Rhodes in the distant Eastern Cape is an enigma, it offers some of the best fly fishing you could possibly hope to find, but of course that comes with a corollary. Over 700 kilometres of fishable water in the immediate surrounds, clean bed rock and crystal clear waters on the right days, but at the same time the place seems to be cursed by the weather Gods. The town has a permanent population of some 25 people, it is a long way from anywhere and no matter what you do you are in for hours of driving and a good amount of that on a dirt road. The journey isn’t enhanced by endless “Stop and Go” road-works, which have been interrupting traffic for the better part of the last decade. The place is thousands of metres up on the borders of Lesotho meaning that it is frequently beset with extremes of weather. Snow, gale force winds, hail and frozen rain, droughts, floods you name it you can get it in Rhodes and more than a few of the above in the same day.
Up here the sheep have thick woollen coats for the same reasons that you may want one, it can be frigid or hot on virtually any day of the year and there is little to be done to predict things. Within spitting distance is Tiffendel South Africa’s only remotely reliable ski resort, just to put things into perspective. No doubt the vagaries of the weather and the dirt road, the distances and the heritage status have prevented this location from becoming yet another fly fishing Riviera, so don’t expect the “My house is bigger than your house” competition and thank goodness for that. This is a place where men are men, sheep are nervous and fishermen, well they are hard-core.
The fishing, most of it under the auspices of The Wild Trout Association, is a fickle mistress and more than a few people have travelled for hours and burned up their annual leave only to find themselves trapped in town by snow or flooding or perhaps sun-baked and twitching flies through intermittent stagnant pools after months of no rain.
To be frank I have always rather written it off, it is just too far and just too risky and the chances of getting caught out by the variations of climate and altitude make a trip there the piscatorial equivalent of putting all your funds on a single number and spinning the roulette wheel, in short a gamble
But of course as with gambling there is always the chance of hitting the jackpot and based on the past week in the centre of the universe I am seriously considering getting some Lotto tickets.
I was invited to join Gavin and Sharland Urquhart in the small town where they have recently set up a second home. An early morning start, a flight and a five-hour drive represented pretty much the most direct route. To get there any faster you need to be living in a pretty rural environment already, as said, it may be the centre of the universe but it is miles from anywhere.
The “Centre of the Universe” tag apparently comes from people spinning in inebriated state around a pole at Walkerbout’s , the pub, accommodation and centre of social gatherings. Walkerbout’s is required stop over on arrival and departure as well as the place to share fishing tales, learn the state of the water and celebrate or commiserate with fellow piscators. The place has enough paraphernalia on its walls to provide some interest through a weeklong flood or drought and more than one fisherman has killed time here, drinking and staring at the endless knickknacks, drawings, flies and caps which pass for décor in a rural pub.
People come to Rhodes for one of two reasons; to do something or do nothing and many of the “something” people are there to fish, although it has to be said that it is a pretty neat place to do nothing as well.
On arrival word in the bar was that the Bell (the nearest stream running right through town), was running a tad high and a little coloured but the prediction was for fair weather and dropping water. The distances involved mean that, no matter what, you are likely to have a night’s troubled sleep, it is hard to get there in time to actually fish on the first day so chewing the fat and listening in on fishing conversations is virtually mandatory as a prelude to wetting a line. (You need to drop in to book water anyway, but that is hardly onerous). All in all your first evening it is pretty much the fishing equivalent of foreplay.
After a deep sleep filled with dreams of trout and endless waters the morning dawned dull but not cold and we headed out for the first foray. A quick recce suggested that maybe today was one to play with different tactics so we carried two rods between us. One rigged for “normal” upstream dry fly and nymph fishing and the other with pure mono for some extreme nymphing. Turns out that despite a few takes on the dry and dropper rig the mono was the winning formula in the slightly turbid waters and in technical terms we “Klapped them”.. Apart from numbers I hooked into a monster estimated at five pounds plus but my partner had circumnavigated a tree and was a long way off with the net attached to her vest, so an unintentional long distance release (LDR) meant that the trout remained unmeasured and haunting my dreams.
Day two I was on my own on the upper Bokspruit, or as high into the upper sections as would be reachable without four wheel drive. The river has a reputation for lots of fish but of rather meagre dimensions. It turned out very much to be the case and I think that I finished with something in the region of 150 trout for the day. Make no mistake there were a few respectable ones in amongst the hordes and even the babies were fat, these streams manage to maintain an obviously strong food chain. It was a good way to get into the groove after not a lot of fishing recently although I am not sure it did much to improve my rusty technique, it was really just too easy. Even an unexpected dip early in the day didn’t dampen my enthusiasm however and I had a great day. The scenery was spectacular and the poplars along the river were turning with the change of season. Bright yellow Roman Candles reaching for the clear blue skies.
Day three dawned a good deal crisper with a hint of frost in the air and we headed a short way up the Bell to Malpas, by now the water was crystal but anglers on the beat the day before had fared poorly with only three fish each. Concerns were that perhaps the place had been overfished. It turned out to be far from the case and we caught dozens of fish on dries and small nymphs. The brassie and the Para-RAB featuring highly in the fly department. There were still babies but some very good fish as well and Sharland landed a couple of beauties, drinks at Walkerbout’s later in the evening had a definitively celebratory bent.
Day four and we were hoping for the best as we had booked to fish high up on Boarman’s Chase, a section of water renowned for large and tricky fish, strong winds, freezing temperatures, crystal waters and the complete absence of trees due to the altitude. The wind was gale force moving to hurricane force later in the day and we struggled gamely, we fell into holes in the grass and were blown off our feet on more than one occasion. We caught some great fish but presentation was a problem and we were limited to smacking down hopper patterns in the hope of luring monsters out from the undercut banks and curtains of bankside grass. It wasn’t the best day but the potential was obvious, in calmer conditions one would have been able to sight fish for some very good trout. Still we both managed more than respectable fish, despite the gales and returned home wind beaten and content.
Day five and I was on my own again, this time on Dunley, yet another Bell River section a short way out of town. The skies were leaden and threatening and there was frost on the ground and the windscreen. The fishing turned out to be pretty good though, despite deteriorating conditions and I gave up early afternoon once I started getting pelted with frozen rain, but I earmarked the place for a return visit should the weather improve. I was also a little out of sorts having discovered that I had lost a fly box filled with Rhodes specific dry flies somewhere in the hurricane the day before.
Town wasn’t filled with anglers though and I took the risk of booking the same beat for the following morning in the hope that I might make the most of the obvious potential on this stunning piece of water.
Day six dawned cloudy and cold, frost on the grass and the car but the skies seemed to be clearing and I decided, particularly after the chill of the previous day, to wait of the sun to warm things up.
A return to Dunley provided one of the best days of river fishing I have ever experienced anywhere in the world. The lower section of the beat was reminiscent of the grass banks of Boarman’s Chase. The first fish was in great condition, perhaps 18″ in length and fat as a brewer’s apron. Several more fish followed of similar size and each one putting up a spirited fight.
During the day several interesting encounters provided highlights to what was already tremendous fishing. One very good fish was netted and the hook removed only to find excess nylon wrapped around the net. Careful following the line backwards I found the fish still had a large bead head hare’s ear nymph in its throat. The hook was safely removed with the use of forceps and the fish released. There is a fellow angler out there somewhere ruing the windknots in his leader that’s for sure.
Then later in the day as the angle of the sun permitted I was able to sight fish for a good sized fish in the tail of a long pool. The first few presentations resulted in no response but the fish didn’t appear spooked. A change of flies resulted in no more interest and then I hooked a smaller fish to the right of the prize. Pulling the fish out of the pool as hard as possible I persevered, still my target fish seemed to be feeding sub-surface and I added a nymph to the dry on the line. Another smaller fish was hooked and again whisked out of the “zone” in the hope of avoiding upsetting the larger trout. Changes of flies still did little to improve fortunes and I stopped for a smoke, the fish was still there and apparently uninhibited. Then on the umpteenth cast I saw the trout tense and then charge the nymph. Coming so aggressively that I didn’t strike but simply held the line tight. I couldn’t understand the change of demeanour of the fish until it was netted after a spirited fight. Turns out that he was blind in his right eye and I had, as normal practise would dictate, been casting on my side of the fish, his right-hand side. It would seem that all those carefully measured casts were unseen and that in fact the “winning” presentation had been just a little too far to the left affording the fish the chance of seeing the fly and the resulting overly aggressive response. An interesting if time-consuming interlude.
I was buoyed with enthusiasm as I entered the pub that evening, stories to tell and a wonderful day’s fishing but nobody to tell but disinterested old ladies on a flower tour, it was the only disappointment of the entire week.
Day seven I had limited time to fish, so elected to ignore booking and fish the public waters. Sometimes such waters are thought to be overfished and therefore actually neglected. I caught a lot of fish, mostly but not entirely, small ones and enjoyed a morning playing with various methods. Upstream dry flies produced, so did dry and dropper rigs with light but fast sinking brassie nymphs and finally on my way back to the car swinging wet flies down and across in the most ancient of trouting techniques. It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip, totally relaxed and simply playing with the options.
Rhodes may be troublesome to reach and require some good fortune to hit on the right day, but it offers an amazing variety of fishing, both waters and techniques as well as spectacular scenery and wonderful hospitality that would be hard to match anywhere in the world.
The journey home was perhaps a little tedious but I said a little prayer of thanks for every bump on the dirt road and every stop and go on the way back. Because it is the very remoteness of the place that makes the residents so hospitable, the town so unspoiled and the fishing so good.
Thank you to all my new found friends in Rhodes, we are bonded by a passion, a passion for peace and quiet, great fishing, glorious scenery and wonderful hospitality. I think that I might have had more fun on occasion, but never for ten days and never vertical.
This is the eightieth post on “The Fishing Gene Bog” , I think that it is fitting that the milestone was represented by some of the best fishing I have had in years, by a time with some special friends in a new place and some new friends in a special place. Perhaps you will forgive the longevity of this piece, but the place, the people, the new friends, the scenery and the hospitality couldn’t be adequately represented with less words. Thank you for reading. Tim