Fish golden in colour seem to have played a big role in my fishing life. And catching them in clear water is something that has become a bit of a quiet obsession. Smallmouth Yellows in the Vaal tribs and Sterkfontein. Brown Trout everywhere – if you don’t think they’re golden, well, you’re wrong :p Golden Dorado in the backcountry streams of Argentina and Bolivia. Golden Trevally on flats of the Seychelles. I still need Mahseer from India, that Gold Fish (as in a 3lb gold fish that would normally be 3 inches in pet shop!) from the quarry in Vredehoek and until recently, my unicorn in clear water – a Clanwilliam Yellowfish!
The plan was rather audacious. Walk as high up the Olifants River as possible in a day and then spend the following day fishing for our indigenous Clanwilliam Yellowfish and Sawfish.
Audacious because the temperature skyrockets, the slopes are exposed and if you’ve ever gone off trail in the Cape Mountains, you’ll understand – it’s about as easy as wading through waste deep mud that’s filled with sharp sticks, thorns and leaves. These mountains become dry, hot places where dehydration and heat exhaustion are as prevalent as the possibility of coming face-to-face with a big Cape Cobra or Puffadder.
It’s not for the faint of heart or casual day hiker.
The Groot Winterhoek Wilderness stretches south from Beaverlac to the Tulbagh valley and offers some phenomenal hiking. Places such as de Tronk, de Hel and Groot Winterhoek peak – the jail, the hell and Big Winter Corner – are highlights but their names also give away the intensity of this area. There are trout in the area too but they’re another story altogether!
An easier option to find these endangered species in the area is in the Ratels River, a tributary of the Olifants that holds healthy juvenile population. It is easy to get to using the trails from Beaverlac Nature Reserve, which it flows through. Although once off trail and fishing, you’ll quickly realise just how difficult these streams are to fish!
Anyway, it was a blistering morning on which we set off on this expedition of folly. The young and nimble Kathy Harpur, a school friend with no shortage of Cape Mountain savvy, joined me – she’s a bit of a mountain goat and has a great eye for off trail work. The perfect partner for such an adventure.
The slog was hard and finding easy off trail areas to hike through up the river was tough and we often resorted to clambering and cursing our way over overgrown sections of riverine bush and restios. As the valley narrowed so did the amount of easy walking diminish. However, the higher up we got so the quality of the water got better and better. Eventually I saw the flash of a fish, I was buoyed and totally ignored the possibility that it was a Smallmouth Bass.
Looking at the map I realised that we were never going to get as high as I hoped for so we forged on until eventually we lay shattered in the shade of the setting sun. Conversation was short that evening and my hammock felt like a beautiful soft mattress. I was buggered.
Our camp had fairly easy access to the river, enough vegetation to string my hammock between and a sandy area to relax on. Not big but home enough for a couple of nights.
I was up early the next morning and took my time with the fishing. The first challenge is getting into positions from which to watch the pools without being seen. Clanwilliams are extremely aware fish and previous experience has taught me to keep hidden. Once you’ve been seen, they don’t disappear but definitely ignore you or anything you may have to offer them!
The first few fish taken were Smallmouth Bass. Not ideal but a reality in this river where habitat degradation downstream and encroaching Smallmouth Bass have destroyed populations Yellows for hundreds of kilometres.
Eventually I found the first Clanwilliams; three decent fish cruising the tail of a long pool. I waited until their tails were pointed my direction, sent a long cast out out with a big wooly bugger on the end. The plop got their attention and half a strip later they smashed the offending fly. On!
Of course, the fishing gods were chuckling: it was the smallest of lot, which I hadn’t seen, that ate the fly. But still a Clannie! Awesomeness!
The three bigger fish were still cruising but weren’t in the least bit interested in any further presentations. Time to move on.
In the faster water at the head of the same pool I had my first decent hookup. Lost. Whether it was a Smallmouth or a Clanwilliam, I’m not sure but it pulled bloody hard!
Onwards and upwards with spirits buoyed! I got nothing in the next few pools but eventually I found real success. After spooking a good fish at the tail, I moved to head and my fly had barely landed on the faster flowing riffle that the water erupted and I was into my first decent Yellow of the trip! And how they pull! Super stoked!
The golden colour of these fish mesmerizes me! They are, in my opinion, South Africa’s finest fresh water fish.
The arrival of Kath, just in time for a few photos, indicated lunch time and the respite from the heat was welcomed. She had caught up on some reading and journaling before having some fun on the boulders of the river valley. A good morning had been had by both.
A splashy rise from half way down the pool and the extremely quick take of the last fish fish got me thinking; “What about a dry!” There were myriad of large terrestrials buzzing around the river area – why shouldn’t a Clanwilliam eat off the surface?
I’ve never heard of guys catching Clannies on dries. Maybe it’s been done, but I figured if Smallmouth and even Largemouth Yellows – the Clannies upcountry cousins – can be taken on dries, why the hell couldn’t I get a Clanwilliam on one.
The gamble was large considering my limited time but one on a dry fly would make my month!
So I tied on one of my favourite hoppers and proceeded to chase the dream!
My first post lunch cast got me a small bass. An hour later still nothing barring a few Bass. But Clanwilliams have never given themselves up and I was hell-bent.
And then success! In the faster riffle water at the head of a pool, a beautiful fish inhaled the hopper. And what a fish! Big thick rubber lips, golden flanks, proud dorsal fin and intelligent eyes that seem to follow you!
I struggle to phrase my elation but sat in the warm water of the pool cradling this magnificent fish for fair while. Not big by the species’ standards but at around four pounds, sheer awesomeness.
I landed 3 more fish on hoppers that day. Two of which were sight fished to in the tails of pools. I had another 3 refusals.
I arrived back at camp smiling ear-to-ear and overly chuffed with life.
Just to top things off, I ended this phenomenal day with a very decent Sawfin taken on a grub.
There’s not much more to add; the walk out was tough but no longer mattered. We were tired, sore and elated. Being privy to untouched places is always special and we both left feeling beyond happy!
On a serious note:
As I’ve alluded to in this article, this not a hike that should be taken lightly.
Dehydration is a very real concern on hikes like this and one often, surprisingly, finds themselves far from the river course that you’re trying follow. I have heard many stories of, and come across, hikers who have underestimated our mountains. This is due to the nature of the kloofs and the vegetation that fills them. Often one has no option but take a high line over cliffs and overgrown thickets. I fill water bottles (I carry 3litres) at EVERY opportunity and also keep several rehydrate sachets with me. At one point on this hike we couldn’t fill water bottles for over two hours – in 33degree heat on an exposed mountain side, it’s a long time!
Be prepared! Lots of water, sunscreen and tenacity. I been hiking the mountains of the Cape for years and this was one of the toughest. Good luck if you attempt it and be safe.