Most people that have caught Witte River brown trout would agree that they have a distinct look and feel to them. They are leaner, ‘slippery like eels’ and I guess arguably more beautifully spotted than most of the brown trout that we catch in other rivers in this province. They also don’t behave like typical trout that tend to hang out in a predictable ‘trout lie’ in or near the main current, a constant supply of floating insects. No, Witte browns hang out in places where you’d least expect trout to be; often areas that make no sense due to the lack of flow, in other words every stagnant nook and cranny of a pool that appears to be devoid of food. Weird.
Almost amphibious in nature and appearance, I’ve noticed that they prefer pools with dense cover and lots of undercuts and boulders under which they frequently sit, motionless, like frogs. There are exceptions, as always, in which case you may find them rising hard and freely in the perfect trout lie. But that’s also never long lasted, and they may disappear again (as in vanish off the face of the earth in a bath-tub-sized pool) during a quick fly change.
On a recent ‘out of the ordinary’ day on the Witte I found several biggish browns sipping insects highly exposed near the surface at the inlets of their pools. This suspicious behaviour threw me out of my comfort zone, as I wasn’t sure how to approach these fish. Although I couldn’t see what exactly they were eating, I gathered that they might have been triggered to rise after small, creamy-gray caddis flies that I saw fluttering across the footpath on the hike in.
I tied a CDC wolf spider imitation to 7X tippet and presented the drab fly to the first fish I spotted with my new little Echo River Glass 6’9″ #3. The brown reacted quickly to the dry, sliding forward and gulping it down. Everything was so surprisingly ‘trout-like’ that I almost forgot to strike.
The hooked trout rolled and splashed on the surface and made a few floppy jumps to get rid of the fly; it made one last dash for a boulder when it saw the net, chafing the length of 7X in the process, before I landed it. “Man what a fish” I thought peering down into the net with hands shaking from adrenalin. Few trout get me excited these days, but that fish did it for me. In fact, all Witte browns still do it for me.
I spent many years searching for ‘other’ Western Cape rivers with wild populations of trout and especially brown trout, and while I seldom still fish those streams a day on the Witte never gets old. Separated by a temperature barrier from the lower/middle reaches of the Witte that is inhabited by Breede and giant redfins and Cape kurper, the brown trout almost exclusively live in the cooler, upper reaches; a wide valley with a gentle gradient. Many tributaries join the higher reaches of the Witte, which splits and joins through thick fynbos, almost forming a braided marshland. It’s an eerie landscape with a haunted ambience where on solo missions you tend to look over your shoulder every now and again just to make sure nothing is watching or stalking you. The brown trout like this place and although alien Loch Leven fish that were stocked in this valley over a 100 years ago, they’ve become part of the furniture here.
After spotting and hooking two more brows in a similar way as the 1st fish – only landing one of them, the other effectively throwing the hook with its classic surface struggle – I climbed out of the river and made my way up to the path over a hill of pink ericas. While admiring the beautiful scenery on the hike back to my car, I thought about the rising browns and how unusual it was to find them near the surface in such thin, clear water and then it struck me for the first time that Witte River brown trout, although opportunistic, behave like ambush predators; hence their odd behaviour. (What they ambush though is beyond me, perhaps things like crabs, Cape stream frogs and their tadpoles, and maybe even baby brown trout?)