‘If you want the best chance to visit large trout you have to go to their house.’
Jason Randall, Feeding Time – A fly fisher’s guide to what, where and when trout eat (Stackpole Books, 2013).
I first visited Barkly East in 1992 to attend the Barkly Wild Trout Expo which was the launch event for what was to become the Wild Trout Association.
Later I made several trips with Tom Sutcliffe, which are described in his book Hunting Trout.
The big river trout of Barkly East had long been legendary – I am talking about fish weighing five pounds and more – but prior to my first visit I imagined that they were caught on sinking lines on deep, slow flowing pools in bigger rivers like the Langkloof River.
In part this reputation was justified.
In late March 1983 Clive Hatton and Sean Larkan both from Pietermaritzburg spent a week in Barkly East. First Clive broke the local river record with a rainbow of 8 lb 13 oz followed the very next day with Sean taking a fish over 9 lbs. The fish were both taken from the Langkloof River below the bridge on the road from Barkly East to Rhodes.
At the time Tom Sutcliffe drew a cartoon about Clive Hatton’ momentous catch for the local newspaper the Barkly East Reporter, owned by a well-known Barkly East fly fishing mad family, the Mollentzes.
Click in images to enlarge
The cartoon that appeared in the Barkly East Reporter
They have a wall of mounted trophy fish in their home, all of them in the 8-10 lb range, and most caught in the slower, deeper reaches of the Langkloof which runs through the town.
I discovered to my delight however that the array of streams and rivers available in Barkly East, Rhodes and Maclear ranged from tinkling brooks like the upper Bokspruit near Rhodes to the lower Karringmelk which flows through thorn veld resembling the Kruger National Park.
My first fishing trip in Barkly East was a day on the Sterkspruit on Basie and Carien Vosloo’s farm, Birkhall.
This stretch of river had a formidable reputation. It was here that photographer Peter Pickford caught had caught his fish of 7lb 3 ozs in the early 90’s while visiting the area with Robert and Dulcie Kirby. The book they jointly produced, Fly fishing in Southern Africa, became a best seller in the non-fiction category.
‘They get bigger than that!’ Carien Vosloo and Peter Pickford’s 7lbs 3 oz rainbow caught on the Birkhall beat of the Sterkspruit.
I was accompanied by Basie and Martin Davies, the legendary Welsh ichthyologist from Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Martin asked me what tippet I was using and when I said 4x he cautioned that ‘There are big fish in this river.’ I protested that I used 6x in the streams near Cape Town so I did not feel under-gunned. As a visitor I was allowed first cast and I was taken to a place where a big rock protruded from a deep section at the head of a pool. I was assured that if I could get my fly close to the rock I would definitely get a take. The problem was that the only place that you could cast from was hemmed in by overhanging willow branches. After several awkward roll casts off the left shoulder I eventually managed to get my nymph to plop next to the rock. The take was instant and so strong that the fish hooked itself. It catapulted out of the water and broke me in an instant.
Basie Vosloo on his Birkhall beat of the Sterkspruit River in Barkly East
There was an awkward silence and Martin said he was going to fish downstream of me at the pool where Peter Pickford had caught his big fish. I fished on, albeit somewhat morosely, and the day was bereft of joy.
My mood was not improved when about two hours later and still fishless, I heard the loud, triumphant hooting of Basie’s vehicle. When I got to it Martin, grinning from ear to ear, proudly displayed a trout caught at the same spot where Pickford’s 7lbs 3 oz fish had been caught but, he assured me, that his was bigger.
Then, to add salt to the wound, he produced a smaller but nevertheless handsome fish of about 3lbs. There, in its mouth was my fly with a knot in the nylon a few centimetres from the fly where the break had occurred. Obviously, with my awkward roll casting, I had managed to get a knot in the tippet.
I continued fishing after they promised to return for me an hour or so later. What occurred thereafter is the stuff of legend, most specifically the legend of the “Welsh Adjustable Scale”.
At the Birkhall homestead Martin called upon Basie to produce his most accurate scale. This is sheep farming territory where the weight of wool is not estimated. So the Vosloo assized electronic scale – accurate to fractions of an ounce - was produced. Martin’s trout was reverently placed on the scale and found to weigh somewhat less than the Pickford fish.
Impossible said Martin. He worked with trout every day of his life at his hatchery in Grahamstown and his fish weighed at least eight pounds. Telephone calls were made and a neighbour produced a chemical scale – the sort which uses brass weights – and it, too, stubbornly gave a verdict of slightly less than seven pounds.
Martin insisted that on his scale the weight would definitely register at least 8lbs and, thereafter, the weight of big trout was determined by a dual measurement – actual weight and the weight on the “Welsh Adjustable Scale”.
Martin’s trout was mounted and now hangs in a Barkly East hostelry, the FK Sportsman’s Pub.
Martin Davies’ 6.75 lb trout caught on the Birkhall beat of the Sterkspruit.
And it’s true weight!
I was reminded of these shenanigans when I received a telephone call from Basie during the drought in August this year. The Sterkspruit had shrunk to a few deep pools with patches of dry river bed between them. These pools were fed by underground water and were absolutely clear. In the biggest he spotted a fish of about 8 lbs and about six others which he estimated to weigh between 4 and 6 lbs.
Why, though, are these fish so rarely caught?
It is all my fault.
As I pointed out in my article on this website, ‘The search for the ultimate small stream fly rod’, the advent of the first 2-weight fly rod, the Orvis Ultrafine in 1984, saw a progressive move to lighter tackle which I enthusiastically promoted through a series of articles as each new model became available.
The six-weight rod, the sinking line and the big Mrs Simpson fished downstream were now regarded as somewhat unseemly tactics except by trophy hunters like Martin Davies who has moved with the times to the extent that his Mrs Simpson’s now have painted-on eyes and a few strands of Krystalflash in the mix.
I was reminded of this while reading an outstanding new book, ‘Feeding Time – A fly fisher’s guide to what, where and when trout eat’ by Jason Randall (Stackpole Books, 2013)
‘Behavioural differences between fish of drastically different sizes are so profound that they need entirely different life histories according to biologists. That means they differ not only in the prey they feed upon and the manner in which they feed upon it, but also in the lifestyle that they adopt in the process. Large fish are so different from small fish that they might as well be considered a different species!
‘Large trout are very loyal to their home sites, something biologists call site fidelity.’
The point that Jason Randall makes is well illustrated by the experience of Dave Walker about 20 years ago when he lived on a farm near Rhodes – Tipperary, on the banks of the Bokspruit.
In front of the farmhouse there is a pool which has a surface area of about a hectare. It has a maximum depth of about a metre and a half and one hot summer day Dave put on a pair of goggles and dived in to have a look.
He counted more than 200 small fish of up to 10 -12 inches in the pool but saw two fish which he estimated to weigh about 3- 5 lbs tucked away under a logjam.
Limited food supply
The origins of this situation can be found in chapter 29 (pages 186 – 193) of Sidney Hey’s classic and popular book, Rapture of the River, the second edition of which was reprinted by Platanna Press in 2006 and is freely available.
In this chapter Hey describes how, after rivers like the Wildebeest in Maclear were first stocked in the 1920’s, there were a limited number of fish competing for a finite food source and fish of a kilogram and bigger were regularly caught. Ron Moore farms on the Pot River near Maclear. There is a waterfall pool near his home and he tells of an occasion during Sydney Hey’s time in the 1920’s when, in a day’s fishing, six trout were caught there weighing a total of 26 lbs. However this and other rivers and streams in this region also possess ideal spawning conditions and relatively few natural predators. In each successive year increasing numbers of trout were competing for a finite food source which was steadily being depleted by increased trout predation. Understandably, this resulted in a declining number of bigger fish.
On page 193 Hey says: ‘Good river management is similar in every respect to good farm management, as it applies to stock. Many people do not realise the fact that a given area of water can only carry a certain number of fish just as a given area of land can only support a limited head of stock.
‘It is reasonable to assume that the more fish that are taken from a river, the better the feeding will be for those that remain. From what I have seen on the Maclear and Natal trout streams, it would seem that with the good and numerous spawning facilities that exist in in them, the trout soon increase beyond the carrying capacity of the water. It is therefore bad river management to impose restrictions( on the number of fish caught) which must inevitably be detrimental to the quality of the fish in so far as this is dependent on food supply, and hence to the quality of fishing itself.’
To support his argument Hey mentions that on streams with limited spawning gravel, such as the Klipplaat in the Amathole Mountains near Hogsback, (page 193) the average size of the trout is much bigger. He also mentions the fact (page 187) that on rivers such as the Mooi in Maclear, the average size of the fish is bigger than the Wildebeest in the same area because the Mooi has eels which predate on trout, thus reducing their numbers, while the Wildebeest does not.
He then goes on to mention the detrimental effects of soil erosion on fishing Eastern Cape trout streams. When soil erosion combines with an excessive number of trout because of good breeding conditions and low predation on those trout, a pretty toxic mix results. I remember fishing the upper Tsitsa in a beautiful valley near Maclear. I crawled across a rock and peered into the water beneath me. There was row of trout, not much bigger than your thumb each a few centimetres from the other. The stream bed below them was covered by a fine layer of silt and I could see no nymphs on them. Too many fish, too little food and when I looked at the cattle and sheep grazing on the steep sides of the valley I understood.
All that changes during a prolonged drought. The pools shrink and the herons, kingfishers and otters gorge on the trapped trout. When the drought breaks there are less fish feeding on the available food and the average size increases for a season or so until the drought is broken by rain, further breeding occurs and the cycle repeats itself. This is proved by the catch returns of the annual Rhodes fly fishing festival which show that the size of fish caught is bigger in the season after a severe drought.
As Randall points out, big trout are found not in the steep-gradient, headwaters but in the slower, more fertile foothill sections of a river. Tom Sutcliffe caught his biggest trout in the area - 5lbs - in the middle section of the Bokspruit but even bigger fish – by about a kilo – are caught several kms lower down where it joins the Sterkspruit.
What I call ‘logjam’ trout, Randall calls ‘hyper-mature’ trout.
‘Hyper-mature trout remain solitary and are the most feared predator in the ecosystem. They establish a large home range, with multiple feeding areas through which they roam and maraud. They do not use a single feeding station but cruise through a number of feeding areas throughout their excursions.
‘Using the mobile feeding strategy, mature trout make the rounds of their territory each night. The distance they travel can be surprising; in the summer it is not unusual for trout to travel up to 3 river miles! In the winter, their range can be even greater in the search for more scarce food.
‘Food availability also impacts on the size of the home range. As food becomes more abundant, the need to range over a larger territory becomes unnecessary and even inefficient from an energy-use standpoint, while a decline in food abundance causes trout to extend their range.
‘Mobile strategies in strong current would simply be too costly, resulting in too much energy expense used to fight the current. Trout are more likely to actively forage in depositional habitats. The sit-and-wait strategy would be unproductive in slow water because an inadequate amount of food would be delivered to lies by the weaker current.’
In the north-eastern Cape mountain streams around Barkly East, Rhodes and Maclear the favourable breeding conditions and lack of predators results in an excess of small fish and they could be a food source for the bigger fish secluded under dead falls and hugging the river bed in the deeper pools – but are they? I will attempt to answer this question later on.
In the chapter headed ‘Fishing Strategies’, Randall makes precisely the point that this article is predicated on.
‘If you are using drift-fishing techniques and catching 8 – 14 inch fish, you have successfully met your goal, since you are using a fishing strategy that exactly targets fish of that size. But if you are seeking trophy fish, then you will have better success if you change to a strategy that specifically targets larger fish, one that imitates their prey and is timed according to availability. While anglers love dry-fly fishing this predominantly targets small and medium-size fish.’
There is a general belief that these big, fish-eating trout in the USA hunt mostly at night but Randall says that while this is largely true of brown trout, rainbows are more oriented to daylight feeding. He says the best time to target big rainbows is one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise.
He advocates fishing large streamers which incorporate a backward-facing stinger hook on 5-6 weight rods using sink tip lines and short leaders with strong tippets – say around 2x.
The target area? ‘Heavy log cover; dense, overhanging riparian vegetation such as undercut, grassy banks; and heavy, broken substrate such as large rocks and boulders offer the necessary hiding spots for good home sites. Trout like to be visually isolated from other trout.’
On the Birkhall section of the Sterkspruit, immediately below the farm house, lives a notorious tippet breaker called ‘The Thug’. The river has scoured a deep hole into a high bank and the big trout that lives there can occasionally be seen when water clarity allows. Its estimated weight is eight pounds but Basie Vosloo says there have been many ‘Thugs’ down the years. A decade ago Peter Valke of Cape Town caught a trout in the Sterkspruit weighing 8lbs 6oz and Basie says that in his lifetime there have probably been a dozen fish of such size caught in the Sterkspruit.
Christo du Plessis, who heads the stock theft unit in Barkly East specifically targets these big trout and he concentrates on the lower sections of rivers like the Langkloof where it runs through Barkly East.
Christo du Plessis with a rainbow caught in the Langkloof River in Barkly East
He has been fishing rivers in the area since he was a child and his biggest river fish weighed eight pound four ounces. In the past year, however, he has caught twelve fish weighing around five pounds.
He fishes an Explorer 5-weight using a fast sinking line and a conventional tapered leader ending at 2 X.
Echoing what Jason Randall writes about having to visit the home of big trout he says: ‘Big trout are masters of the river; they don’t hunt your fly you have to present it to them, on a silver platter if necessary.’ He has found that deep pools and deadfall trees are the favoured habitat of the biggest trout.
His favourite flies are #6 Mrs Simpson, Walker’s Killer and a beadhead Woolly Bugger using a red bead. He feels that having a red chenille body on the Mrs Simpson and Walkers Killer definitely improves his catch rate.
He says that if the Langkloof is in spate he will fish much of its length and add soft lead to the leader rather than split shot. However in the middle of the season he fishes the river where it flows through the town. This is fascinating because one would assume that these big fish would be vulnerable to subsistence anglers fishing for the pot but it would seem that this is not the case.
Now here is the interesting bit. He says that the stomach contents of the big trout he has kept have showed not small trout but frogs, crabs and the occasional dragonfly nymph. He said he did once catch a trout containing a small yellowfish but that was on the Kraai River and he says he has also caught yellowfish containing small trout in that river.
Christo finds that most of his big fish are caught between six and eight in the morning or between four and six in the afternoon. The frogs and crabs in the stomachs of the trout caught in the late afternoon are sometimes still alive but those in the fish caught in the morning are partly digested.
His biggest dam trout, incidentally, was an eleven and a half pound hen and a nine and a half pound cock fish and he uses a Stealth 7-weight and a 1x tippet when fishing the dams in Barkly East.
Dave Walker, mine host at Walkerbouts Country Inn in Rhodes, tells a fascinating story. He was visiting Martin Davies’ trout hatchery in Grahamstown and Martin pointed to a tiny trout which was being attacked by the other fry in the portapool. Martin said that occasionally a trout was born without a gill plate which exposed the red gills underneath. The other fish then targeted this red spot and quickly killed its owner. This, Dave felt, explained why Christo du Plessis had found that a Mrs Simpson or Walker’s Killer with a red chenille body had proved the most deadly patterns for the big trout of the Langkloof River.
In his book, The Dry Fly – New Angles, (Greycliff Publishing Company, 1990) Gary LaFontaine examines the question of colours which attract or repel trout. He says that red is the colour of blood which is an attractant, whereas many insects which sting or exude noxious substances are yellow precisely as a warning to predators.
‘Red has a different type of attracting power than other colours. It is a natural exciter, both underwater and on top of the water, that fish attack instinctively because it is a reminder of blood.
‘Evening and dawn, if water temperatures encourage rises, are the times when red is so powerful.’
The Logjam fly.
Fly design has come a long way since the days of the Mrs Simpson and the Walker’s Killer. Today the Fish Skull products enable you to tie realistic, jointed minnow imitations and as I explained in a previous article on this website, you can, using products like the Marc Petitjean Magic Head, create a realistic side-to-side wiggle in such patterns.
A new product imported by Craig Thom at the StreamX fly shop in Milnerton, the Pulse Disc by Brinefly Innovations also helps to create that sinuous shimmy but should we be fishing small fish patterns at all?
What I have discovered in fishing logjams on the Sterkspruit is that each one has a trout of at least 12 inches holding there, but they will not take a fly if they have to leave cover to get to it. You have to drift your fly under the deadfall and that risks a hook up and all the frustration that involves.
Logjams are common the river because of the prevalence of willow trees (Tom Sutcliffe photo, October 2012, Birkhall beat of the Sterkspruit.)
In his book Jason Randall provides a sketch of the streamer flies he uses when he targets the hyper-mature trout. The double-hook design does increase the chances of a successful hook-up with a big trout but it also doubles the chances of getting snagged when you drift it under a deadfall – and such flies take a long time to tie.
Jason Randall’s book, above, and a typical double-hook streamer used by him to target big trout in the sketch below.
I am convinced that hypermature trout will take any fly as long as it drifts close to them and from Christo du Plessis’ experience that should be a crab or a frog imitation which is why a broad-spectrum fly like the Walker’s Killer or Mrs Simpson works so well. The main criterion for fly design then becomes a question of how weedless the pattern is rather than imitating a staple food source.
What then is the ultimate weedless fly that will appeal to these logjam trout?
Well, that depends on your subjective definition of a fly.
Is the Surf Candy which is made entirely from synthetic materials and which has a rock-hard, epoxied front section a fly?
San Juan Worm
I would say it was less of a fly than the San Juan Worm which is made from chenille and which had a phenomenal success rate when it was first introduced.
Jim Mclennan in his book, Water Marks – Thirty Years of Fly Fishing Insight (Fusion Books, 2008) has a chapter on the San Juan Worm and says initially it was tied in #16 - #18 to imitate a bloodworm, but the bigger they were tied the more successful they were and eventually it was realised that it imitated an aquatic worm.
I have never seen a picture of trout stomach contents which featured this worm but these bigger versions quickly became the pattern of choice on a variety of rivers.
‘In each of the rivers where it became popular, the San Juan Worm made a big splash, if you pardon the expression, when first introduced to the stream. It is truly remarkable the way fish responded to it. Guides on the Bighorn told me fussy brown trout would often move six feet out of their way to take ‘the worm’. On the Bow it was relatively popular in 1986 but in 1987 it was far and away the most consistent producer. A friend reported that the worm turned a mediocre day into a spectacular one on Montana’s Missouri River in 1987.
‘What’s interesting is, in the case of the San Juan and Bighorn rivers, after a couple of seasons of great productivity the fly’s effectiveness decreased to the point where it is now just another good fly. It will be interesting to see if that happens on the other rivers.’
In South Africa we use the San Juan worm on dams and also for yellowfish and I wonder if aquatic worms occur in rivers like the Vaal and the Orange and if they form a staple in yellowfish diet.
The problem with the San Juan Worm as a logjam fly is that it is not weedless because the chenille is attached to the top of the hook shank leaving the hook point exposed.
You can resolve this problem by using one of the most significant angling innovations in the past half century, the plastic worm which has proved deadly for bass when cast on a fly rod.
In fly fishing the significant recent innovations were beadhead nymphs and CDC feathers, in carp fishing the boily/hair rig combination and in bass fishing the plastic worm and the Texas Rig.
The hair rig was the most radical innovation
The Texas Rig was predicated on the development of soft plastic baits, a development which, unsurprisingly had its origins in the home of the American rubber industry, Akron, Ohio, home of the Goodyear and Firestone Tyre Companies. It is as close to being weedless as you can get.
There is no need to cast. You simply let the line out downstream and use the current to carry your plastic worm beneath the logjam. To tie Ed’s Logjam Fly you put a few wraps of red Pearsall’s silk (this is essential because I am a traditionalist with a reverence for our hallowed past) at the eye of a suitable hook, whip finish and then slide a plastic worm onto the hook, burying the hook point so that it is just touching the surface of the worm but from the inside.
However, Craig Thom at the Stream X fly shop in Cape Town, has suggested that I tie my Logjam pattern with red Squirmy Wormy material which is slimmer than a plastic worm and more versatile in that you can add a small red tungsten bead to the mix. For those of you who, like me, have a Halfordian approach to the ethics of fly fishing, he points out that Pearsall’s silk is no longer being made but he still has some in his shop. Buy now while stocks last.
Ed’s Squirmy Wormy Logjam Fly demonstrating its weedless design and the Pearsall’s silk which is an essential component in tying it.
The presentation of the Logjam Fly is enhanced if you attach it to a suitably stout tippet with a loop knot that allows the fly some movement such as the Rapala Knot or Lefty Kreh’s Non-Slip Knot.
What would the strict imitationists like Frederick Maurice Halford and Ernest Schweibert think of the Ed’s Squirmy Wormy Logjam Fly?
I think they would be appalled and point out to me with some deprecation that I cannot simply overlook decades of development and millions of dollars of research used to develop strict imitation earthworms used in the megabuck Bassmaster competitions. They would point out that the strict imitation Bassmaster earthworm not only looks like a real earthworm but it also smells like one and tastes like one. Strict imitation does not get more worthy than that. There is as little shame in buying a plastic worm made in Akron as there is in buying an Adams produced in factories in the Philippines or Thailand.
And their opinion on the Surf Candy?
I think they would, with every justification, condemn it.
I can picture Halford, one of the co-founders of the London Flyfishers’ Club, sitting in one of its leather armchairs, rendered more elegant by the patina of age and use, a medicinal Scots beverage at his elbow. The room, wreathed in cigar smoke, becomes hushed as he holds a Surf Candy up to the light.
“This… ”, he would righteously declare “… is not a fly, it is a lure!”
There is a downside to Ed’s Squirmy Wormy Logjam Fly however. On a recent trip to the Richtersveld, Craig Thom found that the yellowfish were taking it so deeply that releasing the fish unharmed proved difficult. He stopped using it.
Craig Thom, co-designer of Ed’s Logjam Fly with an Orange River yellowfish caught on a Steve Boshoff tenkara rod.
He believes that this might be because the Logjam Fly has a relatively neutral density and would thus be carried further into the gullet in contrast to a heavily weighted tungsten nymph which, once taken, would immediately drop into the bottom of the mouth. He emphasises however that the Logjam Fly was one of the more successful patterns used on the Orange River.
So don’t let anyone tell you that big trout can’t be caught in Barkly East, Rhodes and Maclear – you just have to rid yourself of your ossified mind set, buy or tie some suitable flies and park your Sage 000 for a while.
Marelise van Zyl of Barkly East with a typical Langkloof rainbow trout.
Ed Herbst October 2014