Trout on the roof of Africa
Lesotho is a kind of Africa that you probably never thought existed. Have you heard of it? Can you point to it on a map? And did you know that it has dry fly fishing that's off the charts? Edward Truter reports.
I was in a lounging but poised position on a slab of basalt beside a rocky run of the Bokong River in Lesotho, keeping low to stay out of sight of the fish weaving past me in the stream. I'd caught enough of them over the previous days not to need to catch any more - for the rest of my life. But I do relish experimenting, and an endless flow of fussy eaters in plain view is a perfect laboratory.
For a long while I had been trying to tie the perfect hopper, an abundant insect in Lesotho's summertime meadows. My dry fly box was so crammed with hopper variations that I had to prevent them from escaping each time I cautiously pried open the lid. I would present one to the nearest pod of fish and study their reaction, which varied between being spooked silly to the odd soft take. That was a total failure in my mind. My philosophy is that any feeding fish is catchable, and if my fly is failing to get eaten by even one such fish, then I need to take a hard look at things and adjust theory and application accordingly. After trying six different hoppers and not scoring high enough, I changed the bug. Chunky terrestrials are often the flavour of sunny days in Lesotho and the new pattern was a big ant imitation with an added dash of beetle, pinch of iridescent wasp and an appetising footprint of CDC. The actual living ant is officially called a 'bal-byter' ant, an Anglicisation of a Boer word implying the 2cm ants will, once in one's pants, put mandibles to the gonads.
The first fish that saw the bal-byter almost left a cloud of scales behind in its haste to eat it, and from there my score bubbled over into great success territory and a very workable fly was born.
The fish in this experiment were not trout, they were smallmouth yellowfish. The yellowfishes are a group of African cyprinids that are quite easily imagined as a cross between their mahseer and barbel cousins, and some species are eager fly takers, too. The Bokong River's yellowfish are part of an Alaska-esque spawning run of golden-ripe fish that cram into the river for the summer months from the Katse Dam.
Katse is a monumental reservoir that is part of a bi-national - Lesotho and South Africa - government project. It is an ambitious, ground-breaking and technically successful water storage, transfer and hydroelectric scheme called the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The yellowfish output is a happy bi-product.
The Bokong yellows seem to be a higher voltage strain than those we catch elsewhere, which may be a function of the pristine water quality. The battle is typically explosive. Cartwheeling, tail-walking, power surges popping connections, backing knots, and anglers bounding over boulders are all common sights on the Bokong. Even the little 14" male punks, that often reach the fly first, put up tenacious resistance before they are spent.
A fun fact about Lesotho, which is wholly contained within the guts of South Africa, is that, as a country, it has the highest lowest point in the world - 1,400 metres above sea level (masl) - and is the only independent state that lies entirely above 1,000masl. Most of its area is a layer cake of kilometre-thick lava flows that rivers have gnawed deeply away at, leaving an incised landscape that's all slopes - the highest summits exceed 3,000masl. This altitude means long, harsh winters and air that is cool enough for trout. Rainbows and browns were stocked into a few of the rivers about 60 years ago and have spread themselves widely since. The exciting part is that we don't know exactly what is where and, even though I have made it my mission to ultimately find and fish every trout stream in Lesotho, the endless, rugged hillscapes keep revealing surprises.
In March 2015 my friend Lionel and I set off on a 10-day donkey-supported trek into the mountains to chase a niggling rumour. Shepherds coming down from the high summer pastures had been telling tales of fish as long as a mountain goat's back leg, which seemed unlikely - but where there's smoke, there's sometimes fire.
We found the fire quickly and often. It came at us in violent bolts, thrashing into the valleys and dancing off the rocks. Each time, boiling, black clouds quenched the fury with wild rain and turned the river to muck. This is usual for Lesotho, thunderstorms are a flamboyantly dangerous part of its show; luckily the rivers clear quickly. We trekked upriver between bouts of crazy weather, the sights growing more 'wow!' around each bend. Waterfalls sparkled down the valley walls, gnarly ridgelines reminded me of the dark backwaters of Middle Earth, bright flowers coloured riverside meadows and I kept thinking it was like being in New Zealand.
For four days, and many kilometres, we spotted and hooked nothing bigger than 12" rainbows. Then, approaching our camp on the fifth night, a strange object lying in the shallow tail of a long pool caught my attention. I called Lionel over and pointed it out to him, saying that it looked like a fish but was probably a sunken poplar tree branch. I had not convinced myself though, and the more I looked at it, the more it looked living Ð but it wasnÕt moving. The colour made me suspicious, too; it had a mustard-grey glow about it and dead things don't have that kind of aura, but I couldn't quite match it to anything the references in my head were expecting to be there.
Fortunately, my instinct prevailed and I stayed focussed long enough to catch a hint of movement at the thin end of the 'branch'. I let out a mild scream as it sunk in. I was watching a 22" brown trout where we had never considered browns might be. I caught that fish and for the next six days we approached the water and fished just as we would've if we'd been in New Zealand, with pleasing results, too. If it weren't for the Basotho shepherds, dressed in their traditional woollen blankets loping behind their cowbell-clanging herds, I might have easily bullshitted anyone we were in New Zealand.
The Basothos are very much mountain people, and their ways of being and the atmosphere it cultivates is reason enough to visit. It's bizarre that, although South Africa surrounds Lesotho, very few tourists make the trip; any stream not crossed by a paved road seldom sees a foreigner. There are villages where - even in 2015 - I've been the first white person that five-year-olds have ever seen. The locals are self sufficient, their lives intertwined with that of their livestock, crops, and the seasons. Walking to the fishing, I find it wonderfully calming to stop along one of the passes high above the river, plonk myself on a grass tussock and soak up the pastoral scenes.
At the peak of the hot months the slopes are richly-green, sounds of contently chatting voices ride the rising air from the fields far below, or the sound of singing wafts across from somewhere in the terraces of maize and mountain cabbage (euphemism for marijuana, an economically important, unofficial Lesotho export). Quail call from 'twixt the wisps of wheat sighing in the wind and the hillsides are alive with birdsong and the flurry of urgent wings as bright and cheery seedeaters make hay before autumn's chill.
Usually, somewhere on a ridgeline, a shepherd's silhouette is framed by eagles arching across a blue-saturated sky, while on the ground, lizards chill, baking on blackening rocks. When it's time to get moving again and one leaves the trail to cut down to the water, sprinklings of grasshoppers flare-up from underfoot creating a constant confetti of red and yellow wings. These are the things that are the very fabric of the place.
I've enjoyed many amusing moments while fishing and trekking throughout Lesotho, but one of my recent favourites was relayed to me by Stu Harley, a fly fishing guide who spends his summers on the Bokong River. It was his off-day and, keen for a bit of quiet alone-time, he wandered off to find a few fish. He'd brushed his way through a floodplain-field of corn and ganja and popped out at a shallow pool stacked with yellowfish. A fish quaffed his Dave's Hopper on the first cast. As he knelt down to bring it to hand, he heard a rustle in the maize behind him and then the voice of a Basotho boy shouting. "Hey you!" he called out insistently. Now, Basotho schoolchildren can be a mite pestilent, especially when one has an audience of gaggles of them walking home after classes. They're just being curious and enjoy their interaction with visitors, or practising their English, or if they see you catch a fish they might nag you to give it to them for their lunch. Hoping the lad would shut up and be on his way, Stu tried to ignore the voice. That didn't work. "Hey you!" the little irritation interjected again just as Stu teased the hook out of the flopping yellowfish, "Hey!" The kid kept at it, "You! Hey you!"
Stu, agitated to the brink, stood up from re-straightening his tippet and turned around and said, "Yes! What do you want?" And the beaming face, all bright, happy eyes and white teeth looked up at him from between the corn cobs and said, "Well done!"
Lesotho can only be reached internationally via South Africa. It's a great add-on to any South African trip or as a stand-alone destination. Much of the country can be reached by self-drive vehicle and it is best to use a 4x4.
It is possible to do DIY fishing trips, but the lack of suitable reference information dictates that it's best to take a guided trip, either at a lodge or as a pony trek.
The best time to visit for trout is during the autumn and spring, and late November to early March for yellowfish. Spectacular thunderstorms are always a possibility during the warmest months, but the streams clear quickly after spates.
Tackle and technique are straightforward. A standard 4wt rod strung with a floating line and 3X tippet will cover the basics on the streams. For bigger water, 6wt rods are better, and maybe even heavier if one wants to swing or strip big (up to #2/0) streamers for the autumn-run or big stillwater trout at Katse Dam.
There are seldom specific hatches, so generic mayfly, caddis and midge imitations in nymphs and dries plus some terrestrials will suffice. Klinkhamers, Humpies, Royal Wulffs, Parachute Adams, Stimulators, CDC-tied midges, DDDs, hoppers, ants and beetles should be in your dry fly box. For the meat-eaters, donÕt be caught without big, bead-head buggers, leaches, Zonkers, Marabou Muddlers, and rubber-leg patterns to fish down and across.