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A grand day out: Flyfishing the Western Cape

A grand day out: Flyfishing the Western Cape

It’s been said – and I don’t think it’s far off the truth – that you can divide South African flyfishers into two groups: those who have fished the Western Cape trout streams and those who want to. The appeal of these streams is wrapped up in a combination of things: there is a brightly resinous, almost glassy clarity to their quick flow, they run in magnificent mountain scenery and they have wild trout in them – trout that, give or take the occasional sulky spell, will rise freely to your dry flies all day. In flyfishing terms, that’s close to the perfect contract.

Smart as foxes


Jacques Rudolph and Phil Hills fishing the Smalblaar River

Of course, the quality of the flyfishing depends on when you visit. In September the streams are often too full, wading is difficult and the trout are fussy. By October conditions are improving, water levels are dropping, insect hatches pick up and the trout get hungry. The really good months, though, are November, December and the first half of January – which is good news for any flyfishers migrating south this time of year on family vacations. Finally, March and April are also good and the Western Cape is particularly attractive this time of the year.

Cape fly streams get a lot of angling pressure, meaning the trout are highly educated, smart as foxes and the fishing isn’t straight forward. So even if the trout do rise freely to dry flies all day, it’s not the same as saying you will catch them all day. You need to know how to fish small flies in fast water, which is challenging. Fortunately, there are some really good flyfishing guides down here and for anglers on their first visit to a Cape stream, I’d say a guide is essential. Once you’ve got the hang of things I guess you could make trips on your own, subject to an important proviso that for safety’s sake you don’t fish alone.

They know where the hogs hang out

fly-fishing guide

John Thoabala, a visiting fly fishing guide from Mpumalanga, with a rainbow trout.

The benefit of hiring a flyfishing guide is that he will sort out your permits, get you to the river, show you how to fish it and will know exactly where to get in and out of these streams. That sounds too basic to be of any real benefit, but the river banks down here are heavily bushed and if you don’t know the paths you can waste hours bashing through thick undergrowth just trying to get in to or out of a stream. You won’t be thinking of trout either, because snakes will be high on your agenda. Finally, it’s likely the guide will know where a few of the hogs hang out. Remember this is all catch and release fishing, so it’s not unusual for us  to land the same big fish three or four times in a season.

A less obvious benefit a guide brings is the opportunity to learn how to spot fish, something you can do in a Cape stream that will add enormously to the pleasure you get out of the flyfishing. Catching a sighted fish is a little like catching a fish on a fly you tied yourself, only better. But sight fishing, like using a dry fly on fast water, is no easy art and a day or two with a guide is the perfect chance to start mastering both these techniques.

It’s about how you present them

Fast flowing, fly fishing

The joy of Cape fly streams – typically fast flowing, clear water and mountain scenery.

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On the technical side, we fish Cape streams with floating lines and light rods, despite the reputation the Cape has for high winds. I suggest a two to four-weight rod with a matching double-taper floating line. We use standard 12-foot tapered leaders and play with tippet length to get the fly to turn over lightly. Because the water is clear you will need to carry spools of 5X and 6X tippet material.

As for flies, how you present and fish them is a lot more important than the patterns you choose. But a fair list would include RABs (the quintessential Cape stream dry fly), the Parachute Adams, Klinkhamer emergers, the Elk Hair Caddis and a few Zaks in different weights, all in sizes 14 through 18. I could obviously add a heap more patterns to this list, but if you are planning to use a guide, don’t go overboard buying flies. Rather take a few off him. He’ll give you state of the art patterns because the two incontestable laws of flyfishing are that (a) guides know best and (b) they really want you to catch fish.

You’ll be ‘wet wading’, meaning you get right into the stream and fish without waders, so light, quick-drying pants and wading boots become as important as what fly rod you happen to choose. The stream beds here are just pebbles to boulders, so if possible get a pair of modern wading boots with ‘sticky’ rubber soles and avoid felt-soled boots.

Fitness matters

fly fishing western cape

Philip Hills with a rainbow trout on the Smalblaar River

Most streams are within an hour’s drive from Cape Town, and an average Cape day trip will keep you busy from 08h00 to 19h00. You will have used muscles that have been in hibernation, so when you get back give yourself at least half an hour in a hot bath to soak out the pain. Judge the beat you want to fish by how fit you are.

The upper beats on the Elandspad, for example, are a 30 to 40-minute hike on a roller coaster path, and for the walk out you can double that time. So let your guide know what suits you before you find yourself carrying a fly rod on what feels a lot like a death march.

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