By Stef Terblanche
It may not be the sport of kings. That honour traditionally goes to falconry or horse racing. In fact some don’t consider it a sport at all, but just a leisurely pastime. Others will say it’s an art. But, whatever your view on such nit-picking, fly fishing for trout has certainly evolved into a great art and wonderful outdoor pastime that has brought so much joy to so many over the centuries.
So much so, that the truly faithful will travel far and wide, brave all kinds of natural conditions in knee-deep, often freezing water, and spend hours in tense anticipation, trying out any number of deviously skilful plots, just to bag that equally devious big one…and then release it back into the water.
Fly fishing for trout is probably most often associated with the Scottish Highlands or North America. However, not everyone is aware that South Africa offers many excellent fly-fishing opportunities and locations, both for devout anglers as well as local or overseas visitors who want to try their hand at it casually. And while trout may rank at the top of the pile, there are many other freshwater and saltwater fly-fishing options and locations too in South Africa.
The South African Fly Fishing Association (SAFFA), which most certainly views fly fishing as a national sport, functions as the co-ordinating body for various member associations representing both recreational and competitive fly anglers. It hosts tournaments and even national championships, while also overseeing the selection process of national teams to represent South Africa to the World & Commonwealth Championships.
So what’s in it for you, regardless of whether you are a novice wishing to try it out or a seasoned visiting fly-fisher? Well, for starters, you get to travel to and stay in some of the most beautiful outdoor locations across South Africa, from the Drakensberg region of KwaZulu-Natal, to the mountains of the Western Cape and north to the Highlands Meander of Mpumalanga. In fact, there are excellent fly-fishing locations in every one of the nine provinces of South Africa. It’s also probably one of the most relaxing activities around and can be enjoyed by the whole family. And you will meet interesting and entertaining people, enjoy some of the most exquisite scenery in tranquil settings, find accommodation in wonderful lodges, and have plenty else to do in the surroundings towns and countryside.
A fly-fishing travel itinerary
Drawing up your travel and leisure itinerary around visiting the many magnificent fly-fishing locations in South Africa, will certainly prove to be a uniquely satisfying way of enjoying one of your most memorable travel or holiday experiences.
But a word of warning. Privately-owned trout farms that have dams where the fish can be caught, or privately-owned land that offer access to fly-fishing rivers and streams, are generally accessible to the public. But some other locations on state land may pose problems. Most of these streams and rivers that run across state land, are under control of the provincial governments, the forestry department and park authorities. In turn, these trout and other fly-fishing locations are administered on behalf of the state authorities in respect of fishing them by a relatively large number of private fishing associations who strictly control access by forcing prospective fly fishers to acquire membership at quite a cost. And even then, they still restrict access with a host of rules and regulations. The cost involved may exclude many ordinary South Africans or visitors with limited budgets from enjoying these locations and all they offer.
Furthermore, the rules employed may make it very difficult to fit a visit to a trout fishing location into your own available time and itinerary, and they may limit the number of people, like your family, that can enjoy it with you. The rules for other forms of fly fishing are more relaxed. But if you don’t know who the relevant associations or authorities are in a particular area, be prepared to spend much time on the phone or internet to try and locate them and obtain the necessary permissions. It can be quite frustrating and is something the fly-fishing associations, provincial governments, their public recreational agencies and tourism authorities need to address.
So, for peace of mind and to be assured that you will gain access, when planning trips that include trout or other fly fishing in one or more locations, contact the local state authorities and private administering associations to obtain information about all requirements and costs, and make your bookings well in advance. That way you are less likely be disappointed.
What’s it all about?
For those who have never tried their hand before, what is fly fishing all about? Well, it’s a very tried and tested art involving very specific equipment and skills developed over hundreds of years and requiring a love of the outdoors, as well as a fair measure of patience. In South Africa you would typically fish for species such as rainbow trout or brown trout, while fly fishing also extends to species like the legendary tiger fish, the yellow fish and others. Any number of other freshwater species will also take a fly. For more information on this you may want to visit the website of FishTheFly.co.za.
The basic apparel for this sport consists of a fly rod designed specifically for the purpose, a suitable fly reel, and fly lines. The key aspect of fly fishing is, of course, the ‘fly’. These come in all shapes and sizes, and personal preferences and grasping their suitability to specific fish or locations, is something you’ll develop over time. There’s plenty of jargon, knowledge and skills involved relating to the types of tackle, flies, locations, the ins and outs of different fish habitats, types of pools or streams, the movement of water, climatic conditions and the general do’s and don’ts. The more experienced fly fishers usually prefer to make their own flies.
But don’t worry about these issues too much – you’ll master it all over time. If you’re absolutely new at this, find a local fly-fishing shop in the area where you wish to fish – their owners are almost always experienced fly fishers themselves, with excellent knowledge of local conditions. Ask them for advice or contact the local fly-fishing association that administers the area.
Nevertheless, most river or stream fly fishing in South Africa is done by wading into the water. The trout season for rivers and streams is from September to the end of May, while still-waters – which are mostly manmade dams or lakes – have no closed season. The best months for fishing are during September and October in spring, and late March to May in autumn.
When it comes to tackle, local fly fishers use 4 or 5 weight outfits with rod of between 8 and 9 feet, although some fly fishers prefer ultra-light tackle.
If you are a more experienced fly fisher and want to know more about the sport in South Africa, the different habitats of species, reading trout waters, most suitable tackle, and more, a visit to the website of the Federation of Southern African Flyfishers (FOSA) at www.fosaf.org.za will prove very helpful.
Once on location, you need to find a suitable spot where you may have some luck. Then, basically, you spend the next few hours repeatedly casting your line with the fly in ways that will lure the fish up from below and take the fly affixed to a hook. The art lies as much in your choice of tackle and flies as in devising strategies that will trick the fish into thinking your fly is a real live one. If you manage to do this, you’ll be rewarded by a a fish shooting up from the waters to take you fly – hooked!
You can read up about all of this or get some advice from the experts and practice this fine art before attempting the real thing. But don’t worry too much, like all good things, mastery will come with time and experience. And as you gain that, just enjoy the wonderful peaceful surroundings of gurgling fresh mountain rivers and streams, the solitude in nature, the birdlife in the surrounding trees, clear blue skies and towering mountains. It can hardly get better than this.
Some years ago there was much controversy surrounding the possible eradication of trout as an invasive species in South African waters. However, the position is that those dams and other waters who had existing permits to stock trout, are allowed to continue doing so. But trout or other non-indigenous species cannot be introduced into waters where they have not been found previously. So, for now the sport lives on in South Africa and probably will well into future as well.
An interesting history
Not being indigenous, both rainbow and brown trout were first introduced to South Africa by British colonists who settled here in the Victorian 1800s. At the time it was the British custom to export the species to every corner of the British Empire, for the enjoyment of Her Majesty’s subjects. Brown trout were first introduced from Loch Leven in Scotland and, after doing well here, rainbow trout were brought here a decade later.
Today the fish breed in South Africa both naturally and on breeding farms. As both the rainbow and brown trout are cold-water salmonids, they thrive and survive only in the higher-lying mountain streams and rivers. Further downstream the temperature becomes too warm for them to survive. Which, from a tourist or recreational point of view, explains the beautiful locations where they are found in South Africa, generally high up along mountain ranges or in cooler highland areas.
Fly fishing is a truly ancient activity with an almost 2,000-year old history. Many people consider the Roman Claudius Aelianus to have provided the first recorded use of an artificial fly when, near the end of the second century, he wrote a description of the practice of Macedonian anglers on the Astraeus River. However, in 1921, the author William Radcliff, in his book Fishing from the Earliest Times, gave that honour to another Roman, Marcus Valerius Martialis, who lived 200 years earlier. Also, the traditional Japanese method of fly fishing known as ‘Tenkara’, has been practiced since ancient times by professional fishermen up in the mountains of Japan where they caught a sought-after local fish for inn-keepers.
In Scotland and Ireland locals have been fly fishing the streams, moors and lochs for several hundreds of years. In 1496 Dame Juliana Berners published a book on fly fishing, The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle. In it the author gave detailed instructions on making and dressing rods, line and hooks for different flies to be used at different times of the year. Then in 1653 Izaak Walton’s book, The Compleat Angler, helped popularize fly fishing as a sport in Britain. And in 1840 John Colquhoun wrote a book, The Moor and Loch, in which he described in detail the artificial flies that were being used at the time. In England, fly fishing became very popular after the English Civil War.
Where to go…
So now, armed with some knowledge about this lovely recreational activity that may have kindled your interest to go and try your hand at it in some beautiful, tranquil rural setting, where do you go? In South Africa you really are spoilt for choice. There are many excellent locations specifically for trout fly fishing. But remember, fly fishing extends to other species too, and these can be fished in many more locations around the country.
Some of the most popular trout fishing locations include the Highlands Meander of Mpumalanga, often referred to as the Mecca of trout fishing in South Africa, with Dullstroom considered its ‘trout capital’. The dams and streams here were first stocked with trout in 1916, brought here from the Western Cape, and now thrive in the cool climate of this high-lying region. For more information it’s a good idea to contact the Mpumalanga Tourism office (see our contact details below).
In the Eastern Cape, the place to go is the picturesque little hamlet of Rhodes, nestled high up in the foothills of the southern Drakensberg. Here you can choose between 150km of streams as well as excellent still-waters. The record for the biggest wild trout caught in South Africa, a massive ten-pounder, was caught here. At Rhodes you will also find another South African rarity: a true Alpine ski and snowboarding resort, Tiffendel, which has the distinction of having been voted number 19 in CNN Travel’s ‘World’s Best Ski Runs’ in 2014. For Africa, that really is something!
Moving across to the Western Cape, only an hour’s drive from Cape Town, is Du Toitskloof, located in the rugged valley between towering mountains where you will find a number of different streams and rivers that can be fished for trout. The biggest of the rivers here is the Smalblaar, which runs close to the N2 and the Huguenot Tunnel. Its lower reaches downstream are said to be home to the biggest fish. Another popular spot is along the Elandspad River, located deeper in this rugged area. Near Rawsonville you can try the Holsloot River. There are also private trout farms with stocked dams nearby. The streams and rivers of Du Toitskloof are controlled by CapeNature and the Cape Piscatorial Society. Still in the Western Cape, the Lakenvlei Dam near Ceres is another extremely beautiful spot with good fishing. Set against a backdrop of mountains, the area becomes covered in snow during winter. There is an overnight hut available here.
In KwaZulu-Natal a firm favourite with fly fishers looking for trout, is Giant’s Cup. It is the only lake in South Africa with a self-sustaining population of wild trout. While there, you will constantly be aware of the majestic Drakensberg that towers around you. It truly is one of the more beautiful places in South Africa.
As mentioned, fly fishing is not only about catching trout. Many other excellent fly fishing spots can be found all over South Africa in locations such as the beautiful mountain desert of the Richtersveld along the Orange River, other locations along the Orange River between Lesotho and the river mouth at Port Nolloth on the West Coast, various places along the Vaal River, in the rivers and lagoons of the West Coast, along the Limpopo River, at Clarens in the Free State, in many of the great rivers of the Eastern Cape, or in the Western Cape along the Breede River, at Uilenkraalsmond or on Clanwilliam Dam, and plenty more places.
At these locations you can do battle with the ferocious tiger fish, or go after bass, yellow fish, king fish, mud fish, leervis and a number of other species. The scenic settings and the fly fishing here are as good as the trout locations. FishTheFly.co.za has published a very handy and complete list of fly-fishing destinations on their website.
So, get your gear ready, select your flies, locate a spot and do your booking…you won’t regret it!
Handy Contact Info
Federation of Southern African Flyfishers (FOSA): www.fosaf.org.za
South African Fly Fishing Association: www.flyfishsouthafrica.co.za
Trout fishing in Du Toitskloof, Western Cape: www.piscator.co.za
Trout fishing at Giant’s Cup, KwaZulu-Natal: www.giantscup.co.za
Highlands Meander Information: www.mpumalanga-info.co.za
Everything about fly fishing: www.fishthefly.co.za
Drakensberg fly fishing: www.drakensberg.org/activities/fishing/
Piscatorial Society: www.piscator.co.za
Cape Nature: www.capenature.co.za
Good Hope Private Reserve: www.goodhopereserve.co.za