Archive for February 4th, 2020

A Throw of the Dice Two

February 4, 2020

A throw of the dice and the best day ever. Part two

We encounter rain as we sit for a spectacular supper, the guides do as good a job on the catering front as they do on the water. The only problem is that the rain pours as much as the whisky and the clouds are gray and threatening. Eventually the skies open up and the deluge lifts the river levels to a point where we know fishing would be hopeless if not dangerous. But we are HERE.

Supper time, the rain pours down and we hope for better weather in the morning.

Sleep is undisturbed in the comfortable rondavels, but the morning dawns with the roar of a river in spate. The ice rats which live in the wall around the camp don’t put on their normal morning entertainment, they are hiding from the weather.

The Ice Rats didn’t come out in the morning, the weather wasn’t to their liking, or to ours for that matter.

Things are not looking good and we elect, with input from the guides, to drive the hour long track around the dam to fish the Malabamatsu below the dam wall. The Katse dam hasn’t been full in years and thus the rains don’t negatively affect the fishing lower down. Not our first choice but the opportunity to throw a line and hang onto a decent trout, the yellowfish are for the most part absent.

At least it is hot, the skies clearing and perhaps tomorrow will offer up what we hope for, we catch some trout and I lose a good fish in a weedbed. The river here hasn’t had a blow out in a long time and weedbeds predominate, offering both sanctuary for fish food and equally easy escape for decent trout. It is only day one, a lost trout isn’t the end of it.

Dense weed-beds on the Malibamatsu make it tricky to land larger trout.

We return to camp, not unhappy, but perhaps disappointed, this was good fishing, but not what we came for.. Perhaps tomorrow will be better?

Morning and the river is in full spate, well not quite, it appears to have cleared a bit and we elect to target the yellowfish with Euronymphing techniques. There are two problems however, this isn’t the method of choice on these trips and the fish know exactly how to take advantage of the high water. Hooked fish, and there were a lot of them, scream line off the reel, with no distinction between pools they head downstream at astonishing speed and one finds oneself  rapidly out of control.

Peter Mamacos fishes heavy Euro-nymphs in the fast murky water. We are catching fish, but this isn’t what we had hoped for.

Sure we landed some fish, even good fish, but I was becoming overly familiar with my backing, the reel was sticking a bit and I lost more fish than I would normally be happy with. That said, it was great fun, if somewhat sobering.

Tales of lost fish abound around the dinner table; everyone has hooked and lost a Bokong Bus, often without so much as seeing the fish in the turbid waters, but the skies have cleared. Hope springs eternal.

Things improve the next day, a few of the crew take some fish on dry flies, but not sight-fishing, really, just seeking out slower water in the tail-outs of large pools, but again it is encouraging, the skies are still clear, the water levels are dropping and things are clearing up. Fish in the lower sections have run back to the dam on account of the cold water and we had to work hard for fish. You quickly realise that fly fishing isn’t just about catching fish but catching the way you would prefer to. For us this means sight-fishing with dry flies and the weather isn’t being kind.

We sleep, praying for no more rain.

We know that things can get really good really fast if the rain stops.

 

After breakfast the next morning we hike up river, the water is for once looking clear, the spate has finally abated and the water is gradually getting that blue/green clarity that makes a fly angler’s heart sing. Today is the day, it better had be, this is the last throw of the dice, it is now or never. We have caught fish, even a lot of fish, but not what we hoped for, what we hoped for was sight fishing with dry flies to large smallmouth yellowfish. Was today to be the day?

We walked hard up the donkey track to an area known as the “Skate Park”, named by me on a previous trip on account of the sloping rock sides reminiscent of a “half pipe”.

We come across a couple of fish in shallow but fast water and try the dry fly, they don’t look up. It is often the case that in the mornings the fish are less inclined to rise to dry flies, when the water warms things may well change. In the meantime we resort to nymphs, I cast out  a dry and dropper rig and hook a fish on the bead head brassie nymph. After a spirited battle it throws the hook, was this to be a disappointing day?

We started taking plenty of powerful fish but they were still reluctant to come to the top.

We had discussed luck and my view is that luck has little to do with things; it was an opinion that was to be threatened in the next hour. I lost fish after fish on the nymphs, over hit the takes and snapped the tippet on three fish, calmed down and hooked a nice yellow which took me into the backing before another fish grabbed the dry fly I was using as an indicator and pulled the hook out.

After an hour or so I was nil to seven down, the fish winning easily and James my great guide for the day, laughing as much as professionalism would allow at my misfortune.

All I can say is that after that seven I never lost another fish for the day, karma!!!

After the problem with the dry fly being taken or hanging on the rocks I elected to switch to a yarn indicator in the hope that would improve the chances of actually landing one of these speedsters.

We fished on until lunch with the indicator rig, the water was still high if clearing, at one point I hooked and landed five yellowfish in six casts. That sounds rapid, but in reality each fish required a considerable run down river and five to ten minutes of battling to get into the net. At least I didn’t overcook the strike or break off during the fight.

By lunch time I had landed close to twenty fish but now it was decision time. Peter and I decided that this was it, we would forgo the nymphs and focus on dry fly, seeking out suitable water and visible fish, the decision would surely reduce the numbers of fish caught but provide perhaps the entertainment we had traveled all this way to enjoy.

Finally the water warmed and the fish started looking up, time for some dry fly fishing with ant patterns. Game on

The first was a sighted fish just above a cauldron of white water, it took the dry on the third drift and all hell broke loose. Driving downstream and into the rapids, James carefully kept the line from wrapping around the rocks as the fish bored down into pocket after pocket. The battle was exhausting, not just for the fish but for me too, but finally a dry fly caught yellow in the net.

It was Peter’s turn as we had pretty much decided that it wasn’t productive to both fish , better to take turns targeting sighted fish as the opportunities arose. The water continued to drop and clear.

Peter took a couple of great fish on dry fly on the side of a long run, I had ended up on the wrong bank with too much fast water to be ideal and headed upstream, leaving Peter and James to tackle a number of fish in the shallows on the far (for me) bank.

Peter getting in on the act, a nice fish from the bedrock runs of the “Skatepark”.

Once we had reunited it was “my turn” and there was a good fish moving along a shallow run underneath the overhanging grass. James (The guide) couldn’t see the fish but could still see my floating parachute ant and on my call of “he’s seen it” the fish moved out and inhaled the ant with quiet determination. The fight was epic, the real screamed and then stopped screaming as the drag mechanism failed under the strain. Another great fish on dry in the net and smiles all round.

The other anglers also started to enjoy some dry fly action. Piers with a superbly fit Bokong Yellowfish.

The day progressed like that for both Peter and I, sighted fish, dry fly fishing in clear water, all to fish between probably two to four or five pounds.. By now the water had both cleared and warmed further and some fish were actively holding high in the water seeking out food on the top.

Several times fish were spotted and taken on the first cast at them, each hook up followed by a sensational battle to get them into the net. Although it was day five, the power and stamina of these amazing fish still impressed.

Smallmouth Yellowfish are incredibly strong and have amazing stamina, putting an extreme bend in my #3 weight outfit.

The day was coming to an end, and our trip with it, I found myself a little ahead of Peter and David, above a conspicuous waterfall named “The cascades”.. James joined me and we were on our way back to join the others, it was time to go.

Then a yellowfish showed, swimming in the shallows not two feet from the grassy bank, it was going to be a tough call. Either I would catch the grass, or catch the fish, there weren’t other realistic possibilities. The cast laid out just between two potentially problematic tufts of herbage, the yellowfish continued quietly, showing no indication that he had seen the fly, or thankfully seen us either. He swam slowly upstream, encountered the ant pattern and promptly inhaled it, the strike was well timed and for the last time on this trip the reel sang. After some battle we netted the fish, took a photo and released him, as we do with all of the fish in this stream.

A photograph of the photographer. Plenty of pictures and smiles all round on a brilliant day on the water.

What a perfect end to a pretty perfect day, perhaps the best day’s fishing I have ever had, not just the fishing, the change of fortune, the great guiding , stunning scenery and the wonderful company of my fellow anglers. Lesotho is something special, I am not sure that I will ever be back, things change and life moves on. But I will always have memories of the trials and tribulations on the Bokong River, the highs and lows and what may well be the best day’s fishing of my life.

Many thanks to James, our guide for the last day, fish spotter extraordinaire. We appreciated his enthusiasm on the water and his culinary skills in camp. In fact all the guides were superb and made the trip that much more enjoyable for everyone.

 

 

 

 

A Throw of The Dice One

February 4, 2020

Throw of the Dice Header

A throw of the dice and the best day ever. Part one.

For those anglers not familiar with them, Smallmouth Yellowfish, (Labeobarbus aeneus) are rather like river carp which have been redesigned by Enzo Ferrari. They are what grayling turn into when they imitate the Incredible Hulk, although of course going more yellow than green.

Smallmouth YellowfishThe Smallmouth Yellowfish is similar to the European Barbel, geared to negotiating fast water they are full of fin, perfectly shaped torpedoes, and look at that tail, it simply spells POWER.

They are South Africa’s premiere freshwater sport fish, particularly for the fly angler, they are large, super fit, have stamina and strength to burn and occasionally, in special circumstances they will keenly consume a well presented dry fly.

Rather like the European Grayling, (they look more like European Barbel, but feed rather like Grayling), they have underslung mouths better suited to subsurface feeding, consuming nymphs and invertebrates on or close to the bottom, particularly in fast flowing streams. It takes something a bit special to bring them to the top: clear water and either a hatch or hunger to make it worth focusing on the upper layers of the water column. But when they do the results can be magical.

It is the possibility of those magical moments that had us driving 1500Kms into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho and roll the dice in the hope that the fishing Gods might find us in favour.

The mountain kingdom of Lesotho isn’t just about the fishing, an amazing place with animals and people living together in happy simplicity..

We were to be targeting the smallmouth Yellowfish of the Bokong River; fish which for much of the year inhabit that massive Katse Dam (38.5 square kilometer surface area/2 billion cubic metre capacity).

However during the summer months, when there is sufficient flow, they migrate into the Bokong River to feed and spawn. The key words right there are, “sufficient flow”, too little and the fish don’t arrive, too much and the river is in full spate, its muddy waters unfishable and unwadeable:  Oh, and just to add another level of complexity, if the water temperature drops the fish have a tendency to return to the relative warmth  of the dam, water temps can drop fast when you are at 3000 metres.

Too little water and no fish, too much and the fishing isn’t at its best.

Whilst the stream drops and clears rapidly, in typical spate river fashion, its headwaters lie in a catchment dominated in summer by thunderstorms. Massive conglomerations of warm air which can dump more water from the sky than you might imagine possible. Rain like you have never seen rain, rain that isn’t so much raindrops as a sheet of water falling from the clouds to the land in an impenetrable wall. (It takes a lot of rain to fill a 2 billion cubic metre capacity dam).

What that all means in short is that you need a massive thundershower or two before your arrival, and of course weather systems are notoriously unpredictable, thundershowers all the more so. Rain in the next valley and no fish, rain in the valley and poor fishing.. it is a roll of the dice and not much to be done about it. Then you hope for sunshine and stable skies for the next four days or so.

The camp overlooks the Bokong River and each morning we would check conditions in the hope that things had improved.

The Makangoa Community Camp on the banks of the Bokong is run by African Waters (Previously Tourette’s) accommodating a maximum of eight anglers at a time and holding exclusive rights to the fishing on this particular river. https://africanwaters.net/

One wishes and hopes for the prescribed conditions, it is a selfish wish, because in effect the party in camp before you really needs to have poor ,rain soaked , fishing if you are to get exceptional dry fly fishing the week later. (The best fishing we ever had here was after the previous group watched rain fall and drank beer for five days in a row, it’s a crap shoot)

The twelve hour drive to our overnight stop in Bloemfontein provides plenty of time to chat, worry and pontificate about the possibilities, the weather, the fish and the flow rates. At least we knew that there were both water and fish in the system. It may sound odd, but on this fishery those basic parameters can’t be taken for granted and only a month previously the river was little more than a cobbled path of broken dreams.

The Koi Pond at our overnight stop kept us thinking about those Bokong Yellows and we struggled against the temptation to cast a fly

We are carrying thousands of flies between us, heavy nymphs in case the God’s are not kind, fashioned with 4mm tungsten beads and lead wire, and delicate dry flies, ants and mayfly copies just in case we get lucky. (Ants and terrestrials are a particularly good bet if the waters are clear and the fish have arrived).  A lot of preparation has gone into this and the entire trip hinges on a weird combination of unpredictable rain and no rain, flow and low flow, dirty water and clear and there isn’t a thing we can do about it.  We are rolling the dice and we know it, but if it is good, well then you would happily crawl there.

On a trip like this you control what you can, full fly boxes help and after that you are in the hands of the Gods.

We slept fitfully in an oven baked Bloemfontein, stressed dreams of feast or famine, flows or droughts, fish or no fish were interrupted only by the click of the air con and the bite of the mosquitoes and we knew all too well that tomorrow was going to be another taxing drive of hours and hours.

(As an aside we stayed at Tuff Top, an odd name for a great facility, their main business is growing roll on lawn, but the accommodation is spectacularly adequate, with a pool, Koi pond, lovely gardens and very reasonable rates.. Just in case you are traveling that way.. https://www.tufftop.co.za/ you can interpret that as a blatant punt.)

Waking early we were on the road at five am, it was barely light as we climbed into the trusty Toyota Hilux and headed back in time. The two and a half hours which took us to Ficksburg was still reasonably civilized travel but on crossing the border one steps back into an entirely different world.

Lesotho is a landlocked country entirely surrounded by South Africa, unconquered primarily as a result of the terrain. This place is hilly………… hilly in a way that you can’t imagine hilly, it isn’t called “The Mountain Kingdom” in jest. There are few roads and those that there are wind like a snakes with St Vitus’s Dance, wiggling and wending their way over mountain passes,  making your ears pop and your brakes smoke.  Lesotho has the “Highest lowest point of any country on the planet”, once you have gotten past the apparently oxymoronic linguistics of that statement you realise that this place is at least unusual. Lesotho is the ONLY country in the world that exists entirely above 1000m above sea level.

 

The 130Km drive from the border at Ficksburg to the Katse Lodge takes a mind numbing four hours to complete and even then there is another hour of bone jarring 4 x 4 trail around the dam’s periphery to reach the camp.

The unspoiled natural beauty of Lesotho does something to take one’s mind off the flow rates and threatening thundershowers.

All eyes are on the river as we drive the last leg, all eyes except the driver’s, who is concentrating on not sliding the truck off the road and into the flows tens of metres below. It looks a bit high, and we fail to spot the shoals of fish we might have hoped for. There has been rain, as evidenced from the slippery track and the waters below look a little more turbid than we might have wished.

It is midday by the time we arrive to the warm welcome of the guides , two James’s and Greg, who run the operation ably assisted by David and Levina, the Basotho ranger and camp chief. (There is another “David”, the camp pet pig and garbage disposal, and I can’t help but wonder that some of the millennial “save the planet types” would do well to explore the simplicity of this system. Not a lot goes to waste in Lesotho, having a pig to clean up makes economic and environmental good sense.)

But we are HERE, after twenty odd hours of motorized conveyance we will now resort to Shank’s pony for the next five days. Roads don’t exist beyond this point, donkeys and leg power are the only options, and we don’t care a jot about that. If the fishing is as good as it can be we are prepared to walk for hours in the rarified and oxygen deficient atmosphere. For now time for a drink, a catchup on the conditions and the obligatory “Biosecurity wash” of our gear.

(Biosecurity is becoming an issue around the world and African Waters take this seriously, as they should. All water contact gear, waders, boots, nets etc are cleansed to avoid bringing in organisms which may prove damaging to the environment. The unwanted spread of Didymo, (Didymosphenia geminata) into many of the rivers of New Zealand has given the angling community a wakeup call to be more careful. Here on the Bokong the guys thankfully are quite strict and necessarily so).

We are hoping for clear water like this, but for the present we have to work around things with some heavy nymphs in murky water.

The fishing for the afternoon isn’t inspiring, Euro-style nymphing holds sway but I tie into the first five Bokong yellows despite the murky water and tricky wading. Their power, speed and stamina had been near forgotten over the past year. They post a timely reminder that trout anglers are softies and that you are in the REAL game now. Runs of over 60 metres aren’t uncommon, if your reel is sticky or your knots poorly fashioned it is time to bring out your hanky. The reel sings, the line peels off reminiscent of saltwater struggles, fingers are burned and sadly tippets are broken.  No this is fly fishing at its best………… well not quite at its best, there is more to come.