Sabie River, Mpumalanga, South Africa

It had been five years since my last visit to South Africa and in that time my family had moved to the small town of White River in the lowveld of Mpumalanga province. After a long haul flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg, I caught a short flight to the local airport, Kruger Mpumalanga International. The airport building was 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 gave way to citrus and mango tree orchards. It’s the kind of place where you get the immediate sense that life runs at a slow pace. 

With a clue in the airport's name the Kruger National Park is only a half hour drive to the east. It's ‘Big Five’ country, far too hot for trout, but half an hour’s drive up an escarpment to the west the climate cools markedly. The small town of Sabie sits in a hollow of pine forested hills at an altitude of 3,600 feet. A pretty trout stream flows through the settlement and takes its name from the town. 

I’d been back 'home' in South Africa for less than a week before my thoughts started to turn to trout. 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 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. I’d cast a fly a few times into the Lotheni and Mooi Rivers in the Drakensberg during a school holiday many years before, but I hadn't a clue what I was doing at the time. I doubt that I'd ever heard of the word ‘drag’ in a fishing sense. Naturally I caught nothing and those brief but frustrating experiences reinforced my then view that river fly fishermen were a curious bunch of higher fishing mortals, who practised a dark art much beyond my ability and knowledge. Now, many 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 therefore took on an added significance, a homecoming of sorts.

Day 1

When purchasing my day ticket at a local fishing store in the town, I was warned by the shopkeeper 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! I bought a takeaway coffee from a Wimpy in the town, and followed the map stapled to my day ticket to a 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 was devoid of traffic except for one or two heavily laden timber trucks. I drove over several railway crossings, dutifully stopping where marked even though the railway lines were so overgrown with weeds that trains had plainly long ceased to operate on them. A small clearing in the pine trees signalled the entrance to a dirt track which I followed a short way to the river. 

I left the engine idling as I stepped away from the car and quickly scanned the river. The moment is a combination of trepidation and eager anticipation that I’m sure all fly fishermen experience when they view a river for a first time. Heart-in-mouth stuff, that first cursory inspection to ensure a trip hasn't been wasted by a muddy wash out or dry trickle. I needn't have worried because the Sabie River had trout written all over it. The river was remarkably clear, each rock and pebble in a shallow run beside the road starkly visible as if covered by a sheet of glass. From what I could see the river contained a mixture of riffles and runs and deeper pools where the streambed got lost in an apple green hue. There looked to be 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, I began to set up my rod. The river burbled in harmony with the shrill whine of Christmas beetles and the monotonous hum of a sawmill, punctuated by the blasts 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, seeing only the silver-pink flash of fleeing fish. It was very tough going. 

By 1.30pm the sun was scorching hot and 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 by slashing at my dry fly. Not expecting it, I struck far too late and missed the take. The moment at least added a fresh impetus to a flagging day. Soon afterwards another trout rose to my fly, which I again missed (fishing like an idiot). Just as I sensed that the fishing gods had decreed an upwards shift in my fishing prospects, a voice behind me said “hello”. I had not seen a soul in the preceding four and a half hours, and I was deep in my own world watching my dry fly bob and weave with the currents, determined not to miss the next rise to it. I practically jumped out of my skin in fright. I looked up at three African gentlemen each clutching a bamboo stick - poachers - who at least had the decency despite their illicit pursuit to stop by and say hello. I returned the greeting and like a flock of cormorants they started to fish the river immediately upstream of me. I spoke with one of them and whilst watching him cast a worm on a hook he told me that he 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. When done with my pool the poachers moved on to the next pool, and then the next. I was reminded 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 upriver but I didn’t fancy having these guys breathing down my neck again. 

The little momentum I had gained now halted, I turned back and headed downstream to find quieter fishing, and didn’t manage to rise another fish 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 very 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 an African 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.

On the drive home over the mountain pass, darkness descended just after 6pm. My mother and I drove through a tremendous thunderstorm, the windscreen wipers working in overdrive, the night sky pierced by lightning strikes a little too close for comfort.

Day 2

I couldn’t shake off wanting to know what the Sabie River had 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 to the Sabie's catchment. 

I woke early to a cloudy sky and set off for the town of 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 me on solid white lines with little more than a hope and prayer of no oncoming traffic. No surprise then the number of memorial crosses and floral wreaths along the side of this road, and the big white road signs with red circles like the Rising Sun flag of Japan, warning drivers of a high accident zone. 

Purchasing my day ticket this time I was pleased to be told that “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 to 'Poachers’ Point', scattering a troop of vervet monkeys along the way, and began fishing from the most upstream spot that I reached on my previous visit. Within minutes 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 its capture 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 the sharp movement of my fly induced the take. The less said about it the better…

I found the intimate upper section of the beat to be more forgiving because the river was narrower and faster flowing. The surface currents concealed my approach and the trout were afforded much less time to scrutinise my fly. I tied on a Royal Wulff #14 because it was easy to see in the rippled water and I figured it would be a reasonable impression of a terrestrial. I believed the dry fly would play second fiddle to the Zak nymph fished below it, in the New Zealand style, but two trout took the dry fly in quick succession. 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, the most memorable moment of the day. I trimmed the nymph off. 

Another run upstream took a little effort to get to, flanked by thorn bushes and tall reeds, but once through the foliage I quietly slipped into the water when, for a little while, a trout rose to every cast of my fly. It spoke volumes for the innocence of these trout in a section of the river which I imagined might see 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 grasses of the bank, and I applied 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 these 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. I dragged myself away. As it turned out, I got the car back home 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