Lesotho, Lesotho, Lesotho…How much more can we talk about the fly fishing in Lesotho? I say: “Plenty more!” because it is so damn good – as in, the best in the world? I really believe that the river fishing is unmatched in South Africa (and on a par with the best in the world), but read this story on the rainbow trout of Katse dam before you criticise my opinion and make any assumptions…
Rainbow trout of Katse Dam
My feet became unbearably cold as the sun dipped behind the mountains, smothering the Makhangoa Community Camp in shade. I slid out from underneath the woolly Basotho blanket, trying to make as little noise as possible not to disturb my sleeping wife and made my way over to the traditional stone cottage window facing the river. The dim evening light made the grassy mountain slopes with patchy maize plantations across the Bokong River valley look grey and boring. The landscape was dull, but the creatures that lived in the water got me very excited, since low-light conditions made them feed near the surface.
The rises of trout and yellowfish echoed like distant gunshots off the cliffs that stood black and brick red on the opposite bank of the Katse Dam. I watched as the fish rippled the quicksilver-calm water, a dorsal or caudal fin poking through the heavy surface film every now-and-then. I came to the water’s edge with torn clothes as I hurriedly made my way down the camp hill on a donkey trail through near impassable barriers of rose-hip bushes. The blood on my scathed hands was as red as their beautiful berries, but the claw-like thorns on these plants were horrifying.
What to eat
A big rainbow trout of Katse Dam rolled close to me, engulfing a mouth-full of light green buzzers that had crinkled wings. These insects were still virgins of the evening hatch. I inspected the fish’s main food items during a forced lunch break earlier in the day (one simply cannot fish 12 hours a day without eating anything). After scratching in bankside-leaf litter and under submerged rocks, I discovered that there were three aquatic organisms to take into consideration when picking flies. Those were, besides the obvious terrestrial grasshoppers that plagued the bankside vegetation, the green buzzer adults and their bloodworm larvae, small crabs, and thousands of yellowfish fry.
The easiest thing to copy was a small fish, so I had selected a zonker to search for feeding fish in the big water body. I was rewarded with two rainbow trout on this fly in the early morning hours before breakfast. The first three casts yielded three hook-ups of which two were securely hooked and landed. One of them was a behemoth, a fish that did not even fit into my New Zealand landing net.
I smeared the fluffy rabbit fur of the same fly I had used in the morning with saliva and pressed hard on it with my thumb to wet it through. Then I stripped about twenty-five metres of line off the reel and flung the zonker in the direction of the big fish, its body and dorsal still drawing a wake through the water, like a descending submarine, after it ate the buzzers.
The line dropped slack on the hungry trout’s first attempt to eat it; I stripped faster, but the hook missed the flesh of the mouth. There was a quick second pull on the end of my line and then a pronounced third ‘bite’ that nearly parted the 3X tippet. “On!”, my yelp echoed over the noises of rising fish and then my reel sang as the fish tore off line, leaving only a few winds of backing on the spool when it came to a halt.
The fish continued to run me well into my backing, forcing me to run after it along the bank to gain line before it tired and rolled along the surface on the wind in like a bloated puffer fish. After releasing the 8 lb rainbow, I caught fish on almost every cast for over two hours before I had enough and could not stand an empty, growling tummy anymore. I discussed the fishing with African Waters guide Pierre Swart, over dinner and he mentioned that it had been as good as I described for over a month after a period of good and consistent rainfall at the end of February. He recommended that I take a stroll along the Bokong River the next morning and look for big, wild rainbow trout that usually move into the river overnight.
The next morning
I was up at 5:30am and stumbled over the rocky and thorny terrain to the Bokong River inlet in Katse Dam. It was still dark and I could only hear the slurping noises of big trout feeding on insects in the surface film along the edges of the dam, but I confidently flicked out the large Klinkhamer with a brassie nymph dropper into the current line approx. eight metres away from the bank. The line tightened on the first cast and I hooked and landed a beautiful 6 lb rainbow on the dry fly. I then headed upriver as the visibility improved and the ‘black’ water turned the colour of a Blue Lagoon cocktail in the early morning light.
The dry fly dipped under the surface in the tail-out of the first pool above the dam as another big rainbow snacked the brassie nymph. A second fish joined it and tried to eat the dry fly dragging though the water above the hooked trout as they swam side by side to my feet. The follower was so distracted by the commotion of the fighting fish and the other fly in the water that I came close to netting both fish at the end of the fight.
Warm rays of sunshine that beamed over the lowest mountain slope were welcome on my chilled hands after removing the hook from the fishes’ mouth in the icy water. I then carried on fishing and landed more large fish, of which the biggest was an 8lb rainbow, in the numerous pools up to camp. Directly below camp I reached the ‘Big Bend’ pool. I call it the Big Bend because it stretches along a pronounced right bend in the river and the fish in it are likely to give you a big bend in your rod if you are lucky enough to hook one.
A shoal of rainbows, approximately five fish strong, had taken up station in a deep lie near the bank in the tail of the pool. They sipped hard and constantly at tiny floating insects. The members in the party perked their fins and playfully chased and bumped each other, like a group of teens encouraging each other to down tequila shots at a bar. Instead of the usual dry fly approach, I decided to try something new. I had tied a ‘freshwater’ crab fly (simple Merkin-style fly with a double keel and two tungsten beads per keel) after reading Fred Davis’ post “Gin and Crabs” and was excited to try it on a few fish species, including large Lesotho trout.
The fly had all the ‘crabby’ triggers (I could think of) tied into it. If compared to freshwater river crabs in our country, the legs were maroon/orange to mimic the pincer hotspots, it had a ‘mottled’ brown body, a hot orange bead on each keel to imitate the oft-orange eggs in the ventral egg pouch of crustaceans, and then two beads per keel to make a ‘clicking’ noise when stripped or dragged along the bottom.
Well fed trout
The trout were fat and clearly well fed by the trail of floating insects. Yet all five gave chase to the crab along the bottom of the pool like a pack of hunting dogs mauling a rabbit. I watched how the three smallest fish in the ‘pack’ took the fly at least twice each before the biggest in the group latched onto it. I struck hard and the fish burst into the air ‘clacking’ its gill plates as it shook its head to throw the hook. It was probably the best fight of the trip. A nerve-racking one in which the trout nearly pulled the line into willow roots and dead poplar branches in the water near my ambush point.
I eventually landed the trophy river rainbow and used it as a model for underwater photography before releasing it. By the end of the day, the crab was the dominant fly, which was responsible for most of the day’s catch. Every trout I caught on it attacked the fly as if it was their last meal. Although it was completely different to the usual stealthy manner in which I enjoy catching river trout, it was pleasant and a novel experience – “heil” Davis!
The first Bokong River trout that fell for the crab fly.
That evening I returned to the Katse Dam area and after a few hesitant bumps on the natural zonker fly, I tried an Improved Bloody Squirmy on a dry/dropper rig. I quickly caught four fish on four consecutive casts, after which I had enough of naïve rainbows for at least one day.
For more information on the Makhangoa Community Camp, please visit: African Waters