By Tom Sutcliffe
I suspect you might argue convincingly that there is no such thing as bad trout water; that some presence of trout is always better than none and that any water capable of holding them has to be better than any that is not. But the argument is too much like motherhood and apple pie to really take seriously, since, in time, most of us anglers encounter the odd commercial stew pond, the sort of place we, and no doubt the trout in them, would sooner forget. A far less debatable truth is that some trout waters are a whole lot better than others, and that among the better ones, there are a few that are perfect. It is in describing this state of perfection that we run into a little trouble, given the whims of individual preference and the vast angling resource out there, both of which open a giddy range of possibilities. To put all this on a size 28 hook for you, most fly fishers will have wildly divergent ideas about what constitutes perfect trout water, perfect fly fishing, even the perfect fish, and any author launching into prose in high praise of what he regards as the ultimate, better watch his back cast.
Let me risk describing my perfect trout water just so you will see what I am driving at. My own tastes are simple really and I ask little of the trout or the bubbly world they inhabit. I like small, swift, high altitude streams, tight little brooks, with bright water slipping narrowly through wide and sparse landscapes. They must be authentic, natural and not engineered in any way, preferably on a mountain top in total isolation, in fact, as near to the edge of the planet earth as it’s possible to get without falling off. The trout in them needn’t be big, though I’m not too proud to admit that I prefer fatter fish to thin, and like them best if they vary from, say a pound or so, up to three or four. Browns do more for me than rainbows, I suspect because they are not so easily impressed by my skills and they are unforgiving enough to nearly always be a prickly challenge. Thinking back on it, I can’t ever remember a brown trout that was a soft touch; in small , clear places most are as tight as a nail in a sneeze wood plank, which you can’t say about rainbows with the same level of certainty.
No, I don’t ask much of fly fishing and, once in a while, though less frequently of late, I do find a near perfect place. The other day, in the company of Ed Herbst, who incidentally shares my messianic mission to discover the ultimate in Lilliput waters, I came across a place, thanks to the help of some powerful horses and the kindness of a few good friends, as close to perfect as you get. It is called ‘Gateshead’, and if you care to read on, I will tell you as much about it as you need to know. But before that, let me convince you that it echoes what I like most in fly fishing and the point of this article is to share the place with you, not to try to convince you that it is the sort of water, or the sort of fishing, you will necessarily like best, or should aspire to.
Gateshead is an hour south of Rhodes, two hours north east of Barkly, on the very upper reaches of the famed Bokspruit river. It is a mountainous place where the only sign of human development is a hundred year old cottage in a grove of hundred year old fruit trees, now of indeterminate variety. The cottage is heated by a wood stove in the kitchen and in the same room, a wood burning geyser pumps water at near boiling point to a copious bathroom. It sleeps six adults, is well stocked and serviced and has a north facing veranda that is the perfect place to tie flies in the early morning sun.
To the north, a stream runs by, close enough to watch trout rise from your bed and to the south, the tall peak of the Gateshead mountain dominates the landscape. The road into the farm is fine if you are in a bakkie, or driving someone else’s car, quite passable really, but you need to take it very gingerly to spare the sump.
There is a whole 14 kilometres of river, which takes a lot of fishing, especially in this sort of country. The stream right on top of the mountain is as good as the section below, but it has an added advantage of introducing mountain remoteness to the vista, whereas the valley around the cottage is more pastoral.
Trout in these high altitude streams live exposed to the world and, in consequence, the survivors have mastered the art of disguise. There is precious little cover in these streams and the fish know it. In the first place, the water is as clean as the mountain air, and shallow, no more than waist deep in the best places, less in most. Few trees shelter the banks, and even the over-hanging grass and bush is wispy and wan given the constant cold and wind of high altitude places. So the trout stay prepared for your arrival, ever alert, ever ready to use the light and the shadow and the speckle of the brightly pebbled riverbed to vanish in a wink, even before they see you.
Eddie chose to fish downstream, with his one-weight and 7x tippets, so I wandered upstream from the horses on my own. I skipped the flat water and stopped at a pool where the stream funnelled in at the head in a deep run, spilling water the colour of a lightly charged glass of single malt whiskey over the fine gravel in the shallows. Here I saw two fish, each about ten inches, nervously holding in a shallow depression. I cast a light and wispy RAB at them and they evaporated off the streambed as quick as the speed of light. I waited, and in time they both returned, even more nervous and watchful, so I gave them best and moved on. The higher, deeper water in this pool would normally have been worth a try but with two skittish trout to cover first, it was a waste of a cast, given that they would both flee through the run like startled hares, sending alarm bells up and down the pool.
I found if you approached a pool standing up, even quietly, the trout sensed you from about 20 paces. Eddie said that downstream he watched trout after trout diving for cover as he walked along the top of a hill 100 meters above them!
In the end, I got down and crawled to the best looking stretches, waiting before I made a move, first judging the fish, those catchable, those that would cause problems, then carefully planning a cast that offered only the leader and a drag free drift to the most vulnerable among them. Often I hid the line by casting across rocks, or onto the grassy bank. This way I got some fish and I caught yet others in the deeper cuts, where the surface was broken and where line shadow was less of a problem. The first trout I hooked was the best from this long stretch, easily 20 centimetres, a rainbow cock in the bright livery of the coming spawning season, and he stretched my 7X tippet to the limit and even opened the gape on the RAB enough to damn nearly escape.
Later I caught a few fish on a small, gold-beaded ZAK, using a tiny orange strike indicator, which itself elicited a few rises. The last fish was so badly hooked I sadly had to kill it. Interestingly, all the fish I took on the dry fly were hooked on the very outer edge of the lip, whilst those on the nymph were hooked deep in the throat. So I took the nymph off, debated briefly whether I should carry on for an hour or two more in this seemingly endless paradise, decided it was so pleasant I really ought to be sharing it with Eddie, and so retraced my steps back to where we had left the horses.
Together we fished up a tributary of the main stream, a tiny side-arm that eventually brought us out at a waterfall. In the swirl at the base of the falls, where the water was churned into cover, we caught four unsuspecting trout, all about 20 centimetres, before moving downstream of the tributary, into a kloof where the river was stronger. Here Eddie bagged a couple of fish, until the growing shadows and the coldness of the wind forced us to climb back up the long hill to the waiting horses.
Basie Vosloo, who owns this beautiful place, is a master horseman. He led us expertly back along the trail on the lip of the escarpment, then over it, down steep inclines that threatened to unseat us and the horses, their hooves slipping on the narrow sandstone paths, then up the grassy plains at a canter, carefully crossing the endless streams, where the blowing horses stopped and drank deeply until, as the setting sun slid blushing from of the western sky, we rode into the cottage gates, saddle sore and ready to drop. I said Basie was a good horseman and to my judgement he is, but if the truth be told I’m a particularly bad one, so I wouldn’t easily recognise a good one anyhow
So that’s my perfect water; in fact, that’s my perfect sort of a day really, and all I’m left wondering now, is how perfect it all would have been for you.