Africa's Highlands: Sight Fishing in the Tiny Kingdom of Lesotho
I haven’t found many places as enchanting as Africa. It still feels wild, raw, foreign, and filled with potential for discovering something new. It’s one of the few places in the world I feel there is still huge opportunity for exploring—giant tarpon on the west coast, goliath tigerfish in the Congo, possibly another Seychelles-caliber saltwater destination somewhere off the coast, Nile Perch, and who knows what else fly fishers can chase on this continent.
My first trip to Africa was a tigerfish trip with Tourette Fishing in 2013. That resulted in my first column in Fly Fisherman, a cover story in the Feb.-Mar. 2015 issue titled “The Day It Happened.” It was arguably my best fishing adventure to date, spectacular fishing wrapped up in an amazing landscape and cultural experience. It left me longing to return time and time again, and I’ve been able to make a handful of trips to Africa now and I still find myself in awe. As with many trips, you often check one thing off your list to catch or do, and add several new ones to the list. The Kingdom of Lesotho, one of the world’s smallest countries, wasn’t even on my list a few years ago, but it quickly rose to the top. Lesotho is a landlocked, high-altitude country completely encircled by South Africa. While it’s well known in South Africa as a trout-fishing destination, most North American fly fishers haven’t heard of it. I know I hadn’t heard of it until I came into contact with a few adventurous South African fly fishers like Jako Lucas.
Lesotho is a different Africa, it is the highlands, rolling green hills with small-plot agriculture, and herdsmen. It’s also a coldwater fishery with sight casting to yellowfish and trout. Yes, you read that correctly, sight fishing to trout, in Africa. Some of them are big. They often catch fish in the double-digit weight class. When I heard about sight fishing to big trout in small streams—in Africa—it was something I had to make happen. It took me a few years, but Jako and I finally coordinated our calendars in March 2018.
Jako and I have traveled quite a bit together. He’s a talented filmmaker, stellar angler, savvy traveler, and he’s on my short list for any wild adventure I can come up with. A trip that is in his backyard is a no-brainer.
Jako has long told me we needed to fish the Bokong River, so when the opportunity came up to visit the Makhangoa Community Camp, I jumped at the chance. Tourette Fishing leases the fishing rights and partners with the community to benefit the villagers, visiting fly fishers, and most importantly the fishery. All the employees (excepting the fishing guides) come from the local village that is made up of just 16 families. From lodge managers and helpers to river rangers, the community is directly involved with all aspects of the operation. Funds flow into the village not only in the form of wages and tips, but all visiting fly fishers are charged a fee that goes into the community fund. All of this has helped improve quality of life and education for the entire community.
All the employees at Makhangoa Community Camp come from a local village. The fly-fishing operation is a source of income for many individuals, and visitors pay a fee that goes into a community fund to improve their quality of life.
The result is a village that believes in the fishing and protects the resource. It’s yet another successful example of fly fishing providing quality jobs to local people and advancing conservation of the resource. It’s essentially the same model Indifly has established in places like Guyana and French Polynesia. [See the story “1 Guy with a Fly Rod” in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2017 issue for more on Indifly’s work in Guyana. The Editor.]
Indifly is my favorite project, so I was excited to see how successful Tourette Fishing had been in their own version of it. I also wanted to look for opportunities to collaborate in the future, and see if Indifly can lend a helping hand in this project or a future one.
Lesotho typically isn’t considered a trout destination, but it is a world-class yellowfish destination. Yellowfish aren’t on the radar of most anglers in the Western Hemisphere, but they are a favorite of the South African angling community. There are many places to fish for them that are just a short drive from Johannesburg, and the fishing season is long, providing many opportunities.
Yellowfish are part trout and part barbel—just don’t call them carp! In the Bokong, they migrate up and down the river, and they sit in runs and pools and feed just like trout. It’s all sight casting—drys, dry/dropper, or sight nymphing. Yellowfish eat flies well but are incredibly spooky. To be successful, it takes long casts and a stealthy approach. The style of fishing is as much fun as stalking spring creek trout in Patagonia, or in a New Zealand alpine stream. Yellowfish are incredibly strong for their size, and for me a new species is always fascinating. But for my South African fishing partner, yellowfish are like his bread and butter. Jako was most interested in getting after the trout at Makhangoa Community Camp.
It’s remarkable how effective the British were at spreading Salmo trutta around the planet. Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand, India, and in the African highlands of Lesotho, they seeded every possible trout stream on the planet. Our fly-fishing predecessors had both ambition and a supreme passion for trout. It couldn’t have been easy, and it makes me appreciate every trout I find in far-flung corners of the world just a little bit more.
Trout fishing in the Bokong River is a major commitment. We planned to leave the comfort of the lodge and hike 12 miles upriver, with a small team of donkeys carrying both food and camping gear. The trout in this part of the world are special because they are few and far between. It’s similar to New Zealand, where you find a fish every mile or two. You have to be willing to work for it.
When you do find them, they aren’t easy. If you’re a fly fisher who is easily frustrated or doesn’t appreciate a challenge, this probably isn’t for you. If you love adventure and experiencing different landscapes, ecosystems, and cultures, this is a win.
We hoofed it upstream and quickly set up camp as a storm was brewing on the horizon. As soon as we had camp set up, the skies opened up and it poured for hours. While reading in my tent, I was thinking the trip was over before it even began.
The river came up six feet overnight and turned to chocolate milk. The trip seemed a total bust, but head guide Johann Du Preez was adamant the stream would clear. Jako and I wrote it off as guide talk—we’ve been there and done that ourselves.
But Du Preez said these high-elevation streams clear quickly, and the Bokong cleared faster than any river I’ve seen. In 12 hours it was fishable, and within 24 hours we were back to sight casting and working our way upriver picking off yellowfish and looking for trout.
Typically the yellowfish start to migrate downstream as the watershed cools, and that allows anglers to find the trout. We were right on the cusp of that seasonal changeover. There were still a few yellowfish high up the river system that proved a ton of fun, but the trout were still hard to come by.
We spooked a couple, I blew a couple of shots. I was flat-out refused by a monster brown, and couldn’t get him to even look at and reject another bug.
While the catching was tough, the fishing was phenomenal. We scrambled up ledges looking for fish. One of us would sneak down to the river to get in position and get directions on the radio from the guys who stayed elevated to watch the show. (As soon as you gave up the elevation, you couldn’t see the fish, not even in the clear water.)
The radio relay added a ton of excitement, making it truly a team effort. One time it was my turn to cast, and we spotted a few nice yellowfish at the tailout of a pool. I slid down the bank and was walking into position when I spooked a big trout from under a cutbank.
I shrugged, moved into position, and picked up a nice yellowfish. Just as I released it, Jako and Johann radioed down that the same trout had moved back into a riffle just downstream of me. It seemed as though the fish had moved to a feeding position.
I rigged a quick dry/dropper rig, and then my spotters talked me into position. I made one cast, and saw the trout move two feet to inhale the nymph. I came tight to the fish and in minutes had my first African trout in my hand. It wasn’t a girthy monster, but catching a 24-inch trout in a place like this, and catching it that way, was beyond satisfying.
The best trips leave you with stories to tell, and wanting to create more—this was definitely one of those. I loved the yellowfish, and would go back in a heartbeat to do it again.
I’m often asked what is my favorite fish or destination, and for me it all comes down to the way you fish. Sight fishing is what does it for me more than anything. Whether it’s bonefish and permit on the flats, or trout and yellowfish in Africa, if you can see the fish you are trying to catch, and watch them react to your efforts, that is the fishing I enjoy the most. To me, it’s more about the “how” than the “where.”
I also didn’t get one of those truly massive brown trout that live in the Bokong River, and that means I have at least one more donkey trek in my future.
*Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.