Learning to Flyfish ...

By Tom Sutcliffe

There you are, leading this typically busy city life, negotiating traffic snarl-ups, meeting assorted deadlines, dealing with a steady stream of bills and unexpected demands, when out of the blue you chance on this advert inviting you to attend a five-day flyfishing academy in the tranquil countryside around the Eastern Cape Drakensberg hamlet of Rhodes. It sounds idyllic.

Of course you don’t have time for it, so your first response is to drop the invite in File 13. But then you begin to convince yourself it might not be such a bad idea after all, even tell yourself you deserve it, and take a quantum leap of faith by actually enrolling. After all, you argue, you’ve always wanted to try your had at fly fishing.

So it was that eight stressed-out entrepreneurial types found themselves shaking hands for the first time in the Rhodes Hotel pub. Five full days of flyfishing tuition lay ahead and their collective experience ranged from zero to “Yes, I know the thin end from the thick end of a fly rod, and have even caught the odd fish, but that’s about it.”

The group’s tutors were Fred Steynberg, who lives in Rhodes and acts as a flyfishing guide in the district, and yours truly, both of us a little anxious as to how we’d do as the academy was the first of its kind for us – and as far as we knew, the country. What would the weather have in store, would we actually get everyone to cast properly and, more importantly, catch a fish?

“It’s like a time warp,” said one of the entrants, marveling at the turn-of-the-century hotel’s creaking floorboards, dim lighting, antique brass fittings, worn teak bar counter and fading mirror behind serried rows of bottles. “I feel I’ve been transported 40 years back,” he added, already visibly unwinding.

They say that teaching flyfishing is easy enough; the difficult part is learning it. The essence is the cast, that seamless, rhythmic sweep of fly line that at first glance looks so out of your reach but which in truth is easy enough to master.

The village of Rhodes was dressed in the colours of early Spring, with pink peach and white pear blossoms everywhere, and the willows freshly green. This was the ambience of our classroom, a patch of shade under a spreading oak with a simple arrangement of plastic chairs, trestle table and whiteboard. By the end of Day Two, the class knew a heap more about tackle and tactics than when they’d arrived. Particularly, they knew just enough about casting to get the nod for a late afternoon visit to nearby Tiffindells’s new high-altitude trout lake. We piled into an assortment of trucks and somewhere near 2 200 metres above sea level, two of the class caught their first trout. These were moments of exquisite joy – for anglers and instructors alike.

On Day Three we dealt with entomology and fly-tying. Day Four was the one everyone was looking forward to – when they’d have a chance to test their skills for a full day o a river. We chose the lower Kraai, where the water is wide and offers an attractive mix: quick, clear runs and riffles alternating with long pools where the water glides gently under spreading willows. We took a long march downstream until we reached a likely-looking run. Fred then gave the expectant class a quick demonstration, caught a couple of fish and said “Right, go for it.” Ten minutes later three anglers were fast into their first yellowfish, and by the time the sun had drifted below a fiery horizon, everyone had caught fish, some a dozen or more. All were returned unharmed to the water.

Day Five, the last, was a bitter-sweet day. We left Rhodes at sunrise, headed up Naude’s Nek Pass – where remnants of a snowfall still clung to the southern slopes – and an hour and a half later parked off at some pretty lakes with a reputation for big fish. That’s the sweet part. The bitter part was the high wind blasting in from the north. Someone said, “Do you think it will drop to gale force just now?”

To cut a long story short, everyone took at least one trout and one of the party, Trevor Babich from Gauteng, got the brown trout of a lifetime, a huge seven pound cock fish. It made his day – and mine and Fred’s.

That evening we had a formal dinner in Rhodes, handed certificates of Competence in Flyfishing to a very relaxed, very happy, very contented bunch of new anglers – and in return, received from our pupils a marvelous written citation. All eight had fallen in love with flyfishing and Rhodes, completely shaken off their assorted cares and woes and had a fine time just being alive.

A Tribute to Linecasters

We, the attendees of the first Linecasters Fly Fishing Academy, presented in Rhodes, 14-19 September 2004, herewith wish to thank Fred Steynberg and Tom Sutcliffe for having developed and offered a unique contribution to the vocation of fly fishing in South Africa.

During the gathering in Rhodes, you presented to us, both in theory and in practice, in the most glorious of settings, a thorough basic understanding of all of the elements of the art and science of fly fishing on rivers and on still waters. Your presentations were informative, scientific, educational, enlightening, stimulating, exciting, entertaining and above all inspirational.

Thank you Fred and Tom, for having shared with and opened up to us, the exciting and rewarding world of fly fishing.

We, the attendees herewith undertake not to confess to having been taught the art of casting before we have improved our casting skills to such a level as to do justice to excellent tuition, mentoring, encouragement, patience and humour with which Fred and Tom attempted against all the odds, to teach us this fundamental part of fly fishing.

18 September 2004

Signed: Peter Stapp, Elwin Yorke, Mike Rudman, Michau Nel, Helmut Nel, Roy Sukuman, Terry Babich, Trevor Babich