Text and pictures Tom Sutcliffe
Fishing alone hasn’t got that much going for it, other than that you are at least out fishing, which implies you aren’t working. The positive side of fishing alone is that fetching your own flies out of branches is less irritating than fetching someone else’s, and you can fish at a pace that’s as gentle or as racy as you want it. And if loneliness sets in, you can remind yourself that standing in running water with intent beats filling in tax forms and a hundred other things.
I guess fishing alone also gives you time to lapse into a sort of Zen-like contemplation of life, though I tend to immerse myself in the fishing and don’t easily drift into any serious analysis of my problems or those of the world – which is probably one of the most important reasons I go fishing in the first place.
On balance, though, you would opt for having some company on a fly stream, if only because when you get back from fishing alone nobody’s going to believe you caught that real hog of a fish from an impossible lie on a perfectly drifted dry fly with your first cast, even if you did.
The Coldbrook Stream is a tributary of the upper Sterkspruit River in the Eastern Cape Highlands, and where I fish it, it runs for a few hundred metres below an ochre-coloured krans, then opens into sweeping mountain country. This is fine water. Fine in the angling not the literary sense of the word, though for me it is actually both, meaning it is small and thin as well as excellent. However, I’m happy to accept that it might not be everybody’s idea of trout water.
When it comes to angling, preferences are personal and a lot of anglers favour a river where they can feel the drag of the current on their legs and throw mile-long casts that have a good chance of landing a 25-inch trout. In contrast, the Coldbrook is easily fished with gentle five metre casts and the trout won’t average much over eight or nine inches, although they are strong enough to put a serious bend in a light rod. A 14-inch fish will have you opening a bottle of champagne. I got a 14-incher here two years ago fishing with Phil Hills and Billy de Jong and when I landed it champagne did come to mind, but only after I’d punched a few celebratory holes in the sky with my fist!
So this is a small stream, not a river, though I think of it as, say, an Alaskan river, only shrink-wrapped, and I can hold an internal debate on whether I’ve been any happier fishing anywhere else in the world than in this valley and still draw no real conclusions. There’s a sense of completeness about any pure fly stream that has less to do with its width or the girth of its fish and more to do with the fact that if it’s pure it will draw you in and flood you with its tapestries and fragrances and fishing. In streams like this you get the sense that little else matters, or gets any better, or more exciting, or lovelier than the moments you are on it.
Look, it’s something I can’t easily explain, but it boils down to the fact that any river or stream that is pure will be unbeatable in its own particular way, and while you might get some extra jolts fishing a famous river in Alaska, they will more likely come from encounters with grizzly bears than big trout. Put differently, I think you can be happy, within reason, fishing anywhere that’s natural and authentic, and that you can only get happy up to a certain point, which is when happiness blurs into an immeasurable emotion.
The day was bright and the Coldbrook looked fresh as my truck splashed through the drift where I usually pull over and park on the grass. I got into my boots, stepped into the stream and let the cool water heap up against my legs and run through my boots. I dropped a Mirage dry fly into the clear shallows at the tail of the run above the drift. The fly was taken by a really small trout, and then by another, and another. The fish seemed to be holding in the seam nearer the centre of the run, not under the banks, so I added a small weighted nymph under the dry fly and drifted it tight along the grass. With that cast I increased the average size of the fish I was catching by a good two inches. They were darker, fatter and longer, presumably because they lived tucked under protected overhangs. I probably wouldn’t have given them much thought, but fishing alone I had to keep myself company with some internal dialogue. I concluded they might be darker simply because there was less direct sunlight where they lived, and maybe fatter because the main seam of current ran along the edge of the bank and was slower, so insects would arrive more abundantly and be easier to snap up.
Banks do slow down or cushion currents in much the same way that riverbed stones cushion them. All of which is why, over the years, it gradually dawns on you that fishing tight along banks or with your fly tapping riverbed stones is always more productive.
When I finally got out of the stream I’d landed 18 fish. A couple were almost, but not quite, worthy of uncorking champagne, and one was so heavily spotted I contrived to get a shot of it in the water with camera in one hand rod in the other. It had leaped at the Mirage dry fly as if it had gone hungry all day. That in itself was also interesting from another point of view. Twelve of the 18 fish took the dry fly. Does that speak to some hidden trout dietary preference for adult mayflies in thin-flowing, high altitude freestone streams? It might.
The walk back along the road to my truck took me only a minute, yet by my watch I’d fished for nearly three hours. I’d covered two wide loops of the stream that eventually brought me to a point where, if you imagine the letter ‘S’, all I had to do was cover the distance between the ends of the two arms. There was some satisfying economy in choosing this arrangement in that, as far as I’m concerned, fishing has its ‘overhiking’. It’s the kind of management of a fishing day that has you smugly believing you are nearer the top of the evolutionary curve than the bottom.
When I got back to Birkhall Cottage where I was staying, it was well after 15h00 and the house was empty. A note on the door said lunch was in the warming drawer. I had a quiet meal reflecting on the fact that I’d spent the day fishing just the way I wanted – happily fetching only my own flies out of branches and at a gentle pace.
The Coldbrook Stream is controlled by the Wild Trout Association (WTA) and is an hour’s drive (52km) from Rhodes in the Eastern Cape Highlands.
Wild Trout Association +27 45 974 9290, www.wildtrout.co.za
Birkhall Cottage +27 45 974 9303
Source: Country Life