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Flyfishing the Highlands

Flyfishing the Highlands

Tom Sutcliffe waits for ideal weather in the Eastern Cape Highlands, and then pounces. . .

This was going to be one of my trips to the Eastern Cape Highlands where I’d at least get things right as far as conditions went. For weeks I’d been calling Tony Kietzman, a flyfishing guide living in Rhodes, and Basie Vosloo, owner of Birkhall where I was due to stay, to hear exactly what the weather was doing and how the rivers looked. I only made the final decision to leave Cape Town for Barkly East when I heard things were more or less perfect.

Even the forecasters were predicting good weather for the next ten days, other than high winds from the North West, but I could live with that.

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I enjoyed the long horizons and the silence of the Karoo, and swung right at Beaufort West onto that seemingly endless route to Aberdeen, a lonely road where seeing another car is like spotting a rare bird in your own backyard. I spent the night at Mike and Candy Ferrar’s place, Mount Melsetter, forty kilometres out of Middelburg. In the evening, I normally walk the dry riverbed just off their front garden looking for fossils, but for the last 20 months their stream has run nonstop. The water was clear and cold and deep. It somehow seemed like another good omen for the trip.

The following day I was on Birkhall. Tony Kietzman agreed to join me for most of my stay on Birkhall because he lives a short distance away and he can’t say no to an offer to go fishing, at least not when the rivers are running with the lovely turquoise-tinted opalescence they take on when things are close to perfect.

Mostly we fished the Sterkspruit where it runs through Birkhall. The trout were bigger and fatter than I had known them for years and they were beautiful. Some were discreetly marked, rather like American cutthroat trout; others were really bright, more like cabaret artists than trout, with lilac and blue spots on their gill plates, and side stripes of gorgeous pink.

They weren’t wrong about the wind. There were days when it blew so hard the willow fronds stood straight as flags, no bugs hatched and the fishing was slow. But when the wind softened the insects came off and we took fish freely on dry flies.

We had a day on the Coldbrook, a charming slip of a stream about 40 minutes due east of Birkhall. We got trout in all the better looking lies and ended up casting only to rising fish, a lovely circumstance that on a remote mountain stream filled with wild trout can start to feel a lot like the metaphysical ‘perfect state’ in flyfishing, if there is such a thing.

When we hiked backed to the truck along a sheep track later that afternoon the valley was soaked in soft yellow light and trout were still rising. From a high bank we spotted a 16 inch fish feeding. It was a monster in this tiny stream. Tony slid gently down the bank but, as he lifted his rod to cast, the fish fled, proving yet again that wild trout have an impressive capacity to stay a step ahead of our best laid plans for them.

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Two days later we were at Moshesh’s Ford where the Sterkspruit is held back by a weir and flows deep and wide under overhanging willows. Earlier in the week a friend of mine, Mario Geldenhuys, spotted a pod of yellowfish holding in this area. He said they were in a deep hole under the willows on the south bank and they were big.

Tony Kietzman joined us to try for them. Hidden behind the trunk of an old willow we watched the yellows milling about in the clear water below us. The plan was to attack them from the opposite bank, to cross at the weir, wade into position and drift a weighted fly into the pod. Mario cast across and slightly downstream, letting his line ride with the current. The long drift carried his fly deep, and on his third cast his rod bent as a yellowfish ran strongly into the seam of the river. It was an iridescent golden colour, a fish of around 16 inches. Later he landed a better fish easily 22 inches long. When the pod was spooked and jittery we left, but we had released four handsome fish.

It was an easy, pleasant morning’s fishing and yet again the river looked perfect.

The days bled into one another, became a seemingly endless, jumbled tapestry of fish and fishing, of sweeping sandstone landscapes with lovely rivers flowing through them.

There was only one day when the weather was foul. I spent it with Tony fishing the Bokspruit River on the farm Birnham. The clouds were hanging on the trees, the wind was howling and the barometer was way down. I shrugged into a fleece shirt and pulled on a windbreaker. The air was cold and occasional raindrops hit us like nails. We expected sleet at any moment. We had no real hope of catching trout, but in the end we got a few. Then the river went as quiet as a cupboard at night and we began wondering what the point of being out there actually was. Eventually, in a sudden wave of sensibleness, we headed back.

On a whim we parked the truck a little way downstream on the bridge that crosses over the Bokspruit on the farm Welgemoed, to change out of our wet gear. The bridge can only take one vehicle, but this is a remote place and we reckoned it would be a few hours before another car came along – if any came at all. We dropped the tailgate and brewed coffee in a kettle of river water, and found cream crackers and a slab of cheese, opened a can of baked beans and swigged the last of a bottle of Muscadel.

We were just enjoying the comfort of dry clothes, the pleasures of a riverside snack and being conveniently close enough to the river to watch trout from the bridge, when a battered taxi arrived. It was probably the only vehicle to pass since we had. We cursed our luck, threw scattered bits of wet gear into the cab and inched the truck forward to let the driver through. Naturally we resented his arrival. The bridge had got to feel a lot like our own space by then.

Yet more perfect days followed, on streams that stayed in wonderful shape and, as I said, the fish were fatter and bigger than ever. We took plenty of 14 inch trout and a few that would have gone 16 inches, some even 17 or 18 inches, although we never measured or weighed any. I had at last timed a trip to perfection and, when that happens, well, details like the exact size of the fish you catch become incidental.

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