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.