Fishing in Rhodes, Eastern Cape, South Africa

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Getting the Reels in Motion - Fly Fish Africa 2013

(The image on the left is Tony Keitzman in 1992 with a prize winning trout)

Leaving KwaZulu/Natal and entering the Free State is also about leaving the brash, California style mindset of that particular part of South Africa and entering an older, more culturally defined region of the same country. South of the Orange River, things are very different. The perennial South African color issue is less sharply defined here. There is far less of that clear black/white divide in the south than there is in the north, and more of an historical blending that reveals a great many more people of mixed race, and much more in the way of language and other social interactions between the races that is not so evident elsewhere in South Africa. The various regions of the Cape have an older European history, and the demographic dominance of blacks is quite often reversed  in the Cape.

The remote and Beautiful Witteberg, Eastern Cape, South Africa

The remote and Beautiful Witteberg, Eastern Cape, South Africa

No less than the KZN Midlands, however, the Free State is agricultural, but while the Midlands is much more besides, the Free State for the most part is almost exclusively rural, certainly in the hinterland, and as such there is a bucolic, almost hill-billy flavor to the isolated and widely dispersed country towns that dot the bushveld, like Midwest prairie hamlets of a century ago.

Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State, also lacks any particular tourist appeal, offering only really a handful of military museums, among them the Anglo/Boer War Museum, the University of the Free State and the peculiarity of it being the judicial capital of South Africa. In other respects Bloem is just another busy regional capital founded upon a rather drab landscape, which some celebrate as the wide open spaces, and I am sure they right.

Eastern Cape - A World Class Fly Fishing Destination

Eastern Cape – A World Class Fly Fishing Destination

For myself, I spent no longer in Bloemfontein than it took to locate a working wifi in order to deal with correspondence, and then a quick visit the Anglo/Boer War Museum. I left town under the dead weight of a heat wave, with looming banks of dark and angry clouds thickening on the east horizon. As I passed through such towns as Wepener, Zastron, Aliwal North and Lady Grey, and the afternoon turned to evening, the clouds closed in, lightning began to light up the early darkness, and before eight o’clock I found myself driving gingerly through the highlands of the Southern Drakensberg through a lightning storm very close at hand, and torrents of driving rain.

I arrived in Rhodes much later that evening to find it generally battened down. The lightning had knocked the power out, and besides a few candles in a few windows the town was in darkness. It was not difficult to find my way to Walkerbouts Inn, however, a famous local hostelry owned and run by Dave Walker, a robustly built and bearded man, very much associated with the village of Rhodes, and also a force within regional fly fishing circles. The following morning Dave introduced me to two well known local fly fishing luminaries – Ed Herbst and Tony Keitzman, the latter currently operating as a fishing guide in and around Rhodes, and also very involved locally in promoting and developing fly fishing in the Eastern Cape.

The Bell River, a tributary of the Kraai - Where the big ones are

The Bell River, a tributary of the Kraai – Where the big ones are

Over breakfast  I was appraised of a few basic facts regarding fly fishing in an orbit of, say, fifty miles of Rhodes. Geographically the region of Witteberg and Stormberg represent the southern foothills of the Drakensberg, an alpine landscape of interlocking hills and rivers that fall away from the southern rump of Lesotho, making up two principal river catchments, the Kraai, and its many associated tributaries, which all join the Orange River near Aliwal North, and across the escarpment, numerous tributaries that flow into the Indian Ocean near Port St. Johns as the Umzimvubu River.

Aesthetically the landscape has a high desert flavor, being dominated by scrub moorland with occasional copses of exotic trees that cluster about a homestead, or in the groin of a river confluence. The texture is smooth and very gentle on the senses, with odd tricks of light, or fairytale flourishes here and there, that are just enough to give one a periodic sense of unreality, as though it was all just an allegorical creation for a mythological movie, or some such other visual contrivance.

 A typical cottage at Rhodes, Eastern Cape

A typical cottage at Rhodes, Eastern Cape

The village of Rhodes itself, as the clouds parted briefly to reveal a pristine morning, showed itself to be a picture-perfect example of an Eastern Cape Hamlet, showcased a little with neatly tended cottages and quaint little shops, all in the correct style of the early 20th century; which is usually simply corrugated iron under a gabled facade, all very modest in size, but highly decorative, and again very welcoming and easy on the senses. The village currently consists of no more than a hundred cottages, a school, a church and a handful of shops, all lying nestled against the banks of the Bell River, a tributary of the Kraai, and just then emerging from the deep morning shadow thrown up by the valley walls.

For the fly fisherman there exists some two hundred and fifty miles of fishable river within the Kraai catchment, very little of it actively stocked since the original stocking in the 1920s, but with a vibrant wild bred population of both rainbows and brownies that by now has permeated every viable water in a generally extremely viable ecological niche. Trout share the lower reaches of the catchment with an indigenous small and large mouth yellowfish that has in recent years become an increasingly popular fly fishing sport fish in South Africa.

Walkerbouts Inn, Rhodes, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Walkerbouts Inn, Rhodes, Eastern Cape, South Africa

The system is managed by the Wild Trout Association, the brainchild of, among others, Dave Walker of Walkerbouts, who is arguably its most active administrative member. The WTA provides an organizational framework to more easily bring into use the many miles of streams and tributaries that make up the Kraai catchment and associated fishery. In this regard local landowners are able to charge a rod fee for their waters through a beat booking system administered in the Rhodes area by Dave Walker, with permits sold and booking made through his, and a number of other local hospitality providers.

The system was established twenty years or so ago as a means of better coordinating access to local waters in an effort to capitalize more effectively on this amazing resource that for the most part lay unexploited. Statistically the system has been a success, with recognition given to the fact that widespread local unemployment can, at least in part, be alleviated by the revenues and enterprises that have sprung up, and will spring up around fly fishing in the area.

The main road into Rhodes

The main road into Rhodes

My current prospects, however, were not bright. The heavy rain through which I had driven to get to Rhodes had caused the principal waters to spate beyond any real possibility of fishing them, leaving open only the option that I love the best – small stream, headwater fishing on a light rod and with light tackle. In this regard I had met a kindred spirit in Tony Keitzman who admitted that he did not even own a 4-weight or heavier rod, or anything other than a floating line. To him, as to me, small stream fishing, in particular late in the season when the streams have declined and their clarity is unadulterated, is one of the most technically demanding branches of the sport, and often, one might add, the most esoteric, simply because the reward are usually fish no bigger than ten inches, often much smaller.

But again, in the matter of trout, size is a consequence of food availability and environment, and ought not to diminish any worthwhile angler’s perception of a fish’s courage and intelligence. In fact, those small survivor specimens living in that comparatively difficult environment are more canny, more selective and more circumspect than most other trout, and are as a consequence much more difficult to catch. This is the joy of small stream fishing, and Tony was quick to suggest that this be the angle that we try.

Tony Keitzman, Rhodes, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Tony Keitzman, Rhodes, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Tony and I met up outside Walkerbouts promptly at eight the following morning. I found him agreeable from the onset – passionately enthusiastic without any of the usual airs and graces of an expert, which he certainly was, being, among other things, a close personal friend of South African fly fishing supremo Tom Sutcliffe. His handshake was firm enough to tweak my tennis elbow and his kit compliment minimalist, although comprehensive and of a very high quality, and he carried a heavy and expensive camera.

Besides that he is a sparsely ascetic looking man, weather beaten at aged fifty-six, with some residual flavor of the teenage motorcycle tearaway which at one time he was, but perhaps a far greater flavor of a creative and accomplished man with a mixed career behind him who made a profound midlife lifestyle decision in order to live in a state of fly fisherman’s grace. He now enjoys daily proximity to some of the greatest fly fishing waters in South Africa, general peer recognition for his abilities and achievements, but perhaps most importantly a keen personal appreciation of the Zen of fly fishing. Of course the latter parameter – the Zen of fly fishing –  embraces not only the creativity of a master fly tier, and nor simply the finer points of mastering the craft of fly fishing itself, but also the host of other less definable attributes of the fly that are part at least of what draw us all to the sport.

Tony Keitzman, Rhodes, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Tony Keitzman handling a nice twelve incher

Tony took me to what he called the Glen Nesbitt Stream, a tributary of the Bokspruit River so minor that it is referred to by the name of the property that it flows through – Glen Nesbitt. It was a gorgeous clear morning, one of those lovely, rain washed, high altitude atmospheres through which the sun shines clear and hot. The majority of the trout waters hereabouts flow at above 2500m, and I would guess that we arrived and parked up at slightly above that altitude. After setting up our tackle – I with a Sage 2-weight and Tony with a handmade split cane that was a gift from Tom Sutcliffe, and which bore his signature.

Tony set the ball rolling by working a long and shallow run with his signature forward leaning posture and a light, flicking cast. With this curious technique he was able to shoot line against the wind with astonishing range and accuracy. He worked quickly, using a bright hopper pattern with which he probed the riffles and eddies. Soon he pushed me up ahead, however. There was no point, he said, in my working water that he had already worked, and as a consummate guide his interest was in making sure that I caught fish.

First Catch on the Glen Nesbitt Stream

First Catch on the Glen Nesbitt Stream

I was working with a brass beaded micro nymph at a dead drift with a strike indicator set at about three foot from the tippet, three times the mean death of the pools that we were working. It is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for this type of fishing. The stream flowed over a fairly steep gradient, so the streambed itself was clean, and the water clear. The bed was composed primarily of cobble and gravel, with occasional sweeps of sandstone or basalt bedrock. The fish were visible periodically, so, while productive pools could be scouted, some stealth was necessary – although I will say that fish rose to a dry fly quite often within a few feet of where I was wading. Besides this the banks were free of constricting vegetation, with low growth punctuated by occasional flourishes of low Ouhout bush.

It was not too long before we began to catch. The first take was at the head of a run where the fish were clearly visible moving in a small group. This specimen was probably a ten inch rainbow, a good start, and quite a respectable fish for the waters. And it continued. Using the same nymph pattern, every second pool yielded a small fish, with the fish of the day being an eighteen incher that broke the tippet after a stiff thirty second fight. The best fish that was landed was a fourteen incher, and by any standards, in a small stream such as the Glen Nesbitt Stream, that is a decent sized fish.

A nice little small stream rainbow trout

A nice little small stream rainbow trout

The climax of the day came at mid-afternoon when I swapped the nymph for a elk hair caddis and began to test the waters on a dry. I have always felt an affinity with a dry fly on a light tippet bobbing off the white water and into the current. There is nothing that quite matches the thrill of seeing the slight flurry of a rise followed by the quick strike that pricks a fish in to action. It is a beautiful moment; and there were a number of those moments before the long shadows and that old-man weariness began to tell on us both. A dozen or so fish in all had been caught, probably half of those on a dry, and I rate the whole experience as one of the finest days fishing I have ever spent.

We drove home through the shifting atmospherics of an declining sun creating unexpected depth and contrast on a landscape that was at any time rich with detail and perspective. Our discussion naturally dwelt on what we had done and how we had done it. Tony Keitzman is among the most recognized fly fishermen in South Africa, his name appearing in many journals and accredited with a great deal of pioneering work in the field of local fly fishing. He also, however, is known for his knowledge and cataloging of local flowers. In fact much of his day to day guiding work is in botanical guiding, with the Eastern Cape enjoying a reputation second perhaps only to Namaqualand as a destination for local and international flower wildflower enthusiasts.

A fairly typical headwater - still fishable

A fairly typical headwater – still fishable

Needless to say Tony ties his own flies, many of which are personalized variations on established patterns, with occasional unnamed individual creations. The fishing fly mutates and evolves with similar rapidity to the creature it seeks to emulate. Of the commercial available patterns, Tony’s suggestions for the area’s streams were, a beaded hair’s ear at #14 or #16, or a green rock worm at the same sizes for Nymphing, and a Parachute Adams, also at the same sizes, as a dry option, with also an #18 to #20 Griffith’s Gnat and various beetles and hoppers at around about the same sizes.

Tony could not be drawn on tactics. Apart from a few basic principles, tactics, he said, are an individual expression, and part of the individual contribution to the overall growth and expansion of the art form. ‘Whatever you have confidence in…’ he tends to remark enigmatically, and I suppose that is a great lesson. I certainly am a believer in the unorthodox approach, and if catching fish counts, then just go ahead and do what catches you fish!

Eastern Cape Evening

Eastern Cape Evening

In general, though, I would say that the Eastern Cape is one of the best fly fishing destinations I have seen, and certainly the best in South Africa. It was unfortunate that weather prevented me from fishing the bigger waters at lower altitude were the sizable fish are said to lurk – a five pound trophy fish is not that uncommon – but a day spent with Tony Keitzman doing what he clearly loves to do, and does very well indeed, was worth a thousand solo expeditions in more productive waters anywhere.

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