Text & Photographs by Chris Marais
Fly fishing in the Karoo. Who would have thought? A monster trout in the Karoo Heartland? Nah. This is really buck-hunting country, where the koodoo (as the 18th Century explorers used to call it) run wild and free and often into your windscreen of an evening. No fish here.
So we venture out with Somerset East’s fly-fishing expert, Alan Hobson, early of a late winter’s morning, to see him work the waters of the Little Fish and come up with a dancing rainbow trout or two.
Firstly, there’s been a drought and the Little Fish has never looked littler. We stop on a small bridge over the Swaershoek Pass road and see a dry river bed below us. Yeah, OK. Those blokes in their designer waders up in Dullstroom are having a good laugh at us right now.
But Alan Hobson, not unlike the various trout, moggel, mudfish, yellowfish, carp, tilapia, barbel and bullhead mullet he likes to trap on the end of a line, has tricks up his sleeve. Mock at your peril, ye Uplanders. There’s nothing like local wisdom when it comes to many things – including the art of finding fish along the Little Fish, as it were.
He grew up in this old Settler world of Hobsons, Harts, Pringles and Southeys, not to mention the Schoemans, Michaus and Van Heerdens. Alan went up to Jo’burg to make his mark, did exactly that and came back to the Heartland with his wife Annabelle – mainly to share his fly-fishing passion with clients searching for outdoor adventures.
“I hired a local pilot to fly me over the region,” he tells us as we drive into the dawn. “I looked for waterways, weirs, dams – and friendly farmers.”
Farming Friendlies along the Little Fish
Alan built up a network of “farming friendlies” along the Little Fish and began to stock the deeper pools along the river. Now, years later, he’s going to show us how big they’ve grown – and how bravely they do battle.
Bemused bystanders, we ask him about his fascination for the sport. Or is it a religion?
“Trout fishing is like Cluedo: you’ve got to see what’s actually happening. What insects are flying around? Do you see moths in the grass? They will be the ones you need to imitate. Look at the way a trout rises. That shows you what it’s eating and at what stage of development the insect is in. You look out for wind lanes on the water.
“You’re just focussed on water. It’s like you’re working out a puzzle, and you’re completely transported. It’s mental therapy.”
“Then it is a privilege to put it back, leave it for tomorrow. In a semi-desert, a fish that grows so large is a phenomenon.”
And why so big, these Karoo trout? Well, like the old Farmer Brown ad goes: they look so good because they eat so good.
“The water coming from the bedrock of the earth is extremely rich in minerals and nutrients,” says Alan. “It’s the ideal habitat for prolific insect life and natural growth rates of fish that are unbelievable, in excess of 200 grams per month.”
Now it’s time to fish.
A Brain No Bigger Than a Breadcrumb
We stop at Buffelshoek, owned by Johan Schoeman. Here, near the source up in the mountains, the narrow bony Little Fish broadens into a series of clear green pools, with little waterfalls.
Alan kits up quickly, dragging on his waders, hanging the tippet dispenser and fly holder around his neck and donning his Polaroid sunglasses.
Here’s an Internet-sourced quote from a writer called Paul O’Neil:
“There he stands, draped in more equipment than a telephone lineman, trying to outwit an organism with a brain no bigger than a breadcrumb, and getting licked in the process.”
It’s a well-known fact that there are more fishing quotes to be had on the Internet than porno sites – no mean feat.
At any one time while fishing, Alan carries about 2 000 flies with him. One of his favourites is a nymph called Alan’s CDC Marabou and Copper.
“It’s a deadly little gogga,” he laughs.
The smell of green wet earth. First light tipping the poplars, then the reeds, then the water. Then the cast, a quiet whisk as the rod gently whips the air, steady back and forth, the leader going further back and further forward every time, until he lets go and the line settles lightly on the waterfall-rippled water. The rhythm of it, the connection.
Peace. Two more casts, then the rod pulls up to the sky and bends. The bubble and flash of a fish on the line. Then the fish is held up, shining silver in the early sun. A kilo. Good eating size.
Of course, we don’t expect a strike every time, what with various photographic needs having to be met.
Alan has to stand in a place lit by the sun, which means lots of thorn bushes and a steep bank. So when he catches the fish (on the third cast), using a flashback mayfly nymph, he struggles to find his footing, passing the rod around the thorn bushes, one hand to the other. Then he slides down to nearly above his waders into the freezing water, his hands bright pink from the brisk temperature. But he grins with the excitement of it.
Bath Tub in the Bush
At the next pool, a short walk away, he has a trout on the first cast.
And then we go upstream to a crazily overgrown pool, lots of thorn trees and pruimbome. A bath tub in the middle of the bush, as Alan puts it.
He can’t even cast overhead. Alan uses the very specialised bow-and-arrow cast, pulling the line back to spring forward again. This is close bush-fishing at its finest.
He lands his fish. It’s small, but because of the conditions it’s the biggest prize of all.
We’re sitting on the river bank watching the Castmeister at work. Nearby a duiker is gazing through foliage at us.
Alan hauls out a rock in the river to show us what the fish are eating this time of year. Almost invisible except for their movement, you can see tiny little mayfly larvae, caddis larva.
At the last pool, his favourite, he brings out a 1.6kg trout, a cock-fish in milt, the milkiness oozing out of him.
At lunchtime, heading back towards Somerset East, we pull over to the side of the road on a bridge over the Little Fish. No one disturbs us as we munch on our boiled eggs, ham and smoked trout picnic sarmies. It has been a wonderful morning on this river that tends to disappear from time to time.
Back at the Angler & Antelope Guest House, owned and run by Alan and Annabelle, our host shows us a water feature stocked with five small-mouthed yellowfish.
“I learnt so much just by watching these guys,” he says.
Rocky the Yellowfish
Apparently the yellowfish can suck food down so sneakily they don’t even cause a ripple on the surface. You wouldn’t know they were there.
He’s learnt how to see fish where no one else can, simply by looking for the flat spots in the water, the shadows, the slight dimples.
When Alan first stocked the yellowfish in the guest house pond, one of them leapt out and lay on the ground gasping for four hours until it was discovered.
Alan, normally not in the habit of giving fish names, called this one Rocky.
On the guest house property is a former Catholic church, now doing duty as a bar, restaurant and Tackle Shop.
The Tackle Shop is almost certainly the best stocked in the Eastern Cape and is in the old Catholic confessional (“so you can’t lie about the size of your fish”), replete with feathery flies called Pappa Roach, Woolly Bugger, Tiger Rabbit, Angus Red Eyed Bugger, Hackle Wet Fuzzy Wuzzy, Whisky Fly, Horrible Matuka, Cul de Canard, Marabou, Copper Fly, Flashback Mayfly Nymph, Mrs Simpson, Daphne, Florence (the latter named after the concubines of the lords who first tied such flies).
The single malt is on the bar counter. The stories of the day’s fishing come tumbling forth. And the legends of fly-fishing in the Karoo grow longer with the night…
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