There are two river valleys I know in Trout country that cause me despair. There are two others that give me hope.
Let’s get the despair out of the way.
If you have ever driven up the lower Pitseng pass from the turnoff outside Mt Fletcher, up to Vrederus on the plateau below Naude’s Neck Pass , you may have noticed the stream running parallel to the road for a long way. Perhaps you did not. You could be forgiven for not noticing it, because if truth be told, you seldom see it. It is completely inundated with wattle trees. That stream is the “Luzi”, a Trout stream of not insignificant flow, which takes it’s size from the Bradgate Stream and the Swith that flow down from Naude’s.
Looking down the Swith….wattle trees barely visible downriver on the main river
From just below the confluence of the Swith and the Bradgate, just across from Vrederus, the wattle infestation begins. From there it persists for about twenty kilometers. Yes, you heard right 20! Twenty ‘kays’ of remote stream in a steep river valley, inaccessible and supposedly untouched. Twenty kilometers that could be a special, barely fished trout stream that could easily have supported a “trout fisherman’s lodge”, one can dream. But it is a disaster, and seemingly an insurmountable one.
Similarly remote and infected is the Inzinga here in KZN. As you drive through from Notties to Lotheni you cross first its two tributaries the Kwamanzinyama and the Rooidraai, and then the river itself. The main river is shrouded by life sapping wattles, well into the mountains above the road, and a look across the drainage basins of the kwamanzinyama and Rooidraai reveals the same. It then goes through a relatively clear patch below the water fall. More dire is the stretch out of sight below that in a steep sided gorge were the aforementioned streams join the Inzinga. This problem is far from the view of any passer-by, and beyond the reach of any vehicle like a TLB or tractor that might prove essential in a clean-up job.
Looking up the wattle infested Inzinga valley, the Kwamanzinyama coming in from the right in the distance
The infestation continuing downstream…..
In all honesty a clean up job on the aforementioned streams would be of a magnitude that renders it impossible. I am trying not to be negative, but one has to be realistic. It doesn’t help that neither stream is upheld as a revered destination for fly-fishermen or anyone else for that matter. There really isn’t anyone who cares enough about these two, to even contemplate a clean-up on either. The human race has abandoned these once beautiful streams.
“A world of wounds” said Aldo Leopold…. Despair!
Onto brighter things:
The upper Mooi river once had a severe wattle infestation. The invaders had crept up onto private land within the Kamberg reserve. When that land was expropriated in the late eighties/early nineties, it was ostensibly to incorporate it into the greater park, and commence with the restoration of the landscape. (It so happens that my first job after the army was for a small company that was called upon to contest the valuation used by the state in the expropriation, and I therefore had occasion to visit the property , having previously done so as a school-child as early as 1983. I use the word “ostensibly” because looking back at my fishing photos to as recently as 2005, the area was still in a poor state.
Wattle infestation, Game Pass 2005.
Somehow, however, they got it right. Walking through there now, to go fishing, you wouldn’t know what it used to look like, or have any clue of the transformation, unless you happen to know your veld grasses. The landscape is restored!
Further downstream, farmers have worked to clear wattle of their own volition, and apart from one severe infestation of just over a kilometre of river bank, things are largely under control. The Mooi River is revered as a fly-fishing destination, and it is highly unlikely that it will be lost forever to a severe wattle infestation. As I write, the fishing club I belong to is mustering its resources to go and do routine wattle removal on the Mooi, before it gets out of control. The efforts of the fishermen are not in isolation. One farmer, who owns large tracts of land in the valley, has done an enormous amount of work to clear wattle across many square kilometers in the catchment. He has done this without threat of fine, or for a state subsidy, or any such thing. I don’t know him, but one of these days I am going to stop in there, shake his hand, give him a bottle of whiskey and thank him from the bottom of my heart.
A man whose hand I have shaken in thanks for similar work is Don McHardy. I still need to get him that whiskey! Don should be recognised as a hero. He owns a farm in the Dargle in the Umgeni River catchment, where for the last 6 years he has employed a dozed full time employees to remove alien plants. Gums, wattles brambles, and bug weed. I initially met Don on the roadside, when I stopped to introduce myself and thank him for work he was doing on the bank of the river opposite Chestnuts. It turns out it is not his property, but that he was clearing it for his neighbour…..seemingly as some sort of pro bono favour. Last week I went and had coffee with Don and had occasion to traverse his farm to get to the farmhouse. Wow! Just “Wow”! Hectare upon hectare of pasture and grassland, with the only evidence that it was once infested with scrub is the blackened tree stumps. Clear streams run strong through areas of thick grass cover. Don’s favour to 6 million inhabitants of the catchment lower down, is so far unrecognised.
Don and I discussed re-grassing and burning and spraying, and he divulged valuable information that will help the WWF work being done upstream of him on the Furth and the Poort…..two major tributaries of the Umgeni.
WWF work along the banks of the Furth stream pictured here on the 25th August 2017.
It will also be helpful to the Natal Fly Fishers Club work on the main river, which enters its second phase (#BRU2).
The Umgeni and the Mooi have already been variously transformed, and maintained, and they have strong advocates that will see that it continues.
I try very hard to do things right, and to do them the right way, but we all have to compromise sometimes.
Last week I fished for a sighted Trout downstream. Peril the thought!
It was rising in Bird Pool up on Furth, but it was rising against the rock shelf that you just can’t physically get downstream of. The current plunges into the pool, and runs parallel to the shelf, straight into a steep and wooded bank. So I had to use the riffled water at my feet as my screen from the trout’s vision, kneel in the shallow water on the step above where it plunges down into the pool, and deliver my delicate dry directly downstream. Of course I threw in some slack and did it all drag free.
And now best I confess another downstream misdemeanour. Quickly, before Anton spills the beans, because as he read the paragraph above I swear I heard him reaching for the keyboard , or perhaps the magaphone, to say “Tell them about the fish on the Bushmans , you Philistine!”.
It was a very big pool. VERY big. Very deep too. The water was also cold, and we were under-gunned with 3 weights. The big fish would be at the bottom, under the tongue of current coming in at the top. As far as I could see, that may have been 10 foot down, and the current was strong. I requested a stillwater outfit, which, may I point out, Anton duly provided with complicit aplomb, and not a squeak of admonition. We….OK, I, swung a deep sunk GRHE (a big one OK) right into that pool, and let it swing on the current. Big, nasty, deep………
I don’t like digging up river banks and leaving big ugly scars that are at risk of eroding. Its wrong. But I do like to arrange serious machine power to pull felled invasive trees from the river. Our machines ground up the river banks in places, but we removed dozens of tons of alien timber, rather than leave log-jambs. As a redemptive exercise I subjected myself (And my wife) to 2 mornings in miserable cold drizzly weather, scattering grass seeds on the bare scars.
The bull was another one were I was forced to bend the rules. I had been guiding a group of people up the Umgeni, showing them the river clearing and what have you, and by mid morning, repeatedly promising them that they wouldn’t have to climb through a fence again. “No more!” I told them with confidence, after I had watched several pretty ladies crawl under the barbed wire on their bellies in the dust. “From here on I PROMISE its all stiles and gates”
“and we haven’t far to go either” I added convincingly to one whose spirit was visibly flagging”
But then I come over the hill, and there is a bloody Jersey bull, standing at the gate we need to pass through. He was bellowing and pawing the ground, and his harem of cows stood meekly away from him, while he vented and snorted. I didn’t have a white horse, but I pretended. He had his ladies, and I had mine, and I wasn’t going to have mine climb through a fence. I charged at him with gusto making wild cowboy noises and waving a piece of black pipe above my head. Whooping and whistling like a madman, at full sprint and forgetting entirely that the cameraman had attached a wireless microphone to my lapel .
The bull didn’t budge. In fact he put his head down and came straight at me defiantly.
I lost the fish in bird pool, after pricking it 3 times. I caught the sixteen incher on the Bushmans.
The grass seed didn’t germinate on the Umgeni, but I promise to go back again when its really cold and do it again. I smacked the bull square between the eyes with my pathetic plastic pipe. Luckily it seemed to stop him, albeit only 2 foot from me. I retreated slowly with my heart pounding but my dignity in tact (sort of), and helped everyone through the fence.
Sometimes you just have to compromise.
I have had the privilege and the satisfaction over the last three years or so, to work alongside some seriously committed fly-fishing conservationists on the Umgeni River:
- Roy (whose doctor told him to get some youngsters to haul logs instead of suffering another hernia)
- Anton (who had an adverse reaction to bramble spray, but carried on anyway)
- Penny, who isn’t scared to get dirty
- Lucky and Zuma….two of the hardest working guys you will find
- Bob…who is just always there and quietly gets on with it
- Russell….who has committed diesel and machines for many, many hours and tidied up after we left.
etc, etc….I cannot name them all!
What these guys have achieved is commendable and fantastic. They have cleared kilometers of river. Stuff that was horrible to access. The landscape on this stretch of the Umgeni is completely transformed. You come over the hill and it is not recognisable. Take a look at the #BRU site for the full story.
Come and see the fish eagle’s nest; learn some history about the valley; climb over the fence stiles; learn the names of the hills and farms; get some exercise; and take home the booklet I am busy producing all about the Umgeni as a trout fishery. I will show you the honey holes, and show you how I fish them.
Someone will collect us at the end and bring us back to our cars.
Fishermen, if you are from out of the province and are here to attend the main evening event (mentioned below), and you want to be off somewhere sampling the stillwater fishing: here is something for your wife and kids to do instead of shopping in a mall.
We will be back at Il Postino in time for a superb lunchtime Pizza.
..….and if you are also attending the dinner that night……..
You can go home, have a snooze, get changed into your smart clothes, and come and attend this auspicious and prestigious event, that will raise the money to start #BRU2, and continue the work you will have witnessed in the morning.
“Opening Day – 1 September 1990”
After a winter of repeated tackle cleaning, fly tying and general pent-up abstinence, fly fishermen, myself included, seldom miss an opening day of the season.
It was the first day of spring and we were to have the privilege of fishing a small stretch of the upper Umgeni River. The old Merc bumped, lurched and scraped its belly down the stony track towards the farm “Knowhere”, with its large house overlooking the bend in the long pool and the downstream flats along the southern bank of the river dotted with grazing sheep. We parked by the side of the track near the top of the hill, briefly admiring the idyllic setting below us, then opted to walk the last few hundred metres to the farmhouse rather than risk doing serious damage to the underside of the car.
After exchanging courtesies with the friendly landowner and fending off three large, overenthusiastic farm dogs, we were at last free to stroll down to the river bank to see what condition the water was in following some early spring rain two days before. The river level had risen and, while slightly off colour, was just clean enough so one could see the fly in the water and just discoloured and turbulent enough to allow fishing from the high banks without being spotted by the wily browns that live in this stretch of river.
I rigged up a five-weight outfit for my girlfriend Jacqui and a three-weight for myself. The leaders were topped with small, bright orange foam strike indicators and the light tippets finished off with a freshly tied “Peacock Woolly Worm” on the five-weight, and the three-weight with my favourite “Wezani” nymph. The Wezani is a somewhat simple, but very effective, olive green and black seal’s fur nymph that Paul de Wet and I had developed and refined on several trips to the forested streams above Weza in southern Natal. The Wezani is best tied well weighted with wine bottle lead, or with plumber’s lead if you don’t drink wine. These flies seem to improve after catching a couple of fish when they become more tattered around the thorax.
Within the first hour or two of the morning’s fishing I caught and released a number of small, feisty browns around half to three-quarters of a pound. They were typical ‘geni browns – beautifully coloured and healthy. The fish were eager and hungry after the long winter but, as usual, tricky and evasive.
Approaching midday, I wandered over to the high bank from which Jacqui had been casting to hear that she had just hooked and lost her first ever brown trout. She appeared to be taking it quite well and wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have been. I sensed that I would only be getting in her way and that any offers of consolation or tuition would not likely be welcomed, so I continued a short distance downstream and squatted down behind a clump of bush to continue the steady rhythm of casting and drifting the nymph slow and deep along the bank.
The foam strike indicator dipped once more, but this time more decisively, and disappeared into the green depths. I lifted the rod gently and struck hard. A large, brightly speckled brown more than half a metre long flashed its long flanks, writhed and then dived to the bottom of the stream. The soft little rod bucked hard and my road arm trembled as the fish thumped and knocked against the stream bed and then dived headlong into some submerged reeds against the opposite bank. It showed itself on the surface one more time and then sounded again.
Almost half an hour later after a dogged battle interspersed with powerful runs, we beached the grand old fish into a clump of weed about a hundred metres downstream. As I reached down to slip my index finger into its gills, the small fly shot out of its mouth with an audible “ping”. I jumped into the water up to my thighs and, using both arms, scooped the exhausted monster onto the bank. With some sadness, I reluctantly administered the Coup de Grace. It was well beyond reviving after the unnecessarily long fight. I had not come prepared for fish this size.
The old cockfish was long and wiry with a large head, a pronounced rounded snout and a hooked jaw. His big, round spots were charcoal-coloured, with some bright red ones surrounded here and there by large silver rosettes. It was stunning. Measuring 57cm and weighing 3lb 15oz., it was my largest brown and by far the biggest stream fish I had ever seen, or had ever hoped to see on any trout water.
Those of you who have fished this stretch of the Umgeni River will probably agree that its landscape and the very long, slow pools around its middle section are quite unlike other classic ‘berg and midlands waterways.
Under normal water levels, this section is typically slack or at best slow-flowing and there are no riffles or fast water to impart movement and action to your fly, or to excite the downstream angler. The high banks demand a stealthy, upstream approach and the fish, while fairly plentiful, can at times be a real challenge. A good measure of patience, concentration and sharp reflexes are required as you crane your neck watching your barely moving leader, waiting and begging the strike indicator to stop and dip into the murky depths. And then you pick up the line and repeat the exercise, cast after cast.
Strike indicators are a matter of personal preference. I don’t mind them and in situations like this I like to use a small polypropylene yarn or a stick-on foam indicator at the very top of a short leader, typically 7 to 8 foot long. Just about any small nymph will do the job, but after several trips to this part of the Umgeni I can vouch for a generic Peacock Woolly Worm in sizes 10 and 12 as a confidence-boosting, backup pattern when the water is dirty, and a well weighted Wezani (or similar) nymph in sizes 12, 14 and 16 to cover various depths to structure when the water is on the clean side.
The beautiful early spring day was capped off when Jacqui eventually landed her first Umgeni brown late that afternoon after several frustrating near-misses. Around sunset, we trudged wearily but contented back up the steep hill and turned the car homeward to “sticky troutless, Durban”* (with sincere apologies to Neville Nuttall).
On the drive home, my thoughts inevitably returned to the day and it was only then that I remembered the 3lb 10oz. fish that Paul de Wet had caught on a nearby stretch of the Umgeni the year before and the apparently much larger fish that our friend Conrad Raab had lost earlier in the 1988 season. While the Umgeni is certainly better known for its browns of half a pound or sometimes up to a pound if you are lucky, 2 pounders are not unheard of and, as we now know, a trophy fish is never out of the question.
This is indeed a special and very different stretch of river and only a small part of a much larger, diverse waterway that demands our time and exploration.
Brett is an old friend, who now resides in Australia with his wife Jacqui.
Photos supplied by Andrew are more recent, but were all taken on the stretch of river in question: “Knowhere”, which is now NFFC club water.
This is the third year that the Natal Fly Fishers Club (NFFC) is arranging volunteer days to clean up on the Umgeni river.
The next two such days are 27th Feb (next Saturday) and 12 March.
We are trying to rid the river of alien invasive wattle trees, restore good flows, terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, and yes: good fly-fishing.
Many South African fly-fishermen have probably read about this somewhere, so I won’t bore you with the background and history. If you do need any more info, you can visit this blog. This is just about the here and now and to ask for your help.
The WWF has a parallel program on the river that wraps up in April 2016. In addition to that , many trees on the river banks have been poisoned. If not felled in the next approx 6 months, they will die standing, in which case they “die hard” and chew through chainsaw blades. In addition to this, we have had some good press in the Fly-fishing magazine and elsewhere. This thing is happening NOW.
The time is ripe.
So with all of the above in mind, we are looking to hit the task hard in the first quarter of 2016…….get stuck in while we have some groundswell, and before this project becomes stale, and everyone has had enough of it.
I would really appreciate whatever help we can get in the next 3 months.
What can you do to help?
- Attend a volunteer day, complete with a saw, chainsaw and at least one friend. They are being held on 27 February and 12 March this year. Full details HERE or here
- Buy a hard cover copy of my book. I feel very uneasy shoving anything down anyone’s throat, but hear me out. The proceeds of R350 per book are going to this project. I have the last few books to sell, and this needs to happen to raise the cash in excess of the costs. I would like that to happen sooner rather than later so that we can get going.* In addition, if you buy a book, I have one special couple who will match the money raised! READ MORE ABOUT THESE WONDERFUL PEOPLE HERE. I also hopefully will soon have a second entity who will do the same …so buy a book for R1,295, and as much as R1,050 goes to the project! (the money is to be used to hire contractors with equipment to work alongside us volunteers. Zero wastage on admin)
- Spread the news and enthusiasm for the project for us, on your facebook page, in your newsletter, at dinner parties, or wherever else you can.
* In fact we have thrown caution to the wind and already hired in a contractor for 27th February….I can hear the pleasing roar of chainsaws already!
If you have any contributions, ideas, donations, or would just like to touch base, mail me on trutablog “at” gmail.com. You can mail me on this same address to buy a book too.
Thanking you in advance.
Ok “Bru”, here’s the deal. I really don’t know why, but when it comes to the upper Umgeni River as a Trout stream, I am a bit obsessed.
I am obsessed with getting it back to, or maintaining it at, its former glory as a premium Trout stream. I have had this obsession since I was a varsity student. I conducted a sort of study of, and evaluation of the Umgeni as a prime fly fishing stream, when I was conscripted in the army. I visited farmers, asked them about their view of the river as a “trout asset”, photographed it, and wrote some or other report under my blankets at night in an army bungalow in far off Potchefstroom. In 1996, on a long car drive to a fly-fishing festival in Somerset East with Jack Blackman, Jim Read and others, I remember boring them all with my dream of the Umgeni as a well organised, conserved and revered fly fishers destination.
In years gone by I have put landowners and fishing clubs in touch, and put conservationists in touch with conservation minded farmers along the banks.
I am still not letting up.
Last year the Natal Fly Fishers club organised two work parties clearing wattle and bramble from river banks. Trout SA made a short video clip. Also, over the last year or two the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) has been working in the catchment to reduce the number of water sapping wattles. It seemed to make sense to get alongside that initiative while there is groundswell. Then at the same time Penny Rees and her DUCT team did “River Walks” blog about their walk from the source to the sea.
Penny has since walked most of the major tributaries of the Umgeni and journalled of her experiences on the blog. Like me, she is passionate about restoring this important river, her for her reasons, and I for mine.
This Saturday the NFFC is holding its third cleanup day. This time the club has thrown some serious resources at the task, hiring in a crew of professional tree-fellers, and with the landowner on board with tractors and staff. Here is a short clip on that: Video.
I have used the opportunity to create a hashtag (do you launch one, or create it……I don’t know. Maybe you hash it!)
Blue Ribbon Umgeni
What is it all about? It is about recognising and valuing the upper Umgeni River as a trout fishery. In this way we hold it up as something that has value. People look after the things that they value. So my “shout-out” is to fellow flyfishers here in the midlands of KZN to go and fish the Umgeni, catch its stippled beauties, photograph them, and tell people about it. Attend the NFFC work-party on Saturday 12th September, or the one on the 17th October, or next year’s ones.
While the internet has rightly been accused of ruining good fishing spots, I am going out on a limb here and guessing that there are few enough river fishermen in South Africa, that those we do have, practice catch and release, and that sharing my favourite fishing spot with them will do a LOT more good than harm.
So #BRU is also an invitation:
Come and fish the Umgeni with me bru!
I am also going to ask you for some money soon. Money towards wattle removal. But you will get something in return. More on that in coming weeks.