Introduced or Local? Exciting Freshwater Fly Fishing in South Africa.

People may find it difficult to reconcile the (sometimes) gentle art of freshwater fly fishing with a true African background, but in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands (KZN) of South Africa it is more than possible. There are crystal clear mountain streams which rise in the  majestic and rugged Drakensberg mountains, powerful rivers and hundreds of dams with both exotic and indigenous fish species ready to test the mettle of the most proficient and enthusiastic fly angler. Early European settlers brought with them a love of fly fishing and also brown and rainbow trout as, initially, the indigenous fish were seen as unworthy opponents. 

The opinion that African fish species were second-rate targets held until the last couple of decades, and diverse, exciting trout fishing destinations were developed.  Fly fishing grew into a popular activity – though mostly for local fishermen. Dams were populated from commercial trout farms and wild breeding of both rainbow and brown trout became established in many of the larger rivers. Local tourism steadily built up around the areas with trout fishing, but, again until very recently, visitors came to Africa for game viewing and not freshwater fishing.

Keen anglers like myself had focused on the marine component of fishing in South Africa, as there are many excellent destinations and species and we were mostly unaware of the huge potential of South African freshwater angling. Growing up as an avid angler in Scotland, I spent many hours fishing for trout there. A good trout in a Scottish loch or reservoir, however, was about three quarters of a pound and few destinations produced fish much over that on a regular basis. Little did I realize that in the Midlands of KZN I could easily catch numerous fish much larger than that. This was a game changer in a good way when I moved to Pietermaritzburg on the edge of the Midlands. 

Within an hour of my home I can be on a dam or river where excellent trout can be caught. As in Scotland, most trout destinations are in beautiful country areas and often at reasonably high altitudes where you can count on cooler temperatures. Today I fished some dams with the snow covered mountains of the Drakensberg World Heritage Site towering above me in the distance. I only caught two fish but the smaller would have been an excellent fish in Scotland and the larger would have been among my best ten fish back home. The fish in dams, mostly rainbow but with some brown trout, grow rapidly and can easily attain 6, 8, 10 pounds or even more. 

Fishing a mountain stream in the KZN Midlands.

Trout fishing can be carried out all year round in South Africa, although there are peaks related to spawning or other local factors. The flies to be used are the usual wide variety from the pink “Dolly Parton” type, to the traditional smaller patterns of “butchers” and others. The size of fly also varies with the area, target and preferences of the angler. While some people favor massive “flies” that imitate frogs, others prefer smaller ones looking like caddis-type flies. Small wet or tiny dry flies work in some areas for some anglers too. 

There are trout areas in the Midlands to fit all tastes and types of fly angler and the preferred target for the day could be beautiful small brown trout in a crystal clear mountain stream or a magnificent 12 pound rainbow trout in a well-stocked dam.  Depending on the circumstances, including time of year, weather and depth of water, it is best to have a floating, an intermediate and a sinking line available for use on different reels so that line changes can be made rapidly and easily. The type of rod also depends on the target and angler’s preference. Very light rods can give excellent sport in small streams while potential monster trout in some dams require a little more brute force – a five weight rod should suffice in almost all circumstances. 

A rainbow trout caught in South Africa
A nice rainbow trout from a Midlands dam.

All in all, I find trout fishing in South Africa much more exciting and productive than in Scotland. The fish are generally much larger, easier to access and fishing can be carried out all year round, usually under pleasant and comfortable circumstances. What could be better than this? 

The answer is, in a word, “Scaly”. These fish, known in the scientific world as “Labeobarbus natalensis”, are indigenous to most of the rivers of the Midlands and were mostly ignored and even frowned upon by traditional fly anglers. They were poisoned and removed from some areas to accommodate trout. Scalies do look a bit like mullet, seem to eat very small insects and traditional fly fishing methods and flies were generally, in turn, ignored by the scalies. In recent years, however, their fighting abilities have been recognized and it became clear that any failure to catch scalies lay completely with the anglers. 

Scalies have excellent eyesight, are often secretive and are extremely sensitive to disturbance and movement, but the biggest problem was that the rivers in which they live are often muddy in summer, making fly fishing all but impossible. In the winter “nymphing” in the runs and normal trout fishing techniques did not produce much at all either. Now we know that in the winter the scalies retreat into the slow, deep areas of the rivers, where they sit quietly, but will take small flies presented slowly and near the bottom. Once this reality was recognized, we learned to make small simple flies and present them, slowly and deeply, in the middle and tails of large pools. Many traditional trout fishers, like myself, have been converted or, better said, go after trout in the summer months and scalies in the drier, cooler months. 

A nice scalie from the Tugela River
A nice scaly from the Tugela River

I progressed from getting an average of one nice tug on the line per day to landing some really excellent fish after tremendous fights. One of my first winter scalies was caught after I saw a good fish lazily break the surface in a calm pool on the lower Bushmans River. I snuck up on the area and cast above and let the fly drift down to where I had seen the fish. The fly stopped where it should not have stopped and so I tightened the line and all hell broke loose. The line peeled off my reel and as I tried to gain a modicum of control, the line actually burned a mark on my finger. It was like hooking onto a torpedo and the fish went right across the river and then upstream. It took me onto the backing three times before I landed it and the fish was only 43 centimeters long (12.5 in.) – a good, but not an amazing, sized fish. 

After decades of trout fishing I can catch as many trout as any other angler, but I am still in the early stages of getting used to the foibles of scalies. I already have gained enormous respect for these fish. Although they are found in dams, most scaly fishing is carried out in rivers and usually in the middle reaches – often with trout in the headwaters of the same rivers. Some of the best rivers are the Umkomaas, Umzimkulu, Umgeni and their tributaries but, to me, the prime river is the mighty Tugela. With its source in the formidable Drakensberg Mountains, this river quickly grows to be the largest in the province. It also contains some of the biggest scalies and, in some areas, amazing numbers of fish. 

Each river and, sometimes parts of each river, are characterised by either lots of small or large fish, generally few fish or many fish and, in some areas, extremely smart fish. The Tugela takes quite a lot of work, but the fish are well worth it and results can be memorable. There are also a few crocodiles in the Tugela and so this adds an extra bit of adrenaline to the fishing experience there. All sizes of scaly will take a fly and, in some rivers such as the Umkomaas, you will likely catch many smallish fish, while in the Tugela, the fish from deep water will usually be really large. In many rivers a scaly of over 30 cm (12 in.) is a reasonable one, over 40 cm (16 in.) is a good one, over 50 cm (20 in.) an excellent one and over sixty cm (24 in.) is a champagne fish. I have yet to achieve over 60 cm but my sons have already eclipsed me. 

Tugela River
The mighty Tugela River, scene of mighty battles between Boer and British, Zulu and British and anglers and scalies.

Mid-winter scaly fishing is often a fairly slow process of sneaking up on likely spots and drifting the flies over good looking lies. Before and after this period, however, there are fairly brief periods of fly fishing excitement and excellence. After the warm summer floods and dirty water, the fish are still feeding well, before slowing down prior to the coldest times. During this period “nymphing” and fishing the runs and tops of pools can produce excellent results. Similarly, as temperatures rise and before the floods start again there is a brief period of much improved activity and fish feeding in the fast moving water. These changes can happen overnight and require completely different fishing techniques, as the fish simply exit the deep pools for fast running areas.

While trout fishing in South Africa is similar to such fishing in USA or Europe, scaly fishing is unique and local knowledge of equipment, techniques and skills is essential for good catches. South Africa has excellent game viewing and other attractions but, many fly fishers have visited this country to see the game and missed out on some truly amazing fly fishing opportunities. Landing a 14 pound rainbow trout in a picturesque dam, or fighting a magnificent scaly with a crocodile basking on the far bank, are experiences not to be missed. Slowly word of this amazing fishing is getting out and information about the rivers, destinations and fish species is available on many Internet sites, including Excellent lodges and good guides are available and, yet, there are still wild backcountry areas where you can fish alone and undisturbed.

Leave a Reply