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Eastern Cape Highlands
Fishing Reports
  March 2006:
Reasons to Emigrate?
Reasons to Emigrate?
Back in Rhodes for the Bell's Whisky Wild Trout Festival. March 17 - 21, 2006
Two months after arriving back in South Africa from an 8-year stint in Zürich, Swiss and I decided to do a meander around Lesotho with the Transkei, Kokstad, Port Edward, Clarens and Ladybrand on the itinerary, which led us back to a favourite fishing haunt after a cold, dry and fishless winter season in Switzerland.

The Bull’s Eye of our 2 300 km trip around the Mountain Kingdom was the 10th Bells Whisky Wild Trout Festival at the Centre of the Universe, otherwise known as Rhodes, in the northeastern Cape, officially established in 1891. If only the walls of the chocolate-box quaint, picturesque kerk and tuishuisies could talk, they would recount the chequered, 116-year long history.

The Centre of the Universe

Kraai River

For us, near-annual pilgrims to this fly fishing Mecca, the significant part of this history is that rainbow and brown trout were introduced to this suitable area as early as the 1920’s. Since then the Kraai catchment area has been a favourite destination for a league of national fly fishing prophets, poets and philosophers. The water gurbles from springs in the southern Drakensberg range and forms the fast-flowing, crystal-clear, slightly alkaline headwaters. This perfect medium for feisty and tough rainbow and brown trout cascades gently to form rivers with names resounding their attributes or associations such as the Bokspruit, the Sterkspruit, the Bell River and the Kloppershoekspruit. The area is dotted with immaculately-kept farmyards and is a birder’s paradise with a variety that includes the secretary bird, crested cranes, Cape and Bearded vultures, Lammergeier and the smaller, but as significant and endemic, Orange-breasted rock jumper. Other interesting attractions were of the Homo sapiens species. Each individual demonstrated a special kind of fixation. Roughly 65 specimens, including Swiss and I, dropped by and were spotted in and around Rhodes between Friday, 17 March and Tuesday, 21 March, performing similar rituals of tackling up, casting flies, landing trout, losing fish, undoing knots, and generally having a good time.

Jacky landing trout

Snooze at a waterfall on Brucedell beat

On Friday approximately a dozen 4X4’s, bakkies and private number-plated GP saloon cars arrived. We had only read about the names of the varied palette of human contents spilled onto the lawn, decorated with Bells flags, in Hunting Trout by Tom Sutcliffe. What an honour to be surrounded by masters in their own right like Tony Kietzman, Martin Davies, Erwin Bursik, Paul Curtis and Sophie van Holdt (I could easily extend this list, but as it always is when you are having fun, there’s a limit).

Arrival at Walkerbouts

Tony Kietzman, a wiry figure with an enormous and sweet-smelling Boxer-filled pipe and a gruff voice, was responsible for allocating guides and beats. His insightful knack for orchestrating a successful day’s fishing was evident every evening when we arrived in the pub tired, excited and eager to produce a rapid résumé of our adventures. Paul Curtis, fly fishing guru and publisher, surprised the keen group of fly fishermen and 7 women with the reprinted, revised edition of Sydney Hey’s classic autobiography Rapture of the River. Copies of this must-have, and until now as-hard-to-find-as-chicken-teeth fly fishing bible, were up for grabs at a reasonable price, a percentage of which was donated to FOSAF (Federation of Southern African Flyfishers). Martin Davies, of the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science at Rhodes University, showed up (late, apparently as usual) to tend to his beloved fish in the Wild Trout Association waters where he has been responsible for research and the stocking of certain Stillwater.

Erwin Bursik, an unassuming fellow, must have thought I was from another planet when he waited for me at Walkerbouts’ main door and I had no idea what he was waiting for. So scarce is such chivalry. He even played taxi to Richard, Swiss and me after a hard day’s fishing on the upper Bokspruit. When he was not being a gentleman to all around, he was snapping away happily for the Fly fishing magazine. On our first day, fishing the Welgemoed beat on the Bokspruit, we had the pleasure of meeting Sophie van Holdt, who’s been fly fishing for 25 years, has raised 4 sons and lives on a farm outside Grahamstown where she has a successful hydroponics nursery. What a treat it was to spend the two hours of driving to and from our fishing beat and a relaxing day of fishing with such a friendly, spirited and informative woman. Last, I would like to comment on someone extra special. It was motivating to see someone so young, enthusiastic and dedicated as Hylton Lewis, who is doing his Masters at Rhodes Ichthyology Department.

All of us, the Swiss included, were treated to some fine food and drink courtesy of Debbie van Wyk: cook, organiser, entertainer, disciplinarian and general you-feel-good-when-you-see-her-face-maker of note; Dave Walker: chairman of the Wild Trout Association, proprietor of Walkerbouts, general overseer, mediator and producer of fine home-brewed ale and creamy feta cheese; and Susan: owner of Sammy-the-friendly-Alsatian, driver of the only permissible quad bike and facilitator of intercultural communications in Rhodes. During the 3-day festival our palates were tantalised by soup starters, chicken curry, roast beef, pork schnitzel and a superb roast leg of lamb accompanied by farm fresh vegetables delicately blanched with garden-picked herbs from the side of the house where the Vietnamese Potbellied pig resides. The best melktert this side of the Equator even made Swiss, who surprisingly lacks any notion of a sweet tooth, tentatively demand seconds. The pause between starters and mains was somewhat noisily filled with bagpipes reminding us that Ian, the Scotsman with piercing blue eyes, was around armed with another cartridge of jokes from his infinite repertoire. As appropriate and mindful of this fine nation’s contribution to fly fishing, Bells Special Reserve was thoroughly enjoyed, in fact so much so that this form of liquid gold dried up too soon. In terms of accommodation, we were comfortably allocated either a clean, tidy and homely room (original Tom Sutcliffe watercolours on the walls) with en-suite bathroom at Walkerbouts Inn or any of an array of old and new houses scattered around the normally sleepy hamlet of Rhodes. Some fishers determination was tested by the fact that, as appropriate for a Victorian village, the odd house had no electricity (who cares anyway when all you are there for is to fish, meet people, spot birds and identify the difference between pelargonium and geranium).

Jacky at Boarman’s Chase

Swiss at Brucedell

Swiss landing trout

After a good night’s rest (for some of limited duration), we set off with our appointed guides donning the appropriate gear ready for the day’s fishing and hiking. Most participants raved about the beat, the guide, the scenery, the water and the fish although, to some people’s disappointment, not many wild rainbows bigger than 35cm were caught in the rivers. Yet, in general, there was not any scarcity of 3-4 pound fish, mainly from Stillwater like Tiffindell and Birkhall dams. Otherwise, there were basketsful of fish between 10 and 15 centimetres from beats on the Bokspruit, higher Bell and lower Sterkspruit. The consolation to this was that our day with Richard Viedge on Brucedell, below Gateshead on the Bokspruit, restored our faith in the possibility of Pamplona-like fighters ranging from 25 to 35 centimetres. Ours were not the only ones, as reports show high catch returns in this size category.

Tony Kietzman on the Bokspruit

Richard Viedge

Jacky into a nice trout a Brucedell

The beats catered for all tastes in fly fishing. Among lakes for trophy trout, there were also slow, meandering, pastoral streams for a good, controllable dry fly or nymph and small, fast-flowing headwater streams for lots of walking, climbing and skittish, challenging fish. Among the most productive beats, Gateshead, Brucedell and Boarman’s Chase did not only match expectations of fishing successes, but were also in demand in terms of beauty, seclusion and natural splendour. Swiss and I watched in awe when no less than 16 Cape vultures circled the southern Drakensberg peaks. Except for a Sunday afternoon shower, which lasted about an hour and kickstarted the fish into biting, the weather was friendly, warm and sunny (as it should be in South Africa).

Welgemoed on the Bokspruit

Inspection time

Taking all this into consideration, a small dorpie at a high altitude (endearingly called a drinking community with a farming problem) in my beloved South Africa, fly fishing water that can favourably compete with waters in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, the friendliest people in the whole world, the finest food and drink in the southern hemisphere (sorry, I die for Italian home cooking), the prettiest and most delicately-painted fighting fish, I would say that there are more than enough reasons to come back to South Africa.

Some successful flies:

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