Underberg is a small town located on the southern rump of the Drakensberg Mountains, and is known primarily for its dairy output, but also as a well rounded recreational area for the metropolitan hubs of Gauteng and Durban. The South African Drakensberg comprises the east and south facing escarpment of the range (with the bulk of the high country beyond falling into Lesotho) which is for the most part protected within the boundaries of various park subdivisions, providing a sweeping wilderness preserve, some 130km in length, and in places 20kms deep, comprising some of the most breathtakingly beautiful highland habitat in Africa.
Underberg itself is a dusty little town serving the local farming and recreational community with very little to recommend it other than as a jumping off point for multiple mini-destinations, lodges, camps and hotels, all of which offer one or more of a handful of key activities. These are, in the main, hiking and mountain biking along the many superb trails available on the flanks of the Berg, horse trails amid similarly spectacular scenery, and of course fly fishing.
My introduction to the area was thanks to the kind offices of Ian Davis, local member of the Underberg and Himeville Trout Fishing Club (UHTFC) who spared no effort whatsoever in making available to me what waters the club has rights over, and in general filling me in on the fly fishing potential that this area offers.
There are three key sets of options. The first are the commercial waters appended to various country lodges and guest houses that vary in quality and authenticity, one supposes, according to the quality and authenticity of the establishments. Some are better than others, and the local fishermen that I chatted to tended to be rather scathing in general, although accepting of the fact that these ‘canned’ fishing options provide an outlet for the weekend warrior type fishermen, leaving the more natural waters, and the wild bred fish within them, for those with both the necessary wherewithal and the appreciation.
The great advantage of dams and lakes associated with hospitality establishments is the fact that you can enjoy the comfort and sophistication of the latter, indulging in the former as light recreation to absorb a couple of hours on any given afternoon. There is very little pretence at high quality sport fishing, and possibly those enjoying the facilities have no pretentions towards that.
For those, however, who wish to push the boat out a little bit, there are some spectacularly productive waters available. The hub of the sport locally is the UHTFC, to whom many private landowners have given rights to both moving and still waters. The Umzimkulu River is recognized as being the premier moving water in the district, containing wild bred trout, some of trophy size, comprising a sustainable population first seeded in 1911, and again in 1923, but since then only sporadically topped up during periods of drought or other difficulty.
The still waters available comprise privately owned farm dams which offer fantastic habitat for large fish to prosper, and which are always scenic after a fashion, but which tend to have an agricultural backdrop that might not impress the purist searching for the Drakensberg idyll of the guide books. That notwithstanding, great fishing is available.
My visit to the area saw me fishing and lodging courtesy of Wolf Avni of Giant’s Cup Resort, where the best of both scenery and waters were combined in one uniquely worthwhile destination. Besides that I fished the Ringstead Lake, located on Ringstead Farm, some 10 miles out of town, and briefly on the Umzimkulu River just outside of town. The setting was bucolic, and not unattractive, and initially the fishing was slow. I had taken several wrong turns in trying to find the lake, so arrived on the water later than I had intended, and so probably missed the best of the day’s fishing, which is usually as early in the morning as possible and late in the afternoon. I also happened to be poorly supplied with local fly patterns thanks to finding the local fly fishing shop closed twice, and had to rely on my default selection which tends to be of the streamer/nymph variety.
I did, however, have one rather damaged Hamills Killer left over from an earlier trip to Connemara in Zimbabwe, which I attached to a 6lb leader towards the end of the morning in the hope that the old tried and tested fly of my youth might save me from a threadbare morning. Several casts yielded nothing, however, and in some despair I began to reel in to row my way back to shore. As I watched the leader come in a blue apparition appeared from beneath like a torpedo and took the fly an inch above the water, boring downwards again as the drag line sang. As I gathered my composure and began to fight this beast the line grew extremely heavy, meaning that the fish had plunged into the weeds and was now tangled up. Sure enough, as I cranked the line in a large clump of green appeared, with the flashing beneath it of a trout of about twenty or more inches, or so it seemed to me. As I carefully fought to clear the weed from the leader it broke at the knot, and the fish was gone.
If nothing else that represented a sure sign that on a good day the fishing in Ringstead Lake would equal any anywhere, but this was not a good day, and a stoic angler need always recognize and accept this fact when it is upon him. I left the fish of Ringstead alone that day, and returned to Underberg to once again be frustrated in finding fishing shop closed ten minutes before I arrived.
Ian Davis had also arranged for me to fish a stretch of the Umzimkulu River. However that night the heavens opened and it rained hard and consistently all night. By morning the Umzimkulu was flowing hard and dark, offering almost no bank access, and too stiffly to really effectively fish. I probed a few sheltered inlets, but after a few hours gave it up and returned to my lodging to pack up.
In the few days that I had available to explore Underberg and surroundings I definitely got the feeling that some of the best fly fishing in the world can definitely be found here. Local conditions allow for wild bred trout to reach amazing sizes, and local anglers seem to expect huge fish as a matter of routine. I did get the sense that some of the pure essence of the sport has been compromised by the expectation that only large fish represent an acceptable catch. I did not walk away with a trophy fish, but I did have fantastic sport with hard fighting fish of a kilo and under, and to me that was plenty to be getting on with. To catch one of the famous big ‘uns from around here requires a high degree of skill, or terrific luck, perhaps both, and as an outsider I was quite happy with what I caught. Underberg is certainly the place for the purist anger, a place where fellow purists abound, and if salmon sized trout are what you are after, you have a better chance of catching one here than just about anywhere else I know.
Special thanks to Ian Davis of the UHTFC and Wolf Avni of Giant’s Cup. Thank you gentlemen, I greatly appreciate you interest and assistance.