Liesbeek Ghosts


Andrew McFall

Maybe fishing the Liesbeek River was never a good idea in the first place. Especially in the vain hope that it still held a resident population of trout. I first encountered the Liesbeek via Bob Crass's description of it in his book Trout in South Africa, and was captivated by the idea of a trout stream running through the suburbs of a major city. My own formative fishing experiences were on tiny suburban streams much as the Liesbeek was described; and besides, I have always preferred fishing small streams over fat torrents. They just seem more intimate.

So one day I found myself living in Cape Town, just a long stone's throw away from the Liesbeek. The Liesbeek in Rosebank and Rondebosch would be difficult to confuse with a trout stream. Thanks to the efforts of the local council in the name of flood containment, the Liesbeek is simply a flow of water over a concrete bed hemmed in by concrete walls. But this didn't discourage me from stopping by it every day and peering intently into the shallow water in the hopes of spying a renegade trout. I reckoned trout here would be tough. To survive water pollution, fertiliser runoff, detergents and gunk off the street, as well as fluctuating seasonal water levels and temperatures, they would have to be hardcore. Feral trout, growing up in the mean currents of Cape Town, trying not to be washed down to the mean sharp-toothed catfish in the weir at Hartleyvale. But I never spotted any trout, feral or otherwise.

Upon questioning, some local anglers recalled that a few years previously the Cape Piscatorial Society released a few trout in a symbolic restocking of the river. It was a one-off, never to be repeated offer, and the fish were caught after a short while. What I hoped (and still hope, despite the evidence) was that a few of these fish had evaded the fishermen and pollution and sweltering summers to establish a small population. They obviously wouldn't be found anywhere near Rosebank, but maybe farther upstream, where the Liesbeek is still a real river. . . . There's nothing like blind faith to lead one on.

I followed the canal path through the backyards of Rondebosch and Newlands, past razor-wired walls and barking dogs the full S.A. suburban experience. We're caging ourselves in, just like we did to the Liesbeek, and by looking for a wild part of the Liesbeek I get to escape the imprisonment for a while. But there's always something there to remind me.

The canal was being backed up by some small weirs, which had accumulated small sandbanks and scattered rocks and looked as good a place as any to tackle up. As I was doing this, threading line through guides in less haste than is normal, an elderly lady stopped to chat, wondering aloud if any trout could survive in this water. We spoke for a while, until she said, "You're sure to enjoy the fishing, it's certainly a lovely day for it," and headed off down the path. Ja, it really was a lovely day, and the fishing was going to be good. It was only the catching that was in doubt.

I stepped into the river to amble and fish my way upstream, casting to any piece of water I felt could hold trout. With the water averaging six inches in depth, and adequate cover well scattered, such pieces of water were scarce. Still, I had hope, because previously I had caught trout in streams no more than twelve inches wide and six inches deep, but they'd always had good cover.

Eventually the canal came more and more to resemble a natural stream. Little rapids began to appear, interspersed with riffles and some nice deep slots and undercut banks. My casting became more directed; more purposeful as my hopes of real fish rose. I should really have been fishing a bushy dry fly, in the best Cape stream tradition that I had read so much about. Instead, I had on a sparsely-spiked black Woolly Worm with a chartreuse butt, trailing behind an orange wool strike indicator. Yellowfish techniques and habits die hard (like Bruce Willis), it seems. But I was happier with this setup; its versatility for different fish species broadened my chances of catching at least something, if anything was around.

A little further along and the stream acquired a lot more character, a "bounce" that was missing from its lower reaches. The little Woolly Worm was drifting and being swirled about by turbulent currents and back-eddies, sometimes strong enough to submerge the indicator and surprise me into striking. The few times there was resistance at the end of the line was when the fly got caught on rocks or twigs, not in a fish's mouth. I still hadn't had a single take identifiable as being that from a fish. Nor had I seen any movement in the water to suggest a fish's presence.

Alongside the Josephine Mill and S.A. Breweries, the nature of the water changed yet again. As the stream approached Main Road in Newlands, the volume of street debris in the river-bed and along the banks increased noticeably. In places the banks were composed almost entirely of broken glass bottles, beer bottles mostly, glued together with a bit of soil and tied with rambling creepers. I had to be more careful with the wading here. I was wearing only a thin pair of flip-flops and I didn't want to walk home with a foot gushing blood. I also had to be more mindful of my back-casts. Joggers and nature strollers joined the streamside trees as potential line-entangling hazards, except trees don't get vengeful and attack you when you mistakenly hook them.

Despite all the rubbish, this section was most pleasant to fish, with some water-weed showing up now and then in the smooth, curling currents. A pair of black duck in a deeper pool reminded me of my favourite small stream, the Palmiet in Westville. Wild ducks seem so incongruous in suburban settings, and are always twitchy, ready to sprint off upstream at the first sight of humans or dogs. But these two just paddled about for a bit before disappearing around a downstream bend.

I crossed Main Road underneath the cars. With a rod in the pedestrian subway I got even weirder glances from the passers by and motorists than I'd had from the afternoon nature strollers. I suppose I was more out of place there, standing on Main Road in Cape Town with a fully made-up fly rod and looking sweaty and bedraggled. Ha! Not one of them knew I'd had a great day's trout fishing right in their backyards. They wouldn't have believe me if I told them, so I turned and walked back home.

Upstream, in Claremont, access to the river becomes tenuous as houses and gardens extend right down to the river and the path is blocked by more walls and razor-wire. But beyond that, towards the river's source in Kirstenbosch, the surrounds open up and become more wild again. Up there, closer to the mountain, before the river gets too warm from the summer sun and too full of garbage, there must be trout. The next time I want to fish the Liesbeek I think I'll try that stretch. The walk home will be longer, but I don't mind being led that far astray. Not by spotted fish finning in secret pools. Or even by their ghosts.

The Fishing Journal, Volume 4; Issue 4, Aug/Sept 2001