Fly heaven

Angling’s best kept secret revealed: there is outstanding fly fishing to be had on the Garden Route.

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS Pieter Naudé

Devotees of the art know that fly fishing is a unique and special experience. What is not as widely known is that the Garden Route has spectacular fly fishing opportunities on offer. To the unenlightened – those who haven’t tasted the delights of fly fishing – any fresh spring day is a perfect time to start.

Fly fishing is a distinct and ancient form of angling using artificial flies as lures, cast out over the water on a light rod. The first recorded use of an artificial fly is credited to the Roman author Claudius Aelianus at the turn of the second century, when he described the practice of fishing with a fly by Macedonian anglers on the river Astraeus. Traditionally, fly fishing was used to catch trout and salmon, but its popularity has spread to target a wide variety of species.

Much more than just catching fish; it’s an opportunity for man to reconcile with nature, one-on-one. Be it standing on the frost-covered banks of a lake layered with morning mist, high in the mountains casting your fly towards big browns foraging in the shallows, or wading knee deep in a river teaming with smallmouth yellows with the afternoon sun on your back. Against the backdrop of fish eagles, crocodiles and the occasional hippo surfacing near your boat while fishing for Tigers on the Okavango River, or casting to Leervis while a Knysna Loerie show off his colours criss-crossing the Touw River – you cannot but lose yourself in the arms of Mother Nature.

Fly fishing sets itself apart from other fishing in that the odds favour the prey. The fly angler has to accurately cast the fly into the target zone, retrieve the fly line by hand while at the same time imparting “life” to the fly, so that the fish is fooled. Setting the hook, retrieving, netting and releasing the fish unharmed enhances the contest. To the devotees, a fly rod in the hands of an experienced fly angler can be compared to an orchestra conductor, weaving his baton to produce beautiful music.

In South Africa, most active fly anglers can be found in Gauteng. They fish mainly for trout in and around Mpumalanga and for yellowfish in the Vaal-Orange River system. There is also good fly fishing to be had on the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape side of the Drakensberg. The Garden Route has somehow escaped major interest as a fly-fishing destination, possibly because of the area’s reputation as a prime beach holiday destination.

Fly anglers who visit the Garden Route are in fact spoiled for choice of safe and accessible locations, with the added luxury of fishing for several species at different destinations just a few kilometres apart. Most fly fishing in the region is done in the rivers, lakes, lagoons and estuaries that dot the coastline, from Plettenberg Bay in the east to the Gouritz River in the west. The surf zone is not often fished, probably because it requires effort.

 The Garden Route is a unique fly-fishing destination because:

  • Of the variety of spectacular destinations, habitats and species.
  • Most of the areas fall within the protected Wilderness and Knysna Lake sections of the Garden Route National Park – fishing and nature at its collective best.
  • Many estuaries offer hybrid habitats where both saltwater and freshwater species co-exist.
  • Family holidays and fishing trips can be combined.
  • Most fishing hotspots can be reached without a boat, but a canoe will extend the scope of fishable waters.

Where to go

  • Plettenberg Bay – The Bitou River below the bridge across the N2. Leervis can be targeted during the last two hours of the dropping tide and the wary Spotted Grunter on the pushing tide, all within a five hour period along a 200m stretch of river.
  • Knysna – The famous lagoon has approximately 10km of easy access shoreline, including the hotspots. Target Leervis between the White bridge (N2) and the Red bridge just above it. The boat jetty in Old Belvidere, Ashmead channel opposite Thesen Island and the old train bridge are also good spots.
  • Buffalo Bay – Goukamma River Mouth is closed for most of the year and holds a resident population of Leervis. Cast your fly from both sides of the river bank, anywhere within the Goukamma Nature Reserve area.
  • Sedgefield – The town is surrounded by two uniquely different lakes, Groenvlei and Swartvlei. Groenvlei is a freshwater lake with large schools of Black Bass and Blue Kurper which can only be targeted using a boat. Swartvlei is a hybrid habitat holding both saltwater (Leervis, Grunter, Kabeljou) and freshwater (Blue Kurper) species. They can all be fished from the shoreline, stretching from the train bridge north of the N2 to the river mouth in the south. Get a permit to fish Groenvlei at the tackle shop next to the robot on the N2.
  • Wilderness –Island Lake, the Serpentine and Touw rivers interconnect to offer the fly angler a vast hybrid habitat, best explored by canoe. Island Lake is renowned for its big Leervis and schools of Black Bass and Blue Kurper. The Touw River holds large schools of Grunter, Leervis, Cape Moonies and Mullet. Freesia Rock, both train bridges and the Ebb and Flow campsite are all productive areas for Leervis and Cape Moonies.
  • Wilderness – Kaaimans River is permanently open, creating a healthy interaction between river and sea. It holds mostly Grunter, Kabeljou and schools of juvenile Leervis. This is an ideal spot to take your dog for a walk while flicking a small fly into the channel.
  • Great Brak – The estuary is closed for most of the year and holds Leervis that can readily be targeted on the sea side of the train bridge.
  • Klein Brak – Consistently rewards the faithful with good catches of Leervis, the odd Kabeljou and River Gurnard at the train bridge. Leervis and Skipjack can be fished for as high up as Botlierskop.
  • Gouritz River – Another multi-specie destination with Leervis, Grunter, Kabeljou and big Mullet in the lower sections of the river and Smallmouth Yellowfish higher up in the Rooiberg Mountain.

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Basics and tactics

  • The Garden Route offers a variety of species that can be caught on fly, but for starters limit your target species to one or two more willing to take fly, such as the Leervis, a fish that is also spectacular in the chase. In contrast, the aloof and disdainful Grunter is less willing to oblige, but no less deserving to target. For the more adventurous fly angler with lots of patience, try a selection of Crazy Charlie’s and prawn patterns to stalk the wary Grunter on the sandbanks of the Bitou and other rivers.
  • Prime time is when a pushing tide coincides with either early morning or late afternoon.
  • New hotspots emerge with the constantly changing contour of a riverbed. Check with the locals and at low tide look for holes and gulleys with potential.

Local guides and suppliers

Plettenberg Bay: Tim Read 072 899 6985
Knysna: Peter Baily at Grant’s Sports 044 382 5604
Sedgefield: Sports & Hobbies 044 343 1236
Wilderness, Groot Brak, Klein Brak and Gouritz River:
John van den Berg of flydotfish.com  072 250 3175 or [email protected]
Dewald Kirsten of flysouthadventures.co.za  0829415344 or [email protected]