STUDENT FLY FISHING IN ITS PRIME?
The year of mysteries and unpredicted fortunes. Embarking on my after-school journey I was fortunate enough to be sent to the town of Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa, with studying at the forefront of this voyage.
The intention was to learn, mature, encounter new people, places and friendships whilst reaping success in as many forms as possible during this stage of my ‘career’.
My godfather, Tony Kietzman, a fly fishing inspiration of mine, had always drifted words into my young ears about the sheer potential and serenity that was possible to experience, with a fly-rod in hand, down in the Western Cape. Upon my arrival in the Western Cape, I had witnessed the relentless beauty and wonder that was impossible to escape, I had struck gold and was most certainly going to make the most of it.
And so the fever ran riot…
The research had commenced! Through being in contact with Tony, the men at Eikendal (Ryan and Phillip), an experienced, fine-tuned fly fisherman and a great mate of mine, William Lotter, as well as my best mate, James Martin, we attempted to pin point the essence of freshwater fly fishing in the Western Cape and came to conclude that the Yellowfish species to be had in this magnificent place was the pinnacle and holy grail.
There were three species on our list of “Elusives” : the Smallmouth Yellowfish in Calitzdorp, the hallowed Clanwilliam Yellowfish in the Cedarberg and the lesser known Witvis of the Berg-Breede River system. Looking at this list, a feeling of weak knees and heart palpitations are common side effects, especially to the fly fishermen who rightfully places indigenous Yellowfish Species on a pedestal.
We had reached breaking point and it was time to feed the need; it was Cedarberg time. Getting in contact with William, we put together a short trip to the Olifants River system in the Cedarberg in search of the elusive Clanwilliam Yellowfish, a species of Yellowfish that holds the potential to reach the 15lb mark. This prospect, most certainly, had our hearts beating at an unnatural rate.
The preparation leading up to our trip was intense, gathering as much knowledge as possible and traversing through many steep learning curves. We learnt about the hostility of the environment, the nature of the species and the techniques used in order to gauge what we were in for. From picking hand tied Dragonfly Nymph imitations tied by Ryan at Eikendal to size sixteen Gurdle Bugs and even learning the techniques used to fish a 12 to 14 foot leader effectively.
And so it was D-day, we had arrived and had already strung the fly rods to our backpacks with bicycles beneath our feet on the “trek” through thick and thin, to the waters that awaited us.
Making our way to the river was no easy task, highlighting the phrase whispered to us by seasoned veterans, “The hostility of this environment is unmatched.” – photo by, William Lotter.
The physical environment was a challenge to respect wholeheartedly and was done so – only through sheer determination and will would we be able to lay eyes on a Clanwilliam Yellowfish. Thus, we had fished the first day as thorough as one could but came short due to a lack of experience and were simply left to head back to the drawing board that evening (without mentioning the state we were in upon arrival to the campsite, it was a dogshow to say the least…).
Day 2 and we were up at the break of dawn, inspired by the previous day’s failure and ready to take on the final full day of the trip with both hands.
Climbing down into the valley quickly reminded us of the harshness of this environment once more but motivated by the unsurpassed beauty, that was impossible to put into words, we were able to push through and really grasp the significance and wonder that this location had to offer.
The Olifants River Valley – hostile yet magnificent. – photo by, William Lotter.
We had decided that today we were going to change tactics, slow down our approach and instead get up high and look down with utmost precaution, hoping to spot these Yellows. Because of the searing heat, we quickly suffered defeat, deciding to rather settle into a couple of pools and got stuck into an alien species found within these parts, the Smallmouth Bass.
The walk back to the campsite led us to a hidden pool over which we scowled in hopes of the Elusive, however, we had had been beaten again. – photo by, William Lotter.
We decided to pack it in on what was possibly the most physically demanding fly fishing trip I had ever encountered, surpassing the long dredges on the Alphonse flats or even the stumbling and dismay on the mighty Vaal River system. However, looking back on the trip, it was most certainly a learning experience and one which will stay in our memories for a long time to come.
We have unfinished business when it comes to the Clanwilliam Yellowfish and we’ll be back shortly, somewhat more prepared and hopefully a lot more experienced.
In search of those Yellows. The clarity of this water was merely mind blowing. – photo by, William Lotter.
Since returning from our trip, we kept telling ourselves that achieving our fly fishing goals in the Western Cape, were slim yet still very much alive and even after being levelled by the Cedarberg, we were not prepared to give it up yet.
Putting this chapter behind us, put us in pursuit of everything else Stellenbosch and the rest of what the Western Cape had to offer, from the Garrick and Grunter at De Mond Nature Reserve, to the wild Rainbows in the Eerste River, constantly being reminded how blessed one can be with regards to fly fishing opportunities in this province.
Spending a day out with my brother-in-fly-fishing, James Martin, on the Eerste River in Stellenbosch, trying to locate those notorious Rainbows, we decided to visit the infamous, now abandoned, hatchery that we once visited as youngsters.
Upon arrival we noticed that the bottom dam had not been emptied and from a distance looked to be in spectacular condition…for a deserted hatchery.
We approached the body of water rather nonchalantly James tapped me on the shoulder with a hushed yet sharp tone of voice,“Timmo… Look under that overhang, there are three tanks just cruising!” We crouched almost instantly whilst gazing at these fish through the blades of grass and with close inspection, we immediately noticed their large fork tails.
With this in mind, my childhood memories came flooding back…I remember hearing rumors that this dam possessed Witvis, something that held little significance at the tender age of fourteen. However, the game had changed.
I remember thinking to myself, “How is this possible? Surely if I had been leveled by Clanwilliam Yellowfish, there would simply be no hope of having a shot at a Witvis?” Not only were they Witvis, they were trophy Witvis!
And so it was time for concentration-beyond-concentration, low approaches, long leaders, dry-flies, nymphs and even small streamers, nothing seemed to be converting.
We changed down to 6X and a size 12 DDD; after making what felt like a thousand casts we realised that once again we had been levelled. We decided to sit back, watch the body of water and spend time to learn the behaviour of these fish. We observed these fish hugging an undercut below a bowing Willow tree where they would come up ever so slowly, and sip in whatever it was that they were feeding on.
Crawling a little closer it appeared that these fish were feeding on insects that were falling from the Willow tree.
So I turned to my selection of patterns and pulled out a size 16 DDD with, admittedly, minimal confidence, hoping that it would rather be the presentation than the fly selection that would do the trick.
The Willow tree where the fish were feasting upon fallen terrestrials. – photo by, William Lotter.
We proceeded to crawl up the bank, with extreme caution, towards the skittish fish. These fish were simply too spooky to make a direct cast towards, thus, ambush was the order of the day. A few minutes after laying the fly down, the fish had turned around and were making their way slowly back towards the tree, sticking close to the undercut. At this point, one fish peeled off from the school and made his way towards us and shortly after was joined by another fish.
They had picked up their pace and had seemingly lost their previous inhibitions.
Was this the moment?
The fish proceeded towards me with tails and dorsal fins out of the water, which instantly put my heart in my mouth! I watched the fish cruise straight past my fly, whilst mopping up all the insects around my fly. I was heart broken…
On return into the small bay, I had decided to let the fish move off, however, giving the DDD two quick one-inch strips. All of a sudden the fish at the back responded, slowing down his approach and came up underneath the dry not unlike a Brown in New Zealand. It was then that I realised the fish had its mouth open and watched him sip the fly. As he turned away I gently leaned into the fish, hoping not to pull the fly out it’s super-soft mouth…
The relentless speed of this fish sent shivers down my spine as all I could think about were my knots and that 6X Tippet that was connecting me to a fish of a lifetime. He headed straight for the bottom in deep dives, similar to that of a Dogtooth Tuna. Frightening was the only word that came to mind…
Coming up to the surface, we saw the incredible shoulders on the fish, we were like kids again, completely lost for words. High pitched noises, unknown to many, were the order of the day due to the pure adrenaline rushing through our veins…
I’ll never forget Jamo whispering in my ear,” Timmo, don’t Eerste this fish,” referring to our first hook-up on the Eertse River when I managed to wrench the fly out of the mouth of what looked like a good 15” fish.
With these words of encouragement, I managed to pull the head of the fish up towards the surface, tightening up, not giving an inch hoping to prevent another blistering run towards the depths of uncertainty.
Pulling out the net was an iconic moment. However, I leant over to Jamo, gently instructing, “The ball’s in your court my china, don’t let the buggers down.”
This, unfortunately, did not seem to go down well as it simply resulted in two nervous wrecks with a trophy in the beckoning…
With one drop of the hands, I saw the fish disappear into the safe haven of our net. It was game over! Then followed a massive and bellowing celebration!
The beast of a Witvis that has sparked a fire in my heart. – photos by, James Martin.
What an honour and privilege it is to have these opportunities at our fingertips as students of the Western Cape. The Province most certainly breeds dreams and we wish there were more people of the ‘fly fishing kind’ in this community. It’s sad how some people may never see such beauty and serenity. However, it’s a special place for us and a place we’ll cherish forever.
And so to the list… I say game on, it’s not going to be easier than before but boy are we up to it.
What a time to be a Stellenbosch student.