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Year: 2020 (page 1 of 2)

Over Covid

I recently went fishing at Baines River Lodge in Zambia and if you ask anyone in that country about Covid 19, the answer in every instance will be, “there is no Covid here”.

This may simply be a case of complete denial, the old ostrich with its head in the sand trick, or, it could be a remarkable case of the power of positive thought.

None of this made any difference to the fact that in order to leave Zambia, one is still required to pay a substantial sum to have a very long ear-bud type contraption inserted through the nose to ascertain whether the dreaded virus has somehow made a nest in the lower region of your brain. The same test in South Africa involves a similar probe being shoved down your oesophagus and gently rotated just below the adams apple, until one is retching uncontrollably and tears are running down your face. And after all that, there is still doubt as to whether the bloody test even works at all!

Anyway, if that’s what it takes to get back onto the glorious Lower Zambezi after 8 months of lockdown induced withdrawal symptoms, they can shove their little probes wherever they like.

Being November, as expected, the weather was hot and steamy, the kind of conditions Tigers seem to love. Unfortunately, fairly high winds were also prevalent, which has the opposite effect on these toothy critters.

I was sharing the boat with my old fishing buddy, Scott Brown, who is a director of Baines Camp and knows this section of the river like the back of his hand. We left camp daily at around 5.30 am and made our way down to the Lower Zambezi National Park (LZNP) for the day, returning only at dusk when the Park closes for the night. Fortunately, the Baines team pack a mean cold box filled to the brim with plenty of ice to last the day, along with enough food to feed a small village if required.

After an 8 month hiatus, the first day on the water was a bit like learning from scratch. Wayward casts found overhanging trees and visible stumps in the river with unerring accuracy, leading to much foul language, repetitive re-rigging of bent wire, snapped leaders and lost lures. But as the day progressed, we started to find our feet, along with our confidence and some hope. None of which helped us land any decent fish.

The next day, however, saw an immediate change. Stick baits landed near the river bank and underwater structure were smashed within seconds. As usual with topwater lures, hook up rates were limited, but within minutes we had 2 double-digit Tigers weighed and safely released, along with a few smaller fish. Game on.

Drifting down the broad expanse of water sandwiched between Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the LZNP is a special privilege. Herds of elephant splash through shallows, the largest concentration of hippos on the planet inhabit the drop-offs, huge crocodiles bask on the sandbanks, buffalo roam the islands, lions amble down to the water’s edge for a drink and laze in the shade. Birds of every shape and colour add a cacophony of sound. In short, a natural wonderland in which to fish.

In all we landed 6 fish over 10 pounds, along with a few more nearing that magical mark. Not a blinding outing, but certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Gorgeous sunsets, nursing large cold G&T’s on a sandy island, followed by fine dining and beds with crispy white sheets in air-conditioned comfort are what Baines is all about.

But don’t take my word for it, try and get up there yourself, it’s well worth it.

Prepare to be violated through a few orifices first though.

Sundowners Count

So why does a cold beer or iced G&T taste infinitely better after a long day out on the river or ocean?

This is a question I’ve been trying my best to answer for over 40 years. 

One doesn’t need to fish to enjoy a frosty ale. But it certainly seems to help.

Seldom do you find a couple of fishing buddies sitting around a cold box sipping sparkling water. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’ve never seen it personally.

Perhaps it’s just easier for normally honest people to exaggerate after a couple of “dops”. In my experience that would make sense, given the number of patently obvious fibs to be found expounded around the camp fire, and the incredible ability a released fish has to grow in size and fighting prowess as the evening progresses.

Good fishing destination managers are well aware of the pre-requisite of having well stocked pubs and coolers, along with an endless supply of ice. All of which is often easier said than done in hot remote areas around Africa, but without which, even a good days fishing might be irrevocably ruined.

Under normal circumstances, we will be on location half of any given year filming our angling TV shows, so we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some of the most splendid sundowner locations on the planet. If you’ve ever spent an evening on a sandbank in the Zambezi River, or a houseboat at Lake Kariba, watching the setting sun slip slowly below the horizon in a blaze of orange, you’ll know what I mean.

Then, there’s the majesty of a live-aboard yacht on the open ocean, or a sandy white beach on a private Island, the Kalahari, or the Okavango Delta. These are all spectacular experiences in their own right, but somehow they just wouldn’t be quite the same without an evening tipple.

Even a jaunt to our local Midlands Trout waters often requires some lubrication for maximum success. A happy ending around here probably means dropping into Notties Hotel for a cold one on the way home.

Talking about this landmark watering hole, the Tops Corporate Challenge fishing event, held here annually, is certainly an indication of how the lines between actual fishing and sitting around the pub discussing it, may blur somewhat. These two pastimes then are certainly not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination.

Without the traditional glass of Brandy and Coke making an appearance on the banks of our many fine dams and rivers, Carp fishing would probably slip into obscurity entirely.

Bass angling is a serious business for those who practice it. The boats used have large engines and move at high speed from one place to another, so cold box lids need to be secured at all times in order to avoid nasty accidents or loss of bottles.

Many ski-boat clubs along the length of our coastline have great settings overlooking the ocean and vibrant pubs where members congregate over an ale of an evening.

Recreational fishing then seems to be inextricably linked to enjoying a few drinks responsibly with like-minded friends and family.

None of which helps me understand exactly why that beer tastes so good after a day’s fishing.

But what the hell, I’m just going to keep at it until I find the answer.

I Want to Break Free

I used to send my children to their room when they misbehaved just as teachers intern naughty brats with detention and every military institution will confine you to your quarters for inappropriate behaviour, so it is no wonder that we all had an adverse reaction to lockdown.

Why are we being punished is the psychological undercurrent, despite the rationale.

As a nation who live, by and large, outdoors, not being able to enjoy the safe wide open space seemed ludicrous and within the first month, we all felt the walls closing in. The large contingent of anglers in South Africa were gobsmacked that you couldn’t stand alone on a river, dam or shoreline getting some fresh air and needed exercise. Then the final straw was taking away our fundamental right to choose to have a responsible drink!

I get that you cannot congregate and celebrate your catch of the day or toast another fisherman’s trophy, but to prevent grown-ups from enjoying a drink in the sanctity of their own house, what’s next, an ankle monitor?

Fisherfolk are by nature positive people. When you think of the odds stacked against any angler every time they throw a line into the big blue, you have to be. And experience has taught us, be prepared to come home empty-handed, so we’re no strangers to disappointment. But, this is enough to drive a man to drink, ironic no?

Thankfully we are now allowed to enjoy some recreational angling, albeit only within your province, which is hopefully a precursor for allowing all responsible South Africans to travel within your family group and experience the beauty of our beloved country. So as long as it’s legal, here are a few suggestions of iconic fishing destinations to visit within our borders.

  1. The great Orange River – it’s a spectacular contrast of serene arid landscape and the largest river system in South Africa, from below Augrabies Falls, this desert wilderness can be explored by canoe and riverside camp. The fishing is simply off the scale and it’s an adventure that the whole family will enjoy.
  1. The majestic Drakensberg – this mountain range covers a multitude of breathtaking locations and many rivers, all teaming with Trout, from the foothills in the village of Nottingham road to the escarpment of the Southern Berg and through to the Eastern Cape, it’s an incredible road trip that every fly fisher should take.
  1. Cape Vidal – within the world renowned iSimangaliso Wetland Park, this protected marine reserve not only offers some of the best salt water angling in the country, but it’s unique habitat of alluvial plains and coastal forest is home to four of the big five and incredible wildlife, it’s the perfect combination of a beach and bush holiday.
  1. The Wild Coast – the unspoiled coastline of the Eastern Cape is what draws rock and surf anglers to the many seaside villages renowned for foot-print free beaches and lazy lagoons. It has some incredible hiking trails, with many famous landmarks and in the right season you are almost guaranteed to witness the migratory whales.
  1. Your local watering hole – alas this certainly doesn’t refer to the pub down the road, but the multitude of dams and fishing holes that are within an hour or two’s drive, all of which haven’t seen a rod in the last four months! The local tourism industry is what you should support, making sure that these establishments dedicated to local anglers are there for many years to come.

Remember when travelling, double-check the latest legislation for any further restrictions that Mrs. Zuma decides, in her infinite wisdom to shackle us with. Social distancing like hygiene is common sense, so there’s no tongue in cheek when I urge everyone to be wise and take all the necessary precautions to put the brakes on this terrible pandemic.

As a fisherman, it’s natural to want to find someone to blame, after all we have a bible of excuses of why we didn’t catch fish as it’s never our fault, but this Corona catastrophe is past pointing fingers. I would only appeal to our incumbent leaders to take a leaf out of our great Springboks playbook who have given the rock legend’s Queen’s anthem ‘We are the Champions’ real meaning to all South Africans.

You can not force a person’s support, give us the respect and right to choose. A relaxing beverage consumed responsibly at home is what you can do to prevent us from feeling like another of Freddy’s famous songs.

The Kitchen Sink

What to throw at the problem is the @#$%&$! problem. That fish are fussy, no frustrated angler will argue about and when it comes to fly fishing for Trout the debate quickly devolves into fly patterns? It is a question more worn than a green and gold jersey when the Boks are playing. A process of elimination would seem a sensible strategy, but if you have a fly box of Liquorice Allsorts, then you’re likely to freeze your proverbial nuts off before you get lucky. Winter at least narrows down your selection as the larger insects and terrestrials in particular are absent, but what you use also depends on your style of fishing. Most casual enthusiasts, due to limited time, favour a float tube and a sinking line of sorts, which means that your fly will, for the most part, be travelling more horizontally through the water column….Rip and Strip Streamer Fishing.

So we’re talking about attracting a fish as opposed to fooling it into thinking what you’re stripping is a real insect. Now whatever I suggest in size, shape, materials or colour will spawn a boring debate and every fly fisher has a valid opinion based on their personal experience. But, most would agree as the Trout start to fixate on each other, water temperature fuelling their urge to breed, of all the triggers, colour is the key. Hence, in the height of Winter, you can use any colour as long as it’s Orange. Now I also like natural movement in my flies, so it’s open season on Turkey’s ( Marabou) and Bugs Bunny (Zonker strip). Add to this some weight, ala tungsten beads, to ensure my fly on the pause will also drop and can be stripped more vertically and I’m covering most basis. Some rubber legs have also been known to materialise after a few single malts. Now this might not resemble any earthly creature, but I choose function over form and you tend to stop asking why when your reel is singing.

If you think it might be too bright, then tone it down in which case you can never go wrong with an Olive contrast. It’s important that you have confidence in your fly, so you’re not changing too often and spend more time retrieving. Remember this is just one simple fly strategy applicable to Winter streamer fishing and by no means the only successful one.

The beauty of hunting still water Trout in Winter is that the water clarity affords you a visual. We tend to start casting or launch a tube before we think (which is just plain lazy) and the best advice any guide will give you is to find the fish before you start treating the water like a misbehaved puppy. All fish gravitate towards structure and in a dam Trout will move in a circuit or pattern, so take the time to observe surface movement or sight your target with any decent polarised glasses.

Naturally, you only need a floating line and generally due to water quality opt for a small fly. This is not a party you can crash, it requires a subtle invitation, so try not to spook them with your cast……a longer leader helps. And most importantly don’t cast at the fish, pick the direction and lead it by a couple of rod lengths. The trick is to either let it find your fly by forward-thinking / casting or get its attention with a tap on the door, loud knocking will get you nowhere. Any nymph might do, but I’m a fan of Peacock’s and their hurl, so I don’t experiment much with anything else. My only variation would be a gaudy attractor above the little nymph, just in case a horny cock fish is spoiling for a fight.

I’m not a big believer in having to go down to ultra-light tippet when Trout are in spawning mode, just concentrate on minimal and gentle casts, no slapping the water! Aside from these two Winter fishing options, I always carry a bastardised version of a Dragon, to work any weed beds as well as a white fly for the early evening. So you don’t have to pack the kitchen sink and if I had to pack only five flies for a Winter fishing excursion, they would be -: – The Alien Bugger – Psychedelic Blob – Peacock Nymph – Red-eyed Roach – White Death And remember, sight casting is infinitely more satisfying than blindly chucking a line, hoping that something will swim by.

Giants Cup

More often than not our motivation for travelling to any fishing destination is the size of the fish, our desire to hold a trophy aloft being the underlying driving force.Yet the fight in any fish will always trump girth and this is generally dictated by it’s environment, so finding the wilderness areas that are blessed with a clean, pure water source is invariably our primary focus.

Hence, hunting wild fish is without fail our ongoing quest.

And when it comes to Trout, this is a tall order. There are thousands of man made impoundments in South Africa that house these fish, but few allow them to grow naturally, less are fed by a pristine catchment and non allow natural selection to dictate the quality of the fishery…..that is to say that no stocking at all takes place and every Trout you encounter is truly wild spawned.

That is except the haven of Giants Cup Wilderness Reserve.

The waters of Giants Cup would make any gin look turbid and if you think that ripping and stripping is going to yield a dividend then think again. These fish are a little more discerning than what you’ll find in your average Trout dam, so attention to detail at the vise is required if you want to convert more of your casts

But there’s no shortage of healthy weed beds in this magnificent water, that support a wonderful population of wild Rainbows. Finding the channel fed by the river flowing out of the cup is the key to unlocking this dam and it is where you will find  the fish congregating.

This vital catchment in the Southern Drakensberg also feeds one of the finest freestone rivers to be found in KwaZulu-Natal Natal giving you an option on your visit of stalking the banks of the Umzimkulu.

Now I find river fishing a lot easier than still water for the simple reason that from the bank you can often sight your target, but at the very least the structure and flow of the water will always indicate where the fishing should be holding, taking the question of.  ‘Am I casting where the fish are?’ out of the equation.

There’s all manner of techniques for catching river Trout, but next to dry fly, my preference is swinging a good streamer and provided you focus your efforts in the right areas (wherever there’s a break from the current), all it requires is adding a little pace to your strip.

In the slower moving water, it’s all about putting your fly right up against the overhanging structure, letting it sink into the zone and then being aggressive with that strip.

The Southern Drakensberg from vantage point of the Giants Cup Wilderness reserve is a gem that every fly fisher should be inking into their calendar. It stands head and shoulders above any other self proclaimed wild fishery and with the spectacular river of the Umzimkulu on it’s doorstep you get to experience wild Rainbow Trout fishing at it’s finest.

You just won’t find a better setting in which to throw a line and although no fly fisher would admit being content without some fish action, the surrounds are capable of making you forget Trout for a while.

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