Donkeys, Drag and Double Tapers, Trout Trekking in Lesotho

TOURETTE-Logo-FA-stackNight4-200x300You could be mistaken for thinking that this articles title was stolen from one of Amsterdams infamous red light district theatre productions, but you would be sorely wrong.

There is however one similarity when trekking the remote wilderness of Lesotho and the streets of Amsterdam, and that is the local’s choice in tobacco products.  This however is where the similarities end.  If the altitude in Lesotho was not enough to get you ‘high’ so to speak, then the world class sight fishing would definitely push you over the edge. It most certainly did for me.

My most recent foray into Lesotho was part of a three phased DVD production, The Kingdom, in conjunction with Safari and Film Africa. The productions aim was to highlight the remote wildernesses of Lesotho, and hopefully the boutique sight fishing it offered fly fisherman prepared to go the extra mile, or twenty.  My good friend and fellow Tourette Fishing guide Lionel Song returned from the first week of filming with reports of excellent fishing and wild open spaces – this in spite of heavy rains playing havoc with water conditions in the particular river they were fishing. Ever the optimist, and hoping for improved water conditions, visions of trekking remote valleys and searching crystal waters for virgin fish were at the forefront of my mind during the build up.  It was with this mind set, that Rayno Egner and myself, with our respective other halves Kerry and Caz, headed up and over SaniPass to meet fellow angler Ed Truter, before making our way to a far-flung tributary of the SenquRiver.

Modus Operandi:

IMG_2067The plan was simple.  After parking the vehicles, we were to meet two local Basotho guides and three ponies. These ponies would carry out hiking equipment, while we carried tackle and filming equipment.  With the aid of Google Images, Ed had split the river into 6 beats, with 6 overnight stops evenly spread along the river’s course. Each day after breaking camp, the ponies would be sent ahead to the predetermined overnight stop, while we fished our way through the day arriving at sunset in time to set up tents and get a small fire going. At the end of the 7 days, we would make the big trek up and out to the main road and thumb a lift back to the vehicles. As you know, rural Africa does not always respect such well laid plans – but in this instance all went off without a hitch.

The Fishing:

It is impossible to fish a new venue without any preconceived expectations. And having spent months of my life fishing on Drakensberg trout streams I thought I had a pretty good idea of what were in for.  On arriving at the rivers edge, the clarity of the water immediately got my spirits up.  It was clearer than anything I had witnessed before.  And although a slight tint would have been better for the fishing, for filming and sight fishing purposes we could not have asked for better conditions.  Our days were spent wading and walking the river taking turns fishing to sighted or rising fish.  IMG_2051As is normally the case, the bigger fish were cruising or holding in the deep pools and slow runs.  Over the course of the 6 days we a released a number of trophy fish between 18 and 23 inches. Each fish sighted and observed before the plan of attack was discussed and the lucky angler sent off to take cares of the business. This type of ‘buddy’ fishing, with the angler sent down to water level to make the cast, and the crew above giving guidance is for me one of the most enjoyable aspect of fly fishing.  With two cameras and two spotters all giving advice and directions, the pressure on the angler in these situations was tangible. Similarly, the relief and euphoria experienced by all involved was amplified in the laughs and shouts of joy that echoed off the basalt cliffs when the plans came together.

On a particularly memorable day, we spotted two 20inch plus fish cruising a large shallow pool.  Both rising occasionally as they made their way round the pools perimeter, following a course they must have done hundreds, if not thousands of times before.  Trophy fish, when found in clear shallow water are invariably smart.  Not Phd smart, but street smart; the type of smart that keeps you safe when walking a back ally in a tough neighbourhood. These fish knew something was up way before any of us got close to putting in the first cast.  IMG_1762After numerous attempts to get the fish to take our dry fly offerings, and one missed opportunity on a large hopper pattern, we had given up on the two fish. Both were badly spooked, to the point of looking irritated with us. However, while we were discussing how poorly we had approached the fish, Ed proceeded to take both fish in quick succession on a lifted nymph technique that I am now sold on.  Although not everyone’s cup of tea, it is deadly.  In brief summation a heavily weighted nymph – in this case a size 10 tungsten beaded ZAK, is cast out and left to sink to the bottom. The fly must settle in close vicinity to the fishes cruising path, where you can see it, and the fish when it next passes the spot.  As the fish approaches the spot where the fly is lying, it is lifted off the bottom and away from the fish with a sweeping motion of the rod. The aggressive nature of rainbow trout takes over, they throw caution to the wind, and attack the fly with gusto.    Although not fool proof, and best used as a last resort, this technique works!

Apart from the sighted fish, good sport was had fishing the turbulent and shallow pocket water with large buoyant dry flies, fished on their own, or in conjunction with a small beaded mayfly droppers. Bryce Perrett’s foam hopper, which was initially tied on as strike indicator, proved deadly. Although a productive river as was evident from the fishing – the river sustained surprisingly little insect life, and it soon became evident that the fish in this particular system were not treated to an over abundance of aquatic invertebrates.  Thus, over the course of the week, we changed dry fly tactics from small caddis and mayfly patterns to larger terrestrials.  The standard double fly rig with combinations of weighted and un-weighted PTN’s, Zaks and other non descript mayfly nymphs fished under an indictor also accounted for fish in the fast turbulent waters where sight fishing was not possible.

Big Sky Country:

IMG_2180I live for wild places.  Not a weekend at the syndicate lake kind of wild, the kind of wild that reminds us that there are still forgotten corners of the planet to be fished. The kind of wild that makes you slightly nervous when you consider how far removed you are form everyday life.  And although Lesotho is a pretty desolate and remote area, I was not expecting to be blown away on the wilderness front.  How wrong I was.  As our trek took us deeper into the valleys, the extent of our complete isolation began to settle on me like welcome blanket in the cold.  We moved with the rhythms of the sun, up at dawn and asleep soon after sundown.  The days pasted by in a kaleidoscope of turquoise pools, mottled rocks and dotted trout.  Apart from the sounds of sloshing feet and swishing fly lines, the mountain silence was only occasionally broken by the melodic ringing of sheep bells, and the far off calls of nomadic herdsmen.  Our short evenings were spent chatting around the fire or gas stove.  Meals of soya mince and smash were washed down with half cups of warm whisky and slabs of chocolate. Down sleeping bags on a mattress of pony blankets welcomed our weary bodies as we drifted off to sleep each evening, eager for the following day’s adventures.

IMG_1870Fly fishing is my first passion (read obsession), and will remain a constant distraction until the day I die.  Another of my somewhat obsessive life distractions is off road distance running.  In the build up to a recent ultra-marathon I received a motivational quote written by Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub 4 minute mile. Although it was aimed at runners, the fundamental message it outlined immediately struck me as the primary driving force in all we do as fly fisherman.  With a couple of changes here and there, I have adapted it, and can honestly say it now has a permanent place in my list of fly fishing quotes.  It embodies the mindset and spirit in which I view the sport of fly fishing, and has particular relevance for men and women who go the extra mile to quench their fly fishing thirst. It may also make a good ending to this piece…..

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