IT’S ALL VERY WELL HAVING A SPECIAL VALLEY AND BIG FISH (browns, rainbows and yellows), but without community and sustainability there’s no point. Off the back of our Issue 4 story (The Legend of F#@k You Valley), we chatted to Tourette Fishing’s Rob Scott, Keith Clover and Ed Truter about the Bokong River and their work in establishing a sustainable fishery and a camp with the Makhangoa Community deep in the mountains of Lesotho.

Ed Truter with one of the big browns from the mid to upper reaches of the Bokong river. Photo Tourette Fishing

When did you first visit the Bokong?
ED: Let’s rather say I first heard about the Bokong a loooong time ago, from Jonathan Rodgers, a quiet trout adventurer who has lived under the radar in SA but who has fished a lot of interesting places. He described the Bokong to me as one of the finest rivers he’d seen, but that was long before Katse Dam was built. Anyways, I entered it into my mental hard drive, and although I fished north, east, and south of it, I just never quite got there. Then Hylton Lewis, who did some work at one of the Katse trout farms went and checked it out one day, and what he said added to what Jonathan had said. I then planned to visit the river in November 2012 with Yuri Jansen (Freelance Tourette Fishing guide and trout boffin), but another trip got in the way, so I described all that I knew about it to Yuri and he went and took a look. He came back saying I must go, so I arranged to do a trip to that river and others in the area with Keith Clover and other mates in Feb 2013, and that was that. That said there were plenty of guys like Jonathan Rodgers who knew all about the place all these years and just kept tjoep still about it. That’s the thing about new places, I think that unless opening them up either commercially or via social media, can bring some overall good to the environment and the people, it’s best just to keep rather quiet about them outside of our inner circles and those who we know will tread responsibly.

“That’s the thing about new places, I think that unless opening them up either commercially or via social media, can bring some overall good to the environment and the people, it’s best just to keep rather quiet about them outside of our inner circles and those who we know will tread responsibly.”

KEITH: We first visited in 2012, the first visit was by one of our guides at the time, Yuri Janssen. He was there early season, and gave great reports. We returned later in that summer, during a 10 day trip to recce the Bokong, plus a couple other rivers with Ed Truter, Lionel Song and Andrew Danckwerts.

ROB: It took numerous trips to understand the fishery, as well as to build up our relationship with the Makhangoa Community. During this time, and well before this, we had been reccing different areas of Lesotho, and running pony trekking trips on various systems. Although there are many special places in Lesotho, the Bokong always had the WOW factor to it. It quickly became our favorite place to visit, and the focus of our community fly fishing tourism model.

Hungry, hard-fighting and indigenous, for many anglers, the smallmouth yellowfish of the Bokong area bigger draw card than the trout. Photo Tourette Fishing

What was the fishing like at that time?

ED: The fishing was world-class, dry fly, sight fishing for smallmouth yellowfish, just like it is now. I think it’s only got better now that the area is managed and that potential threats have been brought under control.

KEITH: The fishing was superb. Great sight fishing to yellowfish, with the odd trout as well. Although we suspected it, we did not then know the full extent of the amazing trout fishing. This being the trophy rainbow trout fishing on the lower beats in Autumn, and the tough and technical brown trout fishing on the far upper beats. Here is a video we made with some footage from the first trip back in the day.

ROB: It was exceptional, although there were serious issues with netting and large scale fish poaching. As a side note, our conservation efforts, combined with illustrating the true value of the resource to the locals, has resulted in a much healthier fishery now, than when we first arrived.

The community run Makhangoa camp. Photo Tourette Fishing

Were the local community aware of the possibilities around angling? Did they fish themselves for subsistence?

ED: We tried to explain the potential but I don’t think they got it really, or at least didn’t get the scope of how many people would be interested in coming to visit. A small number did, and still do fish for subsistence (with handlines), but within controlled limits, which is totally sustainable and of course perfectly natural.

ROB: There was subsistence fishing, as well as commercial fishing. The locals tended to fish for subsistence, and the outsiders (sometimes from 100’s of kilometers away) would be responsible for commercial fishing – often supplying Chinese demand for fish within Lesotho. Subsistence fishing still occurs, but this fishing pressure is negligible, and is regulated through the fishery management plan, and is monitored through our River Rangers program, where locals are responsible for monitoring and reporting illegal activities.

KEITH: The local community were definitely not aware of the tourism potential the fishery could achieve. The concept of fly fishermen, paying to visit the area to catch, and then let fish go, was understandably extremely foreign to them. There was, and still is limited subsistence fishing for yellowfish. This is controlled, and limited to hook and line fishing only, with a valid permit and strict bag/size limits. The Makhangoa Community Camp River Rangers Program now plays an integral part in controlling the subsistence fishing by ensuring limits are kept and rules adhered too. Previously there were no structures in place to monitor this.

While the Bokong is known more for its indigenous yellowfish and resident brown trout, rainbow trout can be found through many of the beats and in the estuary, where the Bokong meets Katse Dam, hefty specimens will test you.

Through the management of the river, the establishment of the camp and the safeguarding of the fishery, the local Makhangoa community is benefiting from fly fishing

How long did the process take to set up the camp, the fishing rights and the River Rangers program with local leaders?

KEITH: The simple answer is two years. Realistically however, this process is far more complicated and is ongoing, as together with the Makhangoa Community Council we continue to campaign for the conservation of the area, improve our beneficiation model and projects, and fine tune the fishery management program. The Makhangoa Community Camp is a success due to the fact that there is commitment and cooperation from multiple stakeholders (no easy feat in Africa!), from the Ministers in government and their associated ministries, The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation, district councils, and finally the Makhangoa Village. Coordinating, planning and working with all the above parties, while making sure we adhere to the stringent environmental, social, and economic legal frameworks, is no simple task, but extremely rewarding when it all comes together. The results are tangible to both the communities and environment. It is a labour of love, and allows us to sleep each night knowing we are making a profound difference to the lives of many and the environment, and will continue to do so for many years to come. Viva the yellowfish, viva!

Big fishing holding in skinny water over flat bedrock, plucking well-presented dry flies – what’s not to like?

What can you tell us about the naming of the different beats, pools and sections (right up to Mordor)?

ED: The names were a natural progression from the need for just having to give references to certain zones and spots, for the beat system and just for explaining what happened where, even just for telling each other fishing stories! The names have just come naturally from those who’ve spent time there. Like all names, I guess they are related to particular events or to references in our individual memories. When Lionel Song and I explored the river to the very end of the trout and yellowfish-holding section, we had a trip that reminded us of all sorts of Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth stuff, that’s where some of those names come from. Dead Man’s Drift comes from the body of a sheep rustler who was pulled out of the water there as we arrived with our donkeys to camp the night (see the January edition of Country Life “Dead Man Riding”).

KEITH: Most pools, runs, and sections are named after a significant (all relative in the early days) event that happened there, a funny story, an angler who had a great session there etc. Naming  spots on Bokong, like the Mnyera and Ruhudji Rivers we guide on in Tanzania, was and is not a conscious effort or forced task. It happens organically. The more time we spend in the area, and as the guides plan/talk and describe the spots, names begin to stick. It is great to watch the process in hindsight. From a very broad naming base – i.e. beat 1, 2, 3, or 4, to a point where most runs, pools and glides have a name.  Examples of these:

Steelhead Run – a spot in beat 1 that in high cool water provides amazing fishing for big trout swinging flies down and across. Fishing it in this manner was stumbled upon by accident and then recalled to all in camp that evening i.e. it was though we were fishing to steelhead in the Pacific North West.

Skate Park – a long section of river which flows over smooth bedrock, interrupted by deep furrows and pot holes. Even if you have never set foot on a skateboard, you can imagine carving down the bed rock of a dry river bed, flipping ollies, grinding rails and having an absolute jol.

ROB: Spot names happen naturally and are in some ways a great tradition for stories or events from the past to be remembered. One I can give the story about is Nag Ape Bend. One evening Stu (Harley) and Pierre (Swartz) saw a bush baby. Which, because of the lack of trees, would be as likely as bumping into a leopard in Hillbrow. For as long time we teased them about their claims. It turned out, or at least we think, that it was a dormouse. For some reason the name stuck.

Tourette Fishing guide Johann du Preez with a solid yellow. Photo Tourette Fishing

Best thing about fishing the Bokong?

ROB: For me, it’s fishing Skate Park. I have one particular fish that will be etched into my memory forever. It was a 50cm plus fish, holding still over flat bedrock. The water was super skinny, and about a third of the fish was actually out the water. The fish was also holding only 20 cms from the river edge. It took about 20 minutes to get into position without spooking it, but first cast the fish lit up and smashed the fly. It was long section of shallow water, so the fish literally made the line rooster tail, deep into the backing, on its first run.

Outside of the sight fishing – just being there is special for me. Like all places where you are able to disconnect from the outside world. Whether it is drinking coffee in the morning listening to the echoing sounds of the livestock bells or sitting around the fire on Man Made Mountain – it is all good for the soul.

KEITH: For me, a visit to the Makhangoa Community Camp (when it is not work related), to fish the Bokong is like taking a big international trip, but being able to enjoy it over a long weekend.  Lesotho is not another province of South Africa! It is vastly different on many levels. The culture, the people, the mountains, the rivers, and the fish. For me, it is this combination, and the emotions that together they evoke in me,  that makes the place so special. Yes, sight fishing to an 8lb yellow or 60cm brown is world class fishing. But without the people, the mountains, and the indescribable yet very tangible ‘X factor’ of the place, it is just the fish. And as we all know, any mission, is never only about the fish.

ED: The Bokong is a bright, happy river in a bright, happy valley, with endless sprightly yellowfish queing for a big, bushy dry fly. That’s it. Being there makes one happy.

Returning to the Makhangoa camp, cold beers and guide/chef Stu Harley’s cooking is the perfect way to finish off a great day’s fishing spent climbing ridges, spotting and catching big fish from three species.