September 1st, that magical date on the South African fly fishing calendar when the trout rivers open again. For me personally it signifies the end of one fishing year and the start of the next. A time to take stock of the fishing over the past year and set some new goals and challenges for the year ahead. Whilst it is an exciting time the weather and river levels can be very variable. Below are some of my tips for fishing at this time of year.

Firstly when talking about “early season” tactics I’m talking specifically from a Cape Streams perspective. At this time of the year the water is often higher than expected, sometimes running into spate. And the weather can be anything from sunshine to rain, or even snow. This is in stark contrast to our KZN counterparts who are all bartering with the fishing gods for some much needed rain or snowfall to bring the water levels up.

Snow on the mountains on our way up the Witte river.

Snow on the mountains on our way up the Witte river.

Wading

Safety, I know it’s lame but we need to talk about it. Much like a airline safety demonstration it’s not really thought about until Captain Phillips dumps you into the Hudson.

I always wear waders at this time of year, even on long hikes in. I hear all the diehards exclaiming how the younger generation are all soft. But, comfort whilst fishing is an important consideration. Better to have your nuts mid abdomen rather than up to your tonsils for the day. If you’re older and unsure of your footing use a wading staff. You would be amazed at how much more stable in the water you can be. “Still waters run deep” is not just something you hear at a self-help seminar but also very true. Don’t try cross through deep “still” water you will often find the current excessively strong and get washed downstream. Pick your beats wisely. Higher beats will recover quicker post rain whilst some will have better side access than others, allowing you to skip past impassable white water.

Early season low down on the Smalblaar. Challenging wading but well worth it.

Early season low down on the Smalblaar. Challenging wading but well worth it.

Wading itself, like anything, is a matter of practice. The best waders I’ve seen are inevitably those who spend large amounts of time in big rapids. At its core, being a good wader is about being sure-footed and moving with purpose across water, using the small back eddies behind rocks instinctively to help you get your footing. If it starts getting hairy steady yourself and inch backwards to where you were comfortable.

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Okay I’ve been an arse and fallen in. This happens to all of us at some point. For the majority of the time it just leads to a bit of a bruised ego and a cold shiver down the front of the waders. But what do you do when it’s a proper fall and the river starts carrying you downstream? Firstly, don’t panic (thanks captain obvious), flaying around is not going to help.  Next ditch your rod, the gods of Sage and Orvis aren’t coming to help. You need to focus on getting yourself out first.

Don’t panic that you’re going to drown if you are in your waders, this is completely untrue. Provided you are wearing a wading belt, they will fill to point and not drag you down. Packs are generally buoyant so no need to ditch them either. Turn yourself and place your feet in front of you to “bounce” off any rocks that are coming up. The trick is to “bounce’’ and then try gain some traction when you can to propel yourself out to the side of the main current. Don’t fight the current, you’re not going to win. Let it take you downstream a bit trying to get enough traction to pull yourself out to the side.

Lastly a good trick to get across strong current is budding wading. This involves linking under each other arms and grabbing one another’s fly vests, long loving stare into each others eyes optional, and moving together across the current. You will be staggered at how much more stable you are moving as a unit together through fast water.

Tactics

Okay so for the majority of the time during early season I will be contact nymphing ie European style nymphing. This is an entire subject on its own. So, for the remainder of this article I’m going to assume that you have dabbled in the dark side and have a basic understanding of how it works. For the “dry fly or die” fans check out the following books which give a good overview on euronymphing including set-up and techniques:

Tactical Fly Fishing: Lessons Learned from Competition for All Anglers by Devin Olsen

Dynamic Nymphing and Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques, both by George Daniels

Currently I fish an 11ft 3wt as my go to nymphing stick on the Cape streams (cue Halford rolling in his grave).

Weight

The water is pumping so lets fish two 4mm tungsten beads, is not the equation that we are looking for. The goal should be to achieve depth, and maintain it, with the least amount of weight possible whilst still staying in contact. To this end there are a lot of variables in the system that can affect how quickly flies sink.

South African fly fishing

Typical early season gloom and high water.

Firstly, tippet plays a major role. For every “X” you jump up there will be a dramatic change in sink rate with the same flies ie 7X will sink dramatically faster than 6x. You should beef up your tippet diameter during early season. But to combat strong fish and heavy flows, it pays to be reminded of how it will effect sink rate.

Fly profile and size also pays a major role in sink rates. Perdigons will sink dramatically faster than their CDC counterparts in the same bead size. Likewise a size 12 nymph will sink slower than a size 16 of the same design and bead size.

If you’ve been fishing long enough you have dropped nymphs into the river straight out your box or fly patch. Notice how no matter what the bead size they sink to the bottom like a stone, that shows what an effect drag from tippet has on the sink rate of your flies.

By applying that principle and introducing “micro slack”, turning your wrist forward or slowing the drift slighty, the flies will then subsequently dive down the column helping you to achieve depth with less weight.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, is a great modicum for nymph fishing and drift. Whilst fishing heavier will drop your rig further to the bottom of the column it will also have a big effect on your drift. As the heavier flies “hold” and “catch” the bottom substrate they subsequently create drag in the system resulting in un-natural drift. Thus a 3mm bead will out fish a 4mm bead if they can achieve the same depth, generally speaking.

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Lastly single nymphing can be very effective, especially in complex water. By fishing a single nymph, as opposed to a two fly rig, you are able to achieve depth quicker. There is a less interplay of your nymphs between conflicting currents pulling them up in the column.

Water Types

Pocket Water

Just because the river is pumping doesn’t mean that fish won’t still come up for a dry fly, particularly in the Cape. Pocket water can be productive in early season as many juvenile fish take up lies in these areas. If the water is high a larger dry fly will be helpful as the bigger “meal” elicits a more positive response. Personally I like larger CDC type dries, such as caddis and beetles, as the juvenile fish can often struggle to get deer hair and hackle offerings into their mouths. Single nymphing can be very productive in pocket water as well, particularly if the weather is variable and fish are holding on the bottom of small pockets.

Glides and Slots

This type of water is ideal for a two fly nymphing rig, although the edges can still be picked using a dry and dropper setup. A tactic not commonly used on the Cape streams is swinging streamers, which is a shame as this can be very productive and exciting fishing particularly in early season. Personally I’ll often fish a two streamer  rig with the top streamer being bright and the point streamer being more natural. This allows you to track the flies as they swing through the river. It’s absolutely awesome to a see a rainbow appear out of nowhere and chase your flies down. Interestingly I find that the retrieve that fish are turned on by changes. Some days they want it stripped back as fast as possible, other times they want it swung downstream. Or, just bounced slowly on the bottom on a traditional upstream drift.

When nymphing allowing your nymphs to drift past you and be slowly pulled up through the column can be very effective on its day. This  “Leisenring rise” can be a big trigger for fish to take. Interestingly I find it very day specific, sometimes they can’t leave the activated nymph alone, other times only a perfect dead drift will do. Consequently I’ll let every third drift go past me when I start fishing to gauge the fishes reaction.

Pools

Pools, as always, will hold fish. I find they will often push into pools in response to rising water levels, presumably because its seen as a safe area in the stream. All tactics can work here and it’s really dealers choice as to what to do. For the truly heathenous, a heavily weighted squirmy will bring multiple fish to the net when other tactics have not produced.

Fish Considerations

Understanding fish and stream ecology will definitely up your catch rates and grasp on  where the fish are holding. Here are few things to consider. When the water is high the fish’s primordial brain is running the same algorithm. “How much energy do I need to expend to eat to ultimately survive?” Fish holding in fast water are expending a huge amount of energy by being there. So, by holding in a hydro pocket next to the main flow they can be close to the pantry without expending huge amounts of energy. The problem is the pantry is moving at a rate of knots so your fly needs to stand.

Also it’s harder to monitor the whole column when the water is moving fast, with fish focusing in on a particular range in the column. Having a bigger fly or one with a trigger can help in discerning your flies to the fish from the rest of the noise.

Dark colours also stand out better, particularly in discoloured water. Fish hug the bottom when flows are high because there is a natural hydro pocket near the bottom of the stream. Hence their reluctance to move far for food unless the reward warrants the energy used. Whilst rainbows will continue to hold in “A” water types, even when the water is high, browns have a tendency to push to the edge water and can often be caught in high water right up against the banks.  Early season insect hatches can be variable. Caddis tend to be pretty predictable with black Mayflies coming off when the wind dies and a bit of sun comes out. On the terrestrial front I find beetles to be the best early season producer.

A healthy fat Cape bow.

A healthy fat Cape bow.

If  you have not been fishing for a while it pays dividends to check your gear before heading out. Check your leader connections, preferably replace all of them, and make sure that your reels are in good working order. Go through your fly vest, declutter and check that all the essentials are there. If you fish mono filament, throw the old spools away and stock up with some fresh stuff. Nothing will irritate you more than snapping off on some early season hogs because your tippet is old. If your boots require some stitching I would highly recommenced Rocksole in Cape Town. These guys repair my boots every couple seasons and do a top notch job every single time. You’d be amazed how they can bring an old pair of boots back to life.

Lastly, get out there. Some of the best South African fly fishing I’ve had has been on drizzly cold days when I’m driving to the streams and questioning my life choices. You just won’t know unless you go. Besides, a bad day’s fishing is better than a good day spent tying flies.