Small Stream Fishing on the the Bushman’s River

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Getting the Reels in Motion - Fly Fish Africa 2013

After spending a week or so at the coast to take refuge from a wave of turbulent weather that washed over the sub-continent towards the end of January, and after taking care of a little bit of business, I set off towards the Drakensberg uKhahlamba National Park to test out the fishing in one or two of the many rivers that flush off the flanks of the escarpment, feeding ultimately into the catchments of the two big brothers of KZN rivers, the Thukela and the Umzimkulu. I had already fished the Umzimkulu outside Underberg, unsuccessfully I have to admit, thanks to heavy seasonal rain that filled the river beyond any reasonable hope of fishing it. My time on the Umzimkulu had been by invitation of the Underberg and Hineville Trout Fishing Club (UHTFC), and although I was quite certain that Ian Davis would arrange a second attempt if I asked him, the river was still high, and time marches on.

Wolf Avni had suggested that I try either the Little Mooi River or Bushman’s River, both of which enjoy a reputation for excellent sport – known also for their populations of wild-bred brown trout. Of the two I chose the Bushman’s River, rising as it does off the soft flanks of the Berg at Giant’s Castle, about thirty miles west of the small KZN town of Mooi River. Wolf did remark as I left Giant’s Cup that I would probably be disappointed, which I took to mean the quality of the fishing and not the splendid backdrop which cannot be disappointing. The fact is that if a man such as Wolf enjoys the essential waters of South Africa just yards from his deck, where a five pound trout is considered below par, then it fairly stands to reason that any waters anywhere are likely to disappoint.

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A lovely fishing location

The essential character of the Drakensberg National Park is a narrow, arching, but essentially east/northeast facing escarpment falling was from the highlands of Lesotho. It is subdivided into a number of national parks, forest areas and wilderness reserves, all comprising what is known as Drakensberg uKhahlamba National Park, or simply the Berg. The escarpment falls away from Leostho in a series of castle-like ramparts  – hence the many castle references associated with the Drakensberg – which run essentially from the Royal Natal Park in the north to the Umzimkulu Wilderness Area in the south, the latter adjacent to the town of Underberg.

Giant’s Castle is not recognized as being the most spectacular of the Drakensberg regions, but it is beautiful enough, offering up a satisfying tract of the signature green hill country of the Berg that yields eventually to the sheer and rugged face of the escarpment that towers above it all. The Bushman’s River flows off the face of the Escarpment hereabouts, drawing together the tendrils of a great many tributaries, each of which has cut a deep, often wooded gully of its own out of the larger surface of the range. These little rivers cascade off the flanks of the mountain in a jolly tumble of clear, effervescent water, fishable of course, but hardly home to the size of fish worth catching. The Bushman’s River itself, on the other hand, flows relatively evenly down the deepest and widest of these gullies, rendering it generally free from waterfalls, but with the glut of seasonal water creating long runs of white water that slowed only occasionally into brief but restless pools.

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High streams and small fish

Most of the promotional fly fishing literature associated with the Berg tends to paint a picture of wild rivers with wild trout in abundance, both of which are true, but the fishing here is not as spectacular as is implied, even if the rivers, and the landscape in general, are as dramatically beautiful in every regard as any a restless soul could crave.

Thanks probably to Wolf’s warning, and a fair amount of experience on small rivers, I had fairly low expectations as my little Opel plied the undulating road between sizable highland farms and occasional tranches of compact African village life. This lovely, if somewhat uniform landscape was bathed in clear, rain-washed sunshine. On the right hand side of the road the Bushman’s River came into view, flowing evening and for the most part gently at high water through high grass fringed banks. It was bordered for the most part with commercial farmland, punctuated by dispersed herds of beef cattle, and tightly encased in stream bank cultivation where it flowed through a communal area.

This, incidentally, has been the death of many trout streams in Africa. Poor land, and in particular stream bank management, has allowed indigenous agriculture to encroach too deeply, allowing unrestricted runoff to silt up the streams, and the eventual emergence of deep erosion gullies that render the soft alluvial deposits clinging to the inner arc of every bend useless both for mankind and fish. In this case, however, it was gratifying to note that the stream bank cultivation was not excessive, and that a border several meters deep of natural vegetation had been allowed to remain on either bank in order to retain the integrity of the water and of course the natural stream bank ecology. This implied good local agricultural extension work, but also that the innate value of the river – both upstream and downstream – as a sport fishing destination excited a great deal of energy towards its preservation.

Arriving at the main camp, I set up camp and dealt with my tackle. I opted first for #14 Hamill’s Killer tied to a 3x tippet on a 4-weight rod with a floating line. The Hamill’s had served me well on the two trips preceding, and so it seemed a decent way to start.

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Bushman’s River

The river, if not in spate, was certainly at high water, and at a glance it was difficult to know where to start. Earlier or later in the season the water level would have been lower and the flow less even. There would be visible pools, more character to the water and a general diversity of opportunity. At time, however, the river lay under a steady flow, uniform and unbroken. Occasionally a pool might be discernible, but the current through it was invariably quick, carrying away a fly drop at the head of the run in moments.

Stream fishing can be one of the most pleasant disciplines of the sport. It is usually undertaken in some high and beautiful place where the river’s flow is young, and typically it is a matter of moving slowly up or downstream, working the pools, the tails of the rapids and any other quirk or anomaly in the flow of water that might attract the watchful leisure of a predatory fish. Now, with the rapids and pools submerged under a uniform flow of water, it was very difficult initially to read the patterns, and for some time I floundered. My cast collapsed numerous times against a impish breeze, wrapping the filament around itself time and again, and snagging on innocuous riparian foliage almost with every second cast. A good stretch of the river was rendered useless because of this maladroit handling, and I admit that I was beginning to become more than a little irritated. Then, with the line finally unfurling under careful discipline, and dropping the #14 Hamill’s Killer right on the hump of a rapid, just at the end of the run, there was a quick snap and flourish of silver, and a fish was on.

Granted it was small – maybe eight or nine inches – but the spell had broken, and everything then began to slip more comfortably into rhythm. I drew the little fish into shallow water. It was a small brownie, quite an unusual fish to land after months, years in fact, of fishing for rainbow and periodic cutthroat. It’s beautiful, iridescent caramel flanks, darkening at the spine, and with gorgeous, fat, chocolate colored spots decorating the flanks. A truly beautiful creature. I marveled for a few quick moments, and then rocked the fish gently in the water until it was ready to dart back into the brisk river traffic.

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That evening an early mountain sunset presaged for me an early night. The walk up the river, probably six miles both ways, and been undertaken at a steady wade, and at fifty-years old these things begin to hurt. I gratefully spread my bones on the hard earth, softened somewhat by an expensive air mattress, and stared at the waning moon through the gauze of my tent interior, sans the flysheet in honor of a clear, champagne evening.

That night I dreamed about fish, as one does at times like this. Here in the mountains the fish are wild, or have at least been long enough in the wild to have forgotten their hatchery manners. Notwithstanding the smaller quarry – small does not imply diminished courage or intelligence – a fish surviving in the wild will not survive long without caution, and nor will it survive long with an excess of caution. A fish, like any living creature, requires food, and what is on offer in a river such as the Bushman’s River is never abundant, or at least never consistently abundant. Fish must eat, and it is within that subtle eddy of acceptable risk that an average fish will feed. The survivors, the big one that we all seek, exist within a three-way synchronicity of spatial awareness, caution and opportunism, tempered at times of glut – say during a hatch or at a time such as this with high river flows and much opportunistic potential – with an infuriating natural coquettishness, some would say bloody-mindedness, that causes them to disdain any and all temptations artfully presented at the end of a thread-like filament.

The march of the seasons, of course, play a pivotal role. During winter the food chain is diluted, coinciding with the increased energy demands for winter breeding trout. In the Autumn months prior to spawning, trout forage with determination, building up their reserves for the challenging ordeal ahead. Where possible fish begin to move upstream to shallow gravel beds, there becoming vulnerable to predators such as otter, herons and mongoose.

As temperatures plunge with the onset of winter trout begin to metabolize at a much slower rate, becoming lethargic, tempted only rarely by a slow-moving nymph or a solid bodied dry. The onset of spring is signaled by accelerating hatches of small midges and smuts, damsels and dragons, until with summer there is abundance. It is then that fish seem to evaporate from the shallows, preferring the deeper pockets of coolness alongside the flow where opportunistic feeding occurs.[1]

At this time – now according to my calendar – dawn sorties are the best tactic, as fish move around and feed energetically in the low temperatures, moving later as the sun rises to shelter in deeper runnels.

Dawn it must be. I work up periodically from a shallow sleep, listening for birdsong, peering up at the satin sky, trying to determine if dawn was imminent. At some point I concluded that it was, confirmed by the Hadedas coming to life in the trees behind the campsite.

I drove a few miles downstream through the cool twilight of morning, commencing my maneuver to the riverbank just as the first sunshine of the day touched the peaks far above. I foraged according to the prevailing advice from the pros at Wild Fly Travel and the FOSAF guide to fly fishing in South Africa; that is moving quietly and slowly through the undergrowth to the end of a run, and then inching upstream, working the runs from top to bottom. I did this first with a Hamill’s Killer, then with a Mrs. Simpson, neither of which registered any success. I eventually swapped out to a black beaded #12 wooly bugger and immediately scored a hit. This time it was a fiercely animated little rainbow of about ten inches. I brought him in, slipped the barbless hook out and sent him on his way. (I had been told to take out any rainbows thanks to a hatchery accident that released these fish into the river. This I did not do.)

Interestingly, both fish – this and the brown of the night before –  had been caught towards the end of the run, and on a fly drawn upstream against the current. I have had pros tell me ‘you’ll never catch anything that way,’ and yet I consistently do. I don’t know that with better skills, or with some local knowledge, I would have caught anything bigger, but my guess would be that even on a brilliant day, the main sport at this time of the year would be little fish between eight and twelve inches, with an occasional fifteen or eighteen incher breaking the cycle. That would be my guess.

By noon, and one little brownie later, the light and heat had both become prohibitive, and I headed back to camp. Later that afternoon I visited a couple of the pools that I had identified the day before, and on my last cast scored another beautiful little ten inch brownie on a #14 gold ribbed hairs ear, not much of a fighter, but another lovely creature to hold for a second, and then to release.

The point about fishing somewhere like this is not always to catch the big fish, and once I had realized this to be the truth of the moment I adjusted my expectations. This is a strategy rich game that involves stealth, instinct and an ability to read the water, thinking like a fish, probing the riffles, eddies and pools with a light fly, light tackle and a delicate touch. If it is not the apogee of the fly fisherman’s art, then it is certainly an excellent training ground.

Again, I have always been told, and the guide books certainly emphasize this fact, that the correct approach is to move from downstream upwards, working first the end of a run, moving forward towards the head in slow and incremental movements. I am a small stream/light tackle disciple, and I have fished small streams from Africa to the USA, and I have always scored my best results drifting from the head of the stream downwards, retrieving across or against the current. The same was true on this trip. As I had sat in the pro shop yarning with the guides prior to driving up to the Berg, I listened to the aficionados discussing the technicalities of small stream, clear water fishing. Very technical I was assured, and I am sure that this is so, but the essence of this game is individual experimentation, and having been a guide myself for many years, I know bullshit when I hear it.

Anyway. The net result was that I enjoyed a superb, sundrenched and pleasantly tiring few days in a beautiful highland habitat fishing a superb small river. What I caught was what I expected to catch, and I await another day to prove myself wrong. As I packed up the Opel and began to make my way downriver, I glanced over the steep bank on the left hand side and watched the handsome Bushman’s River flowing easily through it’s beautiful home, and felt profoundly blessed to have had this moment…another that shall never be repeated.


[1] Thanks to Wolf Avni for these insights

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