Dams in Belfast might not be behemoths but their trout fishing holds a great deal of promise
Words and pictures: Malcolm Meintjes
If the mention of a loch in the centre of Mpumalanga seems somewhat incongruous, you may indeed have a point. But ensconced in the ‘Trout Triangle’ that links O’Neill’s Belfast, Dull’s Dullstroom, and Machado’s Machadodorp, you will encounter not only lochs but ample reference to things Scottish; more than enough to have citizens of Dunkeld and Dunvegan thinking fondly of home.
I confess to having fished a number of Scottish lochs, some the inspiration of lyrics such as those about Skye, while others have etched themselves solidly into the history books. Like Loch Leven, for example.
Royalists might remember Leven for the castle on an island, a ruined set of battlements that once incarcerated Mary Queen of Scots and from which, on one dark and probably stormy night, she famously escaped. For my part, Leven evokes personal memories of drifting serenely past Castle Isle in a sturdy 100-year-old clinker boat. You see, Loch Leven is a byword in flyfishing lore and tradition. It has been a truly remarkable trout fishery covering 3 500 acres, and spawns what was once regarded as a distinctive sub-species of brown trout – Salmo levenensis.
What, however, is the link between far-off Kinross and Southern Africa? Towards the end of the 19th century, the Loch Leven brown trout were among the first to be transported to the Cape of Good Hope.
In the ‘Triangle’, the presence of trout somewhat enhances the romanticism of things Scottish. Leaving the flat, drab garb of Middleburg’s middleveld, one drives imperceptibly upwards to Belfast, towards hills and valleys, forests and streams. Only a blanket of mist, a crackling fire and a wee dram is needed to convince unbelievers that they are in the Highlands. Even Jimmy, who mans the tackle shop on the outskirts of Dullstroom, greets you with that unmistakable Scots brogue when you ask for a Woolly Bugger, or something similarly profane.
Ah yes! Now, if I uttered the word Dullstroom, many more readers might prick up an ear; the town has been renowned for its trout fishing for many a decade, but it came to national prominence with the first edition of the Finders Keepers competition. The treasure, for those led astray to Waterval Boven, was in the clock behind the pub in the inn. Yet, perhaps unusually, I prefer to turn your attention to the flyfishing a mere 30 kilometres away. To a town, not from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s principality, but one named for Richard O’Neill’s birthplace in Ireland. A town called Belfast.
It is near Belfast that one of my favoured venues, The Lochs, is situated. I have wondered whether these waters that call when the madding crowd becomes too madding should not have been called The Loughs. Again, I suppose I should have insisted on whiskey as opposed to whisky, more so when celebrating the seduction of any Salmo trutta – the equivalent of levenensis – and the modern day brown trout.
Now, if you have wielded a fly rod with any sort of anger, you will know that 99 per cent of trout stocked in South Africa are rainbows (Oncorhynchus mykiss). In Mpumalanga, brown trout are few and far between for various reasons, one that they graduate from uni before being let loose on unsuspecting anglers. Despite the trutta’s advanced acumen, I and many others hold a strong partiality – affection even – for the fish. What fuels this romance? Why, it is an exceptionally graceful fish, even though Tom’s salmon referred to it as ‘lowly’. For me, whether clad in silver or, more often, daubed in bold black spots and butter yellow flanks, they match their elusiveness with beauty.
Granted, in and around Belfast the term ‘lochs’ may be a touch exaggerated. We are not talking behemoths like Perchshire’s Leven or Connemara’s Corrib, but of more sedentary man-made dams, where one of 15 acres is ample for the area.
To reach Belfast requires an easy two-hour morning drive from the outskirts of e-tollipop land through Witbank and Middelburg, the latter the site of yet another escape of that great Boer War houdini, Mr. Winston Churchill. Belfast would not have been indelibly imprinted on his mind on the way to Lourenco Marques, for young Winston burrowed his way past just before Christmas 1899, and Mr. Richard O’Neill only proclaimed the name change from Tweefontein a year later.
My earliest recollections of Belfast were also of driving past on the way to Pretoria from school in Nelspruit. How often I gazed intently down that road, imagining the huge trout that must surely swim in the rivers. Even John Buchan made mention of the trouty possibilities of the streams, but then he was presumably chasing grey-clad wraiths at the time and the trout only came, oh so slowly, by goods train in the first decade of the 1900s.
Belfast on a Saturday morning displays a flurry of movement by the retail and agricultural sectors. Over the last two decades, given the growth in the number of flyfishermen, parking areas have been dotted with 4x4xtars. Trout has been a welcome growth industry for many small towns and Belfast has made valiant efforts over the years to attract the Jeep-clad lads. Regrettably, no longer is it acceptable for us to trudge into Fitzgerald’s in our tattiest shirts and mud-spattered waders.
Yet Belfast’s trout fishing has always had a great deal of promise. In the years before it was granted ‘Highland’ status, the local fraternity called it the ‘Platorand’ and thus, I guess, the Platorand Angling Club was born. Many years ago, I inadvertently fished a dam under their control – the Lewis Dam – on the outskirts of the town. I thought it was the municipal dam but I avoided the dawn firing squad by speeding to the chemist in town, offering apologies and silver.
The area has produced some exceedingly moderate-sized trout, as Mr. Skues used to say.
The Bosbou Dam (now called Lakenvlei) once produced a rainbow of 10lb 5oz to Ernest Farnsworth in 1960 and there have been others of comparable size coming to net from time to time. Today, the Belfast Fly Fishing Association (BFFA) has taken up the cudgels and offers travelling anglers the chance to throw a line in a variety of dams, most of which are within the town limits.
There is the aforementioned Lewis Dam, which produced trout of excellent condition and proffered me my yet unbeaten record for the number of ‘plathanders’ that gobbled my fly. (You may better know the ‘plattie’ as a particularly unkissable toad, even if you are only after a duke). Then, too, there is the easily accessible waterworks dam, the golf course dam and the school dam. Neil Champion, a friend of mine, bought some property coincidentally overlooking one of the dams and we had pleasant sessions wandering down in the evening hoping for the ‘rise’ before impending thunderstorms wreaked havoc.
I confess I always cast an appealing eye over the Belfast Municipal Dam. At more than 200 acres in size, it is easily the largest ‘loch’ that could support trout in the region, but is presently maintained as a bass and carp dam. Perhaps one day . . .
The BFFA provides membership and day tickets for casual anglers for some of its dams but, in an area that attracts a great many flyfishers, I enjoy the more private ‘lochs’ where I can entice some naturally grown-on trout, perhaps even a brown. Here, casting into the depths of Greenwells Glory, one can survey the rolling forested hills and be forgiven for thinking that one’s fish coming to net is no less ‘grand troot’ for all that.