It began as an irksome drizzle. My fingers slipped around the knot I was tying on my Beaded Prince. Then the rain started to get really irritating. Drops fell steadily off the peak of my cap and I slipped down the greasy grass of a bank and up to my knees in the river below the bridge on beat five. I clambered back up to get even wetter.
Two questions began to bug me:
One: How had I, in hours of checklists and packing and repacking, forgotten to bring my rain jacket? I hadn’t just left it in Banda four when I started out in hazy sunshine. I’d left it hanging and pointless at home.
Two: Was this the end of a great day’s fishing? Had I ever caught fish in heavy rain on the Mathioya before?
The answer to the first question came as quickly as I asked it. I’m getting older. I forget things. My colleagues tease me that I have early onset dementia because I show up at meetings without the documentation required. But with odd socks.
The answer to the second question came just as quickly and rather more violently. There was a sharp tug on the line I had clumsily cast in the middle of the river. Out came a bright fish of half a pound in brilliant colours. It fought way above its weight. I cast again, this time aiming for the slacker water because the river was high and other fish I’d had that day were in the easier flow. Same answer. Good tug, a zipping upstream run. Another, slightly smaller fish, but just as pretty, just as belligerent. A third fish came as my friend Ron walked by. “Every time I see you, you seem to be pulling in another fish. What’s happening?”
I don’t know. You get good days, you get average days, and you have days when you are just plain lucky. And the thing about being lucky is to know you are, and I was on Friday June 7, my first day back on Southern since it became a no-fish-zone of mud because of a landslide higher up in the system that churned the river into the colour of creosote. The fish that Ron saw me land was my 23rd that afternoon. I took 26 in all before I got back to the camp, bedraggled, bone-weary and elated.
They were all small fish. The biggest was 3/4lb on the bend below the bridge on beat five. The smallest was the length of a car key. But there were masses of them and Ron, Joe Njeru and his girlfriend Muthoni all caught them. They were everywhere on beats four and five, taking at the surface, projecting themselves polaris-like into the air to feed on bugs we never managed to identify. The pool below the stream that comes in at the camp was like an aquarium. I’ve known our river since 1985 and I have never seen so many fish show themselves.
And no calculation of our stocking patterns explained some of the smallest ones. They must be breeding in our river, which has to be good news. As the sun began to disappear from the valley, we sat round the famous camp fireplace and swapped stories and compared our catches, trying to find a common thread to the way the fish were feeding, and on what.
Joe Njeru is the most technical fisherman I have ever met – his first question is not what fly you used, but how long your leader was and what breaking strain did you have on the point. But Coachman, Beaded Prince, Connemara Black and Viva were some of the patterns, which brought success. Paolo threw some more logs on the fire as we listened to the rain come down steadily, wondering if that was the end of our fishing weekend. The water was high and grey when we came – not brown or muddy – just coloured nicely enough to conceal both fisherperson (pace: Muthoni) and quarry. As befits my advancing years, I was first to go to bed to listen to the drumming on the roof of, and the river.
The next morning the river was perhaps a little higher, but still not muddy, and the rain had stopped. There was a patch of blue sky to encourage us, and we went our separate ways, Ron and I to beat eight and Joe and Muthoni to cover our previous day’s tracks on four and five.
I’ve never had any luck on eight, let it be said. Beat nine has smiled on me, but beat eight has me grumbling at the ghillie before I’m half way down. This time wasn’t much different except there were occasional small fish. Not many came to the hook but a lot came to the surface. Whatever they were taking had to be about the size of an ant’s brain, because we couldn’t see anything winged or obvious. Maybe they were gorging on termites that had fallen in the rain the night before, but they were not in evidence. I lost one good fish in the upper part of the river and then Ron and I fished hard and carefully downstream until noon and, untypically, decided to go back to the camp for lunch, where Joe and Muthoni were both flushed with success. No-one sat around after lunch. All of us were on beat four picking off small fish. All of us.
Then four in the afternoon came around, the witching hour. The stretch between the waterfalls and the first bridge on beat five holds fish, and Ron had taken five in the big pool at the bottom of the valley the day before. After that there is a right hand bend under a bridge and a stretch of about half a mile that I have always thought of as the KFFC nursery. I’d been outrageously lucky there the day before. Joe headed down, promising to fish the Canal stretch of four on the way there and back (and probably both, I thought). Ron and I drove down to the bridge at seven/eight and he fished up and I fished down eight again, having lost a good fish in the upper stretch.
I got one small fish. Ron got three. But we both knew we had been lucky. Back at the camp Joe and Muthoni were in a similarly happy state of mind. We feasted on steak and salad. The fire crackled in the grate. Ron told outrageous stories about ice fishing in Canada and using live mice on a mini-raft to catch massive walleye Pike. Everything felt good and benign. Even decorating every flat surface with the trick coffee press felt part of the fun. There was no more rain, and only the river music that night.
All fishing trips have to end, the good, the bad and the average. The American fishing writer John Gierach once counselled his readers that “ there is no such thing as the fishing trip of a lifetime, only a lifetime of fishing trips.” I remembered that as we packed the car to leave. All of us were plotting an imminent return.
But leaving wasn’t as easy as going. The Church of the Assumption in Tuzo was marking its 25th anniversary and the road into the valley was blocked with matatus shepherding the faithful, thousands of them, to the celebrations. There was a party atmosphere akin to a crowd going to a Cup Final or a rock concert. Headman Mwangi, Paolo, Paul, Peterson and Cecilia, who had looked after us so well, looked on in amazement. They too had never seen such crowds. The only way out was up the steep hill opposite the camp, from where we could see the jam stretching back and out of sight. We drove the long way round to get out of the valley in countryside resembling Rwanda. The faithful came down every small track in droves on foot as well and waved and smiled as we drove the other way.
It was a special weekend and our happy lot to tell you that our Southern Star is back from the Bourneville bad old days. The camp staff are all delighted to see visitors again, and soon the record book will start to register guests again, and fish.
It was so good to be back. Book now, and let us know how you get on.
Joe Njeru’s first-ever outing on the Southern – a report
Friday: – I caught 3 fish. One small on the length of my palm, One about 6 ounces and on about 3/4 pound at the pool before the bridge on Beat 4 just next to the camp all using an olive Golden Ribbed Hare’s Ear. I was using two flies on a 9ft leader with 5x tippet.
Saturday: – I caught 3 fish. One small one on Beat 5 in the morning on a black GRHE. In the afternoon I caught two 6 oz fish on Beat 4 using the small mosquito fly you gave me. I was using two flies on a 6ft leader with 5x tippet
Muthoni caught a 3/4 pound fish on the Beaded Coachman on Beat 4
Sunday:- 1 3/4 pound on a small Copper John at Beat 4 pool before the bridge. I was using two flies on a 6ft leader with 5x tippet.
All fish released to fight another day.