It was Wolf Avni who urged me to make a point of visiting Highland Lodge just outside Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape, enthusing in his inimitable way about some environmental anomaly that produces outrageously big trout. I had earmarked Thrift Dam as the likely source of the big fish I wanted before the end of the Eastern Cape leg of the trip – this is after all big fish country, but having failed to land that big fish, my hopes shifted to Highland Lodge.
I drove up from Queenstown early in the morning, reaching the Stormberg at its most flattering hour, and on a day of absolute sun drenched clarity. I paused in the town of Dordtrecht to take in the sights, and then made my way to Highlands Lodge, arriving at about 10H30. There I was met by Vicky Bell, lodge owner, who took me on a short tour of the property, pointing out the various dams, before equipping me with a float tube and flippers and setting me adrift on the thirty or so acre Spurwing Dam.
Before I took to the water I threw out a cast from the dam wall, aiming for a gap in the weeds, and almost at the moment I began the retrieve I was rewarded with a solid bump of the type that is either a snag upon an immovable object or a very large fish. It became quickly apparent that it was the latter. A very carefully managed fight ensued during which I was able to keep the fish out of the weeds while at the same time handling a screaming spool and keeping my footing on an almost perpendicular rock wall. I also did not have my keep net handy, having not in any way expected this, so all in all it was quite an exercise landing a very nice five pounder cock fish, which, after a quick photo op, I released.
Now that is a bloody good start to an afternoon’s fishing! I settled into the float tube and positioned myself a few yards offshore and began to work the edges of the weed bank using my standard 5-weight rod with an inexpensive Diawa reel, shooting an intermediate line with an eight-pound test 3x leader armed with a #8 Hamill’s Killer. The results were immediate, and another heavy fish, possibly a three pounder, perhaps more, took the fly and gave me a hell of a run for my money. This was the first of a half a dozen sizable fish, ranging from three to five pounds, that I was able to lay hands on (I was using a barbless hook so removal and release in the water was fairly easy). There were another half a dozen that slipped the hook. All in all this was an absolutely outstanding afternoon spent on the water. Wolf had been absolutely right.
Highland Lodge is set in the signature countryside of the Stormberg, once again, soft hill country clad in herbaceous grassland with rare tree cover here and there. This is sheep and cattle country, and the lodge is part of a working farm. It is a striking place in that bleakly beautiful way that characterizes so much of the Eastern Cape. Each region – the Witteberg, the Winterberg and the Stormberg – has its own unique character, but each also is very much part of the same broad ecological zone.
The fishing waters consist of a handful of fairly unremarkable looking farm dams. Spending any time upon any of these waters is time spent in the company of cattle and sheep, with the addition of much waterfowl activity, and occasional sighting of other oddities of local wildlife, such as a large clawless otter that I watched on the lake shore doing justice to a similarly large crab that he had picked up in the water.
The star of the show, however, are the trout. The dams may be small, but the fish certainly are not. I spent a very pleasant evening as the guest of Vicky Bell, and her husband Luke, who own and run the Boshoffskraal Farm upon which Highland Lodge is located. In reply to my query as to why the fish grow so unusually large within these modest waters, the reply was simply that the waters hereabouts are very fertile.
In actual fact, salmon sized trout are a bit of a feature of Eastern Cape waters in general, but Highland Lodge definitely seems to produce fish that are several percent larger than the norm, and I had something of an opportunity the next day to see why for myself.
Bernard’s Dam has the reputation for throwing up some monsters – the current record is a thirteen pounder – and it was to this dam that I made my way as the twilight dawned on a very early morning. As I floated over the passive surface of the lake I was struck by the sheer volume of entomology that either coated the surface or drifted in suspension slightly below, including a variety of nymphs, mostly dead it seemed to me, but indicative of an astonishingly fecund body of water.
The truth of this was not made clear to me immediately. The fishing was very slow to begin with, and I was entertained in the meanwhile by several hundred sheep in unending communication with one another who came down to the shore as the sun touched the water to drink. I was using the same basic set-up as the previous afternoon, having only replaced the Hamill’s Killer with a similar sized Mrs. Simpson, and so I made several changes, but reverted to Mrs. Simpson on the basis of past successes. As always, patience is the key.
It was not until daylight had completely arrived that that first action was registered. This was another solid bump that took the hook at the knot – a faulty knot I can only assume. Then, as I decided to take a quick break and return to the car for a coffee, and was sitting over a clump of weeds on the float tube winding in, another powerful strike occurred just as the leader appeared above the surface. Within seconds the line had disappeared off the spool and I was down to a few yards of backing. I actually burned my forefinger on the line, so unexpected was this hit. I tapped the spool several times to slow it down, but whatever was towing out line down below simply jumped the hook, leaving me with a proverbial mouth full of feathers, and wondering what the hell had just happened.
A half an hour or so later I was back on the water. I adopted the same basic tactic as the day before – sitting a few yards offshore working the edges of the weed shoals that choked the banks. The day before most of the action had taken place a foot or less below the surface, and today it was the same. It took a while to get the next hit, but when it came it was another torpedo like fish stripping line at a fantastic rate, running down to the backing in a matter of seconds. This time, though, the hook was well set, and a back and forth struggle ensued that went on for perhaps twenty minutes. This was a powerful fish that took to the air numerous times, but was eventually worn down and came in passively, belly up, exhausted to the extent that it did not recover.
This is the stuff that fishing dreams are made of. This was a large fish by any standard – steelhead sized at the very least. Back at the lodge it was weighed, and it came in at eight and a half pound, nine pound in the fishy story version, and that is good enough for me.
I bade my farewells to Vicky and her superb establishment, and drove southwards once again, and towards adventures new, with a deep sense of satisfaction that the mission had been accomplished. Highlands Lodge is the home of the monster fish, and I say with utter certainly that I will be back one day to catch another.