The mountains of the Western Cape are home to many trout streams, both well-known and hidden, offering both rainbows and browns. But once you have quenched your thirst for salmonids, if you push deeper into the middle of nowhere as Leonard Flemming did fly fishing in the mountains of the Western Cape, you will find other bigger, rarer, more-challenging species that have been around these parts for a lot longer.

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Throughout my life I’ve had an insatiable hunger for exploring Cape rivers. In Kleinmond, where I grew up, I’d disappear after school and scout along the banks of the tiny coastal streams for minnows, Cape stream frogs and water scorpions that would entertain me for hours.

This quickly became my church of preference and, I guess, like Charles Darwin, I started creating my own theories about animal relationships. I also learnt much about animal interactions which, as a kid, I noticed bore striking resemblances to human behaviour and the fine balances in life. For instance, I learnt that the death of an animal (which we generally perceive as sad or cruel) provided food for many organisms and even their offspring, a refreshing start to new life.  In contrast, by closing one’s eyes at the mall, human noise sounded like the rival cacophony of baboon troops in the kloofs.

A witvis caught by Leonard Flemming in the Western Cape

A witvis caught by Leonard Flemming in the Western Cape

As a grownup, I still crave that sense of freedom and the urge to soak up the information that lies hidden in our mountainous environment, but with a fly rod in hand.  It is in the presence of gurgling water, ferns growing lush under a canopy of red and white alders, exotic-looking birds like the Paradise flycatcher calling from the thickets, a large Table Mountain Beauty (aka the Aeropetes tulbaghia butterfly) pollinating red disas, that I find myself able to relax properly.   All these things create a tranquil ambience while I stalk a cunning fish, as sipping insects are carried to it by the cool current. Here I can forget about the rat race. I get a chance to clear my mind and to digest the more important issues eating at my insides.

“After about fifteen years of exploration, that trout stint came to an end when there were nearly no ‘new’ trout rivers to ‘find’. It was then that I encountered some of our larger indigenous fishes.”

A rainbow trout caught by Leonard Flemming

Sometimes aliens and locals share the same water. In search of salmonids and witvis, Leonard Flemming caught this rainbow trout.

I went through that familiar trout phase, when I hunted willing rainbows and wily brown trout in all the well-known rivers as well as in any and every other river I’d heard rumours of. However, after about fifteen years of exploration, that trout stint came to an end when there were nearly no ‘new’ trout rivers to ‘find’. It was then that I encountered some of our larger indigenous fishes. I found big cyprinids, like witvis, by accident while searching for trout in the Breede River.  It was the start of an unexpected and fascinating new journey, an educational fly fishing tour through the sporting arena of our indigenous fishes that would eventually take me to the final trout frontier.

The invitation came from Craig Thom, the owner of the StreamX fly shop where I had been buying specialised micro-nymphing materials for witvis. He was talking about an exploratory mission with Duncan Brown, a professor at the University of the Western Cape and author of ‘Are Trout South African?’ to find remnants of salmonid stockings (other than rainbows and browns) and rumours of dry-fly-eating witvis in fabled fisheries that hadn’t seen angling traffic in more than 50 years.

I couldn’t believe my luck and, without thinking twice about the legality and legitimacy of access to the spots, I agreed to join the reconnaissance. It turned out that Duncan was participating in a global salmonid research project which, among other things, investigated the international distribution of trout and how they were perceived by humans in the different areas.

“South African waters were stocked with rainbow trout, brown trout, Atlantic salmon, brook trout and tiger trout from the end of the 19th century throughout the 20th century.”

South African waters were stocked with rainbow trout, brown trout, Atlantic salmon, brook trout and tiger trout from the end of the 19th century throughout the 20th century. While rainbows and browns stuck and now enjoy a fanatical following of casual and competitive fly anglers, no wild brook trout have been recorded here since the 1960s. And, although involuntary stocking of Atlantic salmon took place on numerous occasions, even in the late 90s when 1000s of aquaculture fish escaped, none have been caught on fly in our country according to my knowledge. Tiger trout are sterile, of course, and their presence was short-lived.

Fly fishing in the mountains of the Western Cape

So when you head out to fresh spots where you’ve never been and you know that few fisherman visit, there is that exciting element of surprise. We were issued with permits for our contribution to the research we’d conduct with rods, lines and flies (still some of the best research tools for catching adult predatory fish) and off we went on a trip that would blow all of us away.

Read the rest of Leonard’s story below in issue 26 of The Mission. As always, it’s free.