Rainbow Rivers of the Northeastern Cape Highlands

Article by: Fred Steynberg

Fly fishing for trout in unspoiled, high-country rivers is, in my opinion, far more glamorous than any other type of fly fishing our country has to offer.  Yet glamorous does not necessarily mean that it is unaffordable or only for the elite, or that the degree of difficulty is high.  In Britain, for example, most fly fishing for trout (and grouce and pheasant hunting) is practiced almost exclusively among the rich and elite.  Many avid sportsmen develop a liking for these pursuits, but with the encroaching human settlements, the availability of land and pristine, unpolluted waters has diminished.  This situation has put a price on these sports, and thus they are an option primarily for the wealthy.  South Africa, on the other hand, has an abundant variety of hunting and fly fishing opportunities, and in some instances they outshine those of the international market. We should not be too eager to jump onto a plane to venture abroad before exploring our own country’s vast potential.

The Rhodes / Barkly East area, situated directly below the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, has an interesting variety of over 1000km of river frontage available for fly fishers to explore.  Not all riparian owners are in favour of people walking onto their property to fish, but for those that open their waters to clubs, associations or individuals, we fly anglers can be truly grateful.  One of the water systems that requires prudent handling is the Bell River system.  The Bell is an important tributary of the Kraai River, which in turn is one of the main arteries of the Orange River.  So it is essential that when we use its resources, we protect its catchment area at any cost.   Fish in the Bell River and its tributaries, breed, feed and fend for themselves naturally, and are considered to be wild trout. It is also a fact that the fish population and the structure of the river can change from year to year, so the information in this article applies generally.  

The Bell River and its Tributaries

The Bell River and its tributaries is one of the most established trout river systems in our country. The primary artery of this river has two main branches originating in the mountains on the three farms Tenahead, Cairntoul and Bone Cave Hill, between 2700m and 3000m above sea level.  The escarpment on the farms Tenahead and Cairntoul form part of the watershed between the main Kraai River catchment (the Bell River being one of the major tributaries) and the Umzimvubu catchment, which enters the ocean at Port St Johns. They are situated on the eastern side of the most southern tip of the border with Lesotho.  The branch of the Bell River which springs forth on the farm Bone Cave Hill is very small and unfishable until it reaches the farms Owlsdell and Sunnyside a couple of kilometers down stream.  This section, called the Bamboeshoekspruit by the farmers, runs through two more farms, Chevy Chase and Mavisbank, before joining the Kloppershoekspruit on Mavisbank.  With no road access, the fishable section of the Bamboeshoekspruit is hardly ever fished.  When it has a constant flow of water, this stream can produce rainbows of up to 18 inches, but generally the fish are between 8 - 13 inches and can be caught on nymphs and dries.  The length of this fishable section meanders like a snake through a gorge in a southwesterly direction.  The pools are generally small with bedrock bottoms.

The tributary of the Bell that originates on the farm Tenahead is considered the main leg and is fishable almost at its origin, 2700m above sea level, way above the tree line.  The banks of this river are covered with a tussock-type grass (steekgras), which functions as a sanctuary to a host of terrestrial as well as aquatic insects in their adult stages.  Many consider this upper section, known as the Upper Bell, as some of the finest dry fly fishing waters our country has to offer.  This section has numerous bedrock and freestone pools, riffles and runs and meanders from the top of Naude’s Nek Pass in an open, hilly area into a deep gorge further down, before swinging northwest.  The Upper Bell section is best fished when the water levels down below are high and discolored. Even after heavy rainfalls, the Upper Bell takes only a couple of hours, and at the most, a day to clear.  In these conditions fish are normally easily fooled by imitations that rush towards them in the faster current.  Anglers make the mistake of not actively looking for the bigger fish and consistently spook the pools.  This Upper Bell section has produced fish of up to 22 inches, 3 - 4lb, but fish of this calibre are the exception and not the norm.  The last two years this section has produced a great number of fish around 7 - 13 inches, with catches of over 100 fish per angler per day being recorded.

Upper to Middle Bell River

The river meanders down a deep gorge from the farm Boarman’s Chase to the Hamilton section where it once again opens up, swinging in a southwesterly direction through the farms Dunley and Malpas.  The section including the farms Hamilton, Dunley and Malpas are considered the Middle to Upper Bell River and become a little silted after heavy thunderstorms.  This silt is more of a sandy texture and, with the constant flow of water after good rainfalls, disappears downstream towards the ocean.  These middle sections have interesting pool, riffle and run features and are marked by poplar trees, rosehip bushes and the odd weeping willow.  This section of river runs alongside the road that leads to Naude’s Nek from Rhodes.  Guided or experienced anglers often catch fish of between 15 - 18 inches in this stretch.  The Middle to Upper Bell does not always produce large numbers and the fish can be skittish.  Rainbows dominate these waters, but browns of up to 18 inches have been fooled by the imitations of a few lucky anglers.

The Kloppershoekspruit

On the farm Mertoun, below Malpas, the river joins up with its other major tributary, the Kloppershoekspruit, originating on the farm Tiffindell and Ben Mac Dhui.  The farm Tiffindell boasts South Africa’s only ski resort and neighbours the farm Ben Mac Dhui with the highest peak in the Eastern Cape.  This peak reaches a height of 3001m above sea level at the point where Lesotho, the old Transkei and the old South African borders meet.  The Kloppershoekspruit has been dammed up on the Tiffindell farm, but this does not seem to affect the river, which becomes almost immediately fishable below this 4 ha dam.  Tiffindell Ski Resort has stocked this dam, which is already producing good-sized browns and rainbows.  Unfortunately fly fishing on the two sections of the farm Ben Mac Dhui below the Tiffindell section is prohibited.  Except for the dirt road to Tiffindell, there is no road access to the waters on the farms Ben Mac Dhui, Marshfield, Mooihof, Chevy Chase and the upper section of Mavisbank.  From Mavisbank, the river runs downstream through the farm Lamont and Mertoun to join the Bell River, alongside the Kloppershoekspruit road.

The upper regions of the Kloppershoekspruit have barely any tree life, apart from the odd poplar. The structure of the river consists of many a spectacular waterfall and steeply carved bedrock and freestone pools.  Farmers of old told stories of rainbows of between 6 - 8lb caught on bait in some of the pools below the falls, which can reach depths of 4m.  In good conditions, guided or experienced fly fishers can enjoy sight-fishing to rainbows of up to 22 inches on this section.  In general though (depending on the breeding season and the size and number of fish that breed), the average fish caught ranges between 8 - 13 inches.  The lower reaches of this river from Mavisbank to Mertoun can produce good size rainbows and brown trout.  This section of river is lined with poplars, weeping and crack willows, which provide a healthy fall of terrestrials each summer.  Almost every season, hard working fly anglers catch fish of 2 - 3lbs in this 7km stretch.

The Middle Bell

The section from where the Kloppershoekspruit meets the Bell River on the farm Mertoun, 23km below Naude’s Nek, till beyond Rhodes to where the Martinshoekspruit joins the Bell, is considered the Middle Bell.  This section of river can change radically from farm to farm and has a mixture of clay, rock and sandstone riverbed.  The roots of weeping willows hold these banks together, preventing the river from eroding and leaving its course during summer floods. These trees also provide deep undercuts beneath their roots and become perfect hideaways for large trout which show themselves only when food is available elsewhere in the pool.  The crack willow has had tremendous setbacks in the last couple of years due to the multitudes of sawfly larva hatching on and devouring their leaves.  This ‘plague’ prevents the tree from photosynthesizing, causing eventual dieback.  The sawfly larva and green beetle that feed on these willows are a significant, though not crucial food source for the trout that feast on them. 

The Middle Bell is able to produce rainbows up to 5lbs and I have personally guided clients who have caught brownies between 18 - 22 inches.  The section of the Bell around Rhodes, although heavily poached, has at times seen the most fish of 3 - 4lbs being caught.  The Middle Bell is an important spawning area for both rainbows and browns, but it is worrying that trophy fish of this size are not returned to the river.  Big rainbows rule the runs and if they are removed and only the smaller fish are left, the spawning runs become flooded with eggs. This in turn floods the river with fry, resulting in an overpopulation of fish, leading to small, badly developed specimens competing for food.  Not all trout dart around rivers, feeding in a frenzy on whatever is available.  Selective fish often grow bigger and wiser, and this is the strain of trout that needs to be preserved and become sought after.  The Middle Bell is accessible from the road almost in its entirety.

The Lower Bell

From the point where the Martinshoekspruit joins the Bell on the farm Glass Nevin, the river keeps its northwesterly to westerly route until it joins the Sterkspruit on the farm Moshes’ Ford, where it forms the Kraai River.  This section is considered the Lower Bell and although the gradient is a lot gentler and the river has a sandy bottom in most places, it still yields the odd pool and undercut where good-sized rainbows are caught.  The Bell River also has an excellent run of smallmouth yellowfish.  Appearing in October each year, these yellowfish run up as far as the weir on the farm Kimnel above the Carlislehoekspruit confluence.  Bigger yellowfish specimens are normally caught from the Martinshoekspruit confluence down stream to the start of the Kraai River.

Techniques in Fishing the Upper Bell and Upper - Middle Bell and Upper to Lower Kloppershoekspruit

I prefer a lighter rod for the Upper Bell, a 3 or 2-wt if there is no wind and the nymphs that need to be fished are not too heavily weighted.  A lighter rod also helps with finer presentation.  If you find that the rod does not cast far enough, you may be positioning yourself incorrectly. Distance should not be an issue here.  It is very important to start working the pool from the tail-end up, especially on the upper reaches.  Bigger fish often lie right at the tail-end, avoiding competition from smaller fish that congregate at the head or neck of the pool.  A double tapered floating line helps execute a gentle presentation, particularly when fishing dries.  The clarity and strength of the water will determine your leader and tippet setup.  If the waters are low, a 9 -10ft, 5X leader with a 3 - 4ft and 5 – 6X tippet will help. A rig used under normal conditions has a 9ft tapered leader and a 2 - 3ft, 5X tippet.  It is necessary to wear a decent pair of polarised sunglasses and a hat or cap to prevent glare when spotting fish.  Clothing should blend with the environment, allowing one to get closer to the fish.  I always carry a couple of weighted flies with me for occasions when the fish are sitting in deep or fast waters and feeding on nymphs.  Fish in these pristine waters sometimes refuse dries and then nymphing with a strike indicator can become extremely productive.

Fishing Techniques for the Lower Kloppershoekspruit and Middle Bell 

These stretches often find fish feeding off the surface early in the mornings and late evenings.  This calls for matching the hatch, which can be tricky if you are not sure about the hatch.  It is essential, when hunting large trout, to scrutinize the rise of the fish to determine its size.  Big fish will hardly ever feed off the surface in an open pool or run but normally look for sufficient cover and protection in the form of branches, log jams or undercuts. The bigger fish barely create a splash when feeding off the surface but rather gently break the surface.

Hot summer days see flying ant hatches on these stretches and fish then even rise to the occasion in the middle of the day, refusing the misrepresented fly’s of novice fly fishermen.

Sawfly larva and beetle patterns are a good choice on these stretches, but it is of great importance to establish where the fish are eating them, on or below the surface or on the bottom?  I invariably always start prospecting with a nymph rig and then change to dry if I find rising fish.  Three to four weight outfits are necessary for slightly longer casts and for carrying heavier nymphs if required.  Double tapered lines with a 9-10ft, 4x tapered leader and a 2-3ft. of 5x or 4x tippet is generally used, but in clear, slow water conditions, a change to a longer leader setup with a 6x tippet may be necessary.  90% of the fish I catch on these stretches between 2 and 4lbs are sight fished.  It all comes down to approach and the scrutinizing of the waters to determine where the bigger fish lie.

Lower reaches of the Bell

Often productive in the early mornings and late afternoons, especially in the warm summer months, the fish in theses slower waters move from the shallows into the deeper sections during the heat of the day. Working undercuts and protected areas can produce great results, especially with slightly bigger nymphs and dry fly patterns if not certain on what the fish are feeding on.  These sections should be fished up or across with the dead-drifting technique and at times when the water is hardly moving the Liesering Lift could be implemented.  This section does not always have the volume of fish found higher upstream, but is never the less productive.  Sawfly larva and the inchworm appear from the end of October to April, making imitations highly productive fly patterns when fished to feeding trout.  3-5 Weight rods with double tapered floating lines is the correct set-up to use but downstream fishing with intermediate lines will also produce fish. When fished upstream, a 9-10ft, 4x tapered leader with 2-3ft. of 4x or 5x tippet will suffice.  I often use a tandem nymph rig in these parts, the first being a weighted bead head of sort and the second or trailing fly a small more natural looking, unweighted nymph.  The bead often attracts the fish, but if refusing the weighted nymph, often succumbs to the more imitative pattern.

For more info on the magnificent Bell River and its tributaries and the purchasing of day permits, guiding and accommodation, contact:

Fred Steynberg
Linecasters
Cell:  082 640 2930
Tel/Fax:  045 – 9749 298
Email:  fred@linecasters.co.za
www.linecasters.co.za

OR

Dave Walker
Wild Trout Association
Tel:  045 – 9749 290
Fax:  045 – 9749 306
Email:  mailto:dave@wildtrout.co.za