Wolf Avni MAY 25, 2004

IT ONLY HURTS IF YOU LAUGH

“I don’t know exactly what fly-fishing teaches us, but I think it’s something we need to know.”  

Back in the early eighties  an annual  fishing tournament - organised I think by a chapter of Bass-masters - was fished  on Sterkfontein dam in the dead  of winter.  Those spinner-cranking boys  could just not wait for summer and the warm waters in which their beloved bass deign to feed and so, with salmonoids the only game in town, they would turn their bass tackle temporarily to trout.  The format was simple, based on the familiar bass tourney model, with a point being awarded for each fish and a point for each kilogram of weight. Teams of two could fish any old way they liked, from shore or from a  craft.  The event was tolerably  popular and  in common with the annual Cape Snoek derby,  drew a vast and motley  array of vessels, ranging from glitzy deep-water ski-boats to rickety old bathtubs, more than one of which could scarcely withstand the treachery in  the  steep chop that  gets  up on Sterkfontein in  a north-wester.  In any  flotilla of that size, there will always be  at least a couple of inexperienced helmsmen and of course, occasional  boat skippers often misjudge their ability to read  a  changing of  conditions or the current sea-worthiness of their craft.    Invariably, with a decent wind kicking across the dam, craft would capsize, some because they were patently incapable of dealing with the conditions, but more usually,  because of the incapacity and/or incompetence of their skippers.   In my memory, the safety officer was generally about the busiest member of the organising committee, Diverse  sodden anglers would find themselves in need of an  ignominious rescue, being   plucked from  frigid waters to leave  many an expensive, overpowered  rig lying  swamped, undeserved in the viscous sediment at the bottom of Sterkfontein. , along with some serious investments  in rods and tackle boxes crammed full with  spinners, worms, crank-baits, buzz-baits,  feathers.....  whatever.

Among the throng of competitors, there were always a couple of teams who fly-fished exclusively. They  were  outnumbered about twenty-to-one, and were often the butt of a barrage of good-humoured banter from the bass-boyos. Yet they seemed to give a good enough account of themselves,  figuring with disproportionate prominence  towards the top of the daily team leader-board, at which point the direction of the flow of rib would, naturally enough, reverse a full 180 degrees.  What the hell! Who would chose to  be a good loser when, with  a little more effort and a bunch of fly-fishing tackle, one could just as easily  be a bad winner?

I still  carry a memento from my   participation in a  distant Sterkfontein challenge. To this day, whenever winters’  cold winds moan,  my shoulder jams up, just as it did that first time, when, with  a competitive ember glowing  far deeper in me then than  it does now,   I found myself fishing for two days solid in an unrelenting blizzard that cut through any amount of fleecy-lining and waterproofed sheepskin.  Stung by the sprightly   derision batted our way earlier at the registration table by some of my bass fishing mates and with  backs  clenched in spasm against the cold, my team mate and I fished doggedly and scoffed  loudly as each team chugged past us on their way back to shore. “The bass-boys were wimps, as effete and as ugly  as the fish they were wont to pursue, big on mouth and short on stamina” we told them, hailing  raucously  across the spray-whipped divide.  With tails between their legs, saner teams one by one gave way before the unspeakable cold.  We hung in.  As long as the trout continued to feed, my boat was going nowhere. The trout continued to feed and my poor  team mate rolled his eyes ever further back in their sockets,  shivering  uncontrollably.  But really, if there is any gratuitous sympathy going, I am by far the worthier  of recipients.  I had not an ounce of spare  body fat and my team mate was a veritable pork chop, a tub of lard with more than enough blubber for himself and sufficient left over to keep Nanuk the Eskimo’s igloo snug through an arctic winter.   

Verily, though trout feed lustily through the harshest that winters might throw their way, it takes a robust constitution to follow them through its  depths.   There runs  a fine line between manly vigour and life-threatening  hypothermia  - and though I overbrim with the former I have on more than one occasion made acquaintance with the latter. By way only of example,  I am reminded of a July day about seventeen  years ago, before global warming began to  take the edge off our brutal Drakensberg winters.  We were younger then and had little compunction in float tubing right through winter. I would dress my skinny bones  up in about six layers of thermal gear and then climb into a  pair of chest waders.  Swaddled in enough wool to give Shrek the sheep a run for his money, in shifts of up to six hours,  I would brave water temperatures that hovered around 7" C.   And so,  one miserably damp  day I came to be tubing off at the far end of the lake. I had been at it for a long time,  with meagre return to show. I had caught a fish every half hour or so - nothing exceptional, but enough to keep me working at it.  The cold had gradually clawed through all the  protective layers of insulation, eventually   chilling my body to its core.   Finally,  deciding  that the cold could  simply not be endured for another moment, I turned to fin back to the boathouse just more than a half-kilometre away, spooling my line as I went.  Suddenly, from nowhere, my fly was smashed viciously by an unseen fish and instantly, all thoughts of cold were entirely banished.  The fish was well over 8lbs and in the icy water,  its stamina  endless, it fought magnificently, running freely and powerfully.  In my cold-numbed state, it took more than twenty minutes to bring in, during which time, my legs  cramped into  a rictus that rendered them immobile. My sodden hands were turned to claws, so useless that it was all I could do to hang onto the rod, hugging it between folded arms against my chest.  Back at the house, watching through binoculars, someone had the presence of mind to realise that I was in real trouble and so a boat was sent out to tow me in.  It ended well enough and we all lived happily ever after, but it could so easily have concluded differently.  More than one careless fly-fisher has gone to a cold and watery grave, caught out by nothing more dramatic than inattentiveness.  

1. John Gierach.  Sex, Death & Flyfishing

The thing with Mr Gierach is that at least some of the  time  he  gets straight to the point, and when he doesn’t, his  detours take in a magnificent view. Even if they did not - and notwithstanding his reputation of being an ill-socialised reprobate, I kind of like the man just for his titles.