© Wolf Avni September 16, 2003

THE HEARTS OF HUNTERS

The rains are late this year and the greening of the  hills has been slow.  For months we have  watched

the steady, inexorable retreat of the lake’s shoreline, exposing by degrees, first the stone rip-rap on the dam wall, then the sand banks  up in the estuary and finally,  great swathes of sweet water-grass.  The dam spillway has lain dry since May. The Umzimkulwana river, from whence springs its life,  has been little more than a trickle since midwinter and waiting for those first rains to break upon the flanks of Mvuleni (Rain Mountain)  is about the strongest meditation that a fish farmer could know. It imparts patience and humility.

For those creatures that must forage, there is precious little nutrition to be found out on the steep flanks of the high  berg through the austerity of winter. All of Nature is drawn in upon itself and  even  the porcupines and ant-bears are made presumptuous  by empty bellies. 

But now, with cumulus building in the updraft over the escarpment, the time for stoicism is over. The first showers of the new season have just fallen, washing the smoke of a thousand veld-fires out of the air, so that the high berg stands chiselled,  severe and  proud above the cloud.  Within 24 hours the grasslands will blush verdant.  Shy grazers - eland, rehbuck and mountain reedbuck  - will venture cautiously onto the open meadow pasture in the foothills enfolding the lake.  We may even see an occasional oribi, higher up, just below the protea line. All their likenesses, daubed in tableaux of the hunt,  long ago by the  vanished San, on the walls of rock-shelters carved out of the sandstone -  by time and by summer thunderstorms - attest to the paradoxum  of fragility and  resilience that their survivals represent.  

The jackal, caracal, civet, genet  and serval  will all  cease their nightly skulking -  on frosted feet -  around the fringes of our habitation,  where, all  winter long, at the risk of an encounter with the  dogs, they ran raids on the compost and stalked the red- eared  hares that come into the garden,  searching for  grass roots and rhizomes.

Out  on the lake, great flocks of yellow-bill and white-face duck have gathered to feed on the newly exposed aquatic  vegetation, while,  against the grey clouds, a pair of fish-eagles bank and wheel.  Every pass they make over the water  sends the waterfowl into paroxysms that scatter in all directions.  The ducks are just too quick for the great lumbering eagles - most of the time.  Occasionally the winged hunters will surprise a juvenile bird blinded by the imprudence  of youth.  For them, it makes a nice change from trout and the ducks will stay till the Umzimkulwana again grows robust, filling  the lake,  flooding afresh  the exposed shallows.  

In the half-light of dusk, a family of otters slip from the reeds into the rain-mottled gunmetal water - but the ducks, made edgy by the incessant optimism of the fish-eagles, see the water-dogs  as they surface and stay well clear of the  sinuous surges that mark their progress and their intent.  The otters too,  are hungry. It is yet too early in the season for any abundance of the frogs, crabs, nestlings and the rodents that make up most of their forage.  They hunt for hours, ranging  over the open water. At this time of year, for them it is trout or hunger.  Like the eagles, they strive long and hard and are often bested by their prey.

I am struck by how much better they are, than we,  at sleuthing, how unobtrusively they move through their space and yet still,  how hard they need work for every small success. Their oiled sinews glint and flash as they  porpoise in pursuit of fleeing trouts. 

 I wonder if, like some of the luckless anglers who seem never to crack the codes, to whom stealth is not a strategy, but merely  a brand name,  they too snarl in frustration “The fish’ns up to C**p  here, let’s go find somewhere easier”,    

I think not, for while we may not always again see some of the sorry anglers who leave here fishless, there are others who know that every hunt cannot end in victory.  Where there is an abundance of trout there will always be trout predators.  Along with the kingfishers,  otters, cormorants   and fish-eagles,  are the  fly-fishers  with hunter’s hearts.  We see them in all seasons. They are a part of the landscape. Their focus and movements  mark the presence of the fish finning beneath dark waters, at least  for those that bother to read the signs.  The benefice of the surroundings is what draws them back and keeps them here.

The new season will see the fish fatten and grow fast. Much of the nutrient locked away in the vast weed beds has been released by the grazing waterfowl and will  fuel the primary production that drives the web upon which the trout feed.  There will be good hunting upon the Umzimkulwana’s  water this season.