The lure of the trout

2009-02-02 00:00

THE popular image of fly-fishing involves someone — usually a man — standing on the bank of a dam, or bobbing around in an expensive, inflated float tube, trying to catch the biggest trout in the water. But for Peter Brigg, that is not the way to go about it.

For him and his fellow enthusiasts, it is all about hiking, for hours if necessary, to a fast-flowing mountain stream where the fish are small, lively and harder to catch. For Brigg, there is as much excitement in hooking a 20-centimetre brown trout as the still-water fisherman would feel if he brought one home weighing five or six kilograms. And in his book, Call of the Stream — a beautiful mixture of photographs, pastel drawings, anecdotes, technical advice and history — Brigg sets out to explain where the attraction and excitement lie.

“It’s ‘conversational’ rather than just another fly-fishing handbook. I’m really encouraging people to try the sport. The focus is on KwaZulu-Natal, the northeastern Cape and Lesotho — the areas I like the most.” And, he insists, there’s no elitism about river fishing. It is just what he prefers. For him, running water has an attraction that still water, however beautiful the setting, cannot match.

“I admit that I sometimes do keep a few trout for the pan, but I usually fish on a catch-and-release basis, with a barbless hook. It’s the moment of deceiving the fish that brings the reward, rather than dragging it from a pool and having it in your hand. And it’s a combination of things, not just the fishing. It’s the whole experience of being in the open, the solitude, the wind in my face.”

Brigg prefers dry fly-fishing, with the fly on the surface of the water rather than below, where the trout feed for 80% of the time. For him, the moment of excitement is when the trout comes to the surface to take his fly. Like most serious fishermen, he ties his own flies and in the book there are copies of notebook pages, giving descriptions of flies, tied by Brigg and others, with photographs and drawings.

I’ve tried to include flies by some of the leading fly-fishers who are passionate about small streams,” says Brigg. One is Ed Herbst, a retired print and broadcast journalist who back in the early seventies worked for The Witness and now lives and fishes in the Cape. “I don’t think there is anybody with the knowledge that he has on fly-fishing,” says Brigg. “I keep on trying to get him to come up and fish in the Berg with me.’

The first part of Call of the Stream deals with the history of trout in this country, from their introduction over a century ago. He has recorded interviews with figures who have been closely involved with the fish, their management and how to catch them, including the late Bill Barnes, who was the conservator at Giant’s Castle for many years, Bob Crass, best known to Witness readers as a trenchant letter writer but who was principal scientific officer in charge of research at the Parks Board and a keen fisherman, and the late Landale Train, who, for many years, fished the Yarrow stream in the Karkloof until the exotic timber plantations lowered the water level and raised the acidity to the point that there seem to be no more trout in the stream. The book touches on the debate about trout’s status as an alien species, but, as Brigg says, after 120 years they have found their niche.

The content page of Brigg’s book is illustrated with a delicate pastel drawing of a trout swimming over pebbles on a stream bed. I ask Brigg, who after school trained as a town planner and for almost 30 years was the deputy town clerk in Westville before he joined Art Publishers in Durban, whether he has any formal art training, but the answer is no. He is a keen and skilled photographer, but his interest in drawing came from a hiking trip in the Cathedral Peak area in bad weather. His companion knew the forester in the area, and when they were forced to abandon their hike, they went to visit him. “He was doing bird drawings in pastel and I was so taken with them that I came back and got myself a set of pastels and drawing materials. I’ve done pastels of birds for years and when I started on the book, I began to do them of fish as well,” he explains.

Briggs has written for local and overseas fly-fishing magazines for many years and always at the back of his mind was the idea that one day, he would write a book. One of his regular hiking, fishing and photographing companions is John Hone, author of Encounters With the Dragon, a beautifully photographed book on the Drakensberg. “I persuaded him to get on and do his book, and then he pushed me to do mine,” says Brigg. Many of the photographs in Call of the Stream, particularly those that feature Brigg fishing, were taken by Hone.

Brigg has fished for trout in Scotland, Wales and North America, as well as in South Africa. He says the beauty of the rivers around Seattle in the autumn is hard to beat, but his heart is in the Berg. “You’ll never get the solitude anywhere else.” There are dangers — storms, falls and snakes — and Brigg admits to being scared many times, but it all adds to the lure of fishing those inaccessible, tempting streams.

• Call of the Stream by Peter Brigg, published by Art Publishers, is available at book shops and fly-fishing shops. There is also a special limited edition, signed by the author and with an original sketch of a trout fly — for information on this edition, contact the author at

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