It’s a perfectly still day and the Maden Dam reflects golden afternoon light off a tall krantz rising from the thickly forested Amathole Mountains. The mirror image of the tower on the dressed-stone dam wall ripples as a fish rises, sending the pulses of two fishermen balanced on its edge racing as they cast their flies in that direction.
The charm of the landscape, the excitement of the chase. This is what’s been bringing Peter Hein and Pedro De Abreu to fish the sweet headwaters of the Buffalo River outside King William’s Town since they were youngsters. This is the happy place of these two honorary life members of the Frontier Acclimatisation Society (FAS).
“It’s the oldest flyfishing club in South Africa,” says John van der Merwe, who was chairman of the club when it celebrated its centenary in 1994. It’s now amalgamated with Stutterheim’s anglers into the Amatola Fly Fishing Club, but the reason he’s brought me to this idyllic spot is to witness a piece of history he’s afraid will pass from memory, as the club’s old-timers shuffle off to fish in more celestial waters.
In 1890, pioneers of today’s multimillion-rand flyfishing industry set up the Pirie Trout Hatchery, one of the country’s first, at the top of this tranquil valley, in those days a six-hour journey by donkey cart from King. “Pirie was run by FAS until the Cape Provincial Government took it over in 1946,” says John. “From here they stocked the rivers and dams of not just South Africa, but as far afield as Kenya and Mauritius.”
Even though his rod is in the back of his bakkie, and he’s trembling to cast his own line – “Like an alcoholic,” he says with a chuckle – John takes me along a path around the edge of the dam. We pause at the memorial plaque at Page’s Corner, named after John Geddes Page, a former FAS secretary who became the first provincially appointed curator of the Pirie hatchery. It’s also where John made his best catch ‒ a three-kilo rainbow on a red-setter fly.
We cross a walkway where the Buffalo River is just a trickle above the dam, built in 1910. Even though the Eastern Cape is stricken by drought, and the Rooikrantz Dam further downstream that supplies King is little more than half full, the Maden Dam is brimming. On the east bank we find two large troughs, almost buried in leaves, connected by a furrow to the cool stream higher up.
“These are probably the ponds where Ernest Latour, the first professional fish culturist engaged by FAS, reared the brown trout that he’d hatched from ova imported from England in 1895, at the original hatchery below the Evelyn Forest Station,” explains John.
The Irish fish culturist with the French name liberated the first brown trout in streams near King William’s Town in July of 1895. He moved operations to the Tyusha Stream, a tributary of the Buffalo on the edge of the Pirie Forest, where he hatched his second batch of ova in 1896. “It’s said Latour didn’t like the steep climb,” says John, “but it probably wasn’t very practical having to transport everything up the hill.”
Latour’s successor, AN Stenning, went on to breed the first ‘colonial’ ova in 1897, proving that the problems of acclimatising trout in this country could be overcome. The first report of brown trout breeding naturally in an Eastern Cape river came from Frederick Chaplin, who took over as curator at Pirie Hatchery in 1903. John says Chaplin spotted two dozen fry 1.5 inches long feeding in the Buffalo River.
“These were the patient efforts of the men who, despite everything, made reality of their dreams.” John’s eyes are glinting. For him, this lovely valley is literally the cradle of troutkind in South Africa.
I warn him there are going to be other contenders for this title. “We must go to the Amathole Museum,” he replies. “They will have the facts.”
After retracing our steps back to the rundown picnic spot at the dam wall, we drive to Pirie Hatchery. It supplied trout fingerlings far and wide in its heyday, but is a depressing sight now. The buildings are roofless and derelict, the network of troughs cracked and filled with debris. “The Ciskei homeland took it over and ran it for a while, then it closed down,” says John.
At the Amathole Museum, we chat to curator Stephanie Victor, who has dug out files on FAS pioneers. Sifting through them, we strike gold when we find an article written by Latour for the local newspaper. In it he describes the difficulties in bringing out ova by steamship in the days before refrigeration, packed in sphagnum moss and ice.
He also writes about the less than ideal conditions he encountered at FAS’ hilltop hatchery – insufficient water and high temperatures, vegetable sediments and a bluish tinge in the water from the casts of giant earthworms living in the forest. Nevertheless, of his first batch of 80 000 ova in 1895, he had only 3 014 casualties. ‘The fry were liberated in July and soon afterwards the new building for the hatchery was begun within a few yards of the Pirie Forest and below one of its largest streams.’
But he also writes about how he was employed in 1892 by the government of the Cape Colony to carry out experiments in acclimatising trout and salmon at Ohlsson’s Cape Brewery in Cape Town, using water from the Newlands spring. He reported having no trouble with his first 100 000 ova, or subsequent batches in 1893 and 1894. “But if he was so successful at the Cape, why did he have to import ova from England when he came to the Eastern Cape?” points out John.
So now there are more questions than answers. And to add to the complexity, Stephanie shows us her museum display of the Eastern Cape rocky, a small fish endemic to the area, now endangered and on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list. Like the indigenous galaxias, it is negatively affected by predatory alien fish such as bass, carp and trout that outcompete it in our waterways – and is why many conservationists want to ban trout in our rivers and the provincial authorities stopped breeding exotic fish at their hatcheries.
But John’s not giving up. He takes me to visit an old mate who worked at the Pirie hatchery as a fresh-faced nature-conservation graduate. Mike Kruger has spent his career breeding fish, going on to work at Cape Nature’s Jonkershoek Hatchery, before joining the commercial sector.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘cradle of troutkind’,” he says, eyeing the view of the ocean from the farm outside Kenton-on-Sea, where he’s now ‘gone fishing’ permanently. “If you mean the first ova hatched and released in South Africa, it’s probably around Mooi River in KwaZulu-Natal, but if you take it from the point of view of a productive hatchery, then yes, probably it’s Pirie.”
Still searching for answers, I visit a fishy professor, Martin Davies, now retired from Rhodes University’s Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity in Makhanda (Grahamstown). “Latour was brilliant and knew what he was doing. He produced the first brown trout that was stocked out, first at Ohlsson’s Cape Brewery and then at Jonkershoek outside Stellenbosch,” he says.
“But what are the criteria for the cradle of troutkind? If eggs and fry were hatched out and offspring subsequently found in a stream, then I would call that the cradle. But what evidence is there for this? How reliable is the information? It would need thorough research.”
So it seems it’s open season on where the cradle of troutkind is in South Africa. A pioneering farmer’s land in KwaZulu-Natal? Deep in the Jonkershoek Mountains outside Stellenbosch? The headwaters of the Buffalo River outside King? I suspect it’s a debate without end.