For some years, I have largely ignored my closest fishing hole. Five minutes from home, the Garden Route Dam was once a pristine bass fishing destination. The near-black tannic water made for challenging fly fishing, but experimentation and perseverance paid off. It also hosted enough bluegill to keep a kid busy for hours. But then carp appeared, and shortly after, the uninvited Spawn of Satan: Sharptooth catfish. The bass and ‘gills all but disappeared.
Given the fact that I had access to perfectly good fishing just a kilometre or two out of town, I quit fishing the Garden Route Dam because, as it were, the place had gone to shit. Only recently did I find out that this was actually, literally true.
About a year ago, the renewed need for a fishing hole a hop and a skip from home made me reconsider my stance, and I decided to try for a catfish on fly. How hard could it be? Turns out it’s kak hard. Much advice from friends with experience catching cats elsewhere got me nowhere. Sight fishing wasn’t possible, and blind fishing in open black water was, frankly, pointless. Unwilling to go down without a fight, I grabbed a spinning stick, threw some baits and hammered them. Yes, it was an empty victory. I caught some pretty good ones, but it only fuelled my determination to do it with a fly rod. I wanted to fool one, not feed the bloody varmints. Eventually I found a way, but let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.
In 2001, the town of George had a population of fewer than 150 000 people. By 2020, it had reached 220 000, and it is expected to reach 250 000 by 2023. That’s a lot of arses. And how much has the local municipality done, specifically in terms of sewerage infrastructure to deal with this population boom? Nothing, really. Now you may not know this, but the floating aquatic Kariba Weed thrives on shit. So, whereas for many, many years it was inconsequential in the Garden Route Dam, it has in the last few months taken over a significant part of its surface, including the area I intended to fish. Why? Because the inundated sewerage system has lost control. Raw sewage is being pumped into the dam, fueling the infestation.
Of course, I was unaware of the science behind the Kariba Weed invasion when I started spotting catfish whiskers poking through small gaps in the expansive mats of the stuff. But I did suspect that I’d found the solution to my catfish-on-fly problem. A freshwater tributary and open water nearby ruled out oxygen starvation – they were looking for food, and they were visible. I devised a fat, damn near fully weedless fly pattern that I could cast over said gaps right as I saw some whiskers poking through. I was hoping the fish would eat it immediately, but in case they didn’t I also built a rattle into the fly. This way, I could “call” the fish by activating the rattle once the fly sank into the gap in the weed. I’d achieve this either by shaking the rod tip or with short, sharp tugs on the line. The first time I went out to try this, I saw only one set of whiskers pushing a gap in the weed, but I followed my plan to the letter. By the time I got the fly into the gap the whiskers were gone, but I gave my line a tug and the catfish flushed that fly down as loudly as he could. On. Win. I am a genius.
Fast forward a few days, I’m back for another late afternoon shot. At first, no whiskers, but I stand and wait, scanning the weed mats. I pay little more than a thought to the large, broken concrete pipe pointing at the water to my left. I assume it’s a rainwater run-off pipe of sorts, although I could have taken some clues from the fenced in pump station less than a hundred metres behind me. Ignorance is bliss. Denial, on the other hand, is quite a tricky thing. What happens next illustrates my point.
As I’m standing there scanning for whiskers, the pump station roars into life. Within a minute, a trickle of brown water starts flowing from the pipe and into the dam. The background music of burps, farts and gargles emanating from it are scant distraction, as another minute later a set of whiskers pokes through the mat of weed. I repeat the master plan. A catfish taking a fly near the surface sounds almost identical to the legendary “boof” sound a dusky kob makes doing the same. It triggers a most satisfying adrenaline spike. At roughly 75cm it’s not a big catfish, but it’s more than enough fish for my 6wt fly rod. Thrashing against 20lb tippet and a locked drag, the fight is a quick but furious rush. I land the fish and set up a photograph while the trickle from the pipe rapidly increases in velocity and volume. Having released the fish, I return to my casting position. I start seeing some unsettlingly familiar debris in the flow, and it takes some cognitive dissociation to ignore the aroma. The weed mat begins to wash away, revealing a small herd of actively feeding catfish. It is roughly at this point that my ignorance turns into sheer denial. As I cast the soaked, bushy fly, a spray of water sprinkles my skin and hair. It’s one of the small, refreshing joys of casting big flies. Again, the fly gets mushed seconds after hitting the water, and I land another catfish a bit bigger than the first. This is great. There’s a strange preponderance of things you should never flush down a loo flowing into the town’s only supply of drinking water, but, this is great. Another!
For round three, I decide to wait for a bigger fish to show his face. Upon spotting a worthy target, I dunk the fly in front of it. Shake, shake, BOOF! At almost a meter, it’s one of the longest fish I’ve ever hooked on fly, and our battle is legendary. The previous two fish already did a number on my wet fingers with their sandpaper teeth, but this one bites down so hard when I lip him that he draws blood. The thought that I might need a strong course of antibiotics after this doesn’t even occur to me, because I’m having a gas. But by now it’s getting dark, the flow from the pipe is slowing down, and most of the catfish have gone. I decide to sink the fly into the brown current one more time, just in case. A light thump on the line incites a gentle hookset, but all I feel is a bit of extra weight on the fly, so I pull it out. Attached to it is a nondescript brownish lump. I grab the leader just above the fly and bring the fly and lump up to my face. Is it? Could it? I take a tentative but purposeful breath through the nose.
“WHAT THE FFFFFFF…” I try to swear but it’s like I have a puncture in my face. With the last bit of breath in my lungs I muster, “It’s shit! It’s a piece … of human … SHIT!”
Glaring at my wet and chewed-up hands I retch and curse and as always, the internal monologue is merciless. “You literally caught a human turd, you complete loser … That’s not very proper is it!? I mean what did you expect!? This is why you can’t have nice things! This is WHY!”
Naturally, my denial evaporated there and then, and I was instantly cured of any desire to catch another one of those suddenly disgusting fish. I knew that, at some point, some sewage may or may not have made its way into the dam in the past. But in that moment I became painfully aware that one hundred percent untreated, raw shite was being pumped into the dam by the thousands of litres. I don’t think I’ve ever bailed so quickly or showered so hard in my life.
The next day I made some enquiries, and in the next few had some interesting conversations with other concerned folks, including a few fellow recreational visitors to Garden Route Dam. I even managed a discussion with a local politician, whose blame-shifting attitude was quite a thing to behold. Turns out that the pollution is rapidly getting worse, and that George’s entire water and sewage infrastructure has for all extents and purposes gone to the pigs. Many have joined the chorus of disgust, and the municipality has since indicated that much of its budget for the next year or two will be spent upgrading the water works, as well as battling the Kariba weed invasion. I guess it’s pointless to ask them “Why only now?” They’re clearly not the only ones who suffer from ignorance and denial. But then I did confirm one thing: the difference between a catfish and your average politician, is that one is a scum sucking bottom-feeder, and the other one is just a dodgy fish.