Thrift Dam, a South African Fly Fishing Legend Exposed

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Getting the Reels in Motion - Fly Fish Africa 2013

Thrift Dam was suggested to me by author and adventurer Kevin Thomas as being something of an oddity on the South African Fly Fishing circuit – this for reasons of it having been at one time an experimental water administered by the Rhodes University Ichthyology Department in the study of trout in South African waters.

A view of Thrift Lake, an isolated and beautiful Fly Fishing destination in the Eastern Cape

A view of Thrift Lake, an isolated and beautiful Fly Fishing destination in the Eastern Cape

According to Kevin, it was reputed to hold some of the largest trout in any South African water. The other point he mentioned was that he had heard that it was now inaccessible without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. I added it to my calendar without finding out much about it beforehand, earmarking it for a visit at some point during the Reels in Motion tour.

I then happened to find myself in Queenstown – not a beautiful city, but a city nonetheless – needing a break from the road and an opportunity to get connected to the web and catch up with correspondence. I had just wrapped up a fantastic trip to Rhodes in the Eastern Cape, fishing with Tony Keitzman, and my next scheduled stop was not far from there in the area of Lady Grey and the Kraai River. It was, however,  still raining steadily in the Witteberg, and the Kraai River was still largely unfishable. Therefore, with a day or two to spare, I found myself reading through the Federation of South African Fly Fishing Associations (FOSAF) guide to fly fishing in South Africa and noted that Thrift Dam was  not too far from Queenstown, about 150 miles.

An unusual landscape,Thrift Lake, Eastern Cape, South Africa

An unusual landscape,Thrift Lake, Eastern Cape, South Africa

In the back of my mind I remembered Kevin’s warning about the road, and bearing in mind I was driving an Opel Corsa two-door, I pondered the prospect of fishing Thrift Dam with a balance of opinions both for and against. I still had a long journey ahead and could not really afford to trash my car in the first quarter. However I rang up the contact number listed in the FOSAF guide – actually there was a little bit of musical chairs before I found the right name and number – Christine at + 27 (0) 875501568 – who was very accommodating (she is the property owner), instructing me basically to show up at Thrift Lake, track down the caretaker and pay him what really was a very modest sum of SAR380, about US$42, for a full days fishing and accommodation. I was warned again that the road was a challenge and should not be tackled lightly.

I set off towards Tarkastad at about 14h30, arriving an hour or so later, from where I gingerly plied the road south towards Adelaide (signposted) with essentially the navigation principal of keeping left. The road was blacktop for about ten miles before it turned to gravel (you will reach a signpost pointing right to Adelaide, but continue left). I immediately got the sense of what I was looking at. The road wasdrivable enough, but there were deep corrugations that shook the heck out of the little car, forcing me to reduce speed and drop down to first gear, and even then it was a shaky drive. This, however, did not last for long, and although bumpy here and there, the road continued to be drivable, and I began to wonder where the problem was? In due course the road thinned to a farm track, at which point it became quite smooth, passing all the while througha most beautiful Winterberg evening, plying the road to ever higher altitudes, with the air crystal clear, and the unbelievable distances that a rain washed atmosphere will allow you to see.

Simple Accommodation,Thrift Lake, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Simple Accommodation,Thrift Lake, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Anyway, in a nutshell, the road is not that bad at all, and with due caution and observance of modest speed, my little car made it without mishap, although I got the feeling that the suspension was not what it had been. What I found was a modest sized reservoir, 168 acres I believe, set in a depression in the otherwise uniform moorland of the Winterberg. Like the Witteberg, I found the landscape easy on the eye, although a little hotter, rougher and dryer, but otherwise another beautiful and hospitable environment (I hear winters can be another story though). I located the caretaker thanks to a countrified lad trotting by bareback on a pony, who, speaking in a hybrid of Xhosa, Afrikaans and English, directed me to a bleak and isolated cottage miles away from anywhere. There the monies were paid, and the key to a gate handed over. I followed directions and found myself in a sheltered cove on the shore of the lake alongside two extremely rustic stone and thatch cottages with unlocked doors and an un-serviced mountain hut type feel. There I settled in, brewed up a cup of rooibos before setting up a rod on an intermediate line, with a #12 Mr. Simpson – the perennial fly for around here, and always a good starter – and tried a few experimental casts.

The best I have to report is a modest strike that had a fish on for no more than a second. Possibly the hook was too small, but I have to say I have searched the Western Cape hinterland for a fly shop, and failed, so I was a little short on the correct tackle.

A nice sized fish taken from Thrift Lake

A nice sized fish taken from Thrift Lake

That notwithstanding I packed as evening settled and made myself comfortable. The next morning I was on the water before dawn. Being without a boat or a float tube I was forced to shore fish, and actually I found Thrift Dam very shore fisherman friendly. There is very little constricting weed at the edges, almost no obstructive vegetation, and reasonably solid underfoot in the instance that I felt it necessary to wade. With a long cast I felt that the fishing was very effective indeed.

Interestingly the water is deeply sepia in color, and with a strong metallic taste tending to suggest that it is influenced by seepage through peat, with the practical effect that the water was not at all clear, and did not give the impression of being clean. Sticking with the Mrs. Simpson I soon hooked into what I thought was a small fish, but it actually, upon landing, turned out to be a nice fourteen inch plus specimen that, although small for Thrift Dam (by reputation anyway), was still a nice fish. I took it out of the water to photograph, but I think that hurt the fish because it did not recover quickly, and I suspect it died. I did not risk photographing any of the subsequent fish caught.

Small Trout Stream, Winterberg, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Small Trout Stream, Winterberg, Eastern Cape, South Africa

During the course of the morning I circumnavigated the dam, catching half a dozen fish of similar size, and having an experience that suggested to me that I had one of the famous Thrift Dam big ‘uns on the hook for a short while. Initially I thought I had snagged onto a rock because the line stopped solid and was immovable. Then, surprisingly, as if I had bedded into the back end of a torpedo, the drag began to sing as it peeled off at a slow but steady rate. I tapped the spool a few times to add some drag, which hardly impacted the movement at all, and then the line went slack. I assume that the #12 had not set well and the fish had lost a bit of skin on its lip, but not much else. One of the gallery of might-have-beens.

Later that afternoon I switched to a  floating line and a black midge dry and worked the river for a few hours. The character of this stream was that of a steady, pool heavy flow set beneath the grass level and not that easy to fish. It  yielded three ten inchers or less for a great deal of effort, so I gave up, returning to the dam for a last flurry before setting off back to Queenstown. Nothing to report there.

One of a handful of small fish caught in the river

One of a handful of small fish caught in the river

In general Thrift Dam is a great fishing spot, not too inaccessible but certainly a long way from anywhere. I believe that the big fish are there to be caught, and although the action was not frantic, it was steady, and an excellent fishing experience all in all. Accommodation was simple, but that was a plus I thought, since it was comfortable and private, although you will need to bring everything from a teapot to a sleeping bag. The road is not anywhere near as bad as it is reputed to be, and if I could make it in an Opel Corsa two-door then just about anything on four wheels will get there.

Winterberg, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Winterberg, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Series Navigation