Saltwater fly fishing maverick Jimmy Eagleton climbs for a living on offshore oil rigs. So when it comes to accessing hard-to-reach gullies, caves, and cliffs to target small yet feisty saltwater species that most of us ignore, he’s in his element. Photos by Ryan Janssens.

jimmy cliff fly fishing

In freshwater it’s referred to as micro fly fishing. In the small, intimate, crystal- clear Cape streams between small waterfalls and mountain-size boulders, fly anglers pursue indigenous species like sawfin and Cape kurper, or exotic aliens like smallmouth bass and beautifully marked rainbow and brown trout.  

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In the Western Cape saltwater scene, Conrad Botes was one of the first to popularise fly fishing for blacktail as a cool and shameless act, and now a lot more salty fly anglers find relief from chasing difficult species or supersized specimens by going light in the salt. Sometimes it’s a second rod fallback when your dreams don’t come true. Other times it’s just a light, single-minded affair. 

jimmy cliff climbing fly fishing

Often, when fly fishing in the Western Cape salt for bigger species like yellowtail, leervis, or kob, the results do not justify the effort and soon you find yourself suffering from a mild case of the fishing blues. That’s when I ditch my yellowtail gear for a 5-weight and hit the cliffs at Cape Point. Remember what it was like when you were a kid with a hand line trying for anything and everything in the rock pools and gullies? This is just that, but the grownup version in the form off rock climbing over water. I call it deep water solo climbing. There is no need for climbing gear or a climbing partner to assist you. A miscalculation in ability will simply send you plummeting into the water to test your swimming skills.

cliff fly fishing

You may be thinking, this is just a grown man catching silly fish in a reckless way. But for me it’s not. A lifetime working as a climber on oil rigs has honed my skills for this. Every route is systematically worked out, with climbing gear, to subconsciously map the way in and out. Once you’ve done it a few times, the way of least resistance becomes clear.

cliff fly fishing

cliff fly fishing

There is always a nice balance between nervousness, excitement, and eagerness to have a go at this kind of fishing without the climbing gear. Like a perfectly timed cast, it can take a few tries before you execute the route smoothly and effortlessly. By shifting your bodyweight between foot rests and hand grips, it becomes a rhythmic vertical dance. Some grips on the rock face are familiar and reassuring, like shaking an old friend’s hand. Just like a good foot rest, you know where you stand.

bream fly fishing

Steve Austin fly fishing

The goal is to access gullies, caves, and undercuts that have never been fished before. The size of the fish is of no consequence. This kind of pursuit is all about curiosity, so your ego is best left at home. 

Read the rest of Jimmy’s cliff hangers in issue 40. It’s FREE!

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