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Another chapter from BITCH-CREEK NYMPHING & THE MILLENNIUM BUG (isbn 978 062 039 5236)


“It beats the hell out of working for a living.”
– The Unpublished Epigrams of Surly Ghillie

It is one of those typical early September days, not quite spring, where a stray cold front swept in off the far south Atlantic smothers the high Drakensberg in swathes of driven cloud. Visibility dwindles away as the muted late-winter light struggles to filter through, refracting into monochromatic greys. Outlines soften to blurs, playing tricks on the sharpest of eyes. Up here in the hidden folds chiselled by the Mzimkulwana and time, it can get so bad that at times you can barely see a pace or two ahead. I have missed our own driveway more than once when driving home through the pea soup.

But for river anglers the enfolding mists bring many benefits. Fishing upstream, moving in pockets of swirling silence, masked in grey, even the clumsiest of anglers melts into inconspicuousness. Thinking itself concealed, Nature grows emboldened. Cryptic creatures that might otherwise seldom be seen, or that melt away at the least sign of human presence, are about on the river banks. The trout too lose some of their abundant caution and begin to feed with confidence.

Dressed against the cold, we follow the river away from the dawn, moving slowly upstream, rolling short casts into riffles, dancing a small deerhair caddis upon the currents and teasing a deep-sunk olive nymph through dark undercuts flanking the longer runs. The fish are mostly small, but feisty and so abundant that we lose count of the numbers released as we push upstream.

Moving through the high grasses into a copse of leucasidia – called by the Zulu, nhinchi and by by the Afrikaner, ouhout – we pause between thick, furred, bluegreen leafage. Water droplets condensed into necklaces fringe every branch,
every leaf, every stem. But dressed in chest waders, with collars turned against the damp, we are as snug as if we had stayed back home in front of a hearth. Just upstream of the lake, beyond thick reedbeds, the river bank falls steeply, cutting through red clays. On its vertical face, excavated in the clays kingfishers keep nests down earthen burrows. In this one bank, within fifty metres of each other, pied, malachite and giant kingfishers have all dug in, clearly finding conditions to their liking. Chalky white streaks against the rich red soil mark the active nesting sites. Though it is still perhaps too early in the year, we pause a while, hoping for a glimpse of the birds.

A well-worn otter trail runs along the river bank, with abraded slides sinuously weaving in and out of the runs and deeper pools. We have found an otter’s dung midden. Fresh scat gives testimony that the animals are around. Curiosity impels us to take a twig and sift through the bleached white remnants of previous meals that litter the river bank with small parcels of crushed crab carapace, delicate porcelain splinters of frog and fish bone, and occasionally fragments of duck eggshell or a few dishevelled feathers. Everywhere the pungent presence of otter lingers along the trail. The pug-marks identify their owner as a Cape clawless.

In the canopy all around, hidden in the mist, a euphony of birds give voice: here a pair of red-billed woodhoopoes, black jewels with throaty gurgles not unlike a half-blocked drain; there a thick-billed, white-throated raven, revealed by falsetto rasps; and further off, piping softly in the grass, redwing francolin and quail. Later, in midsummer, the thicket will shrill with singing cicadas, their ancient call as hard and brassy as a midday sun. An unseen reedbuck, testing zephyrs downwind, whistles in alarm then bolts, crashing through the reeds, its passing marked by snapping stems. Perhaps it
caught our scent.

We push ahead, moving away along the trail. But before leaving the gnarly thicket, a rustle makes us prick our ears and look ahead. Coming our way, the swaying eragrostis alerts us to something moving towards us down the trail.
Taking a half pace sideways, stepping just off the trail, we freeze. Hardly daring to breathe we watch the swaying grasses. Upon us almost instantly, and gone just as quickly, a fully-grown otter all but steps over our feet, scuttling down his path slicker than a greased weasel. The grasses sway, marking his passing, then abruptly all is still. The otter, bare metres away, has paused, vigilant, listening, probing the breeze through a mute snarl. He barks, a rasping, guttural cough, and vaults for the water. In a trice he is gone, dissolved in the river, leaving only ripples lapping across the pool and lingering in memory the image of his blunt face softened by long, silver, bristling whiskers.

Moments like this define the dimensions of an angler’s world, remarkable not so much in themselves, but rather as an instant, like a card flicked from a pack, part of the endless store of wonder and unceasing surprise that unfolds and plays out upon the elemental Earth. Any fisherman who spends enough time and gives an honest measure of focus is gifted in the course of a lifespan with countless such instants. Once, bobbing lazily in a float tube, I glanced skyward. There, falling straight at me out of the sky with intertwined claws and unfurled wings, came a pair of mating lammergeyer, the bearded vulture. Like a great, tumbling, feathery Maltese cross they came, looping beneath a backdrop of thundercloud, lower and lower, so close that I could hear the wind tearing at their pinions, breaking free when I thought they must smash into the earth, banking and wheeling into the updraft that would carry them up thousands of metres, where as bare specks I would lose them again to the clouds.

Paradoxical it might be, but it is in his role of unobtrusive observer that modern man comes closest to a muscular participation in nature. Only when we melt into the background, stilling the mind and camouflaging ourselves almost entirely, do we even begin to notice the activity and interplay that make up the real world around us. Who was it who said, “I fish not so much because fishing is so terribly important, but because so much of our affairs and concerns are so terribly unimportant”?

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