In our social media age of non-stop self-promotion and faux-modesty, there are a few anglers that seem not only to develop an aura that demands respect, but that somehow manage to do it off-line, above the wash. Navigating myths, rumours and legends, Jazz Kuschke discovers that, if you’ve heard any kind of story about Mark Krige, chances are that not only is it true, but you’ve probably only got the half of it.

“I hooked a big one there one day.”

It’s a leerfish, aka leervis or garrick (Lichia amia) Mark Krige is talking about. Autumn is the time for out-sized models here in the Southern Cape and each year, between March and May, a few monsters get taken by those willing to invest the long hours. These fall mostly to trolled live baits, with the odd one taking a plastic. Hardly ever, do you hear about anything on fly.

“He really wanted that fly, but he missed and I hooked him just in front of the dorsal.” Mark says.

I picture it in slow-motion: The drive of that unmistakable black-tipped tail powering 15 kilos of cobalt-green muscle out of the depths. I see the brilliant white of the belly, framed by the twin scimitars of dorsal and anal fins, as it broadsides the surface fly.

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I don’t need Mark’s description to imagine the scene. Living as I do on the Garden Route, the estuaries are my bread and smallish ‘leeries’ my butter. A big one from out of the Lakes system – double figure kilograms – is the ultimate trophy. It’s something I’ve dreamed about for some years.

“Depending on who you talk to in the various sub-niches of fly fishing in South Africa, his is a name that often pops up. But it’s never via the loudhailer of social media. Instead it’s always a whisper of something legendary and undercover.”

Mark Krige’s big Garden Route leerie is legendary. That’s not surprising. Depending on who you talk to in the various sub-niches of fly fishing in South Africa, his is a name that often pops up. But it’s never via the loudhailer of social media. Instead it’s always a whisper of something legendary and undercover.  “I heard he re-introduced X indigenous fish to Y river and has been catching them hand over fist for years,” or, “Did he really catch that size fish?”

It’s easy to reject rumour and conjecture if the feat in question has not been slavishly hashtagged on social media but, when each fable is confirmed by the heavyweights of the fly fishing scene, people who suffer neither fools nor braggarts gladly, you pay attention. Mark meanwhile, largely solitary and ghostly in his movements, just continues to operate under the radar like a modest Yeti (mythical beast not the cooler).

Mark Krige with a grunter from Karoolskraal on the Breede river

Mark Krige with a grunter from Karoolskraal on the Breede river

The Land Before Time

The iconic Garden Route Lakes system was formed by natural damming in the narrow valley between two dune ridges.  It stretches from the small town of Wilderness in the west to Sedgefield in the east. The coastal valley was slowly eroded down until only the deepest basins held water. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of years.

Today, while beset by modern infrastructure and run-through by a national highway (the N2), in a few spots the waters still feel like they belong to some remote epoch. The place where Mark connected with that monster seems particularly prehistoric. Fish there at dawn, when the Knysna Turacos are just beginning their daily ‘kok-kok-kok’ calls and it feels as though you wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see an ichthyosaur fin break the surface.

While linked through channels, seepage and structure, these lakes are distinct, each with its own nuances. They’ve evolved to the point where fresh and salt species co-exist in a weirdly wonderful symbiosis.  Here the leerfish is at the top of the food chain. It grows to oceanic proportions on a diet of bonefish-sized mullet, Mozambique tilapia, carp and bass. With river mouths infrequently open to the sea and channels silted up, it stays put, growing wise in its comfortable old age to anything that isn’t ‘real’ food.

“I lost it,” Mark muses of that leerie. “Fortunately.  It would’ve been extremely difficult for me to land that particular fish. Not the actual landing of it, but the absolutely awful thought that: ‘You have now caught this fish, but you didn’t actually catch it’,” he says.

This happened over 20 years ago, on March 6th, Mark’s birthday.    But Mark recounts the details as if it were his last session just before lockdown. The way he tells the lost leerie story – in fact the way he recounts all his tales – is as though it was just another happy accident in a fantastical fishing life, one mystical happening after the next. If there were any justice, the Fables of Sir Krige, The Good Knight, should be on a required-reading list for South African fly fishers. Trouble is that Mark’s achievements over the years have never been written down. There are very few Mark Krige photos, even fewer articles and no books.

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You see, even if the hook had set in the scissors of the leerie and he’d boated it on his own legitimate terms, it’s highly unlikely Mark would’ve snapped a photo of that trophy. And, had he taken a pic he wouldn’t have shown it to too many people. The story would’ve been relayed in small bits to those who asked and then retold from there. That is what makes Mark Krige such an intriguing character. The fact that that fish was foul-hooked at a time before every catch and loss, every fly tied, every trip planned or cancelled, was paraded all over social media, is irrelevant.

“Part of it is, perhaps, because I am a really shit photographer,” he jokes.  He agrees with the official definition of a camera, found in an old booklet in his collection entitled, The Dictionary of Angling Terms: ‘A compact, but quite heavy and cumbersome device used by anglers to store some water and a canister of spoiled film.’

He says, “I read a post on a forum quite some time back where someone said: ‘If you don’t have a picture it didn’t happen,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ You’re throwing away generations of history with that one stupid comment.”

For the rest of this story, and a ton of great content, check out The Mission Issue 22 below. As always, the online version is free. You can buy the print edition here (we ship worldwide).