I have had the privilege and the satisfaction over the last three years or so, to work alongside some seriously committed fly-fishing conservationists on the Umgeni River:
- Roy (whose doctor told him to get some youngsters to haul logs instead of suffering another hernia)
- Anton (who had an adverse reaction to bramble spray, but carried on anyway)
- Penny, who isn’t scared to get dirty
- Lucky and Zuma….two of the hardest working guys you will find
- Bob…who is just always there and quietly gets on with it
- Russell….who has committed diesel and machines for many, many hours and tidied up after we left.
etc, etc….I cannot name them all!
What these guys have achieved is commendable and fantastic. They have cleared kilometers of river. Stuff that was horrible to access. The landscape on this stretch of the Umgeni is completely transformed. You come over the hill and it is not recognisable. Take a look at the #BRU site for the full story.
Come and see the fish eagle’s nest; learn some history about the valley; climb over the fence stiles; learn the names of the hills and farms; get some exercise; and take home the booklet I am busy producing all about the Umgeni as a trout fishery. I will show you the honey holes, and show you how I fish them.
Someone will collect us at the end and bring us back to our cars.
Fishermen, if you are from out of the province and are here to attend the main evening event (mentioned below), and you want to be off somewhere sampling the stillwater fishing: here is something for your wife and kids to do instead of shopping in a mall.
We will be back at Il Postino in time for a superb lunchtime Pizza.
..….and if you are also attending the dinner that night……..
You can go home, have a snooze, get changed into your smart clothes, and come and attend this auspicious and prestigious event, that will raise the money to start #BRU2, and continue the work you will have witnessed in the morning.
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.
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.
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?
Ok “Bru”, here’s the deal. I really don’t know why, but when it comes to the upper Umgeni River as a Trout stream, I am a bit obsessed.
I am obsessed with getting it back to, or maintaining it at, its former glory as a premium Trout stream. I have had this obsession since I was a varsity student. I conducted a sort of study of, and evaluation of the Umgeni as a prime fly fishing stream, when I was conscripted in the army. I visited farmers, asked them about their view of the river as a “trout asset”, photographed it, and wrote some or other report under my blankets at night in an army bungalow in far off Potchefstroom. In 1996, on a long car drive to a fly-fishing festival in Somerset East with Jack Blackman, Jim Read and others, I remember boring them all with my dream of the Umgeni as a well organised, conserved and revered fly fishers destination.
In years gone by I have put landowners and fishing clubs in touch, and put conservationists in touch with conservation minded farmers along the banks.
I am still not letting up.
Last year the Natal Fly Fishers club organised two work parties clearing wattle and bramble from river banks. Trout SA made a short video clip. Also, over the last year or two the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) has been working in the catchment to reduce the number of water sapping wattles. It seemed to make sense to get alongside that initiative while there is groundswell. Then at the same time Penny Rees and her DUCT team did “River Walks” blog about their walk from the source to the sea.
Penny has since walked most of the major tributaries of the Umgeni and journalled of her experiences on the blog. Like me, she is passionate about restoring this important river, her for her reasons, and I for mine.
This Saturday the NFFC is holding its third cleanup day. This time the club has thrown some serious resources at the task, hiring in a crew of professional tree-fellers, and with the landowner on board with tractors and staff. Here is a short clip on that: Video.
I have used the opportunity to create a hashtag (do you launch one, or create it……I don’t know. Maybe you hash it!)
Blue Ribbon Umgeni
What is it all about? It is about recognising and valuing the upper Umgeni River as a trout fishery. In this way we hold it up as something that has value. People look after the things that they value. So my “shout-out” is to fellow flyfishers here in the midlands of KZN to go and fish the Umgeni, catch its stippled beauties, photograph them, and tell people about it. Attend the NFFC work-party on Saturday 12th September, or the one on the 17th October, or next year’s ones.
While the internet has rightly been accused of ruining good fishing spots, I am going out on a limb here and guessing that there are few enough river fishermen in South Africa, that those we do have, practice catch and release, and that sharing my favourite fishing spot with them will do a LOT more good than harm.
So #BRU is also an invitation:
Come and fish the Umgeni with me bru!
I am also going to ask you for some money soon. Money towards wattle removal. But you will get something in return. More on that in coming weeks.
In Thomas McGuane’s wonderful book of the same name he writes “For the ardent fisherman, progress is toward the kinds of fishing that are never productive in the sense of the blood riots of the hunting-and-fishing periodicals.”
That is a deep thought, and one that makes me feel a little better. Clearly I am progressing, because I am not catching a whole pile of fish! Of course I would like to catch some better sized fish, or a few more of them, but I will bow graciously to this “progress” that has been bestowed on me.
The truth be told, I have done a great deal of progressing in my time as a fly-fisherman. Quite aside from my current slump, I have had some steep graphed periods in which I could not complain about the size of the fish, or the mix being in favour of “stockies” as is currently the case, because I caught nothing at all.
My kids have just ended school for the short September holiday, and it reminds me of such a ten day holiday of my own. We had stocked a small dam over on the far boundary of the farm, and the fish should by then have grown to a size that they were worthy of being caught. It was however a warm year, so I fished only the early mornings. It must have been before I was riding a motorbike or driving, because I remember walking there and back every day before breakfast for ten days straight. Each morning I would see a fish or two rise, or experience some small glimmer of hope, for I returned every single day. But every day I trudged well over a kilometer back to the farmhouse, empty handed and hungry for the first meal of the day. Ten days straight, I tell you, and not so much as a nibble.
A diary entry of mine in July 1998 records that one of my pals had his 17th blank day straight!
As a university student, a few of us once took off for a week and camped at Glengarry campsite. We fanned out each day and fished various stillwaters. One or two of the guys got a fish here or there, but they were very sparse, and I remember enough to know that I caught nothing at all. My diary records that it was so cold that my toothpaste froze, and I remember it being as miserable as that. After a week of camping and blank fishing days my buddies dropped me back at the farm, where I wasted no time in calling Guy, my other fishing friend, and arranging to go and fish Aberfoyle dam the very next day. We caught nothing there either!
Aberfoyle dam was a lovely NFFC water, close to town, but the rules were such that you had to park and walk to the dam , which put many people off. We often went there and fished, and waved at the drivers of the passing trains. On one trip back in 1989, the water was dirty, and we caught nothing at all, yet again. We did however consume a few beers, the effects of which had us wondering if we could employ a trick from the old stories in which a can of milk was poured into the river in the morning to clear up the water for later in the day.
The strange thing about these slow patches, it that they cause me to want to fish more, and to fish more carefully. They serve to heighten the pleasure of the days when it does all come together. But beside all that, some of the greatest mischief, some of the best memories, and the most unusual experiences, have been had plunking around in water apparently devoid of fish.
So here’s to progress!
May it end soon.
Plain “unsuccessful” days are the ones that don’t make for good magazine stories. They are however part of the tapestry of an outdoor life. The tiny inconsequential events on those days, are some of the the building blocks of a life of fly-fishing.
It was the 28th May 2005.
The plan was to fish an exclusive private water that Guy had access to in the Mooi River valley. I was excited at the prospect. It was not often that I got a chance to fish this water, and previous invitations to fish it had always turned into those red letter days, with big strong Rainbows coming freely to the fly. Well, in my nostalgic reminiscing they did. It probably wasn’t THAT easy, but we certainly did get good fish there.
When we arrived, beyond all odds, it was filthy dirty. It was May. My diary doesn’t record what rain we had had, but by May it should have tapered off in a normal year. 2005 wasn’t normal. I only know that from the evidence of how the rest of the day turned out.
Guy and I never did dirty water. Mud and Trout don’t go together. We were always fussy about that. I still am. So muddy water always means a change of venue. No question!
After venue no 1, we decided to book an NFFC water: Prairie it was to be, and we set off. That was a drive of some twenty kilometres from where we were on the South side of the valley. If memory serves we went up the valley to Riverside, crossed over there, and came back down on the Northern side.
When we got to Prairie the light was such that we couldn’t decide what the water looked like. We inflated tubes and launched. Thirty yards off the edge, Guy and I looked at each other and shook heads. The colour was not good at all.
Time to re-think.
What if we went up into the hills where there is less cultivation? That sounded like a good idea. So we phoned Highmoor. They weren’t prepared to do a half day ticket. There was only half of the day left, and it was quite a way to drive. We ditched that plan on financial grounds.
Then Guy suggested that we just go over the ridge to Bracken Waters. I though that if the one water was dirty, that one would be too, but we were running out of options, and at least it was close by.
We phoned and changed the booking, and we were on our way.
Just behind the Kamberg store, the ground looked really marshy. The recent rain hadn’t helped. We carried on a short distance, and the vehicle started to spin in the deep muddy tracks. Guy managed to steer it into a set of shallower ones, and we forged ahead, sliding and slithering, until the vehicle slipped across into some really deep ones, and we were done for. Thoroughly stuck!
Fortunately I knew the owner of the store at the time, and after numerous attempts to get out, using available stones, and floor mats, we swallowed our pride and went looking for his help. I can’t quite remember why, but for some practical reason he pulled us out in a forward direction. This meant that we would have to turn around, and go back through the same muddy patch again. After studying the water, and finding it as muddy as I had feared, we ventured back. I drove. I gunned it, reckoning that momentum would be our only ally. It was spectacular, and successful.
We stopped after the bad patch, and poured a mug of coffee from a flask, sitting there in the cab wondering what next.
After much deliberation we settled on Granchester. Off we went, a further 10 km or so down the road. Granchester was in wonderful nick. Clean as a whistle.
We tackled up, and fished for the next hour and a half. That was all we got in before dark fell. There were midges hatching, but no head and tail rises, just a few deep swirls. We failed to crack the code. Guy got a small stock fish. I got nothing.
All I can say is that it still beat a day in an office. That’s fly-fishing!
In recent weeks, fate has taken me into the Boston area on several occasions to spend time there with a farmer ,a forester and a faucet.
On Saturday, I dragged myself from an afternoon snooze. Between that and a looming business trip commencing Sunday morning, I knew I had to fit in an errand to Boston to shut off a valve on a dam. As we wound down the hill between the trees in the gathering gloom of the front that was curling in from the South, I spotted the dam in the distance. Even from there I began to beam at our success in dropping the level. We could see the baseline of the reeds, contrasting with the green tops, and indicating that the water was well down. On arrival at the shelter I could see the poles, which a week and a half earlier had barely protruded from the water, and which now stood high and dry.