In this issue 27 story, Andrew Harrison and his son Ruari find that, away from the crowds and into the bush, if you know both how to persevere and where to look, the rewards justify the effort.

 

“If God ever gives the earth an enema, he will stick the tube in at Colenso in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Once a thriving, sleepy village, site of one of the famous battles of the Anglo Boer War and recently supported by a decommissioned power station, it is a shit-hole of derelict buildings where goats and cattle feed on plastic and ‘dopping’ (drinking) is the town pastime.

Fortunately, once clear of the trash heap and travelling thirty clicks down a dusty dirt road, one glimpses authentic rural KZN before you hit a ‘track’ – not for low-slung cars!

The island is only an island when the Tugela River floods and then it is inaccessible except on foot. Even in the dry months it’s a difficult passage. A boulder-strewn, donga-ridden track passes for a road that traverses a nature reserve to the chalky-grey river hemmed in by towering rocky cliffs to which stunted trees, aloes and baboons cling precariously. The river is also home to the iconic Natal scaly.

After a number of forays on the Umkomaas River where the fish were feisty but of no great size, the fish of the Tugela were prize. American novelist and obsessive trout fisherman, Jim Harrison, once prospected the Yellowstone in Montana 92 days in succession. He observed; “If roosters lived in rivers, no one would ever fish for trout again.” The same can be said of this freshwater ‘bonefish’.

Ruari Harrison with a solid Natal Scaley caught ino the Tugela river

Ruari Harrison with a solid Natal Scaly caught in the Tugela river

No matter the size, the athletic ability of a Natal scaly outstrips that of any trout, wild or fat ‘stockie’ found in local KZN waters. Add some spectacular scenery and you are in fly-fishing paradise.

The isolated camp site on the island is a circular clearing bordered by logs under the spreading branches of a haak-en-steek (an acacia thorn tree whose Afrikaans name means ‘hook and prick’). It is also situated in a wild life reserve where recent sightings include a leopard. Our only visitors were a wild donkey, a tank of a black pig no doubt hunting the provisions of the unwary, and a nightly visitation from a herd of wildebeest (gnu).

My first trip to the Tugela, accompanied by my regular fishing partner, son Ruari, was more an exploratory expedition than a full-out hunt. The river at this point runs wide and deep, the long pools bookended by shallow rapids and the banks lined with reeds that made casting difficult, if not impossible. Wading over round, slippery boulders was a risky business, resulting in numerous dunkings – not unwelcome with the temperatures in the upper thirties.

Andrew Harrison wading deep on the Tugela river

Andrew Harrison wading deep on the Tugela river

Green about the ways of these Tugela fish, we hunted up and down stretches of likely water prospecting pools and the deeper water that we were able to reach, tempted by swirling fish infected with lock-jaw. It was hard-going under a merciless sun and, mostly, a fruitless pursuit. A couple of hand-size fish were scant reward for two days effort, cross-eyed from watching the strike indicator.

On our second visit we discovered a path along a cliff face made by the local bovine population that gave access to a swift, deep run. Flipping into the rushing water under some overhanging reeds proved to be a goldmine resulting in a fish almost cast-for-cast, one heading straight up the rapid like greased lightning and an inevitable snap off.

A walk down stream looking for new water disturbed a monster croc sunning itself below a second rapid. Suddenly standing waist deep was not such a good idea!

Round three. The rapid, so productive on the previous trip, was fishless and after a fruitless hour or so the consensus was to walk the opposite bank, where the going looked a little easier, and to head up river for new water.

Following cow trails through the thorn thickets on tribal land got us to the head of a likely looking rapid where there were some mighty swirls at the tail-out of a long, slow stretch. My first cast folded like one of those stretchy coiled-spring toy sausage-dogs as the fly came loose from the bushes behind me.

It wasn’t pretty but in a split second the line ripped through the water and I was left holding a lifeless rod and a fly-less leader.”

Get the rest of the story in issue 27 below. As always, it’s free.