Monday, 29 December 2014

Brothers

Its been a wonderful (if hot) Christmas with my family in White River, boosted by my brother getting some time off work and driving through on Christmas eve to see us. I hadn't seen my brother in seven years so we had a lot to catch up on. We fished together when we were kids and when the conversation moved on to fishing we worked out it had been a decade since our last fishing trip. A Boxing day excursion to the nearest stream was hatched.

It was a quick in-out trip, a planned two hours which became three in the early morning before the heat kicked in. Things panned out perfectly and we each caught a trout. Even better was the time spent fishing together, rekindling the bonds of brotherhood.







p.s. it happened to be my brother’s first trout from a river, a milestone he didn't want me to mention. But who listens to their younger brother anyway? The first of many I hope.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2015.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Smalblaar River, Western Cape - Part 2

The sun had barely set on my first day on the Smalblaar when I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock at 4.50am on Sunday morning. I was tired and my body sore from the previous day but as soon as I hit the road towards the mountains and the tar of the N1 slipped beneath my car in a blur I found my tiredness and stiffness started to dissipate, as if by magic. It’s amazing how the anticipation of a day’s fishing can shake off the cobwebs and kill the aches. A strong cup of coffee and the crisp morning air helped too. I’d agreed to meet Korrie Broos at 6am at the parking lot next to the Smalblaar. Korrie had a separate lunch engagement that day which explains the early start. We planned to fish until 11am.


If the previous day had been a day for the dry fly, Sunday morning promised to be a day for the nymph. I had gathered from a few sources that Korrie is a bit of a “nymph nut” and this quickly became evident when he took charge of my leader, snipping away here, adding there, and tying on a hot pink spring coil indicator. On to the point and dropper were tied two tungsten nymphs from Korrie’s box (after he had looked a little disdainfully through the slimmer pickings of my nymph box). I was also shown the Pitzen knot which Korrie assured me is stronger and quicker to tie than most other knots and indeed, it looked much quicker to tie than the improved clinch knot I use. Korrie struck me as a no frills, no fuss fisherman with a wealth of experience gained not only through his own experiences but also from fishing in the company of some of Europe’s finest proponents of nymph fishing. More importantly, Korrie was eager to teach and I was all ears.


Thin, wispy clouds hung tentatively in the still air, as if they expected a wind to whip up and push them on their way, but none came that morning. It was cool and the air still crisp when we walked down to the river and started fishing at about 7am. Korrie briefly illustrated the short cast/tight line method we would adopt for most of the morning and then handed me the reins. It was a slow start, with nothing to show from the first stretch of pocket water and this seemed to surprise Korrie.


We fished through the pocket water and came to a pool where trout were sipping mayflies with something of a reckless abandon. Off came the nymphs and on went a small CDC mayfly pattern. I must have lined and spooked about two or three fish at the tail of the pool, my range not up to scratch. This got Korrie excitable and his language turned somewhat colourful. It spurred me on to better things as I finally got a cast spot on, right up against a bank and some leafy tree fronds where we had seen a fish show itself, and up it came to engulf the fly. I struck too soon and the fly did not set. Cue more exotic language.


Fortunately, I made swift amends and this time it was with the nymph. I saw the spring coil of the indicator expand just a fraction and lifted the rod into a fish. Korrie beamed from ear to ear.



We alternated our approach to suit the water, my rod for the dry fly stuff and Korrie’s 10 foot rod rigged up with two nymphs, and I had an enjoyable morning fishing up the beat. We each picked up a few fish along the way. When faced with a choice of method (with no obvious sign of rising fish) I opted to choose the nymph rod to continue picking Korrie’s brain on the technique.



I lost what felt to be two good fish in succession on the nymph rod. The language again turned spicy. Both were hooked right where you would expect them, either just in front or behind a boulder with a little escape hole washed out from under them for the fish to flee into at the first sign of danger. I did have better joy with the dry fly at least, later catching two little jewels.


Perhaps the biggest smile of the day came to Korrie’s face in a moment of nymph vindication. I had unsuccessfully tried to tempt a rising fish to take three or four different patterns of dry fly. The fish then ceased to rise and I confidently concluded that it had been spooked, so I suggested we move up river. Korrie said “let me try the nymph” and as I was looking at my feet reeling in my excess line I heard Korrie exclaim triumphantly and saw his rod bending to the pressure of a fish. He was pleased as punch that his nymph had prevailed over my dry flies. I learned another valuable lesson. It’s not over until the fat lady sings or, perhaps more pertinently, until she has a final lob with a nymph.



I had fun and learned a great deal. Whilst we spooked a good number of fish I was surprised how close we could get with a reasonably stealthy approach. Fish were typically caught less than 12 feet away from our boots in water as transparent as cling film.


On the walk back to the car following the verge of the highway high up over the river, we could see trout going crazy in the pools. Literally hundreds of fish rising to a hatch in a boiling, seething feeding orgy. I have never seen so many fish in a river all at one time.

After years of wanting to fish the Smalblaar I was not disappointed. I was captivated by the river and its trout and the experience was made all the more unforgettable by my two obliging hosts. Sure, I didn’t fish the best I could but I picked up a few new skills and caught some lovely looking trout. On the drive back to civilisation I decided to forego the tunnel through the mountains and took the old Jan du Toit’s Kloof pass over them. Feeling perfectly relaxed and content after two memorable days of fishing, I took it slow, not wanting my Cape fishing experience to end, and enjoyed the stunning views of Paarl and Table Mountain along the way.

Table Mountain is just discernible in the far distance

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Smalblaar River, Western Cape - Part 1

The first fly fishing book I read was Tom Sutcliffe’s ‘My Way with a Trout’. On its cover, the author clad in blue jeans and a red hat played a fish whilst standing knee deep in a remarkably clear river with a curious honey-yellow tinge. It looked unlike any river I had seen. It was, I would discover, a typical Western Cape stream. When I read the book all those years ago - at the very outset of my exploration into fly fishing - the image had a profound effect on me and shaped my thoughts as to the type of fly fishing I wanted to pursue. Cool, pellucid mountain streams, that sort of thing.


I have since seen many more images of the Western Cape’s rivers and have always been transfixed by the yellow stained water, pebbles bleached as white as bone, unique fynbos flora and backdrop of jagged mountains and sheer cliffs. It’s a very pretty and distinctive scene. What this all resulted in was a long held desire to fish a Western Cape stream in the footsteps of Tom Sutcliffe and many other fly fishing writers who hail from the region (a great deal of South Africa’s fly fishing literature has its provenance in the Cape and has had a massive impact on the development of fly fishing in the country). The only problem is that the Western Cape is so damn far from the rest of South Africa getting there has never been as simple as jumping in a car for a spontaneous weekend away. It takes a two day drive from most parts of the country just to get there. The opportunity to cast a fly in the region finally came when I found myself down in the Cape (my sister is starting at a Cape university next month) with two invitations to fish the Smalblaar River. I felt like a kid at Christmas.

Darryl Lampert image

Darryl Lampert image

If any one trout river in South Africa has received the most attention in local fly fishing literature I’d guess it would be the Smalblaar. Perhaps it’s not too far of a stretch to think of it as the Henry’s Fork or River Test of South Africa. Sutcliffe, in his later work ‘Hunting Trout’, is full of praise for the river with his typically delightful prose: “The secret of the Smalblaar’s enduring appeal is, of course, its free-rising rainbows, miles of them sprinkled like raisins in a cake in water that’s just tricky enough to be really interesting to fish.”


Apparently the upper sections of the Smalblaar were fishing better than any of the other Western Cape streams, which explains why my hosts, Darryl Lampert on the Saturday and Korrie Broos the following day, booked Beat 6 and the Transport beat respectively. These are the two uppermost beats of the river. I knew I was onto a good thing when I stopped in to a local fly fishing store to pick up a few flies and Richard, behind the counter, seemed impressed by the beat selections. He asked how I had managed to book what he considered to be the two most productive beats at the time and when I mentioned my hosts he gave me a knowing smile and said I was in very good hands.


I’m not going to wax lyrical about the beauty and splendour of the Smalblaar and its valley. The photos do a much better job of that. Plus, I’ve gone back and read a few of my previous posts and realise I find almost every river I fish ‘beautiful’ so I’ll spare you the repetitive adjectives this time! When trout rivers cease to take my breath away I’ll pack away my fly rod in the attic for good.

I was blessed with fine weather over the weekend. I’ve read much about the infamous Cape winds that can destroy a day’s fishing but fortunately the ‘Cape Doctor’ stayed away with only a slight upstream breeze showing itself on Saturday. Even so, using long 7x and 8x tippets in the breeze I had to really focus on using a power stroke to get the leader to unfurl properly. Both Darryl and Korrie commented on this and I guess spending enough time fishing in a wind with fine tippets it comes naturally to them. It wasn’t the only lesson I learned over the two days - I probably gleaned more knowledge in these two days than I have in the past two years. Learning from Darryl and Korrie was easy, they are both skilful fishermen and good teachers to boot.
My first Smalblaar trout!
Beat 6 is the uppermost beat on the river right at the point where the 4km long Hugenot Tunnel emerges on the Worcester side of the busy N1 highway. Speaking of the highway, I hadn’t appreciated how close it is to the river. In some places it crosses overhead and the noise of traffic and the tunnel extractor fan is never far away. I became so immersed in the fishing however that I soon began to forget the highway was even there.


Darryl and I spent a bit of time on the beat’s first pool because the trout were feeding off the surface in a frenzy. Faced with a consistent flurry of surface dimples and splashes there was little need or incentive to move on. Trout were rising to small mayflies and soon enough I caught my first Smalblaar trout on a #16 CDC mayfly pattern. It was a pretty little rainbow trout of about 12 inches.



Darryl had set up a tenkara rod and soon he too caught a fine looking specimen. He was kind enough to offer me a trial of his tenkara rod and I must admit the presentational advantage of this technique in the type of water we were fishing was immediately apparent. I hooked a trout and felt a little awkward when my first instinct was to draw in line with my non-rod hand. Even though I hardly ever use a reel when playing a fish it felt strangely discomforting not having one. It’s a simple and minimalist style of fishing and I enjoyed the different experience of bringing a trout to hand with it.


Darryl Lampert image

We moved upstream to fish a long section of pocket water where we separated, Darryl fishing the left branch and I the right. I caught a tenacious trout from the very first little pocket I cast into. In a flash the trout rose to take a black Klinkhamer in the fast current, within seconds of the fly touching the water‘s surface, and I had to apply side strain to keep the wily fish from darting straight into bank side bushes and grass. I have very little experience of fishing rivers with this type of water and at that moment, having caught a trout with my first cast in the very first pocket water, I thought it was easy.  How wrong I was!

The current was swift and I struggled to achieve drag free drifts, even when trying to lift as much of the line and leader off the water. To try and avoid drag I would naturally try to get as close to the target water as possible to keep line off the water, but this increases the risk of spooking fish. The converse of this is trying to cast as far away from the intended pocket water as possible but this of course increases the chance of drag. Darryl showed me the trick of casting and letting the leader fall on to a rock upstream to delay the effects of drag and he also taught me to avoid casting immediately upstream into the main current as this compounds the effect of drag (rather, casting from the side and letting the bulk of the line fall into slacker side water with only the dry fly in the intended current helps to reduce drag for a few more precious seconds). It was a steep learning curve and a hard slog, a little humbling if I’m honest, but I was content to watch and learn from Darryl who like a magician with a wand continued to bring trout to his fly throughout the day.

Darryl Lampert image

It wouldn’t be until the end of the day at the penultimate pool that I would land another trout. I did hook and lose one or two fish along the way in the type of pools I’m more accustomed to fishing (which Darryl graciously left to me). But these fish were smart, dislodging the hook in tree roots and weeds or breaking the fine tippet on sharp rocks. On to the last pool (just before the magical looking little Krom River flows into the Smalblaar from an adjacent valley) we alarmed a duck which must have had a nest of ducklings nearby. The duck gave us a splashy broken wing routine, disturbing the water all the way up the pool in an attempt to draw us away from its nest. Once the duck eventually flew off, content that we posed no danger, we let the pool rest for a few minutes until trout started to  rise again. Darryl and I each got a fish, their pink lateral lines magnified in the bright warm glow of the setting sun. It was a fitting way to end the day’s fishing.

I was able to reflect on the day on the hike back to the parking lot next to the highway. It is a wonderful river, varied enough in its character that it poses questions of the angler, making for thought-provoking and at times technical fishing. The water is clear enough to spot fish, another skill to be learned. Trout were often holding in thin, exposed places that I would ordinarily have passed without any notice. I was impressed by the average size and condition of the trout, and pleased that they were so willing to rise to a dry fly. I fished nothing but a dry fly all day which, I guess, is always a pleasant way to fish because of the visual excitement of it. It was also a day of lessons and good company.




Darryl mentioned that Tom Sutcliffe had described the Smalblaar as ‘the prince of streams’ and, whilst Tom’s opinion on local fly fishing matters is pretty much listened to as smartly as a Catholic listens to the Pope, it was a statement I could with just a day’s experience of this river readily agree with.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Bushmans River, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

The Bushmans is quite simply the prettiest trout stream I have fished. That takes some doing, but I was blown away by the setting the second I crossed the cattle grid into the Giant's Castle reserve in the Drakensberg mountains - a tortured landscape of imposing mountains awash in green from recent summer rains.

The Bushmans river was first stocked with brown trout 120 years ago and the trout have thrived and spawned successfully ever since. It is one of South Africa's premier brown trout streams and for the magnificent scenery alone it is easy to understand why.


I had the pleasure of having my sister along for the day and she proved a fine fishing photographer in the making.

We set out just before 7am when the river and valley floor was still in shadow. The light inexorably advanced until its warmth started to tickle the river. Shadows eventually all but disappeared except in the most narrow and sheer of ravines.




Before long my indicator checked and I lifted my rod into the pulsating pressure of a fish. It was a beautifully marked and lissome brown trout with a belly as yellow as butter.



As the sun's warmth began to be felt I noticed a caddis fluttering above the water in short, rapid spurts of flight as caddis so often do. I tied on a deer hair caddis pattern which soon accounted for three trout in splashy and aggressive rises.



We moved steadily upstream from the camp, past a tributary which I have since learned is called the Tweedassie spruit. I momentarily debated with myself whether I should fish up the smaller tributary but chose to follow the right branch up the Bushmans. It had more water and looked more inviting.

Later in the day we followed a path back to the camp which took us over a footbridge spanning the Tweedassie spruit. From the bridge I spotted the largest fish I had seen all day. It was a brown trout of about 12 or 13 inches holding station downstream of the bridge in featureless water no more than a foot deep. Had I chosen to fish up the tributary I wouldn't have expected a good fish to be in such open and shallow water and would probably have spooked it wading to the better looking water upstream. A lesson is in there somewhere.



In the sporadic deeper pools I tied a Zak nymph below the Caddis pattern in the New Zealand style and the nymph would garner more attention than the dry.

Several times (perhaps three or four times) the dry fly dipped or checked and I lifted into a fish, feeling weight and seeing the sunlit flash of a panicked fish's flank below the surface, but on each occasion the nymph came free. I investigated the hook but it seemed fine and was sharp enough to pierce my skin. I should have changed it sooner but lazily persisted with it. The final straw was when I seemed to hook into a trout a little more hefty than the rest only to see the line again go slack. I gave the cursed Zak a swift burial ceremony and promptly landed the next fish on the same pattern but different hook.




The trout were carbon copies of the fish I had become so accustomed to catching in the rivers and streams of Wales.



At 12pm threatening looking clouds started to gather on the escarpment and soon the sound of thunder started to roll across the valley. Not wanting to find myself caught in the mountains in an electrical storm with a 7'5 foot lightening conductor in my hand we beat a hasty retreat to the camp. We made it back just as the first heavy drops of rain started to fall. The morning session had gone so perfectly I wasn't in the slightest disappointed by the premature end to the fishing.



As far as streams go, this one comes pretty close to what my ideal 'fishing heaven stream' would look like.