Barkly East/Rhodes April/May 2015

With the change of seasons, long shadow days and cool nights, I, as I suspect with many Fly Fishermen start getting an urge for all things trouty, and nights are spent sorting through tackle, tying up dry flies and getting ready for our biannual visit to the Eastern Cape highlands.

We held out this year until late in April, pulling the trigger at the last minute and taking off a three day work week and scoring eight days thanks to the holidays, our party was made up out of my brother Gary and nephews Shaun and Don, we luckily managed to get a reservation at Branksome house on the banks of the Sterkspruit for the first six nights and then onto Rhodes for the weekend, my secret hope was that Autumn would be in full swing, the poplars would have turned and that the streams would still hold reasonable flow.

Leaving a big city at the crack of dawn is always pleasing and with bikes in tow we headed south as fast as the law allows with a little VAT added, the trip was as all good drives should be, uneventful, with a good breakfast along the way, at Aliwal North I climbed out of the truck and boarded my KTM 990 Adventure Bike to ride the last 170km.

Some fly fishermen find the idea of riding motorcycles far removed from chasing trout, but I am of a rare breed that finds great synergy in the solitude you can find either on a stream or snugly tucked into a helmet whilst twisting along a mountain road, albeit on your way to a remote stream definitely adds to the enjoyment, the stretch of tar leading out of Aliwal towards Lady Grey faces a great mountain range, this is where the smiles begin, trout country begins,  the big bike thumped along making short work of the bumpy asphalt, there was a fairly stiff breeze cutting across the yellow veld that buffeted against my helmet, I felt enormously free after seven hours in the truck,  on a bike you are more in touch with the environment you ride through and the smells of the open plains filled my helmet as I purred along through sandstone cliffs and dales, I pulled over at the road bridge crossing the Karringmelk to let the others catch up with the trucks and take a look at the stream below, this stream serves as a precursor, an indicator of what’s to come, we’ve stopped here enough for this to have become a ritual, spot trout, absorb mountain air, that sort of thing and celebrate the vast freedom of escaping the city, the flow was reasonable, window clear and full of promise.

 

I thumped on through some of the loveliest mountain country you could hope for on an adventure bike, stopping one last time at the bridge over Moshesh’s Ford to inspect the marriage of the Bell and Sterkspruit and the resulting Kraai, the Bell looked a little weak but the Sterk was holding fine form.

We arrived at Branksome house, a big sprawling sandstone farm house set high on the banks of the Sterkspruit, the poplars and silver birch trees had turned into full bloom of bright and golden yellows and the veld was long and windswept, we had arrived right in the middle of seasons change.

 

We grilled juicy rib eye steaks over red hot coals, unpacked tackle and relaxed with good single malt, looking forward to a day on the Sterkspruit at Birkhall, it had been a long day but an adventure and the beds were very good.

I woke up early enough to catch the morning light enjoying coffee and rusks on the patio and marvelling at the almost orange yellow foliage of the small silver birch in the gardens, we made lunches of simple ham and cheese sandwiches with German mustard, a flask of coffee and streamside snacks, it was midmorning before we headed back up the hill towards the gate to Birkhall beat.

 

I have fished for long enough not to be overly worried about how many trout I catch, but given the choice I like to catch a couple early on to set the pace for the day, I was anxious to see how well the trout had coped with the spell of drought that gripped the area for some time, so I headed straight for my favourite run on this stretch half wanting to save this piece of water for the last, the way you would save a bottle of your favourite wine, or treat for a special occasion, but a splashy rise in the broken water crumbled my resistance, besides one of the other clowns may have misunderstood my concise instructions to avoid “my” run at all costs, now this is not just a pretty run, no matter the conditions, this run has given me fish every single time and it lived up to expectation with some bigger fish at the head, I tied on a general purpose#16  Para dry and took my first chunky ten incher within a cast, the little trout was butter fat and heavily spotted, after that I couldn’t seem to get the hook to stick and missed more than I’d like to admit including a corker that looked all of sixteen inches, I gave the run best knowing that I would end up here later on my way back to the truck, heading down by crossing the stream and following a rough set of tracks over the paddocks.

 

The stream had changed since my last visit, not distinctly but subtle changes here and there a shallower bank, a new slot or riffle, I needed longer casts, a smaller fly and slower pace, but in the end I spent another wonderful day on the Sterkspruit, I missed more fish than I brought to hand and only had myself to blame, but it’s kind of tough to feel hard done by when you end up back on your favourite run as the sun dips behind you and there’s the odd rise.

 

I was pleased that the trout were still around, given their battle against the elements they were in fine condition and although I hadn’t slowed my big city pace enough to catch as many fish to have a red letter day, the knowledge that they were still in there and managing the challenges of their environment well was enough to satisfy me and marvel at the resilience of these little fish and their struggle to survive Africa with all her moods.

One of the privileges of staying on the Vosloo farms is that, only  if you’re very nice that is, you get access to Basies Dam, a private mountain dam in the hills, here you have the opportunity to target big wild spawn rainbows that live part of their lives in the dam, it always surprises me just how much bigger trout get in a dam as opposed to the stream, the same fish, different diet and easily ten times bigger, although fast food has a similar effect on humans.

The wind was pumping and the water was cold enough to be well below comfort, so it was no surprise that the fish were well into spawning mode, we managed a few and when you consider that these are some of the biggest wild spawn rainbows you’re likely to catch in our neck of the woods you enjoy each one so much more, they were good fish of between three and four pounds and fin perfect.

 

Greg & dam trout

 

 

After a long day in the tube a hearty chicken curry and fly tying cession ended off another blissful day in the Eastern Cape highlands, the beds on Branksome are about as good as it gets and feel better and better with each passing night.

We decided on the Bokspruit the following morning over coffee and rusks, and I was fairly keen to fish Bothwell and Birnam as we hadn’t before so after lunches were packed we headed out on the Bokspruit road which is a beautiful and scenic drive, stopping to take photos of the golden poplars, sandstone cliffs and windswept valleys along the route.

 

At Hillbury we followed the road out to the Riflespruit as I wanted to spend a day up at Mount Mourne and check on the flow, the Rifle was in reasonable shape and at the turn off we bumped into a couple of fly fishermen from Cape Town up for the week asking for directions to Brucedell, we stopped in the middle of the road and chatted for a bit, you can do this type of thing out here, and wished them luck before heading down to Bothwell, once you have been to the region a couple of times you get your bearings and then discover that there are only a couple of roads and getting lost would actually require some doing, but for new comers the vastness of the area can seem daunting, and directions require more faith than skill because travelling thirty kilometres and then to look out for a little green sign on a fence seems like a confidence trick, but after a few trips you get the feel of the place enough to find your way around without being completely bewildered.

I fish the streams alone if I have the choice, the solitude holds massive appeal for me, In the real world I have too many people making demands on my time as I suspect every modern city slicker has, so rather selfishly I strikeout on my own with only the voices in my head for company, I am however occasionally asked for an on stream photo of myself and never have one, there is a truly beautiful stretch of water just before Birnam that is pure sandstone bedrock and the water flows turquoise over it with a high bank to one side and my plan was to pose for a few photos on this piece of stream, I may not be anything to look at but the water here is stunning, alas the flow was so low that the bedrock was exposed like the spine of a sundried cow, so perhaps next time.

We arrived at Birnam and then Bothwell, the water this far up the Bokspruit was thinning out fairly rapidly and the fish were holding tight and had to be treated with caution.

 

Birnam bridge

 

I find the best approach on water like this is to cover ground as you only get a couple of casts before the fish take cover and sulk for the rest of the day, so the others drove up the road that takes you to gates head, each one hoping out a few kilometres apart so that we were covering virgin water, it was a good thing that we had booked both beats between the four of us as so that we could spread out and I opted to start at the bridge on Birnam.

I managed a few fish, all chunky and in top condition despite the low water and covered the stream to my climb out point, here I noticed the SIMMS boot prints where one of the others had started out, I padded back along the road to the bridge where I had parked, it always amuses me that the walk back along the road seems to be much farther in distance  than the stream I just waded up, I was passed by a 4X4 on the way up to Gateshead, and the driver slowed down to study my fly rod with approval and give me the thumbs up, once again this is nothing strange in these parts, fishing in the streams of the lowveld I have, on more than one occasion, been the subject of passing photographers as I am up to my knees in a stream, as though I had been placed there by the local tourist council, “an exhibition on flyfishing” whilst trying my damndest not to hook the trees on my back cast as they click away, its crossed my mind how many cheese and wine holiday slide shows I may have unwittingly starred in with comments to the effect of “and we captured this shot complete with genuine old crusty fly fisherman, look at how his nose glows in the fading light”, as fly fishermen we interact a little more with our surroundings than the average tourist and when you get asked whether or not you can actually catch fish like “that” or “don’t you get wet in those rubber trousers?” you can’t help but feel a tad superior, however in order to solve my problem with a good on stream photo of myself I may in future give them my card and ask them to forward on any good shots they get!

The next morning we took a ride on the bikes out to the Coldbrook and the water looked fine, if a touch low, but decided to leave it for another time and headed back to pick up the boys, they decided that Lower Hillbury looked good the day before and I had my mind set on Mount Mourne, so we set off and I travelled alone, I highly recommend a drive through the mountains taken solo, with a good flask of coffee, your favourite tunes playing and a handy camera to take in the landscapes as you motor through the hills and valleys, I reached Mount Mourne a good while later, the water had thinned out but there were fish in the little pockets of water that pooled up between the boulders, Mount Mourne has gradient and right from the outset you slowly climb your way up the valley, I have always thought that if fly fishing was a varsity subject water like this would be the final exam, the water is ridiculously clear, fish spook so easily as you try to pick them out of aquarium sizes tubs of water with very little flow, to disguise your cumbersome attempts you stalk along over cricket ball size boulders that leave you feeling more clumsy than a donkey on ice, if this were the final exam you failed dismally, but you can’t feel hard done by, you end up enthralled and privileged, even though the challenge was too much for you this time you’ll keep coming back to this place until you pass. The others had their best day on Lower Hillbury and the reports were as good as it gets with snapped tippets and more than a dozen fish, so although it would seem I had taken the wrong choice I couldn’t help but feel that I had, at least , taken a shot at the next level.

 

The next day we had to catch up on some work so the boys headed off to Jennerville and claimed to have another excellent day with free rising sighted fish and spent the day productively, all I know is that they were at the vices that night tying up a bunch of dries which is always a good sign, we ate a hearty supper of ribs grilled over the fire with beans and baby potatoes and packed up ready to head for Rhodes the next morning, the nights were getting chillier and we were met with frost covered windscreens and frozen wading boots as we headed up to Birkhall house to say  fair well.

After Branksome house the little hamlet of Rhodes seemed all too busy, which is saying something, and we stopped in at Walkerbouts to greet Dave Walker, after the usual banter about thin water and thick fishermen Dave suggested that we try our luck on Lower Glass Niven, and we took his advice, I love Lower Glass Niven as it was the first beat I fished in the region and it was very special, so with more than a little bias  we went on our merry way promising to buy Dave a refresher upon our return for our pizza that evening.

The drive down into Lower Glass Niven is light 4X4 stuff but it takes a good half hour to get down to the stream and allows us city slickers to loosen up the transfer case on our underutilized trucks, to my surprise the water looked rather good and after tackling up Shaun and I took off downstream to our favourite runs.

 

Because of the access I don’t think Lower Glass Niven sees too much action and the further down you go the greater the feeling that you’re somewhere wild, the buck spoor in the wet sand, the thick overgrown bush and magnificent sandstone cliffs adding to the authenticity of the place, as a rule I think the Bell river sees its fair share of feet, but the harder to access runs are right up there with the best, and although the stream followed a familiar path new slots had opened up and in them were glorious fat healthy little trout and once again I managed a few, missed too many and caught a fourteen inch cock fish that with full kype and ready to spawn, it was a fantastic day and even though the flow was lower than it could have been it remains a magical piece of stream and just like my first visit all those years ago I left feeling that I still had justice to do.

On the climb out the trucks preformed well idling over rocks and ruts, we had cell phone signal, which was fairly novel after Branksome, so I called home to catch up with the Family and we chatted freely on the speaker as we bobbed along , I love that fly fishing gives me the perspective and distance to see the trees for the forest and reminds me that life is lucky and fortunate.

For once we kept our promise to Mr Walker and enjoyed a merry pint or three followed by crispy pizza and a slow determined walk back to Bokhaus, I remember pointing out to Dave that he very definitely reminded me of Santa Claus before his morning coffee!

The last fishing day was upon us and because we had brought our float tubes along we had dedicated the day to Lochness the high altitude lake up at Tiffendell ski resort, there are some cracker fish up there and we wanted to find them, Dave warned us to be on the move early as the wind has been known to blow hairstyles off, he wasn’t far wrong and my brother managed three decent fish up to six pounds, I missed a couple of bumps and after about four hours of exposure decided the water was too cold, I will have to rethink my thermal strategy for Highland Lodge in the coming weeks, I haven’t been that mind numbingly cold in a long time and with my manhood at stake jumped into the truck with the heater on full blast and never emerged again.

I always read the articles on Toms website, or newsletter concerning Rhodes and Barkly with great eagerness trying to read between the lines regarding the fishing or conditions so as to next plan an escape, so for those of you looking for the low down,  the streams are on the low side, but still very fishable, and if you can fish less touched water with patience you may do surprisingly well, fish are fewer than in bumper years, but healthy and fat and there in a range of sizes, dry fly or free swimming nymph will serve you well, the fish seem further back in the runs and not where you would expect them, with winter fast approaching the region will need good snow, and I have a feeling the snow will come this year, if so, save your vacation time for the spring it will be a cracker, or follow the snow and experience and African odyssey where the season is open year round!!

 

 

 

Sunset pic