The Poetry of Fishing

By Karen Rutter

“I love fishing.  You put the line in the water and you don’t know what’s on the other end. Your imagination is under there.” That’s what acclaimed movie director Robert Altman had to say about fishing, and he’s not the only one to hold reverent, sometimes romantic, views on the subject. 

Fishing, it would seem, brings out the poetic side of people. But make no mistake; it also stirs a rugged outdoor spirit. What’s interesting is that while fishing is clearly a great bonding agent, bringing together like-minded individuals from around the globe, it can also be the most solitary of pursuits. Whether for the pot or ‘catch and release’, the relationship between fish and man is personal. Although it may be a tad one-sided, as Harold Blaisdell puts it in The Philosophical Fisherman: “All the romance of fishing exists in the mind of the angler and is in no way shared by the fish.”

Be that as it may, South Africans are spoilt for choice when it comes to places to dip their rods. With 3 000km of coastline and numerous rivers, lakes and dams, opportunities range from deep-sea game fishing in two different oceans to tranquil trout angling in mountain streams. It just depends on what appeals. Trout, bass, carp, tiger fish, kabeljou, stumpnose, roman, elf, skate, steenbras, panga, fransmadam, galjoen and swordfish—these are the targets. How they’re caught is all part of the zen process that is fishing …


“There is certainly something in angling that tends to produce a serenity of the mind” (Washington Irving)
It seems to be general agreement that there are three areas in South Africa known for exceptional fly-fishing: the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Mpumulanga province, and the Eastern Cape. It is in these mountainous areas, which feed beautiful and often quite remote mountain streams, that both brown and rainbow trout can be found (although not together). The delicate dance of the fly-fisher, casting light strokes across the water, is an especially balletic sport.

John Hunter, who runs The Village Angler in Dullstroom, Mpumalanga, is passionate about fly-fishing. He’s been doing it for 33 years, and now helps others to enjoy the sport, offering individual lessons as well as corporate team building exercises. “The Dullstroom area is perfect—in fact, it’s a lot like Scotland, just a bit warmer,” he reckons. John’s father took him fishing when he was very small, and that’s when he discovered a liking for it. “It’s all about being outdoors, in beautiful places. Most importantly, it’s about being conscious of conservation, so that future generations can enjoy the same sport.”
He also adds that he notices more and more women getting into the sport. “The rod is lighter, which helps. Both my wife and daughter fly-fish,” he says.

Deane Rossler, an agriconomist from KwaZulu-Natal, also values the outdoor factor when he fly-fishes. His favourite spot is in the Kamberg reserve in KZN, although he says his dream would be to try spots in New Zealand and Argentina. “I started fishing when I was 12 years old. I love being out in nature, listening to the birds and enjoying the solitude of it all,” he explains.
The South African trout season starts in September and finishes at the end of May. The best times for fly-fishing are in September and October, and then in April and May. However, many of the country’s dams and lakes have no closed season.

Deep Sea and Game Fishing

“If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles” (Doug Larson)
Both the east and west coasts off South Africa offer deep sea fishing, and if you don’t have your own boat you can always hire or charter one. Professional charter services with experienced skippers and crew are available for big game fishing. Off the east coast, the catch includes blue and black marlin and Dorado, while the west coast is known for its Cape salmon, yellow-fin tuna, yellowtail, snapper and snoek. Take note that permits are required for ocean fishing.

This is hardy fishing, with catches weighing up to 150 kilograms or more. Allan Hampshire, who runs Cape Charters out of Cape Town, says they offer two kinds of fishing charters, inshore (six nautical miles from Cape Town harbour) and deep-sea charters (50 nautical miles from Cape Town).  For tuna, they generally head out away from Cape Point.

“We target tuna, both long-fin and yellow-fin—and occasionally we see dorado and, very seldom, marlin,” he says. “Our charters are popular with both locals and tourists. The average deep-sea charter lasts for 8–10 hours, which is a long day on the water. We also offer the inshore fishing charter, for those not so keen to spend 10 hours at sea.” An added bonus is that your catch can be cooked by the Hildebrand Restaurant at the Waterfront, for free.

Game fishing certainly has its thrills—although Allan smiles at this. “People are scary, fish are magnificent,” he smiles. “Although we once had a Mako shark on the boat that took a bite out of the aft (back) seat.  That was scary. Fortunately we were able to get it back into the sea before any further damage to man or boat.”

Bass and carp fishing

“A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work” (Author unknown)
For many, bass fishing offers a particular challenge, as the fish are regarded as very intelligent, as well as hardy. They’re particularly adaptable, both the large-mouth and small-mouth varieties, which means they are found in many places around the country and are partial to a wide variety of bait. Carp, too, are regarded as clever; like bass, they were originally imported into South Africa and can grow to a pretty impressive size.

Mel Sloan a former nun and now hair stylist, has been fishing for 20 years and numbers bass as one of her favourite catches. “I particularly enjoy the Breede River region,” she says. Fishing is something she loves because, for her, it gives her space and serenity. “You’re active as well, out there being one with the river or the surf,” she says. “One of my best places to fish from the coastline is Port Grosvenor, in the former Transkei. It’s just magical. And my dream would be to go fly-fishing in the Scottish Highlands.”

Tiger fishing

“‘Carpe diem’ does not mean ‘fish of the day’” (Author unknown)
Now here’s where the battle between fish and person gets an added edge. Tiger fish is the common name for a variety of species from several different families of fish, known for their fearsome appearance. And listen up—with their large teeth and ferocious personalities, they’re not to be taken likely. They’re considered to be Africa’s equivalent of the South American piranha, and are muscular predators. They’ve also been known to attack humans, causing quite a bit of damage with their sharp teeth. So be warned! Although they’re more commonly found in the Congo and Zambezi river systems, they are also stocked at Jozini Dam on the Pongola River in KZN, where they’re caught on artificial lures, flies, and a variety of baits including liver, sardine fillets, and live bait.

Tight lines

There are many types of fishing to be enjoyed in South Africa, and plenty of gear shops and instructors to help beginners get into the sport. While there may seem a big difference between wrestling a 100 kilogram beast onto the boat in the open sea to flicking your wrist delicately for trout in a rippling stream, the general philosophy—an enjoyment of nature, the challenge of a sport, the possibility of a great meal at the end—is common. Perhaps it’s best to let a poet sum it all up: 
“Fishing provides that connection with the whole living world. It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation, some form of communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self” (Ted Hughes)