Rivers to dams to disappearing rivers
In the early eighties, or thereabouts, the government of South Africa was handing out subsidies to farmers to build farm dams. It was all about building infrastructure, and I guess on some level about food security in an isolated, alienated apartheid nation.
Farmers in our neck of the woods (KZN midlands) built dams. Pretty ones. Some had London planes planted next to them, or liquid ambers. There were concrete benches, and braai places built. Trout were stocked. Some irrigation happened, but I don’t think there was as much of that as the then government expected or hoped.
Those Trout grew fat.
In my youth our fly-fishing very quickly became all about big fat dam fish…bigger fatter ones than any river fisherman could have dreamed of. Trout fishermen strapped on big “Walker’s Killers”, and went and dragged them around dams in boats, or flung them in from the edge, and the results were spectacular, even if in hindsight we acknowledge that the path to those results was somewhat less refined and challenging than what river fishermen had been used to.
In his 1974 booklet “Introducing Trout Fishing in South Africa” John Beams writes “ For me there are really only two reasons for for fishing still water. Firstly , there is always the chance of a big fish, and secondly, if the rivers are muddy……”, but that book has pictures of big fish that outnumber those of small fish and streams put together. Also in Bob Crass’ 1986 book “Trout in South Africa” he confirms John Beams own comment elsewhere in his book, that he “transferred his business activities from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg largely, so he led us to believe , because he enjoyed catching the big trout to be found in Natal dams.”
In contrast, books like “a Trout fisher in South Africa” by Kingfisher (1922) and “Trout Fishing in South Africa “ (1916) contain no references to dams or stillwater at all, but boast exceptional fish of two to four pounds in weight, with a skinny five pounder being worthy of a lord.
When I came into flyfishing in the early 1980’s, there was a fair amount of chatter about stream fishing, both in Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles (that were to become his first book), and in the fly-fishing books that one could buy at the newly launched “Flyfisherman” (Africa’s first fly fishing only tackle shop…est 1981) . But to be honest, outside of that, I really didn’t encounter all that many people who actually fished streams, or certainly not fishermen who preferred streams, or spent more time on them than they did on dams.
If I look at my collection of flyfishing books, which is nearing some 300 titles in total, even now, I am only able to identify 3 titles that cover stillwater flyfishing specifically.
One of those is the American book “Stillwater Trout” edited by John Merwin (1980). In this book Merwin’s very first line is “Ponds and Lakes are the poor sisters of American Trout fishing”, and he goes on to describe how “our quiet waters have remained quiet” and how American anglers, spoiled for choice in rivers, battled to get to grips with fishing still water, when they had been brought up on streams.
This ironic, discrepant state of affairs persists to this day. Stillwaters hold favour here, but the fly-fishing literature, and quite honestly even the South African literature is weighted towards streams. Even Youtube videos and Facebook bear the slant of the printed stuff.
But here is the thing: Those dams that our Dads and Granddads built on the farms, are starting to be used extensively for irrigation. Some have levels that fluctuate so much nowadays, that they are no longer stocked with Trout. It simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, dams are sadly becoming overrun with bass. Two or three dams seem to fall to this fate almost every year in this neck of the woods. At the same time, the environmentalists have quite righty identified the lack of wisdom in building dams, so very few new ones are coming on board. Added to that, the government environmental authorities are hell-bent on putting legislation in place that will enable them to shut down hatcheries at will, which means dams (where Trout don’t breed) may not have a source of stocked fish in future years.
Then consider that considerably more than half of the new members joining our fly fishing club here in the midlands either claim to be stream fishermen, or express a desire to get into stream fishing. I recently put forward to my colleagues in the local club, that we had been offered access to another stretch of stream, but that I questioned whether we should pursue it, because the stretches immediately upstream and downstream of it, are very seldom fished. The guys around the table were unanimous: “sign it up” they said. They said that we need to look to the future, and secure access and custodianship to good river water, regardless of the here-and-now usage statistics.
Add to the picture above (am I joining the dots adequately for you?), that there is only a finite number of kilometres of Trout river out there. In fact, if we think about it, it is finite and shrinking with the effects of population on the planet and the landscape. There are rivers mentioned in Bob Crass’ 1971 book “Trout fishing in Natal”, that are quite simply, no longer trout streams. Writing in a chapter he titled “First aid for rivers” in the book “My Way With a Trout” (1985), Tom Sutcliffe says that “the time is over for excessive irrigations, over-grazing, ploughing too close to the banks, allowing wattle to choke the life out of the river, and cattle to crumble its banks.” He goes on to say: “most of the fishing areas in this country [he is writing about rivers] need , or are soon going to need, this sort of special care and attention”
So, in joining the dots a bit further, we have more people resuming their interest in streams, and now we have fewer streams, or fewer kilometers of stream viable for Trout. And to coin Malcolm Gladwell’s term, I foresee a tipping point at some future date, where suddenly a lot of flyfishers will be rocking up on the same streams on Saturdays and finding less elbow room than they once enjoyed. Suggesting they strap on a big Walkers’ Killer and go tow it around a bass dam probably won’t sway them.
At least we may have more river fishermen to digest all the appropriate literature out there.
Maybe some who know me and are a little puzzled with the river conservation bug that has bitten me, will offer a small nod of understanding? Or perhaps they will merely continue to humour my obsession with killing bass and wattle trees.