Fly Fishing in South Africa

It usually comes as quite a surprise to many European and North American fly anglers to learn that a strong and long standing tradition of fly fishing exists in South Africa. In fact both Kenya and Zimbabwe also offer modest fly fishing options – each of which being a little bit of a hangover from the period of British occupation during which great efforts were made to replicate the best of the British isles in Africa. The same is true in South Africa, of course, but having experienced a much longer Europeanesque experience, the tradition is much more deeply rooted in South Africa than it is further north. It is still certainly possible to have a great fly fishing experience in both Zimbabwe and Kenya, usually because of the backdrop and less because of the fishing, but nonetheless it is always worth doing. South Africa, however, is a superior destination with a great deal more to offer.

The Amphitheater at the Royal Natal National Park. How can this be beaten?

South African Fly Fishing

It goes without saying that all the fly fishing waters in South Africa are stocked. Trout do not occur naturally in Africa, and where they are stocked, they quite often do not breed. Traditionally it was the Brown Trout that was stocked, with the first specimens introduced from Scotland in the 1890s, but in recent years that staple of stocked streams worldwide, the Rainbow Trout, has tended to eclipse the brownie as the most commonly caught salmonid in the region.

Some brownie populations, in particular in the upper reaches of the many streams draining the Drakensbery Escarpment, are self sustaining, so good, although  small catches of these beautiful fish are certainly possible. As with wild trout anywhere, they may be small, but they are more canny than tank bred stocked trout, and are a lot more difficult to catch. It also goes without saying that the natural habitat of the Drakensberg escarpment makes the pleasure of being there sharp enough to enjoy even if you do not catch trout.

There are three main fly fishing destinations – for trout that is – in South Africa. These are the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Mpumulanga Province, and the Eastern Cape

Fly Fishing in South Africa

KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and Fly Fishing in the Drakensberg

The Drakensberg  is one of South Africa’s most beautiful and serene destinations. The escarpment falls away from the Lesotho Highlands in a northeasterly direction, and it is protected by a collection of National Parks, forest areas and public lands. The character of the escarpment is soft and undulating grassy downs, punctuated by forested river and stream gullies, crowned by rugged peaks and knife edged ridges. Through these tumble any number of mountain streams, all coalescing into a handful of larger rivers, ultimately ending in the mighty Thukela River. The national parks and public lands associated with the Drakensberg all offer fishing opportunities in one or other of the many rivers, the Umzimkulu, Bushmans and the Injesuthi arguably being the purists favorites.

Imagine the dawn or evening rise on this stretch of river – the Bushman River, Drakensberg

These are public fishing areas, and are accessible upon payment of the usual park entry fees plus a fishing license, which are both hardly prohibitive. Wild brown and rainbow trout – or perhaps wild seeded is a better word – offer modest if rewarding catches, although quite obviously it is just being there that is the greatest reward. Fishing is severely limited outside public lands due to private water rights and the commercialization of the sport. These can usually be accessed only by invitation, or through staying at a hospitality establishment that offers fishing access. Once the rivers have dropped to a certain level human activity and water conditions tend to inhibit the presence of trout.

From a travelers perspective there is an enormous variety of private waters to access through the many lodges and guesthouses associated with private land, so really you can take your choice. Usually it makes sense to join up with a tour group exploring the region in order to get the benefit of good local knowledge. Conditions naturally vary, but actually as a rule the strict enforcement of artificial fly rules, and the close control exercised, means that South African trout fishing waters in general, and those in the KNZ midlands in particular, yield excellent catches, with 20 inch fish being arguably a fairly standard catch. Catch and release and barbless hooks are almost always, if not mandatory, then certainly encouraged.

Mpumulanga Province and Fly Fishing in the Northern Drakensberg

A very different part of South Africa in the Mpumulanga Province, what used to be the Eastern Transvaal, and although with slightly less spectacular aspects, it has four principal bodies of water recognized as excellent trout waters. These are the Klip, Waterval, Spekboom, Sterkspruit and the Dorps rivers. Besides these there are quite a few trout lodges, or lodges with a fly fishing angle, that offer access to dams and private streams across the highland quarter of Mpumulanga. The region is popular with fly fisherman from Gauteng – Johannesburg and Pretoria – and so can be quite crowded at peak times.

This is a fairly standard dam setting in Mpumulanga, but similar venues pop up all over the higher regions of SA

Fly fishing hereabouts tends to center around the town of Dullstroom, which has carved a niche for itself in South African tourism as the fly fishing capital, at least in the northern part of the country. Once again there is an almost unlimited scope for the keen and venturesome fly caster in this part of South Africa. The landscape is slightly less defined than the Drakensberg escarpment, and is characterized primarily by commercial timber plantations, but quite a lot of private land is tucked away here and there, and a good number of dedicated hospitality establishments are available to cater for the fly enthusiast.

On balance the whole thing is a lot more controlled and commercial here than it is in KNZ, but the upside of that is that bad practice is spotted and dealt with quickly, so waters are healthy, well stocked and maintained. Good fishing all in all.

Fly Fishing in South Africa’s Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape Province of South Africa enjoys quite a few advantages as a fly fishing destination over the other two key locations listed above. It is a region given over largely to commercial agriculture or natural preserves, so the pristine nature of the streams and rivers have not been compromised to the same extent as elsewhere (Fisheries in Mpumulanga are currently threaten by mining interests). The natural landscape, once again, is very different, very indicative of the Cape as a whole, with a softer, more temperate aspect altogether. It is also the oldest region of South Africa in terms of settlement and development, so there is a musty character about it that fits in nicely with the traditional associations of tweed and scotch whiskey that all go so well with the gentle art of fly casting. It is also worth mentioning that the quality of fishing is probably better too.

The Eastern Cape has a particular character, better seen than described

The highlands and waterways of this region run off the southern slopes of the Drakensberg into what is known as the Stormberg, or at least part of it. The landscape is composed of interlocking gullies and ridges that offer hundreds of miles of viable trout fishing waters, some more accessible than others. The original stocking, over a century ago, was with rainbow trout, which now breed, and in fact proliferate, and grow to decent sizes in places. This offers the opportunity for authentic wild fish fishing for decent sized fish in the usual pristine natural environments. Aside from rainbow trout, brown trout are frequently caught, as are small and large-mouth yellowfish,  sharptooth catfish and chubbyhead barb.

The local focus of the sport tends to be the small town of Rhodes that lies a few miles south of the rump of southern Lesotho. This is Cape rural tradition at its best – I am sure the purist will probably have a more local definition – and is once again about as classic a fly fishing destination as it is possible to find. The whole game is well organized, well documented and covered by a good number of excellent dedicated lodges and guest houses. With a venturesome spirit and a little bit of energy it is possible to really tap some remote streams, and although the catch in such places tends to be small, the experience is always worthwhile.

This has been just a quick taste of what South Africa has to offer as a fly fishing destination. Check out the blog for more detailed local reports.