My wife and I had a humorous discussion about New Year’s resolutions on 31 December 2014. I had never committed to a New Year’s resolution in my life; however, feeling pressed to mention something I had on my heart I told her that although not relevant as a ‘resolution’, there was one dream I’d wish come true, sooner than later.
I’ve been carrying around a monkey on my back for a few years now, viz., catching a largemouth yellowfish bigger than 4.5 kg (10 lb). The times I’ve visited the Orange/Vaal system with a fly rod can be counted on one hand and although I’ve caught a couple of largemouths, they’ve always been less than 3 kg. Besides fishing the faster water for smallmouth yellowfish on these trips, I fished deep glides and deep pocket water in rapids, which I thought at the time were ideal spots for largemouth yellowfish. It turned out that I was wrong.
It was the lack of success catching a good largemouth that got me talking to fishing buddies about these fish. Most people answered humbly that they too were frustrated with big largemouth yellowfish after trying for several years. However, it was while speaking to Edward Truter that a switch was turned on in my head. Ed mentioned that largemouth yellowfish preferred deep areas where there was very little current (backwaters) or large still patches of deep water separated from strong current by a seam. In other words – as mentioned previously in a post – areas where anglers would expect a carp or catfish to laze, but not a yellowfish.
With this in mind, I headed back to my favourite stretch of Orange River below the Gariep Dam a few weeks ago. The trip was also specially arranged to catch up with my angling companion Gerald Penkler who paid his family in the Cape a visit from the UK.
The itinerary entailed an afternoon’s fishing directly below the Gariep Dam wall, a full day on Vanderkloof Dam near the Vanderkloof Village and another day-and-a-half’s fishing in the rapids below our camp. We had limited time to scout these areas and to complicate matters, to our surprise a low pressure system moved over Colesburg on the morning of our arrival. The river water was clear but cold, very cold, and there was no sign of yellowfish in the rapids below the dam wall.
Our hopes to catch fish were drowned by a rainy night. Nevertheless, we had driven over 800 km to reach our fishing destination and nothing was going to kill our enthusiasm to cast flies into the mighty Orange.
We reached a sunlit Vanderkloof the next morning, which was a lot murkier than anticipated, but still a bit clearer than the river upstream. A howling upstream wind blew our inflatable boat into a bay that was surrounded by beautiful lava-coloured cliffs, situated opposite the village. I had selected a biggish (8.5 cm) black sculpin fly with a deer hair head and zonker tail that looked identical to a baby sharptooth catfish swimming sluggishly through the cold water. It also didn’t take long for this fly to get smashed by a largemouth. The fish took the fly so hard on the drift that it hooked itself and nearly snapped the 4.5 kg tippet. We got a few more takes from fish in deep water (1.5 – 3 m deep) before the air chilled and Stratus clouds moved over our heads. We sensed another cold front approaching and I guess the fish did too, because they went off the bite for the rest of the day.
After much rain we committed to fish a large section of rapids situated a few kilometres below the Gariep Dam wall on the last full day of our trip. There was a deep secondary pool that was formed by an island splitting the river. The smaller arm feeding the pool I was interested in was slow-flowing and carved through deep, bedrock channels with the odd free-standing boulder in the centre of it. According to Ed’s description, it screamed ‘largemouth yellowfish’.
As we silently floated our boat into position to beach on the rocky island, Gerald spotted smallmouth yellowfish scurrying out of our drift-path in the shallower water. That was the start of a few chaotic fishing hours for us landing smallmouth-after-smallmouth on Czech nymphs. Some of the best smallmouth fishing I had ever experienced continued till a late afternoon hatch of tiny golden-brown caddis. At that point we could see smallmouth yellowfish fins poking the surface as they greedily snatched up emerging caddis flies in ankle-deep water.
I watched as Gerald lifted into the biggest smallmouth of the day that he sight fished with a tiny dry and nymph rig while I was busy assembling my 10 wt outfit. It was probably the hardest thing I’d ever had to resist picking up my 6 wt, but I was there to catch my dream fish and continued to tie the black deer hair sculpin to 4.5 kg tippet.
Rain started to drip from heavy thunderclouds as I scrambled downstream to the predicted honey hole. The air was heavy and humid and swallows were now sipping caddis off the river surface all around us. I cast the sculpin tight and parallel to a rocky shelf that extended approximately 30 m downstream next to a deep bedrock channel and let it sink. The 10 wt clear intermediate line sank quick enough to comfortably get the fly beyond 1.5 m deep and still get enough ‘hang-time’ to stay in the ‘zone’ on the retrieve.
I had pulled the fly back 10 m with long, slow strips when there was a hard take that nearly ripped the line out of my hands. As before, the fish hooked itself and I simply had to control the slack as it raced downstream. It was a hard and dogged fight, which at one point had me convinced that I had hooked a big sharptooth catfish. Then, the biggest largemouth I had ever seen in real-time rolled close to the surface as it tired.
My heart rate shot through the clouds when I realised what I had on the end of my line. The fish made one last dash for deep water, nearly bending the tip of the 10 wt past the butt section as I applied resistance. My feet suddenly gave way underneath me and I plunged elbow first into the snotty rock shelf I was balancing on. The pain of a fractured elbow shot through my system and silenced me as I tried to gasp for air, still controlling the fish with my good arm.
I recovered on the slippery rocks and wiped out a second time, falling arse-first onto a flat rock bruising my coccyx and the palm of the fighting hand, and scarring my reel for life. Reviving from severe agony, I rubbed my injuries before landing the fish and commencing with a ‘selfie’ camera set-up to record the moment.
We returned to the deep water the next morning and both of us caught fish on streamers. Gerald landed a cracking smallmouth yellowfish on a black Woolly Bugger and I hooked two more largemouths on the sculpin, of which one fish was landed. The streamer fishing was notably slower than Czech nymphing, for instance, but it produced the biggest bag of largemouth yellowfish I had ever caught on an Orange River trip, including that largemouth that left a tattoo in my Shilton SL6.
Amongst the interesting things that I learned after my trip while paging through the literature was that the largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis) is the largest indigenous cyprinid in southern Africa – the largest recorded fish caught by hook-and-line weighed 22 .2 kg (49.33 lb) with a fork length of 825 mm. They predate on insects, crabs and small fish and become more piscivorous as they mature. Doctor Olaf Weyl (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Grahamstown) also confirmed that the stomach contents of fish collected in a scientific study performed in Lake Gariep (aka the Gariep Dam; Ellender et al., 2012) were typically mushed due to the fact that these fishes have to grind everything they swallow to a pulp with their teeth situated in the throat. This is due to a physical constraint (the size of their prey is limited by a small pharyngeal basket) forcing them to feed on relatively small things – less than 10% of their own body size (confirmed by Dr. Olaf Weyl in conversation). In other words, baitfish of less than 10 cm is the ideal food size for these fishes.
Tips on flies and specific habitat were of course also very useful. I read through Arno Matthee and Jacques Cooper’s chapters in the Favoured Flies and Select Techniques of the Experts Volume I (these books are in fact very handy and I recommend buying them on: www.fosaf.co.za). The remarks that corresponded were: deep water, deep secondary pools/backwaters, structure – especially around rocks, and last but not least “Largemouth often give away their position with a dorsal fin or tail cutting the surface of the water.” (Arno Matthee, Favoured Flies and Select Techniques of the Experts Volume I).
Ellender, B.R., O.L.F. Weyl, and H. Winker. 2012. Age and growth and maturity of southern Africa’s largest cyprinid fish, the largemouth yellowfish Labeobarbus kimberlyensis. Journal of Fish Biology 81:1271-1284.
The last largemouth of the trip…