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.
Because Trout and bass are being labeled as “alien invasive” by authorities in South Africa, they are together on the same side of the battle lines. That is perhaps the reason that little is being said by Trout fishermen about the bass problem. But a more likely reason is apathy, or some other failure on the part of us fly-fishermen to galvanise into action. I say that, because the unwanted, unchecked spread of bass in the uplands of KZN has been going on for thirty years. Those, by the way, are 30 years in which Trout have not “invaded” anywhere at all.
So why, might you ask, is so much being said about Trout being alien invasive, and NOTHING being said about bass?
I don’t know the answer. I can guess that Trout somehow have a colonial connotation about them, but that’s as solid a reason as I can dream up.
Now before any bass fishermen get over excited, know that I have nothing against bass fishermen, and bass in our warmer water areas. In these areas, bass fishing has an economic value. But in the higher altitude “Trout” areas, Trout fishing has a value that is being eroded by the invasion of bass, and the economic value of Trout fishing is not being replaced by a similar economic value of bass fishing. (No bass fishermen that I know of book into lodges in these areas specifically to go bass fishing. Examples of Trout fishermen booking into a venue for the purpose of flyfishing for Trout are too numerous to mention)
There is simply no logic to the silence surrounding the problematic spread of bass in our area.
So what does the problem look like?
When I was a schoolboy, our family visited the Underberg area on holiday. We used to queue each morning at the Underberg Himeville Trout Fishing Club office (UHTFC) to speak to Bill Hughes, and before him Bob Crass, and book water for the day. Some of the waters had bass in them. North End and Palframans spring to mind. There may have been one or two others, but not many more. Now, 30 years later, you struggle to find waters that DON’T have bass in them. Not entirely co-incidentally (and sadly!) , you no longer have to queue outside the offices of UHTFC to book water, and a whole social flyfishing fabric has wasted away.
As a varsity student, I remember one dam in the Kamberg that had bass in it: “Morrass vlei”.
Today you can add:
Windmill; Goose ; Eremia ; Prosperity; the Little Mooi; Sourveldt lower dam; Bracken Waters; Rey estates 2 dams; Airstrip; Meshlyn main dam; and more.
A bass lurks in the shallows of a previously hallowed Trout water.
And remember that in this example I am addressing just the Kamberg valley.
The beautiful Kamberg Valley
When you start tallying dams throughout KZN the list is enormous, and includes some previously famous and treasured Trout waters.
I don’t know about you, but I am horrified!
Remember that the Trout don’t breed in these stillwaters and need to be stocked. The bass, on the other hand, breed like crazy, and once they are in there is very little chance you will ever get rid of them. You can empty the dam and poison it, but farmers understandably don’t want to empty their irrigation dams. Poisoning water is also a touchy subject.
So why are bass a problem. Why can’t we have bass and Trout in the same water?
We can, but most flyfishermen I know, go after Trout, and don’t want to be catching bass. Bass almost seem to have a self defense mechanism wherein they breed like crazy in the face of competition. It seems that way, because when they invade a Trout dam, fishermen report catching literally hundreds of bothersome bass, the vast majority of which are tiny. Now Trout eat small bass (and get very fat on them!), but bass eat small Trout too. So to uphold a Trout venue, when it has bass in it, one needs to buy and stock larger Trout (9 to 12 inch stock fish). These larger fish are mighty expensive. Unless it is a small impoundment, most fishing clubs or lodge owners would drop the stocking of Trout because of the cost, and voila…another Trout water just became a bass water.
So how do bass spread, and what, if anything, can be done about the problem? I will make an attempt at this subject in part 2, but for now I wanted the enormity of the problem to sink in.
* Yes, Trout are spelled using a capital “T” and bass with a lowercase “b”. This is because I am prejudiced, biased, and unscientific.
Bass fisherman compared to Trout fishermen, as depicted by Jack Ohman in his book “Fear of Fly fishing”:
In recent weeks, fate has taken me into the Boston area on several occasions to spend time there with a farmer ,a forester and a faucet.
On Saturday, I dragged myself from an afternoon snooze. Between that and a looming business trip commencing Sunday morning, I knew I had to fit in an errand to Boston to shut off a valve on a dam. As we wound down the hill between the trees in the gathering gloom of the front that was curling in from the South, I spotted the dam in the distance. Even from there I began to beam at our success in dropping the level. We could see the baseline of the reeds, contrasting with the green tops, and indicating that the water was well down. On arrival at the shelter I could see the poles, which a week and a half earlier had barely protruded from the water, and which now stood high and dry.
When reading Duncan Browns book recently, (Are Trout South African), I became aware of the depth of my prejudices. Duncan does a fine job of pointing out the nuances and peculiarities that we apply in deciding if something is indigenous or not, and it is a thought provoking read.
I go for Trout , with a capital T, (Alien) and definitely not bass (with a lower case B), ( also alien). I strongly dislike wattles and brambles (Alien), but love the sight of a stand of poplars (also alien). I don’t care much for scalies [AKA “yellowfish”] (indigenous), and I still think that the best snake is a dead one (alien or indigenous).
I am an ardent conservationist at heart, and possess some skins and furs of endangered beasts in my fly-tying kit.
I read the book. I thought deeply and thoroughly. I re-evaluated and re-considered.