Fly’s the limit as a sport explodes
A new demographic and an injection of youth have transformed fly fishing
If you go down to the woods, or a kloof or an estuary today... you’re in for a big surprise. Fly fishing is no longer what it once was.
The clichés have been popped; tweed has been swapped for tatts and hi-tech gear; the old association with whisky and weirdos now shares space with craft beer, spirits and cool kids; almost every fly angler practises catch and release, and the demographic you’d expect (old white guys) now has some company on the water.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what is behind the renaissance (or plain old naissance) of fly fishing globally, but in SA the scene is undeniably alive. Maybe the devalued rand means more people are vacationing at home and with the Boks and Bafana Bafana invariably sucking or choking, more people are turning from TV to nature for something that seldom lets you down.
You could also point the finger at the general hipsterisation of anything vaguely crafty or belonging to a nerdy niche (birdwatching is apparently also on the rise). But instead of sitting outside a coffee shop sipping on a R50 cortado and knitting their own winter leggings, people are getting together to tie flies that resemble bugs, fish and even birds.
From venerable clubs like the Cape Piscatorial Society (piscator.co.za) and the Natal Fly Fishers (www.nffc.co.za) to more informal fly-tying events held in clubs, pubs and anywhere else with seats and a cheap bar, gatherings with names like Vice Squad, The Fly Crew and Whip It Wednesday are popping up countrywide.
Many a pizza-delivery guy has had the odd experience of bringing food to a bunch of hirsute characters combing, trimming, and tying flies, like toddlers brushing their dollies. It’s the live democratisation of a sport or hobby. Blue-collar, white-collar: you know some of these people, they walk among us.
What’s the point of all this effort, the near-academic obsessive deconstruction of what it takes to mimic a mayfly’s wings or the movement of a minnow? The answer: to convince a fish that a specific tumbleweed sequence of feathers, fur and synthetics tied onto a hook is edible. And then to put the fish back in the water.
There are undoubtedly easier ways to catch fish, but that’s not the point. Part of the appeal of fly fishing is in the challenge, because if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Tying flies is not a prerequisite if you want to get into fly fishing, but it constitutes the dream phase, visualising (as sportsmen do) an infinite loop of glory moments. The fishing itself is where you get to live the dream. Or at least try.
Trout are so closely associated with fly fishing that for many the term "trout fishing" is interchangeable with fly fishing, but fly fishing exclusively for trout would be to limit your options. As the possibilities of what is and isn’t catchable on fly has expanded, so have the global angling options as Facebook communities and Instagram pages promote exotic destinations and otherworldly species ("Giant Trevally in the Andaman Islands", "Dorado in the Bolivian Jungle", "Triggerfish of the Nubian Flats").
Bucket-list destinations are great, but you don’t need blank pages in the passport to get your fix, especially when you live in a country as blessed as SA is with myriad species, alien and yokel. Championed by yellowfish and trout and supported by a vast ensemble of other freshwater and saltwater species, the sky (or the fly)’s the limit.
The Orange River
The recently established Largemouth Yellowfish Conservancy is a special 70km stretch of the Orange River (closest town, Upington) operated by Craig Eksteen of Kalahari Outventures and his team of guides headed by local guru Taba "West" Phiri. It’s special because it’s remote, which usually translates into un-pressured water, which in turn means great fishing. The angling is focused on smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish, SA’s renowned hard-fighting indigenous freshwater cousins, and you can tailor-make your trip for up to six days drifting down-river. In a memorable trip that will have you boring family members to tears for years, you’ll never see another human, you’ll sleep under the stars and enjoy exceptional fly fishing in one of the last truly wild, remote places on Earth.
The Vaal River
More of a Jozi-based homebody? Fear not. The Vaal, that greasy snake, has plenty of fly fishing to keep the denizens of the Big Smoke happy. Like the Orange River, the Vaal sports smallmouth and largemouth yellowfish as well as mudfish, catfish and alien carp (a surprisingly popular fly fishing target). Indicative of how trout now have competition as the country’s primary fly fishing quarry, on any given weekend you’ll find scores of fly anglers catching yellowfish on the Vaal’s rapids, runs, pools and tributaries.
It’s neither exotic, nor remote, but it’s beautiful in its own way and die-hard fans of the Vaal are legion for good reason. The best part? You can get an incredible day’s fishing in and still make it back for dinner. To experience the Vaal as a newbie, it’s worth getting a guide.
Guide Trevor Sithole works at the Wild Fly fishing shop in Nottingham Road and steers clients to fishing areas all over the Midlands. But his favourite piece of water is the Mooi River, where it runs through his home village of Thendela in the Kamberg. Sithole, a product of the Thendela Fly Fishing Project (thendelaflyfishing.co.za), recently took first place at the Protea B Nationals and will be pushing for higher honours soon. Book a day out with him and experience what he calls "Zulu-flavoured fly fishing" in the picturesque foothills of the Drakensberg.
The Wild Coast
Kob, leervis, elf, snapper, kingfish and all manner of other species await the intrepid fly angler visiting Nqabara Eco River Lodge, three hours north of East London. Community-run, Nqabara gives you the option of four-sleeper self-catering chalets or the main lodge, which sleeps eight. It is completely off the grid, with rainwater harvested, electricity provided by solar energy, veggies grown in the garden and fresh bread baked
The property is situated on a point where two estuaries meet and you are spoilt for fishing options, in the estuaries and along the coast. Fish, read, go for walks along empty beaches and in indigenous forest as long-crested eagles and fish eagles, as well as giant, pied and woodland kingfishers, fly overhead. Cast in the estuarine systems thick with fish and marvel at how lucky you are to find a place this special.
The Bokong River
Tourette Fishing’s Makhangoa Community Camp on the Bokong River in Lesotho has fast established itself as one of the premium fly fishing destinations not only in Southern Africa, but arguably on the global scene too. Running into the giant Katse Dam, the Bokong is unique in many ways — from the rocky runs to basalt glides and pocket water interspersed with deep pools, to the regular thundershowers and Lammergeier vultures overhead.
But the biggest pull is provided by the three species of fish you target there: rainbow trout – the largest of which operate submarine-like in the "estuary" where the river meets the dam; pit-bull-like brown trout — few in number but large in size, guarding big pools in the upper reaches; and indigenous smallmouth yellowfish — which are plentiful, rise to dry flies and fight like roided-up bouncers. After a week on the Bokong, you’ll find it hard to return to your regular life.
If you’re a trout-obsessed traditionalist, it’s still hard to beat Dullstroom, perhaps the epicentre of fly fishing in SA and, where legend has it, our president-in-waiting, Cyril Ramaphosa and National Party minister and negotiator Roelf Meyer engaged in key talks over the end of apartheid, while on the water. Ramaphosa even has an ANC-coloured fly, Cyril’s Fancy, named after him.
These days the negotiations are strictly with the trout and for best results it’s wise to turn to guides Collen Tshabangu and John Thoabala, who reign over Mavungana Flyfishing’s extensive selection of Dullstroom private waters. For fat brown and rainbow trout in exclusive still waters and streams up hidden valleys, beyond locked farmers’ gates, they are your go-to guys.
*Tudor Caradoc-Davies is the editor of The Mission (www.themissionflymag.com), Africa’s only free print and digital fly fishing magazine