The first Decad of May

Looking back over fly fishing experiences in the first week of May in KZN

It was on the 6th of May  in 1983 that I clearly recall the dismay as I saw my dead fish slip away from me and sink into the depths of “Barnard’s dam”.  I also remember the cruel laughs of my schoolboy companions as they revelled in my misfortune. School boys are cruel!  I had been gutting my fish, and stepped one step forward to get into deeper water to flush the fish guts out for the crabs, when I stepped off the edge of the dropoff into 10 foot of icy water, and the fish and my dignity were instantly gone! 


I had got that fish on a dry fly: a white fluttering caddis, amid a prolific hatch, and rise, and while it was a small fish, it was one of only three caught that day. The dam in question was later identified as “Bosse’s”  Dam, and on that day we also tried Mark’s dam, without success. Interestingly, my notes show that I went off on my own to explore the stream, which I remarked on as “very, very small, and overgrown.  I later came to realise that the water in question is the very upper Yarrow (AKA Mholweni), on the escarpment before it flows over the falls at Twin Falls, and int the forest below. I also now know that it once had Brown Trout in it……

The following year, I had some good Trout from Morton’s dam on a cold sunny day, on none other than the Red Setter.

In 1986, I spent two days on the uMzimkulu at the Lower Rocks, and on Eriksberg. I am struggling to remember who I was with, where we might have stayed etc, but I can tell you that we caught a number of small rainbows in 14 degree water on a black gnat dry fly and also on Woolly Buggers.  The weather was clear and cool, which I think pretty much describes most days in early May.

The following year, in weather described in similar terms, I spent a windy morning on Brigadoon on the uMngeni and landed four small fish on a  #10 “Black Woolly Worm”. The water was crystal clear and 13 degrees, the bankside growth was prolific and the river running low.

In 1989, I was back from the army on a pass, and PD and I fished the Mooi at Avon, where we blanked, but as usual that doesn’t tell the whole story. It was a blustery cool day, mostly cloudy, but with bright patches. PD got two good fish, and I lost one at the net. The river was clear, but the flow was good.

The following day, I blanked too, but it was memorable for PD’s success.  We were at the tiny Nursery Dam in front of the cottage at Gavin Hayhoe’s.  In those days, Gavin’s cows were milked at what was his dairy parlour, and is now “The junction” shopping centre in Nottingham Road.  The cows would cross the road into the paddocks in which The Bierfassl restaurant is now situated , and fan out into the kikuyu pastures around the several small dams, the smallest of which we were now fishing. But I digress. We were standing there on the wall, and PD threw out a DDD into the centre of the small pond, whereupon a five pound Trout whacked it with gusto. PD landed it, and after much celebration and amazement at the size of the fish, he threw his DDD back out there, more to straighten out his line than anything else, whereupon the fly was smacked by a second fish.  This was while the spreading rings of that first walloping rise had barely finishes lapping all around the shore of this tiny piece of water.  That fish came off, but that did little to dampen our amazement as to what had just happened.

Gavin Hayhoe's

In 1992 Kevin Cole, Mark Hawksworth and I fished “The Rocks” on the uMzimkulu. We each landed two fish. The day is memorable for two things. Firstly, I hooked, and was playing a small rainbow, when the other two, perched on the bank above me, pointed out that there was a much better fish following the one I was playing. It followed for a long time, and I remember being tainted by the fact that my fly was in the jaw of the smaller fish, and not the better one, which we estimated at “a pound and three quarters” .

The other thing for which that day is memorable, is that my father did an oil painting from one of Kevin’s photos, of me fishing a pool with a backdrop of riverside poplars in their autumn splendour. It was not one of my Dad’s better paintings; his art improved in his later years, but it hangs in our home, and is of great sentimental value.  It also inspired me to take a lot more photos in the years that followed, in which a father-son partnership of photos and oil painting endured.

1993 was a severe drought year, and at the time I had a young family, and early career work commitments which impeded my fishing.

Karoo Trout

In 1996 Jim and Pam Read, Maurice Broughton, Jack Blackman and Mark Yelland and I  travelled to the Somerset East fly fishing festival.  It was a wonderful event. As I recall, it was totally non-competitive, and each day we were hosted by locals who took us out onto their waters and showcased their flyfishing with justifiable pride. I fished the Naude’s river, “Bill’s dams”, Bestershoek, and the Mountain Dam. It was an eye-opener for me. My journal contains remarks such as “weird to be fishing a veritable ditch in the Karoo thornveld”, and  I clearly remember hooking my back-cast in a thorn tree on Bill’s dams. That is something which I had never experienced before, and have not experienced since! The Naude’s was particularly interesting and a testament to how tough Trout can be, as it was running low and thin, but produced fantastic rainbows up to a pound in weight, and in no small number either. Mountain dam, and its surrounding highland sourveld biome were a fascination to me too, and after asking locals, I recorded the altitude, average annual rainfall, incidence of snow, and the like in my journal. On the last evening, we had a big party in the town hall, and I remember a real sense of happy discovery on the part of the guests and pride on the part of the locals.

On the 1st of May 1997, I snuck in at Chestnuts after seeing a farming client that morning. At a particular bend in the river , under the poplars, I encountered two fish rising, but not regularly enough that you could set a metronome to them. The approach was difficult, with tall reeds downstream, poplar trees overhead, and a current that put drag into my presentation, no matter what I tried.  Forgive me for breaking with chronology here, but on the 1st of May 2023, I snuck out to Chestnuts, and fished a particular bend in the river under the poplars. I encountered a very large fish, which rose twice, but the approach was difficult, with tall reeds downstream, poplar trees overhead……you get the idea!  On both occasions I watched the fish for a long time to plan my approach. On both occasions, no less than 23 years apart, I failed.

Cutting back to 1997:  On the 9th of May, I was chased off Little Falls dam by a storm . That incident earned an explanation mark in my fishing journal. A storm in May!  But then last year we had floods in May, and on that 1997 visit we had had heavy rain the night before, the dam was overflowing strongly and the Mooi River was high and dirty. I think there is a story in that. May is the ultra predictable late autumn month, except for when its not, if you know what I mean.

In 1998 my friend Guy and I paid R55 per rod to fish Mount LeSueur on the 2nd of May. You could do that back then. There were a couple of other fishermen on the water, and all of us had a field day with a floating line, and small nymphs and dry flies. The fish weren’t large; they never are there, but they certainly were plentiful. Unless you were the Guy with a sinking line and a big Walkers Killer. Guy was not happy with his result.

In the year 2000, I took my younger son on his first fishing day at Mavela. It was one of those days with a wintery feel: still, clouded and cool. We hunkered down in the grass and threw dry flies out on a long line or to the odd fish cruising past. We lost one when I hooked it and tried to hand the rod over to my son, bungling the handover.  A few more came off, and then I landed a small fish, before we had to pack up and get home.

A week later I hosted a bunch of my banking customers at Lake Zonk.  As I left Hilton I dropped in at the bottle store and bought a few bottles of sherry, since it was freezing cold and pouring with rain.  As it happened we got a break in the sleet and rain to hold an outdoor braai, and even fish for a little under two hours. I even got a fish, as did one of the others, but after lunch it became bitterly cold and began to sleet again.  We all hunkered down in the cottage overlooking the lake and I cracked open the sherry.  One of my customers, making polite conversation, asked Zonk, the owner, who was perched on a bar stool next to me, about the timber plantation across the dam.  “Terrible” ranted Zonk.  “They are the worst people. They don’t burn firebreaks. They don’t live here, and they are the most awful neighbours you could hope to have”.  We went on, slamming these good-for-nothing neighbours, ending with a scowl “A syndicate…a bunch of filthy lawyers”, followed in a much lighter tone by “So what do you guys do for a living?”  Let’s just say that the answer made for a very awkward silence, and I hastened to serve another round of sherry, with a triple for Zonk.

The following year (2001) on the 4th of May, I took James out again, this time to Chestnuts on the uMngeni.  Let’s just say it was a disaster. We didn’t get to the river. I managed to “beach” the vehicle on the middelmannetjie, on account of the deeply worn tracks, and the morning was spent walking back to the farmhouse to face the embarrassment of asking for a tractor to pull us out , tramping back, bowing and scraping apologetically, and beating a retreat.

The following two days were spent at Coleford with George Forder, Laurence Davies, Derek Thomas and others conducting a fly-fishing clinic for FOSAF. The week-end was pre-frontal with a warm northerly and plummeting air pressure. The fishing was absolutely appalling, and the day after we left, it snowed

In 2004 I took my two boys out to Reekie Lynn on the 8th of May for a last river outing of the season. To quote my journal “ It was warm and sunny, but the water was crystal clear and cold, and the veld had turned. Too late I fear!”. We did manage one lovely 14 inch Brown on a plaited nymph at the top of Scissors Run, and I let James bring it in, much to his delight.

Mooi River

The following year my older son and I fished “Lumberjack’s” on the 2nd of May . We were full of anticipation. This dam had not been stocked for many years, but the fish often breed. The owner told us that one or two three pounders had come out, but that everything else was well over six pounds.  We did see two enormous rises which left ripples that spread clear across the dam, but beside that there was no action to be had. A week later Guy Robertson and I fished Fergus Hathorn’s dam, and I again blanked, but Guy did well.  He landed 2 good fish just as darkness fell, on a huge Mrs Simpson, stripped back on a sinking line, as only Guy could do. The bigger of the two, which we put at five pounds, took him to his backing and jumped an estimated thirty times, in one of the most acrobatic shows I have ever seen from a Trout.  

Canoe fly fishing

In 2008, Luke and I were accompanied by my friend Dave on the 2nd of May at Uitzigt dam. Luke and Dave fished from Luke’s little fibreglass canoe.  I was on my float tube, and looking across at them I worried about how little freeboard they had left. They were precariously close to shipping water, but somehow the two of them kept it together, and we all caught a heap of fish.  I started off slowly, and frustrated, because I just didn’t seem to be able to hook up. The fish were going crazy all day chasing caddis. They were all small fish (but for one Luke got which looked to be three and a half pounds), but they were taking dries, and throwing themselves into the air with abandon.  I started to take fish on a klinkhammer, and then for some inexplicable reason I switched to a small Woolly Bugger, which the fish smashed with gusto.  Probably the most remarkable event of the day, was that I hooked, photographed and released a small fish with a fresh , neat Hamills Killer stuck in its adipose fin. I actually wanted to keep the fly, but after I had photographed it, the small fish flapped and was off my tube’s line tray.  I was only later to learn that this is how fish are tagged for a competition, that the competition was happening the following week, and that had I caught it during the event, I would have made an insurance company very poor!

The following year, the whole family accompanied me to do hatchery duty on the 8th of May, and in between I snuck in a half hour of fishing and managed to land a Rainbow cockfish of about four pounds in Baboon dam.  Not a bad return on time invested I would say. It took a small damsel, and was promptly imprisoned in a hatchery cage for breeding purposes. A week later Petro and I were back: moving cages, scrubbing tanks and suchlike, and then I fished the late afternoon. At around six in the evening, and well after dark, I flicked a fly at a fish that moved close to my tube, and I was in. It was a Rainbow of about five pounds and gave a superb account of itself. Those high-altitude, cold water Trout can pull some!  Later, I fished on in the pitch dark with a big Muddler, hoping for something remarkable to happen, but alas, it did not.

On the 8th of May 2010, after similar hatchery duty, I threw a fly at Heatherdon dam for half an hour and managed two Rainbows of around two pounds each. They both took my “slinky damsel” in shallow water up at the head of the dam, near where we were working on the fish trap in the feeder stream. In 2012 and back on hatchery duty in preparation for the coming breeding season, I got to throw a fly on the 1st of May at Morton’s dam, but without success. My records show that it was a dry autumn, but a warm one. The water was 14 degrees, and on that day the air temp reached over 27 degrees.

In 2013, I was somehow relieved of  hatchery duty on the 5th of May, and instead got to take my old friend Roger fishing at Morton’s and Qalabeni dams.  We were there after a cold front and the water was just 10 degrees C, and with an air temperature that hung around single digits for most of the day and was accompanied by a sharp wind, it was not cosy!    Up at Morton’s I got stuck into a great big fish at mid-day. When I landed it, Roger was on hand with his brass “chatilon” spring balance to do the honours, and with the fish cradled in the mesh of the net, the needle dropped to seven pounds!  That, and the next four fish I got over the afternoon were all on an olive Zonker pattern, pulled on 2X tippet.  Roger got a few fish, like mine,  of around three pounds on Qalabeni. I didn’t record what fly he was using but I have a sneaking suspicion it was that dragon of his with the edgebright eyes.

Roger Baert

In 2014 a bunch of us went up to the same waters in early May to try get some early spawners for the hatchery. PD had stayed over on his own, and of course when we got there the following day, it was a case of “you should have been here yesterday”, since he got a number of four and five pound fish, but we really struggled. My logbook shows that in nine hours of fishing I landed just two 14 inch Rainbows!

In 2015, Roy Ward and I headed off to Rockmount on the lower Bushmans, having done a recce there in March of that year. On the March visit the water was chocolate brown, as is inclined to happen in these lower reaches of a river. But in May it was crystal clear, and we covered a good 2,5 Kms.  At the start, down near the homestead ruin, I hooked, played, and then ultimately lost a 13 inch Brown, and later I landed one of 12 inches on a GRHE.  We then encountered a fairy heavily treed section . Dreaded wattles again!  But above that we had open water again, and there we experienced an evening rise to a small dark green mayfly. It was a prolific hatch, and rise. Most of the fish we saw rising appeared to be small, but  we didn’t crack the code to be able to say that for sure.

Roy Ward
Roy Ward

In 2017, Keith Hobday and I used the public holiday to go exploring on the Inzinga river.  Now Keith, in old school style, fishes downstream, and I fish upstream. We started up on Belmont and worked down the valley, in an awkward up, down, down-up mix of crisscrossing and double-tracking, but we had a lot of fun if nothing else.  When we reached the gorge, we chose to go up over the saddle and down the other side. That was a strenuous endeavour! We finished the day down near the big indigenous forest, and then walked to the pickup point where Keith’s brother came to fetch us.  We fairly fell into that vehicle, tired after a considerable hike in very rough country. While we didn’t so much as see a fish, we were encouraged by the quality of the water in places.

2018 saw Anton and I on the top half of Brigadoon on the Mayday holiday. We fished from the Furth stream confluence up to the top boundary. It was one of those typical autumn days where one has little difficulty seeing or spooking fish, such that you have an eventful day. But actually hooking and landing them is another matter altogether.  I ended up on just two fish, and I think Anton got three.  At the last spot we fished (below Roy’s pool…the corner above the road drift), we spotted some small Browns rising.  I had taken my rod down, so Anton offered me his old Orvis Far and Fine, which had a dark grey caddis tied on….exactly what the fish seemed to be feeding on.  So I obliged , did the honours and landed a small Trout.  Then another started rising, and I was instructed to get that one too. I hooked the fish, but it became entangled with a branch. Anton, observing from up above the pool, assured me that the fish was still on, and that it would be worth swimming for.  I was at a low angle and could see little, so I went with his guidance. I stripped down to my underwear and swam for the fish.  When I got to the log there was no fish to be had, and the fly was merely stuck in the log. “You lied!” I exclaimed. “I know” he said “but I wanted that fly back”. 

A week later the two of us were back on the uMngeni, this time on Knowhere. We both blanked, but Anton fished to a ‘riser’, and hooked it too…but it came off. My remark in the journal says “It is as though all the fish  have moved up to spawn and left ¾ mile pool all but empty”.  The water temperature was notably 1.5 degrees C cooler than just a week earlier.

In 2019 I stuck with my Mayday habit and went up to West Hastings for a few hours fishing. I managed 3 fish. One was a very small Brown and the others were Rainbows of four and five pounds. All took a small damsel nymph, with only the leader out of the end eye!

But coming back to the rivers, you would be right in starting to think that I have written May off as too cold, with fish having changed gear into breeding mode and not much going on. Well in 2019 I had two red-letter days in the first decad of May. They were both on the uMngeni. The first was on the 5th at Furth, and the second was on the 8Th at Sheardown. “A brilliant day” and “What a day!” are the two remarks, and the pages of the journal are packed with anecdotes and comments and signs of overflowing enthusiasm for my river. The first day was still, the second presented a challenging wind. I caught mainly on nymphs, but the scattering of better-sized fish (13”) came to the dry. On both days my colleagues stuck to the dry fly and caught fewer fish than me, but not to the extent that it made any material difference.

A side note here. From a number of years back, I added a little block to the logbook template, in which I record an estimate of the number of fish encountered on the day in question, whether they be rises, fish lost, caught by my fishing partner, or whatever else. I find this quickly tells the story of whether it was a more dull, or an action-packed day, and with that single number a great deal can be inferred.

That block is annotated “50” for the 1st of May 2021. I was up at Kumalungana  with PD and his soon to be son-in-law, although we didn’t know that on the day. We almost knew that, but not quite. Matt, you see, had plucked up the courage to ask PD for his daughter’s hand in marriage that day, but PD and I were parked side by side in our float tubes, yacking like only two old men can. Matt hovered off to the side, waiting for his chance, but it never came, so he caught Trout instead. PD and I did too, but for some reason I got all the little ones that day. Maybe that was some sort of karma for thwarting Matt’s plans.

The other bad karma was that I somehow left an Orvis Battenkill  reel spool in the grass. I was back 3 days later searching in the grass, but sadly without luck, so I fished instead. There were lots of small fish giving me what I call “knocks, scratches and tickles”, but none stuck, except for the three pound fish that couldn’t resist the hastily reeled-in Hog Hopper that followed my last cast.  That little box read “50” again.

On the 8th of May I was out again, but this time back on the river at Brigadoon. It can’t have been as wintery that year, for the water temperature was 14 degrees, and my remarks state that after continuous autumn rain the river was full and “gliding at The Glides”.  Remember to ask me what I mean by that when I see you at the monthly pub evening at Crossways.  I managed a few small fish on dries, but spooked a good many more than I landed. “River and countryside looking absolutely stunning!” I wrote, and listed that I saw:

  • Bushbuck
  • Mongoose
  • Malachite and Giant Kingfisher
  • Black Duck
  • A snake
  • Jackal Buzzard.
snake at Brigadoon

Subsequent visits to this valley covered in my next edition of this series are described in my journal  with words like “sublime weather”, “River looking lovely”, “so special”, and “river looking absolutely perfect”

“ Everyone, I suppose, must have known these moments of revelation when a sense, whether it be of sight or hearing, of a sudden breaks through the humdrum concentration of the mind and astonishes us with the ecstasy of our own perception”  GD Luard “Fishing: fact of Fantasy”.

Double catch

Last year Ray and I headed up the uMngeni valley on Sheardown, electing to fish a bit further up. Although the water was a refreshing 10 degrees C, we still managed to do well. I got a number of fish on the Troglodyte and a #20 PTN, including a really lovely fish that had me grinning with satisfaction.  As darkness gathered, and Ray seemed to tire, I said “just a few more casts” and topped the day with two fish on the dry fly. On the way back to the car, I apologised to Ray and pulled my fly from the keeper to catch a fish at the drift: my regular party trick.  While I was busy landing that fish, Ray jumped into the casting spot I had vacated and caught the fish’s twin sister. I have a blurry picture of us both holding our fish aloft. What a way to end a fine day on the river!

Catch and release

This year:   1st of May, I fished with….. On second thoughts…it is still a little fresh, and I wouldn’t want to be tempted to give away the spot where I spotted an enormous uMngeni Brown, so I will leave this story for another time.


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