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 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….)
Rogan and I were discussing the nature of flyfishing as a sport while we walked along an overgrown river bank recently. Our topic is difficult to define, but I don’t think Rogan would disagree if I said that we were both bemoaning the low number of entrants to this thing who are able to embrace the ordinary, the uncomfortable, the companionable, the day without winners, and the less than glamorous. People happy to embrace adventure complete with failure and no social media exposure. People content to learn by trying instead of waiting for a Youtube video. People who fashion something from a stick with a pocket knife, make another for their pal, and use it for twenty years. What would you call that?
In an attempt to define the topic we were circling, Rogan described how he stopped to help a cyclist recently, and gave him a spare tube to get him back on the road. The rider tried to pay him for it. “No!” protested Rogan “You go buy a spare tube, and next time you see a guy with a puncture, you give yours to him” , and he told him to put his thirty bucks away. “That’s how cycling used to be” he said. We discussed how concepts like that are less than common in all sports, and that sadly, flyfishing may have gone that way too.
Then in a thoughtful moment, Rogan suggested that the Comrades Marathon maybe hadn’t gone that way. I am no runner, but I have heard enough stories to think that may be true. Certainly among the ordinary runners just trying to complete the thing. Rogan then recanted the story of his late dad Roy, and how he was once helped along the route by the great Alan Robb, and how in later years, he had an opportunity to help Alan in return, when he looked like he had gone to the wall, and may not make the finish line. “That’s where the red socks came from” he said.
Roy always wore red socks with his wading boots.
Earlier this season, Rogan and I fished this same river, and Rogan wore his Dad’s red socks. I wrote about that, not knowing the significance of it (LINK}
I Googled Alan Robb and his red socks. It turns out he once got them out of his Dad’s drawer too, wore them to run a comrades, and then adopted them as his thing, and only ever wore red ones from then on.
Roy was inspired by Robb and wore red socks. Rogan is inspired by Roy and wears his red socks. I am inspired by Roy and his tenacity in running as many Comrades marathons as he did, but also his “one twig at a time” approach to our joint passion for clearing a river. Rogan inspires me with the same unpretentious joy that his father carried in his soul.
The river is busy healing, and the aftermath of the wattles is a sea of blackjacks that crowd your socks (no matter the colour), your eyebrows, your gloves, your strike indicator and heaven knows what more.
Perhaps 10 more years of grassland management and follow-up work will serve to diminish the autumn “prickle”. In the meantime I am embracing the uncomfortable and the ordinary. Sometimes the soft light of setting sun and a little tiredness together with scratched skin, serves the onset of some sentimentality, and with it comes a picture or two that make it all look glamorous.
Don’t be fooled.
Rogan and I caught a few small fish. We didn’t keep count. Neither did Anton and I when we fished the same river a few days later. And when Sean sent me a video clip of two great Browns spawning on the gravel beds of the Umgeni, I forgot to ask him how many fish he caught, and he didn’t say. I was too excited about the spawning and the big cock fish! You never would have seen something like this two years ago! Roy would have celebrated that with me. He also would have smiled as I fished “Roy’s pool” on worker’s day, and struggled to get a fly in under the NchiShi bush, and caught nothing there.
No glamour. No winners. Just a couple of little challenging Trout.
Enough to Inspire you ?
My friend Keith had been told that there were Trout in a small tributary of the Umgeni that passes under the road a few kilometers south of Everglades Hotel.
There were no Facebook posts, no Google search results, and no Whatsapp groups that could confirm this. It was a time before all these things. There were also no newspaper articles or books on the subject. There were just a few words spoken, and that was enough.
It strikes me as a time of both innocence and inquisitiveness ,that on that information alone Keith went fishing.
Tom Sutcliffe similarly related to me a year back how Rowan Phipson took him to a small stream from the Boston side, and Tom assures me it was not a tributary of the Elands, but that it flowed towards the Umgeni.
Scanning the map, I locate a floret of sinewy waterways, many of which pass under the Boston/Dargle road, and which I must have crossed without a thought for many years. They are simply too small, and too fragile to illicit any thought of swimming fish, let alone flyfishing.
The one stream , which rises on the farm “Glandrishok” and receives flow from smaller streams flowing off Parkside, Serenity and Hazelmere, comes down into the Umgeni near the sawmill, and was labeled as “Walter’s Creek” (after the late Taffy Walters, I am going to assume) at that point by Hugh Huntley, Tom Sutcliffe and others who fished it down there. There is a roughly parallel stream that collects spider webs of water off the back of Lynwood mountain, starting up on the back of John Black’s Boston farm, and Tom confirmed that there is a second stream, every bit as strong as “Walters Creek”. Then the other day I was scanning through my treasured copy of “Fishing the Inland waters of Natal” (1936) when I spotted this map, in which a stream bears the name “Brooklands River”, and could be one of these two streams. I say “could be” because this hand drawn map has some significant and glaring errors in the path and junctions of some of the streams depicted..:
Either way, in the unnamed and long forgotten tributary that Keith fished all those years ago, he landed a big old Brown that was skinny as a snake and had teeth on it like a tigerfish. And talking of Snakes, Tom remembers that Colin Vary fished with him on the stream that Rowan Phipson took them to, and that Colin hooked a monster that jumped onto the bank of the tiny stream. When they took this and some other trout they had caught home and gutted them, one had a snake in its stomach!
In recent weeks, my friend Anton had occasion to go exploring up in that space behind Lynwood, and reports a very strong stream, with lots of potential.
Then there is the Furth stream which now lies uncovered from its veil of snarled wattles. It is a strong flowing artery of the Umgeni, linked to the main stream, which holds a healthy stock of Browns. It is horribly difficult to fish now, because of all the logs, but by no means impossible, and by next year it will be looking great after the contractor has moved through, tidying it up some more.
One’s mind wanders to the “Lahlangubo” and the “Hlambamasoka”, and the “Ncibidwana” . What about the “Mtshezana” , and “Ushiyake”?
It remains for some adventurous souls, without the comfort of prior explorations exposed on Facebook, to go and fish these things. Someone with faith that Trout persist in tiny trickles, move up re-flooded waterways, and achieve the impossible. I for one am encouraged by the stories of Tom and Keith, but also by the experience of witnessing streams re-populated after droughts and floods. Streams like the Bamboeshoekspruit, that runs dry and by the next season is producing twelve inch Trout again, and Basie Vosloo’s stream above his dam. The pleasure of uncovering unlikely Trout in delicate tributaries is the preserve of the adventurous, the curious, and the energetic. By Energetic, I mean those lacking in apathy, more than I mean someone who is physically fit. Who will get out of their armchair? Who will stop scanning Facebook and go exploring the delicate tributaries?
They are there for the picking.
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.
“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.
Last week, just as our first decent spring rains were arriving to break the drought, I started building my case. Today, with a full week of inclement weather behind us, I plan to let you in on where this affluenza thing is going. Work with me please.
If you didn’t read what I posted here last week, perhaps you would like to pause here and do that to better understand where I am coming from.
So: in our quest for a magazine cover life, and a magazine cover fishing life in particular, we go in pursuit of the best water, right.
Nothing wrong with that, you may say .
Of course not: Mongolia in the autumn as the larch trees are turning and the Taimen are taking medium size rat imitations. The highest stretches of some local mountain stream, that is pure champagne. The very best fishing club stretch on the Mooi. The Yellowstone rivers. South island. All good. We are fishermen. We enjoy good fishing, and we seek it out.