I love skinny water. Whether it’s a thin covering over a bonefish flat, the lapping of lake waters against a shallow bank or a tiny trout stream – there is something about thin water that I struggle to tear myself away.
But it is on small trout streams of the Western Cape that I became addicted to the challenging aspects of Lilliputian angling. Studying in Stellenbosch, I employed a student’s towards outlook towards my spare time: if I wasn’t in the ocean or on a mountain it was wasted. And in those mountains I found tiny streams teeming with trout.
I learnt much about the eccentricity of trout and during these whiled hours. I spent hours pouring over maps and longer hiking up blind ravines and non-descript tributaries. I learnt about finding these fish and I learnt about catching these fish.
I later took many of these lessons on my travels. I found trout in other regions of South Africa, Africa, Colombia, Peru and off the beaten track in Patagonia. I even applied many of these lessons to other fresh water species; Tigerfish, Golden Dorado and other interesting aquatic delights. And in between all of this, on the salt too.
Here are some of those lessons:
#1: Learn to read a map
Today things are made a little easier with Google Earth. But understanding a cartographer’s world will stand you in good stead, and not just for finding potential streams. Often I would plan my entire hike in, camping spots, hike out and emergency exits on areas I had never set in by just spending time with a map.
Maps also allow you to determine gradients of streams, potential fish (and human) barriers and by looking at the size and orientation of the catchment you can get an idea of the volume of a stream and its tribs.
#2: Get dirty and go exploring
I realised very soon that no water was too small to potentially hold fish. I kept a 5 piece in boot of the car and would often spend odd hours on strange in little waters in the middle of nowhere. Some were dismal failures while others…
Many of the Cape Streams don’t even look fishable; they are horribly overgrown. Getting from one fishable section to the next often requires a Bear Grylls type adventure. Don’t let this scare you off, those cuts on your shins will find you a little slice of small stream paradise.
#3: Learn your area and how the weather affects it
Weather in the Cape plays a huge in your decision-making. Learning the weather is done partly by books and rest by experience. An understanding of say for example the different effect the NW will have on the amount and duration of rain compared to a W wind or which kloofs are protected from the summer SE will have a profound effect on your fishing related decisions. Put the time in now, it will save much more later on.
Conditions change more often I find convenient. It’s awesome to fish a dry fly all day long not awesome when a dry fly all day long produces no action. Use the weather, type of stream, volume of water and depth of stream as indicators to guide you.
If the weather is in and temperature has dropped, nymphing may entice far more fish, or if light is low, your hands are burning from the icy snowmelt water a downstream swing (heaven forbid!) can often save a fishless day.
And this goes with lesson #6 – have a look at what’s flying the air around your head, check the spider webs. Match colour and size to see a regular bend in your rod. A windy hot day? Hoppers, beetles or ants – terestrials are yummy, full of energy and often land in streams on blustery days. Observe and adapt accordingly.
#5: Wade as a last resort
I’m not a fan of wading and try avoid wading at least until I’ve finished fishing a pool. I realise that’s often unavoidable but to go wading straight into the tail of a pool is spelt d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r. No wild fish hangs around to find out what in the world just sent waves of energy pulsing upstream. And no matter how gentle and twinkle-toed you think you might be, in a small stream every step, every rock grinding against another under your shoe and every splash is amplified.
Stay out of the water, find cover and present with minimum impact on the water itself. Cover is extremely important and is almost always best found on the bank or around bigger boulders below plunge pools and pocket water.
#6: Observe, think then cast.
Take your time. There are no deadlines, apart from man (or more little female) made ones, on a trout stream. Take your time and watch the water. Observation is a key to successful fishing. Small stream trout have an incredible knack of using what little space they have in their tiny homes to hide, conserve energy yet still be able to be close to their food source (in this case a current full of food).
By watching awhile you may find yourself extremely surprised by where you find fish. They never fail to amaze me. Observation and thought go hand-in-hand. Think about the current, eddy, rocks, undercut banks and other points within the stream that provide cover, change the current flow or create eddies.
Work out, before you worry about your fly, where your flyline needs to land in order to prevent drag (or create it, depending on your approach). What cast do you need to make – how are you going manipulate your rod to bend your leader into that corner? And check behind you, nothing is more frustrating than setting up for the perfect cast to a rising fish and getting snagged on your backcast.
#7: Handle with care
These little streams are delicate and the flora and fauna around them don’t take well to abuse. Don’t break offending branches that get in the way of your cast – learn to cast better. Wet your hands before handling fish. If you’re taking photos, don’t put fish onto dry rocks and keep out of the water very brief periods.
Littering is unforgivable. Leave on only footprints.
#8: Learn to keep a secret
Don’t be cowboy and tell every other dude with a flyrod about the location of your latest find. These places are precious and fragile – too many boots up and through them tends to hurt them! Share precise information only with a select few; better yet share only by taking them with you. You worked to find that stream, don’t give it away for free – extract as many beers, steaks and numbers of pretty sisters before giving them up. There’s a reason why it’s still pristine – not many people know about and fewer go there. Try to keep it that way!