Big Fish, Bruised Egos and Bionic Flies

Words by Alan Hobson | Photos courtesy of Angler & Antelope


One of South Africa’s top fly fishing still waters is Thrift Dam, located in the Winterberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape. This is hard-core fly fishing! Snow in December, snarling winds that whip the water into a frothy cauldron of metre-high waves or experiencing four seasons in a day, are all nothing out of the ordinary. What is extraordinary though is that this venue consistently produces trophy trout and fish over 10lbs. The challenge at Thrift is to catch 100lbs of trout in one day, comparable to world-class fisheries like those found in Argentina and Chile.



Somehow the phenomenon of fly fishing at Thrift stirs your soul. Part of the 'Thrift phenomenon' is the constant mood swings of the weather Gods, Aeolus and Zeus, which expose any weakness in your character, strategy and fly fishing ability. From casting in gale force winds, braving sub-zero temperatures or sweltering summer days, to soliloquising when you have just been smashed up by a brute, fishing 12lbs tippet. It's the ultimate adrenalin rush when you hook a fish that leaves you with finger burns and bruised knuckles as it torpedoes away from you, leaping out of the water to size up its opponent. It's also the absolute joy of successfully landing a fish and then releasing it, satisfyingly knowing it is going to grow bigger to be caught on another day.


Planning provides most of the anticipation, and at Thrift you need to bring everything with you, as your home is a stone cottage at the water’s edge, with cold water and, only recently, a flushing loo. It is this connection to bare necessities and being exposed to the metal of Mother Nature where one has very little other human interaction and a direct line to the fish that you learn exactly what sort of a fly fisherman you are.


To experience all that Thift had to offer was Ruben from Port Elizabeth, Pierre from Graaff-Reinet, Eugene from Johannesburg and Al and myself, the two locals. Eugene and I had pre-planned this trip two years ago, with the view of offering fly fishing trips from Gauteng, travelling by train. After meeting up at the Cookhouse Railway Station, in the Eastern Cape, we drove via Cradock and Tarkastad for just over two hours before arriving at Thrift Dam. The dam is huge, nearly 2 kilometres long and 12 metres deep, and this massive water on top of the escarpment, in the middle of nowhere, can be overwhelming for the first time. Where do you start? The sun was still tucked behind the mountain and clouds stirred nervously over the massive cauldron of water, our anticipation equally agitated. Plotting strategies whilst travelling, we kept our secret weapons discretely hidden in our fly boxes. Each of us had tied or acquired 'the' magic fly for the trip. Pierre a Bunny Leach, Eugene a Wiggler Minky, Ruben a Crystal Bugger, Al a Zonker Mrs Simpson and I had developed a Bionic Dragon. These were our weapons of mass destruction! The excited chatter ceased as we stared at the mist being burnt off the water. Having assembled our weapons like well drilled special forces soldiers we all vanished into the mist in different directions.



One has to bring your big game to Thrift, as the dam has lots of structure, rocky outcrops, weed banks, submerged trees and underwater vegetation. Strongly recommended is a heavier outfit, preferably #6 or #7 weight, with a reel that has stopping power. Your leader should be the standard rod length, 9ft and most importantly, your tippet MUST be heavy duty, no less than 12lbs or 1X. There is no point in participating in a gun fight with a knife. These fish don’t grow big by being stupid; they are tough, determined and aggressive, and use every piece of structure to their home ground advantage. Ruben fished from a kick boat, while Al decided that his age provided him with the privilege of wisdom and fished off a small boat with a battery operated motor. He was forgiven for doing this as there was an unspoken respect for him amongst us and we felt that he had earned it. Pierre, Eugene and I pulled our waders on and patrolled different areas along the bank. Eugene positioned himself next to some rocks near the wall just above the deep water and faced the wind head on, casting straight into it. Pierre darted off along the southern bank and stealthily used the weed growth as cover. I walked across the wall to the northern bank and a rocky bay of boulders that held a weed bank a few metres from the water's edge. We never broke any records on this trip, the biggest fish landed was just short of 8lbs. We landed 46 fish between us, the average size was 3lbs, with a few prime specimens of 6 and 7lbs. The magic of it all was that each of us was broken up by the Thrift 'Lochness', our egos bruised, our armoury bionic and our friendship bolstered. Those stories will linger on long after the smoke from our evening fire dwindles.



Whilst everyone has their favourite still water venue in South Africa, here’s a short list of some of my favourites: Mount Arthur and High Moor in KwaZulu-Natal, Millstream and Nooitgedacht in Mpumalanga, Sterkfontein Dam in the Orange Free State and Mountain Dam in Somerset East, Eastern Cape.


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