Trevor Sithole has spent most of his life in the small rural village of Thendela in KwaZulu-Natal. Nestled between mountains in the Drakensberg and bordering the Kamberg Nature Reserve, it was the perfect place to grow up.
“I never liked being indoors,” says Sithole. “I learnt about nature by experience, not books. I learnt about a scorpion by turning over a rock and picking one up. And getting stung, the hard way,” he says smiling.
Sithole was born in 1994 and completed his basic education in Thendela. After matriculating, he studied electrical engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. “I was doing electrical engineering but I knew I was lying to myself, because I always knew I was a fishing guide.”
So he dropped out and before getting a job at a fly fishing store, spent a few months working on a farm. Fly fishing is the art of catching fish with “bait” that looks like an insect. The back-and-forth technique of casting is designed to fool fish into thinking that their next meal has landed on the surface of the water. When Sithole was a boy, he would walk the 15 minutes from his family home to Riverside Farm when there were fishers visiting.
“I would go and stand about 100m from the river, there’s a big gate there. I would sit there and just watch people fishing. If I knew there was someone fishing at the river, I would go and watch them rather than play soccer with the other kids. So that’s how I knew I loved this fishing thing.”
The shy young boy would have to wait until he was in high school before he got to fish himself. One day, there was a post on the noticeboard announcing the Thendela Fly Fishing Project team looking for new members.
“I was, ‘Bingo, that’s me!’” he grins, relaying the memory.
After spending some time learning the basics with the Thendela Fly Fishing Project, he was fishing in a dam at Kamberg Nature Reserve with competitive fly-fisher Matt Gorlei. He asked Gorlei if he could try his rod, and Gorlei obliged. And so he made his first cast, which was not great. A little advice and a quick demonstration from Gorlei and his next cast was beautiful. He started retrieving the fly and soon had a trout on the line.
His inexperience and excitement could have ended the experience right then and there. “I had never had the feeling of a fish biting. I had an adrenaline rush and pulled hard on the line. A tiny fish flying in the air.”
The fish landed back in the water, but there was much slack line that could easily have resulted in the fish finding a short swim to freedom. But not this time. Sithole netted the fish, his first of many.
“I will never forget the first fish I caught.”
Back in his home stream and armed with a little more knowledge, he landed his first river brown trout. “My first fish on the river was caught with a black woolly bugger. I will never forget that one. It was a size 10 or eight, a big one. The fish was almost as small as the fly.”
Thendela and his love for fishing
Growing up within sight of the Mooi River has played an important part in Sithole’s life. He would cross the river daily walking to school. “If I hadn’t grown up in Thendela, I might not have become a fly fisherman, but I would have got into fishing. It is something I always loved,” he said.
The river plays an important role for the community, too. Not only do the rod fees anglers pay to fish the river go back to the residents but their cows, sheep and goats also graze on the banks and clothes are washed in the cool mountain water.
Up river, several women were chatting and washing clothes. Sithole’s plan was to skip this section, the theory for a fly-fisher being that the washing would cause a disturbance and put fish off the bite. But seeing a photo opportunity, I convinced Sithole, a budding photographer himself, to give this section of the river a go.
To both our surprise, he hooked not one but three fish in the natural laundry room. But I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Sithole is a gifted fisher and having spent a morning watching him fish and talking to him, it’s easy to understand why he is a popular guide. He is warm and the conversation is as interesting as it is easy. He has an infectious smile, even when skunked by a big fish.
When he speaks about the future, his face changes. His brow wrinkles and for the first time, the 26-year-old for whom conversation comes so easily pauses. When he does speak again, there is a steely determination in his eyes.
“I have big plans,” he laughs with nervous confidence. “They actually scare me.”
He wants to start a guiding company to show people from all over the world the fishing waters of South Africa.
“It kind of spooks me, I feel a little bit too small for that,” he says, using a fishing term for scaring off a fish.
There does not seem to be much that spooks a man who has made what was a “white man’s” sport his own. A few hours photographing him while he fished revealed what a truly talented fisher he is. He’s generous with his knowledge, too, which is vast considering his youth. And what he has learnt, he wants to pass on.
“My biggest goal is to get as many Black people involved in the sport as possible.”
A fly-fisher and a Protea
Sithole feels frustrated when he is asked to catch fish for the pan. He tirelessly explains why he practises catch and release, education being crucial while making the sport of fly fishing popular.
As we wander up river, Sithole is in and out of the water stalking trout. His casting is nothing less than beautiful to watch, as he lays down near perfect casts to fussy fish. If he does make a mistake, the flies he spent much time tying are left attached to an overhanging tree branch or a rock underwater.
When knotting on new flies, Sithole is unhurried, patient in preparing his leaders and careful with his knots. He takes the time to sit, ensuring a lost fish will not be because of bad handiwork. And all the while he keeps an eye on the river, looking for the rise of feeding fish.
It is this patience that has helped him wait out the Covid-19 lockdown. During a normal year, Sithole spends three months in Bolivia helping clients catch the famed golden dorado, and nine months in the Seychelles chasing bonefish, giant kingfish, trigger fish and Indo-Pacific permit. Both scenarios are on many a fly-fisher’s bucket list, and to say this is a dream job might be understating how far he has come. It was during his time in Bolivia that he struck up a friendship with Proteas limited-overs captain Quinton de Kock.
Sithole loves spending time abroad and is picking up new languages along the way. He smiles and asks me what I think most of his clients ask him. I shrug as we walk across the brilliant green grassland through which the river snakes, but the broad smile suggests it may not be what I think.
He mimics a client’s voice and says, “So, Trevor,” he laughs again. “And then I know it’s coming. There’s that question, the most common question I get asked.” In the client’s voice again, “So, Trevor. Do you get sunburnt?”