From body-boarding to skateboarding, exploring the Vaal River and its tributaries for amazing yellowfish action, or inventing fly patterns like the brilliant Papa Roach, whatever our issue 21 Lifer Herman Botes does in life, he does at full tilt.
The first fish I caught were bullies (gobies) with a hand line in the rockpools of Gouritzmond. From the age of six, my brother Conrad and I would spend long, carefree summer days playing in the pools following the tide. Gouritz was a hardcore fishing and trophy kob spot in the ’70s and our dad was in the thick of it. We were around fisherman, fish as big as we were and the legends attached to the trophies hanging off the whalebone in the Gouritz Hotel. It was a great time and place to be a kid and it left its mark. We later progressed to fishing with Dad and then went on to fish with the other kids during the holidays. But, for me, fishing then was never as serious an affair as playing in the waves.
I was born in Ladysmith in the Klein Karoo and lived there until I was five when we moved to De Doorns. I’m sure those early years growing up in the country among farming communities is, in part, why I love those places so much. It’s not the wilderness, but there is this sense of simple living in natural beauty that I find so appealing and peaceful. Then we moved to Bellville where I pretty much grew up and became a city boy, except for one glorious year when, at the age of 13, we moved to Villiersdorp so my dad could teach at School in the Wild. It was a year of unlimited childhood adventure for me and my brothers. We lived seven kilometres out of town and took the bus or walked in with the farm kids. We were on the bank of the brand new Theewaterskloof dam and we spent many afternoons fishing for bass with cheap gear and homemade lures and flies. I remember tying Brooks’ Blondes by hand.
After my national army service, a short stint at Stellenbosch University, six months with the Department of Sea Fisheries (where I learnt it was nothing like my dream of becoming a marine biologist), I moved out of my folk’s house and scored a job at the Atlantic Surf Shop in Tableview. Then, for five years, in a great effort to become a top-ranked body-boarder (or serious beach bum), I surfed every day, worked in the surf shop, waited tables, studied plastic technology, house sat and partied. I moved about and finally landed with my arse in the butter and got a flatlet in Blaawbergstrand, one block away from the patch of beach from which the iconic pictures of Table Mountain are taken. It was paradise. I would make it a yearly challenge to rush from work on the shortest day of the year (22nd June) and still manage to catch a wave or two before complete darkness forced me out of the water. Bonus! The Blue Peter pub was down the road. In the end I realised I needed to get serious, so I spent two years as a machine setter with Alplas Plastics, finally moving to Johannesburg to join Rawmac Import & Distribution in the marketing of engineering plastics. It was only going to be for five years. I’ve been with Rawmac in the plastics industry for 26 years. They’ve been good years, not least because that was when I started to fly fish.
I arrived in Johannesburg in the winter of 1994 and, coming from the Cape of Storms, I was taken aback by the winter weather of the Highveld. It was like being in the movie “Groundhog Day” – every day exactly the same perfect blue sky with not a cloud in sight. Luckily, the summer thunderstorms made up for it. Over time I grew to love the city with its massive urban forest and its mild weather. We live in an airy old place in Melville. I love homes with a patina and a sense of being that shows some history. It tells a story and you and your family’s life become part of that story. The nice thing about where we are is I can just stroll up the road if I want to duck out for beer or breakfast with friends. I believe there is a ‘The Mission Fly Mag’ sticker on the most sticker-plastered stop sign in 7th Street. Melville – a beacon of counter-culture.
When I discovered fly fishing on the Vaal River in the late ‘90’s the place was still way underdeveloped with a wildness and remote feel to it, even though it was close to the city. Fishing there was like an adventure, meeting other anglers on the water was rare as there were only a handful of hardcore yellowfish addicts. Of course we would chat and swop information in our attempts to learn as much as possible to improve. To have these big pieces of unexplored water to fool around in, I literally felt like a kid being unleashed in a play park. These were heady days filled with fish and adventure. Things have changed as the course of life does. In the 2000’s we got really serious about catching lots of fish and the traffic on the river kept on increasing with new developments and venues. We felt a bit like pioneers, pushing the limits and I scored some of the best fishing days of my life during that period. Now there’s a new guard of young guns on the Vaal doing the same thing and taking it to the next level.
I still fish the Vaal as a backup, but the place started to lose its appeal for me and about ten years ago I started nosing around, looking at obscure and more remote waters. I pretty much became a blueliner. I spend a lot of time searching out waters, looking for the “dream stream where the last fisherman was Noah,” kind of thing. I’ve come close to finding it, but I always suspect it’s still out there, if only I can get a day with 18 hours of sunlight so I can hike in and out for a round trip. Writing this now, I realise that it’s the exploration that appeals so much to me. There is this great satisfaction that comes with discovering a piece of land and a stream seemingly forgotten in time and place. To stumble on to it by yourself and actually catch a fish in some ridiculous looking water on a dry… No one would ever believe me if I told them about these places, so I don’t.
The one good thing about a life “wasted” fishing, is that, as the seasons change, like old friends they guide you to revisit all your regular haunts to get in a good day’s fishing. I fish alone 95% of the time and love it that way. I’m motivated by hatches and available time when I head out to fish and I give my wife some cryptic clue like, “I’ll be at high bridge or low bridge or ‘Nirvana.’ If I’m not back by 10 pm phone this or that one.” She thinks it’s hilarious and serious at the same time. The fishing is technical with a good dose of dry fly action thrown in. The solitude and time spent in places lost in time like my regular spots is cathartic.