“Why do trout seem to love the sunken ant? I don't think they see many in nature but the sub-surface lacquered ant has been a winner for centuries. Maybe the double-humped, multiple-legged imitation is a genetically imprinted search image independent of whether it sinks or floats.” From 'The Essential Ant' - Fly Anglers on Line .
The Witels stream in the Michell’s Pass on the way to Ceres is one of two within a two-hour drive of Cape Town which contain brown trout, the other being the Witte in the Bain’s Kloof Pass just outside Wellington.
Although every member of the Cape Piscatorial Society has heard of the Witels, not many have fished it and the reason is difficulty of access and the extreme ruggedness of the terrain. It most certainly is not your average five-day hike and one needs to be fit and in reasonable shape to hike this canyon.
Click in images to enlarge
The author fishing a typical run during the four-day trip to the Witels stream
At regular intervals along its length, sheer cliffs on both banks force one into the water if you wish to progress. These ‘swims’ as they are called are sometimes metres deep and they are often in shade for much of the day.
The stream was first explored and mapped in the 1950s by what was known as the Society’s ‘Exploration Group’ and, today, one marvels at their courage and tenacity.
In Piscator no 36 (May 1956), Alan Yates requests members interested in forming an “Exploration group” to explore and map such streams to attend the AGM and in a letter in the same edition L Bybee writes of day trips from the Worcester side starting in 1929 and says that there were others before him. Bybee writes that he never caught a fish weighing more than two pounds and that the fishing in those days was easy: “If in spring and early summer, the fishing is easy, in the autumn it becomes sheer murder. A cast into a pool frequently produces four or five fish, and it becomes a matter of steering one’s fly into the mouth of the largest.” Our experience could not have been more different.
In those days the pre-packed, dehydrated foods that we take for granted now were not available and trout were a welcome addition to their diet during the trip. To get through the swims they used inflatable air mattresses upon which they loaded their heavy rucksacks, pushing these ahead of them as they paddled through these deep pools.
The view from the overhang at Boulder Pool which was the base camp for the trip
Today, technology and a burgeoning hiking and camping industry have provided much lighter equipment, but my angling companion Andre van Rooyen and I estimated that our backpacks weighed about 22 kgs for the four-day trip we made over Easter. Instead of air mattresses we relied on two heavy duty refuse bags. If you put your kit into these bags and tie a knot in them, sufficient air is retained to make the enclosure more buoyant and keep everything dry. One of the swims is some 200 metres long and as the water you are swimming through is cold, you need to be reasonably fit.
One can access the stream either from the top of the valley which requires a permit from the University of Cape Town Mountain and Ski Club, or from its junction at the bottom of the valley with the Dwars River which flows through the nearby town of Ceres. This section of the stream belongs to the local municipality and, on the first day, we hiked for six hours to reach Boulder Camp which was our base for two days of fishing. On the fourth day we hiked out to our car which we had left at a B&B in the Michell’s Pass en route to Ceres.
Sadly, the lower section of the stream has become infested with alien vegetation - black wattle and Port Jackson – and the banks are so crowded that at times we were forced to wade. Another problem was that the fire which had started on the Worcester side of the mountain a few weeks earlier in the valley of the Jan du Toit's River had crossed onto the Ceres side and the extreme heat had cracked some of the streamside boulders. There is a swim through Boulder Pool just below Boulder Camp and I decided to try and circumnavigate the swim. Needless to say I took a tumble, falling about two metres before bouncing of a boulder into the pool below, sustaining a big bruise on my thigh.
We arrived tired and wet some six hours after leaving the Michell’s Pass road. The swim before our camp was, however, refreshing and we were happy to change into dry clothes. After setting up camp, we had a meal made memorable by the surroundings and a celebratory spot of whisky with mountain water and slept well that night.
Cooking a meal at the Boulder Pool campsite
The fishing did not live up to our expectations in the next two days. We saw few fish and caught four between us in two days.
An adult Dobsonfly photographed on the Smalblaar by the author
I stuck to a dry fly and rose two on an imitation of a Cape Dobsonfly adult which was present in significant numbers on the Smalblaar a few weeks before our trip.
One of two sighted browns which took the author’s imitation of an adult Cape Dobsonfly
Thanks to the research by Ed Herbst we now know why adult dobsonflies are prolific in autumn and my imitation, made on a J Son extended body pin, floated well and was easy to follow on the water. It was made of tan Larva Lace foam which is available from Morne Bayman’s African Fly Angler website.
The author’s imitation of an adult dobsonfly with an extended body made of tan Larva Lace foam
Three of our four fish were caught by Andre on a sinking Copper Wire Ant which Ed tied for us before the trip and which he has fished - using a strike indicator - with great success for two decades.
Andre van Rooyen with a Witels brown trout caught on the Copper Wire Ant
The first sinking ants in the USA were tied with thread covered in cellire varnish but Ed’s design combines copper wire and a bead, either glass or 1.5 mm brass or tungsten in black nickel. The wire is covered with successive layers of the new Loon fluorescing, UV light-cured resin and then Sally Hansen’s Hard as Nails nail varnish for durability and to add translucence.
Ed’s Copper Wire Ant which omits the legs in order to emphasise the gap between thorax and abdomen on ants
If you Google ‘Images Sinking Ant’ or ‘Epoxy Ant’ you will see lots of examples and most are heavily hackled which defeats the object both in terms of sink rate and also because it eliminates the slim waist in the hourglass shape which is a striking characteristic in the ant silhouette.
Ed’s design, instead, emphasises the wing in its use of bridal organza.
The author’s photograph of the ant which was prolific on the Witels
There were lots of ants on the rocks and Ed’s fly, based on the TMC 2488 in #18, mimicked their size, shape and colour. Using Peter Slingsby’s outstanding Ants of the Cape website we later identified it as a Spotted Sugar Ant, Camponotus maculatus . Sugar Ants are common in the fynbos biome of the Western Cape. The good news is that Peter Slingsby’s forthcoming book, Ants of Southern Africa should be on the shelves in a few months’ time and will doubtless be copiously illustrated with his exquisite ant paintings.
One of Peter Slingsby’s paintings of the Spotted Sugar Ant. "© Peter Slingsby and used with permission"
The cover of Peter Slingsby’s new book on ants
The water clarity on the Witels is close to perfection and its depth is deceptive when observed from an angler’s point of view. Shallow, foot-deep runs actually turn out to be hip depth when you enter the stream. With the knowledge that trout consume most of their food under the surface, the sunken ant was a winning fly choice, getting down to fish holding next to boulders and undercuts. I covered all the likely looking spots with a dry fly with little reaction from the trout. The two that I did raise were sighted fish that were close to the surface.
Despite the lack of fishing success there was much consolation in the beauty of our surroundings.
On the first day we fished up from the camp site and on the second day we walked downstream and then ended the day at the campsite. On the fourth day we hiked out – another six hour journey.
As we returned on the afternoon of our first day’s fishing we disturbed two black eagles that had caught something, probably a dassie, on the ridge overlooking the camp. That night I walked down to the water’s edge to get some water and was able to observe, in the light of my headlamp, mayfly nymphs swimming to shore. The next morning their shucks could be seen lined up on the sides of the streamside rocks.
Ed Herbst told me that A C Harrison, the founder of the Cape Piscatorial Society in its present form, kept mayflies in aquarium tanks in his garage and that the subimagos emerged on humid nights. The humidity ensured that their wings did not dry out prematurely and by emerging at night on rocks and not at the water surface, they were less vulnerable to predation.
The next afternoon we saw a cloud of mayflies hovering a few metres above the area where water flowed into the pool next to the camp.
There were also dozens on the rocks near the camp which flew away as I approached, but I managed to get a photograph of one and it was identified by Helen Barber James at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown as Aprionyx peterseni.
The Leptophlebiid mayfly adult, Aprionyx peterseni, photographed on the banks of the Witels
A C wrote a series of articles for Piscator on Cape aquatic insects and he calls this mayfly a ‘Pied Dun’. In the September 1949 edition he says it was given this name as “… the adult gives one the immediate impression of a whitish fly with black markings. It is fairly common in the mountain streams of the Western Cape and in trout streams such as the Eerste and upper Berg and is notably plentiful in the Witte River above Bain’s Kloof, where its nymph-cases plaster the riverside stones at midsummer.”
AC kept Pied Dun nymphs in aquarium tanks and said they emerge at night by crawling out of the water before escaping from the nymphal shuck. He cites his observation of this process in a nymph captured on the Eerste River at Jonkershoek, Stellenbosch in July 1948, which emerged on the night of 12 November. “This nymph had crawled up the side of the glass tank so that the thorax was above the waterline before the fly broke out. In fact, throughout a long series of tank experiments with Pied Dun nymphs there was no single instance of the fly ‘hatching’ from the nymphal shuck on the surface film of the water and the nymphs usually managed to draw themselves half out of the water on the vertical glass of the tank, sometimes remaining thus for some hours before the transformation. This is the characteristic type of emergence of the Pied Dun in the rivers, but they usually pull themselves clear of the water on the rougher surface of protruding stones. In captivity the season of emergence of this species extended from November until March.”
Had I known this I would have fished my Tube Body Mayfly which is attracting increasing acceptance by Cape Town fly fishers who swear by it. The TBM is also proving acceptable to trout on an English chalkstream, the Loddon, a tributary of the Thames, where it is being fished successfully by two members of the Flyfisher’s Club of London who use it in various sizes to imitate a range of mayflies
Two views of the author’s Tube Body Mayfly which is proving as successful in England as it is in the Western Cape
Since returning from the trip I have been revelling in my recently-acquired JVice. My first vice, bought when I was at school, was copy of the Thompson A cam model and when the pin holding the lever in place broke, I replaced it with a piece of wire.
I then got a copy of the Regal, but its hook-holding ability was somewhat lacking and there is nothing more frustrating when you are tying a bass bug and it explodes out of the vise scattering bits of deer hair far and wide! Or when you are tying a midge pattern and the hook pings out of the vise leaving you searching the carpet on hands and knees.
Moving onto the JVice is like moving from a Volkswagen Beetle to a Ferrari and the analogy is apt because I specified the red option when my vice was ordered. It is truly an amazing piece of equipment that has immediately improved my tying across the board.
The author at work on his recently-acquired JVice which he ordered in the optional colour of red
I am now tying Ed’s Copper Wire Ant down to #22 with ease. I flatten the copper wire abdomen with an old pair of hackle pliers so as not to occlude the hook gape. The prototype, which Ed gave me, used a layer of the new Loon fluorescing UV light-cured resin over the copper wire. My experience, though, is that in very thin layers, the resin tends to chip. I now use that old standby; Sally Hansen's Hard as Nails, for a second coat and it makes the fly far more durable.
When I returned to my home in Franschoek after the Witels expedition, ants were pouring out of their nests in the garden. Through the Ants of the Cape website I was able to identify them as Solenopsis punctaticeps , or fire ant, also very common in the fynbos areas. The website directed me to an excellent photograph of the alate (winged) stage which I found in my garden. Here again Ed’s pattern in smaller sizes is a dead ringer for the natural with its dark head and lighter abdomen.
One of the fire ants setting off on its nuptial flight in the author’s garden
As Tom Sutcliffe pointed out on this website, an examination of trout stomach contents shows that the insects trout eat are usually half a centimetre or less in length and, as most of these insects are taken beneath the water surface, it makes sense to fish small, weighted imitations with a strike indicator of some sort. The new Rio Two Tone strike indicator mono greased with Mucilin will help in this regard, but a serendipitous recent discovery might be even more of a help. Ed had given me some pink CDC feathers and I stripped off some barbules and attached them with a knot recommended in Darrel Martin’s outstanding book, Micropatterns. To my amazement it preformed exactly as he said it would, landing more softly than a yarn indicator and suspending the Copper Wire Ant without sinking.
The knot recommended by Darrel Martin for attaching CDC to the leader
I am really looking forward to tying and fishing small sunken terrestrial patterns and sunk spinners. I will be concentrating on hooks such as the Orvis Big Eye hook which makes it easier the knot the fly to your tippet and to use stronger tippets. For many fly fishers the constraining factor in using tiny hooks is the difficulty in threading the tippet through the tiny eye and I hope that by using short shank, wide gape hooks such as the TMC 2488 and the Orvis Big Eye Hook I will obviate such frustrations. The #22 Orvis Big Eye hook has the same internal diameter of hook eye as a conventional #16 and I don’t think there is much advantage to be gained by using hooks smaller than #22.
Copper Wire Ants tied on short shank hooks which enable them to be tied to the equivalent size of 22
As these patterns evolve, I will be posting more information and photographs on my website and on my Facebook page.
Andre and I went into the Witels gorge armed only with point and shoot cameras. To appreciate the grandeur of this compelling place visit the Witels photo essay on this website by Billy de Jong and CPS chairman Leonard Flemming.