“It was a pretty scene – the kind of thing that sticks in your mind as a slice of what fishing is all about, one of those times when esthetics outweighs success” John Gierach, The View From Rat Lake
I am often surprised to see posts representing a day out on the water, in which only anglers and fish are captured with the camera. Perhaps it is because I am inclined to be a bit of a loner, but my albums are swollen with landscapes. I guess you could say that for me, aesthetics outweighs success most of the time.
While the British and the Americans spell “Aesthetics” differently, it is the definitions of the word that resonate with me:
- The branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc
- The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty.
Think on that.
As a kid we visited and fished Kamberg a fair bit.Many of us did.
I have fond memories:
- Jumping out of my skin when concentrating on a rising fish, in my own little world, when a ranger came up on the river bank alongside me unnoticed and asked “Liseeence?” Followed by the rattling off of every Trout fly that he knew. He knew a lot of them!
- Booking Stillerus beat number one, and being excited at being offered beat two in whispered tones by the lady in the office, as no-one had booked it that day. I felt so privileged!
- Mown paths along the course of Stillerus, with beat markers.
- Smartly dressed guards at the gate, with gleaming boots, snapping to attention for every car.
- Creeping through wattles and brambles on Game Pass, trying to get to the river.
- Lots of fishermen.
I could go on.
Now, alongside the broken down Trout hatchery, and having entered a crumbling, abandoned gate house, you will encounter this:
The grass is not mown, and the picnic table is toppled and broken. No guards. No salutes. No picnickers. But notice the ring-barked tree. And notice how on Game Pass you don’t need to go creeping through the wattles. I find wilted, sprayed (treated) bramble there quite often. And no other fishermen, apart from a very small band who extoll the virtues of the stream on Facebook.
So things fall apart. But not completely. Conservation is still taking place, it just is not being offered on a plate to paying guests. Interesting. Money is being spent on conserving nature, but the source of income to fund it has been abandoned.
Stillerus is wild and unkempt, and the authorities have moved their own staff into the cottage there, that one could once hire, so that there is no longer accommodation for visitors. The fishing is still excellent.
Heard any news on how Stillerus is fishing lately?
I thought not. You have to know someone now. In a sense it is more private. You definitely will not encounter other fishermen there. Try Googling it. You won’t find much, and what you do find is outdated. Did you hear about the four pounder that was caught there this season?
You need to know someone.
But it is still there, and it is available to those who seek it out.
Whoever seeks it out might have to get involved in spraying the bramble at some stage, or ring barking a wattle tree, or engaging with the authorities to partner on getting it done.
And while we are in this phase of a return to wildness (I am looking forward to Duncan Brown’s new book!) , restaurants have proliferated lower down in the catchments. Country restaurants, which people drive out to, and at which they while away the hours on a deck overlooking a mountain or a river. When Kamberg was in its prime, people didn’t have access to such things, but they would pack sandwiches and go for a walk or some flyfishing in the country. Kamberg is empty. The restaurants are full. And the one who hikes up to the very upper Mooi to see how far up he can find Trout, is an intrepid explorer, but one who will claim to “go there all the time”, when in fact he was last there three seasons back. The place is empty, and it is there for the taking by a shrunk band of flyfishers. A band, which I believe are more proficient fly fishers than the droves of casual fishermen who used to visit Kamberg, and fill the coffers of the conservation funds.
Maybe it lends itself to a guide, and there is an opportunity there for the “resort” to be accessible again in that way…….. but experience shows that there are not enough visiting fly-fishers to keep a guide in business in these parts.
So it is wilder, arguably unkempt, in a way that doesn’t matter, but possibly at risk of a lack of environmental management. One could get philosophical about what the desired outcome is.
Where to from here? I don’t know. I have been blamed for giving away “secret spots” like this one, but having done so, it still is not crowded. And if someone called for volunteers to spray the bramble on Stillerus, I wonder how many would put their hands up?
Here in the KZN midlands, altitude is accepted as a defining criteria for Trout water. It has long been held that trout will survive above 1200meters above sea level, and there is very little fishable water above 1800metres. So within that band of 1800m down to 1200m, there are a few critical bands, and I would argue that one of them is the 1600m band. I say that because every listed trout stream in these parts rises above 1600m.
So here is where that contour runs along the front of the Drakensberg:
Interesting isn’t it!
For me what makes it fascinating is that:
- It shows deeply incised valleys where streams cross the line remarkably close to the escarpment
- It shows that ridge of high ground that runs out into the province from the end of Giants Castle to Inhlosane mountain, very clearly
- And from the few spot heights I threw in on the map above, you will see that there are many islands of ground above 1600m, many of which are a long way “from the mountains”.
One also quickly concludes that the altitude alone is a poor measure of where trout thrive. In studying a map in detail, you come to realise that trout will survive and indeed thrive in stretches of river at low altitudes where the valley sides rise to much higher altitudes, and cool short tributaries contribute to the river (Examples, The Inzinga and the Umgeni). Also, if the drainage upstream of where you are standing is overgrazed or densely inhabited, or intensely farmed, then altitude becomes a less significant measure ( Example, The Bushmans below 1400m …below the clinic). Also, if the stream is on a steeply drained area, where the cold fronts coming from the south west are forced up to generate orographic rainfall, the trout are better off. So, for example, south of Giants Castle, the 1600m contour averages about 130 kms from the sea. North of the Hidcote ridge, where the berg tracks north, north-west, the sea is an average of 175 kms from the sea, and over 200kms in many cases. Here it is drier, there are a lot fewer trout streams, and those that there are, have just a short run in the berg before they spill out onto flatter, warmer plains where they don’t hold Trout. In fact, down south (and off below the limits of the map above), we know that in the Ingeli mountain area, trout are found as close as 80km from the sea at altitudes of under 1000m. There the slope from the sea to Ngeli mountain is 25m per km. From a similar altitude on the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, to the sea, the slope is under 8m per km. Those southern areas get more life-giving mist and drizzle. Did you ever notice how there are no thorn trees along the N3 from Maritzburg to Hidcote, then on the Estcourt side of Hidcote (the dry side), you can draw a line where the thorns start. Thorns like drier , and/or warmer climates.
Returning to our 1600m contour: At a glance, it is encouraging to see how much land above this contour is in the Drakensberg park, and therefore conserved as catchment area. The exception is where the land juts out from Giants Castle. Parts of that area (top end of Dargle, Inzinga, Fort Nottingham, Western side of Kamberg etc) have at times been threatened by proposed developments. (I hope you will join me at the protests if they try again).
See you in the highlands……above 1600 metres perhaps….
On the way into work earlier this week I passed two of those newspaper billboards on consecutive lamp posts. One read “Rain has not broken the drought”, and the next one read “Floods in KZN”.
I think it was the same day that the weather forecast predicted severe hail storms in the Free State, and the following day there was a tornado in Jo-burg, and this all followed 2 days of snow in the berg.
Today is a lovely sunny day. Expect severe frost tonight.
So all in all it is pretty average weather.
The hell not!
But at least on the rainfall front, it’s bloody fantastic! We can consider ourselves “over served”…(a delightful excuse for one’s intoxication, that PD passed on to me after a jaunt to fish the Shenandoa National Park for Brook Trout) At 70mm or thereabouts in most of the upland areas of the midlands, and with the Trout streams barreling along, it is just a little intoxicating isn’t it!
Maybe…just maybe….this is what we need to turn the fishing around in the coming summer.
If the fishing results of recent winter tournaments in the Kamberg and Boston, as well as club results, are anything to go by, the fly fishing really has been down on normal years. My own forays have been less successful (in fish number terms) than the average.
Now we just need to hope for a spring that starts in September, and not in January as happened last season. I have complete faith that we will have an incredible season in 2016/7, and I don’t know about you, but I plan on being prepared for it all. I have read the two articles in Wayne Stegen’s series on Vagabond Fly Mag, and I am already tying up a few leaders for the spring fishing. Us fishermen, like farmers, are eternal optimists while at the same time, possessing the skill to invent excuses beyond the reach of the common man, when in the end it doesn’t all work out.
Maybe that is why I liked the “over-served” excuse so much. It can only have been coined by a fisherman.
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”:
Sitting at home in Maritzburg, Durban, or wherever else one hails from, a flyfisherman is plagued with the problem of not knowing what the Trout waters up there in the hills are looking like.
I am off to work soon, but had the good fortune of trundling around in the Kamberg area over the last few days. So here is an update for those of you lucky enough to still have some leave:
We are still very much in the grip of drought, in that many dams are very low, and rivers have still not had a “spring flush”.
The Mooi at the Bend was at 22.8 degrees C on Thursday morning and flowing at levels that one would expect in winter.
The Mooi just below “The Bend”
The Mooi at Glenfern on Thursday.
That said, on Thursday a fair storm started up over Mount Erskine …but no higher than that in the catchment. (the hills above Riverside…on the Northern bank of the Mooi.)
The Mooi at Thendele with the storm over Meshlyn in the background
I would guess it dropped 10mm there, then moved on down over Meshlyn, who I hear got 9mm. I drove down the valley with the storm, and at about Sourveldt (Kamberg farmers hall), they got pounding rain, wash in the fields, and quite significant runoff into the little Mooi (But a lot less into the lower Mooi). The storm moved out towards Mooi River/Hidcote.
On Friday afternoon there were several storms up around the Giant. It looked to me that most of the rain fell “below the Giant’s tummy”, and that the Bushmans might therefore have done well from that storm. It seemed to move off Northwards and Eastwards towards Ntamahlope. Seconday storms dropped some water over the Giant generally, and I could see scattered rain over the Kamberg Valley. The Mooi at Game pass and at Riverside were definitely up on Saturday, and looking rather pleasant.
The Mooi at Game Pass on Saturday
By that I mean the best they have looked so far this season, and eminently fishable, but there was not enough flow to wash all the algae and silt away.
The dams: Prairie was still looking low and disappointing, even after Thursday’s storm:
Granchester is similarly low, and I would not bother with Strawberry, Tembu or Eremia. I haven’t seen Uitzicht…but I think you all saw the magnificent fish it produced last week, whatever its level.
Highmoor top dam is full and cool. The lower dam is still down a bit.
On balance, If I had a day or two more, I would be on the Mooi, at Game Pass, Kamberg, Thendele, Riverside, Stillerus, or Reekie Lyn. I would probably try the Bushmans too. Plenty of good water there. Flows up with some cool mountain water, but running clean. Water at 18 to 20 degrees C. Take suncream and watch out for snakes.
Imperfect info, and with the unstable weather we have at this time of year, it might be out of date by this afternoon, but there you have it from my perspective. Drop me a line if you have more news on water conditions. You don’t have to give away your secret spots, or report what you caught, but sharing info on conditions would be a great contribution to our small fly fishing community here in the KZN midlands.
For future, I do a more general roundup on this sort of news that you can access from the icons on the right of this. FOSAF report around month end, and a mid-month one on Fly-Dreamers. There is some moon phase and weather stuff on the right too. I hope they add some value.
In the summer months, I often have occasion to fish some tiny streams. I really enjoy those waters. Delicate strands of water, in which any trout that you do succeed in catching, is a miracle of nature.
Delicate strands of water
Sure, the words “miracle of nature” are over-used, cliched, and bordering on corny, but consider this:
We have just come through a spring drought, both in KZN, and the NE Cape. You just have to drive through the Kamberg valley, as I did yesterday, to see that despite all the green grass, the dams are still not full. That would have a little less to do with how much rain we have had in the last few weeks, and a lot more to do with what happened from August to November. We are prone to dry spring seasons here, and this year was one of them. To top that, it came after a winter in which we did not receive our customary inch of rain (together with snow on the berg) in July.
So if we can still see that in the level of the dams, especially the ones from which the farmers irrigated, then try to picture the little stream you fished this week, two months ago. With that mental image, try to picture a trout living in there.
I remember one unseasonably dry December, Petro and I hiked up a small side-stream on the Bokspruit that Ben Vosloo had directed us to. Ben’s instructions had been clear, so there was no doubt that we were on the correct stream, but I stared at the trickle in disbelief.
My disbelief deepened, when a hundred yards further we saw trout. We could not have missed them. The poor creatures were lying in solid rock basins worn by the river over many centuries of better flow. When I say “basins”, picture the basin you shave over. They were almost as small, and they didn’t have as much cover . Your basin has the arm of the tap over it, these had no such luxury. When the fish spotted us, all they could do to save themselves, was to zoom around that pool at the greatest speed they could manage. Consider for a moment, that their only food was delivered to them down a tiny trickle of water flowing over warm rock, from the basin above, where a few other trout had picked off whatever was in that water. Maybe a gust of wind might bring them a hopper. And they survived until the next rain. A miracle of nature indeed!
I for one, often under-estimate the ability of trout to survive in these extreme conditions. Such conditions are almost a certainty in a small stream, where there are no, or few, great big pools, where a trout can hunker down in a drought.
One year Basie Vosloo took a few of us up a small feeder stream on his farm. We were looking for trout, just to know if they were there. Basie stopped the F250 in the valley basin, where the nchi-chi grew thickly, there was plenty of cover, and a half reasonable volume of water.
We surveyed the stream, and while we saw nothing, we pronounced it OK for trout. Then Basie drove further, and stopped again. Together with the dogs, we picked our way to the stream, and looked again.
It was getting pretty thin right there, but Basie insisted we go further. I said nothing, but inside I was thinking that this was just a little ridiculous. Almost as if to make a point, Basie drove us twice the distance we had come. We stopped at a stream crossing, were the water trickled through a pipe, and oozed over a rock embankment. Impossible. Ridiculous. But following the enthusiastic dogs, we walked a few yards down. I hung back and let the others go ahead. I was not going to waste my time.
And then “Yup! Here’s a rainbow” came the call.
I had to see this with my own eyes. Sure enough, there it was: A miracle of nature.
What this all comes down to though, is that when fishing one of these little gems, one has to be realistic, and patient. Consider for a moment how that stream may have looked in the dead of winter. Unlike the stocked dam, the presence of trout cannot be assumed. In that context the scarcity of the trout becomes expected, and those that you do catch become wonders.
The days that you can’t find them become exercises in patience and humility. The fish that you do find, should be cause for celebration. Rest assured, that celebration at the 8 inch brown you just caught from a full rushing stream in summer, will not be understood by some of those to whom you tell of its capture.
“It was how big?” . You show them the photo.
“Lovely” they say, with just the slightest hint of condescension in their tone. You flip to the next photo to show them some more in the hopes that they will get it. You have a picture of just how small the stream was . You can put this all in perspective for them. You flip back to show them the other pictures from the drought months to bring your point home.
But they are pouring tea, and discussing the new hardware store that just opened in town.
Additional photos sent in by Tom Sutcliffe, of the feeder stream on Basie Vosloo’s farm, and some fry and paired trout in that delicate water. Thank you Tom.
On the last Saturday of September last year, Mike and I headed out to Riverside on the upper Mooi river. This stretch of river is club water, and is on a dairy farm that sits within the “U” shape formed by the KZN parks area of Kamberg Nature reserve.
We were blessed with a pleasant sunny day, the temperature peaking at just twenty two degrees C, and the occasional light gust of wind.
One parks under some plane trees at the farm entrance and fishes upstream from there.
This is classic KZN river water for me. Quite high river banks, through which runs a stream, deep and moody in its big pools, and light and babbling over sheets of shelf-rock in other places, with just occasional rapids through a tumble of jagged rocks or rounded pebbles. You generally wade up until it gets too deep, then you clamber out and go around the head of the pool, where you slither down the bank again. In mid summer your forays out of the river involve pushing through grass and maize higher than your head, with the odd fence or bramble bush to keep you on your toes. But in September, while it has turned green, the fields are dusted in short grass, large areas are burned, and the going is really very easy.