In 1986, a couple of us had been up at Highmoor in February, and we enjoyed it so much that we were back there on the 15th March. That was Kev, PD, Vince and I . We were equipped with float tubes, albeit home made ones, and we were ready to do battle with the Trout. I remember that I had a relatively new 4 weight rod. That was considered lightweight at that time. I had bought it at Kings the year before, and in this respect, and probably others, I was the lightweight in the party. We camped again, and we fished our hearts out, and we got fish. Back then I was no doubt a narcissist teenager, because I made no record of whet the others got, but I know we all got fish, and I was chuffed with a “3 pound 2 ounce” rainbow which I knocked on the head. We used a new fly I had tied, which Kev thought was a damsel. When I told him it was a stick caddis, he immediately named it “The Camsel”, and I still have Camsels in my box to this day! We also used DDD’s and Roger Baert’s No-Name Nymph, to good effect.
One event is stuck in my memory: We stopped for lunch on a peninsular. It no longer exists because the dam level has been raised since those years. Either way, we finished lunch there, and then launched our tubes. Kev was close by, when he cursed, said he had left something on the bank, and paddled back. A little while later, there was a commotion coming from Kevin. I saw him leap about, and then I saw him beating the ground with one of his flippers. A rain dance perhaps? I couldn’t be sure. Later, the story came out. He had landed the tube, and elected to waddle over to whatever he had left behind, without removing his fins. Presently he very nearly stepped on a Rinkhals, and went airborne like a jump-jet, springing clean out of one of his two fins. The snake was as alarmed as Kev was, but took a defensive position, and wouldn’t let him near to retrieve the fin. So that was Kevin, beating the ground with the remaining fin, trying to shoo it away so that he could retrieve the other. In later years, and no doubt after much re-telling f the story, Kev was given a set of cartoon drawings done by Jock Leyden, and one of them was of Kevin shooing the Rinkhals!
Of course March is still warm, and at Highmoor, apart from Rinkhals, puff adders and berg adders, the Skaap-steekers often sun themselves in March/April, and you really have to watch your step.
In 1987, the late George Forder had a terrapin follow his fly, and he reckons he very nearly caught it. That was at Chestnuts on the uMngeni. I have never seen a terrapin on a KZN Trout water before or since , although I similarly nearly caught one on Steenbras reservoir a couple of years earlier. The water temperature was 18.8 degrees, the banks full of turpentine grass, nettles and blackjacks. And neither of us caught fish. A year later to the day , I was one of 3 rods on Mavela who all blanked. That was despite a full dam, but I see it was off colour and 22 degrees C! Back then of course Mavela had no house overlooking the dam. As I recall, we often broke from fishing to enjoy a pub lunch at Everglades Hotel, where a barman named Robert wore a big straw hat, and was amused by our choice of obscure and strong drink from the shelves behind him, often chosen based on the colour of the bottle. We had very little class back then! Some would say we still have little class.
Remarkably, there was no fishing in the second decad of March for many years thereafter. My journal reflects the next trip in this window in 2001! On that day, my friend Chris and I were on Brigadoon. Interestingly, Chris had a puffadder experience on that day, and I remember him saying that he only ever had snake experiences on the river when accompanied by me. He is not the only one to have made this declaration! The river was a bit down on earlier weeks, but clean and cool, and it produced a Trout for each of us. Mine at ¾ mile pool, and his at Siesta pool. I drew this map the following day:
Just after St Paddy’s day in 2002, my late friend Guy and I fished Trout Bungalow. The water was a little off-colour and not as cool as we may have wanted, at 20.5 degrees C. There was a caddis hatch mid-afternoon, but the Trout didn’t even rise to these, in keeping with their scarcity that day. In the evening the river boiled with small fish, and I landed one on a #18 Adams which still had parr markings. Guy got several tiddlers, plus a really good Brown of around two pounds. His method, as it always was: He dragged a #12 Invicta through the evening rise at high speed on a sinking line. Hey, it worked!
2004 was an exceptionally wet March, and I remember water pouring out of everywhere on a trip to East Griqualand with Kev and friends. We stayed over in the cottage at Rannoch. The first evening the temperature plummeted to 9 degrees C, and the fish were sullen to say the least. The following day I got two small fish on Rannoch (None on Mt Arthur….but I lost a lunker after a long fight…it had taken a black DDD in the dropper position. ) But the record reflects that I did better than the others, so I think it was a slow week-end all round. I do however remember crossing the Tswalika on the way up to Mt Arthur. As the landcruizer pulled out of the drift, the current dragged the back of the vehicle sideways! My journal says “interesting river crossing”…that it was! And another thing I remember from the drive up to Mt Arthur…and this one is not in my journal, just in my head……an Eland jumping over a high game fence in one single bound from a standing position. I will never forget that.
The following year at the same time, my journal shows an otter seen, along with lots of Trout rising at Mavela, but otherwise a blank day .But it was enjoyed with my young son and his friend, and it involved a pre-dawn start. The sketch I did shows the house now built at Mavela.
In 2005 I joined a bunch of high school boys on an annual flyfishing trip to “EG” that has now become a long tradition. The school was short of schoolmasters who fly-fished, and so I put my hand up to be “Sir” for a week-end. I got free Swartberg flyfishing in return, so not a shabby deal at all. We fished the Ngwagwane, the Ndawane and several dams. Catches were low that year, and I didn’t help the stats much, but I did get a Rainbow in Belmont dam off the tube with an FMD, and several small fish in the Ndawane. What a pretty stream that is!
In 2007 I was back at Highmoor. My wife and I camped overnight in the new campsite, which is where it is today. The difference is that those hedges of Ouhout between the sites were just little shrubs back then. We were joined the following day by several friends amongst whom were fishermen Dave, Craig and Gary. Gary got a fish of some five pounds, and it seems I made a pig of myself with 3 fish of over 5 pounds landed and a few more lost. I was getting them at the head of the lower dam, on damsel imitations. One was kept for the pot, and had a dragonfly nymph in it which was a full 3 inches long. Interestingly, Craig’s fish was caught on a little rod I lent him, which I had named “Elliott”, on account of the fact that a certain removals company had seen to its destruction during a house move, and I had re-built it. The rebuild involved using the cork grip from the broken rod, and a reel seat which I bought. A blank from a rod I had once found beside the road was inserted into the piece of the original rod remaining under the grip. I attempted to recess the upper seat ring in under the cork, but in later years the thin layer of cork started to break away in places. I spray-painted the rod in matt black to avoid rod flash. It was a lovely little stick, and just last week (16 years later to the week!) I took it out and cast it on the lawn. I decided it was a fine rod worthy of a new owner: someone younger than me with a newfound passion for flyfishing. Nduduzo arrived for coffee a little later, and I got him to try it on the lawn. He and the rod were a great match…he was laying out a lovely cast right in under the azalea without coaching, so I have left it in his hands. I hope he makes as many happy memories with it as I did.
In 2012 I had another overnight trip with Petro, this time to Shepherd’s cottage. The day we arrived there were wild storms and heavy rain, which were welcome as they broke a particularly dry spell. The next day was cold and blustery with just patches of sunshine, and I fished a small Brown Trout dam that nestles in a fold in the hills behind the Heatherdon beacon. I took two reasonable fish, one of which was on a hopper. That day we saw a group of 17 Wattled Cranes, together with 4 blue cranes. I have been fortunate enough to have seen flocks twice that size since, but 17 Wattled in one sighting remains significant. A week later I fished the dam just downstream, after another fierce storm and I blanked. I see I fished it from my new canoe, Waelcyrge that time, and that I had to leave early to go and re-draw a club map on a venue down the valley. I still fish from Waelcyrge whenever I can, but I don’t leave early to perform club duties anymore…my 26 year stint of that is now done!
On the 16th March 2014, Dave and I were on Reekie Lynn on the Mooi River. The river was crystal clear and down a full foot from the flows of a week before. We fished from Magic Pool to just above Picnic Rock. The water was just half a degree cooler, and the fish were every bit as cooperative as they had been just 6 days earlier. The problem was that I was struggling to hang onto them! I landed two on the Troglodyte, but lost many more, and one fish in particular, I fooled 3 times with the same fly: Bob Wyatt’s DHE. I still use that fly a lot. It is a great pattern.
A year later Mike Smith and I were on the Bushmans at Ezibukweni KwaUndaba, although I didn’t know it was called that then. We were yet to start our community project with the Hlubi people who live there. It was hot and sticky, and our day ended predictably with a sudden and fierce thunderstorm. I distinctly remember fishing up ahead of Mike and him getting some photos of me against a backdrop of dramatically black clouds while thunder rolled ominously. We made it back to the car at the very moment the heavens opened and I remember us congratulating ourselves on impeccable timing. Mike got some fish, I remember that, although I didn’t record them like the ones I caught.
At the time I was experimenting with what I later learned had already been invented and named: drop shot nymphing….in which a plain tungsten bead is positioned at the end of the leader with an unweighted nymph drifting freely just above it. I think my invention differs from the mainstream one just a little in that I attach the beads to pre-tied loops and keep them on a safety pin in my vest. I then have a loop on the end of the tippet and loop beads (yes, potentially more than one) on and off as the need arises. It is a high water method, and high water is what we had that day. In fact the water was off colour, but improved during the day. I only got half my fish on the drop shot rig though. Admittedly the ones on that rig were the better fish (mostly 12 inches), but the smaller fish were all on dries in the middle of the day. It was great fun.
In 2016, I had an opportunity to fish West Hastings with my friends Wayne and Anton on the 11th March. I blanked that day, as did Anton, but Wayne got a nice fish over by the spillway. I see the fish were rising on and off to a “#48 midge”, and that I practically threw my box of small flies at them to match the hatch. The water was clean and 19 degrees. The day was mild but rainy and we stuck it out for a whole seven hours!
A year later to the day, PD and I found ourselves on Reekie Lynn in perfect weather and water conditions, but with the fish “decidedly not on the prod”. My friend Trevor had been there a few days earlier and had done well, but we struggled, despite the apparently perfect conditions. We ended the day with just 2 fish each. PD got both of his around 9 am and I caught both of mine in Krantz pool around midday. The second of them was a grand fish, and I remember calling PD over to photograph it before I released it. I have it recorded as 19 inches. You can have a look at it and tell me if you think I have estimated it correctly because that fish picture appears on the cover of the Natal Fly Fisher’s club membership brochure!
A week after that my logbook bears the comment “Autumn just starting”, but on the same page it records the uMngeni at Furth as “summer full”. It was however crystal clean and looking perfect. But again, despite 19 degree water and perfect cool sunny weather, Anton and I struggled!
What I did do though was to spot and repeatedly photograph a 12 inch Brown that was feeding at “The black Hole” . For anyone who knows the uMngeni, its inky depths, and tannin-stained water, occupied by the moodiest and elusive fish, you will realise what a special event that was. Another special event took place 2 months later: the NFFC gala dinner and auction to raise money for river restoration. At that event, I gave a speech, and I opened that speech with the story of this same fish: how I spotted it, fished for it and lost it, and also how I went back to that spot a number of times subsequently and found the same fish and photographed it and filmed it. In fact, I did exactly that on the morning of that gala dinner. The speech along with various memorabilia are now safely in my library of South African fly fishing books.
When I fish that spot now, I always look carefully and drift a fly past the same overhanging buddleja bush, with hope and faith.
In one of the issues of Fly Culture magazine (UK), there is a photo of my friend Graeme gazing back up the river valley from which we have hiked, with the Giant in the background. That was taken on 11th of March 2018. We were emerging from the valley after six hours of immersion in the beauty of the rushing river and its quick browns. We were sweaty and tired, but happy. It was humid, and a storm rumbled over the Giant. The river had been full and clean, and the fish eager even if we couldn’t keep most of them hooked for long. Graeme fished dry all day, I fished the Troglodyte. I caught more than him, but he will claim that he held the moral high ground! The fish were small, the best of the day going 14 inches, a handful at 12 inches and the rest from 6 to 10 inches. They slashed at the fly, jumped, threw hooks and rolled into the white water where they came off. “A good day” is what I wrote in my journal.
Two years later (2019) I was treated to a weekend’s accommodation at Giants Castle with a business acquaintance and his house guests from Zim. I was a guide of sorts, or maybe more of fishing host. I was just there because I knew where to go, and whom to speak to. Where we went, over two days, was the Mooi and The Bushmans. Now, guides don’t fish, and they certainly don’t outfish their guests. I did both of those things, which is why I reason that I could not have been a guide. Anyway…I started on a nymph, but only after checking that my guests were OK, knew where to fish, had some tips from me etc. I felt I had done everything I could for them. I had put them on the best water. I had waited and watched them get started, and they seemed good to go, so I mooched off a little way upstream, just far enough to be out of their way, but close enough that I could nip back and check on them. Well, nip back I did not! The fishing was just too damned good. After I had landed 4 fish on the nymph, I saw a fish rise, and I put on a hopper. Well, that turned out to be fun! The fish were from 11 to 17 inches, and they wanted hoppers, and I gave them hoppers. More specifically a nice chunky Hopper Juan. At some point, I came to my senses, realised I was making a pig of myself, reeled in and went to check on my guests. They had caught one or two fish and asked what I had caught. I lied. A good host doesn’t admit to outfishing his guests!
The following day on the Bushmans at Thandabantu was not dissimilar. I lost a really big fish on a GRHE and then saw a rise and put a Hopper Juan on. I landed four fish after that. For some strange reason I failed to enter the sizes in my journal, but if memory serves they were 14 to 17 inches….good solid Browns. We only had two hours there before the Zim guests needed to leave. At the tail end of it all, John came and sat on the bank and watched me land two fish. Then we discussed where I had been casting to, and where he had been casting to, and why I was catching fish and he struggled a bit. We ended up with the conclusion that he was fishing to Rainbow lies on a Brown Trout stream. It seems so obvious now, but it wasn’t at the time. I wish we had discovered this earlier in the week-end, because they would definitely have caught more fish.
A year later the Viking and I were on the uMngeni at Stoneycroft, catching small Browns. “Finally cooling down” is the comment I recorded. And the weather comment is “sunny, warm, mild: Beautiful” The water temperature rose from 17 degrees in the morning to 21 at 2:30 pm. The river was full and clean. Doesn’t that sound like heaven? It was. We connected with a lot of fish, and landed about a dozen between us. Most were small, but the Viking got one of 12 inches. I am not sure what he was using but I stuck with a small GRHE all day. A small but lovely incident: we stumbled upon an otter at very close range in the small pool made by the Wakecroft stream crossing. What a lovely animal!
In mid-March of 2021, a few of us enjoyed a camping weekend on a far-flung river in KZN. I will leave it at that. I managed three tiny fish, and lost a lunker that will haunt me for all my days. My mates didn’t catch small fish, and they all landed their big fish. Don’t you hate that!
But love the second decad of March you must! If you look back at the previous essays from February you will see a whole lot of moaning about the heat, but in the second decad of March, note how often my journal comments celebrate the first signs of a changing season, revel in beautiful days, and record notable fish, with most of the fishing in rivers. Take note! And the next two essays will no doubt wax lyrical all the more.