While some estimates suggest that one in three flys used in Europe is made in Kenya and millions are shipped to other key markets, the country’s fly fishing tourism industry is poised to thrive.
By Nick Perry / AFP, MATHIOYA, Kenya
With the agility of a younger man, John Ngaii Moses deftly tied a tiny fishing fly to his line and, leaping over mossy rocks, threw himself into a swollen river running through tea country kenyan.
âI can tie a fly at night with no light,â the 60-year-old fisherman said with a smile, casting his line with a graceful bow into the crystal-clear waters.
Moses is something of a rarity in Kenya, where recreational fishing is neither popular nor widely understood, and even viewed with suspicion as a holdover from colonial times.
Yet the country holds a special place in the world of fly fishing, and enthusiasts believe that demystifying the sport could create jobs and inspire future generations to protect rivers.
Kenya has one of Africa’s oldest fishing clubs and a fly-tying industry which for decades has provided fishermen from Norway to New Zealand with handcrafted lures.
Visitors come from all over the world to fish in its high-altitude rivers and alpine lakes, where the British introduced trout in the early 1900s.
Fish don’t attract tourists like the big cats of the Kenyan savannahs, but what is on offer to the intrepid fisherman is no less remarkable.
Just a two-hour drive from Nairobi, where the Mathioya River crashes under the Aberdare Range, the premier fishing country meets wilderness populated by black rhinos and elephants.
âImagine spending the morning fishing and the afternoon taking pictures of wildlife. Where else can you have this? âSaid Zac Gichane, owner of Aberdare Cottages and Fishing Lodge, a resort overlooking the Mathioya.
He said fly fishing was a multi-billion dollar global industry poised to grow in Kenya.
âThis is the land of God. Two hours from Nairobi you find crystal clear rivers, a peaceful village, greenery … The opportunities here are limitless, âsaid Gichane.
Gichane sources her fishing flies from Kenyan artisans whose delicate and elaborate creations have become a mainstay for fishermen around the world.
These artificial lures – some so small that they perch on fingertips – are designed to mimic the peculiar insects that trout, salmon and other species feast on.
Moses prefers the âroyal coachmanâ – traditionally dressed in feathers and a tail – because he looks like a butterfly native to Mathioya which brings trout to the surface.
Reliable data is scarce, but some estimates suggest that one in three flies used in Europe originate from Kenya, while millions more are shipped to the United States, Canada and other key fishing markets.
âIt’s a big deal in Kenya. He employs a lot of people, âsaid John Nyapola, owner of Ojoo Fishing Flies Designers.
In his small workshop outside Nairobi, flamingo feathers, rabbit skins and all manner of furs and fabrics litter an assembly table where custom orders from Canada, Australia and Japan are individually attached by hand.
âWe’ve made them all,â said Jane Auma, a fly-setting veteran with 32 years of experience, pointing to a well-worn catalog detailing 1,000 individual lure models.
Their names – such as “Woolly Bugger”, “Copper John” and “Irresistible Adams” – are as confusing to most levels as the sport itself.
âWe fish, but we don’t use flies. We use nets and we try to catch everything, âAuma said with a laugh.
Fly fishermen, on the other hand, mostly return whatever they catch in the river, to avoid overfishing.
Gichane said the ethics of capture and release are considered “folly” by Kenyans who fish for food.
Some also dismiss sport as a strange import.
Decades ago, the Mathioya Valley was a hotbed of anti-colonial resistance and suffered British reprisals.
Gichane said that before independence in 1963 – and even for some time after – many Kenyans would not dare to pick up a cane.
“They think sport fishing is for mzungus [white people], not for Africans, âsaid Moses, who was born in a British internment camp and is now a fishing guide.
The Kenya Fly Fishers’ Club, a 102-year-old private facility on the Mathioya, has sought to broaden the appeal of the sport.
The club welcomed more Kenyan members as interest grew and elected its first black president in 2018.
âTimes change, like fly fishing. Right now we have a lot of local native Kenyans fishing. I am one of them, âsaid Musa Ibrahim, administrator and club member for 20 years.
He also contacted local schools to introduce children to fly fishing and its conservation aspects such as re-enacting the Mathioya with trout.
Kenya in its heyday was crisscrossed by 2,000 km of rivers preserved for trout fishing, but rapid land conversion has increased tenfold, Ibrahim said.
âIt’s up to us to make sure we leave the legacy to the next generation,â he said.
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