In the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, the wild brown trout of the picturesque Mooi River offer flyfishermen quite a challenge…
Words and Pictures: Peter Brigg
After spending quite some time during the closed river season between the pages of many fishing books and at the fly-tying vice-replenishing fly boxes, answering Jan Korrubel’s call to spend a day fishing the Mooi River was easy.
Saturday finally arrived and I grabbed my gear, threw it into the back of the Nissan and, without a hint of the new day on the horizon, headed up the N3 to Nottingham Road. On the way, my thoughts drifted back to my first introduction to the Mooi River some 30 years ago, and my many memorable fishing trips since then. As if in a flash, I was cresting the hill, overlooking the misty, predawn village, with the odd light twinkling in the distance. Jan was waiting at Loxley Guest House with a steaming cup of coffee laced with something a lot stronger, as has become tradition.
But to step back, my first recollection of the Mooi River was seeing it through the car window as it meandered like a silver ribbon across the wide Kamberg valley. I stopped on the causeway for closer inspection, at the entrance to what I later learnt was Riverside farm. The river sparkled in the sunshine. On the left bank a willow leaned almost precariously over the water, and then the dimpled rise of a feeding trout beneath the long, wispy branches.
The rest is history, and since that first encounter, I’ve fished the Mooi River from near its source in the deep valley below the Drakensberg escarpment above the Kamberg Nature Reserve, to the middle reaches upstream of the newly constructed Spring Grove Dam.
In the upper reaches, it’s a tiny, fragile-looking freestone stream that you can step across in places – fast-flowing, clear water cascading and gliding on its downstream journey. The wild brown trout offer the flyfisher an intimate dry-fly experience of challenging and technical sight fishing, in a picturesque, natural landscape, typical of the mountain wilderness. In these places, it is presentation that is more important than the choice of fly.
From here, the river flows downstream through the Kamberg Nature Reserve between grassy banks that are in places well wooded with indigenous scrub vegetation, until it enters a pastoral landscape through privately owned farms. Here it broadens into a more classical river, with longer runs, tall grassy banks in wide valleys, and the occasional rocky gorge. Eventually it flows into the new Spring Grove Dam near the village of Rosetta.
In these middle reaches, the population of trout is less but the average size considerably larger than the 8 to 12-inch fish found in the headwaters. It is not uncommon for trout of 2 to 3 pounds to be caught, and I have seen but never managed to fool the large wily 5-pounders in these reaches. The flyfisher may even be surprised by an indigenous yellowfish, the Natal scaly, in the lower, warmer waters of the middle Mooi.
In summer, the river in the lower altitudes can be adversely affected by run-off from cultivated lands after rain
and is sometimes discoloured and unsuitable for fishing for weeks at a time. Early spring and autumn are the best times for fishing the Mooi, when weather conditions are more stable and there is less chance of heavy downpours.
Over the years, the river has been recognised by some and written about as South Africa’s premier brown-trout water. As an innocent victim of literature I was firmly of this belief until I discovered other brown-trout streams also worthy of this accolade. But there is little argument that it is up there with the best of them.
An aspect that the Mooi River can legitimately lay claim to is its role in the history of trout in South Africa. It was the first river in this country to be stocked with trout – in 1890 trout-acclimatisation pioneer John Clarke Parker was responsible for introducing 500 brown trout fry into the river below the village of Rosetta. Unfortunately, conditions proved unsuitable and within a few years the trout had disappeared.
In 1899 he tried again, this time upstream on the farm Game Pass, now part of the Kamberg Nature Reserve. These fish survived and since then have become a self-sustaining wild population that flourishes today.
In recognition of Parker’s efforts, a monument was erected in the gardens of Trout Bungalow not far from Nottingham Road, where it overlooks a beautiful sweep of the Mooi River.
The Bungalow is a wood and corrugated-iron structure, originally the Officers Mess for British soldiers stationed on King’s Hill in Harrismith, during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899. The structure was acquired and dismantled by Harry Singleton, proprietor of the Nottingham Hotel at the time, and reassembled where it stands today. Originally it was the first establishment in South Africa to provide accommodation and offer trout fishing; the entries by local and overseas visitors in the fishing record book (the oldest in South Africa) confirm this. The first entry was made in December 1907 by Romar Robinson who recorded ‘13 trout on the 8th’.
Many well-known and prominent individuals have visited Trout Bungalow over the years – the likes of Lord and Lady Baden-Powell of Boy Scout fame, the Bishop of Pretoria who was a regular visitor, Sir Julius Jeppe for whom Jeppe Street in Johannesburg was named, Princess Alice of Connaught and her husband the Governor General of the Cape, who visited the Bungalow in February 1921. Trout Bungalow is today in private ownership and no longer open to the public.
Getting back to the fishing, Jan and I had a good day on the Riverside farm section of the Mooi River. We started at the lower boundary and leapfrogged upstream, cherry picking the best-looking runs and taking a number of trout. This is beautiful water with cool, oxygenating riffles, cascading into fishy glides and undercut banks – a perfect brown-trout river. At the same causeway where I had first seen the river all those years ago, but this time with a rod in my hand, the memory flooded back of the trout rising under the willow.
After many seasons, the old willow still keeps its tight grip on the left bank, perhaps a little more precariously than I recall. Crouching low I flicked out the line and the dry fly landed gently on the surface. I watched it drift back towards me with the current. As it glided through the shadow of an overhanging willow branch, there was a flash of colour below the fly, a splash and the fly was gone. I lifted the rod and felt the resistance as the trout struggled for freedom. It wasn’t long before I brought it to hand. There it lay in the net and I took a moment to marvel at its beauty before it slid away and disappeared into the dappled world of the Mooi.
- Information about access to the fishing in the Mooi River can be obtained from the Natal Fly Fishers Club. 033 345 3700, www.nffc.co.za
- The area also provides a vast array of facilities for mountain biking, horse riding, trail running, birding, art and crafts routes and many restaurants to be enjoyed in a picturesque environment. 033 330 8195, www.midlandsmeander.co.za
- Trout Bungalow is no longer open to the public but there is a wide range of accommodation in the Nottingham Road and Kamberg areas that provide easy access to sections of the Mooi River, from camping to luxury lodges.
- Kamberg Nature Reserve. 033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com
- Nottingham Road Area. www.safarinow.com
- Riverside Cottages. 033 267 7245, www.kamberg.co.za
- Loxley Guest House. 033 266 6362, www.loxleyhouse.com
- The Bend Country House and Nature Reserve. 033 266 6441, www.thebend.co.za