A cool, young crowd is getting hooked on fly-fishing
Thanks to the craft renaissance, an expanding environmental consciousness and social media, this gentle sport is attracting a new wave of fans, writes Sean Christie
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that participation in non-contact sports was again permissible, I found myself thinking about fly-fishing.
Not because social distancing is more or less the objective of this centuries-old pastime, nor because Ramaphosa once taught Evita Bezuidenhout how to roll-cast on a stretch of Dullstroom stillwater — a video of which, once viewed, sticks in the memory like the dreaded candiru, or toothpick fish, is said to lodge itself in a certain part of the male anatomy.
No, I thought about fly-fishing because it had been the sport most on my mind when the national lockdown was announced in March.
It started in the chiropractor's rooms in January, when I spied, among the Hellos and Sudoko Digests, a magazine that was clearly about fishing, though unlike any fishing publication I'd encountered before. The cover of The Mission — the Cult of Fly-Fishing featured the artist and cartoonist Conrad Botes wearing a powder blue suit and black trilby and holding a large carp against a backdrop of Cape Town skyscrapers.
Paging quickly to the cover story, I read how the fish had been caught in the fetid moat outside the Castle of Good Hope, on a fly, tied to resemble a cigarette stompie. Soldiers had chased the bearded Botes from bastion to bastion, making for a perfectly transgressive escapade. I was intrigued. The last time I checked (a screening of A River Runs Through It in 1992) the sport's historical obsession with salmonids had been fully intact, as was the bias for pristine landscapes. What had changed, and how, or was The Mission what the French might call une journee unique — a dazzling one-off?
In response to the unsolicited e-mail I sent him, Tudor Caradoc-Davies, the magazine's founder and owner, explained that the boring and obvious image of fly-fishing that had dominated since the '90s is giving way to a "New Wave" — a countercultural movement very much of these times, with one foot in the expanding environmental consciousness, and another in the craft renaissance.
"After all, what's more craft-y than tying flies?" Caradoc-Davies wrote, in the same line inviting me to attend a private fly-tying evening in the coming week.
NEON CRABS AND ARTISANAL BOURBON
Whip it Wednesdays is a representative "New Wave" phenomenon: friends gather to tie flies, talk fishing and set the world to rights.
This one was hosted in a Tokai home, and the scene, when the gate rolled open, was striking: four large men standing at a central work table, with UV lights at every station to aid intricate work and each station with its own wooden device for holding spindles of thread, hooks, feathers, tufts of fur and sprouts of bright synthetic material. It looked like a cross between a veterinary surgery and a mardi gras sewing circle, with a bottle or two of Maker's Mark bourbon tipping things in the direction of fun.
The two most heavily tattooed individuals were fashioning giant lurid things for an upcoming trip to the Amirante Islands in the Seychelles. Needless to say, nothing in development remotely resembled the small, elegant flies I'd encountered as a youth.
"Traditionalists promote the use of feathers and fur but it's gratifying to see people breaking out and making use of the most unlikely materials. The body of this crab, for example," Caradoc-Davies said, "is made from computer cable tubing." A transparent creature with tiny barbells for eyes and monofilament for legs revolved between his fingers. "Bonefish go mad for it."
Many fly-fishers today are informed amateur naturalists, and one of the men tying that night — Platon Trakoshis — shared a good story about carp in Paarl's Berg river becoming wise to the fly he'd first fooled them with: the squirmy wormy.
"It's absolutely deadly, really a most evil beast," said the Cypriot-South African. But carp have memory, and the plop of a squirmy was soon spooking them, so Trakoshis paid closer attention to the river, noting a series of tracks in the mud.
"Being an entomology nut I knew they were made by dragonfly-larvae, so I gradually developed this," he said, producing a spray of variegated rabbit hair lashed to a jig, with metal beads for eyes, rubber strand legs, and a dab of tungsten to make it all sink.
'"I call it the Lalu Bug. It isn't a miracle fly, but put it in front of a carp and you stand a good chance of getting an eat," he said.
A discussion ensued about local fishermen who had "cracked" the feeding habits of local fish species once thought to be uncatchable — guys like Jimmy "the sharkman" Eagleton, an oil-rig mechanic and power-lifter who has a way with sand sharks.
"It's a million miles from Izaak Walton's gentle art," said Caradoc-Davies, but all agreed that the naturalists, the mavericks and the innovators have always been out there, it was simply that they weren't communicating with each other.
"Social media changed everything," said a piratical individual named Andre van Wyk.
"A guy nobody has ever heard of Instagrams a series of pictures of the shovelnose guitarfish he just fooled with a bait nobody's seen before, and it goes viral because we're all connected now, and everyone wants what's new. In the past, global repute took decades to earn, but now it comes overnight for some," said Van Wyk, who has a tidy Instagram following of his own.
Increasingly, fly-fishing brands are using anglers with significant social media followings as ambassadors, sponsoring tackle and trips.
"This has become an end in its own right for a lot of people," Caradoc-Davies said, "and while the brand ambassador backlash has been strong in the fly-fishing community, most accept vulgar self-promotion as part and parcel of the new reality."
Fly-fishing has become big business. In the US, the sport attracted a record 6.9-million participants in 2018, with adolescents and millennials accounting for the highest percentage of the 1.2-million first-time fly-fishers. South Africans are in the vanguard of those capitalising on the rampant global appetite for destination fly-fishing.
"You can go for giant trevally and bumphead parrotfish in the Seychelles, or fight monster tarpon on Gabonese beaches while dodging hippos and bull sharks, largely with companies founded by South Africans," Trakoshis said.
I asked for a name, and all agreed that the man to speak to was Keith Rose-Innes, co-founder of Seychelles-based Alphonse Fishing Company, one of the largest fly-fishing outfitters on the planet.
Rose-Innes's home office in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, evokes a nautical day-cabin — deep carpets, wooden fittings, a large piscatorial library filed behind squeaky-clean glass. It was a dreary Highveld day, and Rose-Innes looked like a fish out of water in shorts and T-shirt, his legs deeply tanned, sandy brown hair at surfer-length.
"It's a good life, but not easy — I was away from home three-quarters of last year," he said, apropos of nothing.
In the early '90s, adventurous young South Africans with means were leaving the country en masse — to work on ski slopes or crew yachts, and a few keen anglers started guiding rivers in far-flung places like Russia's Kola Peninsula. This crop included Arno Matthee and Wayne Hasleu, men who, 30 years later, are among the most sought-after fly-fishing guides in the world. Rose-Innes was among them, and his eyes were opened to the untapped potential in the international market.
"Fly-fishers are like bowhunters, a lot have species checklists they're ticking off, and beyond this they're looking to have an experience."
Delivering an experience is a fairly straightforward business, according to Rose-Innes. "Being able to see the fish you're after in clear water is a better experience than casting into a brown river. Hunting your fish on foot is a better experience than fishing from a boat. Monster fish species are a bigger draw than smaller ones, and so on."
In the mid and late '90s, South African guides were opening up the Zambezi river, the coastline of Mozambique, the inner islands of the Seychelles and later the outer islands. More recently, operations have opened in Tanzania, Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Gabon.
"If you go to a world fly-fair, most of the new destinations on offer come out of Africa, and they're all pioneered by South Africans," said Rose-Innes, who, with business mogul Murray Collins, co-founded Alphonse in 2012 and Blue Safari in 2018, comprising more than 200 staff, 48 boats and five lodges.
Rose-Innes has presided over a huge hike in the cost of packages, from $4,500 (about R75,000) for a week of guided fishing in 2000, to between $8,500 and $15,500 (about R142,000 and R259,000) today.
"In the early days it was all about finding the next destination and getting a package out as cheap as possible, whereas now it's all about sustainability — a scramble to find a place to protect," Rose-Innes said, sliding me some information about the NGOs his companies have partnered with on monitoring programmes, scientific studies, cleanup operations, and more — essential interventions, in Rose-Innes's view, given the impacts of climate change.
"We have the same number of storms but they're stronger. There's coral-bleaching from warmer waters, rising red crab populations, rising shark populations, decreasing tuna populations — a palpable restructuring of the world beneath the surface of the water."
Rose-Innes can afford to be phlegmatic, though. His most expensive lodge — an eco-lodge made from repurposed shipping containers — is booked out until the end of 2022.
Of all the angling disciplines, the fly-fishing community has the deepest conservation credentials. "We're good people to have inside the tent, pissing out," the legendary journalist and angler Ed Herbst told me, when I visited him in Cape Town.
Fly-fishers, he said, have battled water-thirsty farmers and developers in the Western Cape and Free State, coal miners in Mpumalanga, and often successfully, given that a high number of participants are professional people, with easy access to legal counsel and media platforms.
"The new wave of social-media-savvy anglers has only enhanced this historical role. If a winery leads untreated effluent out into the Berg River, someone with a rod and a phone will kick up a fuss soon enough," he said.
When I asked about current conservation efforts being driven by the fly-fishing community, Herbst suggested I contact the Natal Fly-Fishing Club (NFFC), which he described as "historically to the right of Attila the Hun in fly-fishing matters, but very much on the front foot when it comes to environmentalism".
Not long afterwards, I met NFFC vice-president Andrew Fowler in a minimalist coffee roastery near Hilton Village, KwaZulu-Natal. Before sitting, Fowler wanted to make one thing clear.
"I'm a total trout snob. If the guys ask me to come fishing for mudfish and barbel, I find an excuse to be elsewhere."
Fowler is a fly-fishing bibliophile, too — a lover of the lore. Bob Crass's Troutfishing in Natal is a book he uses "all the time". Tom Sutcliffe's Hunting Trout is a favourite, as is Sydney Hey's The Rapture of the River and Neville Nuttall's Life in the Country. In 2016, Fowler made his own contribution to this branch of local literature: Stippled Beauties: Seasons, Landscapes & Trout.
Certain characteristics of the New Wave irk him.
"A lot of anglers these days tick off fish species like birders tick off birds, and a few months on will not know what river they caught which fish in. I want to know the history of the area I'm fishing, how the catchment drains, who the local chief is and what keeps him awake at night," he said.
From such leanings, a commitment to river conservation has sprung.
"If you look at old fly-fishing books on the Drakensberg rivers you can see that people were fishing sections that are today regarded as terra incognita, on account of overgrowth," said Fowler, who after a lifetime spent scrambling through brambles decided, in 2013, to do something about the problem, starting the Blue Ribbon Umgeni campaign. #BRU (the initiative has morphed into Upland River Conservation) has since raised over R5m — money that's gone towards large-scale clearing of exotics from the banks of the Umgeni and other KwaZulu-Natal rivers, followed by the planting of grass seed.
I began to see that Fowler's traditionalism was part act. He recognises that the resurgent interest in river fishing, both in SA and elsewhere, is a product of the digital revolution, and that without social media — "and yes, this tendency to document and post anything with a swim bladder" — his river campaigns couldn't succeed.
"Most of our rivers are dying, and only new blood can save them. With all the nonsense that's going on in the world, a lot of people are focusing on what's truly important. For many anglers, it's the experience of being out in nature, happy just to lie back and watch the lammergeyers circling, when the fish are off the bite. I think that's essentially what the New Wave is largely about, and it's fine by me," said Fowler.