In pursuit of Bars of Gold: The Riet, Orange and Vaal Rivers – Part 3.

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The Vaal at Elgro (Photo: Andrew Mather)

The last part of the two-week fishing odyssey ends with this trip to the 20th Elgro River Lodge fly fishing festival on the Vaal.  Setting off early from Durban I head up the N3 towards Johannesburg.   At Harrismith I turned, not because this was the shortest route, but just to be able to revisit Kroonstad.  Kroonstad was the base of the Engineers Corps. where I spent my first 6 months of military training.   That was 30 years ago.  Well, it doesn’t seem to me that the town has changed much in the ensuing years.

Out of Kroonstad, I got onto the smaller tarred roads in the middle of the Freestate. Flat, dry country that is quite sparsely populated.  I spotted several dead Barn Owls along the road. I couldn’t resist.  I carry Borax powder with me so it was just a matter of separating wings and tails from mangled bodies and bagging them.  Suffice it to say I’ve had it on good authority that these feathers make great hopper bodies.

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Middle of the Freestate (Photo: Andrew Mather)

Soon I was on dirt and crossing the Vaal river which forms the provincial border between the Freestate and the North West Province.

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The barrage on the Vaal and the welcoming sign (Photos: Andrew Mather)

I’d stopped to take photos of the barrage and as I was getting back in the car I noticed a flat tyre.  A quick tyre change and I was on my way again to Elgro River Lodge.

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Elgro River Lodge shirt with some special flies (Photo: Andrew Mather)

 

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Andrew Mather and Andrew Gove with new shirts. (Photo: Gordon Gove)

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We were allocated the lower drift for session 1 and 2.  Wonderful, I thought, a lovely leisurely drift down six kilometers of river. A restful lunch, catch a few fish and end off with a cold beer at pickup point. Gordon and I paired up in one Arc while Andrew Gove took up the challenge to go it alone. These Arc’s aren’t easy to paddle solo!

We launched and immediately ran into a headwind. This meant we had to paddle to go downstream. As Gordon put it “it’s like the river is flowing upstream!” We paddled for a while until we got to a section of rapids and decided to stop and fish. I think this was more to rest the arms than wet the lines.

We all hooked fish but failed to net them. Gordon had his fish run him around a rock and I had my backing  loop out of my reel and jam it…tippet popped. Things went quiet after that so we pressed on downstream.

We got to more rapids and stopped for lunch. We anchored in the middle of the river on a small island.  I hopped overboard to guide the Arc in and promptly fell over an unseen rock and got wet! Instead of a leisurely lunch we wolfed down a burger and tried to catch some fish. Well after 45 mins all I had to show was a single beautiful Yellowfish scale on my point fly.

Did I mention I hate nymphing? Flick, track, flick over and over again. How I longed for a bit of dry-fly fishing. Anyway I digress.

We paddled downstream against the headwind…..Kobus didn’t you call this a “Drift?. The Gove’s kept talking about a big rapid and large pool which held good fish and where Gordon had caught a great fish last year.

We finally got to the rapid above the pool in question. Now the two old ballies held back for advice on the route down the rapids. We got the signal to go left and down. As we enter the rapids a communication problem arises. Gordon, who was Rear Admiral, and I paddled in different directions. This resulted in us snagging a rock and coming to a stop. Despite the fast flowing water we couldn’t move. We must have looked like a real pair of old farts and in full view of the others whom were already fishing.

After a couple of minutes we worked our way free and after some team discussions we had a plan. We would re-enter the main stream and hold a straight course down the rapid.  As soon as we got going the Arc swung around and we were heading down backwards. I shat myself. I couldn’t see where we were going and initially thought we should turn around but that would put us broadside to the flow. Things happened so quickly that we managed to stay facing backwards and safely exited the rapids into the pool below. I can tell you I was relieved, my heart was pumping!

I was out that Arc as soon as I thought I could stand. It wasn’t because of the fishing spot. Poor Gordon was a great sport…he didn’t complain about the rapids incident. Well not within earshot of me anyway!

We finally got to start fishing the pool. The other two guys had caught a few Muddies and eventually decided to move on. I guess it was about 3 ish by now and suddenly things started happening. We were all fishing the seam between the fast flowing water and the pool. The two Gove’s Lads were fishing bamboo. I’d left my bamboo rod behind so I was fishing plastic.

Suddenly the fish came on the feed. At one stage we had a triple up and over about an hour several double up’s. Most fish caught were Muddies. Gordon got into a fish that just took off like a train peeling line off his reel and bending his cane rod into such a tight bend I thought it would shatter. Gordon held it back from the reeds and trees on the other side of the pool and regained some line. After several strong runs The fish was under control but still Gordon couldn’t reel it in to net it himself.

I went to his aid with my bright Orange floating Explorer net. My mate Rob Hibbert told me to bring this net as it’s the largest I own. Well the net was just big enough to net the massive female Yellowfish. I can safely say that Gordon’s fish was the biggest Small Mouth Yellowfish I have ever seen. I estimate it was 29” long and between 9 and 10 lbs.

After it was safely netted the fly was removed and the guide took her out the net to revive her. Gordon was still making is way over to us gather around my net when with a flick of her tail she was gone! I felt for Gordon. He goes and catches a fish of a lifetime on his own handmade cane rod and there would be no photographic evidence to verify the size. Just the memory of  a trophy Yellowfish that will live on in all our minds.

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Andrew and Gordon Gove fishing the pool with their bamboo rods

(Photo: Andrew Mather)

 

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Andrew Mather and Gordon Gove with two Muddies (Photo: Andrew Gove)

We got back in line along the current seam and in no time I went tight into a solid fish. I fought her for about 5 mins while she tried running into the current and across the other side to the trees. I eventually netted her, a large small mouth Yellow. It was definitely my personal best Yellowfish.

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My personal best small mouth Yellowfish (Photo: Andrew Gove)

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Typical Muddie…such an underrated fighter (Photo: Andrew Gove)

We all went on to catch several fish from this pool before heading down to the collection point. I picked up a barbel in the tail of the pool so I chalked up another new species on fly. There are really big fish in the section and one of the other lads drifting this section told of his 6 weight rod shattering in two places fighting a fish.

Next morning we had the beat upstream of the Lodge. We arrived at the beat to see many large Yellows and Carp patrolling the pool. Andrew Gove decided to concentrate on trying to catch one with Keith Falconer, who was our guide for the day. I proceed to try the current seam on the other side of the pool and hooked a nice Yellow before I had to pack up and head back to Durban.

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A nice Yellowfish on Gary Glen-Young’s GUN (Photo: Andrew Mather)

In summary, Elgro River Lodge offers some amazing Muddies and Yellowfish angling. Kobus and his team bent over backwards to make our stay enjoyable. Nothing was too much trouble. I’ll definitely be back next year, that is if the Gove lads will allow me.

 

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Sunset at Elgro River Lodge (Photo: Andrew Mather)

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In pursuit of Bars of Gold: The Riet, Orange and Vaal Rivers – Part 2

IMG_1620The Orange and Vaal – Part 2

We left Lilydale and headed back into Kimberley the next morning to stock up on grog. Seems the Lads had underestimated the demand for gin and tonics, beer, wine and whisky. Rob found himself a bottle of a small batch whisky which was quite nice apparently.

We took advantage of the bright lights of Kimberley to get lunch before we headed back south towards Douglas. We were to meet up with three other Lads travelling up from Durban, namely Nick Davies, Mike Chisholm and Shane Sclanders.  Nick had been busy brewing his homemade beer and the lads were eagerly anticipating sampling some.

We got to Douglas at the same time as the Newcomers and headed straight out to the meeting point with Jacques. The meeting point was the bridge over the Orange River.

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The Lads getting their first look at the Orange River (Photos: Peter Drake and Gavin Bester)

We arrived at Jacques’s camp mid afternoon. The camp is situated high up on the banks of the Orange River. The main building is the dining room/kitchen and lounge area. Sleeping quarters consisted of twelve single sleeper tents. Two ablution blocks were provided at each end of the camp.

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Jacques Marais, Andrew Mather and Rob Hibbert at Jacques camp (Photo: Johan)

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Typical bedroom tent- Gavin’s roost! (Photo: Gavin Bester)

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View from my bedroom tent (Photo: Andrew Mather)

A few of the group headed down to the river to try catch one or two while the rest of us went about setting up rods for the next day. Jacques spent the time tying and chatting to us. Several of the group bought his secret flies. Sorry, they are so secret no photos are allowed! Actually, this became a bit of a joke amongst the Lads as we all ribbed each other that last years flies, for those whom had been last year, wouldn’t work and that newer and improved flies were in. There was much teasing about Jacques tying us special flies and if you didn’t have these you were not going to catch. The teasing got progressively worse especially after a few drinks.

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The “not so secret” flies (Photo: Andrew Mather)

Rising early the first day around 5am full of excitement, we watched the sun rise over the Orange River.  It was spectacular – what a special place it is! Rob had some decent filter coffee on the go and while we drank our coffee and ate rusks we watched Jacques tying flies. After breakfast we headed out to the Vaal River, just up from the confluence with the Orange River, on a farm called Bucklands.

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The Vaal at Bucklands (Photo: Gavin Bester)

The plan was to spend the whole day at the river. This beat was several kilometers long and by the time I got to the river edge after negotiating a barbed wire fence that could have easily torn pieces out my nether regions, Keegan was already into a fish in the large pool just downstream of the riffle. The water was dirty but flowing nicely. You couldn’t see the river bottom in knee high water.

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Peter Drake with a powerful Muddie (Photo: ?)

All the Lads were soon into fish…Muddies dominated the catches. There must have been thousands in the water unseen by us as many were hooked in the dorsal fin. When this happened the Muddie took off and you had a hell of a job managing the run. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on what species you were keen to catch, the hook often popped out.  A “long-range release” as we euphemistically call it.

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A Muddie from the lower pool (Photo: Craig De Villiers)

After a while some of the Guys headed upstream. I decided to stay put between the lower pool and upstream pool and the riffle between.  I fished up the riffle, crossed over and came in from the opposite bank into the upper pool. It was probably 80m across and knee deep.  I started nymphing, working my way across the pool.  Did I mention I hate nymphing? With barely 2m of line out of my 10 foot Orvis 4wt fishing consisted of a flick, track, flick, track, flick, track!  All bloody day!  I’d caught a few fish and the monotony was getting to me in the heat of the day.  I had rigged up a control fly with a dropper, a size 18 brown soft hackle fly that Wayne Stegen tied at Durban Fly Tyers.  Most of the fish were taking the control fly, an orange tungsten bead-headed caddis.

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The Wayne Stegen #18 brown soft hackle midge (Photo: Andrew Mather) 

With the shallow water I’d had a few hook ups with rocks and it just so happened that I hooked a rock again. Not wanting to break off the fly my standard practice was to wade over and reach down and release fly or use my wading staff to push the line down to free the fly off the rock.  I kept the pressure on so I could work my way to the fly.  As I got to within two feet of the fly the line moved sideways.  Oh shit, I realised I’d hooked something solid.  The fish didn’t seem to be putting up a fight.  It just seemed to move slowly but I couldn’t get it to make a run.  The Muddies we had been catching behaved like this but then would suddenly make a decent run.  I waited.  No run. The fish just kept moving slowly around and not showing itself.

Now a couple of fish had already run me to my backing by heading downstream so I was trying not to let this happen again.  If the fish moved right I followed, when he went left I followed like a strange dance except I couldn’t see my dance partner.  Slowly the fish realised that it was getting some outside force pulling it.  Well, to be correct the pressure was fairly light as I had a 4lb tippet on.  That was a decision I was cursing.  For 25 minutes the fish lead me on a tour of the pool.  At one stage she got behind me and I had visions she was going to run downstream.  I put as much pressure on her as I thought I could without popping the tippet.

At this stage I got my first glimpse of her.  A huge Grass Carp which I estimated was about 4 foot in length, with a size 18 soft hackle in his mouth!  This was the first time I started to worry about trying to land her. My Explorer net suddenly didn’t look as big as I’d thought.  There was no way I could net her.  Plan B quickly kicked in. I tried leading her into the shallows to make a grab.  She didn’t look particularly fast moving.  If I was a betting man I reckon my chances were almost impossible but I had to give it a go!

The fish came in shallower and shallower and was now less than a rods length away.  She was now lying slightly on her side in the shallows.  Just a bit more and she would be mine.  I put more pressure on the rod and as she started to move into an ideal place for me to pounce.  Pop went the 4lb tippet.  I stood frozen like I was superglued into position. She gradually turned and majestically swam off towards the centre of the pool.  I watched.  I wept. I was shaking.

I waded out the pool and sat down on the bank.  My mind was reliving every moment. What if I had played her a little longer? Damn that 4 lb tippet! What did she weigh? What a beautiful specimen.  The side view of her is indelibly etched in my mind.

Perhaps it did turn out ok. I finally got to see my dance partner – she was beautiful and blew me a kiss before saying goodbye.

I think I sat on the bank for nearly an hour.  I ate my lunch and redid my tippet, 6lb fluorocarbon this time.  I fished the lower pool for the rest of the afternoon catching a number of nice sized Muddies and small mouth Yellows.  I stopped counting once I got into double figures.  It was a good day.  Final tally for the group was about 140 fish.

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Mike Chisholm with a Muddie bus (Photo:?)

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Barry Wareham with a Bar of Gold (Photo: Blayne Wareham)

Back at the camp after a hot shower and some of Nick’s home-brewed beer, we had an amazing dinner.  Jacques also runs a hunting business and so the meat every night was game.  The evening meals were one of the highlights of the trip. These fantastic meals were prepared in a rudimentary kitchen.  I went into the kitchen on the first day and got scolded for my troubles.  The kitchen is out of bounds to clients.

The venue on day two was the Orange River on the farm Cypher.  In no time Keegan was off, he was odds on favourite to be first in the river.  The river ran over a rock rapid and sped up into a wide 100m stretch.  A couple of Guys crossed over to fish the other bank. Barry Wareham was keen to catch a Grass Carp and headed across to target the backwater.  Peter Drake, who had recently had a hip replacement had brought along his drone in case he needed to rest the hip.  I’m not sure who was flying it but while the lads were lined up nymphing, the drone was filming the action.  Blayne Wareham seemed to be constantly into a fish while the rest of us took turns.

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Blayne Wareham with a nice Muddie (Photo: Gavin Bester)

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Craig De Villiers with a small mouth Yellow (Photo:Barry Wareham)

The current was so strong that once a fish decided to head into the current it quickly stripped you to your backing.  If you wanted to try land it you now had to move downstream holding your rod high over the next chap until you were at the end of the line.  The fun began when several fish were on.  I think more than once lines got crossed.

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The Lads strung out down both sides of the river (Photo: Gavin Bester)

When this was happening we could turn around and fish the slower water against the bank.  Surprisingly, there were many fish taken here including Catfish.

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Gavin Bester with a Catfish taken in the backwater (Photo: Andrew Mather)

Peter Drake had crossed the river to fish the other bank and while trying to help net another anglers fish his rod slipped out of his hands and into the river. A quick search failed to turn up the rod. A very unhappy Peter came to terms with the loss. What made it worse was that it was new outfit.

[Sequel to this story was that the following group fished the same spot a week later and Jasper Ward hooked and landed Peters rod].

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Small mouth Yellow coming to the net (Photo: Gavin Bester)

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The Lads enjoying a sundowners after a great days fishing (Photo: Jacques Marais)

Final tally for the day came to over 160 fish.

Last day was spent on the Orange River at Die Geut or translated directly from Afrikaans “The Gutter”. This is a stretch of the Orange River that has a large rock sill across the whole river.  The rock sill is probably about 4 foot high and dams the river up at this point.  The river is probably about 200m wide here and while the flow rate was down it’s still a great spot to fish.  Most of the Lads chose to fish the riffles down stream of the sill. Now Jacques obviously saved the best stretch for the last day.

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As we were kitting up the shallows the Muddies were thrashing about in a carnal frenzy. There were literally hundreds in the shallows.  No sooner had we stepped into the water then they dashed off like dark torpedos into deeper water.

The Lads strung themselves out along the riffle like a chain and started nymphing. Rods were bending everywhere.  Sometimes several fish were being fought together.

 

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Rob Hibbert with a well conditioned Yellow (Photo:Gavin Bester)

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Peter Drake with a nice Yellow (photo: ?)

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Shane Sclanders Yellow (Photo: ?)

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Double-ups were common (Photo:?)

Midway through the morning one of the guys shouted at me and I turn to see my floating orange Explorer net rapidly moving downstream.  Luckily for me Rob was downstream and valiantly cast and hooked my net.  I owe him as the casting screwed up his leader and he had to sit out and redo it. I was most grateful, as it would have been almost impossible to land fish here without a net.

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Andrew Mather with a feisty Yellow (Photo: Keegan Kennedy)

But not long after my net went walkabout I saw another net floating down and somebody having to do a similar rescue.  Something to sort out properly as this could really spoil a trip like this.

Keegan hooked and landed the best small mouth Yellow of the trip. She squirted him with eggs. Total tally for the day was over 200 fish.

IMG_1557Keegan Kennedy with his trophy small mouth Yellow (Photo:Jacques Marais)

Jacques has a tradition of awarding the “Yellow cap” to the best flyfisher of the group.  No surprise was the deserving winner, Blayne Wareham.

 

IMG_1622Blayne Wareham wearing the Yellow cap (Photo: Gavin Bester)

In summary I can safely say that this is a world class Fishery. The final tally was over 500 fish in the net over 3 days. Countless more either broke off or where “long line releases”. If you haven’t fished these waters yet, take it from me, you will be hard pressed to beat it, even internationally. If you are interested give Jacques Marais a shout on www.hunterfisher.co.za.

 

The final part of the series on the Riet, Orange and Vaal will be fishing the Vaal at Elgro with some of the SA cane rods makers.

 

All rights are reserved and none of this material can be used without the written permission of the Author.

In pursuit of Bars of Gold: The Riet, Orange and Vaal Rivers (Part 1).

It is funny how things happen. Two separate bunches of fishing mates keen to fish for Yellows and by coincidence, the two trips turned out to be back-to-back trips. Well almost, with just two days in between to sort laundry and any broken/damaged fishing equipment. And more importantly, to stick my head in and make sure the family hasn’t forgotten what I look like.

These three rivers form one of the largest drainage basins in Southern Africa. The headwater start in the high country of Lesotho located on the eastern side of South Africa and become the mighty Orange River after the Riet and the Vaal Rivers have joined around Douglas in the Northern Cape Province.

The two-week adventure started late on a Sunday night as the plan was to leave Durban and drive through the night to get to our first destination, the Riet River in the early morning. The group consisted of Gavin Bester, Rob Hibbert, Barry and Blayne Wareham, Craig De Villiers, Peter Drake, Keegan Kennedy and I. We squeezed into two double cabs and left at about 9:30 pm. I thought it was only youngsters that did things like driving thorough the night. Clearly mad bunches of keen flyfishers qualify too. This was all done to save on valuable fishing time.

The Riet River – Part 1.

We arrived early on Monday morning at the Lilydale Rest Camp in the Motala Nature Reserve, just south of Kimberley.

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This piece of river has been described as clean and pristine and more importantly teaming with Yellowfish. That would be the Large Mouth Yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis), known locally as “Largies”, and Small Mouth Yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus), also called “Smalies”.

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Weapons at the ready (Photo: Peter Drake)

The group headed down to the river for a quick look and decided to take a later lunch and fish a bit. One of the problems is accessing the water because of the reeds which line the banks. Lilydale has three fishing spots that one can access with a gate key. The fishing spots are between the game fence and the river.

The Riet River is somewhat of an anomaly in the Orange-Vaal river system as it is crystal clean. The river flows though a well-eroded streambed with quite a lot of rocky areas that create riffle sections and large pools. The river has quite a lot of weed that is in linear lines with open sections of flowing water in between.

The Riet River (Photos: Andrew Mather)

Gavin “Cameo” Bester ready to go (left ) while Craig De Villiers kits up

(Photos: Peter Drake)

The group split up and headed in different directions. I headed straight across the floodplain which is completely packed with rocks, a bit like a moonscape. The rock were a little slippery with felt boots on but I knew I would need them for wading. Once at the river I started fishing. I fell into my clear trout stream mode and decided to fish a dry with a small nymph tied on New Zealand style. I focused on casting into the flowing clear water channels. After several casts my elk hair caddis literally jumped 10cms sideways. Surprised and probably over come with the ferocious take, I raised my rod a little too quickly and the 4lb tippet parted.

I continued to fish up until a large cascading natural rock barrier. I later learnt this was referred to as the weir. Several large fish were seen cruising the channels but no amount of dangling a nymph in front of them would induce a take. I packed up and headed back to the cars. Reflecting back, the only take I had was when I got to the river. My guess was that they had seen me after that and they all got lockjaw. It’s a dilemma, low clear conditions and big strong fish. Big flies were out as was thick tippet. Some of the lads fished 6x with some success but fishing was difficult.

We headed back to camp for the night and to strategize for the next day. The bungalows are clean and beds comfortable enough and Craig prepared us a great evening meal washed down with our tipple of choice.

(Clockwise from top left) Rob and Peter having a sundowner, warning signs for wild animals, Sunset and Roan antelope (Photo: Gavin bester and Peter Drake).

Next morning we headed out to the other fishing spot we were told about. This is down stream of the previous days spot and much more open with a long rocky kranz on the opposite bank. Again the group split up, most heading downstream while I opted to fish within sight of the parked cars. I spotted a small island in the river next to the main channel that was just opposite the start of a large pool. I waded out to the island and surveyed the river. The same alternating weed and open water channels that I saw the previous day were there. But as these channels got to the pool the river was relatively weed free.

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The clean and pristine Riet River (Photo: Andrew Mather)

I decided to persevere with my dry/dropper set up. A nice light cream elk hair and CDC caddis as a sighter with a nymph suspended below. I could see fish moving up the channels and circulating back into the pool. I couldn’t see the full extent of the pool as the reeds hide the view of the pool.

I decided that casting directly at a fish in these clear conditions would spook them. So I decided to cast 5 or 6m upstream of the head of the pool in the flowing water channels and let the flies drift down into the head of the pool. It didn’t take long to hook up. The fly had just drifted into the pool when bang…the dry disappeared and the rod went berserk. This first one I nursed a bit as I really wanted to be able to say I got a Riet River Yellow. This fish had other ideas. He ran upstream trying to lodge himself in the weeds. Evasive action was required which saw my 10’ 4wt Orvis bend to a position that I was sure would break it. I managed to turn the fish downstream.

He now tried to run downstream through the pool. I cranked up the drag. This went on for several minutes and just when I thought I had him he headed into the weeds that I had been hiding behind for cover. He managed to tangle the tippet amongst the reeds. I was determined to land this fish so with no other option left I had to enter the river. Unfortunately for me the rock sloped away from me and my first step resulted in me slipping and falling properly into the river. Cold water has an effect on heightening the senses and I quickly got my act together and netted the fish. The fish measured 18” and had given me a good run for my money. No wonder they are popular targets for anglers.

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My first Riet River Small Mouth Yellowfish (Photo: Andrew Mather)

Speaking of commotion I could see Rob crossing the Riet about 80m upstream of me. As I was watching him he slipped and fell into a deep pool. He all but disappeared, all I could see was his Simms cap. Spluttering to the surface he almost managed to get  out the water when he took another swim. He eventually got back on land and sat out in the sun for a while to dry out.

After all that commotion I decided to also dry out and let the pool rest. Any sensible fish had already gapped it. After about 15 minutes the yellows were once against cruising the channels. I once again cast upstream of the pool and let the current drift the flies down. This time the take was in the channel. The fish had clearly been holding in the weeds out of sight. This one took off through the weed bank and snapped me off.

I rested the pool again. Next cast the fly once again entered the pool and got taken. After a great tussle the yellow came to the net. I continued hooking fish and then resting the pool, only casting when the fish were cruising again.

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The Author with a beautiful Riet River “Smallie” (Photo: Craig De Villiers)

One of my drifts did not induce a take so I let line out as the fly headed down to the pool. I had difficulty seeing the fly as the weeds I’d used to hide behind were so thick I had to lean out to see it. At about this time I realised my fly line had looped around the reel so I stopped to sort this out. I then started stripping back line so I could recast. Well something hit my fly…hard!. The fish then decided to turn around and head downstream. The reel started screaming and then the tippet popped. I wonder if it was a “largie” having seen a few cruising the river the day before. I guess I’ll never know.

I went on to hook 11 fish but only 7 made it to the net. What a day!. A very good reason enough to want to come back again.

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Summing up, the Riet River is a fantastic destination for Yellow fish. The water clarity for one provides a different approach to fishing for yellows in this river. This is a technically challenging river to fish. Yellows are surprisingly clever, mostly outsmarting any anglers that aren’t concealing themselves and using stealth to target these fish. Our experience as a group is that one won’t catch large numbers of fish but each one caught will be very rewarding.

(Left) Barry Wareham and the Author (Right) Keegan Kennedy and the Author discussing fly selection (Photos: Peter Drake)

Next installment will be fishing the Vaal and Orange rivers with Jacques Marais.

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Barry Wareham with a Riet River Yellowfish (Photo: Gavin Bester)

Blanking and other mishaps that contribute to the fun.

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“Getting skunked is something every fisherman must learn to do with some grace because it does happen” John Gierach.

 

Blanking or being skunked comes with the territory if you’re a fisherman. This happened to me over the last river season- more times than I’d like to admit. When I drag my sorry arse home after a fishing trip my wife Tina routinely asks me how many fish I caught. She inevitably makes a remark about my sanity and the futility of having gone fishing, but I don’t see it like that and I’m sure that I’m not alone.

The start of this past river season was particularly difficult although it was heavily influenced by the preceding drought conditions. No, let me stop that!. Can you see what happening here…I’m already making excuses!.

Actually we all start looking for excuses when we cannot connect up to a fish. Favorite reasons for failure include that the barometer was dropping, causing the fish to go off the bite…. or that a cold wind was blowing. Many of you reading this will know your favourite face-saving line, especially those super competitive chaps amongst us.

Perhaps one of the most common reasons offered up when we aren’t catching, is that we aren’t fishing the right fly. We reason that our failure to catch something is that the fly on the end of the tippet isn’t working. So we set about ringing the changes, going through our fly box in the hopes that our fortune might change. Sometimes one does get lucky, but more often than not, it doesn’t help much. I’ve known some flyfishers to fish one pattern the whole day and make a pig of themselves.

When Andrew Savides and I fished a section of the Mooi in the opening weekend of the 2016/17 river season, we blanked spectacularly. The day was perfect, just a slight breeze on our backs. We had hiked about an hour or so up the valley and the cool crisp air made the walk pleasant. In mid-summer this would have been very different. The valley was looking beautiful as the early mist started lifting and beams of sunlight started creeping in as the sun crested the ridge line. A herd of Eland came in sight and watched us as we trundled up the path. These magnificent animals, the largest of the antelope family, are gentle giants and roam the whole Drakensberg range. They watched us, then trotted off to a safer distance, eventually disappearing from sight. The eland have lived here for eons feature prominently in San/bushman paintings throughout this region.

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Eland and bushman painting images courtesy of Peter Brigg.

When Savs and I finally descended to the stream we found it to be clear and low. We took turns fish the riffles and pools, testing every likely spot while offering advice and encouragement to one another.

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The freestone streambed was slippery, and several times we almost ended up face-down in the stream. Savs was wearing rubber soled wading boots and I wore felt soles but neither worked particularly well. We were both carrying too much stuff in bulging backpacks, which didn’t help. An observer would have seen what appeared to be two drunk okes staggering around, each waving a stick, occasionally holding on to one another and doing their best to stay upright. Needless to say, with these antics we hadn’t seen a fish the whole morning.

Rather despondent, having run through most of our flyboxes, we broke for lunch. We fell into the trap most flyfishers do – we had decided that it must be fly choice that we letting us down. Of course the bright skies, low clear water and the fact that we had staggered up the river sending messages to all the trout that something was headed up towards them didn’t entered our heads. We tried to reassure ourselves that our luck was about to improve.

Finding a spot with a view, out came the tablecloth, filter coffee pot and gas burner, complete with Amarula, cream and hot chocolate, snacks and biltong. We sat sunning ourselves admiring the sparkling stream as it flowed down towards us from a steep krantz covered with indigenous forest while the grass whispered around us. We discussed changing our approach as we enjoyed the scenery and the nibbles. Gone was the morning’s disappointment; it had been replaced by an appreciation of what a fantastic environment we have in South Africa. Maybe it was an unconscious move to block out our earlier fishing failures.

 

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After lunch we started upstream and we hadn’t gone 50m before I slipped and fell completely into the stream, nearly shattering my little streamnet in the process. Savs by this stage was in fits of laughter at my predicament. I bravely dragged myself to my feet, dripping wet and cold. One of my legs was burning from taking the brunt of the fall, but of course I did my best not to show the pain. Big boys don’t cry.

I waved Savs on ahead while I limped after him and tried to compose myself. Of course, any sane trout hearing my fall would have swum for cover!.

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We continued on up stream until it got quite narrow, by which stage we had virtually given up on catching any fish. At one point we walked along the bank between two nice sized pools where the river had eroded a narrow furrow which we could have jumped across.

We suddenly saw the flash of a decent size fish as it sped upstream. Imagine our dismay – the first fish of the day and we had spooked it. We estimated it was a brown of about 16 inches. We hadn’t considered casting into the furrow as the pools looked like the only place we might see fish, but at least we knew for sure there were fish.

At the next pool we fished it carefully with no luck. The same again for the next pool and the pool thereafter. The river had almost stopped flowing here as the hillside had slipped into the stream and what remained was a long gravel bed that would be perfect for spawning fish. But still no sign of fish.

Around the next bend we came across the remains of a dead waterbuck in the stream. The partly decomposed animal smelt so bad we had to exit the stream and forge a path along the far bank. We had been happily drinking straight from the stream all day, oblivious to the decaying corpse just upstream.

Right there and then we decided to call it a day; maybe we were worried we might start vomiting from ingesting the water, I can’t recall.

We had at least an hour-and-a-half walk back to the car followed by a two-and-a-half hour drive back to Durban. Walking back we chatted about the day; fortunately the lack of fish hadn’t put a damper on the day out. The chance to go exploring under a sunny African sky sharing the camaraderie with a good fishing buddy is enough to remember this as a great day out.

Fast-forward several months; same stream. Andrew Savides and Warren Bradfield fished it – they pigged out. Couldn’t do anything wrong. Fish smashed their flies. They lost count at 43. At least they had the decency not to brag too much about it. Guess they had a good day too.

 

This article  featured in Africa’s Original Flyfishing Magazine, Oct/Nov 2017, Vol 30 No.163.

All rights are reserved and none of this material can be used without the written permission of the Author.

 

Opening day with the Zipper Mouth Creek Lads.

IMG_1242The day finally arrived for many South Africans. 1st September…opening day of the season. It’s an exciting time. The chance to see our beloved rivers again after a seemingly long winter layoff. Some have likened the experience of anticipation to meeting up with an old flame after the school holidays!. I can relate to that. But with age I was a bit more cold-hearted, or should I say, realistic about my expectations. Unashamedly I was more excited to get away from city life and to spent a few days away with the lads then the fishing!. Some of us had to take the day off work…those who have their own business made an easy decision to play hooky.

We got off early in the morning. Warren collected me at 4am and I drove. Seems he only got half an hours sleep. We arrived in Pietermaritzburg to collect Lee. The original plan was to collect Goose at Lee’s but at the last-minute Goose got a court summons to appear as a witness in a murder case. He would come up after he gave his evidence.

We had a good 2 ½ hours drive in total and with high expectations for the weekend, we chatted about the recent snow falls and the impact that it may have made to the streams. It’s a familiar drive by now; the old landmarks from last season greet us like old friends. Midmar dam wall, not overflowing but that’s not unsurprising for this time of year before the real onset of the spring/summer rains. Keen to get on the river as soon as possible we took the freeway, bypassing the Steampunk café with its superb coffee and delicious pastel de nata’s (Portuguese custard cakes).

I try to stop at the Steampunk café whenever I’m in this neighbourhood. It’s an institution in a location you’d be forgiven for driving past. We headed past Nottingham Road to the sleepy town of Mooi River. “Mooi” in Afrikaans is “Nice”. So through the conurbation of Mooi River we passed through as the town starts rubbing the sleep out its eyes and people start emerging and going about their business. Being in a farming area Friday is often when the farmers come in to town to stock up. The town can bustle during the day and we are happy we pass through in the cool of the morning with hardly a vehicle to slow us down…. onward to the “nice river”.

To add a bit more tension I had the five brand new ZMC rods for the lads. None of them had seen the rod in the flesh, or for that matter, pictures of the rods as I finished the last rod tube three hours before the opening of the season. Talk about cutting it fine. The tubes just required a stick on transfer to complete and this I did immediately we arrived at Snowflake cottage.

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Zipper Mouth Creek Rods

 

It’s a strange feeling that first day on the river after a break. I felt a bit like a boxer whom is facing an unknown opponent. I was trying to be cautiously optimistic but there was a nagging feeling in the back of my head. You see the rivers at opening season last year were lean and clear…hardly the stuff which blows my hair back…even if I did have hair to blow back!. I’d not cast a rod for a few months. I knew I’d be rusty. I hashed up too many casts, snagging things on my back cast. Why do bushes suddenly move closer to the stream the minute you want to cast at a fish?. All these thoughts were tumbling around in my head.

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Friday was cool and windy. Armed with our little 1 wt’s we did our best to put then to good use. With just Lee, Warren and I fishing we choose the bottom end of the beat. Warren and Lee both picked up a fish each in the deep runs. We returned back to the cottage for a quick bite before heading out to the river for the sunset session.

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Of course as I hadn’t got a fish as yet the pressure was on me to hook up. Alas the cold and howling wind got the better of me so I headed back to the cottage to discover I was locked out. I spent over an hour huddled in a corner out the wind waiting for the others. Boy did that whiskey do the trick once I got inside.

Come Friday evening after a long day, the traditional braai was the order of the day, eaten with good South African red wine. In typical male fashion, vegetables and salads are in short supply. Warren’s wife Nat had done the catering….we had enough to stay for 5 days let alone 2 days!. Goose had in the meantime arrived. Shit, it’s great to all be back together again fishing. We turned in around midnight and I fell asleep only to be woken at 3am by the sound of a car alarm going off.

Warren was up as quick as a flash and headed out to see what was going on. Lee jumped out of bed and all I heard was the pounding of their feet as they dashed to the window. Goose’s car alarm had gone off…apparently it goes off completely spontaneously. After that Warren begs me for Panado’s, seems he has a headache. It surely couldn’t be the pink gins/red wine/port he’d consumed earlier that evening!.

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Saturday morning was a much better day. The wind had died overnight. Tumbling out of bed to a cup of decent cup of coffee to get the system going, we grab a quick snack for breakfast before heading out to the river. This year I’m going light, I’m tired of carrying a backpack full of stuff I mostly don’t use. As the oldest in the group I suppose I could get the youngest, Lee, to carry the excess stuff, he’s volunteered as much but that wouldn’t be fair. A simple sling bag, one boxes of flies (see my previous article on my small stream box), tippet and something to eat during the day is all I’m carrying. Oh, perhaps my small stream net at 112g too.

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Goose and I decided to fish the middle section of the beat. We had a leisurely start. There’s no use getting on the river before the sun hits it from over the mountains. Lee and Warren chose the top section and set off early. As it turns out, no fish were to be had for the first 2 ½ hours. The water was a cold 8 degs C. and in shadow.

 

The middle section has had a fire through it so there is little if any cover alongside the stream. The water is low and super clean. We spent all morning seeing big fish that we couldn’t get a fly to because by the time we got close enough to cast they were onto us.

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Towards the end of the middle section I pick up a rainbow that was an escapee from the hatchery. Now as this is a Brown trout stream we are told to remove any rainbows. This one got dispatched and saved as a peace-offering for my dear wife Tina.

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We dropped in for lunch and meet up with Savs and his son Daniel whom had driven up that morning. They fished a bit earlier and caught a couple. After lunch we headed downstream and this time I opted not to fish but to try to get Goose, Savs and Daniel onto fish. There are only a few spots where they were holding. Goose lost two fish…later discovering his tippet was old and kept snapping off.

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There was a hatch that evening but we didn’t see any fish rising.

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Warren and Lee meet us back at the cottage and Jan Korrubel and Grant Visser popped in for a chat on their way home. Seems the upper section of the beat fished best. They all got fish albeit slight smaller but nevertheless a good sign for the season.

Having learnt out lesson going out early, we rose to a leisurely fried breakfast on Sunday. Goose had hit the road early wanting to be home in good time. We packed and then headed off for a short session before heading home. Warren, Lee and I fished together. A section of river unfortunately infested with Australian wattle on large sections, making access impossible. The sections we could get to, looked good. We didn’t see may fish and eventually after three hours we returned to the car. Warren had seen a big fish in the pool were we had parked but spooked it. “Last-cast” Lee decided to have a go. Anyway we heard this almighty yell. We thought Lee must had a close encounter with a snake. Lee trembles at the mention of snakes. We ran over from the car to see Lee sitting dejected on the bank. Yep…he got broken off!. He had to have a smoke to calm down.

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We realised that there were several fish so we rested the pool. Warren rigged up and cast. In textbook fashion, a beauty of a brown came cruised downstream straight at Warren’s fly. It suddenly turned and gobbled the nymph suspended under a dry. All hell broke loose. After a few pics we released it and headed back. After a quick bite we said our goodbyes. Weary but happy we drove home to suburbia.

 

All rights are reserved and none of this material can be used without the written permission of the Author.

Zipper Mouth Creek rods

Several months ago my motley band of fellow flyfishering friends decided that new rods for the 2017/18 river season were to be had. So the debate went around and around about glass or graphite, weight and length. On the small streams that we generally fish with rods are generally about 8’ and under 3 weight. Well that is the case except for the two shorties amongst us (I’m one of them) like a rod longer than 8’6”. A few wanted fastish rods…a hang up from fishing fast rods on stillwaters and big rivers I’m sure. I personally don’t like the fast rods. Give me a mid 80’s unsanded Orvis and I’m smiling. Incidentally anyone offloading these can give me a call. Of course with 5 okes we had over 8 different options on what we thought was the ideal small stream rod. Things took a decided turn for the worse when the group decided to order blanks and build them rather than buying in.

Now we have a varying skills base amongst us, but only two of us have actually built a rod. Andrew Savs is an accomplished wooden net maker and of recent, a bamboo rod maker. A “Maker”, in other words not a builder that assembles the rod from bought in parts. Gerhardt Goosen ties the most fantastic flies under “Goose flies”. Don’t tell him but we all hope he opens his fly box again this season to the lads. He’d better hide some or he won’t have any left to use himself!. He’s a two-hour drive away so he has a challenge getting to rod building workshops. Lee is a useful oke, recently started tying flies and doing a damn fine job too. He was really game to do as much as possible on his first build. And then there’s Warren. Warren is an organiser. He took command of the proceedings in true “T Pot” fashion, hand on hips pointing out what needs doing. While we were all busy with sorting corks to glue up and reel seats to file before gluing on our blanks, we occasionally got a whiff of Old Spice aftershave, letting us know that Warren was close by.

Oh I forgot to tell you what rod we settled on. Warren made the decision for us…surprise, surprise. A graphite 1 wt 7’6” 4 piece bought from RDP rods in the USA. The name “RDP” brought many a laugh to us South African’s. Let me explain, RDP in the South African context is usually associated with the governments Reconstruction and Development Programme. The little “smartie box” houses are an icon of this programme. The spirit and intent was good but it fell out of favour and replaced by something else, and in turn by yet another programme. But enough of that… back to the rods.

In the spirit of the group’s calling name, we opted to name these new rods ZMC’s (Zipper Mouth Creek). Having had a river season where we posted pictures of rivers and fish, referring to the locations as Zipper Mouth Creek, we picked up a lot of flack. Seems some people thought we might have stumbled on some nice undiscovered new waters that we had named Zipper Mouth Creek. Ah well, as I wrote in a previous blog post, they are just rivers hidden in plain sight for any of us to rediscover.

So Warren ordered the blanks with two spare tips, not that any of us are intending to break them. But knowing how clumsy three of us are perhaps they might be needed. Nothing really happens for a few weeks while the hardware is sorted. Mudhole surprisingly didn’t have everything we needed so I used another shop in the USA and was very impressed with their service. A few weeks later we had all the hardware to hand and the lads could convene the first rod-building day. While this was being sorted the guys decide to go with custom shaped built cork grips and red ivory reel seats. Savs sorted the gluing of the corks and one Saturday morning, with Warren in attendance, we had the cork grips sorted. Each of us ended up with a different styled grip.

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Warren supervising proceedings, Savs watching while I get to do the work!

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Picture showing glued up corks and 5 formed cork grips

 

The red ivory (Berchemia zeyheri to give it it’s Latin name) arrived in 1” by 1” lengths as well as a sizable 1” slab for rod tube tops. The red ivory machines beautifully in the lathe. Pink candy floss strands peel off the cutting edge of my lathe tool filing the air with a clean fragrant smell, like Pears soap. My workshop never smelt so good.

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Several hours later I had the reel seats done. Sometime about now the guys decided that ivory buttons on the reel seat ends were a good idea. Now of course that’s going to be a challenge. It’s probably illegal now to own and move a piece of ivory without a permit. Fortunately a friend had given me a rod of mock ivory (casein) that has the growth rings built in. It is made from milk protein so no issues with CITES. Bonus is it’s magic to machine too.

Casein button for the end of red ivory reel seat ready to be glued in.

 

I think the lads had too much time to think about these new rods because before I knew it, we were now talking of making our own rod tubes. The availability of components here in darkest Africa is poor to intermittent at best. Guess we would have to make our own. We set Warren off on a task to source components. Actually he did a really good job. In no time we had the aluminum tube sections cut to length, anodised and a stainless steel stop end, sourced but no screw cap.

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Savs hit on the idea of a wooded cap, having seen a picture from Clement Booth. Of course it had to be made in red ivory with a ‘O’ ring to secure it in the tube. Several more hours behind the lathe required.

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Before, during and after machining red ivory rod tube end caps

 

Red ivory end cap and stainless stop end located in tube.

 

Juggling my time between reel seats, rod tubes, wrapping the eyes on Warren, Goose and my own rod and now red ivory tube end caps kept me busy.

The lads decided that the rods needed to be finished before opening day (1st September), in case we get a gap to test them out. Tina, my long-suffering wife, lost me to the workshop for extended periods on weekends and evenings. I felt the collective weight of the impending deadline on my shoulders. Figured if I could finish the rest of the guys rods off I could always fish my trusty 90’s Orvis superfine 2wt. But reflecting on that would probably have the lads chirping me. So back into the breech once again then.

D day minus 12, was a hive of activity, rods being epoxied, reel seats and ivory caps being made, tube ends being turned, trim wraps being sorted on the last rod and another last minute job, rod bags. Out with the sewing machine and a prototype was born. I made it out of thin cloth, as the inner dimension of the tube is just 35mm. With a full wells cork grip it’s a tight fit. Prototype worked out fine. Warren got the order to organise these. By the end of the day I was buggered. Managed to get rod epoxy in my beard doing Lee’s rod that I only noticed after it had set…what a mess.

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A 5 day trip to Nacala, Mozambique interrupted proceedings for me. Warren managed to find someone to make up the rod sleeves. We had managed to secure the old Kamberg hatchery building that is now run as a research station. The accommodation consists of 6 bedrooms with bedding and towels, a fully equipped kitchen, large lounge, braai area and hot/cold running water under a hatched roof. It certainly beats camping. Not that camping is a viable option with some of the ZMC lads, some love their creature comforts and have been known to bring their own doo-doo pillows, filter coffee machines and sheepskin slippers but who am I to judge?.

While away I got the bad news that the accommodation had fallen through. This caused a major panic as the area is well know for booking up early. We weren’t sure a last minute change in plans was going to work out at all. As it turns out a few calls, mostly with no availability, yielded an old favourite “Snowflake cottage” on the Bushman’s river. Reasonably located, it will be all right as a base but a bit more expensive than the old Kamberg hatchery. At this stage the lads were getting pretty edgy as the countdown enters single digits. One ZMC lad was heard to remark that “I’m fucking amped to fish now. Like handshaking, stomach churning stuff”.

D day minus 5 was another frantic day. Finishing off the last tubes caps, finishing off reel seats and epoxy on Gooses rod. With the rods substantially completed, thoughts turn to flies and fly selection in anticipation, more as a way of trying not to think of the few days that need to pass by before we get on the water. Or is that also part of the ritual of preparation where each new pattern we find on the internet gets much debate about suitability. I’ve previously written about my small stream box and I’ve been slowly getting the necessary patterns done.

A tradition amongst the ZMC lads is the open fly box grab. It has become one of the most anticipated rituals of the group. Goose in preparation for the trip, and in fact the river season, brings along a box of flies he’s been tying. Although he holds down a demanding full time job, Goose might as well be a professional fly tyer as he is fanatical about quality, a fantastic improviser and developer of improved patterns as well as being a very prolific flytyer. Some of SA’s fishing festivals order in bulk from him for their clients. He’s known to tie over 100 flies in a day. I’ve just heard he’s gone international. Way to go Goose!.

Anyway I digress…but you get the point he’s a shit hot tier. Last year, as I also tie my own flies, held back at the fly box grab to find the other lads had scooped the best of the best. I missed the Black Bear ParaRABs, the RS2s, the Para Adams and the Rangers favourite, the Adams. I’m going to be at the front of the queue this time.

 

Next installment I hope to share these rods in action on a KZN stream, funnily enough going under the name “Zipper Mouth Creek”!.

Small Stream Flybox

During winter each year I try to tidy and prepare my small stream fly box for the upcoming river season. Over the past season I seemed to have spread out all my flies into several boxes, completely disorganised. As I write this, some flies are still in the drying box where I left them the last time I came off the river. As a matter of principle, I never put wet flies back in my main fly box. I carry a smaller plastic Mustard hook box where I place my wet flies so that I can dry these properly after the days fishing. I want to make sure that I don’t introduce any excess moisture into the main storage boxes. It’s a lesson I learn from salt-water fly fishing. A couple of wet salt-water flies introduced back into the box will result in all the hooks in that box going rusty. I’ve learnt that lesson the hard way!.

 

For years I’ve carried several fly boxes, usually filled to the brim with rows and rows of flies covering every situation imaginable. Fact is, I may have only used a maximum of six patterns at most. I always convinced myself that the flies weigh nothing, so what the hell!. But fly boxes taken up valuable space, with the other “essential” stuff, it makes for a bulky and cumbersome backpack. One has to get ones priorities right; essential in my mind is coffee…good filter coffee not that plastic shit, gas stove (one can’t start a twig fire in most of the places I fish), camera, something to eat and a few key medical supplies.

 

Apart from the bulk of all these fly boxes, to access them is logistically a nightmare as the fly box you want has ALWAYS worked its way to the bottom of the backpack. The fly change is usually in the middle of the stream while wading but as I haven’t master the unslinging of the backpack on stream, I have to wade to the side to change my fly!. It’s really unproductive and inefficient. So I got to thinking, surely the ideal setup is one, yes just one, fly box with just sufficient patterns to deal with the majority of situations one is faced with onstream.

 

With only a few weeks to go to opening day I need to get my stuff sorted. The venue on the Mooi River is booked and I’m being joined by a great bunch of guys (aka Zippermouth Creek). The sort of lads that I’m comfortable around. There no unnecessary banter required as one would with a newer friend that you might be getting to know.  However, as guys will be guys, there is loads of leg pulling and joking. We are so different in many ways but when it comes to fishing we are of the same mind. Virtually all my small stream fishing last season was with this bunch of guys. This season we will be fishing new rods which we have built over the winter. A ruby coloured graphite stick 7’6″ 1 weight with a red ivory reel seat and TiGold rod eyes. They sure look pretty. With several trips booked, my thoughts turn to flies. So this got me thinking…what would be my ideal set of small stream flies for our KZN streams?.

 

I need to digress a bit here to explain something that is critical to this story. I’m a collector. Or to quote my dear wife Tina…“you’re a hoarder!”. I like to see all my flies sorted and grouped. I have dedicated plastic boxes for just nymphs, or for just terrestrials and so on. All neatly placed in the plastic compartments by colour and by size. The humble Elk hair caddis, these are tied in a range of colours, cream, brown and green. With or without CDC, in hook sizes #12 down to #18. Oh there’s even a series tied with Klipspringer instead of Elk hair. OK… I know…I’ve a problem. But this system works for me…and I know I’m not alone in sorting my flies like this!. After a trip, the flies that I haven’t been lost to trees, bushes or fish (although this generally is less of a problem than the others) are dried and returned to their respective plastic boxes.

 

So every time I prepare for a trip, I go though the same process. What flies will work where I’m going?. What size and colour would be best?. How much space for flies do I have?. I then sit down and choose the flies accordingly.

 

Typically my small stream box works out to a selection of the following flies.

 

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Elk hair/CDC caddis #14/16

 

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Hopper #14

 

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Brigg drowned emerger #16 (shown) and Brigg Klinkhammer variation #16

 

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Meyer RAB #16

 

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Para Adams #16

 

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Terblanche Ants #16/18

 

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PTN #16/18 and Flashback nymph #16/18

 

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Soft hackle #16

 

But what about the thousand or two flies of varying patterns hiding in my flyboxes…I try not to think about them too much…maybe one day they will be used!. Maybe they get used by my future sons-in-law…or by my grandkids. Who knowns….

Right I’m signing out to tie up some of those nice caddis patterns I saw on Son Tao site!. I know Warren will be wanting some and then if he doesn’t take them I can always put them in my flybox.

Chasing Lesotho Yellows (Part Two)

The next morning we headed up stream. Apparently fish can be found up to 25 kms up stream. We weren’t going that far…thankfully!. We loaded the bakkie and headed up the rudimentary road overlooking the river. This was the first time we got to look at where we would be fishing. The river is in a very deeply incised U-shaped valley. The streambed and the banks are bare rock, cut by the river over millennia. There is very little vegetation in the river. It has the most amazing crystal clear water and visibility that one would find in places like Alaska or Patagonia.

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Crystal clear water with yellows by the gross. Photo credit: Vagabond fly.

On the hillsides are the odd kraal and homestead. Agriculture is an important aspect of this community’s lives. Evidence of mealie fields were everywhere. Between the mealie grew dagga (marijuana), a local cash crop. The people were delightful, smiling all the time. Everybody greeted you, the kids came running after the bakkie shouting “sweeties, sweeties”. But I digress.

 

We split up into three groups. Mike and I were with Colin (from Vagabond) and Johan. Colin, apart from his flyrod, was armed with his SLR and Johan carried his drone. After having driven about 6kms we walked in about another two kilometers. We got off the contour path and virtually slid straight down to the valley bottom. Mike and I set up our rods while Colin spotted fish and Johan powered up the drone. After the usual back and forth about who would have the first cast, Mike agreed to take it. In the pool above us was a feeding yellow, she appeared to be holding her position and rising to insects drifting down the feeding channel.

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Mike Nelson casting to a feeding yellow. Photo credit: Vagabond fly.

I might add here that Mike is new to river fishing as I explained earlier. Mike got himself into position and ready to cast, Colin was hiding just upstream behind a rock to capture the take, Johan had the drone hovering about to also get the take and fight. Mike cast. Fly landed about right. The fish rose mouthed the fly and spate it out before Mike could raise his rod. Disappointed Mike made a second cast. Fish refused the fly. It was at this point we realised how technically challenging these fish can be.

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My turn to cast guided by Stu. Photo credit: Vagabond Fly.

So it was now my turn. Johan spotted a fish patrolling in the riffle. I must say they are difficult to spot initially. Anyway I got into position. There was a slight breeze blowing. I made the cast but misjudged it. Second cast was better and the fly disappeared. I raised my rod…ok maybe a bit quick and a 2 inch rainbow flew over my shoulder!. We all had a good laugh about it. I never got to cast to that fish again as we moved up. At this stage Colin and Johan must have been thinking what have they let themselves in for!. Both were absolute gentleman about both our failed first attempts. But we were on the move upstream for other fish.

 

The next pool had some great fish in and Mike got into a nice one almost immediately. I was slightly upstream fishing the upper part of the pool and also got into a nice fish that immediately headed towards the middle of the pool and snagged me up on some dead branches. Disappointed I replaced my fly and moved up with Johan to a wide shallow section were there was a pod of fish gentle moving. On the edge of the bank was some waist high grass tufts that Johan said I must crouch behind. He was fine, my 20 year older back was taking strain!. By the time I cast to the fish it had moved to the edge of my casting range. I had a go but they were too far. Blow me down my fly was attacked by those pesky 2 inch rainbows. Not wanting to be further embarrassed I got my fly out the water chop chop!.

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Mike into another good yellow. Photo credit: Vagabond Fly.

Mike in the meantime had now several fish to his name and clearly enjoying himself. At about this time we noticed a storm brewing up the valley. The sound of distant thunder rolled down to us. We had been told to carry rain jackets. Anyway the fishing was still good so we moved up again to the next piece of water. Here a rocky ridge sill slightly dammed the water up. The sill was eroded in about five places causing the river to erode narrow furrows downstream. It didn’t look like anything much. The guides didn’t seem to indicate that there may be fish there. I had time to kill as Mike was fighting yet another fish. So I cast into these and worked up towards the sill. I think I was as surprised as Johan was when my fly disappeared and the fish had hooked itself!.

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Another feisty yellow. Photo credit: Vagabond Fly.

These yellows fight like a trout three times their size. This one eventually came to the net. At least I was on the board for the day. Johan took my rod and asked to test cast it. He fired some cracking loops and got the whole line out. I was wishing I could cast like that when he handed me back the rod. No sooner had I taken back the rod I felt a fish on. After a really nice fight with several strong runs the fish was in the net. He wouldn’t tell me if he set the hook before he pasted over the rod. I made him hold the fish for the photo.

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Whose fish is this?… Photo credit: Vagabond Fly.

By now it was time for a bite to eat so we found a nice spot next to the river and sat down to eat our sandwiches. These aren’t ordinary sandwiches. The guides made the bread from scratch the night before.

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Johan making bread. Photo credit: Vagabond Fly.

These are them crammed full of fillings. One can barely get your mouth around it. I managed only one sandwich. During lunch the wind had picked up and the storm had come closer.

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Mike and I enjoying lunch before the storm. Photo credit: Vagabond Fly.

We could see the rain, which was now about a kilometer away. The flash of lightening and sound of thunder were not separate. To a man we quickly put on our raincoats and waited for the storm to hit us.

 

At first he rain was bearable however the wind started driving the rain in at 45 degrees and in no time the hail hits us. There is no place to hide from the hail down in the valley. We looked for slight recesses in the rock face that we tried to hide in. It didn’t offer much protection. The hail was hitting so hard that we were getting stung through our clothes. The temperature plummeted as the hail fell. Some of us were concerned about our expensive rods out in the open and being pelted by hail.

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Some of the group trying to seek a little shelter. Photo credit: Vagabond Fly.

Midway through the storm we thought it was clearing only to have the other side of the storm come through. We watched as the river started rising rapidly. The once clear water was now turning a chocolate colour. At his stage it was still pelting down with hail. We realised we had better get out the valley to higher ground before the river comes down in a flash flood. We literally scramble up the valley sides with dislodged rocks occasionally coming past us while all the time brown coloured water flowed like sheets around us. We got to the contour path and by this stage we were all freezing. We broke down our rods to avoid attracting any unwanted lightening strikes. We turn for home and just then one of the other groups met up with us. We continued back towards the bakkie but were stopped by a fast flowing river of brown coming down the mountainside. It looked impassable. I thought we’d have to wait it our. Fortunately two Lesotho herdsmen were also walking the path and they showed up a safe place to cross slightly above the contour path. Johan took the opportunity to send up the drone and get footage of the river in flood as well as the spectacular cascading stream coming off the hillside.

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Raging torrents of water coming directly down the hillside. Photo Credits: Vagabond Fly.

Back at camp we accepted the fact that the river was now blown out. The guides estimated one day to clear. So we settled in to a day of tying flies, admiring other chaps flies and generally getting to know the other flyfishers. This also gave us a chance to relax and have a few toots. The whisky went down in no time, soon we were into the Amarula, and all the while the guides prepared the most unbelievable meals for us. The standard of the meals is often one of the key memories of a trip like this. We weren’t disappointed. We also played some sort of game which involved downing a drink afterwards. I’m not sure I can explain what the game involved. What I do recall was I wasn’t very good at it. Maybe that’s why I cannot recall the details!.

Photo credits: Vagabond Fly.

Next morning, with no urgency to go fishing, we rose to a leisurely breakfast. Followed by countless cups of coffee. You could sense the anxiety in the group to get back fishing. Some read, others told stories to pass the time. By about 3pm the river had started to clean up so several of us decided we would give it a bash. We decided to fish the river on the eastern side of the camp. Once down at the river, after a detour thought a flourishing dagga field which I was told was not ready for harvest yet, we saw a few rises. I decided to get into the riffle section and cast up to the tail of a large pool. Setting up a New Zealand rig with a small nymph below a dry, Elk hair caddis if I recall, I started picking up fish. The others were also picking up fish but the conditions were far from ideal. Water was still a dark “ginger beer” colour. We fished till the sun went down in the knowledge that this would be our last session of the trip. An early start in the morning would preclude us from having a cast before we hit the road home. I’ll definitely be going back as this really is a world-class fishery right on our doorstep. What is best is it is affordable to us South Africans!.

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Chasing Lesotho yellows (Part One)

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A Lesotho yellowfish. Photo credit: Vagabond.

For some time I’ve been lusting to go fish for the yellows (Labeobarbus aeneus) in Lesotho. Travelling into Lesotho on a solo trip is difficult unless one has been given the complete run down of what and where to go. So an organized trip is the way to go especially the first time.

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A typical river scene. Photo credit: Vagabond.

Anyway an opportunity came up to travel with Tourette’s Flyfishing to their camp on the Bokong River. This is just above the Katse dam, which incidentally supplies water to South Africa. My fishing buddy for the trip was my GP, Mike Nelson. Mike has been mostly a Stillwater fisherman and this would be his first major trip on a river of this size. We spent many hours discussing fly choice and equipment requirements in keen anticipation of the trip.

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Fly box inspection. Photo credit: Vagabond.

The day finally arrived and we set off from Durban early before sunrise on a trip which would take us from sea level to over 2000m (6000 ft ). The first leg of the trip was on good tar roads leading through Pietermaritzburg and out on the Underberg road passing the sleeping towns of Boston and Bulwer. At Underberg we turned towards Sani Pass. This is one of the most spectacular passes in South Africa cut out of the escarpment between South Africa and Lesotho and forms one of the few routes across this mountain range.

 

After passing through the South African border post we were now on a relatively narrow dirt road and in low range. Sections of the road was just rock, put down to hold the surface intact during the rainy season. Passing was always interesting as often only one vehicle could pass. This meant the descending vehicle had to find a spot to pull over while the ascending vehicle, labouring upward had right of way. We saw an assortment of vehicles, many you would not credit with being able to get to the top of Sani. We steadily climbed upwards with one switchback after the next until we squeezed thought a narrow gully at the plateau. Looking over the sides as we were climbing we saw several rusty vehicle remains littered down the slopes around the road. Cresting the top we were met by a moonlike landscape, cold and windswept with very few trees and lots of rolling grassland. A short stop to pass through the Lesotho border post and chance to stretch legs saw us once again on the road. Incidentally the highest pub in Africa is located here…some 2753m above sea level.

 

The road changed from the dirt track we had come up to a brand new two-lane asphalt highway recently completed by the Chinese. It was a pleasure to get off the bumpy dirt pass road. We made good time to Katse dam. This dam was built as a joint venture between South Africa and Lesotho so that water can be transferred across catchments into South Africa. Driving around it we saw a number of floating fish farm that we were later told held trout. Apparently somebody cut the nets in one of these pods releasing about 80 000 rainbow trout into the dam. I wonder what that will mean for the fishing in the rivers that flow into Katse dam. We arrived at the Makhangoa Community Camp after nearly ten hours on the road.

 

The camp is located on a spur above the Bokong river. To the east one looks down into the start of the dam. Normally when the dam is full this forms the estuary as the Bokong flows into Katse. Here the big Browns and Rainbows, up to 15 lbs, gather in April/May to run up and spawn. The view west is over home pool and the start of the Bokong river. In February/March this is the prime yellowfish season where thousands of yellows start moving up to do their thing.

 

The camp consists of several rondavels for guests, an outside toilet/shower block, a main dinning room lounge cum bar and a dormitory for the guides. All appointed with sufficient creature comforts for a bunch of flyfishers. We had three guides, Stu, Johan, Brent with Colin from Tourette making up the Tourette team. In addition to Mike and I, we had two chaps from Mpumalanga and a father and son team from Gauteng. Setting up the rods that afternoon the low rock wall in front of the camp had the cutest ice rats scampering around in amongst the rocks. They would come out foraging for food. Mike set up his rod with a brand new floating line against the wall. After fussing about in the bungalow for a while he came out to tie on his leader. The ice rats had nipped off about 2m of his floating line. They must have thought it was edible!. Oh by the way Mike later told me it didn’t make any difference to his casting.

 

First morning we went downstream. The dam was a bit low so we fished the section that ordinarily would be flooded by the dam. The Tourette guys call this the “Aquarium”. As we walked over the pedestrian bridge it became self evident. Looking down from about 30 m above the river, as far as the eye could see were yellows. I guessed about 200 fish per 200m2 of river, so on average one fish per square meter of river!. But they weren’t evenly distributed so it’s hard to be too exact so I could be exaggerating a bit. They were in pods everywhere in the streambed. A large single female being jostled and pursued by between 4 and 8 smaller males…sex was clearly on everybody’s brain. The French have a great expression for this “Menage a trois”, but here there were many more suitors.

 

We split up into two’s with a guide. Mike went with the guide while I fished a large pool just downstream of them. Dry fly barbless only. The community had a river ranger who’s job it was to chase away locals fishing in the areas were Tourette had water and to check everybody was using barbless. I got picked out early on for fishing a barbed fly. I rigged up a single elk hair caddis and waited for passing fish. A short cast in their path would result in several fish accelerating ahead to intercept the fly. This went on for the best part of two hours until I can honestly say I stopped fishing, not because of a lack of fish, but the old arm was taking strain!. Mike in the meantime was getting a crash course on river fishing for yellows. I walked up and joined Stu and Mike. We fished side-by-side hooking many of the yellows in the riffles. Once hooked, these fish take off at high speed, literally peeling line off your reel. We didn’t have too many cross over’s but spent an hour having great fun stalking and trying to target the bigger females in the pods. We returned to camp for lunch.

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Mike Nelson with a superb yellow. Photo credit: Vagabond.

DSCF9969 copyAfter lunch we relaxed and eventually headed down to the river below the camp. Here the river is deeper and sight fishing to the yellows was a little more difficult. After trying dry fly’s I switch to a New Zealand rig with a small nymph and started picking up the odd fish. I wasn’t as easy as the morning session. We fished up the river around the bend and at last light we headed up the hillside to camp for a well-earned dinner and drinks. Tomorrow we were heading upstream some 10 kms to fish what we were told was far more technical fishing than what we had experienced so far which I’ll write about in Part Two of this adventure.

 

Zippermouth Creek…or the not so secret stream.

The dilemma…to tell or not to tell…every flyfisher has these thoughts at one time or another and it’s a matter of personal choice but it’s a consideration that should not be taken lightly. Most of us are familiar with descriptions of locations like Bernie’s lake, Happy Valley or Zippermouth Creek. Perhaps its just the idea that somebody else has found the perfect fishing spot and is catching better fish than the rest or that it’s a stream which has never been fished before and brings with it the attraction of catching “wild fish”. If that concept even exists in South Africa, or simply that the competitive nature of the angler want to catch the biggest fish of the season or perhaps a new PB (personal best).

One thing that feeds this fascination is imperfect information…or the fact that everybody is not privy to the same information. Of course, with the internet, google earth and social media we are in a far better position to hear and find out more about what others are doing…perhaps this is driving this “fear of missing out”. Fisherman are famous for both overstating their catch numbers and sizes AND never giving away a good spot which they often perceive to be for their exclusive use. Or if we do tell, its often in trust.

“I share these places with you in the certain knowledge that if, by chance you happen to go there, you will treat them as sacred, as a venue that will need all our efforts, all our finest ethics, to keep it unspoilt.” Tom Sutcliffe.

Since the introduction of trout in KwaZulu-Natal over 125 years ago and the subsequent stocking of many of our rivers and dams, flyfishers have utilized many of these rivers over the years. Many of the streams where fish were stocked are well known. Many books have been written about our rivers and the fishing trips on these rivers. Just the other day, reading Neville Nuttall’s 1973 book Life in the Country, he tells of a day on the Bushman’s River where there were so many fisherman he had a hard time finding a section of river to fish. Looking at all the articles written over the years about our rivers in our local flyfishing magazines, there aren’t any secret streams…they are just hidden in plain sight… forgotten perhaps in the passage of time or perhaps waiting to be rediscovered by newer flyfishers.File 2017-05-25, 14 40 45Of recent there has been a resurgence back to river fishing…I’m not sure what is driving this but the fact is more flyfishers want to access our rivers and streams. While we have many kilometers of rivers, many of these systems have been transformed by land use changes and farming in the catchments, alien plant invasion and the privatization of water. So what do we do about this?

Initiatives like the Blue Ribbon Umgeni (BRU), driven by the Natal Fly Fishers Club (NFFC), where alien Wattles and Brambles are being cleared is making a difference. However, there is much more still to be done and the recent fundraising auction will certainly make a difference. Quality of water also seems to be a critical issue here. Sure, there are plenty of rivers left but for the discerning flyfishers these untransformed and seemly untouched rivers are the rivers which are likely to feel the pressure most. So it’s a natural tendency for some to arrive at a decision to remain silent about where they have fished. This is often based on the smallness of the river, the distribution of fish, the fragility of the area or of course the selfishness of being able to fish it again before the close of the river season.

Before the Ed Snowdons of this world lynch me…let me finish. The counterargument has been to advertise these spots so that many more flyfishers can benefit from the knowledge and so get a change to fish these spots. This knowledge sharing aspires to create the ownership and stewardship of these rivers…a noble goal in itself. However a very real threat to this approach is the situation were the resource are overexploited. Some of you may be familiar with the term “Tragedy of the Commons”. In 1963 Garrett Hardin wrote that “if a resource is held in common for use by all, then ultimately that resource will be destroyed”. We are in the fortunate position that apart from private water, several clubs have secured waters and the number of rods is limited which to a greater extent helps the situation…catch and release also being a significant contributor to maintaining the stocks particularly in our rivers.

This season I fished a small upper catchment small stream that I would classify as public water. The first time, with the Supermodel, the river was clean and the fish rose regularly to the dry. The surrounding area was almost pristine and it was a pleasure to observe the surrounding countryside. The second time I fished this stream there was considerably more beaten tracks along both sides of the stream and it was patently evident that many more fisherman had come through in the interim. The last time I fished it was with a small stream aficionado. It wasn’t a particularly good fishing day but we spent time photographing the scenery and catching the odd fish here and there. We observed even more pedestrian impacts along the stream and left with the uneasy feeling that Zippermouth Creek had probably been collectively overfished this season.

Where there is a real area of concern is within the upper reaches of our KZN trout streams where many are within the control of nature reserves or ‘so called’ public or tribal waters…there is NO controls on the number of rods on the waters or even bag limits!. Once upon a time you had to buy a freshwater fishing permit and observe a closed season for trout…all that is long gone now. Ironically these are the most sensitive and delicate parts of our river systems, which by their nature cannot take much angling pressure…so flyfishers have to decide how much they advertise these spots. Here many would advocate that these may qualify for Zippermouth stream status and not shared with others…of course many others may disagree. The bottom line is we all owe it to fellow flyfishers to tread lightly and be sensitive to the waters we hold dear. Ultimately, the sustainability of our sport is in all of our hands.

You decide.