FOSAF NEWS - Dirt Road Wild Trout Festival, 2020 in the Rhodes district by Dave Walker

Many present-day folk may not have heard of or even come across an action/adventure television series that ran from 1983 to 1987 known as “The A-team”, starring, amongst others, the late George Peppard as Col. John “Hannibal” Smith. Occasional immersion into their fantasy world in the absence of anything worthwhile to watch on the SABC broadcasts of those days was the order of the day.. Apart from the light-hearted, fleeting entertainment, the only thing that I recall was Hannibal’s bottom-liner of ”I love it when a plan comes together”.

This year’s event was much the same. Those of you who have organised any events will appreciate the amount of time and occasional frustration that goes into all of the pre-event stuff. Planning the programme, getting the word out there, responding to enquiries, reminding folk to submit their entry forms, reminding some of them to fork out and much more is one part of the picture. Bearing previous negative experiences in mind and at the behest of the regular participants, a single gathering and dining point was preferred, in particular Walkerbouts Inn was the venue of choice. Being based in a remote village, menu planning and execution is but a fraction of the logistical requirements that go into the festival - but I digress…!

Sunday, the 15th March, heralded the arrival of a handful of participants who had been able to arrange for their absence elsewhere for a full week. They duly made use of their time appropriately and booked beats for the days before the main event. Guides that had also arrived on Sunday occupied their time with stream assessment to better equip themselves for the task ahead. A few more folk trickled in on Monday from a fishing venue near Rhodes where they had spent the week-end. Tuesday saw the arrival of the bulk of the participants and registration commenced with the issuing of goodie bags. The evening dinner started with a word of welcome, event housekeeping and the introduction of the guides.

After breakfast on Wednesday morning, the annual “Tackle Fair” at the River Park on the banks of the Bell River, hosted by local resident, Sean de Wet on Wednesday morning got underway heralded by perfect weather. The fair creates an opportunity for participants to “get the feel” of alternative tackle to their own. The fair included sage advice from the “Master caster” Mark Yelland who was assisted by several of the event guides. The main purpose of the festival was, of course, to go flyfishing so soon enough, folk took off into the far distance to indulge their passion on the rivers and streams. In fact, having had almost 400mm from December when our summer rains started until the festival, the rivers and streams were in prime condition, possibly somewhat “fat”, as opposed to the opposite epithet being “thin” water!

And so the beat went on with perfect weather, the occasional cloud providing a bit of passing shade with a slight breeze to cool the brow. Then Friday afternoon arrived and, as it happens when weak fronts skirt the escarpment, a south-easterly had dumped a trademark bank of clouds along the escarpment. Associated with this weather phenomenon is a cold wind. Being thoroughly chilly, it blew many enthusiasts off the water. Local legend has it that this is a wind that blows no good for fishing, in particular, fish largely go “off the bite”. Inevitably, there were occasional willing takers of the fly but the noticeable decline on the day is clearly illustrated in the Fish/day graph below adding credence to local lore.

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Fish/day

From personal experiences it is indeed scary to be out there in the mountains on horseback and in comes the cloud. Within minutes one can hardly see beyond your trusty steed’s head and trust the steed, one must for they know the route far better than the riders! One forgets to tie a warm jacket to the saddle only once. Thereafter, standard operating procedure is to roll the jacket up and tie it to the pommel, just in case! But I digress yet again!

As is generally the case, the front passed by leaving yet another beaut of a day ahead. The troops duly moved out yet again to embark on the battles of the final day on the water. Being the last outing of the 2020 festival, participants were hard-pressed to leave the battlegrounds but darkness and fly fishing in the mountains are not good companions so sanity prevailed!

The evenings during the festival were, as always, festive occasions filled with many “war stories” with participants recounting events of the day. For one participant, Andrew Mather, the first day on the water was arguably the most memorable as far as fish numbers and size are concerned. Mather coaxed no less than twenty fish to his net, three of which were 406, 431 and 457mm in length!           Mather’s other days were many more and many less but the sizes on day one proved that drought is not necessarily the death knell of fish and of trout in particular.

At this juncture, having mentioned sizes of fish recorded, I must hasten to add that the annual event is not a competition. It is a festival, i.e. a gathering of like-minded people in celebration of fly fishing and celebrate participants did with aplomb. I should also mention that firstly, despite the misperception that it is a closed “by invitation only” festival and secondly, that it is only for “experts”, nothing could be further from reality. On point a), anybody, irrespective of age, gender, colour or creed with an interest in fly fishing is welcome to complete their entry form and participate. As far as the second point is concerned, to quote the inimitable Peter Brigg, “There is no such thing in fly fishing as an expert. One learns something new every day”.

Although in the minority, a number of fly fishing ladies have participated down the years as have several school-going enthusiasts. In fact, several of these lads are no longer scholars but in the next phase of their lives where they can go fishing without parental approval and return to the area on a regular basis. One of this year’s participants was the result of the then-looming lock-down and school closure, Greg Miller even managed to outdo his father Craig once or twice! Sorely missed was Martin le Roux’s delightful daughter Daryl whose schooling commitments took priority this year. So for those of you who have waded through this account of the 2020 event, rest assured that all you need is a passion for fly fishing!

The size range graph below augurs well for the future as far as bigger fish are concerned especially for the coming summer for the simple reason that the majority of the festival catch recorded was in the 151-250mm size range. Survivors will be well into the next range or possibly even beyond it by then.

For the statistically inclined, a total of 1053 trout were recorded however, had  in the vicinity of 25% of the rods also recorded their catches, the extrapolated figure would have been 1464 trout. Unfortunately, there are always a minority who, despite many appeals, don’t and didn’t submit their returns for whatever the reason thereby confounding the event catch records and shame on them too!

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Size range

It would be most remiss not to make mention of all of the kind folk that put their shoulders to the wheel, in particular, a very hearty word of thanks to our main sponsor, Dirt Road Traders who provided participants with fine fleeces and arranged for the printing of the 2020 edition of the Wild Trout Association fly fishing guide book. It is now on sale and, incidentally, is the most comprehensive, fly fishing guide book on the WTA waters in the Highlands of the Eastern Cape. In superb full colour, it is 195 pages of everything you would like to ask about fly fishing in the Highlands and much more. For a copy, contact our secretary, Margie Murray, info@wildtrout.co.za.

For the auction, Frontier Fly fishing of Johannesburg were kind enough to provide a Sage blank to rod builder, Derek Smith who crafted a fine 4 wt rod that, together with a Scientific Anglers flyline commanded the highest price of the evening, sold @ R9500. Frontier also provided Scientific Anglers Amlitude fly lines plus peaked caps, tapered leaders and spools of tippet materials for the goodie bags. Tim Martin provided two bamboo frame nets and Andrew Savides, a “Japanese” net and the former also provided us with a “Bamboozle” rod tube, a thoroughly unique product. Kingfisher of Pietermaritzburg added a Daiwa outfit to the list of angling paraphernalia while Jan Korrubel of Kingfisher offered a day’s guiding in the Midlands. Peter Brigg and Ed Herbst added a signed copy of their fine publication “S A Fishing Flies” to the fare and dwelling on publications, Peter Brigg added no less than 4 copies of his publication “Call of the stream” to the mix .In keeping with current events, Jan Korrubel concocted a “Corona virus kit” complete with various accoutrements! Marcel Terblanche, artist, fly-tier and fly fishing guide from the Western Cape gave us one of his artworks, notably depicting a scene in the area. Tony Kietzman also offered a day’s guiding in the Highlands. Jackie Lamer, who had previously guided during our festivals donated a 15 year work of dedication in creating an image of a trout by way of a multitude of minute circles each coloured in at a later stage. Ken Quick conjured up a unique fly-box container that had yet another fly-box in it filled with a wealth of aptly named flies that Quick had tied for the festival.

Dirt Road Trader’s buffs added grist to the mill and Shaun Futter’s wild olive fly-box conjured up great memories for me. While at school, my dad taught me how to do wood-turning on his lathe. He also had a stash of wild olive that I used to turn candle sticks, wooden bowls and in particualr spinning tops. The fad didn’t last too long as I was soon banned from “top season” at school on account of my wild olive tops were the death knell for many a competitor’s commercial top! A pair of Polaroid-type dark glasses sponsored by Neil White of Doran’s Pharmacy in Aliwal North went quickly while Stoepsitfees blankets gave rise to concentrated bidding raising that raised R1900 for the Rhodes Animal Care Project (RAC). Last but by no means least, Jay Smit of Jayvice fame added a J-bobbin and a pair of J-pliers to the fare on offer that was soon snapped up. This reminds me of some years ago when the one and only Ed Herbst sponsored a Jayvice for the WTA that was to be kept at Walkerbouts in case tiers wanted to practise their art but didn’t have their vice with them. It has gravitated to the logical place in the function room at Walkerbouts where participants dine and tiers gather in a specially equipped corner where they demonstrate their versions of their favourite flies. By the end of the proceedings, over R28000 was raised for the WTA kitty.

Down the years, the auction has generated a significant amount that has been and is used for various worthy causes. On a national level, we have supported the FOSAF war chest in the battle against the Department of Environmental Affairs dubious and flawed anti-trout policy. Locally, other charitable causes such as the Rhodes Animal Care and Rose Garden projects are supported as well as contributions to the Rhodes Tourist and Information Centre and the River Park where the Tackle Fair is held.

 

Dinner on the last evening was an opportune moment to acknowledge a number of people and entities. Accordingly, the WTA would like to record our thanks to all of the sponsors ranging from Dirt Road Traders to Mukheibir’s Sentra in Barkly East who provided the goodie bag groceries and to all of the auction item contributors. In addition, thanks to all of the participants whose participation fee not only covers the cost of the event but contributes to the costs of running the Association. It is also appropriate to thank all of the Wild Trout Association riparian members without whose co-operation, there would be no WTA!

Prior to departure after the event, several of the “old hands” expressed the view that the 2020 event was the best that they had been to. I have been pondering on this observation ever since and am still somewhat perplexed. Was this a subjective view based on personal experiences or bias or what was the difference between 2020 and previous festivals, pondered I? 

So, with a measure of objectivity, I asked myself what are major elements are that comprise a successful fly fishing festival? Other than peripherals such as accommodation, my answer is three-fold. The major elements are; success on the water, catering and the prevailing weather. Minor elements such contents of the goodie bags, auction items, range of liquid refreshment, beat allocation are important, add to the picture but are not fundamental. Then throw in the human element. Interestingly enough, less than 20% of the 2020 participants were first-timers. The rest of the crew were all well-acquainted with each other including the guides who added an additional element to the mix. With relatively few new faces, this festival seems to have evolved into an un-constituted old boys club of a piscatorial bent!

As we all know, weather is beyond us mere mortals’ control but this year, it could not have been better. In fact had we ordered it, it would most likely have got lost or probably been stolen en route! As far as fishing success goes, an average of 10,5 fish per day for each completed catch return is not to be sneezed at! Lastly, full tummies with no complaints regarding breakfasts, lunch-packs and dinners leaves me with a single conclusion, the major elements were all top drawer.

The three major elements accounted for, my version of the festival has come full circle, the end being the beginning - ”I love it when a plan comes together”.

Planning for the 2021 Dirt Road Wild Trout Festival is already underway so don’t be shy, join us next year and dilute the “old toppies’” numbers!

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Matt & Andy Findlay of Dirt Road Traders, the main sponsor.

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Road block under the willow at Rhodes. Where anglers meet after a day’s fishing.

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Warren ‘Woz’ Koch on the Bokspruit.

 

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