Greg Carstens recouts a great trip to Gateshead

Text and images by Greg

If fly fishing small streams is the closest thing you have to a mistress, then the weather is equal to her mood, simply put when her mood swings to foul she allows you very little enjoyment from her best bits!

So it was on our recent trip to the Barkly East district and the farm Birkhall. My mistress was very moody shortly before and  my brother Gary and I arrived the heavens opened and it rained through the night. The Sterkspruit was already high and discoloured and this added down pour blew the lower reaches of the different streams out and that’s how it stayed for the week.

The Sterkspruit at the bridge on the Bokspruit road.

The Bokspruit at Hillbury

The Bokspruit at Hillbury looked a little more like the Vaal River after a heavy rain rather than the beautiful stream we had come to know.   As we drove up the Riflespruit stream we couldn’t find a fishable stretch, and although the water had cleared a little the flow was heavy.

On each and every trip to the Rhodes/Barkly district I have learnt something fundamentally new, a simple truth that is definitive, which in a world that is fast losing its definitive truths, helps to restore my faith in an ever-jaded looking future. I miss the days of my happy youth. I was so sure of everything. I was so definite, just as my 5 year old daughter is. Things for her are simply either right or wrong and she is absolutely sure of everything. I’m really not that sure about anything anymore. The more I learn the less I know. Whatever, remain positive, be adaptable and take things as they come; this was to be my lesson on this trip.

Basie and Carien Vosloo the owners of Birkhall and Gateshead are some of the nicest farm folk you’ll find.  Carien suggested that we should try Gateshead. She had been up there to do gas geyser repairs and said the water was clean and swift. The roads were wet with sticky mud, but watching her fly around in her Toyota Hilux got me to thinking that perhaps a farmer’s wife could be the future winner of the Dakar rally.

Clear water was all we needed to hear and so swopping out hoppers for heavy nymphs we got the basic directions we needed and climbed aboard our bikes and headed out to discover Gateshead.

Landscape on the way to Gateshead

Freedom is a rare and precious commodity in today’s age and exploring the Rhodes/Barkly district on an adventure bike brings freedom in heaps. Not too many fly fishers ride motorbikes. I suspect they are too smart, but I have always had a love of bikes and wild places. I learnt to ride when I lived in BC Canada on vast logging roads with a fly rod strapped to my back. At the time we couldn’t afford a 4X4 so we settled for a couple of ancient dirt bikes and explored the interior of BC’s unnamed streams and head waters. So I suspect there’s a pinch of nostalgia thrown in whenever I FIND myself in wide open spaces with my rod and bike.

Gateshead is the end of the road, so to speak, the end of the Bokspruit road, and remote in the purest sense. It is the place the farmers go to get away from it all and it is absolutely beautiful. If you like remote small streams then Gateshead is bucket list material. On the ride in we got the feeling we had skipped continents and we were riding somewhere between Canada and Austria. The remoteness and vistas are so good that you’re happy the road is so rough you must to idle along to soak in as much as your greedy senses will allow.

The last drift before Gateshead Cottage

We reached the little cottage that was carpeted by wild summer flowers in an array of colours and sizes; if they ever feel the urge to film the sound of music again I would happily nominate Gateshead Cottage in summer as the location.

Gateshead Cottage

Carien was spot on and the water ran clean and bright. What followed was an afternoon of deep nymphing the slots in and among bedrock chutes that produced surprisingly large fish, densely spotted with black pepper dots, averaging 14 inches and as fat as suckling pigs. Even though the water was probably around the +20? mark they jumped and fought strongly. The swift water made wading tough but we managed well enough.  I had half suspected we would be in for deep nymphing so before I left Birkhall I made sure I had put my split shot in my pack, and then got sidetracked and left it on the table! I had a couple of Vaal River yellowfish flies in my pack, the orange tungsten ones with the copper bodies, heavy as hell, real fly rod tip-snappers. I resorted to fishing one as the point fly. They ate it, with short sharp takes.

The hike up from Gateshead in the Bokspruit Valley

We visited Gateshead a day or two later after the next light rains and this time we left earlier in the morning. Basie suggested we hike up on the goat path to where the pocket water starts and we followed his advice.

A cane rod is born….My  Dugmore Freestone 2wt

The day was bright and clear and I decided that it was a good day to christen my Dugmore Freestone 2wt cane rod. I had waited a long time to show it daylight and although, in my humble opinion, the rod is best suited to dry flies, I tied up a handful of heavy ZAK’s with tungsten beads the evening before, and made sure this time that my split shot was in!

The pocket water begins…

The high altitude had us huffing and puffing away and Gary chose to climb in a little downstream and I headed up to the next bend to give him space to fish up, if you like remote, try the upper reaches of this stretch of stream solo, it’s almost eerie.

And so it was with my first roll cast I hooked a lively 15 inch rainbow that put all kinds of bends into my new little cane rod, a great omen for the wispy little rod. I found the rod very different from a graphite and with some gusting wind struggled a little to adjust my casting style, but by slowing down, allowing the action of the rod to do the work and telling my wrist to do a little less, we gradually became friends. The real joy of this rod was when you hooked a fish! For the first time I seriously feared an 18 inch rainbow!

A pretty Bokspruit rainbow

The rod mends line like a dream and although I couldn’t get a rise on dry, I fished a Para RAB for the fun of it after lunch. In the right hands this little rod could paint a line like the brush strokes of an artist. I suppose, and once again it’s my opinion, a good cane rod is a very, very different fishing tool to a graphite rod.  You have to learn to fish with the rod and that’s part of the charm, kind of like the difference between boogie boarding and surfing. I could go on but in the end it was a lot like fly casting for the first time. You wondered if you’d ever get it right then suddenly when you stop trying it all comes together so sweetly all by itself.

The trout are in top condition and this fall will be a joy come April!

I think it probably takes a good 10 years to really get your bearings in this region. Given the conditions we took a look at Boarman’s Chase as well and the water was bright and swift and we would no doubt have had a good day on it. On our last visit in August the streams had all but dried up and I was left wondering if the trout would recover. But the head waters are full of healthy, fat trout, not overrun with smaller fish.

These waters are home to some of the healthiest wild trout you will find anywhere in the world, and as long as these streams flow, fly fishermen will pursue these trout, return them and respect them.

So put Gateshead on your bucket list; you won’t regret it!

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