Sweat dropped from my hair and eyebrows. It burnt my eyes and blurred my vision as I fell waste deep into another flood channel amongst tall palmiet that formed impenetrable platforms around the river bends. After dragging myself up a steep pebble bank I continued the upstream journey by climbing a cliff face with soaked pants and my rod gripped firmly in my teeth.
At the summit, I got a baboon’s view of the river below. Enormous pools, some even over a hundred metres long, choked by fynbos in the valley ahead. “Impossible to fish”, my words evaporated into the morning chill.
The excitement to catch a trout in this river, which was new to me, overpowered the warning bells in my head. Forget about snakes, spiders and the possibility of breaking a leg because there could be fish in there.
I found my way through woody fynbos that was unforgiving to fly rods (I snapped my rod on the second trip) and human skin to reach the edge of the first pool I’d fish. I had been hiking and scouting for some time, several hours perhaps, without any signs of fish before I reached this pool. I drifted all the likely holding areas with a dry and nymph combo, but got no takes.
The sweat made my shirt feel heavy and I could feel the migraine kicking in. Drowsy and dehydrated, I pressed on; I was determined to find out if there really were trout in the Twenty-four Rivers after all.
This river system used to be a Cape Piscatorial Society fishery that was stocked and fished until the 1980’s. More than twenty years later, rumours of rainbow trout in it still floated around, and although they were from trusty sources, they were also, unfortunately, already out-dated.
The dogged drive in me brought me to the base of cascading rapids that formed lovely pocket water in deep pools surrounded by giant boulders. The water was beautiful; it was perfect for rainbow trout. This I decided would be the turning point, if the brilliant green runs manifested in no fish.
I drifted a large ZAK with a hot orange bead through the foamy headwater of the run closest to me. The indicator glided past me and then it dipped with a sudden pull under the foam line. My reaction strike was quick enough, and the rod bent sharply as it bucked the strain of the rainbow holding in the fast water. The large cock fish launched itself over the tail-out and I followed it, plunging in, my head disappearing under the icy water. Although I was cold and uncomfortable, I played the fish gently, not knowing how well the fish was hooked.
The gaping trout broke the surface and too my relief, I spotted the luminous bead on the hook that was lodged firmly in the corner of the mouth. I guided a heavily speckled rainbow trout into my left hand and yodelled so that my voice echoed in the gorge. It was late in the afternoon and the kloof was dark when I slipped the trout back into its pool. I fished a bit longer and managed to land two more hens before I lay my rod down and took a casual stroll up-river into a long straight gorge that split into two rivers at the top; one was the main stem of the Twenty-fours that drains from the Groot Winterhoek Conservancy and the other a small tributary carving down the steep mountain slope coming from the Witsenberg valley. I spotted and spooked a couple more fish, but few in total in comparison to the distance I had travelled. I was not convinced about the numbers, but wild fish were present and that was all that mattered to me.
A year later I returned to the Twenty-fours with Liam Surridge and we had a similar experience, few fish and long distances between pools that had fish in them – all in all we counted five or six fish in sixteen kilometres of river that we hiked. I am still not sure how the rainbows manage to survive in this river at such a low population density – never mind survive the summer heat (the centre of the kloof is not called “Die Hel” for nothing!). After all my efforts spending time in this gorge I am left with more questions than answers. The Twenty-four Rivers is now a greater mystery to me than when I first heard about it. The gorge is pretty and certainly worth a hike with a fly rod in hand; the question is whether it’s pretty enough to return to for less than a handful of rainbows? Perhaps I am missing something?