The pursuit of wild mountain trout leads to some of the most beautiful, uncluttered, crystalline places this country has to offer, unspoiled natural environments, places where the air and water is clean, where eagles soar high in wide skies, where the only sounds and smells are natufres own. Here a rudimentary sense of connection to the big wild earth will creep into awareness, where the seeds of a relationship with the natural world will flourish – these inspiring places are also uncompromising, where man is the intruder, where the earth works its magic …. if you let it in, it will run deep in your soul.
My fishing story goes back as long as I can remember to the earliest worm plunking, bait lobbing and sinker flinging days with my father. But it changed when I first cut my fly fishing teeth as a young boy on the rivers of the Eastern Cape under the guidance of a close family friend, Uncle Lake. However, my interest in small streams was later fueled during my hiking days in the Drakensberg Mountains and inspired by people like Dr.Tom Sutcliffe, Ed Herbst, and the small band of close friends that I have fished with.
I am fairly often asked about my experiences fishing small streams. What follows is my take on some of the fundamentals that I subscribe to. They have helped me achieve a degree of competence, but there is always room for improvement – one is never too old to learn.
First off, I don’t pretend to be some kind of expert on the subject and I also don’t pretend to know it all, so what can I offer? I can tell you about those things that have worked for me, and those that haven’t. I can tell you about the factors that I consider important to fishing these waters well, understanding the conditions and developing the knowledge and skills – based on my years fishing the headwater streams – its not rocket science. I don’t bother with being overly technical as Thomas McGuane put it in his book “The Longest Silence” when referring to some who become pedantic about the smallest details concerning themselves about fractions of millimetres and grams, “don’t let the tail wag the dog”. Having said that and before I’m hung, drawn and quartered, I do believe that it’s a case of each to his or her own.
To understand the context of my comments they are based on what I have learnt from others and practical experience much of it by trial and error – I watched, listened and asked questions, and spent a lot of time on the water experimenting with what I’d learnt and refining techniques. Although I had started fly fishing many years before, my interest in small streams took off sometime in the early 1980s. My classroom were my home waters of the KZN Drakensberg Mountains, but also the streams of the Eastern and North Eastern Cape Highlands. I’ve heard it said that you get good after 10 000 hours – the “tipping point” principle. I may have done the hours, but whether I’ve reached the tipping point is debatable, the learning is ongoing.
I’m talking here about the tributaries, sometimes the tributaries of the tributaries of the larger well-known rivers. These are the thin blue threads in the tapestry of the back country topographical map following the deep valleys, through gorges and below towering peaks – here the contours are stacked closely together. These clear, cold freestone streams, perhaps creeks are a better description, that rush and tumble over riffles, through pockets, cascades and the occasional deeper run or pool are in places of natural beauty. The trout are wild and any 12-inch fish is cause for celebration. The occasional 14 incher or rare specimen above this, is considered a trophy. Author John Gierach pretty much nailed it when he said, “Your stature as a flyfisher isn’t determined by how big a trout you can catch , but by how small a trout you can catch without being disappointed, and, of course, without losing the faith that there is a bigger one in there.’
There is an infectious charm about the trout in these streams, but they can be difficult to understand at times and just when you think you are beginning to crack the code, they have the habit of proving you wrong. Almost everything you do in these waters will be at close quarters – its a given that you are going to stand out as Gulliver did in Lilliput . The trout have a spooky streak and a propensity to bolt for cover at the first sign of anything weird looming over them. Then, at other times they display a degree of innocence and become raspy and aggressive – grabby feeders with a kind of unpredictable split personality, not unlike some of us humans. However, it’s wise in these diminutive finely balanced systems, where the water is clear and the bottom never very far away, to relax, slow down, plan your approach and always use the stealth of a stalking heron – caution will get you within casting range.
I like to focus on doing the basics right, keeping it simple and fishing as well as I can, or as the trout will allow me. I have selected some of what I believe to be the aspects that should make your experience less frustrating, enjoyable and successful. However, it’s not an exhaustive list of the do’s and dont’s.
I have a modest library of books, many covering the technical aspects of fly fishing, and rivers in particular. Among some of those that are dog-eared and well-worn for the solid information they contain – ’Presentation’ by Gary Borger, ‘The Dry Fly’ by Gary LaFontaine as well as the writings of Ed Engle and Bob Wyatt and others. But it must be said that there is no substitute for honing ones skills than time spent on the water and learning from others.
Rods. I have a preference for slower, softer actioned rods on the mountain streams. They range from 0wt to 3wt and in length 7’0” to 8’9” both graphite and glass fibre. However, my absolute favourite is a hand-crafted Stephen Boshoff 3/4wt bamboo rod based on a Paul Young Midge taper. I would ideally suggest that a 2wt is perfect for all conditions on small streams, but if the budget is tight, I’d recommend a 3wt in the range 7’6″ to 8’6″ with a forgiving, sensitive action. I say this because if you are limited to a single rod, it will give you the versatility to fish tiny streams but also the larger rivers.
Reels. For my stream rods I use reels with click and pawl systems and are really only there to hold line. In these conditions reels are less important than the rod and line.
Lines. A floating line is all you will need. I use both weight forward and double taper, but my preference for up close and fine casting are the weight forward lines. The one advantage of the double taper line is that you can turn it around if the front section is worn or damaged – in effect two lines for the price of one. Rods and lines are a personal choice of the flyfisher and what suits his or her casting style. My advice before parting with your hard-earned money, is to try different combinations and find something that you feel comfortable with and that suits your casting style.
Leaders and tippets are getting down to the business end. I’ve been through the phase of meticulously hand-tied leaders, but I now use the commercially available tapered monofilament leaders. On these streams because you are constantly moving through the variations of water types, I settle for a couple of combinations that cover just about all without having to be constantly changing the set up. My two go to set-ups are in the range 9 to 12ft 4X leader with a 3 to 4ft 6X tippet. These will satisfy most conditions and if necessary, can be shortened or lengthened. For example when I’m fishing micro flies or the fish are being picky in thin, clear conditions, a longer length of 7X tippet may be preferable or in windy conditions it can be shortened. Having recently been converted, I’m now using a 2mm tippet ring attached on the end of the leader instead of the Perfection loop I have always used. I find that the ring not only extends the life of the leader, but makes it quick and easy to add or change the tippet.
Furled leaders – you are either a fan or not. I happen to be a fan for their softness, flexibility and accuracy and switch between furled and monofilament leaders depending on conditions. Local artist and craftsman, Marcel Terblanche makes the best I have used – they also outlast monofilament leaders.
Reading the water. To begin with, let me say that the trout’s basic instincts focus on survival – shelter, feeding and reproduction. In other words, inherited instincts and learnt-by-experience stuff. Things like what to eat, what not to eat and how not to get eaten. Then, for a certain period once a year, their hormones scramble everything in that pea size brain or theirs and, to the exclusion of almost all else, they concentrate on reproduction and ensuring the perpetuation of the species. The point I make is that if they need to store and recall information to do with survival then they are pretty sharp. The trout is usually way ahead of any flyfisher in this regard, so I’m serious when I talk of the importance of things like slowing down, observation, stalking and careful presentation. Remember these fundamentals, because they will help you to decide on an appropriate approach and presentation. For example, understanding the different rise forms, will enable you to determine things like where the trout are, whether they are feeding or not and what they are likely to be feeding on. It will help with the choice of fly. Think like a fish, understand its needs, anticipate its responses and know what your fly is doing in the drift.
I usually wait until I’m at the stream before lining my rod and deciding on the fly. Stand back from the stream while you do this keeping one eye on the water. Given time the stream will offer up clues to help with your initial decision. It may be rising fish taking emergers in the meniscus or adult insects on the surface, terrestrials drifting on the current, a shadow or flash of colour below the surface indicating the fish are feeding on nymphs or rising emegers. Keen observation is a crucial factor and will give you all the information you need to fish the stream properly. Look for the potential holding and feeding lies – structure, undercuts, current seams. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the fish rising at the head of the run, there may be a better fish holding in the tail, if you spook it there is a good chance it will rush through the run putting everyone on edge and you’ll be left standing at the starting gate. Fish all the water slowly and stealthily working your way up. If you do it properly the riser will be waiting for you when you get within range.
Stealth. For these streams I’m talking about a high degree of stealth, about sliding into the situation with a minimal amount of disturbance. It’s like hunting — a calculated approach made up of a combination of elements such as the stalk, the cast, the drift and strike. Drab coloured clothing, not necessarily full camo, is recommended and as John Gierach put it,”I leave the white straw cowboy hat and blaze orange hunting shirt at home when I’m going out to fish a small stream.” White and bright colours should be used back home for weddings and parties. Stealth, short casts and a careful presentation of the fly are important – take time to read the water, plan your approach, slow down, conceal yourself by breaking up your profile using natural features and bank-side vegetation and keep your shadow off the water and your rod tip low. Forget about dignity, it’s unlikely anyone will be watching so get with the programme and start sneaking around like a gnome.
Planning your approach ahead of making the presentation. I have said it before but let me repeat it, fish all the water from the tail of the pool with short manageable casts, cover the water ahead of you. Then move upstream by taking a few cautious steps and repeat the process. These enigmatic little trout just don’t seem to get used to anything unusual – you need to be thinking about this constantly and managing your actions accordingly. Keep concentrating on what you are doing and change your tactics if necessary. Be ready to respond to the trout’s behaviour at any given time. Another suggestion is that if you have to change flies or tippet, sit down to do it, preferably in a concealed position. Your imposing and unfamiliar shape as well as your movements will put the wind up the trout as sure as the sun will rise in the east again tomorrow. Once you have covered the likely areas or disturbed a run, rest it for 10 to 15 minutes and try again or move on to the next. On streams it’s quite often only the first cast that counts certainly the first cast is your best chance at a rising fish — after that, other than the village idiot, you will find the rest of the trout stuck like gum to the pavement and impossible to move. You can always return to try again later. I mentioned concentration, it’s worth taking a break every so often, have a snack and enjoy the view. Refreshed, you will be good to go and your concentration levels will be reset.
The places you will find trout are positions where there are changes in structure, changes in depth and changes in currents. Concentrate on these spots. In small streams trout are often where you least expect them. If the trout are not showing themselves, identify the prime holding spots. Search the bank undercuts, eddies, reverse flows and any quieter water. Drift your fly in front of and behind obstructions. Cover the edges of the lanes of current, where the water cascades into the head of the run and don’t overlook the shallow areas and riffles before moving on. A good spot to target is where two lanes of current meet. A line of debris or foam easily identifies these areas that serve as a natural food conveyer, the trout know it and watch these for easy pickings.
Every so often you come across that rare flyfisher that possess some kind of sixth sense – what looks like extrasensory perception, but isn’t, nor is it knowledge as we understand it. But, without getting all mystical about it, they have the irksome habit of being able to take fish out of a pool you have just walked through, catching them in seemingly impossible places and knowing without any of the usual signs, that a trout has mouthed the fly – as if their neural synapses are trained to detect another intelligence.
Spotting fish. Concentrate, look through the water rather than at it. Shield your eyes from glare, using both hands cupped around your cap if necessary. Move your head from side to side to get different angles of view on the water Once the bottom structure and features become clearer, visually search for anything that changes or moves against the background, it may be a shadow or a flash of colour. You will find that once you have fixed a position to focus on, spotting the fish will become easier — your eyes will stop scanning the wider picture as they are instinctively inclined to do and you will begin to pick up on the subtleties of unusual movement, shadow and colour.
Being a little higher helps to achieve a steeper angle of view, which will reduce reflection and glare. However, this is a double-edged sword because it also makes it easier for the fish to see you. As I have stressed before, it’s critical to keep a low profile, so if you do move higher, try to do it in a concealed position. We mustn’t forget the benefits of polarised sunglasses. They are a must – apart from eye protection, they are a considerable help with reducing extraneous glare.
Wading is to enter the world of the trout. It’s like a spiritual form of aqua-aerobics. There is a kind of welcoming feeling about the tug of the current around one’s legs and the cold water against the skin that concentrates the mind and makes one feel more a part of the fish’s environment. And when you feel right, you fish better — at least, that’s my take on it and confidence does help. But, there is so much that can go wrong with your good intentions for sneaking up on fish when wading, that ideally, in theory, it is probably preferable to stay out of the water, but in reality, that’s impossible.
Remember, you are fishing at close quarters and you are going to be on top of the trout most of the time. They will see and hear you easily, so don’t splash around. You will need to tread carefully, easing yourself into the water — the slow determination of a snail comes to mind. Purely from a practical point of view, I prefer to wade in a pair of lightweight, quick drying, long pants rather than having to worry about ripping an expensive pair of waders — something that can happen easily in the mountains.
Once you are in the water, act like the snail I’ve mentioned. Take small deliberate steps, edge your way along and use more of a kind of sliding shuffle, feeling each foothold carefully before shifting your weight. You just have to be steady and balanced before you cast. Whatever you do, don’t step and cast at the same time, this can be a recipe for disaster.
Casting. When it comes to casting , if you are anything like me, seek the help of someone proficient at it who can teach you two of the most important elements of stream fishing: eliminating false casting and how to put slack into the leader as the fly lands. There are a variety of casts as well as aerial off and on the water mending techniques that will help with throwing curves into the leader and line to counteract that nemesis of all river flyfishers, drag. Im not getting into the complexity of describing the merits and when to use them, but the two useful ones that come to mind are the Pile and Tuck casts. There are enough books around on casting techniques to fill the village library, but all of this literature — no matter how graphic the explanations — is no substitute for hands-on instruction. It doesn’t end there, you need to practice, practice and practice some more, preferably on the river.
Today’s modern flyfisher is, for whatever reason, geared to distance casting and sometimes even his prowess is judged on it. Forget it because long casts over 30ft on small streams are not that efficient — there is a good chance the line will land badly and it is a given that it will lie across a number of lanes of current so drag is going to be difficult, probably impossible, to prevent. If you get refusals it may be micro drag, lengthen the tippet. When nymphing watch the fly line and the leader in the drift. Keep an eye out for twitches, but also for the fly line slowing in the drift, even very marginally – it’s more than likely a trout mouthing the fly. Accuracy is going to be compromised with long casts – use the shortest cast that will get the job done and get good at fishing long leaders because you are going need them.
The roll cast is particularly effective on this type of water and avoids the need for false casting. It helps especially in tight situations and when there is no room for a back cast.
A low side-arm cast is a useful tool not just to conceal rod movement, flash and shadow, but it helps with casting into a downstream wind.
High-sticking is something that will serve you well fishing confined pocket water, fast flowing sections and over shallow rapids, which is most of the time on these streams. After the cast, lift the rod tip high, keeping just the leader or part of it on the water. Follow the drift of the dry fly or nymph with the rod tip and you will get a good drag free drift. In this way you will also avoid having the current pull the belly of the line at a different speed to the leader and fly.
Movement, contrast and vulnerability are key elements of presentation – “Giving life to the fly”. By lifting and lowering or twitching the rod tip you can impart movement to the fly, making it act and appear different to all the other bits-n-pieces drifting past. Movement — and I’m talking about small twitches, not stripping the fly across the surface will, in most cases, attract the attention of the trout. Remember, trout are well-evolved predators that have to find food in a competitive environment, so any imitation drifting naturally with recognisable features, will more than likely be inspected closely. After pricking the curiosity of the trout, you need to persuade it to take the final step — movement usually provides the trigger especially while the aquatic insects are in the surface film and trapped in the meniscus trying to rid themselves of their shuck as they emerge. The same applies to terrestrial insects attempting to swim to the safety of terra firma.
What do the trout see – recognisable features, profile, size, maybe colour, legs, feelers and wings. You need to think of this when tying imitations of the aquatic and terrestrial insects. These are the elements that separate it from all the inanimate bits-n-pieces floating past. Trout base their decisions on seeing something that looks familiar, something that they have eaten and enjoyed before – in short, something buggy. Add movement to the recipe and you will help the trout to make up its mind through illusion and deception. As the late Lee Wulff so succinctly summed it up in this context, “Movement is life”. And, if looks alive, it’s probably good enough to eat.
Catch and release is supported by the majority of flyfishers today and many riparian owners are recognising the benefits of making it one of their rules. It’s a practice I subscribe to and encourage, but I wouldn’t be honest if I did not admit to taking a few trout for the pan when the rules allow it, especially when camping out in the mountains. I do carry a small stream net, not so much that I need it, but because it’s useful for releasing the fish more safety and if I’m wanting to get a photograph. I keep the fish in the net, submerged, until I’m ready to photograph it minimising its time out of the water for just a few seconds.
Whatever you do, don’t dump them on the bank until you have organised your camera because apart from damage and infection to their sensitive skin, being out of water for any length of time will more than likely result in them turning belly up when you are back home enjoying a cold one.
Flies and fly-tying. There are literally thousands of flies to choose from imitating the natural aquatic and terrestrial insects. You don’t need to know the Latin names of them all, unless you want to – it’s not going to help you catch more fish. However, flyfishers should be able to identify the difference between the insects, what they are and the various stages of their life cycle. It will ultimately help in design and choice of fly. The fly is the most important part of the web of illusion and deceit, designed to lure the wily trout into accepting a chemically sharpened piece of steel covered in feathers and fur. The creatures in our waterways come down to a handful of small insects. I favour a few generic patterns that cover a range of the naturals and tied with soft, flexible and barred materials, with a just touch of flash to reflect light on some, that help to create or give the illusion of movement in the water – simulating life.
The insight gained from a study of the recognisable features of the insects and developing an understanding of their habits, will enable the flyfisher to create reasonable representations. Whilst some fly-tyers aspire to exact imitations and I admire their creative ability and skills, it is not necessarily the recipe for success — the fly should rather be simple in design using the principle always of ‘form follows function’, and representative in general shape with distinguishing features, colour and size. Generally, sizes 14 and 16s are my go-to sizes all barbless, but for when they are needed, a size 12 size or at the other end, 18s down to 22s can make a difference. I recall reading somewhere that flies should look a little like everything, but not exactly like anything. In other words, a bug of sorts.
I favour starting with a dry fly because as I’ve said the trout in the fine, clear waters of our streams are seldom shy about rising to take flies drifting on the surface . I think this has a lot to do with the fact that in these waters’ food is a little scarce and competition is fierce. The trout will have a close look at anything resembling a bug, even if it means rising to the surface which, in these streams, is never that far away.
Micro Flies #18 to#22
Dry flies and emergers are, without question, my favourites. Dries like the Mayfly Spinner, Adams with both parachute and conventional hackles. RAB and Para-RAB, Elk Hair Caddis, Griffiths Gnat , soft-hackle spiders and Klinkhamers. I like them to float low on the surface, preferably in the surface film and for this I have a preference for parachute styled flies and sometimes trim the flies with conventional dry fly hackles below the shank to achieve this. It is while they’re in this state that the naturals are at their most vulnerable — as they emerge from their nymphal shuck and attempt to free themselves from the tension of the meniscus. The trout know this and watch for the easier pickings of struggling insects rather than those already on the surface ready to fly.
Terrestrials like the Wolf Spider, beetles, hoppers and ants have a permanent spot in my fly box. All of these flies display silhouettes that are likely to provoke a response from the trout based on instinct and familiarity with ever-present food forms. Practical experience locally, shows that terrestrials fished sub-surface are often more effective than their high floating counterparts. I never leave for the mountains without both floating and sinking versions of the same flies.
I treat the dry flies soon after tying with Watershed, but carry Loon Aquel or Lochsa on the stream for quick application if additional floatant is needed.
Nymphs have a place in my fly box, but are limited to just a few in different weights and sizes like the Gold Ribbed Hares Ear with a red collar (the Rooinek), Flashback, PTN and Zak. I’ve said it often that all you really need is a well tied Zak. It is one of the best representative imitations of almost all of the nymphs found in our streams. For sink rate and swimming flies in fast water and deeper holes consider flies like the Perdigon and GUN.
The flies I’ve included are not an exhaustive list of flies that I use, simply because I’m constantly attempting new patterns or experimenting with modifying old patterns, I suppose in the hope that one day I might stumble upon the silver bullet, the perfect fly — an unlikely event considering the fickleness of trout.
And, when all else fails
Ditch the load. Some years ago I ditched the traditional fly vest that had enough pocket space to include the kitchen sink. There were things in there that I didn’t know I had or what they were intended for. I now use a Filson belt pack for the essentials like a single fly box, preferably watertight, a couple of spools of tippet, floatant, weighted putty and strike indicator yarn. Attached to the strap of my small backpack I attach forceps, nippers and a New Zealand indicator tool. Then I have a small 10L water resistant backpack for a few extras – spare tippet, leaders, tippet rings and small Leatherman. There is enough space for a camera, snacks and drinks as well as a light rain jacket and a few first aid items. I’d suggest you consider including an amadou patch, a C&F splicing and knot tool, it makes life easy. I also carry a small tub of Loon Bio-strike putty that I use occasionally when I need a quick indicator or as a sighter for micro flies.
I have only just scratched the surface of a subject with many variations and techniques, but hope that you will find my thoughts useful when you’re next on a small stream or river somewhere. In my view, one of the most absorbing and fascinating aspects of this wonderful sport of ours is that it allows for so much flexibility based on your own streamside experiences and the insights gained. My advice, for what it’s worth, is stick to what is simply a common sense, no frills approach, but remain open minded and be creative. The key elements are to watch and take note of what’s going on in and around the stream, relax and slow down, think about what approach to use, about fly choice and decide on the type of presentation. Through trial and error you will, over time, develop the necessary experience and skill.
My thanks to Pieter Taljaard for his input and Tom Sutcliffe for reading this piece at my request and for sharing his wisdom and experience – for the discussion and adding value to my thoughts on small stream fly fishing. He finished by saying that he and Billy de Jong had shared a mantra while fishing in the North Eastern Cape many years ago, “Cast short, watch the water, watch the tippet, watch the fly, ALL IN ONE!”.
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