Runoff

Runoff.

How Small a Trout Every Day in May Challenge.

According to Wikipedia runoff occurs when the soil is saturated to capacity and excess water from rain or snowmelt then flows over the land. Ultimately finding its way into channels, streams, rivers and the sea.

What that means to fly anglers in these parts is that the first rains of autumn don’t do a whole lot to the water levels, the streams stay clear and perhaps rise an inch or two. In our environment at the end of a long, hot and dry summer it offers relief to both fish and angler alike. Cooler water and a little more current to bring food to the trout and to better disguise the errant presentation by the fly fisher.

It can provide some of the best fishing of the year. It is the next big rains which put the kibosh on the fishing. With the ground already saturated (if you are of scientific bent limiting the soil’s “infiltration capacity”), the water runs off all the faster producing a rapid increase in flows in the streams and frequently changing the fishing from a delicate operation with tiny dries to an inelegant struggle with tungsten beaded nymphs and the accompanying risk of drowning.

Mind you understanding a little of the dynamics can help one locate fishing right up to the end of the fishing season if you keep your wits about you.

Hereabouts there is one stream with a dam near its source, what overseas anglers may refer to as a “tail-water fishery”. Unfortunately it doesn’t produce the massive trout of some of its more famous international brethren but it does offer a buffer to that sudden onset of runoff water. The dam acting as a capacitor holds back the increased flows and the stream below it therefore may offer fishing when the alternatives are blown out.

Most of our streams flow through sandstone gorges, unaffected by agriculture and as such rarely suffer the siltation and discolouration of those flowing through arable land. Fortunately we don’t have to deal with much by way of the influx of sediment or agrichemicals because the rivers are too remote. This isn’t the case in a lot of other rivers where that runoff can stop fishing operations for days if not weeks.

I recall with great fondness a dam we used to fish in the winter months up in the Kouebokkeveld, a highland plateau which would get tremendously chilly at the onset of winter. (Kouebokkeveld, for the uninitiated actually means Cold Buck Land and snow and ice along the dam’s edges wasn’t uncommon”)

The water, referred to as Luciano’s as much to disguise it when chatting in public as anything else lay in a shallow valley in a chain of farm dams used primarily for irrigation. The water would in early winter be crystal clear and freezing cold and the trout in it would grow to enormous size on a diet of tadpoles and corixa. The lake in fact had the most prolific numbers of these tiny subaquatic beetles I have ever seen and they represented a massive food source for the fish.

Standard operating procedure was to make the two plus hour at the commencement of winter, just about the same time that the rivers were going into flood. The cold weather would increase the activity of the fish and at the same time their fighting spirit which would change from week to week as the temperatures dropped It was key to be there early, in the frigid pre-dawn to intercept fish averaging six to eight pounds, feeding in the shallows and hunting those tiny bugs in the margins. They didn’t like coming close during the day, the clear shallow water making them very nervous so one had to be up well before first light and rig up breath steaming in the headlights of the car.

Frequently we would be tying knots in the glow of the lights only to run around the back to warm frigid fingers in the exhaust and regain some feeling in our extremities. But if you got your timing right you would find fishing that was out of this world. Hooking massive trout on #14 corixa patterns without more than the leader in the water and watching the backs of the fish break the surface behind one’s fly was a rush of pure adrenaline. The fish, hooked in such shallow water would go berserk stripping line from the reel like bonefish as they raced towards the middle of the lake. It was in short some of the most exciting stillwater fishing you might ever hope to enjoy.

As winter progressed the fishing would get better and better and we would make the journey most weekends knowing full well that it was going to come to an abrupt halt at some point and that there was no telling when.

What would happen was that as winter progressed and the rains fell unabated the feeders would muddy up and fill the dams higher in the valley.  Once they were full the overflow would pour into the last one in the chain and the lake would turn to chocolate virtually overnight. You just didn’t know exactly at what point that would occur and each trip would be filled with both excitement and trepidation that it could be the last.

Eventually one would arrive in the dark, rig up the corixas and position oneself along the margins, making the odd exploratory cast. It would initially be too dark to see and one fished on faith. As the sun rose, generally at this point glistening off the sparkling and heavily frosted grass reality would dawn. The water had turned to the colour of cocoa and all normal fishing was over for the remainder of the year, the window of opportunity slammed shut by the runoff from higher in the valley.

That dam is no longer worth fishing, it was drained dry at some point and the fish and food chain lost, but I still have glorious memories of fishing there and the bitter sweet expectation of a long drive in foul weather, never knowing if you were to be casting into gin or chocolate on arrival.

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