Deep In Wild Trout Country
Words and Pics by Peter Brigg
Tucked away in the folds of the most southerly region of the Drakensberg mountains, in the valley of the Bell River, the picturesque Victorian-era village of Rhodes was granted National Monument status in 1997. Now preserved for posterity, it is quiet and beautiful, and its characterful streetscapes and period architecture exude a timeless feel and ambience.
There are some 25 permanent residents in Rhodes, the rest of the population made up largely of the surrounding farming community. Folk in this part of the world are warm and hospitable and seldom is any meeting brief; it almost always involves a cup of coffee or something stronger, and conversation about, among other things, the weather, the condition of the rivers and local news.
Rhodes is a long way from anywhere and is approached over dusty and sometimes rough gravel roads that wind through deep valleys, over ridges, across bridges and rivers and past spectacular bands of weathered sandstone. Autumn is my favourite time of the year in the north-eastern Cape. It is a time when the prominent Lombardy poplars stand like golden sentinels over the scattered homesteads, farmlands and old stone walls; a unique and picturesque landscape. It is that time of the year when the countryside is clothed in shades of yellow, red and orange, with wide expanses of wheat-coloured grasses, azure skies and rivers tinted turquoise – the perfect ingredients for combining my interests of flyfishing and photography.
But, it is not just Rhodes and the beauty of the area that draws flyfishers to the north-eastern Cape; it is the fact that this is unquestionably South Africa’s premier flyfishing destination. Another drawcard is the prospect of the challenges that wild rainbow trout offer flyfishers in more than 700km of fishable water that makes the heart beat a little faster.
These privately owned waters are under the auspices of the Wild Trout Association (WTA), which comprises the riparian owners and is managed at the central point in Rhodes by Dave Walker of Walkerbouts Inn. Bordering southern Lesotho and encompassing the districts of Barkly East, Dordrecht, Lady Grey, Maclear and Ugie, the region is known as the Eastern Cape Highlands.
The rivers here were first stocked in the mid 1920s with rainbow trout from the hatcheries at Jonkershoek outside Stellenbosch and Pirie near King Williams Town. Since their early introduction they have spawned successfully, establishing self-sustaining populations of healthy wild fish that attract many flyfishers who make the annual pilgrimage to the area, some more frequently.
These waterways begin their journey in the tiny headwater streams on the rugged terrain of the sometimes harsh and windswept escarpment, at more than 2 500m above sea level; many of these streams can only be reached in 4x4 vehicles. From here, the streams flow down steeply, cascading and tumbling over rapids and waterfalls where the intrepid flyfisher will need to use foot power or horses to reach such remote locations. As the gradients ease, the streams descend into an accessible, pastoral landscape, where they join to form larger rivers that meander across wide valleys and through sandstone gorges.
I don’t think I’d be inviting any debate by saying that the Eastern Cape Highlands offers some of the finest trout waters this country has to offer, with certainly the greatest variety that caters for every taste, level of fitness and flyfishing skill. However, not all is perfect all of the time in paradise and, at this altitude, the weather gods have the habit of changing conditions in the blink of an eye with the onset of extremes of weather – gale-force winds, rain, hail, snow and sometimes four seasons in a day.
In contrast are the periods of harsh drought that take their toll on farming operations, and can also reduce the rivers to a mere trickle, where the persistent flyfisher will have to be content with skittish trout struggling to survive in crystal water that in many places will be less than knee-deep. The vagaries of the weather in the Highlands occasionally result in visitors being holed up in Rhodes for longer than anticipated, when the fishing becomes impossible and roads impassable. Visitors would do well to keep one eye on weather predictions ahead of their journey, but this is of course no guarantee as changes happen quickly in this part of the world.
On the brighter side, we all have our favourites, and I have a particular affinity for the upper reaches of the Bell, Bokspruit, Rifflespruit, Vlooikraalspruit and Karringmelkspruit rivers. Until now I have spoken just of the trout in these waters, but must add that many of the rivers in their middle and lower reaches are also home to the hard-fighting, indigenous smallmouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus) that are regularly caught on fly, especially in rivers like the Sterkspruit, Bokspruit, Karringmelkspruit and Kraai.
Although I have visited the north-eastern Cape on many occasions and fished almost all of the WTA’s waters, it was 18 months ago that I was introduced to the upper reaches of the Rifflespruit towards its source high in the mountains. I’d heard others talk of it so it already held a kind of mystique, and for any red-blooded, small-stream flyfisher this is a little like dangling the proverbial carrot in front of a donkey.
My sleep the night before we fished the Rifflespruit was filled with dreams of anticipation and sleek, silvery, spotted wild trout. We woke to a cold, grey morning under leaden skies and, by the time we had reached our beat, the heavens had opened and the rain was bucketing down. After thirty minutes of torrential rain, and soaked to the skin with just a single small trout to show for our efforts, it was time to leave. However, we decided to stick it out for another fifteen minutes.
True to form, the fickle weather turned off the tap, the rain stopped after just ten minutes, and the trout came on the bite – there was no turning back and it wasn’t even necessary to confer on the matter as we continued fishing upstream, picking our way slowly and taking turns to fish all the likely spots.
At this altitude the stream narrows in a picturesque, deeply sided valley, its waters clear and cold as it cascades through inviting pockets, over riffles and through the odd deep run. It is one of the most beautiful mountain streams I have fished, showing that despite all the time spent hunting trout, every now and then pleasant discoveries await the flyfisher. Our day lasted until the light began to fade, shadows lengthened and the mercury dropped out of the bottom of the barometer; but I guessed we had only covered about half the fishable water.
The walk back to our vehicle was on a ridge high above the stream and, with the preoccupation of fishing over, a not unpleasant weariness began to seep into our muscles, a reminder of a long day spent scrambling over boulders, pushing through bank-side scrub and wading in cold water. We caught many pretty, energetic trout, mainly small, up to 12 inches with a couple running closer to 14 inches, but none of the larger fish we had heard about in stories before our trip, showed themselves.
As we wound our way home, the conversation in the warmth of our vehicle turned to our next visit to this pristine mountain stream which we decided should be sooner than later. Behind us the dust hung in the now still air, marking our passage along the road. As we crested the last rise before Rhodes, the sun dipped below the horizon, and the small village, the centre of the wild trout country and, as many prefer to refer to it, the ‘Centre of the Universe’, was a welcome sight in the distance.
There a warm shower awaited us, some socialising in the famous Walkerbouts pub, where today’s events would be added to the many fishy tales that have been related and retold many times before. Tomorrow would be a new day on another of the Highlands wild trout streams, in this small slice of paradise.
It’s not all about flyfishing here, and there are a number of annual events to encourage visitors to the area, such as the Wild Trout Association’s Fly Fishing Festival, the Stoepsitfees, and the Mile High Swim and Mountain Bike Race. See these websites, which also provide details of accommodation in Rhodes and surrounding areas:
Source: Country Life