BEN’S DAM

BEN’S DAM

Living in the Cape (where smallmouth bass are a guilty and furtive pleasure) Conrad Botes offers up his kuier kidneys in exchange for a shot at smallie heaven. Photos: Conrad Botes, MC Coetzer.

“If this farm truly was the smallmouth heaven I believed it just might be, I was at the pearly gates checking my shoes in.”  

Legend has it that Lefty Kreh was once asked, “If you had to choose only one species to target on fly for the rest of your life, what would it be?” 

His answer: Micropterus dolomieu. Smallmouth bass. 

I like to think the greatest modern fly angler knew what he was talking about. However, when I started fly fishing in the Western Cape years ago, I quickly realised that not everyone saw smallies the same way. In fact, they were either ignored or despised by most local fly fishers. The Cape streams’ trout brigade hated them and all of them encouraged me to “chuck them on the bank” whenever smallies entered the conversation. The Clanwilliam yellowfish and indigenous species crew hated them even more.

I could see the latter group’s point (smallies nail indigenous cyprinids), but not that of the trout snobs. The bigotry involved in killing an invasive fish to protect another invasive species was beyond me. To top it off, members of both these groups would proudly post pics on social media of trophy largemouth bass. As if that was different. I don’t know why, but I have very little love for largemouth bass. Give me smallies, their swift water habitat and their badass attitudes.  

“I soon realised that it’s easier getting an invitation to join the Illuminati or the Ceres trout syndicate.”

With my love for these fish, I felt like such an outlier in the fly fishing scene. On the flip side I also thought of myself as the country’s more fervent smallmouth-bass-on-fly disciple. A tribe of one. Despite the fact that nowadays I spend most of my time fishing in the brine, smallies will always hold a sweet spot in my heart and a dedicated slot in my fishing calendar. If I can find them. 

When I started pursuing them, there used to be a wealth of options to choose from. Breede River, Brandvlei Dam and, of course, Clanwilliam Dam. Sadly, many of these fisheries have deteriorated as smallmouth waters, mostly because of the introduction of sharptooth catfish (another debate, as these poeskets are indigenous to South Africa yet alien to the Western Cape). I noticed the deterioration of the smallmouth bass fishing most at Clanwilliam Dam, a spot renowned for plenty of trophy-size 20-inchers. While the disappearance of the smallies was good news for Clannies, I couldn’t help feeling a growing emptiness in my fishing calendar. It was getting harder and harder to find smallies and I was really starting to miss them. 

“As Ben tossed a full streepsak of wood on the already roaring fire, I wondered why Suzy was not joining for the braai. The answer to that would become apparent over the next 36 hours or so. “

Around the Covid period friends started telling stories about this crazy guy in the Swartland who had several dams stocked with smallies on his farm. There was apparently one dam, bigger than the others, that was the stuff of legend. Ben’s Dam. The nutter in question, Ben, is a protea farmer, who fishes for everything from smallies on fly to bronze whalers on stand-up gear (he’s a West Coast rock and surf guy), plus everything in between. I had no idea what it was about the area that made the fishing so good at Ben’s Dam but from the whispered feedback I was getting, it was no normal dam. It was reputed to be hands-down, no-contest, “The best smallmouth bass dam in the country.” I needed to meet this man and fish with him.  

I soon realised that it’s easier getting an invitation to join the Illuminati or the Ceres trout syndicate, than get one from Ben. So I made enquiries of the lucky friends who had cracked the nod before, but it seemed they were in the same boat as me – hopeful, somewhat anxious and fizzing like kids before Christmas on the off-chance Father Christmas pitched. You see, no one knows what triggers an invite from Ben. It could have something to do with harvest times, Dutch flower stocks, the direction of the wind in the Swartland, or the man’s seasonal smallie-addled fever dreams. All I knew was that if an invitation ever came, I would be there in no time.  

“It felt like there was a bucket of slop with needles floating in it where my brain used to be.”  

One bright day, somewhat miraculously, my ticket came through. Feeling like lottery winners, MC Coetzer and I found ourselves driving through the canola fields heading north through the Swartland. Destination: Ben’s Dam, where our mate chef PJ Vadas was to join us for a weekend’s fishing with Ben.  

When we arrived at his place on the Friday afternoon, Ben was busy at his warehouse, wrapping up a week’s work and putting hundreds of proteas into cold storage. They were to be shipped off to some fancy duchess’s dinner table in Sussex on Monday morning.   

Awhê my masekinners! Befok! Kom ons gaan gooi nat!” was Ben’s hello. The last part could be interpreted as “Let’s go fish.” Could… 

After a quick beer or two, we hopped into Ben’s double cab bakkie and shot off down some obscure dirt road to one of the closer dams. This was not Ben’s Dam, but a more accessible taster. By way of explanation, he said, “I want to BRAAI [BBQ/asado] manne, and don’t want to waste kuier [chillaxing] time and drive too far.”  

As the sun went down over the dam and I released yet another solid smallie, a feeling of happiness and excitement for the fishing we were to do the next day came over me. If this farm truly was the smallmouth heaven I believed it just might be, I was at the pearly gates checking my shoes in.  

“It always felt like we were about to flatten out the coals and braai but then more wood would be thrown onto the fireplace. “

Soon after we arrived at Ben’s house, we were greeted by his wife Wendy and two kids. Ben lit a fire in a big fireplace right in the middle of the kitchen, Suzy and the kids said goodnight and disappeared upstairs. As Ben tossed a full streepsak of wood on the already roaring fire, I wondered why Suzy was not joining for the braai. The answer to that would become apparent over the next 36 hours or so. 

“Nou gaan ons braai!” came the rallying cry from Ben, who was clearly just as excited about the kuier as we were about the smallies.  

Never one to need his arm twisted, I thought, “OK, let’s go!” and poured another beer. The evening was quickly gaining velocity and soon everyone was talking loudly at the same time, discussing smallies and preaching to fellow members of the choir about why they were so fucking awesome. Brandy soon replaced beer and wine.  

It always felt like we were about to flatten out the coals and braai but then more wood would be thrown onto the fireplace. Eventually PJ noticed that I had eaten half of one of the sourdough loaves he brought for braai broodjies, and it dawned on him that everyone must be starving.  

“By this stage I’d figured out that Ben is probably one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever come across.”

“It’s getting late Ben, let’s braai. The coals are ready,” PJ said as he tried to spread the coals in front of a furnace that was hot enough to melt half a ton of bronze. Now if there’s anyone that should know if it’s time to braai, it would be PJ, celebrated chef and owner of Vadas Smokehouse. “Nooit my bra! That’s not enough coals,” Ben screamed as he tossed yet another streepsak on.  

By this stage I’d figured out that Ben is probably one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever come across. Apart from being a highly skilled botanist, I also discovered then that he’s an excellent musician. Next to the kitchen was an enormous living room with a band stage in the one corner. It appeared that Ben played everything from the drums to bass and harmonica and whichever guitar he picked up. Soon Ben was sitting on a bar chair in front of the roaring fire like Satan. We, his doomed disciples, listened to him playing Metallica in a room that felt hotter than Hades.  

“With metal blazing over the car stereo, Ben raced the bakkie down the mountain’s dirt road, as the rest of us wondered when exactly we would reach our inevitable, imminent deaths.”

After that, the night became blurry. I don’t recall a lot, but I do remember (in no particular order) that: 

  1. I fell off my chair twice. 
  2. I fell asleep on the toilet three times. 
  3. I smashed a glass on the table while head banging. 
  4. I almost fell into the massive fire. 
  5. I got amorous on the dance floor with Barney, Ben’s daughter’s purple dinosaur stuffed animal. 

MC woke me up before sunrise; it was time to go fishing. A growling stomach told me that I hadn’t eat any of the braaivleis, which PJ apparently finally got to serve at 2am. When I got to the kitchen, the fire was already going and so was the smallmouth banter, albeit a few decibels lower than whenever my memory checked out the night before. We inhaled coffee and rusks, and then moered everything into Ben’s bakkie and hit the dirt road for the bigger dam, down the valley. THE dam, Ben’s Dam.  

“Moenie worry nie massekinners, we’ll be there soon.”

Ben’s place is situated on an elevation where the weather is perfect for proteas, and he refers to it as bo-berg (upper mountain). “Moenie worry nie massekinners, we’ll be there soon,” Ben said over his shoulder as he hit the gas. Ben obviously knew the road very well, because he was looking at everyone and everything except the road in front of him. With metal blazing over the car stereo, Ben raced the bakkie down the mountain’s dirt road, as the rest of us wondered when exactly we would reach our inevitable, imminent deaths.  

Eventually the bakkie hammered to an abrupt standstill, amid a collective wince of aching heads and queasy stomachs. Despite the great deal of enthusiasm coursing through us to rig up quickly, there wasn’t a lot of speed involved.  

“Motherfucker!” MC cried out as he sat down in a thorn bush to lace up his wading boots. PJ disappeared into some bushes as nature beckoned while I stuffed around searching in my bag and then the bakkie for my sunglasses. Ben made the first cast followed by MC and PJ. I was on the water last [Ed: Highly unusual for Conrad] because it transpired that I’d left my sunnies at the farmhouse. As I tied on a fat Zonker pattern, the first whoops and “fuck yeahs” were already echoing across the dam.  

Ready as I could be in my hungover state I walked down to the water and tried to identify some smallmouth structure. The sun was drilling me, reflecting off the water at a relentless angle, penetrating my retinas and drilling laser beams into the back of my skull. It felt like there was a bucket of slop with needles floating in it where my brain used to be.  

Jass my bra! Dis ‘n ma se kontsekind van n stuk vis daai!”

Ben was fishing about 50m away from where I was laying out some casts on a floating line. I was about to recast when the line was abruptly yanked from my hands as a smallie hit the fly. As it shot off and made its first jumps, Ben came running and screaming. Soon a 20-inch smallie lay on its side in the shallows and Ben was slapping me wherever he could in search of high fives. “Jass my bra! Dis ‘n ma se kontsekind van n stuk vis daai!” Which roughly translates to “Dude! Nice fish!” 

Soon the sun eased its angle, my brain re-appeared, and I was lost in catching one trophy smallie after another. PJ got a 22-inch smallie, which, for those who know, is really as good as it gets. MC was fishing across the dam in a deep ledge by the dam wall. I assumed that one of his fancy Game Changers was stuck to a sunken log, because every few minutes when I looked across and spotted him, he seemed to still be trying to pull it loose. When we stopped for lunch and a beer under a massive wild fig, he told me that he had been drilling fish after fish on a topwater hair bug pattern. So every time I looked up and spotted him stuck on that log he was actually onto yet another smallie. 

“What’s this kak now?”

Ben’s Dam had all the structure one could wish for. Rubble fields, gravel beds, drop-offs and reed beds. It truly is smallmouth bass heaven. So when Ben suggested we take a drive around the dam to the inlet on the opposite side where there was a flat sandy area with submerged grass due to the high springtime dam level, I was reluctant to move. I hopped in the bakkie with everyone but thought Ben must be crazy. What’s this kak now? Every smallmouth angler will tell you to choose rocks, rubble and ledges over sand. Smallies don’t like sand. When we got out on the other bank, Ben urged us to watch out for mole tunnels. I eventually made it through the hundred metres of booby-trapped, mole-holed sand and stood at the water’s edge. It was shallow and sandy with sunken grass.

The smallmouth angler inside me was not happy. I made a cast and started stripping the black Game Changer through the shallow grass. A few casts in and suddenly a bow wave pushed up behind the fly as a smallie charged in and moered it. Action stations! Soon everyone was into fish and we even managed a quadruple-up. I swapped the streamer for a popper and had a blast watching it getting punished. One batshit crazy fish even jumped out of the water and ate the fly on the way down.  

“I still felt a bit fragile, but also exhilarated.”

That night, as the fire was roaring once again, I still felt a bit fragile, but also exhilarated. Like a piece of metal that’s been taken out of a furnace and left to cool down, I was glowing, still vibrating and slowly returning back to my regular state. With the tenacity of a honey badger, Ben took centre stage as he told stories, joked and played some guitar. Eventually PJ built up the courage and asked; “Ben, why the fuck won’t you let us braai, dude?” 

smallmouth bass

Nooit my bra,” came the response, “Once I’ve eaten, I don’t feel like taking a drink anymore. And you must know how much I like to kuier with you kontsekinners!”  

“There’s two rules when we fish at Ben’s dam.”

There’s two rules when we fish at Ben’s dam. 1. Friday nights are compulsory. No one is allowed to pitch up on the Saturday morning. 2. We don’t fish on Sundays. I guess that latter can be explained by the void that not having a campfire de-brief will leave in our lives. 

There was a quietness that descended upon MC and me as we rolled down the mountain that Sunday morning, heading south, back to the city. I guess we were both relieved to be going home, but also sad. Who knows when Ben will invite us again? Probably too long for anyone to remember to be cautious about the Friday night skop

More tales of fly fishing woes and wins in The Mission Issue 45, below, for free.

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