In the early eighties, or thereabouts, the government of South Africa was handing out subsidies to farmers to build farm dams. It was all about building infrastructure, and I guess on some level about food security in an isolated, alienated apartheid nation.
Farmers in our neck of the woods (KZN midlands) built dams. Pretty ones. Some had London planes planted next to them, or liquid ambers. There were concrete benches, and braai places built. Trout were stocked. Some irrigation happened, but I don’t think there was as much of that as the then government expected or hoped.
Those Trout grew fat.
In my youth our fly-fishing very quickly became all about big fat dam fish…bigger fatter ones than any river fisherman could have dreamed of. Trout fishermen strapped on big “Walker’s Killers”, and went and dragged them around dams in boats, or flung them in from the edge, and the results were spectacular, even if in hindsight we acknowledge that the path to those results was somewhat less refined and challenging than what river fishermen had been used to.
In his 1974 booklet “Introducing Trout Fishing in South Africa” John Beams writes “ For me there are really only two reasons for for fishing still water. Firstly , there is always the chance of a big fish, and secondly, if the rivers are muddy……”, but that book has pictures of big fish that outnumber those of small fish and streams put together. Also in Bob Crass’ 1986 book “Trout in South Africa” he confirms John Beams own comment elsewhere in his book, that he “transferred his business activities from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg largely, so he led us to believe , because he enjoyed catching the big trout to be found in Natal dams.”
In contrast, books like “a Trout fisher in South Africa” by Kingfisher (1922) and “Trout Fishing in South Africa “ (1916) contain no references to dams or stillwater at all, but boast exceptional fish of two to four pounds in weight, with a skinny five pounder being worthy of a lord.
When I came into flyfishing in the early 1980’s, there was a fair amount of chatter about stream fishing, both in Tom Sutcliffe’s newspaper articles (that were to become his first book), and in the fly-fishing books that one could buy at the newly launched “Flyfisherman” (Africa’s first fly fishing only tackle shop…est 1981) . But to be honest, outside of that, I really didn’t encounter all that many people who actually fished streams, or certainly not fishermen who preferred streams, or spent more time on them than they did on dams.
If I look at my collection of flyfishing books, which is nearing some 300 titles in total, even now, I am only able to identify 3 titles that cover stillwater flyfishing specifically.
One of those is the American book “Stillwater Trout” edited by John Merwin (1980). In this book Merwin’s very first line is “Ponds and Lakes are the poor sisters of American Trout fishing”, and he goes on to describe how “our quiet waters have remained quiet” and how American anglers, spoiled for choice in rivers, battled to get to grips with fishing still water, when they had been brought up on streams.
This ironic, discrepant state of affairs persists to this day. Stillwaters hold favour here, but the fly-fishing literature, and quite honestly even the South African literature is weighted towards streams. Even Youtube videos and Facebook bear the slant of the printed stuff.
But here is the thing: Those dams that our Dads and Granddads built on the farms, are starting to be used extensively for irrigation. Some have levels that fluctuate so much nowadays, that they are no longer stocked with Trout. It simply isn’t worth it. At the same time, dams are sadly becoming overrun with bass. Two or three dams seem to fall to this fate almost every year in this neck of the woods. At the same time, the environmentalists have quite righty identified the lack of wisdom in building dams, so very few new ones are coming on board. Added to that, the government environmental authorities are hell-bent on putting legislation in place that will enable them to shut down hatcheries at will, which means dams (where Trout don’t breed) may not have a source of stocked fish in future years.
Then consider that considerably more than half of the new members joining our fly fishing club here in the midlands either claim to be stream fishermen, or express a desire to get into stream fishing. I recently put forward to my colleagues in the local club, that we had been offered access to another stretch of stream, but that I questioned whether we should pursue it, because the stretches immediately upstream and downstream of it, are very seldom fished. The guys around the table were unanimous: “sign it up” they said. They said that we need to look to the future, and secure access and custodianship to good river water, regardless of the here-and-now usage statistics.
Add to the picture above (am I joining the dots adequately for you?), that there is only a finite number of kilometres of Trout river out there. In fact, if we think about it, it is finite and shrinking with the effects of population on the planet and the landscape. There are rivers mentioned in Bob Crass’ 1971 book “Trout fishing in Natal”, that are quite simply, no longer trout streams. Writing in a chapter he titled “First aid for rivers” in the book “My Way With a Trout” (1985), Tom Sutcliffe says that “the time is over for excessive irrigations, over-grazing, ploughing too close to the banks, allowing wattle to choke the life out of the river, and cattle to crumble its banks.” He goes on to say: “most of the fishing areas in this country [he is writing about rivers] need , or are soon going to need, this sort of special care and attention”
So, in joining the dots a bit further, we have more people resuming their interest in streams, and now we have fewer streams, or fewer kilometers of stream viable for Trout. And to coin Malcolm Gladwell’s term, I foresee a tipping point at some future date, where suddenly a lot of flyfishers will be rocking up on the same streams on Saturdays and finding less elbow room than they once enjoyed. Suggesting they strap on a big Walkers’ Killer and go tow it around a bass dam probably won’t sway them.
At least we may have more river fishermen to digest all the appropriate literature out there.
Maybe some who know me and are a little puzzled with the river conservation bug that has bitten me, will offer a small nod of understanding? Or perhaps they will merely continue to humour my obsession with killing bass and wattle trees.
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.
Some days will always be slow ones. There will be those days where a long week will catch up with you, and instead of heading out at 5 am, you will put your alarm on snooze, get up at 6:30, and have a decent breakfast, complete with a cappuccino. Driven as one might want to be to get out on the water, sometimes fishing days will turn out that way. The rigors of a business week will catch up with you, and your body will rebel and tell you to “chill”.
On Sunday, I obeyed. Egg, bacon, beans, toast, ended off with a good coffee and a resigned but satisfied sigh. The river would have to wait.
When we did get up to the Umgeni, it was off colour. We paused at the bridge where the tar road ends and inspected it. Unlike the slate grey of a mountain stream in spate, we got cheap weak instant coffee colour. As always, there was hope that further up it would be better.
Arriving on the farm we met Russell. “It was crystal clean yesterday” he said. There had been a storm. He didn’t get it, It happened up there. He gesticulated in the direction of the source.
We went down to the river anyway. We crawled under the electric fence and went down to the water’s edge. It was still cheap coffee coloured. Damn!
I always peer into dirty water, normally along a protruding stick or log, to try to get a sense of how far into the water I can see, and therefore what the visibility will be for the trout. This time the dark shades of a wet branch disappeared within a few centimetres. Not good. Often the Umgeni appears a little ginger beer like, but this was nothing like that. I always wonder how much muddy water a Brown Trout can tolerate through its gills in a season. There must be a red line somewhere.
We strolled down the river, looking into each pool as though we expected, against all odds, to suddenly find a clean one.
I pointed out the log jams of wattles, and explained how these and other alien trees were the major contributors to the water colour we were seeing. Not only do wattles (Acacia mearnsii) contribute tannins, which give the Umgeni its yellowy brown hue on the best days (see What makes rivers different colours), but on the worst ones like today, it is the clearfells and Allelopathy that give rise to erosion. Years of apathy have lead to widespread patches of wattle, and they are especially prevalent on the farms of absentee landlords, and in road reserves. They also predominate on farms where licensed commercial timber is grown, but where there has been scant effort to contain plantations within the approved plantation blocks. The farm opposite us that morning is one managed by a corporate poultry concern. Their lack of veld burning and the absence of cattle to devour small wattles has lead to a wasteland of weeds and increaser species (the precursors to afforestation which are associated with poor basal cover).
We walked back to the car, and drove up river, stopping at another spot higher up.
I pointed out a recent clear-fell on the hillside in the distance. The commercial timber plantation there had been felled. It is a very steep slope, and it could be argued that no timber should ever have been allowed to be planted there. But the deed is done, and now we should be looking at how to minimize the damage. When last I was up there in the clear-fell last year, I noticed that the timber trash had been laid in windrows lying straight up and down the hill. An opportunity to use that trash as a soil holding device, by laying it along the contours, had been missed. I shudder to think how many tons of topsoil this caused to wash into the Umgeni river!
The section of river we were looking at there within sight of the clear-fell was dirty too. No surprises there. The banks at that point are planted to pasture. The pasture land extends too close to the river bank, if one is to follow the law to the letter, but one has to be pragmatic about these things. The cows grazing in the field near us have devoured any small wattles. The ground is also secured by a mass of grass roots that bind it all together, and there is no sign of erosion on this well farmed commercial enterprise.
Driving further up the river we passed onto the tenement above. While it is now owned by the same farmer, its history is different. Maybe no cattle were around to eat the emerging wattles many years ago. Maybe a fenceline kept the cows from the river bank, which on the face of it is a good thing. I do know that this piece of land was not owned by a man whose elderly father was a fly-fisherman. On the farm below, where we had just been, this was the case. Derek used to run a tractor down near the river with a mower, so that his ageing dad would be able to fish it in the late summer without undue effort. Twenty years later, it shows! The farm below is relatively clear of wattle. The one we were looking at now has a ribbon of big wattles running up the river banks. They are big trees now. In my estimation the cost to remove them would run to about….let’s see: A conservative estimate: R500,000 ($50,000). That would be to remove them properly: cut, pull from the river, stack, burn, and do some follow up management. On second thoughts, my figure is way too low, and that is just for a few kms of river. There are many more kms above this farm with the same problem.
My mood turned. I became dejected. It was not because I was not getting to fish on Sunday. Sure, that was a pity, but it was bigger than that. It was about our apparent collective apathy in handling this conservation problem. The same type of apathy that had me ignore my 5 am alarm clock, is the very thing that is at play here.
In recent years I have witnessed wattle infestation high up berg rivers, and in other places, where no one has noticed, and no one is doing anything about it. In many places those trees are already large and the job of removing them seems insurmountable. In other places the trees are still small, but no one has noticed. The passage of time alone will surely multiply the extent of the problem to something beyond our grasp.
On the way out I witnessed freshly felled wattles along side streams, where a WWF initiative is underway. At other spots I saw an absolute mess where a contractor appears to have pillaged the useful timber and done a runner with the money, without finishing the tidy up job he was employed to do. It was an emotional see-saw in which I tried desperately to interpret the mixed results as an overall win. I am unsure if we are going backwards or forwards in this river valley at present.
We stopped for a beer and a pizza at il-Postino to cheer us up.
It worked. It was a relaxed Sunday, and it was pleasant to sit on the porch of what was our local trading store in my childhood. From there we pulled in at Steam Punk, a simply superb coffee shop in the most obscure of places, where I had a “Coppucino” ( a cappuccino made the Syrian way, with Cardamom, just the way I like it).
It is easy to just enjoy the beer and the coffee and forget about it all.
Do you remember that scene from “a River runs through it” where the camera swoops across a rocky ridge, and reveals the two boys running across the open grasslands?
Here in the KZN midlands, our landscape, notwithstanding its beauty, is lined and dotted with trees. Not only trees of course, there are fence-lines and farmhouses and roads too, but the trees are significant. Early writings by explorers in this area reveal the extent to which this place was a sea of grass.
A world with the dew still on it: there are still patches to be cherished.
I read somewhere a report from a delegation who travelled from Maritzburg to Underberg to survey that area’s suitability for farming back in the 1800’s. Their most significant comments related to the lack of trees, and the endless expanses of grass. In the context of their report it was a complaint. “No firewood” they said, and they concluded that the area was without charm, and had a low potential for agriculture.
The lucky bastards! I was born in the wrong era! What I would not give to be one of them: to venture out there and see this world with the dew still on it. Forget for a moment all the wildlife they must have encountered, and just imagine the grasslands. The dense grass cover would have stretched for as far as the eye could see. Successive ridges of just pure waving grass! There would probably have been no erosion. I assume that even the lowland rivers must have run clean most of the time.
So, OK, there were no Trout at that stage. (and an obscure group of pseudo environmentalists want us to believe that the Trout came along and ate entire populations of species which have never been recorded), but even without the Trout, what a place it must have been.
I confess, I dream about it sometimes. I lie awake at night like a little kid, and try to be that camera swooping like an eagle across vast expanses of grass….on and on, until I fall asleep.
I have seen a brochure somewhere for a lodge on the steppes of Mongolia, where one can travel to experience such vistas of nothingness. Nothingness as a tourist attraction! I like it.
We can’t put the KZN midlands in a brochure advertising an escape to nothingness. We have lost that. We have lost it to overgrazing, dongas, wattle trees, groves of gums, roads and development. We have lost it to environmental degredation. We have replaced it with a tourist route boasting coffee shops, and jewelry. Rugs, art shops, and clothing outlets. We have rows of holiday homes, and tarred roads. We think pine plantations and encroaching alien trees are pretty. Most visitors don’t know the difference between a wattle plantation and a patch of indigenous bush. Most don’t notice the bare earth drains running off the road into the now silted river. Most don’t know the difference between a kikuyu pasture, an eroded hillside of “mshiki” and “Ngongoni”, and a patch of decent “rooigras”.
We keep expanding too. Ploughing up remaining pieces of grassland, subdividing into smaller and smaller pieces of land, and approving more and more developments after ever more rigorous “EIA’s” . We have wattle trees encroaching into the greater Drakensberg heritage site, and have built dams that wouldn’t be necessary if we fixed the leaking pipes and stopped having babies.
Wattle trees, unchecked, encroaching a river bank in the Drakensberg
And what are we doing to stop all this.
We are banning Trout. Banning Trout and angering one of the most conservation conscious groups in the country.
Forgive my depressing tirade. I am not normally given over to politics and lobbying: Just common sense.
When reading Duncan Browns book recently, (Are Trout South African), I became aware of the depth of my prejudices. Duncan does a fine job of pointing out the nuances and peculiarities that we apply in deciding if something is indigenous or not, and it is a thought provoking read.
I go for Trout , with a capital T, (Alien) and definitely not bass (with a lower case B), ( also alien). I strongly dislike wattles and brambles (Alien), but love the sight of a stand of poplars (also alien). I don’t care much for scalies [AKA “yellowfish”] (indigenous), and I still think that the best snake is a dead one (alien or indigenous).
I am an ardent conservationist at heart, and possess some skins and furs of endangered beasts in my fly-tying kit.
I read the book. I thought deeply and thoroughly. I re-evaluated and re-considered.