The long and winding dirt road between Barkly East and the quaint village of Rhodes brings back sweet memories. As bumpy as ever but in reasonably good nick, its rough 60km meanders through some of the most beautiful scenery you can hope to find just about anywhere. At the end of it lies peace, tranquility and access to some of the finest trout rivers in our country, so we relax and enjoy the drive. It’s been a while and memories come flooding back, but we are pleased to find that not much has changed – at least not where it matters.
We coast to a stop in front of Fred Steynberg’s house and, as I lift my hand to ring the bell, he comes around the corner with a big grin on his face. He looks much the same, the years having treated him kindly and apart from a wrinkle or two, it’s the same Fred that sat next to me on the aircraft to New Zealand more than 20 years ago. Many subsequent trips to Rhodes and elsewhere with him come to mind, but it is here, in front of his house in Rhodes, that he most looks like where he belongs. I can hardly imagine Rhodes without him or his wife Jill, who, as pretty as ever, also seems unaffected by age. We greet and exchange pleasantries, older and wiser.
We had some wild times here back in the day, especially in the Rhodes Hotel when his father still owned it. The bar of this (in)famous establishment was frequented by almost everybody in fly fishing, and whether you talk to Dean Riphagen, Tom Sutcliffe or a host of other well-known fly fishing personalities, they all no doubt will have a Rhodes story to tell. Fred and Jill have raised twins, a son and daughter. Carry is a teacher and presently in Vietnam, but we find Dirk in the living room and when we shake hands I realise that he is now a fully-grown man and one of whom his parents can be justifiably proud. As we were to find out soon, he is also a gifted musician and evenings spent during our week’s visit listening to him play, sing his own compositions and jam with us are already fond memories.
Fred Steynberg is something of a legend in fly fishing circles, but he is equally at home with a rifle or shotgun in hand, guiding hunters and wingshooters in the mountains surrounding the village and elsewhere. Both a professional hunter and fishing guide, he is the quintessential outdoorsman. His skills are considerable, envied by all and, to my mind, he can more than hold his own with any guide on the planet, whether it be for hunting or fishing.
We are with friends on this trip, but we plan to get some photographs of Fred, his dogs and Rhodes in general as we do an informal interview for this article. With the rivers still high from the good rains, he offers to accompany us on the first day to a stillwater high up on the Riflespruit, one of the highest wild trout stillwater venues in the country.
The 4x4 track to this venue is not for the faint-hearted, and calls for a competent vehicle and good nerves to negotiate, but the effort is well rewarded by the sheer magnificence of the surrounds. Feeling blissfully isolated from the rest of the planet, we spend a couple of hours in this very special place and work in time for a few quick questions for Fred.
How do you go about planning the fishing seasons for the year ahead?
FS: To be even remotely organised around the year’s fishing calendar, I have to plan each trip relative to the best season for each destination, and whether the moon and tides should be taken into consideration. I try to avoid seasonal bad-weather periods at any venue of choice, and, if possible, avoid destinations within their holiday times, with the exception of my home waters around Rhodes/ Barkly East. These are some of my favourite places to guide, but unfortunately this distinct four-season region does not allow for year-round fishing and, in order to make ends meet, I also guide beyond my home grounds. Conditions on my home waters can be tricky to predict, especially with the unstable weather patterns of the past couple of years. Rivers are often either too low or too high and discoloured, and the fact that Rhodes is quite a long way from just about anywhere, makes it a seasonal fly fishing destination.
The next day we fish a good piece of water on the Bell, known for producing quality fish. Having received a solid downpour a day prior to our visit, the river is high and a bit discoloured, but we still have a blast. I remember this stretch well and recall good fish taken from it, but conditions are further complicated by strong winds, so we pack it in early in anticipation of Christmas evening filled with festivities. We spend the evening with Fred, his family and friends, make some music, enjoy a fantastic leg of local lamb, pumpkin pie and malva pud, and swop stories and tall tales. Our friends are interested in how Fred prepares for a trip, having decided that on their next visit they will book him for a few days.
If a new client were to book you for a guiding stint, how do you prepare them for the unknown?
FS: When new clients book, I enquire about their state of fitness and whether they have any medical condition that I need to be aware of. Some years back, I guided an elderly American couple who assured me that they were fit and in good health. Based on this feedback I selected a walk down a gorge to an excellent beat which holds a healthy population of sizeable trout. Halfway down the gorge the lady said she did not think that her husband was going to make the descent. I looked at him, a lean and fit-looking 65-year-old, and was shocked to find his face as white as a sheet and his knees violently shaking. After some investigation, I was told that he’d had a double-knee replacement three months before the trip. Why they elected not to tell me this is anyone’s guess, but after a good rest we decided to continue down the gorge and although we did not have time to fish the entire section, they still managed to catch good fish and get back in one piece.
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