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….
I had never hooked a trout before this week-end. That is to say, I had never held a fly between my two fingers, and used it to hook a trout. There is a first time for everything.
There is also a heavily wooded valley cut by a tributary of a favourite stream, which I had never entered. Here a reclusive and interesting man resides. I had never met this hermetic bloke before. What I have done before, is to go on a day’s fishing and not take my fly rod out of its tube. That happened once when PD and I holed up for breakfast at a favourite midlands haunt, and when the rain kept pounding down, and we tired of pigging out on coffee, we came home. This week-end I ended up at the same “piggly” place, but alas, they had run out of pork sausages. I pigged out on bacon instead, and then went on a circuitous fishing jaunt with Anton, in which the rod never saw the light of day. The fate of the stream in that same wooded valley was the same….never sees the light of day….owing to the rank woody growth that obscures the house tucked away in there, as much as it does the road in. We traversed that new road, right up to where it emerged within sight of Conniston Farm, where as a young child I collected tadpoles in a jar. So while the water held little promise, an orientation loop was neatly closed.
My friend Trevor throws a tight loop, which I was admiring when he caught a tadpole on Saturday. Well, it was in fact a brown, but it was of tadpole proportions. The tadpole capture was caught on film, as was the capture of my hooked trout, which was somewhat bigger, and for that I am a feeling a little smug.
The first time I hooked it, it was perfectly legit. The second hooking was for the sake of the camera, so I don’t think it should tarnish the legitimacy of my success on celluloid. Later, when I was sneaking down to “Five Pounder Pool”, the cameraman observed that the TV viewers would see this in the background of the interview his colleague was conducting at the riverside, and he asked if that would be problematic. Picture the window-cleaner behind the TV presenter, or the kid who opens the door during a live feed from daddy’s study. The others felt that while I may have technically been poaching at the time, my sneaking around in the background would be “fairly legit”, whatever that means.
The legitimacy of my excuse for not being at the hospital with my wife when her finger was stitched, is beyond reproach or question. I was fishing. Sort of. I was on that self same circuitous fishing trip, complete with bloody sandwiches. I do feel a little guilty that after the injury, I didn’t even eat the bloodied sandwiches, not because I am squeamish, but because I was lured to a pub with long cold glasses of lager, and jalapeno burgers. The pub with long cold glasses of lager, is where much of this weekend should have been spent, because it was too damned hot for trout. Tadpole sized or otherwise.
Anton offered to drop me off at the local sports ground on the way home so that I could practice my casting in the hot afternoon sun, but I declined. I had work to do, feeding sandwiches to the dog, and giving my wife a hug. Possibly wetting my wading boots under a tap and sucking on lager masking peppermints.
Earlier, after I had hooked my trout twice, and in response to a hair-brained idea involving a circuitous non fishing trip , he had asked me if my brain had disintegrated. The reply on my Whatsapp says “Yes, but I am fully expecting you to support me during this difficult time”. The reply was by my wife. That was when her typing finger was still OK, and before she took fright at Anton’s doorbell ringing and let rip with that new knife. And it was before Anton took me on a circuitous non fishing trip.
They say that reclusive bloke in the wooded valley is also a bit cooked, but maybe it’s just me. I don’t know. This heat has clouded my judgment.
They tell me it is going to snow this week. That might help.
I ignored him.
“Hey Larnie” ..he tried again. And then, proceeding to the assumption that I was in fact listening he added “How menny feesh in da sea?”
He had spotted the fly casting decal on the side of my vehicle, and he abandoned his task of selling fruit at the roadside to connect with me as a fellow fisherman. I shouldn’t have been so rude, but he wasn’t reading it right. Neither was PD when he replied “60 fish…..hell I can’t remember when last I caught even 10 fish!”.
“Easy tiger” I replied. “It was 20 fish, over 3 days, and the biggest was 60 cms” I guess its easy to get the wrong end of the stick. The bull by the udders. This is what Paul Schullery reckons we have done when we interpret the term ”fine, and far off” as coined by Charles Cotton . In his book “Fly-Fishing secrets of the Ancients” he says” Cotton’s admonition had nothing to do with double hauling across the Delaware”. He explains that in Cotton’s time (over three hundred years ago), they didn’t have the fly lines of today and could really only flick and let the wind do the rest.
That made me feel better, because often all I am capable of is flicking and letting the wind do the rest. I have just been asked to teach fly casting at an event next month. Boy are they in for a surprise!
But of late I have been doing OK in the catching department, despite going with a notion of casting only so far as I can do with some measure of perfection, minus 20%, to ensure perfection a good deal of the time. And I am speaking here of stillwater fishing. Coupled with a stealthy approach, I have had some good fun. I won’t say I am catching more fish, but having a big rainbow take your fly in ankle deep water just in front of you is an experience that has a lot going for it. You will be surprised how many “feesh deh are in dat sea” ! That close in zone can be a diamond mine!
Speaking of which, I have been listening to Jonah Tolchin recently.
Some good stuff. Including this track: Diamond Mine (Spotify link)
But just in case you thought I was talking about a different type of beat: The lower beats of Reekie Lyn are looking great. Andrew Savs tells me that he and his mates were able to stroll up and fish a few spots down there that previously had to be approached on hands and knees, and with roll casts. Its not that the fish have gone blind, its just that the wattles have been felled, thanks to the efforts of a bloke named Gwamanda, and now you can stroll up to the river’s edge and scare the trout that way.
Last Sunday I couldn’t scare the fish. That is because I was obscured from their view by a layer of detritus on the water’s surface, left there by the howling gale. I was fishing a slow pool on Brigadoon…in line with Cotton’s suggestion that it is less windy there. Pfft……! My problem was that I could barely cast in the headwind. Cotton’s flicking thing wasn’t doing the trick. If I waited for a lull, and managed a cast, my little delicate nymph (another suggestion of Cotton’s) got caught in all that scum. So I did what any tactical, sophisticated fly fisherman would do. I put on a fly large enough and heavy enough that I could throw it in the wind, and it was sturdy enough in build, to break through that layer of grass seed and leaves and the like. Far off perhaps, but not so fine. When it plopped through there and started to sink, I suddenly realised that it would snag on the bottom quickly on account of it’s 12mm tungsten bead, so I did what any tactical, sophisticated fly fisherman would do, and I stripped that 1/0 Woolly Bugger back to safety as fast as I could. It wasn’t my fault that a big angry brown of 18 inches grabbed it along the way.
Graeme asked if I had any pictures. “Hell no Larnie!” I replied “It wasn’t pretty”. Besides, Cotton wasn’t pretty, and he didn’t take pictures either. (He also married his cousin……just saying….)
The top photo is taken from the book ”Trout fishing in South Africa” issued by the South African Railways in 1916. It is of the Mooi River near the Trout Bungalow, with the Kamberg mountain and the Pimple in the background. A careful inspection suggests that the photo was manipulated. Take a look at the “Trout Bungalow” at the left. In the picture it faces the photographer. In reality it faces almost directly away from the photographer. Furthermore, the structure to the right of the building is the small garden gate that stands to this day, but in this picture its size suggests it could span the width of the river. Despite this glaring “photoshopping” that would no doubt have been done with a razor blade and glue, the panorama is significant in that it shows the wonderful expanse of undisturbed grassland. The only trees being those directly below “the pimple”, the site of the homestead on Hemyock farm.
The picture below was taken in late December 2017 ( just a few days ago). The fact that the trees are so high, caused me to take the photo from higher up the hill than the 1916 photographer did. It has to be said that the proliferation of trees is the single biggest difference between the two pictures. In fact, were it not for the tireless efforts of the farmer who owns the hillside, the picture would have been impossible, as just a few years ago the vantage point was in a thick stand of wattles.
I would have loved to have been around back in 1916, and fishing this river flowing through such lovely virgin grassland! It all remains beautiful countryside though.
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.
In the last week we have switched on the under-floor heating in the lounge, and I have worn a jacket of some sort most days. By my reckoning that signals the close of number 36….my 36th contiguous flyfishing season since this thing bit me all those years ago.
Sitting here in my living room , armed with a good cup of coffee and a reflective mood, I have just paged through my journal, and tried to get a sense of how it was. Tried for a capsule that sums it all up. Something that captures it in a way that lets me roll it around in my mind without missing any of the good bits.
One can add the numbers I guess: 200 hours of fishing over 45 days on ten stillwaters and eight different streams, and just under a hundred Trout. A fair season by those numbers I guess, but it doesn’t tell the full story.
130 of those 200 hours on streams, x number of Browns vs Rainbows, so many on dries, so many on nymphs. I have all this info. I could probably add up the kms travelled the diesel burnt, the coffee, beer and whisky drunk.
I think it is better summed up as follows: (in terms of the piscatorial quarry at least)
We broke the rules and started 3 days early on the very lower Bushmans, where we were shown a toffee. That is always a good way to start. There were some trips to the Lotheni, a few months apart, but they were lean. The trips to the Mooi were not, and there were more of those this season than last. The Mooi and the Bushmans produced some big fish for me. Bigger ones for my Facebook buddies it seems, or was that camera angle?
I was happy with mine. The Umgeni showed me more good fish, and more toffees than ever before. It was real “Rub your snout in that” stuff! . The lower Sterkspruit and the lower Bokspruit were challenging, but the upper reaches of both offered up their bounty. The Vlooikraal was as special as it always is.
A 17 incher in the sleet with Jan in October at Reekie Lyn.
A 19 incher from Krantz pool with PD.
PD’s 18 incher from the Sterkspruit…
……sure it wasn’t my fish, but you asked about memorable fish right? And you didn’t ask if I caught them.
My first day of an Eastern Cape trip got me a 14 inch Rainbow on a nymph fishing with Roy. My last day got me a 14 inch Brown on a dry …stalked, fooled, hooked and landed with PD as my witness.
“Book-ends!” he remarked after he had congratulated me on that last fish, and I thought about that over a cup of streamside coffee off the camp stove while he went fishing.
There was a fish of some 13 inches on the Bushmans right towards the death, that was special. Several fly changes, lots of stalking and creeping about, and eventually I fooled him, alone, and without witnesses. The solitude of a good fish on an empty river with no one to ‘high-five’ you is, I think, a healthy thing.
But the fish that had my eyes swirling in the same way that Kaa the snake was able to dazzle Mowgli, was that Umgeni fish at ‘The Black Hole’ . Like PD’s one on the Sterk, I didn’t catch it. Unlike PD’s on the Sterk, no-one caught it. I however, photographed it. Twice. I put about 10 different fly patterns over it. I spotted it feeding no less than four times, and I rose it three times, pricking it on two of those occasions.
That fish had me beaten. It is also the one thing that has me looking forward to no 37.
Now that, my friends, is surely the fish of the season!
……….My next post will be the season between the fish……………which in so many ways is larger and more significant.
Heat, gratitude and Trout
As the three of us sat with our backs to an earth bank, the gum trees bent double, dust from the township roads swept across the valley in front of us. We got wet too, but after the heat of the day, it was such a relief that we enjoyed the cool drops. I sat there watching the large droplets fall on the sleeve of my shirt and dissipate in the wicking fabric in mild and unperturbed fascination. You can relax and do that when a storm is not accompanied by vicious lightning, and this was one of those storms.
A storm was inevitable after the heat of the day. It had been severe. Graeme sent me a screen shot of his vehicle thermometer earlier in the day before leaving Maritzburg: 41 degrees. I had been borrowing a vehicle which, unlike my old one, has one of these thermometers too. I dropped in to see some farmers on the Lions River late morning, and only the strong wind there rescued them from 36 degree temperatures. At Jan’s shop in Notties it was as close as you get to thirty. By the time we arrived at Tendela it was 26 degrees and falling, but a lot of that may have been due to the lateness of the day rather than altitude alone: It just didn’t make sense to rush in the heat of the day, and we couldn’t have cast a fly much before 4:30 pm.
While tackling up, we were observed by three small boys who crept up and sat unobtrusively on the grass behind us, observing our every move. I greeted them and tried to engage them in conversation, but they were shy. Graeme handed them a carton of fruit juice that he had in his vehicle. In re-telling of their reaction later that night, my description of their sheer unadulterated joy and delight brought tears to my wife’s eyes. One of them hugged the carton to his chest and danced as he uttered his heartfelt thanks.
On the walk down to the river from Mr Ntuli’s house, I was immediately aware of the easy banks that Graeme had described to me. He was quite right. The goats and cattle had grazed the veld like a lawn, and as I stepped into the river it felt like I was on a fairway of a golf course.
As I drifted a hopper and small weighted ant through a succession of pretty runs, I took in the scenery. It was different to what we are used to. There were houses scattered about the hillsides. The river bed was punctuated here and there with bottles and cans and scrap metal. The odd packet hung from a pile of sticks and swayed in the current. At one point I remarked to Jac about the polystyrene hatch, as a hamburger box floated down the stream past us.
But there was no putrid effluent in the stream. The water ran clean , and refreshing against my legs, despite its temperature of 22 degrees. The land beside the river was covered with grass, and although there were road ditches and gulches that were bare and no doubt dirty the river in a storm, no one had ploughed close to the river, and there were no fences to cross. Communal land does not get carved up and fenced and possessed by anyone. While that means that the veld has been mis-managed and consists of more mshiki [eragrostis plana] than anything else, at least the altitude here precludes ngongoni [aristida junciformis] and the absence of fences makes the riverside progression a pleasure. And the community members who strolled by did not arrive to greet you with the simmering aggression that a poacher might expect from an approaching farmer. This land belonged to no one, or more accurately a welcoming community, and passing individuals either ignored us completely, or raised their hands in a friendly wave.
After the storm we were back on the river, and I had the good sense to give up on the hopper, and switch to a para RAB so that I too could catch some fish. And I did, but not as many as Jac and Graeme, who were polite enough not to mention their tally! As darkness fell, we changed flies with hands held high to grab at the last silhouette of the nylon against the pale evening sky. We crouched beside the river, not for concealment, but to achieve an angled view that put our flies in those patches of silver against the far bank where the small browns were rising. As we crouched, and cast by feel alone, there were jovial shouts across the valley, the barking of a dog, the squealing of a delighted child, and the rattling of an old pickup, whose yellow lights descended the hill before igniting the steel bridge just upstream.
Later we would find Jac only by following the sound of his fly-reel as he wound in for the day…a reel we had earlier nicknamed “The Isuzu” after its “280 D” sounding click and pawl mechanism. As he approached we were only able to distinguish him from the lumbering forms of the shadowy sheep when he got really close. We crossed the bridge together, the three of us walking abreast in the inky blackness, and followed our noses along the rough gravel road back to Mr Ntuli’s house.
It is a term my fishing buddies and I have adopted over the years. It refers specifically to Brown Trout, and it is an attempt to describe their behaviour when they are prevalent, on the feed, and generally visible to the observant flyfisher.
Browns, as we all know, are fickle things. They have a habit of disappearing, both in stillwater and in streams. Their apparent disappearance is a very common cause of comments about inadequate stocking, or the catastrophic effects of a drought, or deep suspicions and conspiracy theories about sinister fish-kills.
I too have fallen for their tricks and have contributed to those theories and creased brow comments of failure and doom.
But after you have given up hope, and have phoned the hatchery for quotes, or scoured the country for ever more hard to find stocks of Brown Trout fingerlings, do yourself a favour and go try the stream a few more times.
Pick a grey drizzly day if you can, but if you don’t get one of those, go anyway.
And maybe. Just maybe. You will be blessed with a day when the Browns are “On the prod”.
On those rare and beautiful days, if (and only if) you are an observant angler, you will see some crazy stuff!
Firstly, you will spook fish. They will shoot out from under your feet in the most crazy of places. They will be in stagnant mucky looking backwaters, and in holes under your feet. They will be lying in the shadow of a crack in a rock, no wider than you could have cut with a bread knife. Some might just be right out in the open on a pale streambed, so obvious that you can stop and photograph them.
Just the other day, I was walking up the Mooi just ahead of my colleague, peering into the water, when a small Brown shot down the shallow run towards me, raced off across the river to snaffle something, and returned to a feeding lie right in front of me. I lifted the camera very slowly to my eye and took this photo of him:
At times like this, I don’t even need to cast to them. Watching them is enthralling in itself. Malcolm Draper referred to the term “existence value” the other night in the pub. They have a value because they exist, and we can watch them. I like that.
On another day I was again walking ahead while another fishing buddy was below me fishing a “pearler” of a pool that I had deliberately skipped and put him onto. I was on the thin and less obvious water upstream of that, and it seemed a bit hopeless. It was a bright, clear day, and the stream was flowing low and clean over sheets of almost unbroken sheet rock. I was on a high bank, with the fly stuck in the keeper, and my mind more on observation than fishing in the traditional sense. Suddenly, from under a tuft of grass at my feet, out shot a fish of around 14 inches!
Where was I……..The other thing that will undoubtedly happen when they are on the prod, is that you will lift your fly from the water, and a fish will chase it right to your feet, and your reactions will have been too slow to stop the lift in time to let him catch the fly. You have had that happen to you, haven’t you!
You will miss fish too. They will just fall off the fly for no apparent reason, barbed or barbless hook….it is immaterial. You will have struck gently but firmly, and you will have kept even pressure, and your hook will have been a sharp one too. It will happen. Frustrating!
The other thing that will happen when the Browns are “on the prod”, (with a bit of luck), is that you will catch some.
The above fish pictures are just a random sample of fish caught on the Mooi (the dreadfully drought ravaged, “where have all the fish gone”, “we are going to have to re-seed it” Mooi), and were all caught during the month of October.
Yes. This month. October 2016.
The Browns have been “on the prod” !
…..and on public and club water……..
If you were to stand on the top of Giants Castle , at the source of the Lotheni and Bushmans rivers, (LINK) and send an eagle in a straight line, at a bearing of 115 degrees, to the top of Inhlosane mountain, the eagle would fly off from your feet at 3100metes above sea level. It would cross the source of the Elandshoek, which peels off to the right (the tributary of the Lotheni that joins the main river opposite the camp site), then it would cross the source of the Ncibidwane flowing away to the North, and on the same side the Mooi, First the north branch and then a tiny highland tarn from which the south branch flows.
Roy Ward hiking out of the Ncibidwana valley. Giants Castle mountain is obscured by cloud in the background.
From that spot the beautiful lakes at Highmoor would be visible, 9kms away to the north east. Just 350 metres past that, to the right is the source of the Inzinga river (altitude 2199 metres), which flows away to the right, and at that spot the Kamberg nature reserve would be a scant 3kms to the north east. The eagle would then cross the very spot where the Reekie Lyn stream rises (a tributary of the Mooi, that joins the river lower down at the NFFC stretch of the same name). After a patch of rocky terrain, the ground would then drop away sharply beneath the eagles wings as it flies over the boundary of the greater Drakensberg heritage site , where the elevation beneath it would be 1800metres ASL, and it would have flown 26kms.
After this half way mark, the rest of the eagle’s journey would be over highland farming country that all hovers around the altitude of 1800m ASL.
It would cross the farm known as “White Rocks”, named after the rocky outcrops still within sight behind it in the park, and it would cross the Lotheni road where the road does that tight sweeping bend to pass over the lovely little Rooidraai stream . This is just before the Rooidraai joins the “Kwamanzamnyama” at that rocky roadside spot where we often see baboons. In summer that stream looks just big enough to hold a few trout, but in winter my belief in that dwindles.
At this point a few farms below will be those that carry the “FP” number, after George Forder who surveyed the Underberg district, and who numbered them so after “Forder Pholela” (Or so everyone thinks: Secretly Forder was using the P in reference to “Plaisance”, a favourite farm name which he would later ascribe to the piece of land at Bulwer that the government of the time gave him for his troubles. I know this because his son told me). Our eagle would then pass just a few hundred yards to the south of “Drinkkop”, that hill which Chris Maloney tells me you can stand upon and pee into the drainages of the Mooi, the Umgeni and the Inzinga all at once.
Just over the crest it would pass directly over Umgeni Vlei (the source of the Umgeni), and then over the ridge and Woodhouse, and several other farms with names of English origin, and a few kilometers on, the land would dip briefly to about 1650m ASL where the eagle would fly directly over a little crumbling concrete causeway over the Poort stream, just above where it tumbles over a hidden waterfall on its way to join the Umgeni. That causeway is a favourite spot of mine. It is on a tiny triangle of land called simply “Fold”.
The causeway is just out of sight beside the parked vehicle in the distance.
The Poort stream on its way down to the Umgeni: The place where my great grandfather is buried, and where my father was born
Looking back towards the Giant from the Heatherdon mast.
It would then pass over Glendoone , and almost straight over the Heatherdon mast (a spot that is precisely 50m lower in altitude than the upcoming final destination of our eagle, just 5 kms away.
From here the dams on Happy Valley, Kilalu, Ivanhoe, Overbury, Lyndhurst, Heatherdon, Kimberley and Rainbow lakes, to mention just a few, would be visible.
From there the land would fall away beneath the flight path quite dramatically for a short spell, where the eagles flight would take it over the Furth Cutting at the precise point where the district road D 710 (which leads to the NFFC water on Furth Farm) takes off from the Mpendle road. The ground would then rise steeply again within seconds as the slope climbs from the homestead on Old Furth to the beacon on top of Inhlosane mountain at 1978metres above sea level, where our eagle would alight after its journey of precisely 51kms.
The eagle will have flown along the spine of high ground that I have written and spoken about before, that pretty much starts at the Giant and ends at Inhlosane mountain. Its eyes would have captured vast vistas of rocky veld with only the occasional pasture or cluster of trees. It would have passed over land that receives regular severe winter frosts, and not infrequently, snowfalls. And I reckon that it would have been able to spot more of the trout waters, both streams and dams, that I have fished in my lifetime, than any other fifty kilometer eagle flight anywhere. It might even have spotted Bernie’s lake!
Looking back at the Giant
I think if I had a chance to rub the magical lamp, that 70 minutes as an eagle would be right up there competing for one of the three wishes.
I am going to make a giant assumption, that having read part 1 of this story , you are in agreement with me that bass are a problem in the Trout areas here in KZN , and that something needs to be done about them. If you haven’t already agreed with the above, then you probably won’t be reading this anyway.
The biggest issue here, is that nobody knows how bass spread. There are however some theories. I will list those here, and then alongside each theory, suggest an appropriate measure to stop the spread.
Theory no 1: Bass eggs on Duck’s feet:
I find this one hard to believe. But because I don’t know it to be untrue, let me not write it off as nonsense. If this is indeed how bass spread, there is little that can be done (no…. I wont propose shooting all ducks). What does remain true however, is that the fewer waters that have bass in them, then the less chance there is of a duck flying from a bass dam to a trout dam, with an egg stuck on its feet. With this in mind, I propose paying attention to bass invaded waters in the general upland areas, even if they have no prospect of ever being a decent Trout water. By “paying attention to them”, I refer to whichever of the other measures mentioned below which might be practical.
Theory no 2: The farm mechanic stocks bass.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this problem is right up there …one of the main ones. If I generalise, I can say that farmers who are INTERESTED in their Trout fishing on their farms, seem to be less inclined to suffer a bass invasion. I can only assume that they lecture their staff on the value of their Trout water, that they care who fishes there, and by what method, and that they control access. In other words they EDUCATE. KZN does not have a “keep bass out” sign anywhere. I think it is time!
Theory no 3: Bass swim up a flooded spillway.
I believe in this one. We forget how strongly any fish can swim up a current. After a summer freshet, a dam spillway flows strongly through the grass or vlei for a few hours, giving bass a passage up to the next impoundment. One or two of these storms every year, and eventually a bass will swim up. The solution , when bass exist in the dam below, is to put stainless steel mesh barriers across spillways, and keep them clean.
NFFC volunteers erect a bass screen on a spillway in the Kamberg
Theory no 4: Water pumped from one dam or river to another transfers bass eggs.
This is not a theory. We have proof. Eremia dam was invaded this way in 2015, and in around 2013/4 Sourveldt received bass from the little Mooi River that has bass in it. This requires some study on how to screen the pump intake finely enough to stop bass eggs, but without causing suction vortex and pump cavitation. Once we have that worked out, it will be back to “Education” to ensure that the solution is put in place when farmers do have need of water transfer. To get that right, farmers will need to value their Trout fishing resource, as described above.
Those are all my theories.
Next is to understand the enemy to come up with some eradication/control measures. I did some googling a while back, and this is what I learnt about bass:
- They live for up to 15 years, sometimes longer, and breed every year in that lifespan.
- They lay eggs when the water temperature gets to around 18.5 degrees C
- They like to lay eggs in shallower water where the sunlight penetrates to the lake bottom…about 500mm to 1.5 m in depth .
- The male protects the nest and an area of about 3 square meters around it.
- Larger Trout love eating bass hatchlings
- Breeding bass shoal stupidly and expose themselves to danger in the margins when their mind is on breeding.
We can use this information to empower ourselves in the struggle against bass as follows:
- We can stock Trout in bigger sizes, and at the very time when bass are hatching (9 to 12 inch fish in late November). The NFFC already does this on select dams with some measure of success.
- We can wait for the water temperature to get to 18.5 degrees, and then open the valve and drop the water level two metres to fry bass eggs in the hot sun! You can only do this if the water is not needed for irrigation, and if the dam has a valve. The NFFC has been doing this at Eric Kietzke dam with the blessing of the landowner, for 3 years now.
Eric’s dam before :
Eric’s dam after:
We learnt this via the grapevine from farmers in the East Griqualand area who have done the same. We also know it to work, in that the Mearns Weir on the lower Mooi River, which has a constantly changing level has a particularly thin population of bass. There are also American reports of bass struggling to breed in resevoirs where level fluctuates.
- When we have a drought, and dams which we would not normally be allowed to empty, are empty anyway, we can strike with a piscicide (fish poison) and opportunistically win back some waters.
- We can fish for bass, or even cull them with a throw net, when they are shoaling stupidly in summer.
- We could sponsor a masters program to study other methods. I can’t help wondering if shading dam margins, or rigging up vicious looking decoys (like “Billy the bass” on steroids) to scare off potential egg layers, or some other clever things might be possible.
The total onslaught:
My time in the army was a real waste of time. What I did gain was a “balsak” which still serves as an excellent tackle bag, and the concept of the ANC’s so called “total onslaught”. Whether or not the ANC did have a total onslaught strategy or not, I like the concept when tackling a problem as diverse and difficult as the spread of bass. I think we need to borrow the idea, and employ as many of the ideas and tactics mentioned in this article, all at once. I think that only if we do that, are we likely to achieve success in this endeavour. An endeavour that otherwise seems as hopeless as holding back the sea with a fork.
I illustrate my conviction that such a total onslaught is required with this sad story:
When the Spring Grove dam was built above Rosetta, the authorities had the foresight to have an impact study done. That study revealed that the Inchbrakie Falls constituted a natural fish barrier.
That natural barrier protected the Trout fishery above the falls, from an inundation by other warm water species from below. The dam would flood this barrier, allowing warm water species to migrate upstream.
A study was done, and a loss of economic value by such an inundation was calculated, and it was deemed justified to spend something like R10 million building a fish barrier. The dam was given the ‘go-ahead’ with the condition that such a barrier be built.
When the dam was under construction, budgets were being strained, and it is alleged by friends who attended meetings, and heard this first hand, that engineers proposed scrapping the fish weir because “There is no difference between Trout and bass anyway”. Interested and affected parties declared that a lawsuit would ensue if the pre-condition was not adhered to.
So the weir was built.
The lake thrown by the fish barrier on the Mooi River.
My conjecture is that it was built in a “wham, bam, thank-you mam” way. I say that because locals I spoke to had no idea why it was being built. Others who challenged the effectiveness of the proposed design were also brushed off. No signs were erected prohibiting transfer of species above the weir. No public education or engagement was entered into.
And now, not much more than a year after its construction, largemouth bass (seen with my own eyes), and allegedly smallmouth bass (I have not seen them), exist in the impoundment ABOVE the weir.
R10 million down the drain…completely wasted.
If this was a first world European country, the authorities who built the dam, would be forced by a court of law to spend whatever needed to be spent, and do whatever necessary, to reverse the damage they have done.
I for one, am truly saddened.
If you are as concerned as I am about the big bass problem, and if you feel that something should be done, please drop a comment here, or on facebook, or mail me on “truttablog at gmail.com” . In that way we can measure if this problem is worthy of action, or conversely if it touches so few people that it warrants abandonment.
Note that in all this, there is no attack intended on bass and bass fishermen on some wide scale: It is merely tackling bass invading waters in which, to the best of my knowledge, there is no economic or social value attached to bass fishing, but where bass threaten to erode that value found in Trout waters.
Being one who mulls a lot (someone once labeled me a DTN*), I have been dabbling with the concept of night fishing. Mental dabbling that is. And I am talking here of night fishing in rivers ….not stillwaters.
I have done a bit of night fishing on stillwaters.
But I confess, I have never truly night fished a stream.
My angling background is thick with images of people holding up fish in an inky blackness, or stories of Browns coming out in the dark, and of talk of fishing at night when it cools off. I remember the cover of Joe Humphries “Trout Tactics” with just such an image.
Then just this week, I saw these images of my friend Brett Coombes in Australia:
Somehow though, my buddies and I just haven’t joined the dots. I don’t know why. Maybe us South Africans associate night time with murder and evil. That would be silly…all that stuff happens here in broad daylight! Maybe we are just scared of the dark. Or maybe it is because we lack great big rivers with even gravel streambeds, which one can shuffle into without the benefit of sight. Our streams are small and tumbling, and back-casts could be difficult if performed by sound alone, not to mention finding footholds, or even getting down into the canyon in one piece.
For now, I am writing those off as weak excuses though. It’s time we did this thing. American media has been extolling the virtues of big streamers for monster browns at night for a long time, and somehow we have been ignoring it. We have long been reading about how big browns travel long distances at night on the hunt for food. We even have fly-tyers tying up big mouse imitations. I don’t know about you but stereotype images of a big mouse making a wake and being swallowed in the blackness of night, come quickly to mind. And maybe this thing is not as stereotyped as muslims with wires sticking out of their clothing and cheese in mousetraps, but for now I am going to treat it as the gospel truth until I have proved otherwise. Hell, I am a man of faith!
I put cheese in a mousetrap myself the other day. Graeme said I had been watching too many Tom & Jerry movies. Well this time I have been reading too many romatisized “Big Browns at night” stories, and I am going to put some cheese on that metaphoric mousetrap and go try the Mooi at the bewitching hour. PD says he just needs to check that his medical aid and his life insurance are up to date, and he is IN!
The upper Mooi….a perfect spot for a stroll on a moonless night, wouldn’t you say?
* DTN apparently stands for “Deep Thinking Nigger”. Some of my friends actually call me that. Like my comment on Muslims and wires, this is used parochially and descriptively here with no racial or religious bias whatsoever. I might however, not make such innocent utterances when I am fumbling about stubbing my toes and getting washed downstream on a piece of water like that above, on a moonless night.
Photo taken by my son, James Fowler