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The Art of Flyfishing

The Art of Flyfishing

So you thought flyfishing was about someone standing in a river waving a stick? Think again. It’s a big-time industry that boasts a piscatorial treasure house of craftsmen and artists. It’s not just about the fishing.

Words and Pictures: Peter Brigg

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I was reminded that there is much more to flyfishing than meets the eye, when I recently read master American fishing writer, John Gierach’s book Standing in a River Waving a Stick. His essays are written with wit and wisdom, noting the benefits of flyfishing as a sport, philosophical pursuit and even therapy. As he puts it, ‘The solution to any problem – work, love, money, whatever – is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be’. I like to believe there is some truth in his words, but it is a small part of a much larger industry.

Due to the demands of the increasing number of flyfishers – currently estimated at about one hundred thousand strong – what has grown in South Africa is a multi-million rand flyfishing industry that has created many jobs in hatcheries, specialist flyfishing stores, and guiding outfitters and venues specifically developed for anglers.

There are geographical areas and towns that have built their tourism around what they can offer the flyfisher, and benefit substantially from the income derived from visiting anglers. It is estimated the industry generates revenue in the order of a billion rand per annum and employs thousands of people – nothing to be sneezed at.


Flyfishers are also notoriously compulsive collectors of books – from standard copies to signed, numbered, limited editions – art, and modern and vintage tackle, some of it steeped in the history and traditions of flyfishing, no less in this country than elsewhere in the world. With it has come a wealth of angling writers who, since the early 1900s, have contributed to the rich and diverse body of flyfishing literature in South Africa, from historical to technical books, pictorial coffee-table books and anecdotal stories based on personal experiences.

It is generally accepted that Sydney Hey’s acclaimed and now hard-to-come-by book published in 1957, The Rapture of the River, is the all-time South African angling classic – a story of his fascinating fishing life over a period of some 50 years. Foremost author in this country is Dr Tom Sutcliffe, the doyen of flyfishing, who has penned no less than six books, with Hunting Trout and Shadows on the Stream Bed perhaps his most popular.
Other books recently published include Are Trout South African? by Prof Duncan Brown, Guide Flies by Tim Rolston, Meandering Streams by Roger Baert, and my Call of the Stream. These and the many other books are an Africana literary and piscatorial treasure house that is a part of our national heritage.

In his book, Fishing the Margins, Paul Curtis, through meticulous research, has provided a valuable chronological, historical record of this 100-year heritage – a read recommended for all who have a passion for flyfishing and angling books.

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Digressing for a moment, the problem writers sometimes have is the high regard others hold for the written word. The assumption is that writers know more about flyfishing than those who read the stories. The truth, though, is that they are no different to any other flyfisher, but rather that they know perhaps a little more about writing.


The interest in personalised handcrafted items has also increased and, with this, local craftsmen, especially builders of bamboo rods and nets, have emerged. Those with a love of fishing bamboo rods speak of entering ‘the dark side’, and caution of its obsession. Convert John Gierach, in his book Fishing Bamboo, wrote, ‘The handful of truly great fly rods I’ve ever cast have all been made of bamboo.’

Locally, Stephen Boshoff and Stephen Dugmore have become recognised as two of the leaders in their craft, building exquisite bamboo rods. Stephen Boshoff also makes beautiful nets with a combination of bamboo and hardwoods like besembos (broom karee) and wild olive, as does Deon Stammer and a new kid on the block, Andrew Savides – the band of craftsmen is growing almost by the day. It is not unusual to hear comments like, “I have a Boshoff, modelled on Paul Young’s original Midge taper.”
When asked about his rods, Stephen Dugmore of Freestone Rods said, “At the risk of straying into suspect metaphysics, I believe bamboo rods have ‘soul’ and fishing with one is a form of ‘soul-fishing’.” These rods have authority yet with a forgiving sensitivity in their castability – they ooze craftsmanship and heirloom quality.

The Boshoff’s and Dugmore Freestones have already made their mark in local flyfishing history and, apart from being practical fishing tools, have attained collectable status, keeping alive traditions of the past.

While owners think warmth and tradition, the makers talk more about tapers, milling machines, planes and forms, glues and varnishes, heat treating and where to get the best stripping guides. Those of us fortunate to own and use bamboo rods are inclined to formulate the poetry and romance, while the makers simply work hard to build the best, and continuously strive for improvements in style and function.


CL Artists & Craftsmen 1 (35)Another growing interest is collecting flyfishing art. A number of artists are now recognised as leaders in this field. The beautiful watercolour paintings and pen-and-ink sketches of leaping trout, or trout swimming in pebbled streams, by Dr Tom Sutcliffe, are in demand, as is the work of Craig Bertram Smith and upcoming young artist Gavin Erwin – depicting fish in the dappled light of their natural watery world.
Sculptor Chris Bladen is best described by the opening paragraph on his website, ‘Christopher Bladen is widely recognised as one of the world’s best wild-fish sculptors. Working in his Cape Town studio, this South African artist strives to capture the essence of each species, the nuances of their movement and subtleties of their outline, bringing them to life in bronze’. This is no exaggeration; his stunning bronzes are acknowledged and sought after by collectors worldwide, as is the variety of small pieces he crafts.

Then there is the remarkable success story of the J Vice, acclaimed internationally as one of the finest fly-tying vices, with rave reviews from fly tyers around the world. In itself it’s a work of art. The creator Jay Smit, an engineer by profession, designs, machines and assembles his vices in a well-equipped garage workshop at his home in Kloof outside Durban. He continuously strives to add to its functionality with accessories that will assist tyers in tying artificial flies, from small aquatic and terrestrial insect patterns used in fresh water to large saltwater bait-fish imitations.

This small selection of South African authors, craftsmen, artists and the others not mentioned, have used their passion for flyfishing, and their love of the natural world, the places and the people, for creative motivation and inspiration in their beautiful products and works of art.

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