When it comes to numbers of trout, the Lotheni River might not quite equal other Drakensberg streams but it offers some pretty exciting fishing…
Words and Pictures: Peter Brigg
Happiness for me is a lonely, dusty road in summer, with a tank of petrol and a boot full of fishing tackle. To escape the crowds of the city for the wonderful solitude of the river and its inhabitants. Breathe crisp, clean air and feel the sun on my back and the breeze on my face as I wade the river.
The upper Lotheni River is just such a place. Found in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, it’s at the end of a winding road that crosses the iNzinga River towards Underberg, before turning north-west onto the road to Lotheni Hutted Camp, tucked away in the foothills.
As with most Berg streams, the Lotheni is heavily dependent on regular rainfall and winter snow-melt and is at its prime when fining down after a spate. The brown trout that hide in these waters are part of a self-sustaining population whose ancestors were first introduced some 120 years ago. On the advice of the local staff, we concentrated our fishing on the 4-5km stretch between the small museum – just inside the entrance gate – and the camp.
At this altitude the Lotheni has a steepish gradient and is swift flowing, regrouping occasionally in runs and the odd deeper pool, slowing as it cascades over the characteristic long, boulder-strewn riffles. In places the stream has literally carved its course into the bedrock.
At first glance, these are smooth, apparently barren sections, but they should never be overlooked, especially the oases of boulders sometimes found clustered in depressions in the bedrock that provide suitable holding spots for trout. And nor should the deeper pockets in areas of broken water be ignored.
Browns are enigmatic fish, notoriously moody, often hiding in the most unlikely places, masters of camouflage and confounding in their recognition of fraud. Stealth is an important way of enhancing your chances on streams like the Lotheni, otherwise there is a better than good chance that you are going to be spotted long before your first cast. You are seldom given a second chance on this kind of water and, after a cast or two, it is best to move on.
For our efforts, we did manage to deceive a few trout. Despite the shallow conditions, and unlike many similar Berg streams where I have found dry flyfishing to be so rewarding, we struggled and were unable to move a single trout on the usually productive dries. This was not for want of the naturals as they were in evidence all around us.
By 09h00 on the first day, the wind picked up, casting became almost impossible, and we had no control over where our flies would land. Our light casts on wispy two-weight rods were simply no match for nature’s force. So, with tangled tippets and the fear of chemically sharpened hooks being blown back into our faces, we left the stream for the shelter of our cottage and a welcome breakfast.
Again the fishing was difficult and, although we spotted a few trout, it would have ended as a blank session had it not been for the single fish my son caught. I say blank, but in these exhilarating natural places it is seldom a disappointment; the pleasure of being surrounded by such mountain scenery, in the company of eland, kingfishers and eagles, compensates adequately.
By the time the sun had dipped below the rim of the escarpment, and the gathering clouds had darkened the sky, the wind switched direction to the east, and with it the temperature dropped as suddenly as if someone had opened the freezer door.
We gave up and headed back to camp – the cold front had arrived.
Next morning we awoke to a cold, grey day, with soft rain and clouds hanging low over the mountains. With some reluctance we crawled from our beds to try the stretch around Cool Pools, about two kilometres below the camp. It proved to be the most productive session of the weekend, during which we caught and released a number of beautifully marked browns on small, weighted flies bounced along the bottom.
The best was a lovely fish of 14 inches out of a skinny pocket of water. He fell for one of my favourite patterns, a sunken beetle. The line hesitated momentarily and I tightened instinctively, feeling the immediate resistance and the familiar tug of life as the line scythed downstream. The rod bucked as the feisty little fish protested throughout the short fight, all the way into my hand – a beautiful plump brownie.
Most of the fish we caught were found in the slots at the head of pools where the water cascaded in – by holding there they probably could not see us easily through the turbulence. No doubt these were also good places for the trout, for their own protection against predators and to be first in line for any food drifting past.
With regular sorties by raucous giant kingfishers up and down the stream, it’s no wonder the trout are inclined to be more than a little jittery when seeking out the best hiding spots. Target these and you are sure to be rewarded sooner or later.
Eventually my hands were so cold that my fingers were numb, and tying on a fly was almost impossible. I recall reading a comment once that enduring fishing in these conditions ‘separates the firefighters from the flamenco dancers’. I opted for the flamenco-dancer route – I was done and ready to pack it in, in favour of the cosy cottage and a warm drink.
Conditions had been far from perfect but, looking at it from the jaundiced eye of a flyfisher, the challenge of the wild browns in this lovely stream is clear. And a stay at Lotheni is worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys the mountains, getting in tune with nature and being far from the city.
From Durban it’s about 200km to Lotheni via Nottingham Road in the KZN Midlands. From Notties drive west for 65km, before turning north-west onto the well-signposted road to Lotheni Hutted Camp. The alternate route via Himevelle and Underberg (the closest towns to Lotheni) is recommended during the rainy season when the road conditions via Nottingham Road can be poor, especially when negotiating it without four-wheel drive.
The old Natal Parks Board-style camp is set on the side of a wide valley, overlooking the river with uninterrupted views of the Berg. The self-catering cottages are comfortable and the staff helpful and friendly.
Apart from enjoying the diverse and interesting fauna and flora, there are many hikes, mountain-biking trails and other attractions at Lotheni, including a small Settler Museum.