A Summer’s Escapades into the Mountain Kingdom, Part 1 of 4
Words and photos courtesy Rex Fey
A Trout Marathon
About 5 years ago I told my mates that I would fish all the rivers in Eastern Lesotho before I get married. When I say Eastern Lesotho, I mean all the rivers that rise on the top of the Drakensberg Mountains. Well I have got close, very close, but I failed as I am now married and I still have about three rivers to go. On the bright side I’ve just caught the biggest trophy fish of my life, a beautiful wife who loves to fish, so the adventure goes on.
During the past two summers I have had many amazing hikes into the most remote parts of the highlands. I have fished several rivers where the local herdsman or villagers say that we are the first “mlungus” (white people) to pass through, let alone fish! The fishing is not necessarily better in the remote rivers than in the more easily accessible rivers, but a river that’s regularly fished by “mlungus” is a complete turn-off for me. I can’t explain it, but I like them wild and dumb! I consequently probably think I am a better fisherman than I actually am as I fish for “uneducated” fish, and uneducated fish only.
I am an explorer at heart and any exploring I do is preferably with a fly rod in my hand and rucksack on my back. I might not catch as many fish as some more careful fisherman but I can at least claim to have fished where no others have ever even been! I actually don’t mind spooking a big fish, as long as I see it. I then know where to fish on my way back down stream or when I return to that river, and if I never return it is that special memory of that huge fish I saw on a certain stretch of river that may just draw me back again someday.
The fishing in Eastern Lesotho has been poor over the last few years due to a lack of snow in the winter and late spring rains. The fish populations are low and the fish are generally small; this is not Katse Dam by the way! That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a few good fish around. Most of the rivers are dominated by rainbow trout, but some rivers have both rainbow and brown trout. Brown trout are much longer living and so a big, fat fish just becomes a long, skinny fish in a bad year and then fills out in the good seasons. The rainbow trout only live a few years but grow a lot quicker during the good years. This leads to a boom and bust cycle in the rainbow trout population, where one year the fishing is out of this world, and then the next year it’s just tiddlers in the same river. If there are brown trout present, then there are always decent fish around (but as with browns, finding them is the trick!).
In November 2014 my cousin, along with some of his German friends who were on holiday in SA, were looking for a bit of adventure in the mountains so I suggested a road trip into some very remote part of Eastern Lesotho. They were up for it, so I dragged them along on a very long drive into a very remote village in eastern Lesotho. We camped along the river below the chief’s house for three nights. The Shebeen (local pub) was well supported during our stay. While we were there I spent a day or so fishing in the village and teaching my German friends to fly fish before I embarked on my mission far upstream to fish a juicy looking section of river I had seen on Google earth. While I ran off up the river the rest of the crew were horse riding and admiring the scenery.
So what is a “Trout Marathon”? I invented the saying and I have no idea how many people have completed a trout marathon before, but I have. It involves covering 42 km + in a day and catching a brown trout and a rainbow trout. Apart from being a keen Fly fisherman, I love trail running. There’s nothing better than trotting up a river that you know few other fisherman have ever seen. I will stop at every likely looking spot, and catch my breath while scanning a pool for a few cruising fish. I might stop and fish a good looking section for an hour or so before continuing my journey on upwards. I just have this desire to see what’s around the next bend.
The source of the river I fished is at 3400m altitude, and the trout are found from around 2900m all the way down into the villages which are generally around 2400m. So I set off at 7 am after a quick cup of tea and I stuffed a few sticks of biltong (dried meat) into my bag and my fishing kit. The fishing also tends to be quite slow in the early morning so I ran along the side of the mountains where the goats and sheep walk. I passed some juicy looking water but resisted the temptation to take my rod out of my bag. Eventually after a few hours of running and walking up this ever changing and spectacular valley, I couldn’t resist putting up my rod.
When I was eventually knackered I stopped just below the gorge I had wanted to fish. I rigged up my standard rig of a big, bushy, dry fly with a small bead-head nymph suspended under it. I caught lots of small rainbows around 8 to 10 inches. After a few km of fishing and catching heaps of small Rainbows I reached the piece of water that I had been looking at on Google Earth. All of a sudden, as the pools got bigger and deeper the fish dried up. There was not a fish in sight. To me this meant one thing: big Brown Trout! These fellas are territorial and can have several pools as their home. After staring for ages into a few big, deep pools and seeing nothing I started moving on up a little quicker.
I casually walked along the steep, solid rock-side of a long, narrow pool. Something made me freeze. Out of the corner of my eye I saw this long, pale, brown shape finning away in the current, right under my nose. Thank goodness I was carrying my rod with the tip facing backwards as the fish was now too close to cast to! I slowly backed off so I was now 6 to 7 m away from him. I gathered myself and checked all the knots on my tippet; I had been broken off by a similar-sized brown trout in a nearby river the year before. I had stumbled across it in a similar fashion and cast without checking my knots and tippet. That was the one that got away. This was going to be different. I took my time and let my heart-rate settle a bit. I placed my cast perfectly and it sipped my fly in, and as they say the rest is history. It wasn’t a particularly heavy fish. Maybe about 4.5lbs but it was lean after a tough season. In a good year it could have be a lot heavier but still it’s a fish I will never forget, and I bet that being a brown trout he’s still there waiting for me to return!
After catching that fish I sat on the rock and made a celebratory pot of tea. As it all sunk in I realized the sun was starting to sink below the hills and I was a long way from home. I eventually pulled into camp with my head torch starting to dim. My merry German friends, fresh from the shebeen were there to give me a warm welcome home on our last night in the mountains.
To this river, I will return some day and spend a good week exploring and fishing it!