On the 30th of December I packed up the family, camping gear, and boat for a 5 day getaway to one of the Free State’s best kept secrets – Sterkfontein Dam.
It was an early 4am start to get to the dam and set up camp before searching for some gold. Thankfully the drive was uneventful and, after stopping for the mandatory cup of coffee, we shot through to Harrismith via the N3 as reports were coming in that the R74 was impassable.
After topping up the tank of the Terios (to avoid being raped a further 50c/litre due to a petrol price increase the following day) we headed for the dreaded R74. The road now has an unmanned stop/go and is basically a “free for all”. That said it’s completely doable in a sedan as long as common sense prevails.
We arrived at the dam just before 9am and had camp setup by 10am. GAME ON! It was time to fish. I quickly setup my fly rods, selected my flies, and launched the boat. I was a little apprehensive as I was fishing alone on the third largest dam in South Africa. Nevertheless, in true Baha style, I opted to make an 8km run south.
The boat performed well at 1700m above sea level and I was quickly at the first honey hole. The last time we were at Sterkies was way back in 2010 and one quickly forgets how stunning the dam is after fishing our local dams.
I moored the boat on the bank, set anchor, and hiked up the hillside to get an aerial view of the water. Immediately I saw fish! Heart racing I snuck up behind some rocks on the cliff face to present my fly. But alas the fish were not interested. This caused some frustration as the fish would charge the fly only to turn away at the last second. Was I still visible, kitted out if full camo complete with shrub on my hat?
I then hiked back up the hillside to watch were the fish were and the paths they would swim. After 10 minutes I was confident enough to be able to stand in the water and fish “blindly”. Chest deep I presented my beetle to where the fish were cruising past. Almost instantly the beetle was smashed! But being the keen saltwater fly fisherman I am I raised the rod to set the hook as if it was a moonie, only to pull the fly out the fishes mouth – FAIL!
I continued fishing for the next hour or so but the fish were now playing games with me – simply bumping the fly or swirling just below it. In the meantime an afternoon storm was fast approaching so I opted to run home before being a statistic in 95 meters of water.
The next morning I was up at 4.30am, keen to dominate the yellows, with the wind already puffing quite hard in a southerly direction. Again I decided to fish down south of the dam and went back to the spot where I knew there were fish. Immediately on arrival I noticed my mistake! The sun was too low and the bay I wanted to fish was in the shadows. That said I knew the fish were there and decided to fish the way I had the day before, chest deep in the clear water. This sadly proved futile as I could see no action. Then, about an hour later, the wind picked up further forcing me home for breakfast.
While relaxing and hoping for the wind to drop I consulted my map of potential venues to fish in the afternoon. The quarry ticked all the boxes so when the wind finally dropped I made my way across the dam to it’s most north west point.
As I arrived there the wind dropped completely, a win I thought. Again taking the high ground I spotted fish straight away. The problem with the quarry is that there are very few places to hide, so sneaking up on the fish proves rather tricky. I finally found a set of rocks to hide behind and again presented a fly, only to be denied – AGAIN. This was now becoming rather frustrating and, to make matters worse, I could hear God moving furniture. Clearly the calm before the storm. 30 minutes later I was back in the boat with my tail between my legs outrunning a Sterkies storm!
We welcomed the new year in with a few rums and tucked in at around 01:30am, thinking of what I was doing wrong, and why these fish weren’t eating?
Wednesday saw a slightly later start due to obvious reasons. I launched the boat and headed to the west end of the dam to a spot we had fished before. Again I hiked up the cliff to watch the path of the fish and work out a strategy. Now this is where a fishing buddy comes into it. I stepped on a loose rock and lost my footing, only to tumble down the hill side. After a few bumps and scratches I was back at the top thinking, “Shit! that was close”. It’s not ideal to fish alone but hey, what else can you do. I sat watching the fish cruise the drop off for a few minutes before presenting a fly. After being denied numerous times I got the shits and moved off a few 100 meters (or so).
I gave my fishing buddy Warren, who was stuck at work, a quick call and we chatted strategy. After a few words of wisdom I changed me strategy and was ready to go again, freshly invigorated.
Hiding behind a shrub I cast my fly about 5 meters away from a school of yellows. Instantly two fish left the pack, the first one charged the hopper and then turned away, while the second one smashed the nymph! All hell broke loose as line peeled off my reel as the fish tried in vain to get unhooked. A five minute battle resulted in a victory for me as I landed my first yellow of the new year!
By now I had spooked any fish in that area and therefore moved on again. I found a weed bed where the fish were actively feeding. On my first cast a yellow smashed the fly and gave a great first run, only to replace the adrenaline with that sick feeling of your line going slack – F@#K this 6X tippet!! After that run I called it a day and suckled on some golden nectar in the form of an ice cold beer.
The next day saw me trying the Qwantani area, where I found an awesome little bay that I again fished chest deep in the drink. The fish we rising all around and I was spoiled for choice. Fishing the tried and tested method I was into a fish on my second cast of the day, not the biggest yellow, but a fish none the less.
At this point it’s worth noting the sheer number of fish that swim right past you when you’re in the water. A few minutes later the line went tight again. This time however it was not an explosive run. Strange, I thought. But once I landed the fish I quickly realised it was not a yellow, but a Natal mudfish – new species!
I continued fishing the bay for about an hour before having a snack on the banks. By then the fish had settled so I decided to walk about a km looking for a spot. I found a great looking drop off with a few rocks to hide behind, and once again on my second cast – BOOM! Line peeled off my reel again only to have my 6X tippet fail – fish Off! After retying my dropper I started walking back towards the boat fishing along the way. The fish seemed to have disappeared so, after having been out for most of the holiday, I dedicated my afternoon to my wife and daughter.
Friday I dubbed as my last fishing day before breaking camp and heading home. I fished right opposite the camp and thankfully found a great point where fish were cruising. After checking the grass for adders I settled in. Feeling confident I presented only a dry fly and then the usual shenanigans of the yellows began – mock charging, sniffing, and swirling. Finally a fish charged up to the fly and gently sipped it in. It probably took a few seconds to register that it was caught, almost to the point where I wanted to strike. And then, out of the blue, BOOOM! Fish on! This was by far the strongest run of the week and my reel failed halfway through the run, so I ended up palming it to gain control. After yet another epic battle I landed the fish, took a few photos, and released it to fight another day.
Again after spooking the fish I moved off to a new spot only to be smashed off a number of times. All in all it was a fantastic trip, which would have been made better if I’d had my fishing buddy with me. The weather really did play ball and I was torn between stalking gold or doing water sports on what I think is one of South Africa’s best bodies of water!
The accommodation at Sterkfontein is very reasonable albeit slightly run down. Pack your own cups and bedding if you’re using the chalets. The campsites are fantastic – beautiful lawns, lots of shade, and a huge ablution block. That said we were there over the festive period and I was 1 of only 6 campers.
A truly memorable trip and I can’t wait to get back there!