Lesotho, isn’t that an Italian dish? No, it’s an independent kingdom surrounded by its much larger and more powerful economic neighbor, the Republic of South Africa. Pronounced ‘Lezutu’, 80% of the country is situated above 1800m and with higher peaks nudging 3500m, it is truly mountainous.
It’s a simply spectacular drive through this country, now made much easier by the Chinese and South Africans who are currently constructing an excellent sealed road. Interestingly Lesotho’s most precious natural resource is its water and power generation from its hydro schemes. ‘Yes, yes,’ I hear you say, ‘But what about the flyfishing?’ Brown trout to 10 pounds, the powerful yellowfish in the lower reaches… Need I say more?
After reading about it in some South African fishing magazines 12 months ago, Lesotho seemed a logical stopover as part of a road trip. I entered the Lesotho border near the capital Maseru, on the western side of the country. Directions to Semongkong Lodge read ‘Take the turn to Roma and don’t turn off this road for 90km.’ That seemed straightforward enough. The drive took about three hours in my hire car, and it was touch and go getting through some of the deeper mud holes and river crossings.
Guests have been coming to Semongkong Lodge for years to enjoy the outdoors and more recently the flyfishing. Known in the local language as ‘place of smoke’ there’s a 200 metre waterfall a few kilometres downstream of the lodge. Here begins a spectacular gorge that carries the highland water downstream for many more kilometres before the river flows through more open country again.
After hearing and reading much about the size of the trout in this fairly unknown fishery I was keen to get into it the next day. Lodge owner Jonothan has begun a great initiative educating the local villagers about flyfishing. This allows them access to valuable income via guiding clients and also spreads the message of catch and release, and consequent fishery sustainability. During the dry season the river runs low and clear and trout have been heavily targeted, normally with spears. As a result larger fish have been harder to come by than years passed.
On my first morning I set off with an 18 year old local guy who wasn’t sure why ‘flyfishing’ was called that, and his grasp of English was basic at best. It was his first day taking a client out by himself, however he supposedly knew which runs and pools held fish and which didn’t. I spent the morning prospecting with a Woolly Bugger for one small trout and by lunchtime I was beginning to feel a little disillusioned. At a slower, deeper run I decided a change of tactics was in order. Fishing a black unweighted nymph under a Stimulator did the trick straight away and I landed five fish within the hour, all on the nymph. Unfortunately we were still receiving fairly heavy thunderstorms most afternoons and they quickly turned the river the colour of a double shot latte.
I was assured that by the next day the river would clear up. However for the next two days the river was worse than ever and I couldn’t raise a fish. I was told there must have been heavy rain further up in the mountains but I wasn’t convinced. I hiked a few kilometres upstream to discovered an excavator midstream, digging out truckloads of gravel for the road. As they say, TIA, or ‘this is Africa.’ Luckily, the excavator departed soon after and the river recovered to be at least fishable. Although clarity was only 1-2 feet, the trout came back on and were even sipping off the top – and right in front of the lodge.
My best day was when the water clarity improved further and I managed ten trout to 1½ lb on various nymphs suspended under a dry indicator. Whilst it wasn’t a dream five days catching trophy browns, I was certainly surrounded by world-class scenery in a truly unique trout fishing location. What’s more, according to Jonothan I was there during the least reliable fishing month.
Semonkong Lodge also runs trips of four to five days down the gorge for trout and yellowfish. Guides go ahead with your gear and tents on the donkeys and you fish you way back upstream, covering some super water. Most of these fish would rarely see a fly and apparently trout to 10 lb are not uncommon, with fish between 2-4lb standard. The river supports a surprisingly healthy population of browns above the falls, with rainbows as well below. The weather can be very changeable and from March onwards the temperature can drop to freezing overnight. Snow is standard during winter.
There is plenty to do at the lodge besides flyfishing, including pony trekking, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking and local cultural tours. Sipping coffee in front of the fire with a good book is also an option! At the other extreme, with the assistance of the lodge guides I chose to take on the world’s highest commercially-operated abseil right next to the waterfall.
Opportunities to fish for big trout in flowing water are scarce in southern Africa, and combined with a healthy dose of adventure, complimented by good food and beds at the end of the day, Semongkong in central Lesotho is worth adding to your bucket list.