Along the entire length of the pool, fish dimpled the surface. In the riffle water, subtle rises, apart from a mere flattening and silvering of the surface, were barely discernable. On the far side of the stream beyond the current, a perfect reflection of the new day shimmered and broke as a large tail creased the surface.
Twenty minutes trickled by revealing little of the cycle happening below. I relented, attaching a small Baetid emerger not far beneath a sparsely tied Klinkhamer. Stifling a sudden gasp, the cold water reinforced that I was closer to the stratosphere than I had ever previously cared to venture.
I took great pleasure in noting that – as lightly as a broken spider web riding a morning breeze – each cast landed where it ought to. The fish continued to rise with purposeful bearing. As the sun rose higher, shadows of several feeding fish became obvious and although a fewer smaller feisty freestone rainbows accepted my offerings, it was clearly apparent that I had not yet unravelled the mystery below the riffled surface. Several fly changes, lengthening and down-sizing of leader found me none the wiser. I began to chuckle and it was then that I realized that it was moments like these which, to me, define the very essence of why I fly fish. Deciding it was time to sit back and reflect and more importantly, check if my toes were still intact, I began to reel in. Not far upstream, a good fish showed. A quick flick and a mend covered the rise nicely.
The trout loomed up through the dappled current and gently sipped some invisible bug directly two feet behind my offering, pushing part of the leader out of the water. Baffled at what had just happened, I cast again. It was as though someone had filmed the whole scene and pressed rewind! As the large rainbow gently sipped at exactly the same spot along the leader, it became clearer than a bucket of mud! Well, if you are thinking that I discovered some highly innovative new technique to outwitting crafty freestone trout – you’d be wrong.
For the most part, high altitude Freestone Rivers are generally speaking not blessed with richly abundant aquatic life. The geological substrate of many of Lesotho’s backcountry streams does not provide the dissolved nutrients and minerals needed to support and sustain aquatic diversity that you might find on pastoral streams and rivers found at lower altitudes. Selective trout found in Freestone Rivers, especially high altitude freestone streams, are an exception rather than the norm and it is common knowledge – certainly in the freestone-rivers and stream which I have fished and read about – that trout found in such environs are general opportunists. Mayfly hatches border on insignificant and caddis hatches too are rather sparse.
Trout depend on a wide range of food sources, including crabs, frogs and terrestrials and so it came as a bit of a surprise when I discovered a pool full of trout feeding on something that –even under close scrutiny – were – from above – clearly too minuscule to decipher. High altitude trout living in nutrient impoverished streams should – in theory – eat anything you give them with reckless abandon, well so you would think. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to compare Lesotho’s freestone feeders to Wyoming’s ubiquitous trico feeders on the revered Bighorn River! Quite the contrary! What is interesting here though is that even in a river where one would expect fish to be quite interested in flies representing high protein food parcels; one gets pimped at the post! There are several plausible theories at hand, although I do think the answer to my unusual experience that day was a lot simpler than I initially thought. It was a case where the trout simply had something better on offer, not in size but in sheer volume.
Small insects often hatch in vast numbers. The innumerable midges occurring in Lesotho’s high altitude mountain streams – certainly the most common aquatic invertebrate above 8000 ft – is no exception and these trout certainly know it. If you think about it carefully, it all makes perfect sense. A trout feeding on midges is like you or I deciding to climb into a giant fruit bowl…ok maybe the bowl only has grapes in it but the point is that trout feed on small stuff simply because there is just so much of it available. It is a case of maximum return for minimal effort!