Fly fishing

“This is the land of God”: Kenya’s fly fishing enthusiasts pursue bigger catches

Mathioya (Kenya) (AFP)

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 the swollen river that runs through tea country kenyan.

“I can tie a fly at night with no light,” 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.

But 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.

Kenya has a fly fishing industry which for decades supplied fishermen from Norway to New Zealand Simon MAINA AFP

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 main fishing country meets wilderness inhabited by black rhinos and elephants.

“Imagine spending the morning … fishing and the afternoon taking pictures of wildlife. Where else can you get this? Said 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.

Kenya Fly Fishers' Club administrator Musa Ibrahim said there are now many local Kenyans fishing
Kenya Fly Fishers‘ Club administrator Musa Ibrahim said there are now many local Kenyans fishing LUIS TATO AFP

“This is the land of God. Two hours from Nairobi and you find crystal clear rivers, a peaceful village, greenery … The opportunities here are limitless.”

– Big deal –

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.

Artificial lures are designed to mimic the particular insects that trout, salmon and other species feast on
Artificial lures are designed to mimic the particular insects that trout, salmon and other species feast on Simon MAINA AFP

Moses prefers the “royal coachman” – traditionally dressed in feathers and a tail – because he resembles a butterfly native to Mathioya which brings the trout to the surface.

Reliable data is scarce, but some estimates suggest that one in three fly used in Europe originated in Kenya, while millions more are shipped to the United States, Canada and other key fishing markets.

“It’s a big company in Kenya. It employs a lot of people,” said John Nyapola, who runs 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.

“We made them all,” says Jane Auma, a seasoned fly teller with 32 years of experience, pointing to a well-worn catalog detailing 1,000 individual lure models.

Fly fishing enthusiasts believe demystifying the sport could create jobs and encourage future generations to protect rivers
Fly fishing enthusiasts believe demystifying the sport could create jobs and encourage future generations to protect rivers LUIS TATO AFP

Their names – such as “Woolly Bugger”, “Copper John” and “Irresistible Adams” – are as baffling to most players as the sport itself.

“We fish, but we don’t use flies. We use nets and we try to catch everything,” Auma said with a laugh.

– “Our heritage” –

Fly fishermen, on the other hand, mostly return whatever they catch in the river, to avoid overfishing.

Gichane said the ethics of catching and releasing were considered “folly” by Kenyans who fish for food.

Some also dismiss sport as a strange import.

The fly fishing catch and release ethic is often not understood by Kenyans who fish for food
The fly fishing catch and release ethic is often not understood by Kenyans who fish for food LUIS TATO AFP

Decades ago, the Mathioya Valley was a hotbed of anti-colonial resistance and suffered British reprisals. Gichane said before independence in 1963 – and even a long time after – that many Kenyans would not dare to pick up a cane.

“They think sport fishing is for mzungus (white people), not for Africans,” said Moses, who himself 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.

“Times change, as with fly fishing. Right now we have a lot of local indigenous Kenyans fishing. I am one of them,” said Musa Ibrahim, administrator and member of the club for 20 years. years.

He also contacted local schools to introduce children to fly fishing and its conservation aspects such as re-enacting the Mathioya with trout.

The British introduced trout to rivers in Kenya in the early 1900s.
The British introduced trout to rivers in Kenya in the early 1900s. LUIS TATO AFP

Kenya in its heyday was crisscrossed by 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of unspoiled rivers for trout fishing, but rapid land conversion reduced that number by 10, Ibrahim said.

“It’s up to us to make sure we leave the legacy to the next generation,” he said.

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