Big time: On the ocean, fly-fishermen need good balance and strength because a trophy may weigh as much as 70kg. Picture: SUPPLIED
Big time: On the ocean, fly-fishermen need good balance and strength because a trophy may weigh as much as 70kg. Picture: SUPPLIED

There’s an old saying that goes: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

If your new year’s resolution is to learn to fly-fish, you’ll feed your health and fitness in body and mind for a lifetime. You could also feed yourself in spirit, should you so desire. Some devotees describe fly-fishing as an "inherently spiritual practice". A plethora of books backs up that notion. A cult classic is Zen and the Art of Fly-fishing by Craig Thom. There’s also Zen in the Art of Fly Casting — The Perfect Loop, by Charlie Reading.

Fly-fishing is an angling method using a rod, reel, specialised weighted line and a nearly weightless artificial "fly" to catch a fish. Its popularity is growing globally. Fly-fishing is now the second-most popular outdoor activity in the US, according to a 2017 report.

Fly-fishing builds strength, stamina and focused awareness. It connects you instantly with nature. Its inherently meditative nature can be destressing and an antidote to depression.

Yet many — mostly animal-rights activists — say it’s not a real sport. They say it’s just a hobby that "anyone can do".

Fly-fishing aficionados beg to differ. They say that anglers and athletes have much in common. There’s as much art as skill involved, and both physical and mental prowess are required to fly-fish well.

The South African Fly-Fishing Association is built on that premise. It is the co-ordinating body for recreational and competitive fly anglers. Its website has a section devoted to fly-fishing as a sport.

KwaZulu-Natal professional fly-fishing guide Trevor Sithole features in a video filmed on the Mooi River in Thedela Village by award-winning film-making team Scholars & Gentlemen.

In it, Sithole says that fly-fishing generates more than jobs. "I just have a love for this thing. I want everyone to know what fly-fishing is," he says.

Eastern Cape professional guide Fred Steynberg is in no doubt that fly-fishing is a demanding sport.

Steynberg runs Linecasters from his base in the village of Rhodes in Eastern Cape. He has been fly-fishing for 25 years and started in his early 20s. His clients are experienced fly-fishers and novices from all corners of the globe.

"Some people have this perception that fly-fishing is less taxing than other sports," Steynberg says. "That’s probably why many take it up close to retirement age."

To excel at fly-fishing, you have to be fit and strong, he says. And as with any sport, you have to practise.

"Just casting a rod purposefully in the right distance and direction takes practice and is taxing. And the fitter, better-prepared anglers always catch more."

You need strength and stamina to get the most out of fly-fishing, Steynberg says. You must be able to walk along a river for two or three kilometres without feeling fatigued and at the same time, you must be competent with your tackle and rod.

On salt water, you need to "walk and stalk". That is the term for looking for flat fish species to target. And you need to do so for as long as it takes to find your quarry.

Fly-fishing from a boat has its own set of challenges and demands, says Steynberg. Just standing on the boat means you have to contend with the vessel’s pitch and roll. You need good balance and must be able to use a heavier rod.

You don’t have to be a body-builder but you need upper-body strength to cast a heavier rod and reel outfit when targeting bigger species in ocean waters. Among these
are giant tarpon, giant trevally and sailfish.

"Your target can weigh anything from about 2.2kg to 70kg and can take between 30 minutes to two hours to land. So you need to be pretty fit to outlast your trophy."

As with any sport, there is injury risk. Wherever you are walking, you can stumble and fall, breaking an ankle or wrist. There is also the risk of "fly in the eye". The expensive sunglasses worn by fly-fishermen don’t just reduce the glare and allow them to see into the water. "It’s primarily about protecting your eyes," Steynberg says.

Nature presents many other risks: snakes, crocodiles and hippos in the water or on the banks of some rivers; sharks and stingrays on saltwater flats.

SA offers excellent fly-fishing opportunities, Steynberg says. Rhodes used to be one of SA’s best destinations, but subsistence fishing has put pressure on it.

He says 99% of fly-fishing is designed to be environmentally friendly and kind to the fish. Steynberg often crimps the barb of the hook so that it is easier to extract and causes no harm to the fish.

Steynberg has a catch-and-release philosophy: "A trout in the water is worth six in the pan," he says. For those after bigger targets, he snaps pictures of clients with their catch before it is returned to its watery home.

Rhodes is one of the few spots in the country that offers "exclusive water". With the right permit, you can go for a whole day without seeing another person, he says. That contributes to the sport’s meditative nature and the solitude it offers.

It is definitely an elite sport. Apart from travel costs, it can be expensive to kit out. An entry-level rod, reel, line and a couple of flies are available for under R1,000.

Once hooked, though, you’ll probably want to progress to a graphite rod for R15,000 or a custom-made bamboo rod for a cool R40,000. Reels on their own can also cost R15,000
or more.

Disciples of the sport don’t mind forking out. As US news anchor Tom Brokaw remarked: "If fishing is a religion, fly-fishing is high church."

• Marika Sboros is founder, publisher and editor of