Learning to Flyfish – It’s Easier than you think.

Article 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 country side around the Eastern Cape Drakensberg hamlet of Rhodes.  It sounds idyllic.  Of course you don’t have time for it, so you 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 hand 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 you 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 Tiffindell’s new high-altitude trout lake.  We piled into an assortment of trucks and somewhere near 2200 meters above sea level, two of the class caught their first trout.  These were moments of exquisite joy – for angler 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 on 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 form the north.  Someone said, “Do you think it will drop to gale force just now?”

To cut a ling 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 Fly-Fishing 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.

I left the next day for the tiny town of Ugie in the same region and its annual Ladies Flyfishing Festival.

There were 40 contestants and, again, most had never tried their hands at flyfishing before.  On the first day of the event, the low pressure system that had brought the gale force winds the day before settled into a pattern of cloudy skis, mizzling rain, sudden bursts of watery sunshine, high-arching rainbows and mildly squalling wind.  Locals muttered about the imminent risk of snow, huge storms and hail, but the worst held off.  At least on the first day.  That was when I found myself early in the morning on the banks of the Mooi River with fellow flyfishing guides Gavin Scholtz and Mike Petersen, hosting nine women most of whom have never held a fly rod in their lives.  But if they were short on experience, I quickly learned they were mighty long on enthusiasm. 

The first step was to get each person casting.  That took less than an hour.  I have to say here that when it comes to learning how to cast a fly line, women are miles ahead of men.  Then, even before Gavin got our riverside braai going, each of the party had caught their first trout.

Just standing around watching fishing is fascinating.  From spotting fish in the water to the sweet anticipation of a take, then the landing and the release, I enjoy it almost as much as if I were catching the fish myself.  But when you’re watching someone land their first trout ever, the experience is even more powerfully rewarding.

Around five o’clock the weather turned cold and wet.  I secretly suspected that, with a fish or two each to their credit and the weather uncharitable, the women would prefer to head for home, a warm fire and a glass of red wine, but I was way off target.  We had to drag the last of them off the river just before heavy rains came sweeping through the valley.

The weather on Day Two, the final day, was at least not variable.  It just rained.  Solid, steady rain, like when you’re standing under a shower.  In 10 minutes we were drenched, and we stayed that way all day.  This time we had a different group of women to host but, once again, the common denominator was unquenchable enthusiasm.  In spite of the rain, they held onto the prospect of taking a trout like terriers onto a rag doll, but as you and I know, when trout aren’t cooperative they aren’t cooperative and there’s not much you can do about it.

The festival was arranged and organized by Ugie resident Bridget Emms with help from other people in the town, local farmers and folk from the nearby towns of Elliot and Maclear.  Huge support came from Mike Petersen, whose business, Hairy Fairy Flies n Grahamstown, has been making freshwater and saltwater flies for decades.  He provided heaps of flies for each contestant and donated some wonderful prizes.  The lunchtime braai packs and cold drinks were provided by Conrad and Veronique Ramsay, who won a store in Elliot, and the outstanding evening meals were prepared by a dedicated team of local women.  The event was unmistakably stitched together by community spirit, and I couldn’t help but envy the strong bonds that unite folk in the area.

I made a rough mental assessment of where we stood after the weekend’s festivities.  Despite the weather, the outcomes were good.  People were talking about buying fly rods, asking what reel they should get, what fly line would be most useful, what flies work best – all clear signs of early addiction.  It seemed we had won over a wagonload of converts and, better still, women converts.

It’s interesting to note that the number of women flyfishers is growing fast worldwide.  I guess a lot of it has to do with the fact that flyfishing needs no testosterone – in fact, is better off without it.  The pursuit is at once gentle, cerebral and extremely graceful, most of the fish caught are released, and women seem to have better hand-eye coordination and more patience than men, so they become proficient that little bit sooner.  So significant has been the growth in women flyfishers and tackle manufacturers are now designing gear especially for women – waders, vests, fly rods … the list is endless.

This growth among women flyfishers is most noticeable in the United States, but in South Africa there are already three regular women’s flyfishing events: the Ugie Festival, the Belfast Ladies Festival and the Dullstroom Ladies Classic, added to which I hear talk of a women’s event in the Free State town of Clarens sometime in the near future.