Rex Fey contacted me about the Twenty-Four Rivers post and questioned the presence of trout in the gorge where a pool called ‘Die Hel’ is situated. He had spoken to a trusty source that told him that section of river used to be the best in terms of trout fishing in the Western Cape (likely dating back to the mid 1980’s). Although I was assured by conservation and fisher folk that there were no trout there and only indigenous minnows, I was curious nonetheless and decided to investigate it myself.
Since I needed some exercise, I planned a ‘trout marathon’. The route I plotted on Google Earth measured a frightening 34 km and although it seemed fairly easy for most of it was on Jeep track, never before had I travelled, never mind fish, that distance by foot in a day in the Cape Fold Mountains.
I packed light, including my Canon Rebel series 550D camera and plastic fantastic lens (a Canon fixed 50 mm/F1.8 lens), a light lunch, enough Bar One’s for a 48 h ‘day’, a 750 ml bottle of water (which I planned to re-fill whenever I reached water on the way in and out), a roll of zinc-oxide tape (in case I strained an ankle), a Sage 2 wt rod and reel, a fly box, and some pain killers. By the time I had squeezed everything into my backpack, it felt rather heavy and I started worrying about the weight on my back while jogging over rocky terrain. I figured I’d only know whether it was possible if I tried and threw the pack in my car at 11 pm after spending the day at sea chasing Cape yellowtail with Jimmy Eagleton. I set my alarm for 4:30 am and jumped in bed.
When I reached the parking lot of the Groot Winterhoek Conservancy, the fields of Restio grasses around it lay flat from the weight of ice. The sun hadn’t risen and the air still felt sub-zero in the dips of the Jeep track as I jogged downhill to the gorge. I passed a few hiking groups that were on their way back to the car park, they had greasy hair from the night in the mountains. The surprised look in their tired eyes when they saw me with sneakers and a day pack was priceless.
The headwater tributaries of the Twenty Four Rivers I crossed on the way in were pristine. I got very excited about the good flow in the upper reaches of the catchment that late in a dry season. The streams seemed perennial and fish were likely present.
I reached the steep path that ‘dropped’ down into Die Hel (The Hell) after an hour and a half of jogging. The butterflies in my tummy were nearly unbearable as I rushed down the rocky steps, my eyes frequently wandering off the path to spot another deep, dark pool in the kloof below.
At 11 am I had my rod rigged and started flicking a dry and nymph rig into the pools. They were huge and Die Hel itself was a black hole that looked like it could drop down to the centre of Earth. I realised that it was named “The Hell” not because of the summer heat in the Cederberg range, but the intimidating ‘depth’ of the gorge and pool. It was a dark pit with magma-red walls around it and the burnt fynbos on the high ledges above it added character to the hellish landscape.
I ventured further down the river passage that reminded me of Pan’s Labyrinth and passed numerous dodgy corners where one could easily break a limb. After clambering several kilometres through the devil’s garden, it became clear to me that there were no trout in the pools, but hundreds of Cape kurper (Sandelia capensis). This awesome little indigenous fish is a member of the ‘labyrinth’ fish families (also including gouramis and climbing perch species). It is an aggressively feeder that will try to eat most things that swim through its territory.
Then I reached the end of my ‘road’, a wide pool that was too deep to wade through and since I had approx. 17 kilometres to cover on the walk back I decided to have a bite and then return. I felt rather exhausted when I reached the top of the rocky ‘stairs’ and for a moment I wondered whether I’d be spending the night in the Groot Winterhoek. However, another Bar One later and my spirit and energy levels topped Lucifer’s whispers of failure in my ear and I was on a steady jog back to the car park.
While I knew there was limited time left for rest stops on the way back I could not resist fishing two small-stream crossings where I spotted many and very big Cape kurper schooling in the deeper pools. I got back to the car exhaling dense clouds of vapour in grey light after sunset and although I could sense that I was in for a few days in Hell at work due to muscle soreness I was delighted to finally conclude my search for trout in the greater 24’s system.
In conclusion to my previous article (Trout of the West side) the section of the 24’s that still holds rainbow trout (in limited numbers) stretches from the weir pool where the river exits the gorge, to the first ‘swim’ at the base of the gorge leading to ’Die Hel’ (past the emerald green tributary coming in from the right – Tulbagh side – near the end; interestingly, although I hiked about 1.5 km up the trib there was to my surprise no trout present in it other than one biggish fish that I spooked in the junction pool with the 24’s main stem).So my findings that the river is stunningly beautiful to hike up, but probably not worth the fishing effort for the few trout in it stands after several trips covering the entire kloof.