Friday, 28 November 2014

Sabie River, Mpumalanga, South Africa

I’d been back home in South Africa for less than a week before my thoughts started to turn to trout. Since my last visit to the country five years ago my family had moved to the small town of White River in the lowveld of Mpumalanga province. After a long haul flight from Heathrow I had caught a short connecting flight from Johannesburg to the local airport, Kruger Mpumalanga International. With a clue in the name the Kruger National Park is only a half hour drive to the east. The airport building itself is small, quaint and thatched, with exposed interior timber beams in the local ‘bushveld’ style. Impala antelope grazed the rich green grass outside the exit doors before the grass gives way to row upon row of orchard trees.  It’s the kind of place where you get the immediate sense upon arrival that life runs at a slow pace and I wasn't about to start complaining. It's ‘Big Five’ country, far too hot for trout, but half an hour’s drive up an escarpment to the west where the climate cools markedly is the small town of Sabie, which sits in a hollow of pine forested hills through which runs a pretty trout stream named after the town. Sitting on the veranda at my family’s home I looked wistfully at the hills each day, all the while being fed copious amounts of braai meat, biltong and milk tart, until we had all caught up on each others’ news and it became polite enough to suggest spending a day on my own fishing. 

This would be my first serious attempt at river fishing anywhere in South Africa. Sure, I’d cast a few times into the Lotheni River in the Drakensberg during a school holiday but I hadn't a clue what I was doing and doubt I‘d ever heard of the word ‘drag’ in a fishing sense. Naturally I caught nothing and this brief but frustrating experience reinforced my then view that river fly fishermen were a curious bunch of higher fishing mortals practising a dark art much beyond my ability and knowledge. Years later and with an inkling of what to do I was excited to finally give a proper go at fishing for trout in a river in my home country. The day took on an added significance, a homecoming of sorts.

Day 1

Purchasing my day ticket at a local fishing store in the town I was warned that “we haven’t had rain up here” and that the river was very low. It was a bright, hot day and I could feel the heat starting to pervade my senses even at 8.30 in the morning. The car’s air-conditioner had been steadily churning ever since I had left White River earlier that morning. I set my expectations to match the difficult conditions, in other words they were set low, bought a takeaway coffee from a Wimpy, and followed the map stapled to my day ticket to the section of river controlled by the Sabie Trout Angling Club some way out of town. I followed a potholed tar road described as “the old Lydenburg road” which no-one seemed to use anymore besides one or two heavily laden timber trucks and crossed several railway crossings over rail lines that were so overgrown with weeds they had plainly long ceased to operate. A small clearing in the pine trees signalled the entrance to a dirt track which I followed a short way to the river. Switching off the engine I had a quick look at the river, the moment I’m sure all fly fishermen experience when they view a river for a first time, heart-in-mouth stuff, hoping that the trip has not been wasted by a muddy wash out or dry trickle. This river had trout written all over it, remarkably clear, each rock and pebble in a shallow run next to the road starkly visible as if covered by a sheet of glass. From what I could see the river was a mixture of riffles and runs and deeper pools where the streambed got lost in an apple green hue. Enough variation to offer a good day’s fishing I agreed with my mother, who had jumped into the driver’s seat of the car, to be collected at 6pm. As she drove away through the trees leaving a trail of dust behind, the only sounds as I set up my fly rod was the river, the shrill monotonous noise of Christmas beetles and the distant hum of a sawmill punctuated by the blast of a siren bringing an end to a shift.

I fished like an idiot, like someone who had only fished twice in the previous twelve months. My leader turned into a bird’s nest of nylon on more than one occasion and I lost several flies to the trees thanks to wayward casting. The trout sulked in the bright conditions and I went the entire morning without so much as a touch. I spotted three rainbow trout but always too late, the obvious and easy to spot sign of fish fleeing in a silver-pink flash having spotted me first. It was tough going and by 1.30pm the sun was scorching hot. I could feel the uncovered back of my wrists turning a pickled pink. I was debating whether a siesta in the shade was required when a trout decided to break the dull monotony and slashed at my dry fly. Not expecting it of course I missed it but it added a fresh impetus to a flagging day. Soon after that another rise to my fly, again missed (fishing like an idiot again) and just as I sensed the fishing gods had decreed a shift in fishing prospects a voice behind me said “hello”. Having not seen a soul the preceding four and a half hours, deep in my own world watching my dry fly bob and weave with the currents and determined not to miss the next rise, I practically jumped out of my skin.  I looked up at three gentlemen each clutching a bamboo stick - poachers - who at least had the decency despite their illicit pursuit to stop by and say hello. They moved in to the river immediately upstream of me and like a flock of cormorants started to fish the river. When done with a pool they would move on to the next and it reminded me of a sci-fi movie I had seen where aliens moved from planet to planet depleting all the resources as they went. I wondered whether I could jump ahead of them and forge ahead but didn’t fancy having these guys breathing down my neck again. I spoke with one of them and whilst watching him cast a worm on a hook he told me had caught one trout and held his hands roughly 15 inches apart. Trout are usually suckers for a worm on a hook but he didn’t seem to have been too much more successful than me. The little momentum I had gained halted, I turned back and headed downstream to find quieter fishing and didn’t manage another rise to my fly all afternoon. I continued to fish like an idiot and when I later tempted two trout to take my nymph both managed to dislodge the hook after a second or two.  I can’t remember a day when I fished so poorly.

Notwithstanding the poor fishing the novelty of fishing an African stream was enough to make the day enjoyable. It was an unmistakably African experience. The riverbanks featured clumps of wispy grass, tall stands of reeds, weeping willows and squat, gnarled trees very different to the nettles, oak and alder of the UK. The heat was another obvious difference, oppressive, and whilst the water was cool it was comfortable enough to wet wade. Wearing a pair of waders in this heat would have been suicidal. I heard the Fish Eagle’s piercingly evocative call long before I saw it. I looked up as it glided majestically over the river, the white of its crest wedged between the brown plumage of its impressive wingspan. I startled an otter into swimming across the narrow stream to the opposite bank where it emerged and momentarily observed me before bounding away into the undergrowth. A lone vervet monkey foraged in a bush rooted to the river bank but when it noticed me it quietly melted away through the trees. A Malachite kingfisher flew straight downstream like a colourful dart and a wagtail stood on a rock midstream and wagged its tail at me. Iridescent butterflies and dragonflies added colour to the day as did many types of wild flowers in full bloom. In the afternoon a distant thunder echoed from the hills and across the river valley.

It gets dark early here and on the way back home over the mountain pass darkness descended just after 6pm. We drove through a tremendous thunderstorm, the windscreen wipers working in overdrive and the night sky pierced by lightening strikes a little too close for comfort.

Day 2

I couldn’t shake off wanting to know what the Sabie River has in store immediately upstream of the point where the three poachers had curtailed my efforts so it wasn’t long before I was planning a second visit. I waited a week in which it rained pretty much every day in White River with a thunderstorm every afternoon like clockwork. I hoped that some of this rain had found its way over the hills. I woke early to a cloudy sky and set off for Sabie, this time alone and promising to be back with the car by 2pm. The higher reaches of the mountain pass were covered by mist and visibility was less than 15 feet. I turned my headlights on and slowed down but was amazed by several cars whose drivers impatiently overtook on solid white lines with little more than a hope and prayer of no incoming traffic. No surprise then the number of memorial crosses and floral wreaths along the side of this road and the big white signs with red circles like the Rising Sun flag of Japan, signifying high accident zones. 

Purchasing my day ticket this time I was pleased to be told “we’ve had a bit of rain and the river is fishing better”. The river had a slight chocolate tinge but still looked good and I hoped the cool, cloudy conditions would offer better fishing than the previous week. I walked up to “Poachers’ Point” scattering a troop of vervet monkeys along the way. Before long I had caught my first South African river trout, a feisty rainbow of about 9 inches, on a Zak nymph which I felt was fitting given that it’s probably South Africa’s pre-eminent nymph pattern. Truth be told it was a fluke. The nymph had got caught on a submerged branch during a drift and after a bit of pulling it came loose. I picked up the slack and lifted the rod to cast again and this movement of the fly induced the take. The less said about it the better…

I found the upper section of the beat to be much more impressive because the river is smaller and generally swifter flowing. I tied on a Royal Wulff #14 because it was easy to see  in the choppy water and I figured it would make a reasonable impression of a terrestrial. I anticipated the dry fly would play second fiddle to the Zak fished below it but soon two fish from the same run took the dry fly in quick succession and I trimmed the nymph off. The second of these fish came rocketing up from the depths in a spotty flash of pink and lilac to take the Royal Wulff as it drifted close to the far bank and was the most memorable moment of the day. Another run upstream took a little effort to get to, flanked by thorn bush and tall reeds, but once through I quietly slipped into the water when for a little while it was a rise to every cast. It spoke volumes for the innocence of these trout in a section of the river which I imagine sees little pressure. Most were very small and still showed parr markings, too small to fully engulf the fly but three of them were between 9 and 11 inches. When hooked I found these fish made straight for the reeds or grass of the bank and it took some side strain to keep them out. One even swam a full circle around one of my legs which made things pretty interesting for a while.

I wanted to stay on  and continue to cast to the free-rising trout in this wonderful little trout stream on the very eastern edge of the trout’s range in South Africa but I’d promised to have the car back by 2pm. As it turned out I got it back only twenty minutes late which I thought displayed exceptional will power in anybody’s books.  

Any ideas what left these behind? #16 yellow humpy thrown in for scale