Text by Ewan Naude and photos by Leonard Flemming

Looking for another piece of the puzzle, new water, and new expectations. The palpable excitement of seeing a different section of the same river for the first time and knowing that the archives document a time when your unicorn was one of many. Getting to this place is a culmination of many hikes, many lessons learnt and valuable information shared among individuals chasing the same quarry. Getting to this place is not something you do alone, its countless conversations, pontifications and fireside deliberations. That’s how we ended up here.

 

The weather has changed. It is warm, the dragonflies and small fish like the warmth. During the cold time, lots of water fell from the sky and the river is fast now. In other times the water came every year but it’s different now and often we have to find big, deep pools to hide from the orange light. In other times, it was just us in the river now there are other fish that eat our eggs. In the morning I am always hungry and there is one place I always go to get food. I leave the place where I stay when it is dark and begin to swim to the eye of the pool.

The river conditions dictate a change in approach. For large parts of the year the water runs tannin stained but crystal clear. It’s during these times that a patient, subtle approach is adopted and sometimes only a handful of casts are made to a few sighted fish. This trip is different and planned over a high water period for very specific reasons. Small nymphs are swapped out for streamers. Fast sinking lines and dumbbells will ensure our flies get into the feeding zone quickly and stay there. The morning is clear and crisp and we are full of expectation as we embark our inflatables and start the short paddle to the eye of the pool.

The otters are my friends. It wasn’t always so. They let me know when there is danger. They are in my pool this morning, playing and eating crabs. The small fish are scared of the otters. I am too big and old to be scared of them anymore.

The rapid is cascading into the pool below with some force. Water flows swiftly on the south bank and is too fast for a fish to hold in at this time of the year. On the opposite side the water is slower and the current broken by scattered structure along the shoreline. The slower water and structure provide ample cover for a large fish while the adjacent faster water is a conveyor belt of food. This is the spot. Stop. Carefully lower the anchor. I strip a few meters into the line tray, making casts short of the target until the desired length of line lies neatly in coils. Up and across, keep tension, wait for the fly line to swing and straighten in the current, slowly retrieve. I’m waiting for the take on the swing. After a few casts, I get into a rhythm, covering water efficiently and effectively. Up and across, tension, swing, resistance.

There is a lot of food this morning. The crabs like the stones in this place and the small fish are easy to catch. I will catch one more small fish before I go back to my place where I rest. I easily catch the next fish but this one is different. It hurts me and starts to pull towards the bright light.  I swim fast and hard. The river is my friend, it helps me. I swim deep to the place where I sometimes see the otters. I try to swim through the tree under the water but the small fish keeps pulling me away. The light gets closer and closer. I’m getting very tired. I keep fighting.

 

The take is subtle, a simple displacement of water as the fly is inhaled. The first run gives away the size of this fish as it gains momentum in the strong current. I’m under no illusions as to how big this fish is, far bigger than any of its kind I’ve ever caught. Should I pull anchor and follow it? Has the integrity of my leader been compromised? More heartbreaking than the prospect of losing it would be the not knowing. Just when I feel I’m in control, the fish makes a dart towards the submerged bank-side vegetation but I manage to stop the run and avoid disaster. The fish begins to tire but fails to lull me into a false sense of security. I get the beast to hand, It’s unlike any other specimen I’ve ever seen, I’m intensely relieved and in awe. Getting to this moment is not something I did alone.

The light is very strong now. I cannot fight any longer. There is the shape of a strange animal above me. It grasps me and pulls me from the wet. It takes the small fish from my mouth and gently holds me in the water. My strength is returning. The animal releases me. I swim away fast. I swim deep to the place where I sometimes see the otters.