The Trout Marathon and the One that didn’t get Away

Last year in November my cousin Anthony Fey came out to visit. He has made a life for himself in Germany, but we basically grew up together and spent many family holidays together. With him came Elli, his long term girlfriend and another couple Stephie and Mickey. The 5 of us spent a week hiking in the Alps in July 2013. It was more a beer drinking tour than a hike, but let’s just call it a hike. Ant wanted me to take him to two places, Mbotyi on the Wild Coast where we have a family cottage, and then to Lesotho. Another friend, Max Bastard, and my sister Meg and her boyfriend Rob Palmer also joined us for our trip to Lesotho.

We entered Lesotho via Sani Pass. We spent the first night at the Sani Top challet backpackers, and then left early the next morning for Mokhotlong. The Mokhotlong area has huge number of fantastic rivers that all join together below the town to form the mighty Senqu River. There is the Kubelu, the Senqu which has the Thlanyaku, Kokoatsi as it’s main tributaries, the Morimoholo, Sanqabethu, and the Mokhotlong. All these river’s lower and middle reaches can be accessed by road. You can just look at a Google Earth image and you just follow your nose. As of today I have fished all these rivers at least once and most of the small tributaries that also hold fish. All these rivers hold both Brown and Rainbow trout which makes it a very interesting area to fish.

In November 2014 there was only one river of the above that I hadn’t yet fished and I won’t mention it’s name.  It’s definitely my favourite of all the Lesotho Rivers I have fished, and that says a lot. We drove from Mokhotlong as far as the road would take us up the valley and then looked for somewhere to find a campsite. It was a 3 hour drive from Mokhotlong up to where we camped. The road was so bad that on the way home I ran back to Mokhotlong and I was quicker than the cars. After finding our campsite I set off to try find the chief, pay our respects and ask permission to camp and fish. As usual I asked the chief when last people came here to fish? She said several times people had come, camped and fished in the river but the last time was many years ago and they had never gone very high up river. This was exciting news for me with the prospect of fishing unfished water.

 

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Our campsite on the river bank
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Fighting a good brown trout in the camp pool on my Tenkara rod
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I came back from an afternoons fishing and this is what I was roped in to
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Mickey was a bit sore to ride after a while and decided walking was easier
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Elli practicing her casting

We had only had two days up there and half of our arrival day had been eaten into by our terrible drive into the valley which was a lot longer than I had hoped. I managed to get some fishing in that afternoon, but the river was very low and slimy. The rains had only just started and the river was in bad need of a good flush out. I did manage to catch about 10 small Rainbows of 8 to 10″, and I lost a very good brown trout which was probably about 18″. Just seeing that fish got me excited about the day ahead. I had a scanned the river extensively on Google Earth and I knew I had to explore the gorge above the last village. It looked absolutely insane! It would take some effort to get there as it was about 10km as a crow flies to the start of the gorge. For the entertainment of the Germans and the others, I managed to organise some horses for them to ride for the day. Max is a photographer and so he was keen to just amble round the villages up on the hills and to photograph the people. Meanwhile I had to look after the serious business of exploring and fishing.

When I set off on my adventure the others were still sleeping off the beer from the night before, which I had managed to partially avoid. I had recently started hiking and running barefoot, when conditions allowed, and although it’s very rocky in Lesotho, there are no thorns. Taking your shoes off and running like a little kid along a winding path is an exhilarating way to run. Even more fun is rock hopping along a river barefoot. It sounds strange to a lot of you I’m sure but it’s addictive! I can’t explain it any other way, ask a hippy why they walk barefoot and they will give you a more poetic answer than just the price of shoes. For me it just feels good.

I ran and walked past lots of beautiful fishing water on my way up to the gorge. The water got cleaner and cleaner as I progressed and by the time I got to the last village it was crystal clean. When I got tired I would walk or stop and fish a good looking piece of water. I caught small Rainbows in most of the likely looking runs. I managed to catch one skinny Brown trout of about 16″ to get my Brown trout tally off the mark. By the time I got up into the gorge it was mid day, which is generally the best time for fishing in these rivers for Rainbow trout at least. Maybe a bit bright for the Browns though. I had a recently purchased a new Tenkara fly rod, which for those who don’t know is a long thin whippy telescopic rod that has no reel. You just tie a piece of tapered line to the end of the rod, tie some tippet on that and flick away. It’s a very simple yet effective method if used in the right circumstances. I had a conventional fly rod with me but I was really enjoying catching small Rainbows on my new toy.

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Tenkara fishing
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The lower gorge
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The first of my Brown trout

As I got up into the gorge the water just got better and better. I had covered a good 15 to 20km by this stage and the best water still lay ahead. This was going to be a late return to camp I suspected. The pools got deeper and bigger, and strangely the fish got fewer and fewer. This to me could only mean one thing, big Brown trout! I have often found that in these rivers where both species are found, generally the Rainbows dominate in numbers and seem to occupy the small runs and pocket water. The big Brown’s tend to be very territorial and they will patrol several pools and that will be their territory. They will chase any Rainbows out, or eat them if they are small enough. When I realised that the best looking fishing water seemed completely devoid of fish, I slowed down. This was time for hunting Brown trout, my ultimate quarry.

I walked slowly and methodically upstream looking in all the most likely and unlikely places. Brown trout are notorious for hanging out in “unlikely” places. By unlikely, I mean at the tail of a pool in shallow water, under a tuft of overhanging grass, along the edge of an undercut bank, but rarely where you would expect to see them, if they are visible at all. They also prefer low light conditions and they will generally feed more actively on a cloudy day or late in the evening and even after dark. This is especially true of the bigger older fish. The  Brown trout often hide completely and you could swear there is not a fish in the river. It is for these reason that I consider them my ultimate quarry. A sight fished Brown trout in a clear mountain stream is what fishing is all about for me and I knew there had to be big Brown trout in this gorge.

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The start of the gorge
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The top end of the gorge
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Looking towards the escarpment from the top of my short cut home. The far mountains in the cloud are the top of the Darkensberg escarpment

I stalked pool after pool and I saw nothing.  The odd small Rainbow bolted for cover from some of the shallower runs, but no sign of any Browns or decent Rainbows. Half way through the gorge I met an elderly and very friendly  Basuthu herdsman who was tending to his flock. He had worked on the mines in the 70’s and 80’s and spoke good Zulu which I speak too. He said he had never seen another white man fishing up here in all his years of herding his flock in the same valley for the last 25th years. He had a small stone hut very close to the edge of the river. It’s a very unusual location for a Basuthu hut, as they are normally perched high up on a hill where they have a good view of all around them. I asked him if there were fish up here, and his reply was an encouraging one. He said that in the pools I had just walked passed he had seen several very big fish but he was too scared to go close to the waters edge. The pools he was refering to must have been a good 25 ft deep and I couldn’t see the bottom despite the water being crystal clear. I had sat for a good 15min staring into the depths of each of those pools and seen nothing.

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The gorge consisted of pool after pool such as this and the following picture, and all seemingly devoid of fish
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A very very deep pool
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Perfect water for big fish
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Another dauntingly deep pool
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The pool where I caught my fish

It was starting to get late now and I wanted to see the rest of the gorge, so I said goodbye to the Basuthu and told him that I will maybe see him again some day. I set off up the river at a trot. The steep sided nature of the gorge made sure I had to hug the river bank most of the time so I still had one eye on the river and one eye checking my footing. When I was nearing where I assumed was the top of the gorge, I started looking for a way to climb out to take a short cut back home. I could see one last section of pools just up ahead that I wanted to check out before climbing out of the gorge. There was a path higher up on the mountain side that would avoid all the zigzagging of the river course.The return trip along this path ended up about 5 to 10km shorter that the route I followed up the river. The series of pools ahead were long, narrow, and deep groves cut into the solid basalt valley floor. There didn’t look like a lot of structure for a fish, but the pools were deep. As I was scrambling along a steep rocky side of a pool I spotted something that made me freeze dead in my tracks. My heart which was pounding from the running and rock hopping, almost jumped out my my chest!

There in the middle of the narrow channel holding over a shallow shelf was an enormous Brown trout. It was finning slowly in the current only 3 or 4 m on front of me. Thank goodness my Tenkara rod was collapsed as it’s 12 foot long and would have undoubtedly been seen if I was carrying it out in front of me. This fish looked bigger than any Rainbow or Brown I had seen anywhere in the Eastern Highlands. It slowly rose and sipped something from the surface film. I slowly reversed as it was way to close to me to cast at. If I had taken one more step the fish would have probably seen me. My conventional fly rod was rigged with a Basuthu Basher which is a large dragonfly nymph imitation but this fish was perfect to throw a dry fly at and I far prefer catching a fish on a dry fly than a wet fly. With shaking hands I put up my Tenkara rod and tied on a dry fly. This would be an interesting fight if I hooked it on my Tenkara rod! When I was ready and calm, I crept back up stream to present my fly to a fish of a lifetime.

As I stalked closer I realised the fish was gone. I assumed it must have moved up near the head of the pool. At the head of the pool was about a 1m plunge into a very deep hole. I stalked closer and flicked my dry fly onto the edge of the white water. A long dark shaddow slowly appeared out of the depths under my fly. Through the broken water I could just make out it’s shape. It receded as slowly as it appeared. Rejection! My heart was pounding while I had as few more casts. Still nothing. I tied on another dry fly, still nothing. After trying few more flies I sat down on a rock and just enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of encountering a fish of my dreams. I waited and hoped for the fish to appear again. While waiting and staring into the depths of the pool, I saw some movement out the corner of my eye. How the hell had the fish swum right passed me, because  there it was 10 m away from me and heading downstream. It must have swum right along the bottom of the deep pocket where it wasn’t visible to me.

Bugger the dry fly I thought, and I put down the Tenkara rod. My Basuthu Basher has a proven track record of catching big river fish. I walked carefully downstream after the fish. I had left my other rod further down stream. Before I got to my other rod the fish got to the bottom of the pool and turned around and headed straight back upstream towards me. I was only a fee paces from my rod now and frozen against the rockface. The fish cruised slowly and methodically past me. I didn’t move a muscle. The water was crystal clear and one unnatural movement and the fish would be gone.

As the fish swam past me I reached down for my rod and pulled put some line. The fish was now perfectly positioned 5 m upstream and moving away from me. I flicked the fly about a meter to his side and slightly up stream. No cast was needed, just a flick. The heavy fly landed with a plop, the fish paused as it sensed the movement. I gave the fly a jerk and the fish rushed over and I saw the huge white mouth open and engulf my fly. I was on! The fight was typical of a large Brown trout, lots of diving deep and head shaking, but not much in the way of blistering runs.  I took the chance of photographing the fish with one hand and fighting the fish with the other so I would at least have some photographic evidence. After a good 5 to 10 minutes I brought the fish to hand. She was a gorgeous old hen fish who was lean after a long dry winter and spring. I didn’t get a chance to measure her before she flapped prematurely free. I estimate she was about  55 to 60 cm ,  ” maybe longer. I’m not really sure as I’m  not really someone who measures or weighs fish. A fish of that length could easily have been 7 to 8 lbs if she was fat like a still water trout. I’m sure she was a lot heavier before the winter spawning. She was comfortably my biggest river trout I had caught excluding those I caught in New Zealand. It will be a while I’m sure before I beat that fish. I will probably never beat that fish for the pleasure it gave me. To explore a piece of water that’s possibly unfished by another fly fisherman, is special. To find a Brown trout of that size in a very remote river is extra special. To achieve all of the above while covering the longest distance I had ever covered in a day, made it undoubtedly my best day ever in the great outdoors. I have named my achievment that day a “Trout Marathon”. The definition of a Trout Marathon is to catch a Rainbow and a Brown Trout on the same day and cover a distance of at least 42 km. I didn’t have a GPS to prove it but after measuring my route on Google earth, I reckon I can claim it

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Basuthu Gold

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Managed this one pic before she flapped free

Any fishermen out there who want to know where this special place is, don’t bother asking. I won’t tell you. I have told you enough already, these places are special and you need to find them yourself. Create your own adventure, there are good fish in all these rivers. I promise you that the reward will be that much greater when you find a place which you can call your secret spot that you discovered. Get out there and explore!

“JFDI !”
Just F#$%*ng do it!

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