Casting in the Back Country

For my money small-stream fishing in the back country is probably about as pure as flyfishing is going to get…

Words and Pictures: Peter Brigg

2800_04_clTake nothing away from the rich diversity in flyfishing these days, but there’s little to beat fishing the small streams because most of what you do on a stream is traditional.

And by small streams I’m talking about those that are tributaries of larger rivers. Generally the headwaters in mountain wilderness areas, they’re invariably in pretty places, you can cast across them easily just about anywhere, and the trout are wild and seldom run in at more than 12 inches.

Most small streams range from common knowledge to whispered speculation. Then there are still a few hidden gems seldom, if ever, visited by flyfishers, the thin blue lines on the topographical map where the gradient is steep and the folds in the earth are deep.

Here the water is clear, cold and quick, the bottom is almost always visible, there are riffles, plunges, pools, pocket water and the odd deeper slot, mysteriously indistinct and fishy looking – these are pristine, freestone streams, the timeless silver ribbons home to wild rainbow and brown trout, descendants of those introduced into these waters 125 years ago or more.

Most of the headwater streams will involve a hike and a few nights under canvas. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but for those that see themselves as the contemplative back-woodsmen type, the solitary flyfisher, man of few words, the passion is unbridled and they’re like converts to a new religion.

I put it down to wanderlust and the tantalising prospect of new discoveries where there is little or no information; you have to string up a rod and go and find out for yourself. It usually starts with pouring over the best topographical maps available, with a couple of the boys and copious amounts of coffee or something stronger. Having said that, some of the best maps have been from other small-stream fanatics, hand-drawn on paper serviettes.

I have been privileged to fish many of these streams over the past 30 or more years, spending three to five nights at a time camped high in the mountains with a few like-minded companions. I have also undertaken a couple of solo trips to ‘secret’ streams. It was what I wanted to do, perhaps selfishly and not too wisely, without thinking too much about the outcome if things had gone awry, as they can do so easily in wild places.

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These are my recollections of the last solo hiking and flyfishing adventure deep into the Nkosazana Valley below Vultures Retreat, between the Cathkin and Cathedral valleys. It’s an adventure perhaps better described as getting purposefully lost.

The pack is light, with few luxuries in it except the coffee pot and some whisky. I plan on eating trout (I do that occasionally). At one point on the hike in I get pretty close to a pair of innocent Francolins and have this momentary olfactory hallucination of roast Francolin, and considered getting one of them with a rock – I would have probably missed.

1Moving on, it’s late afternoon and the gorge is shaded, and the stream has a lot of pocket water and some nice-looking runs with delicious-looking undercuts. I find a level spot a cast away from the stream, with trees to secure the bivouac. It’s shirtsleeve warm with just a hint of evening chill; I hear the screech of a Jackal Buzzard somewhere above the treetops.

Time for a few casts. On the third, I take a nice, plump 12-inch rainbow on a spent mayfly spinner; it will be my supper. I read somewhere, ‘If you’re gonna keep fish, go ahead and keep ’em. If you wait till the last two you’ll be eating beans’. So I tap the next two 10-inchers on the head.

The last fish is a solid brownie with colours that remind me of the Eastern Cape in autumn, and I release him. Browns are rare here and I have a thing about treating them like my grandkids – I never eat them. Supper is pan-fried rainbow trout and whisky cut lightly with sweet, cold, stream water.

It doesn’t get much better. It’s dark, really dark. In the sleeping bag I think of the trout, the hike home, the people, family, the past and the guilt at being alone. It’s a restless night on rough ground. With every sound, grunt or rustle, my imagination runs wild. I’m convinced I’m about to be attacked, stung, bitten or eaten – but I make it through to morning. I get the stove fired up and start water for coffee. After the first cup I go to the stream and without ceremony take a 12-inch rainbow for breakfast and down another cup of strong, black coffee.

The morning is grey and cold with the clouds out to the west perforated with a few promising blue holes – it was clear by mid-morning. Pack loaded, I head off upstream, wading and casting; it’s clumsy, and an art in itself just to avoid unplanned swims. I concentrate on the best-looking water, spooking a few good fish from unlikely places – there’s that enigma again, just when I thought I was getting the hang of their game. The trout are eager and there is a strike nearly every time I put a half decent cast over a rising fish.

It’s a good day, and eventually comes to an end as the sun slips behind the escarpment, the light fades and the temperature plummets. I eat supper; more trout in the chilly twilight, and the darkness and sounds of the night seem a little more familiar. I sleep better, until the rain starts. I’m cold and wet so I drink cups of coffee laced with what’s left of the whisky. Fortified, my anxiety and discomfort eases.

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Dawn arrives and I’m soaking wet and freezing. Luckily the sky is clear and the sun spreads her warmth over the gorge. Packed, I leave the stream. Three hours later I reach the road, and my shoulders ache from the pack.

I stop an already overloaded local taxi, pay my dues and squeeze in between the intrigued passengers. It’s a short, cramped, deafening boom-boom (what is that music?) ride back to the Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal wildlife camp at Didima.

Hiking and camping alone is not something I do normally – I have no regrets for the experience, but prefer to now share it with close friends, trout bums. The horrors of the night are no longer.

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In search of these streams I have been along the paths less travelled, places of exceptional natural beauty, wild, rich in fauna and flora. In the beginning it was all about catching fish and yet even then the seeds of consciousness stirred; a rudimentary sense of connection to the big wild Earth crept into my awareness, to the wonders of the surroundings.

Also, now, the context within which my flyfishing takes place has become increasingly important. Enriching the experience and imbuing it with that extra little shine in the memory.

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Special Spots

  • In the Northern Drakensberg area, base yourself at Mnweni Cultural Centre, or hike from there into the surrounding valleys and fish the Mnweni River and a number of its tributaries – the Ifidi, Icidi and Ntonjelana. These are all small streams with a population of rainbow trout.
  • In the Central and Southern Drakensberg area there are wonderful back-country flyfishing opportunities in areas under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife especially the Injisuthi, Bushmans, Mkohmazi and Polela streams.
  • Hiking and fishing streams deep in wilderness areas must be approached with caution, adhering to all safety precautions recommended by KZN Wildlife. Be properly prepared, with clothing for extreme weather conditions, emergency medical kit, a good tent and essential hiking gear. For the inexperienced, include someone in the group who has hiking experience. This is a beautiful environment but also uncompromising.

Peter Brigg

I have from an early age had an affinity for the outdoors, places where one can rekindle one’s relationship with the natural world. My passion for fly fishing for wild trout in high altitude mountain streams has allowed me to pursue my other interests of hiking, photography and art. I am a freelance writer and published author of two books titled, Call of the Stream and South African Fishing Flies. In a nutshell, a Backwoodsman and Trout Bum.

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