|A misty morning in the forest|
I grew up in the little village of Mhlambanyatsi (translated as “the place of the buffalo”) in western Swaziland. Tucked away in the world’s second largest man-made forest, the village was at the heart of a pulp manufacturing community which had existed since the late 1950s, an era when the country was under British colonial rule. I recently learned that the pulp mill closed down. In one fell swoop thousands of people lost their jobs and livelihoods. The forest still stands and the wood is now exported to neighbouring South Africa where it is apparently cheaper to produce into pulp. I hear that Mhlambanyatsi is a ghost town, the houses empty and falling into disrepair. It’s very sad, particularly as I have very fond memories of growing up in the village. It’s where I learned to fly fish and the news has had me thinking back to the first steps of my fishing education.
Back then children were simply left to be children. There was no internet, there were no cell phones or or Xboxes or any of these newfangled gadgets developed faster than I can keep up with and fashionably owned by every tween, teen and twenty year old. “Social networking” meant physically attending parties and meeting people. As children we were encouraged to spend our time outdoors. On most weekends we would take a drive into the forest and on some of them we’d do a bit of fishing, first with spinners and lures and later with flies. My Dad and brother would fish too. Sometimes we’d leave for the forest really early in the morning, well before sunrise (always with a flask of sweet coffee), but most often we’d venture off mid morning, taking with us the gas cooker, and cook a full English breakfast next to the water.
|A Swazi Rainbow, September 2009.|
On holiday from boarding school my Mom would drive me out to one of the “dams” (what we call a stillwater or lake in Southern Africa) and drop me off for the day with a packed lunch and bottle of juice or water. I enjoyed the solitude and peacefulness of fishing on my own. We’d set a designated time in the evening and always on cue I’d hear my Mom’s car approaching - one loose hubcap rattling on the heavily corrugated gravel roads - long before I would see it. It was usually at B2 dam (the dams were given the code of the section of the forest they were located in) that I would fish on my own. The evening rise in summer would occur like clockwork at B2, shortly before dusk. A small Adams pattern would always do the trick.
|Rainbow in the Net, September 2009.|
I had been fly fishing for about a year before the local fly fishing club was formed to better manage the local waters. The club needed a badge and the first newsletter announced a prize of a fly line for the best entry submitted. The winner would be announced at the Annual General Meeting a few months later. I immediately got drawing. I’m not particularly good at art but I needed a new fly line. I drew a rainbow trout positioned diagonally over a somewhat asymmetrical pine tree cribbed from a Christmas card and submitted it. The club’s first AGM arrived and I attended with my Dad. It was held in the small back room of the village’s main club. I recall there was a pretty decent turnout - the fly fishing club had something like 60 members in its first year. Eventually, proceedings turned to the agenda item of “Club Badge” and to my surprise I won albeit I later learned that mine had been the only entry so it was a win by default rather than exceptional artistic ability. Given the paucity of entries, the prize of a fly line was retracted and instead I was called to the front and awarded a handshake and cloth badge of my own design, the club's new badge. I had my Mom sew it on to my fishing vest as soon as I got home that evening. In hindsight I probably should have pushed my case for the promised fly line.
Two of the dams had actual names rather than codes. D13, the smallest, was affectionately known as “Pumphouse” after - you guessed it - a pump house on its banks. The other was mysteriously called Enrich, and no-one in living memory could tell you why. It was one of the larger dams in the forest, set in a small valley with a spectacular waterfall at the top end of the dam. People always said there was a leopard resident in the hills overlooking the dam but I never saw it or its prints. I wonder how many times the leopard saw me?
|Mount Baldie looking down on Enrich Dam, September 2009.|
Enrich is mostly surrounded by thick reeds and best fished by boat or float tube. I used to have a doughnut shaped float tube before U shaped tubes were discovered to be more comfortable and manoeuvrable. One day I was out alone on the water whilst my family were preparing breakfast on the bank, out of sight. The fishing was excellent. I had caught a good number of rainbow trout, and had learned that trawling a fly whilst paddling to a new spot could reap rewards too. In a sheltered cove, with only the sound of a faint breeze rustling the tall encircling reeds, the water bubbled and boiled not more than two metres next to me and a large, shiny, serpent-like creature emerged from the murky depths, and a second soon followed it. The “pucker factor” was extreme. I had heard that African pythons cooled off in the forest dams on hot summer days. If you’ve been in a float tube before, chest deep in water, you will understand just how helpless floating in a tractor tube can feel. The ‘pythons’ soon grew intelligent eyes, whiskers and canines and I was somewhat relieved when I realised it was a pair of otters. They were curious and playful and once I realised they were keeping their distance I relaxed and enjoyed the interaction. The moment took on a level of serenity as they stayed with me for a few minutes, observing me, before melting away through the reeds.
|Enrich, September 2009.|
The really nice thing about being a member of a club is that you get to know the waters really well, almost intimately over time. You're able to learn where the real hotspots are and it's nice to have some fishing water you can call "home". There was an old guy who used to fish at D2 dam a lot. In fact I never saw him fishing anywhere else. He would get under the tall pine trees on the steep right bank of the dam, where not many people bothered to fish, and nail the fish by roll casting one fly - a Mrs Simpson. I never saw him use any other fly. He wasn’t great at casting and his roll casts would slap down really hard on the water. Not that I believe he intended it - that was just the way he cast. I suspect, looking back, that the fish were probably looking out for surface disturbances, waiting for bugs to fall from the overhanging tree branches. At B4 dam a good trout or two could always be taken on a Prince nymph by wading in to the water under the low hanging pine trees on the far bank. It was always the first place I’d head to when fishing B4. It took a bit of effort to reach but there was usually a reward for a carefully presented fly. My best trout taken in this little hotspot spot weighed in at just over 3½lbs. I noticed that the vast majority of fishermen would stick to the easily accessible spots, or the spots that simply offered an open back cast, and it paid to fish the areas overlooked because they were considered too difficult to fish.
|Another Rainbow at Pumphouse Dam, September 2009.|
At one stage the club stocked a handful of golden trout into some of the dams. No relation to the golden trout of California, these are simply bright yellow rainbow hybrids stocked for their novelty factor. You could see them underwater from a mile away. I always felt a little sorry for them. They’re glorified goldfish thrust into a wild environment and the reaction to them is rather like the reaction of the paparazzi and fans to celebrities. They are constantly pestered and never left alone. Celebrities don’t have to deal with the attentions of cormorants or otters, but some celebrities probably deserve it more than the poor old golden trout.
Very soon after their stocking all of the golden trout but one disappeared from A4 dam. The sole remaining golden trout was a hefty chap, who generally held station near the shallow inlet to the dam. He probably possessed more survival instinct than the rest of his (long deceased) brethren put together as he made it past a couple of months, despite having had countless flies retrieved past his nose. Each visit to A4 furthered my obsession to catch this golden trout. I tried pattern after pattern and experimented with different fly sizes all without success. I wore drab coloured clothing to blend in with my surroundings and tried to be as stealthy as possible. Nothing worked until eventually on a day no different to any other the fish turned its head and casually took the fly. I remember feeling ecstatic but also incredibly nervous that the fish would somehow break the tippet or throw the fly. After a good fight it came to hand and weighed in at just over 3lbs. It had deep wounds on its side thanks to a cormorant. The sad thing is that I killed that fish and took it home to show people as I didn’t think anyone would believe me. A4 felt empty for a while afterwards. I don’t kill fish anymore. It’s easier to do when you’re a kid. Given the choice again I would have released him but I guess, for a golden trout, it’s only a matter of time before your number is called.
|D4 Dam September 2007.|