better as experience grows.

Thank you all and happy Birthday “Paracaddis”.

Comparant Magic

April 20, 2010

My mother told me that “little things amuse little minds” which means then that I must have a somewhat  stunted cerebral ability because little things, or more specifically, “little flies” provide me with a good deal of amusement, well if not amusement at least entertainment. On occasion they also provide a modicum of success on the tricky waters of the Limietberg as well.

Take this past Sunday when I was privileged to guide Eton Price on a trip to the river. The day was glorious, a “Champagne Day”, one of those pre-winter dawns of clear blue skies and light winds which make autumn such a wonderful time to be out and about in the wilds of the Western Cape.

The sort of day when it all seems too good and one wonders if there isn’t some celestial payback coming for being afforded such and opportunity.

That payback seemed to be in the form of an approaching cold front, there was no sign of it in the skies, at least to my uneducated meteorological mind but the fish were having none of it. The numbers of fish moving as the sun hit the water, usually a switch that turns them on and gets them out in the current feeding hard was very limited.

Although we saw a few fish they were not there in numbers and the ones that were in range had a nasty tendency to “do a runner” before a line was cast and opportunities were limited. Eton spent some considerable time fishing over a really good fish that was feeding mostly in the surface film, ignoring our offerings despite fly changes and eventually did eat a nymph, but after so many casts the take came as something of a surprise and the chance was lost.

It was a struggle to be sure, not a lot of targets and those which were out and about on the fin were being particularly “ornery” making for few chances and limited ones at that, not the easiest introduction to Western Cape streams.  Mind you at the back end of the season in low water and after nearly eight months of consistent catch and release fishing this is a tough place to play. School fees are in order and minor mistakes and poor presentation cost a lot.

Eventually after consistently searching for feeding trout we broke the duck but it was hard going and we certainly spooked more of those target fish than we hooked, not that surprising but what was making it particularly tricky was that the opportunities were so few and far between that it was difficult to establish a rhythm or to “get one’s eye in”.

However we persevered, or more particularly Eton did, I was just shouting instructions and trying to spot the odd fish, when we came to a long still pool half way up our designated beat. This pool, like so many others on the stream when the water is still low, held good numbers of trout. In fact embarrassingly good numbers given that we couldn’t get near them, probably thirty fish in our sights with no chance of fooling one in the clear water.

There was however some hope, the fish in this particular run do on occasion make forays into the slightly flowing currents at the top of the pool to feed and eventually we spotted a fish lying on the far side in a small current lane, feeding sporadically and at least in sufficiently wrinkled water to offer some chance of a cast without scaring the living daylights out of the fish.

By now though we had become a little cagey ourselves and before the cast was made the leader was lengthened to ludicrous proportion, the tippet fined down to a good amount  of 7X  and degreased whilst  the fly exchanged for a tiny size 20 comparant pattern. The fish had proven very tricky to date and the ant is a secret weapon that will sometimes overcome piscatorial shyness, it seems that trout simply love ants, enough on occasion for them to give way to their dietary preferences without heed of the consequences and the hope was that this would be enough to get this fish to make a mistake.

The first cast landed a fraction short but then it was a long throw with an ultralight outfit and as said one of my “famous” stupidly long leaders. The second presentation was right on the money, the tiny fly just visible in the flow at such a range. Without hesitation the fish dropped back and sipped in the tiny black and white Judas with total confidence. Eton held his nerve to strike lake, an essential element of hooking fish on such tiny patterns and the fight was on. The cooler water had obviously energized the fish, there being a little more oxygen available in the cold water and eventually the it came to the net. Not a massive trout perhaps but more than decent and well deserved on what had been a hard day.

The ant pattern is a dreadfully simple one, focused on providing the fish with the classical “two segment” profile that seems to trigger a response to ant patterns and a poly yarn wing that allows the angler to be able to track the tiny fly on the surface.

As said it wasn’t a huge trout but it was a classic, one of those fish that will live on in memory, not for its girth but for the difficulty of deceiving it, the requirement of a quality presentation and the right fly on a particularly tough day. A fish, where I will be able in times to come,to simply close my eyes and see him, finning in the current and inhaling that fly.

In the end that is what makes fishing worthwhile for me, not the numbers of the fish or the size of them but those glorious moments when the dedication , the hard work, the practice and the accumulation of understanding of fish come together to achieve success.

“I just love it when a plan comes together”.. Well done to Eton on his first foray onto our tricky waters, it isn’t always that tough but just in case it is well worth keeping a few of those tiny ants in the corner of your fly box, they can despite their size sometimes save the day.

The Apparent Failure of Logic?

December 13, 2009

Rob's superb stream rainbow, but it raises questions about standard stream fishing logic.

Here I was, waxing lyrical about the way trout seem to learn from their mistakes, the effects of catch and release and a logical approach to what trout may “think” and then along  comes an incident that puts the entire process in the shredder. Or at least apparently so.

Small flies work better don’t they?

I have been firmly convinced for a long time that as catch and release fishing continues so the fish become more discerning and a good deal more tricky to fool.  One of the major tactics on dedicated Catch and Release  streams then is to “go smaller”. Tiny flies are frequently more effective on “educated trout”, simply in my view because most anglers avoid fishing micro flies much of the time. They are troublesome to tie (or obtain) and tricky to see on the water and the majority of fly fishers will then eschew the advantages in favour of patterns that they can more readily keep an eye on. So the theory goes that the fish start to realize that large tasty looking bugs, out of sync with the real insects present on the stream are likely to result in a stabbing pain in the nose and consequently “learn” to avoid them.

All well and good, perfectly logical in my book and one of the few things on which  a fly angler can pretty much “hang his hat”. Small is in general better, except when it isn’t..

The story:

Recently my very good mate Mike was fishing a local stream as the water levels dropped from late seasonal rain. With him his fishing buddy Rob, a man of some piscatorial aptitude but equally one who tends not to get bogged down with the minutiae of the sport, taking a rather generalist and pragmatic view of things. One of those happy go lucky rod wielders who are likely to throw caution to the wind and end up out fishing you if you aren’t darned careful.

So it was that with the water rather on the high side of fishable the two compatriots set about working their way upstream, on a particularly good, and often technically demanding stream. They fished a variety of methods, Czech Style nymphing, Mono nymphing, Dry fly and dropper rigs and all sorts as the water changed about them. The heavy stuff in the faster pockets and more generalist approaches to the slower sections, normally one might expect the fishing to be  a tad more easy in the higher water but at the same time presentation of the fly under such circumstances can be something of a struggle.

Apparently at some point, Rob, having battled to keep his dry fly afloat under the anchor like influences of his heavy nymph, tied onto the leader a fly of not inconsequential proportion. In fact Mike described the fly to me as an “overdressed, large (size 10), baby hedgehog pattern”.   A fly that no self respecting and well educated trout should so much as sniff at and indeed they didn’t. For most of the day not a fish even looked at this veritable monstrosity, they all came to the subsurface nymph and the dry fly (if a hedgehog pattern might be referred to as such), was simply there to serve the function of a strike indicator.

However fishing along the edges of a wide and rather rapid run, which generally holds fish under the bushes on the right hand bank Rob was casting away merrily into the slightly less rapid run on the left when the Jaws like maw of a large trout confidently broke the surface and inhaled the “Hedgehog”. Mike immediately realized the fish was well above average size for this particular stream and screamed advice to Rob not to go for the net too soon as he was sure the fish was going to “do a runner” at any moment. It turned out that with some careful manipulation of rod and line Rob successfully landed the fish after something of an extended battle. According to Mike later, the effort was aided by the fact that Rob was using unusually stout nylon, somewhere around 4 or 5 X and far too thick for fishing these streams under normal circumstances, (I seem to recall that in the telling Mike may have suggested the tippet would be better used to tie up a small boat, but that could be simply my imagination).  However, not withstanding that he was breaking all the rules, massive fly, thick leader etc, there was Rob standing in the stream with the trout of , if  not  a lifetime, at least the fish of the season.

One could easily write off the episode as simply good fortune, the fish starving after a long winter (although it was far from skinny), the water a tad coloured and running high, it at first glance puts a spanner in the works of all my thoughts on selectivity, presentation and the educated trout.

Or to misquote a popular if negative phraseology “It is a good theory, watch some B******* spoil it.”

To almost all regular fishers of these waters, catching such a fantastic fish with such gear is near to heresy so why should the trout show such aberrant disregard for what we all assume to be perfect logic?

This post sponsored by Inkwazi Fly Fishing Safaris

Perhaps trout only learn what we choose to “teach” them?

I think that it may just be that over the years the practice of catch and release combined with the ever continuing “arms race’ between angler and quarry has meant that for much of the time, more and more anglers are avoiding really large flies. So that where in the past fish have learned that consumption of large , even if apparently real, flies, is an unwarranted risk, now they would rarely see a massive fly on the water that wasn’t indeed real. It is possible that having taken advantage of the odd windfall of a large beetle, dragonfly or perhaps hopper over the years without any ill effect a fish such as the one described would feel confident in inhaling a relatively massive pattern.

I can’t profess to understand trout, but I do have an inherent belief that few things happen in the natural world that are not logical, even if we as observers cannot see that logic, and it strikes me that if this spectacular fish ate Rob’s imitation then there has to be a logical explanation as to why.

To me it may be an indication that larger flies may well start to make something of a comeback on our waters, at least until everyone starts to use them and then the fish will wise up again and the cycle will be repeated.

More food for thought I suppose, but perhaps these vagaries are what in the end makes fly fishing for trout such an entertaining pursuit. It sometimes appears to be as illogical as female shopping behavior, but I think that I may just be getting some understanding of the trout and the shopping thing is still a mystery. Perhaps that is at least some sort of progress?

Do Trout Learn?

November 17, 2009

This post sponsored by Inkwazi Fly Fishing Safaris

Thoughts on selectivity.

I have fished, for the better part of my angling career, on the crystal clear mountain headwaters in the Limietberg reserve outside of Cape Town. These are, in many ways, typical freestone streams, containing a self sustaining population of wild, if not actually indigenous trout, with good but limited insect hatches and water that rarely gets more than a little discoloured even in the heaviest rains.

In the early years the rivers allowed for catch and kill fishing, anything over ten inches was fair game, as likely as not going to end up in a pan with some almonds. Fishing pressure was relatively low and frequently the fish’s first mistake would as likely be its last. We fished these streams with a rapid and casual style, any fly large enough to see and buoyant enough to float well in the pockets would do, size 12 Rat Faced McDougals, Humpies and Royal Wulffs were standard fare.

Presentation was limited to chucking the fly back to the same spot if we missed a take, perhaps going into a slightly more focused crouch in preparation for the hook up, which was near inevitable.. The fish would always “come again”, and of course we were masters of the art. It wasn’t uncommon to head out for the day with little more than some 5X tippet, a handful of large bushy flies and the odd weighted nymph. The nymphs were of course a last resort for unexpected high water, we were dry fly purists and only resorted to fishing “bait’ in extremis.

It was at about this time that I wrote a piece about selectivity of trout, or to be more accurate, about the lack of it, suggesting that the primary reason for a trout’s refusal to eat one’s imitation was simply a reflection on the inability of the angler to present the fly properly. We weren’t entirely without finesse, if the fish were being particularly ornery we might even change the #12 Humpy for a #14, what we thought of as “fishing fine”.

As I have commented before, if you are an outspoken and rash writer you are going to get things wrong at least some of the time and on reflection I couldn’t have been more incorrect about the subject of trout selectivity. What we had was a near wild stream with catch and kill in operation and some really pretty uneducated fish. The fishery lacking both the angling pressure and the catch and release philosophy that would in time change things around.

The proverbial “lights” started to come on with the advent of catch and release fishing in earnest, something for which myself and a few other dedicated souls campaigned rigorously. As CAR became common practice, and then in fact regulated, things started to change on the streams.

A fish that would have previously not had the chance to survive its errors now had opportunity to change its behavior based on experience and over time change they did. Those suicidal charges of gay abandon at our overly large and hardly imitative patterns started to wane, even the fish which took the flies, if missed, rarely came back for a second time and we started to worry more about leader designs, tippet diameters and actually imitating the flies on the water some of the time.

Hopper patterns, favourites for years due to their size and visibility started to work less well unless there were actually hoppers about and the rise forms of the fish changed from obvious splashy affairs to subtle glints of light on the surface of the stream. The average size of the fish grew too and it became not uncommon to find fish up to 20 inches, making languid rolling rise forms to invisible insects, ignoring our offerings (Ignoring them even if you went to the extreme of a size 14 Humpy and stretched your budget to the inclusion of some 6X tippet.) Nope the fish were getting larger, more numerous and a mite smarter and there wasn’t anything much one could do to ignore the fact. It became obvious that not only do trout have the ability to be selective, in fact I would suggest that they always are to a degree, but that they can learn to be more selective. Or at least if not learn to be so, they can modify their behavior in a manner which can only be described in human terms as “learning”, even if it is in reality some subtle evolutionary trait.

So I had to swallow some crow and admit that trout can be selective, in fact trout are selective and there is a subtle difference between the two points of view.

Firstly it seems to me that fish are by default selective. That is to say that at one end of the scale they are selective enough not to eat bananas and on the other they could be selective enough only to eat the real insects, in which case they would prove uncatchable. I am now of the opinion that all fish are selective to some degree between those two extremes and that environmental factors, such as the availability of food, angling pressure and even the sophistication of the average fishermen all contribute to where on that scale the fish’s selectivity lies at any given time.

Running the risk of applying human logic and thought processes to a cold blooded creature of perhaps limited intellect one has to try to think about what would make a fish selective and what cues it may use to decide what to eat and what to leave well alone.

For the sake of the discussion, you will forgive me if it appears that I ascribe more intelligence to the fish than I should, but I simply don’t know of a better way of describing what one can observe on the stream. So if I use the term “thought” when discussing a trout’s behavior, it doesn’t imply that they are actually thinking in human terms, but then again, as said, it doesn’t imply that they are definitely not thinking either.

So hypothetically, a trout living undisturbed in a remote stream doesn’t really have to consider much about what it eats, one would presume that early in its development it would eat stick s and stones and leaves, various items of aquatic detritus and then recognize that it lacked any real food value.

Much as small children may eat crayons or sand, the fish would come to recognize what was good to eat and what not, what provided some energy and what didn’t. The mistakes easily resolved by the simple act of spitting out the offending article until a “résumé ” of edible items was stored for future reference.

The system isn’t perfect, I still have a friend who professes to like crayons, although these days he is discerning enough to only eat the black ones.

So I believe that not only would a fish end up with a library of good things to eat but also that the fish would have some “favourites” in the same way that some of us dislike olives but will go to some effort to get hold of smoked salmon for example.

One only has to witness the wayward and out of character manner in which some trout approach the limited calorific value of an ant to realize that they actually seem to particularly “like” some foods more than others.

So our hypothetical fish, growing up will do well to try different things, avoid predators and get on with the business of growing larger, its dining unsullied by the interruption of an anglers imitations to confuse the issue.

Catch and Release fishing definitely affords fish the chance to "learn" from their mistakes.

Enter the angler, (one may well say “tutor”), his less than perfect imitations are taken in by the fish, but the problem is that they are no longer as easily spat out should they prove unpalatable. In catch and kill waters, now for the first time, the fish no longer enjoys the safety of making a reversible error, one mistake and its all over with no chance to “learn” from its mistakes..

Still some fish will be hooked and lost, the larger fish and therefore ,in a wild environment by default the older fish, will have survived such encounters with anglers and their imitations and will prove more difficult to fool. Again this is standard angling folk law, the larger the fish the more difficult to catch, (except for those which are stocked large and where their size is no longer an indication of their relative experience and sophistication).

It would seem then that on a regularly fished catch and kill water most of the fish will not have the opportunity to learn and the rare few will become more tricky to fool as a product of experience, should they be fortunate enough to escape capital punishment for their early mistakes. Now when our hypothetical trout stream enters the realm of controlled catch and release, (something of which I am still a firm advocate it must be said), the fish get to make mistakes without inducing their immediate demise and therefore have at least the opportunity to “learn from their mistakes”.

It would seem logical that in this environment they would start to modify their behavior based on what is good or not good to eat, apparently edible food forms which result in a hook in the nose and the waste of a lot of energy running about trying to escape are likely to be avoided and over time a repertoire of signals that warn that certain “food items” might be suspect must surely accumulate in the same way as a repertoire of what is good to eat does..

Back to our example of disliking olives, you may eat the first one because it looks nice and other people are eating them, you may even try again assuming that perhaps the first one you had wasn’t a particularly good olive after all. But if you find that you strongly dislike the taste the second or third time you will eventually select not to consume them. The oval shape, olive colouration and the red pimento in the middle are all cues to you that it isn’t something that you want to eat and you will avoid them..

So it is , I am sure, the same with trout, they eventually build a repertoire of what is good to eat and what not and a variety of signals or cues which help them make that decision.. knowing what you can safely eat, must by default be a natural response for all animals on the planet if they are to survive. So I suppose that it behooves the angler to try to get some idea of what cues fish use to identify food and which cues might alert them to the idea that not all is well. I will discuss this further in a later post.