THE GRUNTERIST AND THE VOICES OF THE FLATS: A BLACK COMEDY

THE GRUNTERIST AND THE VOICES OF THE FLATS: A BLACK COMEDY

What does it take to become a grunterist? What does it mean to be one? And is it a good idea in the first place? What is a grunterist, anyway? At least one man has walked the walk, and it wasn’t pretty. We may never have had this cautionary tale, were the whole process not witnessed by A Lucid and Restless Bystander…

If The Original Grunterist were with us today, I think he’d want to know that we’re keeping our eyes on The River.

Oh. No. He isn’t dead. It’s just that somewhere in the early to mid-2020s, the silly fucker lost his mind.

Alive with spotted grunter and cute little coots, the vast, shallow saltwater sand flats and black marshes of the Southern Cape did something to him. Not just like “Ogh, it speaks to my soul, bru.” Something happened to him out there. It’s been said that what went down “changed him”. Some say, “He’s checked out.”

What I’m saying is that if you were wondering, this is where you find out what really went down on those flats. And if you’re thinking, “Well, that sounds ominous,” that is a reasonable instinct to have.

Gypsey’s, Clown Town, Pony Creek 1 & 2, Chanelle’s, Prawn Hub, Japan, Suburbia and Far Banks. For the grunterist, many years of solo missions were interspersed by team-ups with mates G and Joburg, and they eventually named every fishable flat on The River. It took a very long time to come to grips with the grunters that live there, but eventually it was only fair to say that they were digging it, and digging in. That’s in spite of the grunterist regularly claiming all sorts of things to the contrary. “I hate grunter,” he used to say, “almost as much as I hate fly fishing.” Back then, he was a strangely friendly underground animal thriving on neglect, with a penchant for alliteration, terrible jokes and messed up metaphors. And tangents. You weren’t supposed to believe any of it. Looking back, I don’t know why I did. And I don’t know why he didn’t know that that sort of talk comes back to bite you.

There are many fly fishing veterans who deserve sincere admiration, but I’ve become cautious of “experts”. Especially the self-confessed types, and online ones. The veterans know how unpredictable shit can get, but that experience leads to an instinct for good guesses. I respect that. They love what they do, because they’re entrenched in it. They talk about it because that’s what they talk about. Something in the way modern “experts” purvey “expertise”, however, just doesn’t sit with me. Some see them as heroes, but these days I just see monkeys in pain with smiles on their faces, hiding in coping vacuums where they get to pretend that what they’re doing matters. Call me cynical, but… wait. Enough about… that.

After a while, for a while, the grunterist became a sort of Accidental Apostle, spreading the Gospel of Grunter. Having convinced himself that he’s merely honouring the scriptures (or was it sticking to the script? Committing to the bit? I forget…) he, fatefully, shared the flies and ideas born on the flats. He preached sight-fishing and a quiet approach (inspired by the teachings of prophets like the MC-iah and Jannie the Baptist) to both the fishing, and to its conservation. Although he took care not to burn his spots, he also reluctantly accepted that he’d have to eventually share the water with someone other than Joburg or G.

At this point, something unexpected happened. Let’s say I know the grunterist partially because of the following detail, partially: he’s a guitar player, and he’s entertained tens of fans for many years. He was a different guy on a bar stage. So, it came as a surprise when, upon meeting a “new dude” at The River and going fishing, the grunterist got an almighty case of the crippling stage fright. He was no stranger to the original cardiac dangers of grunter fishing, and while he got along just fine with New Dude, some damned thing rendered him free of any working muscle memory or focus, and therefore, in no way capable of fly fishing for grunter. Why? Who knows, but it showed. By the third new dude, and the third fishless day in a row, the frustration also showed. Hard. Somewhere around this time, the grunterist must’ve done something, or said something, because since those few days, the flats were surely cursed. Tide after tide and then month after month, the grunterist drew the blank to end all blanks. It would last two years. And although he caught one, maybe two fish further away from home, it was clear that The River had rejected him.

It was true that more and more fly fishermen started pitching up since that first time he showed the place off. But if that was the reason for his failure, it was only because he told himself so. In truth, his confidence had given way to inertia; his way with a grunter no longer required creativity. He’d become an expert. As long as he went through the motions, something had to give, right? But when that fire isn’t stoked, it burns out and when it’s out, well. Obviously, that’s when it gets cold.

***

“The clouds are rolling in, visibility will be cancelled in a minute. It’s load shedding, fly man, flats style… But… Look. Belly-crawling grunters, ankle-deep, backs out the water. All along the edges. Do you see? So you don’t have to account for viz after all. Sweet!” Cast. Strip. A hint of weight.

Sadly, from outside it appeared the only creative aspect to his approach became these weird excuses and who he’d blame next. “It’s ever since I started letting noobs onto the flats with me. Grunter on fly is a solo game and this place is getting crowded. Those pricks can’t hold it in.” Like I said. He lied to himself and let the rust set in. What was certain was that he couldn’t, in the end, see far enough out of his own mouth to recognise that losing his edge was turning him into the bad guy in the story. He’d become jealous of The Flats, and The Flats had begun to taunt him. Not really, probably, but in his head, sure, I believe it. After all, it was so well up his ass that he was blinking with his lips.

A hint of weight: “Wait. That’s what we call a weed problem, fly man. Not much you can do about that. Tsk tsk…” The Flat teased.

Thing is, even sane grunter fishermen know that, if the flats could speak, they wouldn’t send you home with a bubbly and reassuring Ozzie accent, “Aw, it’s awroight! Ya had a gowe, mate! That’s what counts!” We get that. But for the grunterist it got real personal: “Is that a lump in your throat, fly man? Have you had enough?” Imagine that sentence in whatever accent you suppose it would’ve taken to rob a man as blindly as it did him, of all but his last semblance of testicular heft. “Never give up,” he hissed.

“Very well! The fly fisherman is the enemy, grunters!” he heard Them say, as a black cloud rolled overhead:

And The Flat said, “He who is not with me…”

The grunterist briefly considered interjecting, “But Your Flatness, I am with you,” but his words got stuck in a clump of dry flour that had grown in his throat from sucking on pulse-slowing cigarettes, and all he got out was a choked cough. Besides, he was pretty sure his particular brand of charm was not about to do the trick.

“…IS against me! Verily, fly man, I say to you!..” The Flat shouted, stripping its gears like a spoilt little godlet, and then the clouds formed into big, bold letters across the northern horizon: “GTFO!”

One man’s hearing voices is another man’s intrusive thoughts, winning. Another fluffed shot, one more spooked grunter. As he watched his fly rod fly through the afternoon air, he realised that what he was doing wasn’t where it was at. They say if a person is willing to do a shit thing – like violently throwing a fly rod – once, he or she will do it again. In modern terms, a single offence absolutely points to a pattern of behaviour, right? Right then, the hate in his heart was covered by shock and shame. He’d never done such a thing before. “Don’t be a doos,” he scolded himself.

“Yeah, don’t be a doos,” The Flat clapped back.

But he couldn’t stop fishing until the wretched curse was broken. Session after session, the weather would fall apart, some fool would pump every prawn hole on the flat before he arrived, grunter would simply not show up. When they did, the result was always the same. No clean shots, bad visibility. The osprey screeches overhead and spooks them all. Usually, he appreciates birds of prey. But he hates this guy. Much like the innocent little leerfishes that keep intercepting his fly. And the schools of paranoid mullet that no one ever sees before throwing a line over them, causing a panicked chain reaction across the entire flat. By the time a workable shot comes around, he’s so not in the zone that once again, he blows it. Once, while plying the eel grass paddies between Japan and Clown Town, he stood frozen like a heron, surrounded by feeding grunter. It had taken an hour to get into position without spooking the bastards. “Now to not, for heaven’s sake, fuck this up.” But just as he had a few feet of fly line out and his fly in his hand – as Prophet Jannie had commanded – the sky vibrated with a terrible whisper, “Make him cry, grunters!” As one, not as though they were spooked but exactly as though commanded by their unseen master, the fish calmly evacuated the flat. The grunterist gazed, gutted, as they disappeared in a slow and eerie flotilla of bow-waves. Where once was a practical man of patience and humour, now stood a crumbling, clueless clown.

Sans a resolution, he knew he would soon alienate the last few people who still tolerated his ass. He had collected all the infinity stones of blanking, and ascended to a level of desperation that was frankly hard to look at. But one afternoon, conditions looking perfect, long-suffering Joburg called for a team-up.

***

It was pristine. Grunter were feeding all over the flat, kicking up dust like a farmyard flock of fifty frolicking “free range” foul. The adrenaline started flowing instantly. And the frommeling began, instantly. At this point it is important to note that the grunterist knew full well to always take a leak before gearing up and wading towards Far Banks. It’s just that this time he didn’t, because the grunters were tailing and that could change any minute. And of course, not a hundred steps from shore, the two tall Americanos he smashed before heading onto the flat, wanted out. But there were shots to be had. So many shots, and so he held it until, standing auspiciously in the very middle of a vast estuary, he could hold it no more. Not only because he was holding back enough piss to claim a small country, but because holding it was making him fluff shots, left, right and up the ought. But then another grunter slinked into a textbook, super-targetable position. The grunterist buried his frustration in a deep hole of denial and tried to pinch back his pee, once more with feeling.

This was a mistake. He almost immediately knew this, of course, abandoned the whole idea of catching the fish mid-cast, and attempted with furious urgency to initiate the steps required to whip out Jacob for a bit of a holding-in-front and sheer, incomparable relief. Usually, these steps are limited to: remove stripping basket, remove backpack, release wader buckles, drop it, whip him out, let ’er rip, shake, and retrace your steps until you’ve reversed back into fishing condition. Easy. Also works best if you respond to nature’s call in time to get the hell out of the water and behind a damn bush.

However, this time, unknowingly trapped in a demonic straightjacket of his own invention, with his legs and back involuntarily seizing in panic, his knees buckling and his toes trying to stab their way out of his boots while his heels danced, unanimously unable to anchor in place, and, of course, with his bell-end blowing up like a water balloon – the steps to freedom included, but were not even limited to:

“Stripping basket. Where’s the buckle?! Get a hold of that buckle, or this whole thing is dead in the water! Backpack must be obscuring it. Fine. Pack first… Wait… What!?”

“Your sunglass strap is stuck to your backpack, fly man!”

“What in the hell?”

“Yeah. So you need to take your hat off too, or the glasses won’t come off, and then you can take the pack off. Fly man so hot right now. Fly man.”

He ripped his hat and glasses off in one go, at which point, naturally, the sunglass strap magically released the pack and the hat and glasses went flying:

“Dammit!! Whatever. Backpack. Off. Stat. Just don’t drop it in the water, too. Now it’s stuck to the damn wader belt! What the fuck?! How?! Forget. What?! Fok! Forget it, just dig and get him out of there, now. Everything’s at stake!”

But that was it. Lil penis fought the good fight but the dam broke. “NO!!!”

“HAAAAAA! You’re killing me, fly man!! Lol!”

The whole commotion, of course, would have spooked every fish in at least a 200m radius. Far in the distance, Joburg could tell that for his mate, things had gone tits up in a spectacular way. “Did he just… chuck his fly rod? … Ripping his shirt off? What the..?” He dutifully started the very long wade to go see what’s up.

For the grunterist, The Flat’s taunting was not helping:

“Well, then kill me now. I just bilaterally blew my bladder out into both wader legs and up to the brim of each blood-forsaken boot! I have warmly pissed myself, absolutely, biblically and completely, like a baby savagely missing that womb feeling, asshole!”

Standing in the middle of the estuary, naked from the balls up, bladder empty and hate rising in his belly, and with his fly rod, glasses and hat washing away, he punched a hole into the water that ripples to this day. With a racing heart and out of breath, he let out a tortured, “Motherfucker!” before bending over and puking his guts out.

It’s amazing what it takes for some people to see the light. But if he denied it or couldn’t see it earlier, he’d have to be blind to miss it now. What was once an addictive adrenaline rush for a young dude, had morphed through a stage of therapeutic necessity and into nothing short of a definite mental and physical health risk. For a somewhat less young dude. We’re talking heart attacks here, man. His desperation to break the curse had become a sick obsession, and in this moment, he reached the edge. He explained to a bemused Joburg what had happened, omitting the vomit part, and, bitter, wept inside as they laughed their asses off. Because pissing yourself is hilarious as balls.

“So, if you’d already pissed yourself, why’d you still, you know, take him out and lose the shirt?”

“Bro. Show ain’t over ’til the fatty sings. I ashed a cigarette on my head, too.”

“What?”

“You know what, Job? If I have to explain it…” he managed a friendly wink.

Joburg turned his eyes to the sky and pointed at the grunterist, smiling, “This guy?”

“Hats off, fly man. That was a good show,” The Flat whispered.

And then, he stopped.

He stopped fishing for grunter, he stopped talking about it. Eventually, he stopped thinking about it.

Months later, he was in the familiar flow of writing or attempting to learn a new piece of music which, were he to master it, would amount to a small personal victory. He put in a full day of apparently fruitless practice trying to get it down. Try after try, he just couldn’t lick it. Skill issues. Wheelhouse. Eventually, trusting the process, he put the guitar down, hit the sack and then went to bed. The next morning, he got up, had a coffee, and picked up the guitar. As though it had all clicked in his dreams, he played the piece effortlessly and almost flawlessly. I’m not saying it was Mozart, but it went hard, G.*

In that moment, he wondered a thing. Why did this piece of music take him back to that time on the flats, where the agony of discovery (or is it the discovery of agony?) lasts so much longer? Surely a much longer hiatus would be required to unfuck a vibe this utterly fucked and restart the hell out of a dying inner fire? A familiar grunter flat is no new song. It’s a gig you’ve played a hundred times, to a crowd with perfect pitch. Ergo, one could say, the punishment for missing a note is, rightfully, a whole lot more sadistic.

But the show must go on. And so, you learn to love the punishment. You fail. You feel it. You let it out. You rest. But you never, ever give up. He returned to The River once more, and caught a mighty grunter in no time. Time, on the face of it, was all it took. He can still be seen there from time to time, every now and again with a fly rod bent to the grip, punching the air like a victorious ninja fool. Sometimes Joburg joins him, and when he can, so does G. Sometimes it’s someone new.

***

I know what you’re thinking. “Well, that’s not so bad, is it?” or, “Sounds like it all worked out in the end!” Right?

The thing is, he may look like he’s got his shit back together. Hell, they say he never takes a half-ass shot, and rarely fishes the same pattern twice. I even ran into him on The River one day not too long ago. I was perplexed to see him throw a familiar little fly, apparently blindly, into the deep water just off Chanelle’s. “Fishing blind, Old Man? Really?” I asked.

“First time I’m trying this, actually,” he said with a hint of a smile, “The Flats have been good.”

“What are you after, then?”

“Mermaids.” Dead serious, he glared into the water.

Right then, in a twist only mildly shocking to the both of us, he hooked and landed a fat grunter.

“Not really here for these,” he said. I mean, no one in the known universe could see that coming. There was a time such words would be totally unimaginable. About witnessing the beginnings of the commercialisation of fly fishing on The River, he simply said, “I hope they get it. I hope they only ever love The River.”

But you can’t fool me. He’s still boiling inside. Under all this renewed namaste demeanour, I guarantee you: every grunter he sees still spikes his heart rate so fucking hard, it’s amazing he survives a single encounter. His casts may fly true again and his flies may land softly, and every so often he catches a fish. But the scars from those dark seasons run deep. I can tell. Such blatant sadomasochism is not the work of a sane man. And can the hate he once felt truly be gone? For on that one day, he had pissed himself for these fish. If he loves grunter, he sure won’t ever trust them again. He has to be who he is in this world now. Apparently, he’s still looking for a 70cm fish, but he’ll take a 69.

*It was Strauss, obviously. Incidentally, when the grunterist hooked up with the curse-breaking grunter, he was stripping his fly in time to the melody of the first movement of the “Blue Danube”, an earworm he’d hosted since trying to play it on guitar.

If you’re still here: The Grunterist and A Lucid & Restless Bystander are the two opposing poles of the psyche of a regular-ish contributor to The Mission. When asked why he decided on such a thinly veiled pseudonym, he had this to say: “Can’t talk right now, bru, I’m calculating the difference between a pinch and a lethal dose of salt.”

This story first appeared in The Mission Issue 45 (May/Jun 2024). Read the whole thing below, for free.

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