Rainbow Rivers of the Northeastern Cape Highlands Part 2

Article by: Fred Steynberg

The Sterkspruit

Over the last two decades, the Sterkspruit has produced some of our country’s largest wild rainbows.  With interesting earth, rock and gravel pool formations and a ready supply of quality food, this watercourse has given up fish of 6 to 8lbs and will continue to do so if managed as a sustainable fishery.  From where it joins the Bell River on the farm Moshesh’s Ford, the Sterkspruit stretches upstream in a southerly direction for approximately 30km.  A gravel road follows it almost in its entirety, eventually leaving the river as it peters out, joining the R58 at the Mountain Shadows Hotel between Barkly East and Elliot. 

A weir on the border of Belmore farm and Moshesh’s Ford farm marks the end of the Sterkspruit.  Upstream of this, it runs under crack and weeping willow trees for about 2km before being joined by its major tributary, the Bokspruit, on the farm Black Rock.  Following the Sterkspruit upstream on the farms Jennerville, Birkhill, Lindesfarne, Branksome and Broadford takes you to some serious big trout country.  The river in this section has a mixture of gravel, sandstone and earth bottoms with undercuts, log jams, trees and the odd big boulder affording hideaways for quality trout.  Be warned, however, that large trout choose their lies in difficult to reach undercuts or under fallen logs and branches, and are not readily available in each and every pool.  Most of the bigger fish in this section have been caught on big attractor patterns such as Woolly Buggers and Mrs Simpsons.  However, once spotted and approached correctly, there is no reason for a big fish in these reaches not to eat a well-presented, imitative dry fly or nymph.  Rainbows caught in this section still average between 10 - 15 inches.

A large population of beautiful golden yellow smallmouth yellowfish also inhabits the pools, riffles and runs during their spawning run from September/October each year. These yellows come up in such great numbers that they take over the lies of trout and practically forcing them into other feeding areas.  The effect on the trout in this section is not always clear, but trout are occasionally found in poor condition and this could be attributed to the yellows, (although, surprisingly, a big trout will often make an appearance a pool or two further on).  By contrast, the yellows are not affected by the trout in any way, and their numbers seem to increase every year.  The sizes of the yellows in this section range on average from 1.5 - 3lbs, up to majestic, large-finned females of 5 - 7lbs.  I have found upstream nymphing to be the most exciting way to fish these faster-running sections of the lower and middle reaches, but have found that aggravating the fish in difficult lies by stripping a fly down and across, can also be effective.

Upstream from the farms Broadford and Caerlaverock, the river meanders through cultivated pastures forming deep runs and pools when forced onto hard rocky outcrops. It is, however, unfortunate that fishing is for some reason prohibited on two or three farms upstream from Broadford.  It’s upper and middle reaches contain the  lovely waters of the farms Farnham and Knighton and a good population of rainbow trout and smallmouth yellowfish can be targeted here throughout the summer.  Dry fly fishing is usually limited to terrestrials such as hoppers, beetles, sawfly wasps and larvae, as only the odd mayfly and caddis hatch occurs.  Prospecting with a nymph may produce the best results and it may also be wise to implement the Leisenring Lift in the slower, deeper pools to create movement in small, imitative patterns.

The lower and middle Sterkspruit almost always produces a healthy amount of larger food sources such as crabs, frogs, big dragonflies and damsels.  These attract both trout and yellowfish and are also the reason for the size of these fish.  Large attractor fishing with Mrs Simpsons and Woolly Buggers can therefore be extremely productive.  A large drifting dragonfly or damselfly nymph, with the correct movement on a floating line with a long leader, will offer a more challenging sport and also produce good results.  Above the farm Knighton, the river becomes a little more concentrated with fewer trees.  This section is not often fished but has a healthy population of both rainbows and smallmouth yellowfish.

The Bokspruit

The lower reaches of the Bokspruit join the Sterkspruit on the farm Black Rock.  From here, it meanders upstream generally in an easterly direction for about 25km.  This is truly a beautiful piece of water, with large sandstone boulders and cliffs carved to form waterways.  The riverbed is mostly bedrock and coarse gravel, but has the odd stretch of large slate-like rock shelves.  Its banks are lined with weeping willows and the problematic crack willow.  Neither pose a real threat in clogging up the rivers as yet, but need to be managed and kept in check.  The lower reaches of the Bokspruit yield a good population of smallmouth yellows and can produce trout of 3 - 5 lbs.  This section is heavily targeted by local poaches, so fish numbers and sizes vary from year to year.  I have found golden stonefly nymphs in this stretch, but not in such great abundance as to create a “match the hatch” situation in any stage of the cycle.  Dry fly fishing can, at times (especially early and late in the season), be quite effective and is a must when the sawfly larva and green beetles are around.  I often fish this section using the New Zealand tandem-rig method with a heavy fly and a smaller, more imitative pattern 1 – 2ft below.

On the farm Hillbury, the Bokspruit is joined by another river called the Riflespruit.  The Riflespruit stretches upstream from this junction in an easterly direction, while the Bokspruit at this point swings in a more southeasterly direction.  The banks of the Riflespruit are lined with crack willows, which tower high above the river, mostly out of the way of fly lines.  The trees provide a terrestrial food source to waiting fish below, and sight-fishing with a dry fly is a popular way to attract rainbows, which could be anything from 7 - 24 inches.  Smallmouth yellows are sometimes found in this food rich section, but often turn back when conditions are not favorable.  Below the bridge on Welgemoed, there are almost always 20 - 100 fish to be seen.  This has been the case for as long as I can remember – 25 or so years, with the exception of the odd very dry year. 

Nymphing the middle reaches of the Bokspruit is also a good option, especially where the roots of the crack and weeping willows provide deep undercuts and banks.  A fly fisherman told me once that he had hooked and lost a large trout in a pool above the bridge at Welgemoed with a tail as wide as his open hand and he estimated it to be between 5 - 7lbs.  A couple of days later, on a cold, misty Sunday afternoon with a gusty southern wind, I tried to persuade some Gauteng anglers to accompany me in search of such a trophy.  Two of the group followed me out of their guest house with wine glass in hand and took one look at the weather before retreating to the warmth of the fireplace, explaining that “fish do not bite when the south wind blows.” 

I had already packed my vehicle, and was not going to be put off by the idea of fishing alone.  I fished the river all the way up to a deeper pool/run section, catching the usual sized fish, but nothing of note.  When I arrived at the deeper section, I saw the movement of a large fish below a thick willow log on the far bank.  After a lengthy session of fly changes, leader adjustments and repositioning, I finally hooked and landed a honey of a hen fish, possibly the best looking rainbow trout I have ever seen.  She measured 24 inches but I never got around to weighing her.  The weight to me is irrelevant; in my opinion wild river trout should be measured in length not weight.

The section above Brucedell could be considered the upper Bokspruit.  Here, the gradient increases, making the flow of the river quicker.  The riverbed is carved mostly from rock, with loose stone and gravel for structure.  The remote, rugged beauty of this area is quite appealing to many who make the little cottage at Gateshead their base for some quality dry fly experiences.  Access with a two-wheel drive is limited to Brucedell, but a 4x4 or high clearance vehicle will get you to Gateshead at the end of the track.  From this point, further access is limited to foot or horseback.  The odd weeping willow or poplar is found on this stretch, with fewer trees to be found as one ventures upstream, until the vegetation becomes almost alpine, with the total absence of trees at the height of 2400 - 2600m above sea level.  This is RAB and Black Adams country.  Rainbows and the occasional brownie will also accept a gnat, hopper, beetle or ant pattern.  The river stretches upstream through three more farms, but then becomes very small, limiting fishing at times. 

On the farm Hillbury, the Riflespruit joins the Bokspruit and stretches upstream in an easterly direction.  This pretty stream has rainbow trout averaging between 9 - 12 inches in its entire length up to the last farm Cairngowr on the escarpment.  Some years ago, this river produced a number of fish around the 16 - 18 inch mark.

The lower reaches of the Riflespruit could be said to start at the confluence of the Bokspruit and stretch up to the farm Ruthven.  The river meanders for 10 - 11 km through cultivated farmlands, forming riffles, runs and pools with a mixture of bedrock, gravel and freestone bottoms.  Fly fishing upstream with a dry fly or a single nymph is recommended.  Note that all farms on the Riflespruit allow access to their waters with permits obtainable from the WTA or BIGMAC (Moshesh’s Ford Angling Club).  Make sure you understand the boundaries and directions before commencing your day’s fishing.

From the farm Mount Mourne up to the farms Urris and Howth, the middle section of the Riflespruit leaves the gravel road, running into a spectacular gorge with towering, rugged mountain cliffs on either side.  Access from here on is limited to hiking or on horseback, where possible.  The gradient increases quite rapidly and the stream is concentrated mainly into pools and runs.  At times, when the water conditions are optimum, dry fly fishing is the ultimate experience on this stretch.  I have spent many hours fishing tiny dries on 6 – 7X tippets and watched fish rise from emerald depths to take the fly.

From above Howth, the gradient gradually levels out all the way to the farm Cairngowr on the escarpment.  The pools of the Upper Riflespruit consist mainly of bedrock and the odd gravel and freestone bottom.  This stretch is also suited to fishing a RAB and Black Adams, with small ants, beetles, gnats and hoppers.  Lightly weighted nymphs fished below small strike indicators also produce good results.  On the farm Pentland, about 2450m above sea level, some gravel walls were constructed to create a productive little dam within the river system.  After completion, this dam was stocked with hundreds of small rainbows.  When the dam wall give in after heavy rains, the river became flooded with small fish.  This created a serious over-population problem in the river system: fish became stunted, with big heads and small bodies.  The upper, middle and lower reaches still show signs of too many fish, but nature should eventually sort out this mishap.

Above this dam, there are still a couple of kilometers of fishable waters in pools and runs averaging 1.5ft deep.  Fish average between 8 - 12 inches in these pristine waters and should be targeted with rods lighter than 3-wt on floating lines, long leaders and thin tippets.  Dries and unweighted nymphs fished upstream would be first choice.

The Bok, Sterk and Riflespruit make up only a small part of the vast waters of this area which ranges from Lady Grey, Barkly East to Rhodes and over Naudes Nek towards Maclear.  Trout in these rivers were introduced 80 - 100 years ago.  They trout feed and breed naturally and have become a huge money-spinning industry that benefits both privileged and underprivileged sectors of our community.  We often have anglers who drive for seven or eight hours to get to these waters and then only fish them for a day or two.  The rivers are not always in as good a shape as they may appear in photographs, at times being too strong and muddy or else too low.  It is of primary importance for visiting anglers to phone and discuss conditions prior to their arrival.

For more information on the rivers, accommodation, guiding and other activities, contact the author on

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

Dave Walker
Tel:  045 – 9749 290
Email:  dave@wildtrout.co.za

BIGMAC (Moshesh’s Ford Angling Club)
Lucien Theron
Tel:  045 – 9749 301
Email:  big.mac@webmail.co.za