Sterkfontein Dam Yellowfish and an Epic New Year

Sterkfontein Dam Yellowfish and an Epic New Year

Sterkfontein remains one the premier fly fishing locations in South Africa, growing in popularity annually with no end in sight. Not only does it provide some of the best sight fishing in the world, but it also offers fishing for a purely South African species in a venue of unmatched beauty. But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Sterkfontein is also known for it’s tough conditions and unpredictable weather. Sunshine can turn to lightning (and pouring rain) in an instant, turning a once tranquil dam into a fierce, ocean rival, sinking boats caught unexpectedly in the storm.

This is where we chose to camp for a week…

Sunset over Sterkfontein Dam, December 2015

Sharon, Emma and I arrived at Sterkfontein on Monday morning where we met up with Nick, Tarryn and Mila, who’d arrive a day or two earlier. We quickly added our camp to theirs and, by 9am, Nick and I had launched the boat for our first session.

We were hoping to fish Heron’s Valley but were beaten there by another boat. As such we popped into Sedan where we immediately found fish in the shallows. I got into a fish on my third or fourth cast, but was promptly snapped off by an eager smallmouth yellowfish. It seemed like a great start, but proved to be the last fish that would touch a fly. Half an hour later, and still fishless, we called it quits and decided to head for the fabled Elizabeths.

It was a long run but well worth it for the sheer beauty of the location. The water was a little murky due to a dirty inlet, but there were a lot of big yellows around, cruising in the deeps. Sadly they too were less than interested in anything for had to offer, from tasty dries to buggy nymphs. Being a fisherman the grass appeared to be greener on the other side so I took a long walk up to the inlet. The feeder stream was chocolate brown but amazingly full of fish. I spent some time enjoying their company (read – trying to catch them but failing) before crossing and walking through adderville to the far bank.

Immediately I came across another large group of yellows cruising the shallows. But again, my fly was all but laughed at. We tried a few more locations that session, all to no avail, and were eventually forced to return with our tails between our legs.

The view at Elizabeth’s

That evening I was introduced to the death showers of Sterkfontein. For some reason the showers in the campsite have just a single tap, which appears to be the hot tap. I also had the added benefit of having our two daughters with me and went about splashing them from a vast distance to try and get them remotely clean while leaving some skin in place. Nick meanwhile came up with a (semi) useful strategy of aiming the shower into the sky and then lying on the floor. This gave the water at least some time to cool in the chilly mountain air. Good thinking Batman!

Having been steam cleaned we sat down to our first meal of the trip, a fantastic pasta and mince dish prepared by Tarryn. All in all a good first day, bar the third degree burns and immediate lack of fish.

The next morning we relaxed around camp with coffee and rusks while waiting for the sun to climb high enough into the sky for us to sight fish. We eventually launched at 8:30am and headed for Eskol and Quarry Bays. What a turn of events from the previous day, and soon Nick and I were both landing yellows with relative ease. By the time we decided to move locations I think we’d landed in the region of 10 fish between us. Why we decided to move, I’m not 100% sure. The fishing had definitely slowed, and the area needed a rest, but in truth it was probably getting a little too easy and we needed a new challenge (and some bigger fish).

We headed for Dog’s Head Bay where we again found fish. They were however a little more reluctant to take a dry, which lead me to putting on a nymph. I threw out a sloppy first cast as my line had tangled with the grass while changing flies. Amazingly, despite landing behind a fish with a massive splash, a fish immediately turned and grabbed the nymph with vigor, before heading for the horizon. Line screamed off my reel as Nick and I laughed at what had just gone down. After a long battled I managed to net the fish, a lovely smallmouth yellowfish of between 2.5 and 3kg.

My best smallmouth yellowfish of the trip

Sadly we were then forced to return to camp to assist Donald with some motor repairs. The part arrived at 12:30pm and by 1pm we had the ski boat on the water and were on the wake-board. It was great to see Nick finally make it out of the water, rather than being dragged under to the great depths where it apparently gets “very cold”. My skills had meanwhile diminished over the 10 years since I last wake-boarded. I managed some decent turns before going for a “large” air which saw stick a perfect a landing (on my face).

With a storm fast approaching we headed back to camp where we relaxed with our families as the heavy weather passed overhead (in true Sterkfontein fashion). Thankfully it was over relatively quickly so Nick and I decided to head out for a quick afternoon session.

The wind had picked up, and time was not on our side, so we opted for a nearby bay. Thankfully, despite not going far from camp, we quickly found fish and were soon battling feisty yellowfish. By the time the sun dipped for the horizon we’d landed a handful of fish each and were smiling from ear to ear thanks to our change of fortunes.

Back at camp the girls (cleverly) opted to bath (as they had cold taps) while Nick and I once again stupidly braved the showers. The heated water quickly pointed out that we had both burnt our scalps (due to us wearing visors rather than peaks). We left the shower swearing we would find caps for the remained of the trip.

Being dads we took our newly washed girls to the playground for some family time. It was here that we found the world’s largest dandelion, and then allowed our daughters to risk tetanus by playing on rusted seesaws and swings. Definitely contenders for fathers of the year.

Mila and Emma playing at Sterkfontein

That evening Sharon and I took ownership of dinner and braaied lamb chops with a butternut, feta and couscous salad, and a large loaf of garlic bread. Nick and I meanwhile managed more than our usual quarter bottle of rum. What can I say, it had been a great day and a celebration was in order.

Sadly we woke up to pouring rain the next morning, with the weather sites telling us this was to be the status quo for the entire day. We therefore made the call to head into Clarens for the day where the ladies could do some shopping while us men enjoyed a cold beer at the brewery (yes, at 10am, don’t judge us). Prior to hitting Clarens we also made a quick stop in Harrismith where we stocked up on the good Doctor’s beetles – a much needed (and definitely my favourite) fly for Sterkfontein Dam.

The drive through Golden Gate was as beautiful as always prompting me to wonder why we’ve never stayed there. When we arrived at Claren’s we had a quick stop at the fly shop which was shut, before heading to The Lazy Gecko Cafe for breakfast. It’s not often that I say this about a restaurant, but I was truly amazed. The service was great and the food was even better; from the traditional breakfasts to the pancakes, and even the milkshakes and coffee.

With our stomachs filled we were put onto daughter duty to make up for all the time we’d spent fishing. We bee-lined for the Claren’s Brewery, stopping at any shop that sold hats on route. As I mentioned earlier, both Nick and I had only packed visors which had left our scalps somewhat tender. Our mission for the day, other than to drink beer, was therefore to find caps. Thankfully we both succeeded in our goal and were soon tasting the local craft beer while our daughters played merrily.

Breakfast at the Lazy Gecko Cafe, Clarens

An hour or so later we were rejoined by our wives, just as we received a phone call to tell us that the weather had cleared at Sterkfontein and they were experiencing the best weather they’d had in a week. Nick and I tried to speed up our wives, sadly to no avail, as we were dragged back to a few shops before heading back to Sterkfontein.

Our timing couldn’t have been worse as we arrived just as the afternoon storm was approaching. We mulled over whether or not we should launch the boat, and eventually decided against it. Not to be outdone however we climbed into the Fortuner and drove the banks looking for good fishing spots. The ground was wet and we had a few perilous moments where the car would slide sideways down the hill, stopping perilously close to drops into the dam.

In amidst the driving fun we did find a few spots from which Nick managed to land a few fish under a stunning rainbow. I was sadly less lucky and ended up with a large zero on the score sheet for the day.

We arrived back at camp just before 7pm, ready to kick off the New Year celebrations. These were to be had with friends of ours who were staying in the chalets, and who had clearly already kicked off the festivities by the time we arrived. Their home made “ball-breaker” rum was flowing, as was their home made mango rum. We braaied finger foods until 11pm while catching up on the drinking. Fireworks and flares were let rip over the dam, and we even had the pleasure of watching a rocket go off on the ground, much to it’s launchers dismay as they scattered for the safety of their chalet.

Dancing commenced once sufficiently lubricated, at around 11:30pm. This included neon glow sticks which were promptly cracked open and smeared all over Nick’s face. Clearly this was a bad idea as shards of glass were left embedded in his already tender skin. To sum it up, the party was rocking.

We saw in the new years with a bang, and then headed back to our tents for an ABF before climbing into bed.

The next morning we cooked up some bacon and eggs before getting back to some serious fishing. Once again we opted to try some new water and headed for Sandy Bay which had been recommended by a fly fisherman we’d run into. The area was full of fish although a large number of them were spawning in the shallows. Generally its not a good idea to target spawning fish, especially if wading in the shallows, so we fished the area cautiously. Thankfully there were a large number of feeding fish cruising behind the spawning fish which gave us options.

Nick and I both picked up fish but the wind soon picked up and was pushing hard on shore. This both muddied the water and made spotting fish difficult. We there headed to the opposite bank in search of better water. Thankfully we found some after a few stops in a trusty old honey hole. We picked up a few more fish each before calling it a morning and heading back to camp.

Nick with a smallmouth yellowfish at Sterkfontein Dam

We got our wives and daughters to meet us on the slipway and ducked into one of the calmer bays for a relaxing swim and picnic. The girls absolutely loved it, especially the discovery of a large crab. Our wives meanwhile told us about their morning on the ski boat and their time spent tubing behind it.

Back at camp we decided to give the afternoon session a skip. This was in return for a full day’s fishing the following day. Nick and Tarryn braaied some fantastic steak and we all climbed into be relatively early to recover from the new year’s celebrations.

The next morning Nick and I munched down a quick breakfast, packed the coffee pot and left over steak rolls, and headed out for a long day’s fishing. Perhaps we were pushing our luck asking for a full day, and as such were cursed, but we lost more fish that day than we have in our entire fly fishing careers. Fish after fish snapped us off as we were left trying every trick in the book, from thicker tippet to softer strikes.

We fished some new locations that morning and, despite losing a lot of fish, had an amazing time exploring the dam.

Showing off a Sterkfontein yellowfish

When coffee time finally arrived I had a little more excitement than I’d bargained for. Somehow I managed to ignite the camping stove in the boat while preparing our brew. With a flaming ball of gas on the deck I was left with no option other than to spring into action. Not unlike John Rambo I picked up the blazing grenade and lobbed it full force into the middle of the dam. This left Nick pissing himself as he asked why I hadn’t just turned it off. Thankfully we managed to recover it and were soon enjoying a cup of Kenya’s finest.

Landing the boat for the last time was an exciting affair as we dodged a lazy adder on the side of the slipway.

The next morning we packed up camp lazily, ready for the 3 hour drive home. Trying to squeeze in some last minute fun we stopped off next to the dam (on our way out) and setup a gazebo for a final swim. The kids had a great time splashing around in the water while a nearby fisherman landed a beautiful carp on bait. What an amazing trip it had been, to such an incredible venue. If you ever get a chance to fish Sterkfontein, take it!