© Wolf Avni AUGUST 25, 2004
A common question asked by occasional trout fishers is, simply “When is the best time to go fishing?” If I had R10 for every occasion that this question has been put to me over a lifetime, I doubt that I would still be sitting, scratching at a typewriter keyboard. Better still, throw a R10 note my way for every answer that I have heard offered, and I would be out of here like a shot, long-gone - off throwing a line in Tierra del Fuego deep in the desolation of Patagonia, or perhaps in British Columbia, or somewhere in New Zealand’s South Island hinterland.
It is not that the question is unreasonable. The frenetic pace of contemporary life, and the crowded calenders that come with flourishing careers, place an exact premium upon the value of an average urban angler’s infrequent leisure time. The carefree idylls of youth - so taken for granted when we were young - require serious planning as we become ever more consumed by the demands upon our time of the incessant tolls of keeping a family fed, fit and properly insured, of car repayments, mortgages, taxes and the ongoing pleasures of servicing our school-going children while we socialise them into becoming the next generation of obedient consumers. . .
So, if we - brave souls who must take our fishing in stolen pauses between the demands of that other, real life - look for an inside track, who would blame us? After all, no self-respecting fisher-person would wish to spend their precious annual leave blown off the water by the blast of a late winter’s gale, or perspiring uncomfortably in a February heat-wave, close to melt-point, with not a cloud in the sky and with the trout skulking sullenly beyond the canniest wiles of any angler.
What then, is the best time to go trout fishing? Sixteen years ago, when first we moved to the southern Drakensberg, we gave the conventional answer to the conventional enquiry, with little hesitation. “Best time? Spring and autumn,” we told our clients. Convention assures us that trouts are most co-operative in narrow windows, roughly synchronous with early autumn and late springtime. In the case of the KZN Midlands and the Ukhalhama Drakensberg at least, this would translate into April/May and September/October, respectively. It is then that their sensitive metabolisms, fashioned in the brittle waters of northern hemisphere glaciation, should be least stressed and at their most efficient. But no authentic angling experience comes with a guarantee. Perhaps that is why we call it ‘fishing’ instead of, say, ‘shopping’!
Being cold blooded, the trout’s metabolism, feeding and general behaviour are tied to the vagaries of ambient water temperature, which in turn is inextricably linked to the broader weather patterns which sweep over us in complex overlaid cycles. The El Ninõ/La Ninà phenomenon is but one of many influences upon our climate . The local farmers, some of whom can phlegmatically claim that their families have held unbroken occupation of the same farms for three, or even four generations, may be heard to chuckle that the only people who can truly predict the weather up here, are either fools or strangers. Their pragmatism is unassailable, for it is a fact that our erratic boom-or-bust African climate does not always respond to the glib pronouncements and projections of meteorologists.
As long as we have been here, we have maintained meticulous records of every angler and every fish.
Sixteen years of uninterrupted fishery record provide a bank of empirical data that is hard to argue with,
and it makes a mockery of convention. In all those years that we have been here, April has been the best month exactly four times(25%). It has also been the worst month precisely four times (25%). At least half the time, it has performed no better or worse than the months on either side. Similarly, the rivers may fish marvellously in late September and October - provided that there has been enough rain to put some water back into skeletal river courses, leached down to remnants by a combination of rainless winters and thirsty irrigation pumps. It goes further. Those same records reveal that in sixteen years, three trout of over 5kgs have been caught here by visiting anglers. Not one of those special, once-in-a-lifetime catches have been caught within that ’best-time’ window of conventional wisdom. To the contrary, they have fallen to anglers who persevered in spite of the ill-omens of conventional wisdom. One, a magnificent brown hen-fish of just about 5kgs, fell to eleven year old Barry Partridge, trout fishing - for the first time in his life - on a hot, late - December afternoon, at around 2:00pm. There was not a cloud in the sky and the sun had baked us cruelly for weeks. We were deep in a drought and the mercury confirmed that air temperatures were in the high 30's. The water was distinctly tepid, about 22-23 C, entirely unsuitable for trout and all the real trout anglers were not about to waste their time flailing away on the water. Everyone who knew just how bad conditions were, was about as far away from the water as a fly-boy can get. Poor young Barry! Together with his grandfather, he fished solidly for three days, from sunup to sunset, with not a touch - except for that one fish!
The Underberg/Himeville Trout Fishing club (UHTFC) boasts fishery records that stretch back all the way to 1954, the same year, incidentally, that as a wide-eyed four year old, I caught my first ever fish. The stories they too, tell, reveal the same fickleness.
Despair not! Decades of monastic immersion in the study of trout biology and ecology, together with a lifetime of practical experience, finally qualify me to give the definitive answer to this most pressing of questions; My research proves beyond question that most trout are caught when your fly is in the water!