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.
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.
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.
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!.
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!.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!.