Elpheus “Alphons” Ndlovu has come a long way from his village in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, and his job as a taxi driver. The fishing flies he now ties are used all over the world to lure record-breaking catches.
As a fisherman tests a reel in the Fly-Fishers Unlimited store in northern Johannesburg, alongside him is a quiet man in his 40s, wearing a khaki cap and light blue shirt.
Ndlovu is affectionately known as “Alphons” in the fly-fishing community. He’s seated at a table, concentrating on a vice that’s gripping a fly he’s tieing to resemble a grasshopper.
“Some guys, they send you a picture, just a picture, and they say: ‘I want this fly, hey.’ You check in the picture; you have to look exactly what material it is (tied with), and then you do it, hey. Some guys also, they like to change a fly and say: ‘I want something different on this fly,’ so it can catch more fish. I can do that,” said Ndlovu.
Ndlovu uses a variety of natural materials such as bird feathers and synthetics like plastic and foam to imitate various life forms -- like insects, frogs, minnows and crabs -- that fish feed on.
Ndlovu remembers the first fly he ever tied, more than 20 years ago. It was a clouser minnow, made of pink and white buck-tail, used to catch saltwater gamefish.
“It took me maybe like a half an hour ‘cos I didn’t know what I’m doing! Now it can take me about five minutes to tie just a clouser,” he said.
Holding up a fly that glints black and blue in the light, and has big, rolling, plastic eyes, Ndlovu explains, “that’s a brush fly. It’s a minnow pattern. The guys catch tiger fish on this fly.”
Tiger fish have huge, sharp teeth, striped silver flanks and orange and red fins. They’re Africa’s most vicious freshwater piscine predators.
Ndlovu often recalls the moment in 1994, seated in the hot sun behind the wheel of his taxi, when he saw the newspaper ad that changed his life.
It was for an apprentice fly fishing rod builder.
While making rods, Ndlovu met Fly-Fishers Unlimited owner, Murray Pedder, who taught him to tie flies.
Pedder said Ndlovu has evolved into one of the best fly tiers on the planet.
“He’s better than me in certain flies, without a doubt, because he’s just tied hundreds and hundreds of them, you know,” said Pedder.
Pedder jokes that Ndlovu is so good that he even has “groupies.”
“A lot of the guys, when they walk in the shop, they just say: ‘Howzit Murray’ and they go straight to Elpheus because they know he’s tying the flies… Alphons is the man and he’s brilliant at it. He’s got a band of loyal clients who regularly come in and say: ‘Look, I’m going here, I’m going there.’ These flies catch fish all over the world and it’s nice to get feedback; it makes us feel great,” said Pedder.
Ndlovu says there’s nothing better than getting a call from an ecstatic fisherman thanking him for tying a fly that resulted in a dream catch.
“It makes me feel great, hey! I’ve got guys, they can go fish with my flies, then they call me, they say: ‘Elpheus! Brilliant!’ Some of them they even come and give me something like whisky, sometimes, or whatever,” he said.
He said neither he, nor the whole of Soweto, where he lives, can believe that he’s a master fly tier.
“I’m known all over the world ‘cos of what I’m doing - tying flies. But I never thought I would be like this. ‘Cos I just came here in Jo-burg to look for a job,” he said.
But instead of a mere job, Alphons found a passion that has allowed him to buy a house and to educate his four children.
Behind his vice, he shakes his head and whispers: “Life is strange.” And then he proceeds to tie another perfect fly.