In this excerpt from our issue 31 Undercurrents, LeRoy Botha looks to fly fishing for a breath in the space between life and death.
“No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” – Carl Jung
My internal monologue is splitting into a conversation between the opposing poles of my psyche:
“I’m not dead yet,”
“Yeah? Give it a minute.”
I look back at a dense timeline of dark chapters, laden like a minefield with plot twists, loose ends and cliff-hangers. As long as I see no fat lady and hear no singing, I remind myself how many times I’d seen this show … and then I go fishing. It works at least half of the time, and that used to be good enough. But I’m not gonna lie. This isn’t a joke anymore.
It’s a fucking nightmare.
A bipolar musician with a fly fishing problem walks into a bar.
Next thing you know, no more fishing.
Sure. It is more complicated than that; it’s not as bad and yet even worse than it sounds but, really, that’s it in a nutshell. I crack myself up.
Ten seasons into a slow-burn drama, I find myself at the beginning of 2021 both physically and philosophically incapable of going fishing. By the time my arm (among other things) is sufficiently healed to really use a fly rod, I’d fallen so deep into a hole that I couldn’t bring myself to do so. Even if I could, I can’t afford to because, between the injuries and depression, my productivity grinds to a screeching halt. Thus, halfway through Season 11, I am also financially incapable of going fishing. It’s dark. By the time I realise that, for better or worse, fly fishing had been a lifeline, I reach the end of it.
“I’ve got this.”
“I know you want to think you do, but we both know you don’t.”
Over many years, I developed some sentimentality about certain fishing spots and bits of well-used fly fishing gear. My favourite hat, backpack and boots have a lot of river miles on them, (to put it politely), but they are super fishy and I have no desire to “upgrade” them. Some pieces of gear are bones of mercy chucked at this dog by friends who wouldn’t see me go without. I treasure those. But exotic destinations and forests of top-end fly rods are not a big deal to me, for more reasons than these things simply being out of reach. Hype gets a lot of good people to a lot of good water, but these days, mostly, it dilutes my desire to fall in line. I learned that good fishing could not only be found on the other side of the planet which, I admit appears to be teeming with massive, willing fish or something.
To me, good fishing became a shitty cast in good company, or that sweet focus that only happens when I fish alone. Getting to drink from an ice cold trickle feeding a mountain trout stream, as though suckling from the very boob of Mother Nature. Or standing motionless like a majestic heron, in the middle of a vast mud flat – often on one leg to stretch the glutes and alleviate lower back pain that results from standing still for so long – in the vague hope that a spotted grunter will swim within casting range and that you’d notice it before it notices you. And then switching legs and standing there some more. It was all Zen and shit. I found it wherever I needed it to be. The decider was simple: where your head is determines the level of appreciation for the opportunities you get.
I’m not saying I don’t have a bucket list, or that I never swoon over a quality bit of kit. But what’s the rush? In some ways, the radius of experience seems to grow against the odds in any case.
Getting out is enough. Good fishing is where you’re at.
Consider, then, how earlier this year I used my bad arm to lob flies at big catfish living in a polluted river five minutes from home. Desperate for a fish, I saw an opportunity and I seized it. It was dirty and it stank, and it was fucking great. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your view point, I also caught a piece of shit which cured me of catfish fever before I caught anything more serious.
Barman, plot twist me. This catching a poo on the fly is the latest in a series of events that frustrates my ability to get out. Years of climatic degradation slowly dried up or even destroyed multiple nearby rivers that held smallmouth bass, yellowfish and trout. It also resulted in silted-up estuary mouths, which retarded tidal flows required for targeting grunter and kob. One after another, it felt like my home waters were dying.
Combine this with the cacophonic background noise of a decade laced with loss, limitations and lacerations, culminating in the crushing crescendo of the last bullshit two years. Eventually I find myself as inspired to go fishing as I am to drink my own piss. It’s getting loud up in here, man. Where I’m at, you don’t find good fishing. I dangle about at the end of that line for far too long before, finally:
“So I just found out …”
“What, loser? That everything you touch turns to …”
“… that I’m sick of you and your doomsday bullshit. Shut the fucking door on your way out.”
Desperate and out of options, I speak up and see my doctor for the first time in more than a decade. It helps, more than I thought it would, but my friends and family encourage me to go finish this chapter on the water. To say that I’d be a long-dead man without them would be a sacrilegious understatement of the gift they are.
When the things I cherish fade away, I swear, it feels just like a pneumothorax: the air can get in, but it can’t get out. By now, I know that death, divorce and losing your religion are just different manifestations of the same thing. I’m not empty, as people often say when they experience loss. I feel like I’m going to burst, while my heart tries to beat from the wrong side of my chest.
I’d give anything to breathe it all out. At once innately sentimental and dangerously curious, I realise that I must once again revisit my roots to resuscitate the explorer languishing in my shadow.
On the surface it might look like I achieve that, but it is, of course, never quite so simple. Something always seems to blur the line between a fever dream and things inescapably as they seem. Nevertheless, a soul-searching fly fishing road trip finally feels like a good idea.
I leave later than planned on a Friday morning. Subconsciously, I’m still very aware of the passing of more friends and acquaintances than I thought statistically possible in one year. Some fell to the virus, some to cancer, some to themselves. Some were lost in car accidents. Once I’m on the open road, my train of thought veers towards a dark but comfortable paranoia. Perhaps it would be fitting if the road took me as well. I love being on the road. I only stop for a pee and a coffee more than three hours into the drive and an hour out from my destination because, in spite of and because of these thoughts, I’m eager to reach the Berg River valley.
Over four days, I spend three sessions chasing smallmouth on the Berg. It takes only a few casts late on the Friday afternoon for the first bass to oblige me. By some bittersweet twist of fate, it’s the same big female I caught in the same spot two years ago.
Read the rest of LeRoy’s excellent Undercurrents in issue 31 of The Mission below. As always. it’s free.