Greg Carstens' Rhodes Diary, May 2013
all photos by Greg Carsten unless otherwise stated.
So there we were again taking a spontaneous trip down to Rhodes.
I like it like that. After fighting the urge for some time I finally succumb only a few days before departure. Those trips planned long in advance nag at you for ages and generally don’t come quickly enough; too often result in an oversupply of flies and tackle that never gets used, I could go on. It’s funny how spontaneity can add value to a fishing trip.
I have a large Airflo fishing bag that contains all my stream gear and I keep it packed for just such an emergency. Added to this is my stream fly tying box that is stocked with materials for nymphs and dries covering most anything I might need. Keeping all this gear at the ready means I can take spontaneous trips without the panic of forgetting something.
I generally contact Tom Sutcliffe and for a little encouragement, Dave Walker, the Rhodes stalwart and Tony Keitzman for an update on conditions, just to assure my mind that the waters are OK and not too low or too swollen so the nine hour drive won’t be a waste. Then again anyone you ask will tell you that Rhodes is always worth the trip and so far this has been true for me, but then I’ve always struck great fishing and great weather. Now I am lucky in that my wife has come to understand these urges and she generously gives me time, a couple of weeks a year, to return to my boyhood roots and run wild. I guess she’s figured out that I’m more liveable after a fix and that nothing will fall apart in my absence. But it’s an act of kindness not to be taken for granted and I value it; a good fly fishing life goes with a loving and understanding wife, as importantly as it does with a decent rod and a few of the right flies.
Leaving the city behind as the sun rises is part of the ritual, and expectation mingles with smell of coffee as tarmac flows under you. The veld was showing only a hint of winter. This year has been unseasonable in that the frosts have not yet arrived and temperatures have been warm.
After taking a left turn in Aliwal North towards Lady Grey I start to enjoy the road. In the distance you can see the outline of the mountain ranges that lead into trout country. The poplars were feeling the late autumn, standing near naked on the banks of small streams and in wind break rows dotted along fields.
Click in images to enlarge them
Autumn at its best in Barkly East district (Tom Sutcliffe)
We had missed the magical fall colours by some weeks and I was looking forward to seeing Rhodes close to winter. But when you are on the cusp of a season’s change the underlying threat of winter arriving whilst we were there fishing is very real. These vast mountain ranges have their own agendas that go way beyond internet weather predictions.
Stopping on the bridge over the Karnemelk has become a tradition and trout spotting fuels the excitement after long hours on the road, helps to ease saddle sores and allows the environment to seep into your body. There were no obvious trout hanging in the pools as there had been a few months before and this sparked theories. “They must be in the faster water”, or “patrolling the spawning beds” and a host of other insights fly fishermen easily spew out. But if you can’t see them here, you at least know they are there – somewhere.
The gravel road that leads away from Barkly East traverses the timeline between responsibility and freedom. We travelled it in a hurried unhurriedness. The massive mountains and deeply scoured valleys strung with sandstone gorges, the sparse vastness, all quietly exhilarate a strung out soul.
Massive mountains and deeply scoured valleys. (Tom Sutcliffe)
At the bridge at Moshesh’s Ford the coupling of the Bell and Sterkspruit become the Kraai River and here you find out what to expect, from clarity to flow. All is revealed from atop this rusty steel bridge. Expectation was measured; the streams were liquid glass and a little low. Dry fly was quietly declared king and happiness filled his loyal subjects as they marched forth to storm the little village of Rhodes.
View from the bridge at Moshe's Ford (Tom Sutciffe)
To be honest here though, dry fly is always my king, unless I’m forced to seek league with the nymph.
In Rhodes simplicity is not an expectation, it is a fact of life. Snow Cottage is a little house on the outskirts of the village. It’s neat and well kept, has no trout paraphernalia or sense of luxury. It’s where we eat, sleep, shower and tie flies. It holds no fanciness or opulence; there’s very little hot water from the hand held shower, and yet we’re all as happy as nesting larks when we roll into the little place at the end of a long day on the stream. This says a whole lot about your state of mind where you happily become so easy in simple surroundings.
Day 1 – Newstead, Lovedale, Malpas - Bell
The weather had been predicted to be windy with showers so we opted to fish close to home on the Bell. We had once again brought our KTM 690 trail bikes along and this allowed a certain freedom. Not many fly fishermen will grasp the concept of fishing from the back of a motorbike but there is the added magic of heading your own way and then crossing paths with your comrades when you feel the need. Anyhow, I motored up to a stretch of Bell I have come to know well. It has a little gradient and on good days holds trout stacked like canned sardines in deeper seams and they show great affection for dry flies. It’s a stretch most would walk past on route to bigger riffles.
Malpas on the Bell (Tom Sutcliffe)
The wind built up as I rigged my 1wt, not smart I know. The stream was very low, thin, fragile, or as Dave Walker would say “shallow”. Luckily the wind was at my back, pumping my dry fly upstream and whilst speculating what a trout would think of this all, an eight inch fish appeared under the fly, hovered and then charged. She was the first fish of the trip and I felt a little guilty in that I never caught her as much as she caught herself, but I nevertheless thanked her and sent her on her way. “I’ll thank you for your time, you can thank me for mine, and after that forget it”-Rodriguez.
The stretch yielded a few more fish and I gave the nymph some time, but with no joy. The water was little and the fish matched. The rain was now pelting my back and I thought I best to head back and seek fortune closer to home. That’s when I turned around to face the wind and realized the miracle of Gore-Tex. My hands turned bright pink and I suspect my face did as well. The temperature can drop some 5-10 degrees in a matter of minutes in these parts and locals will tell you to be prepared. I wasn’t. I climbed on the bike struggling with my gloves as my fingers stung, hot coffee and a thick sandwich foremost on my mind, cursing at each farm gate.
I headed down to Newstead to fish my way up once my extremities had thawed out. The water was fragile and low once again, well below the undercut banks and there were very few fish. I managed to find a few where the water was a little deeper and coupled with flow. I had nearly forgotten I had a new underwater compact camera and so began a series of half-in-half-out underwater shots that were surprisingly good.
Although the fishing was tough, it turned out a pleasant day. I remember my opening thought as I hit the road that morning, “Not a pleasant day, but not a bad day to be alive either!”
Day 2 – Lekkerbly - Kraai
The clouds had given way to a blue dome sky that felt typically early winter and the air was crisp and clean. We booked with Tony Keitzman for a day, even though we had never been guided before and pretty much like doing our own thing.
Tony Keitzman. (Tom Sutcliffe)
But it is important to support the local guides and establishments when you visit a place like Rhodes. They are the custodians of the places we love and it makes sense to support the people that watch over them when we are not there. Tony proved to be fantastic and an encyclopaedia on the fauna and farms and we chatted freely asking him questions about the surrounds. There was surprisingly little fishing banter which indicates the diversity of the area and the depth of Tony’s knowledge.
This was to be our first outing to the Kraai, one of the larger rivers in the region and the culmination of most of the streams and rivulets in the surrounding valleys. So when the water is low in the feeder streams the Kraai is in top condition, cold, gin clear and home to some of the largest trout the region has. The river was in stark contrast to the Bell, bigger and less settled in so much as the wading was tougher. There were bigger chunks of loose rock that had washed down in times of flood. They feel unsecure under foot and you sense that seasonally the landscape changes here with the river’s turbulence. I suppose that’s why small streams are always familiar and big rivers ever changing, but on this day the Kraai was comparable to any good trout habitat anywhere in the world, majestic, clear, deepening to turquoise, cut into deep sandstone valleys that emphasized your insignificance.
Once again the choice leaned toward the old 7’6 1wt. I suppose that I should explain that this rod is not of high pedigree. It had been built on a really cheap blank that was marked as a 2/3wt that I bought for my boys, but when I cast it coupled to a 2 weight line I found the rod to be so slow and soft that I very nearly put it in the bin. But I paired it up with a 1wt line as a last resort and a kind of magic happened. It’s a fairly unique rod that requires its own style of casting that is pleasing in an old fashioned kind of way. And I find a certain pleasure fishing with a less significant rod that is unique and an underdog. It holds a little more charm than a precision high price instrument. Although the Kraai needed a longer rod I was happily prepared to pick away at the seams of this beautiful river with a light stick.
A healthy Kraai rainbow
We managed a number of fat healthy fish and I broke off on a very big one that sipped in my parachute dry. There were more fish than we could do justice to and I suspect that Tony wanted even more for us. We drank from the river, it was cold and sweet and symbolic of the pristine environment. At the end of the day Tony took us on a short cut, a stock path that neatly led back to the car as shadows engulfed the valleys.
Day 3 Sterkspruit – Birkhall
With the water levels down the Sterkspruit made perfect sense and we headed out on the bikes to a familiar stretch that had always been good to us. The day was exceptional, late fall at its very best, with crisp clean air and we left the village of Rhodes behind under deep blue skies. I had bumped into Ed Herbst in the morning as he prepared for his return to Cape Town and although brief I managed to thank him for sharing his deadly hopper pattern with us as it has proved to be a killer during our summer visit. It’s not every day you bump into a fly fishing legend; well not unless you’re in Rhodes that is.
The surrounds had taken the hectic city pace out of us now and we rolled along on the bikes at a subdued pace well spaced out for the dust factor. We took the Bokspruit route and after crossing the bridge climbed up onto the ridge, where I backed off to suck up the scenery and clear air. I smiled deeply inside my helmet because it was a good day to be alive, simple and pure, with no real demands other than hunting trout in crystal waters. The air was cool enough for a wind breaker but not chilling.
Birkhall from the road
After parking under the straggly willows we went our separate ways and I headed down to my favourite bend on Birkhall. If you’ve fished this stretch you’ll know it, as it is the only piece with a stretch of gradient, a big pool takes a 90◦ bend to the left runs over some bigger sandstone blocks and flats and then bends back to its original path. The far bank is heavily eroded, so much so that the pasture fence is nearly up against it. This run never fails me and this day it was thick with fish, the smaller ones in the tail out and bigger ones as close to the shallow, fast water as they could get without having their backs out the water.
I caught a number of good fish here and rested the spot savouring each cast. It was good to strike it rich and I was hell bent on making it last. But in the end out of guilt at my gluttony, I moved downstream, walking through pastures leaving enough daylight for a few more hours. The pebble beds were exposed like white cobbled walkways, offset against turquoise channels of seam water. The stream was thin but not yet fragile and any likely knee deep channel held fish. For a change I lived in the moment and fished slowly taking and missing fish on every other cast. It was simple fishing that worked and the warmth of the sun gently embraced me.
These are red letter days, no so much because of the numbers of fish but because of the euphoria they bring your soul. This had been the most fantastic day I have had on Birkhall and I only managed about a kilometre of the stream. Toward the end of the day as the shadows grew long I sat down on a pebble bed midstream to enjoy a tin of coffee and a quite smoke, sheets of crystalline water slipped by tinted with chrome in the failing light. Tight up against an undercut bank a splashy rise caught my eye as a decent fish sucked in a pale-coloured dun, but there was no hurry left in me.
Day 4 Sterkspruit – Jennerville, Branksome
Not surprisingly we returned to the Sterkspruit on our last day, to fish two new stretches, Jennerville and Branksome. The day was clear, but an icy wind had picked up and although not blustering, it was firm. Wind like this can be very helpful in clear water and if you can keep it at your back it can be an ally in the hunt for big fish.
I set off on the sheep trail down to the stream to discover Jennerville. My first impressions were of a meandering Sterkspruit, more pastoral and lined with undercuts. I made a note that this stretch must be paradise in summer with a hopper. Once again the fish were holding close to the margins where the water offered a little depth. I worked these edges with a heavily dressed Para RAB and picked fish off as though they were ticks on dogs back.
Working upstream I came upon a bend pool with an overhanging willow. A gravel sand bed slid toward roots and in the broken light a shadow danced on the stream bed. I placed my dry a good fifteen feet ahead of the fish and waited intensely. She hovered beneath the fly and then without hesitation sucked it in with a gentle slurp. The fight was dogged but in the end she lay in my net and I thanked her for succumbing to my deception. The whole scene was picture perfect.
Moving swiftly towards the next likely piece I came to a bend where the stream had eroded a high sandstone bank. The fish were stacked up here and I caught my fill. My only regret was disturbing a 16 inch monster that lay in ankle deep water in bright sunlight. It shouldn’t have been there, but there are no hard and fast rules in the game of fly fishing. The fact is in fly fishing there are no rules, only unobservant fools.
Caution in approach led me to the next opportunity, a lovely chute of water that ran tight against an undercut bank and levelled out into a deep pool. At first glance this run had more potential than all the others combined and for the first dozen casts I managed to raise fish. I took some lovely underwater photos of a variety of trout up to 14”, rested on the sand bank and enjoyed some peanuts and raisins in the warm sun.
It was time to move up to Branksome and I guessed by the sun it was fast approaching 3 o’clock. There was little fishing time left, but I felt no haste. Branksome, as to be expected, offered more gradient with larger rock formations and we had a mere taste of its treasures. I ended the day not too far upstream from the parking area. Here the stream takes a sharp bed and the water empties over big chunks of rock. On your left is a vertical cliff face that offers shade cover as you pick the seams close to overhanging willows. The fish were rising freely at this time of the day, rising to a miniscule creature my eyes could not find. I had tied a couple of size 28 para-dries more out of curiosity than faith. After a few refusals on a size 22 and it did the trick. The problem was making it stick and I couldn’t land one.
I walked higher as the light began to fade. I just had to see more, and there was so much that would have to wait until next time. Luckily the road was close by and I hopped the fence and padded back to the Branksome gate with my heart content.
Leaving Rhodes is never easy and as you exit the valleys you are filled with a great sense of satisfaction and yet a nagging desire for more. It’s an odd feeling, unlike any other place I fish, so until Spring brings bright green to the willows again I will wait patiently for my return.