“There are big trout here, but not many, and they are not the kind you simply fish for; they are the kind you mount a campaign against” Ted Leeson
My favourite places are either unknown by many flyfishers, or alternatively they are known, but considered second rate. As my friend Pete Tyjas said to me once “Yes, Andrew….I am a salmon too”, by which he meant that he swims against the current. The remark was in reference to a statement I had made along the lines of that above, coupled with our discussion about Pete stopping a successful online magazine to go into print. That is ballsy!
And so is creeping around on some forgotten stream somewhere in the brambles, trying to find that enormous trout that exists only in your imagination. At best it existed fifty years ago, and in your imagination its progeny have retained the ability to grow big, and are fit and well despite all the hardships thrown at them for half a century.
I enjoy launching that type of campaign. I am normally spurred on by a dearth of catch returns, or a complaint about how tricky it was to even get to the water, let alone cast! Maybe by an exaggerated tip off.
So perhaps it was less than coincidental that I so enjoyed Richard Baker’s piece in Fly Culture magazine (Spring 2021) in which he launches a campaign against the progeny of Wilson Dermot’s biggest ever trout, in the Bishop’s Sutton Stream in Hampshire. It brought back memories of staying at Stillerus cottage, being afraid of the Wildebeest that roam the vlei there, and trying to catch Neville Nuttall’s “Uncle George”. It was in the late seventies, and Uncle George had long since met his maker, but in our youthful ignorance and excitement we didn’t let that fact get in the way of a good campaign.
As one fisherman I know says “The truth is a rare commodity, and so should be used sparingly”. I think this comes into play with a lot of fishermen when they whisper to you in a dining booth or the corner of a pub, that the fish at such and such a place are ENORMOUS. What they are really saying is that there were enormous fish there, or it looks like there could be, or there should be. They are saying that the place is worthy of a campaign. The fish they are describing is not as big as the tale, but there is absolutely no reason why it should not have been that big. And in the fact that they are whispering this to you, they are inviting you, or perhaps challenging you, to mount such a campaign.
And who wouldn’t be flattered by such an invitation! And who are we to ignore their hot tip, and pay them the disrespect of going to fish at the popular, and known water, when this undiscovered gem lies in wait of our attentions. It is up to you and I to go and mount that campaign! We need to be ballsy about this!
(Perhaps while our erstwhile informant fishes the Thandabantu beat on the Bushmans and catches 23 inch browns, while we pick the blackjacks from our sweaty collars at some unnamed ditch somewhere)
I love maps.
Let’s do a drill-down to my nearest Trout Stream here in South Africa:
Firstly, for those outside of South Africa…. see below:
Then, below is the detail of that purple rectangle above:
And below again: Detail of that red elipse above, showing the major Trout Streams of the KZN Midlands. (the red dots denote the source of each stream. The copper line shows a significant ridge of high ground, with altitudes in metres above sea level along it. )
Pick out the Umgeni River above, and here below is a general locality map of the area closer up, showing the zone directly above the UMGENI label in the map above:
Three detailed maps showing close ups of the colour coded areas in the above map:
Black box from the locality map above: (Furth and Brigadoon) (which also includes the red area, further expanded upon in mapo no 2 hereunder) [from “Trout on the doorstep” ]
The red box from the locality map: (Lower Brigadoon) [From “Stippled Beauties”]
The blue box from the locality map: (Chestnuts) [From Neville Nuttall’s “Life in the Country” ]
Here be Trouts indeed!
“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.
The eighties, if I am not mistaken, is or was, referred to as the Jet age. Some or other more recent decade, possibly the one we are currently in, is referred to as the information age, in think-tank circles.
It gets me thinking what age we are currently in, in terms of fly fishing. I would have to limit myself to the local South African context here, since I am not qualified to comment on a global basis. (Actually I am not qualified to comment on anything) But local is lekker. So let’s have a look at the theme or defining developments of local fly-fishing through recent decades.
From my perspective it goes something like this
1970’s: Tackle came from Farlows in London. Everything had an overly British influence. I was a youngster, so I don’t really know what was going on, but I know that the Natal Fly Fishers Club was established in 1972, so there must have been some stirrings of local fly fishing comeraderie, and some awakening of the local scene. Jack Blackman’s name was on the lips of many a flyfisher here in KZN.
Books published that I remember, and still own: “Trout fishing in Natal” by Bob Crass; “Life in the Country” by Neville Nuttall; “Introducing fly fishing in South Africa” by John Beams; “Freshwater fishing in South Africa” by Michael Salomon.
1980’s: I fished myself silly in the eigthies…This fitted in from my high school days to the end of my varsity and army times. Fly fishing seemed to be in a big growth phase here in KZN, certainly in terms of public accessibility. Anton Smith reminded me that a lot of farm dams were built at this time, so stillwaters really came on the scene. Roger Baert brought in the first float tube. The fly-Fisherman shop (the first specialist fly shop in Africa!) opened in Pietermaritzburg. The American influence really started to come in strongly. Tom Sutcliffe’s first book was published (after the newspaper articles that preceded that). The first fly magazine started. Tom Sutcliffe and others got us all going on upstream dry fly and nymphs. It seemed to be “heydays” stuff, even then.
Books: “Trout on the veld” by Malcolm Meintjies; “My way with a Trout” by Tom Sutcliffe; “Flies and flyfishing in South Africa”, by Jack Blackman; “Trout in South Africa” , by Bob Crass.
1990’s: Perhaps it was Tom Sutcliffe moving to the Cape and continuing to write and publish that did it. I don’t know, but we in KZN became aware of the Western Cape, and its fast flowing streams, and for my part this decade saw a swing away from the very much stillwater focus here in KZN towards streams. Having said that, I was rearing kids, and some years I fished as little as once a month, and while I dreamed rivers, mnany of those days were in fact stillwater days. Graphite rods, having been introduced in the eighties now became the affordable norm. Later in the decade the Eastern Cape Highlands were opened up to me as a destination for us KZN anglers.
Books published: “"Tom Sutcliffe’s “ Reflections on Flyfishing”; “Hooked on Rivers”, by Jolyon Nuttall; “SA Flyfishing handbook” by Dean Riphagen; “A Mean Mouthed, Hook Jawed , Son of a fish” by Wolf Avni.
2000’s: There seemed to be a big swing towards salt water fly fishing as well as fishing for other species beside Trout. I vaguely remember that this is when Roger Baert told me that the Fly-fisherman shop was selling more saltwater rigs than anything else. I also think there was a drop off in the popularity of fly-fishing generally. Perhaps I should say it didn’t seem to be growing as fast as it had before. Conoeing and thereafter cycling became the rage. The Flyfisherman shop sadly closed its doors here in KZN.
Books published: “Hunting Trout”, by Tom Sutcliffe; “Reflections on the river “by Andrew Levy; “Getaway guide to Fly-Fishing in South Africa”, by Nigel Dennis.
2010’s: The current! Firstly, it has to be labeled as the decade in which the “Trout wars” reached a pinnacle! It also seems to be part of the information age. With facebook, and blogs, online magazines and e-books everywhere, there is almost information overload. On the positive side there is a great connectivity between fly-anglers. We have platforms to discuss and argue and meet one another. Apart from the widespread information, it seems to me that this has sprung us onto the international stage, in that such media know no boundaries. As a result, fly fishing in South Africa is popping up in international groups, discussions, and books like never before. Competitive angling seems to have come to the fore too.
I get a sense that the sport is in another major upswing!
Books published: Peter Brigg’s “Call of the Stream” ; “Shadows on the Streambed” by Tom Sutcliffe; Duncan Brown’s “Are Trout South African”; …………I wonder what else is on the way!
* Note: The list of books published is by no means extensive. For an excellent reference on all the South African fly fishing books ever published, look for Paul Curtis’ book “Fishing the margins”, and the recently updated version “Fishing wider margins”
* Another note: The above is by no means an exhaustive or authorative discourse of developments, but rather a personal, and KZN province biased recollection of how things have come along in each decade.
But apart from trying to look back, with all the imperfections of one’s biased and flailing memory, what of the future?
Trying to guess the major themes of flyfishing in the future is risky business. Maybe some of this is more of a wish-list than a prophecy, but here goes.
I hope that in the next decade, (and it may only be the one starting after the rollover of 2020), the following might predominate:
- South Africa comes to be considered an international destination, and not only for “African species”, but also for its Trout fishing. And then, not because the fish are bigger or better or more willing, but because it is a cool place to go to, and has a good package deal to offer.
- And allied to that, I hope that mainstream conservation and flyfishing might join hands. That anglers will participate in widespread river clean-ups, and that pristine or restored catchments will hold high value. Some of that happens here and there at present, but I am talking on a bigger scale. Perhaps stretches will be worked on with donga gabions, removal of alien plants, relocation of soak pits and washing areas away from streams, etc, etc. I think I am picturing something along the lines of the “thousand mile project” in the USA. If I just glance at KZN and consider how many kilometres of trout stream flow through farmland or tribal land below the Drakensberg world heritage site, that could do with some TLC, and a bit of fanfare and organised access of some sort, to put it on the map, and make it worth caring for in more pairs of eyes……….
I can dream, right?
By Paul De Wet
By the age of ten I must have read Neville Nuttall’s chapter entitled “My first trout”, in Life in the Country a hundred times, and I think I could quote bits of it verbatim. When, aged ten, I finally did catch my first trout (in the upper Umzimkulu) my Mum persuaded me that I should write and tell Neville all about it, which I did. I was so touched by his reply – I still am!
I don’t remember if I told Neville about the details of the catch – I am sure I would have. I had followed my Dad endlessly up and down rivers for years without catching anything.
the late John DeWet on the Pholela 1981
That weekend, we were up at a cottage on the upper Umzimkulu and it was our last morning – I thought I was going to go fishless once again! I was pulling my line back up a rapid when I felt what I was convinced was a fish on the end of my line! I shouted to my Dad who came charging along with the net, grinning from ear to ear until I pulled a stick out of the water! I was bitterly disappointed and I still remember watching my Dad trudge sadly back to his rod, deflated, with slumped shoulders while he folded up his landing net. I cast my line down the rapid once again and was almost immediately into a trout – 9 ¼ inches long! I pulled it straight in and onto the bank with no finesse whatsoever. My Dad came charging along with the net for which I had no use. He lifted me up in the air and swirled me around while the hapless trout flapped about on the bank!
That was over 35 years ago now and was the start of an ongoing love affair with trout fishing. My now late father and I shared thousands of hours together on the water. I doubt that a father and son have ever caught less but had more fun! I have always felt that Neville’s book, and particularly his chapter “My first trout” sparked my imagination long before I ever caught a trout. For that and for his kindness in taking the time to write back to me I will be eternally grateful.
Paul and his Dad
Comment by Andrew: I do not know ANYONE in South Africa or beyond, who has “earned their stripes” , blanking on second rate waters, and with poor tackle for as many hours as this man did. Most flyfishermen I know today would have given up. The outcome is a man who, whilst he does not fish as often as he would like to, has a deeper appreciation of our sport than most.
Paul and I have fished together regularly for 34 years.
video, featuring Paul.