Text and photos by Leonard Flemming
Lesotho had been on my short-list of places to visit for a very long time. The unique landscape and the wild trout fishing were the obvious reasons, but then Tourette Fishing started publishing mouth-watering photographs of smallmouth yellowfish trips on the Bokong River above Katse Dam. So when I had the opportunity to travel to the Lesotho highlands with my fiancé, Michelle, at the end of 2013, I contacted Keith Clover for more information about the Tourette Fishing camps and which rivers he’d recommend.
Keith insisted that I try the smallmouth yellows first, since the rivers were ripe with hundreds of golden-yellow smallmouths migrating upstream to get ready for the spawning season in January and February 2014. The large numbers of yellows in the clear water and the abundant grass hoppers in the sprouting grasslands surrounding it was a recipe for spectacular dry fly fishing. Although I was somewhat hesitant about the idea (the thought of catching big trout was more appealing to me), Keith’s excitement when describing the yellowfish school fights over dry flies persuaded me to visit the Bokong River.
Tourette Fishing had already started to build a fishing camp on the lower Bokong and Keith suggested that I stay over in one of their safari tents. To get this camp up and running, Tourette cut a legit deal with the local authorities to involve the community and help with employment and education in the Bokong area. This was obviously good news and a great lesson for me. My first response to tour operators discovering and tapping into “new” fisheries has always been a negative one, but to be honest, the Tourette boys have never failed to impress me. Their environmentally friendly and well-thought through approach has earned them respect from many dedicated fisherman from across the world.
Mark Murray, Tourette Fishing guide, and the local Basotho boys guarding the camp welcomed us when we arrived late in the afternoon on a rainy December day. We immediately started talking about the fishing, but the expression on Mark’s face was not enthusiastic at all. My fear that the unpredictable Lesotho weather might spoil our fishing trip became a reality when we walked down to the river bank and splashed our hands in the water to feel the temperature. Snowfall chilled it to a skin aching thirteen degrees Celsius and the shoals of yellows had dropped down into the warmer dam water.
The next day we headed upriver to see whether we could find fish in some of the larger pools above camp. There was no sign of life in the runs and smaller pools we spotted from the hillside path that we walked to find Ed’s Corner pool. When we reached the big pool, we saw a few fish hugging the bottom of a deep slot in the tail-out. The yellows were hanging motionless in the slack water formed by big rocks and there were no signs of feeding fish. I cast small nymphs at them and although I was convinced that some of them had a look at my flies, there were no takers.
We crossed the ice cold river with great effort. The clear water made the tail-out look deceptively shallow. When we reached the middle of the river we desperately locked our arms like rugby scrum players to keep our heads above water. We climbed out of the water soaking wet and strolled towards the belly area of the pool. A couple of very big female yellowfish were feeding carefully near the edges of a deep drop-off, but these fish also refused to eat the smaller nymphs that I presented with a dead drift past their noses.
I felt defeated by fish that seemed impossible to catch and sat back on my wet bum cheeks to pick a different fly. I chose a small tadpole imitation and flicked it out to a fish cruising past me. The fly scared the living daylights out of the yellow and it bolted into the green depths of the pool. Then I tied on a fly that imitated a small crab and lobbed it out to intercept a very big yellow that was curiously patrolling the margins after the spooked fish alerted it.
The biggish fly landed with a slap on the surface, but the yellowfish swam to it casually and sucked it in. I released the fish after it gave me a fantastic fight on a 6 wt, peeling several meters of backing off my reel in the first run. I carried on fishing upriver and landed several more fat pre-spawn females on the same fly before I handed the rod to Michelle.
Michelle got stuck into the first fish that she tried to catch and that was the end of my fishing. She was so thrilled by the rush of adrenalin from the hard-fighting yellows that she refused to pass my rod back to me. I followed her like a hungry dog and jealously watched as she caught fish after fish until dusk.
The next day Michelle made sure that I had two rods rigged before we left camp. She shamelessly insisted on a SAGE for her birthday when we headed upriver to start fishing at Ed’s Corner. While hiking, we noticed that fish had moved into the runs that appeared empty the previous day. Snow patching the mountain slopes had melted away in the early morning hours and the warming water was the call for the yellows to move back into the river. When we reached the pools, Michelle went ape, casting at the pods of feeding fish swimming along the mud banks. I felt like a gear caddy, constantly passing on flies, tippet and the net to the top scoring player. A splendid day’s fishing nearly ended in tears when my underwater housing sprung a leak and the camera lens filled with water while I tried to photograph one of her fish. Beaten in my own game and camera-less, I called it a day and slouched back to camp like a bitten mutt with its tail between its legs.
We got up early the next morning and took on the long drive back to South Africa. I left Lesotho a wiser man. Even though we had to fish in challenging conditions, the yellows were worth the hours spent on the nail biting road winding up and into the Lesotho highlands. Michelle also didn’t receive a rod on her birthday; she got a suitcase full of novels instead.