Think of strippers and it’s likely that what comes to mind are poles and dancing, grinding booty, thongs flying through the air, names like Candy and Crystal (possibly the odd Chad), dollar bills and lap dances. You might remember that one friend who claims he’s “made a connection”; bouncers ushering you outside; a hangover from hell; a lost wallet and oceans of regret. Maybe that’s just us…

Regardless, what you are unlikely to think of is middle-aged men with names like Martin and Alan, standing knee-deep in the frigid waters of the Eastern Cape’s premier stillwater, working themselves stukkend amid trout eggs and sperm (ok, milt). But, to South African fly anglers the work these strippers do will arguably result in hours more fun and value in the long run. Here, Ed Herbst shines a light on Martin Davies, the mad genius behind the Eastern Cape’s trophy stillwater trout.

 

Thrift Dam is not for sissies’ is the headline on a YouTube clip but its unchallenged role as South Africa’s premier trophy trout dam is, in substantial measure, due to the singular role played in the region by Martin Davies, a now-retired ichthyologist from the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science at Rhodes University in Makhanda – once known as Grahamstown – in the Eastern Cape.

Martin, a graduate with a Master’s degree in Oceanography from the University of Southampton, arrived in South Africa in 1976 to study eels, a project financed by the Fisheries Development Corporation, a government department.

In due course he met Margaret Smith at Rhodes University, the wife of Professor J L B Smith best known for his discovery of the coelacanth and in 1984 and, at her invitation, he joined the university’s Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science.

Martin Davies with one of his Thrift trout

Martin Davies with one of his Thrift trout

At the time the province had a lot of high altitude and privately-owned trout dams which were dependent on annual stocking from the government trout hatchery at Pirie near King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. The hatchery was fed by the Buffalo River and had a staff of 19.

In the 1980s government policy changed. Whereas such hatcheries had previously supplied trout for stocking dams, it was decided to concentrate on indigenous fish.
Despite antipathy within the university, Martin, with the help of private funding and using his own salary, set up a trout hatchery on university property using recycled municipal tap water. At the time, this was only the second such hatchery in existence, the other being in the USA.

When Martin arrived in South Africa, the conventional stocking approach was to stock trout of around a kilogram or more in dams in the belief that this would make them less likely to predation by bass, otters and cormorants. Martin advocated stocking fry because they would have less impact on the dam ecosystem and those that survived would be the equivalent of trout born in the wild.

From 1984 until he reached obligatory retirement age in 2016, Martin voluntarily placed himself on 24-hour call, 365 days a year and also helped farmers to set up their own hatcheries.
In 1981 his first Master’s student graduated with a degree in aquaculture and there have been dozens since then, all equipped to earn a living in this form of farming.
Along the way, Martin had a hand in establishing the Federation of Southern African Fly Fishers – FOSAF – a lobby group supporting the interests of fly anglers and that seeks to conserve the environments in which they fish.

“Martin’s life’s journey created the ‘ultimate stud’ of rainbow trout – big tails, broad shoulders, vibrant colours and super-strong fighting fish surviving in extreme environments.”

He also, with the help of Dave Walker of Rhodes, set up the Wild Trout Association, a conservancy in Barkly East, Rhodes and Maclear in 1991. It creates a mutually rewarding link between farmers and fly fishers and it now administers more than 350 kms of water. The Association, which is based in Rhodes, organises day ticket fishing for visitors, giving approximately 70% of the rod fee to the riparian owner and retaining the rest for admin fees.

But it was Thrift Dam in the Winterberg Mountains near the village of Tarkastad that increasingly became central to Martin’s stocking programme.

Get the rest of this story in issue 25 of The Mission below. As always, it’s free.