Hogs, lunkers or buses are what the prized big trout are called. Tom Sutcliffe explains how to catch them in the lakes of the Eastern Cape Highlands
Words and pictures: Tom Sutcliffe
Every now and again – well pretty often to be honest – I lapse into a bout of what we know as the ‘Big Fish Withdrawal Syndrome’, characterised by a vague uneasiness that I finally work out is a symptom of an irresistible need to go after some really big trout. We anglers call big trout lunkers, hogs, or buses, all terms that nicely convey the notion of something substantial, though the term buses has the added advantage of also describing roughly what it feels like to find yourself latched onto one of these high-performance monsters. I’m talking trout over five pounds, but double-figure trout, meaning trout over 10 pounds, are now fairly common.
Though not unheard of, trout over five pounds are rare in our rivers, just rare enough to be the sort of trophy you might hope to catch no more than once or twice in a lifetime, unless you are fishing in places like Alaska or New Zealand. Here in South Africa when we need a big-trout fix we turn to lakes, and then to a few really special lakes, that over the years have built up a solid reputation for producing real hogs.
There are a few such spots in the greater Dullstroom area and in the foothills of the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, but my favourite place for this kind of fishing is the Eastern Cape Highlands, specifically a series of high-altitude lakes at a place called Highland Lodge. We’ve been going up to Highland Lodge for more years than I can exactly recall, but what I can say for certain is there was never a trip when we didn’t catch a few real lunkers. I say ‘we’, meaning myself and a few friends who seem to have remained pretty constant, a bunch of like-minded disciples devoted to the annual Highland Lodge pilgrimage where it’s a given you’ll fish hard, get cold, suffer dubious cooking, won’t catch that many fish, but just often enough will hook into a real bus that will tow you around and make your day. We love the place for all these reasons.
Just to put you on the map, Highland Lodge is in the Stormberg mountains roughly 15 kilometres off the R56 highway, midway between the towns of Dordrecht and Molteno. It’s a working farm owned by Luke and Vicky Bell, and has a separate, large, rambling farmhouse that serves as a lodge with all the mod-cons.
Booked in as fishing guests, you’ll have access to 11 lakes all a short drive from the farmhouse. The lakes vary in size from smallish impoundments to very large stretches of water, and in all of them there’s the chance of landing a huge rainbow or brown trout.
Scottish author John Buchan wrote, ‘The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope’. Well, in a way that sums up the attraction of a place like Highland Lodge, in that we fish these waters in a perpetual state of high anticipation. We spend days floating over clear water in our kick boats, going through the same routines time and time again. Long casts whistle from our rods, we wait long moments for our flies to sink, patiently retrieve them, then lift the rod and cast again.
Some people would call it monotonous, and up to a point it is, but the monotony makes the sudden, visceral jolt of a big fish somehow all the more exquisite. Your heart leaps, the rod bends deeply, and you feel the first burst of speed as the fish accelerates like Usain Bolt out of the starting blocks. Often the trout will leap clear of the water like big silver arrows, but for the rest they’ll keep pulling with incredible power, and boring deeper and deeper. The fight with a trophy is on. This is stillwater flyfishing at its best; this is why we have come yet again to Highland Lodge!
For most of your fishing here a 5 to 6 weight fly rod is perfect. We mainly stick with floating fly lines, but if the fishing is slow (suggesting the fish are holding deep), an intermediate fly line is valuable. We use tapered leaders attached to a 3X fluorocarbon tippet that provides a breaking strain of around 8 pounds, which is more than enough. Look, the occasional fish will snap your tippet like cotton, but you just learn to live with that.
The flies we use are mainly big, bright, attractor patterns, or imitations of the ubiquitous dragon-fly or damsel-fly nymphs. There will be days when trout rise to the surface after terrestrial insects, or hatching mayflies or sedges, when you can have some of the most exciting stillwater fishing using dry flies like the DDD, or Kaufmann’s Stimulator. You will mainly fish from a float tube or kick boat, simply because the margins of many of the lakes are weeded and you will not reach the deep, clear water from the bank as easily as you will in a float tube. Waders and flippers consequently become essential items of your tackle, as does a small anchor to hold your tube in position.
Add to the essential item list a warm pair of fishing gloves, thermal long johns, a hat, rain gear, a wind cheater, dark glasses with polarised lenses and sun tan lotion. And when the trout don’t snap you, a large landing net is essential. Finally, you will spend long hours out on the water and will be pretty chilly when you get out. This is when a thermos of hot coffee can feel like it just saved your life.
I once asked a Highland Lodge regular about the best time to visit, and he replied, ‘Whenever you can get away’, which I suppose was his way of saying it’s a great place all year round. But if you have to pick a season I’d say autumn, from early March through April, even deep into May. It is a time of year when you can expect the temperatures to drop steeply in the evening, but the days will mainly be clear and sunny.
As a rule, we make our annual trip plumb in the heart of winter, simply because the water is exquisitely clear in these months, and the trout are still bright with spawning colours, all of which are ideal for underwater photography. But Dordrecht is now officially the coldest town in South Africa, so brace yourself for some freezing conditions, even snowfalls, if you choose to go at this time of year.
Where to Stay
Highland Lodge is a popular venue for many reasons, not least because the surrounding landscapes are wonderful, the birding is good, the accommodation is warm and comfortable and the fishing is simply great. So if you are planning a trip, make sure you book well in advance. Contact Luke and Vicky Bell on 045 9411 001 or 082 5758 261, or email [email protected]