Graduation? Coming of age? Call it what you will but, when Matt Kennedy took the trip to Highland Lodge in the Stormberg mountains of the Eastern Cape, he was looking to be initiated into the double-digit trout clan.

Matt presenting a 7lb cock rainbow trout.

With a receding whizz, my drone carried itself away and over the glassy stillness of the morning water. Blanketed by mist and speckled with the horizontal rays of the morning light, bays and channels took shape and disappeared again as the vapour began to burn off.

My initial intentions were to get some epic footage of the Stormberg views from 300m above. However, once the drone was up and flying, it quickly turned into a fishing recce.

The zone I intended surveying was a weed bed gully where another guest, Craig “Lodgey” Lodge, had caught a few decent fish the previous day. The dams at Highland Lodge are long and by day four I was tired, both literally and metaphorically, of the guessing game of where to paddle and cast next, constantly wondering if there was greener grass on the other side of the dam.

Spurwing dam from above.
Tom Lewin of Frontier Fly Fishing with a stocking cock fish.

“Make a few casts! I want some cool footage!” I screamed across the empty flat water at my father, who had just launched his tube. He’d attempted the on-the-water flipper mount, an elaborate move which proved much easier on a windless morning. Once he’d complied with a few casts, I decided to scout the area where Lodgey had hauled in so many trout. As I piloted the drone closer to the water and squinted at my phone’s live feed, small flecks in the water slowly turned into larger fish-like shapes. My heart began beating in my throat. They looked like basking crocodiles. I made a quick count of around 50 fish, most of them large, wallowing in the warming topwater between the weed beds. I wanted to shout to Dad and share the intel but, while I had been dicking around with the drone, he had already set off across the dam and was out of earshot.

Alex Kennedy (Matt’s dad) on Sid’s dam.

I made a mental map of where the fish were, retrieved the drone, jumped into my tube, and began kicking.

It depends on who you talk to, but trout stillwaters in South Africa often get given a bad rap. That’s generally because of the stereotype served up by certain training-camp destinations. These are the non-technical places where most of us begin our fly fishing careers. The kind of places where you’re likely to hook onto some mutant zombie stockie.

The jagged jaw of a male trout.

Further up the ladder are the manicured, private, trophy waters of places like Dullstroom in Mpumalanga, South Africa’s stillwater trout Mecca. Having grown up with our family’s own little go-to concession in the greater Middelpunt, Dullstroom area, I have always had a soft spot for the area and the fishing it offers. From the smell of dry grass and smoking chimneys in the winter, to crisp air, clear skies and a mandatory visit to the fly shop, it’s a place loaded with traditions and sensory triggers. In fact, I start itching if an annual Dullies trip isn’t on the cards. Weekend visits to these waters have always been a simple proposition – easy fishing on the banks of a weir, tossing thick leaders to trout that may have originally been raised on dog pellets, but in time graduate into streamer-smashing opportunists. It’s relatively easy fishing, but it has its place and I get immense joy from these trips.

Coming from a tribe of stillwater trout folk, I have fun memories of kicking around with my brothers in those old school donut float tubes, looking like a tribe of Mini-Mes wearing neoprene waders like our dad. As we grew more accomplished on our home waters, we were more fully kitted out with our own rods, fly jackets, tech-clothing, and float tubes. From family holiday to family holiday, we racked up experience in various stillwaters from Mpumalanga to parts of KwaZulu-Natal and later, the Eastern Cape. These trips included fisheries in the Rhodes/Maclear area and, eventually, a visit to Highland Lodge.

I first went there with my family in the winter of 2018. I’ll never forget the cold winds, icicles forming on my rod guides and the layers upon layers of Merino wool and willy warmers necessary to cope with the elements. That trip yielded only one or two fish between us – although they were big and strong enough for us to be content when calling it a day. It was on that trip that the top tier of the South African stillwater trout hierarchy was firmly established for me. I’d only had a taste of what the Eastern Cape, and Highland Lodge specifically, could offer, but I was blown away. The pedigree of a wild-grown fish offered something no stocked fish ever could. Sure, a stockie puts a bend in your rod, but a wild four-year-old fish with attitude, battle scars and tales to tell, is a different animal. I recall leaving that holiday feeling giddy and spooked at the same time, bothered by a sense of unfinished business.

Matt’s double-digit 11lb rainbow hen.

Read the remainder of Highland Tribe in Issue 39. It’s free!

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