A year and a half ago, two friends Andre de Goede and his wife Gia, introduced me to the very varied fly fishing potential of the Karoo and to their friends Alan and Annabelle Hobson, who run a B&B and a fly fishing business in the small Eastern Cape town of Somerset East.
After my first visit I detailed how, in 2003, they had bought a deconsecrated and somewhat run-down collection of church buildings and the difference that a decade has made is marked.
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Andre and Gia invited me to join them for the festive season
Somerset East is a 90-minute drive from the airport at Port Elizabeth and Alan picked me up from the airport as Andre, a quantity surveyor, was flying in from Johannesburg several hours later.
On the way to Somerset East, with a slow section near the town because of the prevalence of kudu on the roadside in the early evening, he told me a fascinating fly fishing story.
As a child he fished with bait and with spinning tackle at the Darlington Dam which takes about 90 minutes to reach from Somerset East.
So great is the variety of fly fishing in the area that he never considered returning to Darlington Dam until a fishing companion, local pomegranate farmer, Al Spaeth, suggested that they explore its fly fishing potential.
A fascinating tale unfolded.
What makes this fishery unusual is that four rivers come together here in a shallow flood plain – the Schoenmakers from Somerset East, the Sundays from Graaff-Reinet and, from the Pearston area where Alan grew up, the Holsloot and Voël Rivers.
Barbel are not indigenous in the Eastern Cape. They were introduced via the Orange and Fish River canal systems which flow into the Schoenmakers River. They have had a far more damaging impact on indigenous fish – in this case the yellowfish – than trout which require cold, high altitude water, have had.
That the barbel have thrived became obvious to me within minutes of our arrival. The veld close to the dam was somewhat marshy and Alan decided that we should park several hundred yards from the water’s edge.
Peering through his binoculars he said: “They’re spawning, have a look,” and passed them to me.
The author, watching the action from afar with the farm house in the background.
I actually felt my jaw drop. Spray was being thrown more than a metre into the air as they rolled and writhed in water which was often no more than knee deep.
Barbel spawning in the Darling Dam inlet streams.
I could not go any closer because the ground was very uneven and my balance problem precluded me from fishing. For the rest of the morning I sat under an umbrella and watched the proceedings through binoculars.
Alan had explained to me that the relatively low visibility in the turbid water precluded random casting but an unusual feature of the barbel ensured that this is not a problem
Barbel have a rudimentary lung which enables them to survive droughts by simply hibernating in the mud. They also have small eyes and poor eyesight but are very sensitive to vibrations created by anything landing near to them.
These two factors dictate tactics and flies.
One waits for them to expose their presence when they come up for air, which they do often, and then you slap down a big fly. The fly of choice is one of Alan’s creations which simply adds a zonker strip and some eyes to a Mrs Simpson.
Andre and Gia de Goede walking across the marshy area with the dam in the background.
The Darlington Dam delta provides ideal wading conditions, providing hectares of water which is little more than waist deep.
This morning, however, because the barbel had moved into the inlet streams, this area seemed barren and everyone fished for them where they were.
Andre hooks into the first fish of the day with Gia standing by to net it.
Gia de Goede trying to net a recalcitrant barbel for her husband
Gia with the only carp of the day. The dam holds carp of up to 10 kg.
Al Spaeth, a great character and raconteur, had been a member of the syndicate in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains near Dargle in Natal with Tom Sutcliffe, High Huntley Bill Duckorth, John Beams, Neil Hodges and others which is described in Tom’s book Hunting Trout.
Al Spaeth fighting a barbel on a previous trip before the barbel started spawning.
Al with a typical Darling Dam barbel. Alan Hobson in the background shows how shallow the water is.
That experience was to come in handy.
To the left of me there was a shallow trench which the farmer had dug to lead water from the dam to a water purification plant at his house.
Al hooks his big barbel in the water trench before it ran for open water.
When the normal fishing area proved unproductive Al decided to try the trench. The Mrs Simpson Zonker had produced nothing and when he saw a sipping rise next to the grass in the trench he thought it might be a small carp and decided, on a hunch, to put on a foam beetle.
Al ruefully examines his beetle pattern after the big one got away.
That pattern, the Good Doctor’s Beetle, has proved exceptionally successful on big yellowfish in the demandingly clear waters of the Sterkfontein Dam near Harrismith in the Orange Free State and I wrote an article on its designer, Dr Hans van Zyl and its development for this website.
Alan Hobson’s Zonker Strip Mrs Simpson and the Good Doctor’s Beetle with the hook slightly straightened
Now the tackle of choice for the Darlington Dam beetle is a ten foot, 10 weight rod and the new, South African-made Shilton SL7 fly reel, most of which are shipped to the USA as fast as they come off the production line of the Roodepoort factory. A Boga Grip is also regarded as essential equipment.
This is not exactly tackle which emphasises delicacy of presentation but Al managed to drop the beetle pattern within a few cms of the grassed side of the trench and when it disappeared in a delicate sipping rise he struck in the conventional style by lifting the rod tip.
This, as Alan had previously explained to me, was not the best way at Darlington Dam. To set the hook in the cavernous mouth and hard jaw of a barbel – actually a catfish - requires heavy tugs with the line hand.
Luck was with Al on this occasion - at least initially – and the fish tore off into the dam.
“In the next 40 minutes I managed to get it close to me on three occasions but never close enough to grip its jaw with the Boga Grip. On the fourth occasion the hook straightened. I estimated its weight at 10 kgs.”
Al said the battle left him pretty tired but not downhearted – there are lots of even bigger barbel in Darlington Dam, he said.
A typical Darling Dam barbel pictured with the new Shilton SL7 reel.
The only carp of the day was caught by Gia de Goede but they were probably scared away by the cavorting barbel. They also grow to about 10 kgs and other fish found in the 35 square kilometre dam are mullet of similar size, yellowfish, moggel, Orange River mudfish, tilapia and eels.
The only person who can get you into this area of the dam with its ideal conditions for fly fishing is Alan Hobson and he owes that privilege to family connections stretching across two generations.
That, however, is not going to last much more than another year. This area of the dam has been bought by the Addo National Park and the Eastern Cape Parks Board plans to introduce crocodile and hippo. The crocodile will undoubtedly thrive because the barbel which have grown huge, are a staple in their diet.
Soon the cattle and goats which graze this lush river basin will be replaced by buffalo, wildebeest, kudu and a variety of antelope and they, in turn, will attract lion, leopard and cheetah.
Alan says that there are other dams in the area which contain a similar mix of fish but he devotes so much time to the Somerset East trout fishery that he has yet to explore them.
I would strongly recommend that fly fishers whose destination is Barkly East, Rhodes and Maclear go via Somerset East and spend a few days at the Angler and Antelope.
The rooms are five star, Annabelle’s food is outstanding and you will be lucky to find more convivial company.
Annabelle Hobson, Ed Herbst and Alan Hobson with the Dave Voorveldt painting which now hangs in the deconsecrated church.
During this visit I was able to present to Alan and Anabelle a painting to hang in the deconsecrated church which now contains the dining room, the bar with its collection of 51 single malt whiskies and Alan’s well-stocked fly shop.
The Dave Voorvelt painting with its prominently featured guinea fowl feather floating in the water.
I had bought the painting on auction in 1990 when the Rhodes University ichthyology department had held an exhibition to celebrate fly fishing, its history, its literature and its conservation ethic.
Before and after photographs of the church showing what it looks like after restoration
The exhibition was called “Of Priests and Vices” and it was put together by the university’s resident artist Dave Voorveldt. To show that trout were part of our colonial heritage and very much part of the African landscape now, Dave included a guinea fowl feather in the painting. He now lives in Holland and in an email to me recalled the exhibition with fondness. I felt the church was the ideal backdrop for the painting given the role that the Eastern Cape played in the development of South African fly fishing.
Alan Hobson lives and breathes fly fishing – as Al Spaeth said: “His truck number plate should read, “Born to fish, forced to work” but he and Annabelle thoroughly enjoy the camaraderie that their work entails and the friends that it has brought them in the past decade.
Just how much development that has taken place was brought home to me when Annabelle showed me a photograph of the church when it was being restored.
I am grateful to Andre and Gia de Goede, two dear friends, for inviting me to spend the festive season with them and providing the opportunity to link up again with the Hobsons and Al Spaeth and to visit Darlington Dam.
If you want the opportunity to cross swords with ten pound trout and 20 pound barbel, then visit the Angler and Antelope.