|Garden Route Fishing|
|Garden Route Travel Diary
Through Wind and High Water
By John Cooper
flatlands at first, with neat homesteads and farms, then up, and up, through
the high Hottentot Holland range of mountains, with our ears popping. This is
wine country. Ordered rows of vines covered the hillsides as we slid down
beyond the mountains. Names familiar from wine bottles past: those gone
delights, each with a tale to tell. A sultry mood, a sideways glance, toasts
and tears, intoxicated smiles and aching heads to show for it all. Ah the
morning after. Great stainless wineries stood witness to this new and
efficient industry. No historic Burgundy or Rhone this, but a vibrant,
successful enterprise of this century. The wine is good, and the prices right.
On our left as we dropped down a steep rift, was a tumbling trout stream the Breede River. The Breede was our next goal - the longest river in the Cape. But this Lilliputian stream was not the river we sought. We were heading for the estuary, with salt water fly fishing in mind. The tidal Breede offers some of the best light tackle fishing in South Africa.
That evening, in the bar (well, where else would we fetch up?) anglers long gone, who had tasted success on this famous fishery, gazed down upon us from sepia photographs. The fish run big here. Most eagerly sought are the magnificent leervis (pronounced leer fish,) sometimes called the garrick. The leervis is a beautiful sporting gamefish. The sixty pounder on the wall looked all of enough prospect for my little Redington nine weight fly rod, but the beaming bartender assured me that I shouldn't worry too much about that, because anything into double figures would be a good catch at this time of the year. That sounded pretty bloody good to me.
Here too we might find the cob. It's not a pretty name for a fish, particularly one so sporting. The cob is sort of bass-like, and it grows to over 150 lbs. From the wall, dazed captors, leaning on their vast prizes, smiled down. 'Breede River, 130 lb. Cob. 1966' said one understated label. Hoisted on a makeshift derrick, the cob was taller than the angler who had taken it. The Breede is relatively shallow near it's mouth, and I could only imagine the searing unstoppable runs that a 130 pounder might make in such confines.
Salt water flyfishing is a game governed by tides. With low water neap tide occurring at about 12 o/c the following day, I had only about three hours on the exposed sandbar to find my leervis, before the sea once again advanced. The wind was getting up a bit, and the weather looked menacing. A short distance offshore a shape rolled black against the waves. 'Right Whale' said Paul. Amazing.
I chose the #9 outfit a Redington TSF9094, with a Rio Bonefish floater loaded onto a Tioga saltwater-proof reel (see my separate reviews). With an additional 175 yards of 30 lb. backing, I stood at least some chance if that 60 pounder happened along. I also had the dory at hand if I needed to stay in touch with a big fish. Attaching a 10 lb. Snowbee leader, I started with a big Pacific Fly deceiver, which looks more fish-like in the water than the actual living creature it imitates. With the wind rising though, I soon retreated to a smaller fly, a Newport sand Eel. It's an interesting little fly this, a variant by saltwater flyfishing specialist Nigel Haywood, with the Mylar body tied-in only at the head. Drawn through the water it looks deadly.
After a few hopeful short casts, I punched out as far as possible, to the deeper channel, about twenty yards off the sandbar. On the third cast, I could see a wake behind the fly, but ran out of water before the fish would take. The fish, a spotted stenbras of about 3 lbs. hovered in the shallow water for a second or two, then darted off. The fish were not quite having it, they plucked and they plucked.
With the wind blowing from left to right, I used the line drag to move the fly through each cast across and down like salmon fishing. More plucks. 'Little stuff', I thought. Maybe those plucks were from little fish, but on the next cast the line stopped in mid drag, and on tightening to the fly, I found I was attached to something heavy that surged out into the stream in a way that felt impressive. "Big fish", said Paul, "But I don't think it's fast enough to be a leervis". The fish was fast enough for me though, and the backing line began to disappear from the reel at an alarming rate. Thank goodness for the Tiogas excellent drag. A hundred yards out, a huge surface boil told of something rather large. Time was slipping away, and I was aware that the tide would soon begin its march. Each time the fish ran, it slapped the line with it's tail to send thumps and shocks back to the rod. My ten-pound leader suddenly felt woefully inadequate, but I leant as hard as I dare, and the fish kited towards my shore. Keeping a tight line, I started down to the fish, taking in backing, then a little fly-line. And now the fish found more energy. No more the unstoppable runs, but a stubborn circling action that sent up boils of sand. But the event was no longer in doubt and using the short waves, and the lifting power of the Redington, I drew the fish into the shallows, and gilled it myself. It was a cob, and a good one. Paul, who had been snapping away with the Olympus digital camera, was moved enough to give a drawn whistle. It weighed 18lbs. on the spring balance. The fish had taken nearly thirty minutes to land, and it was a new personal best for me (it was also the only cob I'd ever caught). Local families would feast well.
My right arm was too abused for more meaningful casting, and with the wind and tide soon to be in opposition it seemed a good time to beat a retreat to Breede Lodge. One fish only to show for my morning, but a magnificent one that etched another moment for ever.
The wind rose and rose to gale force. It blew though the afternoon, and through the night. Dark clouds scudded across this African outpost, and the rain beat upon a violent river-mouth. It was clear that I would not get more from this river on this trip. But I'll be back to the Breede that 60 pound leervis is beckoning.
With our weather-enforced departure from the Breede, we'd gained some time. "I tell you what. I'll give you a surprise at Plettenberg" said Paul.
East now then, through parched farmlands at first, then by degrees into steeply-wooded low hills, and the lush green of South Africa's beautiful Garden Route. A curl of smoke in one town announced the arrival of the famous Blue Train. Inside, the rich and famous would be chinking glasses of Champagne, and looking forward to yet another staggering gourmet experience on the move. Prosperous little villages and town flashed past, some with names Afrikaans, others with names English. The proud Afrikaners are clinging to their home-spun, and hard-won language, but English is to be the lingua franca of the re-born country. And as the common language of the commercial world, English will bind this nation of so many tongues. But quite rightly, within their families the proud Afrikaners will maintain their traditions, and their language will take its place alongside Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, and all the other tribal languages. It will enrich the amazing melange of sounds that make up this wonderful new South Africa.
And so to Plettenberg, with its rocky drops and its pretty bay. The wind had
dropped, and with clearing skies, the sea looked blue. "I thought you
might like to see some whales" suggested Paul. My treat. I've always
associated whales with the polar wastes, but it soon emerged that the Cape is
one of the best places in the world to meet whales at close range.
Arriving at the beach, I could see nothing afloat that might offer safe offshore passage to would-be whale watchers. But they had a system, a cunning plan. We were installed aboard a 28' motor boat, still on a trailer, on the beach. Then, if you please, at a command from the skipper, a tractor pushed us down the beach to the surf, with enough oomph to rocket us out onto the sea. The engine started, we set off for the whale grounds, close offshore. As we sliced along at a quiet and gentle six knots, a school of bottle-nosed dolphins kept pace with us. Our first close contact with the whales of South Africa.
The boat was throttled back, and the guide pointed to our left, where a vast grey black and grey back heaved itself half out of the water with a sound like a steam engine. At about sixty yards range, this huge creature seemed almost to be trying to make contact with us, as we came eye to eye.
Whatever you have read about this sort of encounter: no matter what you have seen on television, nothing but nothing can prepare one for the experience of meeting these most noble creatures at first hand. There were a few gasps, and a few ahs, but the palpable emotion generated by the contact seemed to awe most of us into a stunned silence. For a moment or two I was exquisitely deaf to the guides commentary, and as one with a miracle of nature.
The Southern Right Whale was so named because it was the right whale to kill. And kill the whalers did, with such extraordinary efficiency that these slow, gentle giants were driven to the edge of extinction. With the world-wide moratorium on whale killing in place, the right whale is making a remarkable come-back. If the Japanese and the Norwegians can be persuaded to see the utterly degraded folly of once again turning the World's oceans into their own private killing fields, then we may long see the southern right whale returning to it's winter range off Africa's great Cape.
This meeting made a huge and unexpected impression upon me. I would recommend to anyone visiting the Cape, that they should try to include a day with the whales in their itinerary. In South Africa there's a law that prohibits approaching closer to whales than 300 metres. However, government licenced operators can move right in to 50 metres. That's damned close, I can tell you. So at Plett it's essential to book. Each trip aboard their purpose-made boat, the BALEIA is accompanied by a trained marine biologist guide, who can answer all your questions. The cost is modest, and the memories priceless.
The South Africans like to describe their homeland as the 'World in one country'. In the Feb issue, I'll tell you about my next stop. A place that seems to lend weight to their lofty claim.
South African Airways reservations : www.flysaa.com
Standard fare, London Capetown Expect to pay around £600 return (that's a